Chapter 2

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Miki's shirt was stained brown the next day. Hikari wore her extra spare one and looked fresh as snow. The day seemed to drag, Hikari only spoke in whispers and the summer heat soaked them with sweat. Miki wished her sweat would clean her shirt and the heat dry out her shoes. She kicked them off in every class and imagined wiggling her feet through the slop and water again.

"The fires were bright last night," Hikari said on the way home, their shoes no longer squelching. "And the veins in the worldtree were dimmer. Did you notice?"

"No," said Miki. "My mam was angry."

"Oh. Did you tell her?"

"Course not. But we were late to the bunker."

"I said we should leave."

Miki struggled not to snap a retort or mutter under her breath. She gazed at the far off fires so Hikari wouldn't notice her annoyance. It was hard to tell in the sunlight, but she suspected Hikari was right about the fires growing bigger. Smoke washed out more of the distant sky than yesterday, mushrooming outwards.

Despite the sun still blazing bright, a chill wind had crept in throughout the day and pushed away its heat. Miki shivered, squinting harder at the far off land that was both radiant and dark at once. She made out pin-pricks of light—mech-suits marching on the hilltops. Ground soldiers. Workers.

Miki wondered what the ghosts looked like, if they were charred and crispy from the heat. Older classmates said they made the water steam and fog so you couldn't see them coming.

Somewhere amidst the fires was Miki's sister. Did she remember her own name? When she'd transformed, did she forget about Miki? The doctors had warned them; said Larena possessed the ghost gene and that she needed to be confined as soon as she turned twenty, but Mama had sent Larena to the Workers instead in an attempt to stamp it out of her.

It only took three months before she changed, they said. Her first flight in a spitfyre to enemy lines—one look at the ghosts and voosh! that was it. Larena never came back.

Miki just wanted to see her—wanted to see what she had become.

Their route home was one of many, foot-worn paths snaking across the tops of the hills. Water glimmered on either side of almost every hill, many farther out hills were rich with seeds and farming. Closer to the worldtree, the natural bowls were filled with rice paddies, tended mostly by Workers magical enough to always make the crops grow.

Three boys ran past, shouting and jeering at each other. Miki watched them tackle and laugh over a can of soda, until they disappeared down a steep path—headed towards the town.

The town stretched up the largest hill around, riddled with nooks and turns and cobbles. Washing lines were shared between balconies, blossom trees snowed petals down the main street, peaches ripened in every courtyard. Riding a bike to the top of town was a renowned achievement. Riding it out of town, however, was the thrill of a lifetime.

That's how she'd met Hikari—almost ran her over on the way to school. Miki swore off bike-riding ever after.

"Wouldn't you like to see the worldtree," she asked Hikari, "before you...if you...turn?"

"I can see it from here," she muttered. "Why don't you go be a Worker if you love it so much?"

Her words stung. Miki wanted to hide in a hole. "You know why," she replied, teeth clenched. If she joined the Workers, one day she might have to hurt Larena (if she was still alive), or Hikari.

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