In the two months since her fall from the City, Xhea has hidden in skyscraper Edren, sheltered and attempting to heal. But soon even she must face the troubling truth that she might never walk again. Shai, ever faithful, has stayed by her sidebut the ghost’s very presence has sent untold fortunes into Edren’s coffers and dangerously unbalanced the Lower City’s political balance.
War is brewing. Beyond Edren’s walls, the other skyscrapers have heard tell of the Radiant ghost and the power she holds; rumors, too, speak of the girl who sees ghosts who might be the key to controlling that power. Soon, assassins stalk the skyscrapers’ darkened corridors while armies gather in the streets. But Shai’s magic is not the only prizenor the only power that could change everything. At last, Xhea begins to learn of her strange dark magic, and why even whispers of its presence are enough to make the Lower City elite tremble in fear.
Together, Xhea and Shai may have the power to stop a waror become a weapon great enough to bring the City to its knees. That is, if the magic doesn't destroy them first.
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Towers Trilogy Book Two
By Karina Sumner-Smith
Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Karina Sumner-Smith
All rights reserved.
In the last hours before morning, silence fell, slow and inevitable as the darkness.
The party that had rocked the ballrooms on Edren's second floor since nightfall had worn down, the skyscraper's guests retiring to their rented rooms to sleep — or for other more private celebrations. No thump of music anymore; no voices raised to shout or laugh; no more drunken songs. There was only the distant clink of glasses being cleared away and the rattle of the door's heavy chain as a guard checked the locks.
As if that quiet had weight, Xhea felt it settle across her shoulders. Her ears rang with it, as did her thoughts, until it was all she could do to keep breathing, one slow and ragged breath after another.
The Edren skyscraper had been a hotel once, this cavernous space its lobby. Though the marble floors were cracked and poorly patched, and most of the walls' wood paneling had long since been stripped away, there were still glimpses of the place's absent riches. The domed ceiling had most of its original mosaic, the patterned tiles glittering faintly from the shadows above; and the main staircase, wide and sweeping, had retained its brass railings with their curlicued flourishes.
It was the stairs that held Xhea's attention — and not the ones that led up to the ballrooms and the party's remains, their thin carpeting dotted with confetti. No, it was the flanking stairs that drew her, one to either side of the main stairway, and the dusty treads that led into the darkness below.
Gray, to her — dust and brass and confetti alike. The color of her skin, the rough length of wood she clutched in her unsteady hand.
There was, in the end, nothing different about that. Xhea had always seen in black and white, or the grays that dominated the span between those extremes. It was only now she felt the lack, heavy like stone in her eyes and hands and heart.
At the security desk behind her the monitors flicked through their channels, the glow making shadows dance down the stairs. They moved faster than she could, these days. Faster by far.
"Tonight?" a man's voice asked from behind her, soft enough that none might overhear. It wasn't caution: there was something in this place, this hour, that asked for quiet, for softness of voice and breath — a stillness that one might only find at a funeral or in prayer. It was for that stillness, as much as the for the stairs, that Xhea had first come here on another night like this when her pain meds had worn away to nothing and her next dose was impossibly far away.
Xhea looked up, half-turning. She smiled, though it was a faint expression and faded quickly. This man, too, had become familiar — supervisor of Edren's night watch, stationed at the main desk all through these long hours when the rest of the Lower City celebrated or slept, keeping the dangers of the nighttime streets at bay. Mercks, his nametag said; she'd never heard him called anything else. Sight of his lined face and graying mustache was almost a comfort now, here where so much else seemed strange. Here in a home she thought never to have, and didn't know how to want now that it was hers.
"So I thought." Xhea shifted her weight and winced at the pain, clutching her stick for balance. She turned away, looking down the confetti-strewn stairs in an attempt to hide her expression.
She didn't know what they had been celebrating, what could possibly have required so much wine and song and confetti. Another match in Edren's arena, battles of blade and magic — entertainment for the shit-poor masses huddled on the ground beneath the City's floating Towers. Another win, another loss, another transient champion crowned.
As if any of it mattered.
"But no," she said at last, swallowing the pain. The humiliation. The anger. "Not tonight."
Perhaps not, if she was honest, ever.
Oh, she could get down the stairs, that much she knew — if not quickly nor cleanly, then at least to the bottom. But not on her feet like she wanted; not without aid of brace and stick both, and careful pauses between each step. No, for anything like speed she'd have to sit on the ground and lower herself one tread at a time, down in the dirt and crawling. And for what? In truth, it wasn't that she needed anything at the bottom of those stairs. It was that she shouldn't have had to think about stairs, or curbs, or the too-high lips of ancient doorways — had never considered them until they each became obstacles in the routines of her newly curtailed life.
She shouldn't have had to think about walking at all.
Yet here she was.
It had been more than two months since she'd injured her knee in her attempt to protect her friend Shai from the Towers who had fought to claim the ghost and her Radiant magic. Memory of the first month after that, spent in skyscraper Edren's protection, was but a haze — exhausted, indeterminable, fever-glazed days that rolled by with little to define them but pain and its too-brief absence. When the healing spells placed in her knee failed and failed again, Lorn Edren, eldest living son of the skyscraper that bore the family name, had brought a medic from the arena who knew the healing power of knives. A surgeon — or the closest they could come in the Lower City. The woman had operated on Xhea's knee, doing with scalpel and stitches what no spell had lasted long enough to achieve.
The pain had doubled after that.
Xhea had always healed slowly and badly. It was only now that such slowness mattered. Not only was her knee all but useless, but she still bore the shadows of the countless deep bruises she'd received in fight and flight: the shoulder she'd pulled in the aircar crash twinged, and the ribs she'd cracked on impact from her fall from the City ached with every deep breath. Fevers washed over her nightly, rising at dusk and receding with the sun's return, leaving her as limp and tired at dawn as she had been at the end of each long day.
The cost of saving Shai had not been too high, that Xhea never doubted. Her hand strayed to the tether that even now connected them, though the ghost was absent. But it had been a cost, and a far steeper one than she had first known.
"Well," Mercks said from beside her, his voice a quiet bass rumble, "if you need a hand, let me know. I'd be happy to help you upstairs."
Xhea smiled at his polite lie — or tried to. He knew that Xhea had no desire to climb to where the remains of this latest pointless revelry were stretched out like dogs fresh from the slaughter; he knew that she wanted to go to the one place that no one with bright magic could comfortably travel, no matter how slight their talent. He knew too that were she to accept his offer and replace her cane with the support of his strong arm, that he could stand the feel of her hand upon him for no more than a moment. For a few brief days following her fall, others had been able to touch her almost without discomfort — a consequence, she thought, of burning out her dark magic in Shai's rescue. But while the crawling discomfort of Xhea's touch had returned, her magic remained absent.
Mercks's useless offer and her quiet rejection of it were part of their near-nightly ritual, repeated often enough that there was no sting left in the words.
"I'll keep that in mind," Xhea said.
She glanced back toward the stairs, wanting ... what? Freedom from pain, freedom from these ancient walls? So much of the life she had built for herself was rooted in the tunnels and abandoned shopping corridors that wound beneath the Lower City's streets, and if it had not been an easy life, nor a comfortable one, it had at least been hers.
This life, the life of a near-cripple, tended and useless, was not one that fit her well, for all that it came with three meals a day, clean clothes, and an endless supply of soap and water. It made her restless and angry; it made her want to smash herself against the walls of her cage. Yet there was no cage but that of her helplessness, the inevitable failure of her bones and flesh, and that was a prison she could never leave behind. There was no word, no sound big enough for that frustration, and so she stifled them, the cries and screams and tears, until, unvoiced, their echoes felt like silence.
At last Xhea turned away from the lure of the darkness at the bottom of the stairs, trying to breathe through pain and disappointment alike.
"I think," she started — and the screaming began.
Xhea started as the scream broke through her haze and the late-night silence both. The sound echoed from some distant hallway, frantic but muffled — a man's voice, she thought, but it was hard to tell. The fear in that voice, the urgency, set Xhea's heart to racing; each beat seemed to pound against the inside of her knee in a quickening rhythm of hurt.
It was only as she turned in a limping circle to pinpoint the sound that she caught sight of Mercks's expression. She stopped.
"You don't hear that, do you?"
He shook his head, his expression unreadable.
A ghost, then. A screaming, terrified ghost that only Xhea could hear. Just what she needed to finish off the night.
"Is it something I need to be concerned with?" Mercks asked, the rumble of his voice louder now. At the security desk, one of his officers glanced in their direction.
Xhea considered, wincing as the distant ghost screamed again. The domed ceiling seemed to capture the sound and hold it like an insect in cupped palms. Maybe one of the party-goers died, she thought. Maybe he'd fallen from one of Edren's upper windows, or had been in a fight gone too far. But it was just as likely to be an older ghost coming within her earshot for the first time.
"I don't think so," she said. "But if there's trouble, I'll let you know." She tried to sound unconcerned, but she had never been a terribly good actress at the best of times, never mind when an unknown person was screaming in terror — and coming closer by the minute.
She limped toward the noise. The muffled shouts seemed to come from one of the old hotel's back hallways — and the direction of her own small room, a former storage closet that was as far from any magical systems as possible within the skyscraper's confines. Though her magic seemed again to be no more than a dark presence in the depths of her stomach, she still feared that it might emerge while she slept — or, more commonly, slipped into the drugged semi-consciousness that was the closest she could come to sleep most days.
Xhea pushed her awkward way through the heavy swinging doors that led into the back halls, feeling Mercks's attention on her as she went. Well, if I find a body to go with the noise, he'll be the first to know.
The hall, long and bare and straight, led past a storage room and a side passage to the laundry before turning toward the main kitchen. The screaming was louder, though no clearer, sounding as if a madman was around the corner shouting into a pillow.
No, Xhea realized. Not around the corner, but from behind her room's closed door. She stared at her battered metal door and listened to the frantic shouting that emanated from within, pursing her lips in irritation.
"Typical," she muttered. It wasn't uncommon for ghosts to seek her out, or draw as near as their tethers allowed. But she had little enough privacy as it was, so many people living and sleeping and breathing within these walls that it was hard to throw a stone without hitting another living thing. Hard to escape them at all. This room was her refuge — or it had been.
Frowning, Xhea opened the door.
All was as she'd left it: a small cot with its rumpled blankets was pushed against the far wall, kept company by a rusted metal shelf that held a few changes of clothing and a book. In the corner leaned a cane that had proven entirely too big for someone of her stature.
Yet now in the center of the room stood the ghost of a man, alone and screaming and so desperately unstable on his feet that Xhea thought it a wonder he was standing at all. He was younger than his ragged voice had suggested — late twenties, tops — and wore loose white clothing from head to toe. No bloodstains that she could see; no wounds or other signs of violence. It wasn't his appearance that made her blink and raise an incredulous eyebrow, but the reason for his screams' muffled sound: he had both of his hands stuffed into his mouth as far as they would go. Weaving, unsteady, the ghost stared at her as if he were drowning and Xhea was dry land, his eyes wide as he yelled urgently, desperately, into his spit-slicked fingers.
"Well," she said. "This is new."
Xhea stepped into the room and let the door slam behind her, closing out the light. She didn't bother with the overhead bulb; magic or no, she'd always seen perfectly in the dark.
He's not drunk, she decided. She hobbled slowly around him, and he followed her every move. His wide eyes were focused, intense, as he screamed and screamed and nearly fell over. Not drunk — but something. Once she'd met the ghost of a woman who had managed to accidentally choke herself to death, but this — this was something else. He showed no signs of quieting; if anything, he became more frantic the longer she watched.
At last, Xhea raised her index finger to her lips. "Shh," she said.
The ghost stuttered into silence.
"Too loud, my friend. Too loud by far."
The ghost started to speak — softer this time, she had to give him that.
"And your hands are in your mouth."
He stared. Listed alarmingly to one side, and barely righted himself without use of his arms. Mumbled something through his mouthful of fingers.
Xhea sighed. "If you want me to understand you, take your hands out of your mouth."
The ghost stared. Tilted. Righted himself.
"Your hands." Xhea wiggled her fingers in emphasis.
Comprehension dawned and the ghost pulled his hands free, strings of spit hanging between his fingers. Empty, his mouth hung open, gaping; he licked his lips once, twice and again. The ghost looked from Xhea to his wet hands and back again in growing confusion, that intensity slipping from his expression, leaving little in its wake. Then, with a cry, he fell to his knees and clutched his head, spit-darkened hair protruding from between his fingers in spikes and tufts.
Charming. Just what every girl wants to find in her room.
She watched him rock back and forth, and wondered how long this next phase of crazy was going to last. More than a minute, it seemed. More than two. Her windowless room wasn't large, but it suddenly felt far smaller.
"Hey," Xhea called. The ghost jumped at her voice then curled in upon himself further, rocking and near-tumbling to the ground.
"Hey, you. Dead guy. I'm over here." No reaction this time; she might as well have been talking to the wall. Sighing, Xhea shuffled closer and lowered herself awkwardly to the floor, the charms and coins bound into her hair chiming as she landed.
"Look at me," Xhea said.
The ghost stilled and looked up. His eyes were storm-cloud dark and afraid, but with something else behind, as if he were seeing things that had nothing to do with Xhea's tired face — a landscape far beyond this breezeblock room with its peeling paint.
She wondered suddenly who this man had been. Not just what had killed him or brought him to her, distraught and afraid, but the person he had been in life. What he had done, where he had lived, what had made him laugh. Whether this darkness — this fear and hurt and confusion — had haunted his living years. Whether someone missed him.
There was a time she would have never thought to ask such questions, nor cared enough to wonder. Now she leaned forward and asked, "Who were you?"
He sat mute, swaying.
"Why are you here?"
Still nothing. Simpler, then: "Why were you shouting?"
His eyes seemed to grow darker as she watched. Lost eyes, with something terrible hiding behind.
"Gone," the ghost whispered at last. Quiet, so quiet.
Excerpted from Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith. Copyright © 2015 Karina Sumner-Smith. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..
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