Tian ran until she felt her heart would burst and her legs would shatter, her little sister heavy and wailing on her back. When she chanced a quick look back for their pursuers, her left foot caught on something hard and twisted. She pitched forward onto her hands and knees, Asan tumbling off her back with a shriek.
Tian crawled to her sister, her knees sore, grass-stained and bleeding. “Are you all right?” she panted.
Asan sobbed, unhurt but frightened. Tian held her, rocking her gently and trying to remember fragments of the songs their grandmother had sung to them. But the old language hadn’t stuck in her mind; she’d grown up in the city speaking Olo instead of Zaluat, and she knew few of the words that might calm her sister.
Tian tried to stand. But when she put weight on her left foot, the ankle wrenched sickeningly to the right and she fell again.
This, she realized dimly through the fog of pain, was very bad.
“Our magic runs around circles counter-clockwise,” her mother had explained late one night. “The gift of our noble ancestors, fuck them for being dead and useless to us now.”
She was drunk; the alcohol opened her up so Tian could glimpse the woman she’d been before the city, the factory, the Kalo, and two babies had drained the life from her. “So my mother said. Back before they came she’d take me on the Round Paths all around the village. We’d walk around and around while she chanted. It was supposed to be for protection.” She spat, her spittle foaming on the floor. “Did us no good in the end. They came anyway. Took everything. Killed so many. Made the streets straight lines. They feed on us now, the Kalo. Fuck them.”
And then she closed up again, lost in the memory of her father and brothers who had died during the brief, disastrous war against the Kalo and their servants. She would only mutter, “Too straight, we’re too straight,” before she stumbled off to bed, leaving Tian wakeful and worried while she slept.
The next day she’d gone to school, where during another dull lesson on the necessity of the Kalo invasion and the foolishness of Zaluat resistance, she found herself doodling circular patterns on her desk.
She thought she felt something, then. A little spark, maybe, like a whisper out of the distant past. The fine hairs on her arms rose, and she felt as if the ground itself was giving some piece of itself to her.
A long pointer landed on her desk. “What is this?” the teacher, who was not Zaluat, demanded. “What are you doing? Outrageous!” The pointer rose and fell, Tian cried out in pain. “Clean it!”
And so Tian had been made to wash her desk while the other students, most of which had been imported from other lands under Kalo control, watched and snickered.
When she got home and handed her mother the note the teacher had given her, she flinched, expecting more punishment. But instead her mother read the note, and then gently put it down.
“Forget those things,” she said, eyes heavy and sad. “Or they will make your life hell. Do you understand?”
“Asan’s not here!” Her mother’s eyes flashed with anger. “You are. There’s nothing in the village. I sacrificed everything to keep you here, to give you a future. The past is dead and gone, buried back in that village. Now—forget!”
Tian rubbed her still-sore hand, and nodded. Forget. Forget being Zaluat. Forget the war. Be a good servant of the Kalo, just like everyone else. It was safer that way.
Her mother sighed and went to drink the cheap liquor she’d picked up after work. She didn’t say another word to Tian.
That night, Tian had paced a quiet circle around their little apartment. There was no spark this time, no energy came to her. Exhausted and heartsick, she gave up and got into the cramped bed with her snoring mother.
She wondered if her baby sister in the faraway Zaluat village would know how the magic worked.
She’d only found out about her grandmother’s death when her mother came home and told her that Asan was in town, now.
“Asan? Here? Why?” Tian asked, confused. Less than a year had passed since Tian had summoned a spark at school. The other students still made fun of her for it, and the teachers had let her know in no uncertain terms that if she ever dared try that again, they’d let the Kalo have her.
Her mother made a sour face. “Grandma died. Last month.”
Tian felt her hands ball into fists. She wanted to scream at her mother: Why didn’t you tell me?
But her mother’s eyes were heavy and tired from work, so Tian didn’t say anything. Instead, she asked, “Where is she?”
“That school. The Training Institute.” Her mother sighed. “At least she isn’t our worry now.”
That had always been her mother’s relationship with her younger daughter: moments of worry punctuating long periods of relief that she was someone else’s problem. She’d given Asan to her own mother to raise, saying that she had no money, time, or room for another little girl in their house. She’d come to the city looking for work, after all, not children. She hadn’t even known Asan’s father that well, just someone from back home she’d shared a bed with once.
Secretly, Tian wondered if she was trying to save Asan from the miseries of a city that worshiped the Kalo, forbade the Zaluat language, and taught that their ancient magic was evil. In the old village, at least, she wouldn’t feel that shock of being different, lesser. She wouldn’t want to trade away her heritage for the illusion of belonging.
But now she was in the Training Institute—where kids from the villages were brought to learn how to serve the Kalo. Tian had seen those children filing through the streets, their eyes cold and distant, singing the Kalo songs in unaccented Olo.
“She shouldn’t be there,” said Tian. “Not in that place.”
Her mother shrugged. “Where else will she go? I can’t afford to feed her.” And that was that.
As her mother stoically drank herself to sleep that night, Tian curled up in a chair and peered out the window at the grimy alleyway below.
Her sister was here. She might know the magic. She might be able to help Tian get that spark back. All Tian had to do was get her out of there.
Down in the alley below, something moved. Tian peered into the darkness, and gasped. The tall, spidery form of a Kalo slid by. Tian felt like all the light had been taken out of the world, and icy fingers brushed against her heart.
It stopped outside their apartment, and just stood there, waving the ten joints of its long fingers in complex patterns. Tian watched, fascinated.
The Kalo looked up at the window, beady eyes with malignant power. Tian sucked in a breath, heart loud in her chest. She didn’t dare move.
With a hiss that froze her bones, the Kalo turned away and moved on.
Tian exhaled, shivering. She turned back to the bed. Her mother was awake. “I felt it pass by,” her mother whispered. She made a circular sign in the air.
Tian began to cry.
Her mother held open her arms, and Tian buried herself against her mother’s chest. As she drifted off to sleep, she resolved that the Kalo would not have her sister.
It had been so easy to find Asan; the school had an hour where they did strange, synchronized exercises outdoors. Tian had learned to time it so that she could see Asan in the few moments she was out of the sight of teachers, as the youngest students in their Kalo-style headdresses filed from the lower to the upper exercise ground. The students knew it, too. They broke their silence and whispered a few Zaluat words to one another, out of the hearing of the Kalo’s servants.
Tian watched her sister go by day after day. She skipped school, skulking in the alleys near the Training School, just waiting and watching. Her plans firmed. She would free her sister. She would bring her home. She just needed time—time to warn her mother, to win her over. Time to put together the money for travel.
But one morning, the truancy officers from her own school came to the door. Her mother answered, confused and hung over. Before she could point to Tian and give the whole game away, Tian grabbed her pack and ran to the bedroom. She threw open the back window and scrambled out onto the fire escape, clattering down to the alleyway as fast as she could go.
She thought she heard her mother calling her name as she ran. She realized with dread that she wouldn’t be able to go home, now.
In a panic, she found her way to the Training School, and sat in the alley, furiously going through her options. She could go back home, turn herself in, and forget this whole plan. That would be safe. Her mother would be angry, and the teachers would never let her out of their sight again, but what else could she do?
The youngest students in their Kalo headdresses began to file past, going from the lower yard to the upper.
And there she was: Asan. Their eyes met. Tian was certain that her sister recognized her.
She threw her plans away and grabbed her. She said the Zaluat words for home and sister, those being the few words she’d thought to memorize, and Asan stopped fighting her.
There was no point in staying in the city. So Tian put Asan on her back and ran for the green spaces beyond the grime, away from the Kalo and their servants.
They’d run through the forests, then along the wide river and over the mountain. They passed through the ancient ruins of brick, asphalt and steel the ancestors had left behind. Tian paused to catch her breath.
Asan was peering around at the ruins. “The ancestors left them,” Tian explained. “They all died a long time ago, long before the Kalo came from the sky. This is what they left.”
Asan said nothing, but Tian was sure she’d understood a little of it. If only the ancestors had been alive, and their mighty cities still full, when the Kalo had come from the sky. Maybe then they wouldn’t have taken people after people to be their servants.
She heard the distant bark of dogs, and squinted back down the dusty track. Shapes straggled along it.
She inhaled sharply. They were being chased. They would be caught! She took Asan in her arms, put her back on her shoulders, and started to run again.
They ran from the broken ruins, across empty farmlands and through dense forest, until the ground reached up to twist Tian’s ankle and she fell to the forest floor in a haze of pain and panic.
“Sin ye! Sin ye!” her sister shouted, eyes wide. She looked around, then ran into the woods.
“Asan! No!” cried Tian. But then the little girl returned with a sturdy-looking piece of deadfall, long enough for Tian to use as a cane.
“B-basma,” whispered Tian through the fog of tears and pain. Thank you. She hauled herself shakily to her feet, and started forward again.
The sounds of pursuit grew ever closer. Dogs barked, men shouted, and something else seemed to hiss in anticipation.
Tian hobbled as fast as she could go, burningly aware that she was the burden now, that she was slowing them. Adrenalin pushed her forward while Asan ran back and forth in front of her.
“Sin ye!” Asan called. Hurry. Hurry.
“Go ahead! Run!” she told Asan. “Run to the village!” But her sister didn’t know the words. She hadn’t picked up enough Olo. And the Zaluat village where Asan had grown up was miles and miles away, the girl would never make it on her own.
Asan took her hand and hauled her forward. “Sin ye,” she said. “Tian, sin ye!”
The sounds grew louder behind them. They had their trail, they would overtake them soon.
They’d take Asan back to that awful training school in the city, where they’d burn away everything that she was to make her into a model subject for the Kalo invaders. She would become like Tian was now; a ghost of a person with no ancestors, no history, and no magic.
As for Tian? They’d probably just kill her. She’d stolen someone who legally belonged to the Monarch of the Kalo.
There was bright sky ahead, between the tall trees. Asan pulled her too hard, and she lost her footing. She fell across the tree line into a clearing.
Tall grass waved in the late spring breeze, and insects hummed all around her. She rolled onto her back, the smell of earth still rich in her nostrils, and saw birds wheel in the deep blue sky above.
Dogs barked, twigs snapped, and men shouted. They were almost on top of them, now. Tian sat up and gathered Asan to her, waiting for the end to come.
It was then that she noticed that the meadow they’d breached was a perfect circle.
Tian struggled to her feet and began to hop around the perimeter of the clearing, pushed by wild, desperate hope. “Come on!” she shouted to Asan. “Chant! What’s the words? The Round Paths, what’s the words?”
But her sister only looked blankly at her. Tian tried to dredge the right Zaluat words from her mind from that one time she’d gone back to the village to see her grandmother and sister. But nothing came. She couldn’t remember any of it.
She’d once been so proud that she spoke Olo without an accent, that she was so like the other girls. How she wished she could take it back, now. “The r-razza ray, what’s the chant?”
At first she was sure Asan, who still only knew bits and pieces of Olo, hadn’t understood. But then her face brightened, and she said in her high, lilting voice, “Rozyarhai!”
“Right, that,” said Tian. She made a circular motion all around, trying to explain. “This is a rozz… rozaryi! This whole clearing. Look!”
But Asan only stared at her. Tian sank to the ground, defeated, as the barking of dogs grew louder.
In the clearing, Asan was saying something.
Tian could only barely hear her over the din of the dogs. She looked into the woods, expecting to see them appear at any moment, and tried to inch backward, away from the treeline. When she looked back, Asan had vanished.
“Where are you?” she called.
Then she heard her sister say something from farther away than she’d expected. She looked frantically around and found Asan walking counter-clockwise along the perimeter of the clearing.
She was chanting.
Heart racing, Tian stood and hobbled after her. Counter-clockwise, she thought shakily to herself. Walk the Round Path.
Call the ancient magic. Call the spark!
The dogs barked louder, and she thought she saw men moving between the trees.
And then she felt something stirring in the ground beneath her feet. The hairs rose on Tian’s arms again, just like they had long ago, and she felt the earth beneath her begin to shake.
Their pursuers emerged from the woods; a few men, and a tall, gray, spindly Kalo. It pointed at them, hissing commands in sibilant Olo, and the men moved forward.
“Ancestors!” Tian cried, hoping they could hear her if she spoke Olo. “Help us now!” Please save my sister from my mistake, she added mentally. Please!
The rumbling stopped. Tian was certain they’d deserted her.
But then the tremors returned, ten times stronger than before. The sky above darkened, and ghostly yellow-orange lights appeared in a halo all around the perimeter of the clearing. Tian hobbled her way to the center, away from the lights, the men, the dogs and the Kalo.
“Spirits of this place!” she called, terrified, into the sudden wind. “Protect us!”
Ghostly images began to streak past in front of her. She could hear them roar as they went, their forms indistinct and strange.
The men, the dogs, and the gray, spidery Kalo waited at the edge, so far unwilling to cross the boundary line. She glared at them, daring them to come into this whirlwind.
Then Tian heard an ear-piercing scream. She turned and gasped. “Asan!”
Her sister had been caught inside one of the ghostly things. She shrieked again.
“No!” cried Tian. She hopped as fast as she could, trying not to put weight on her bad ankle, trying to catch her. “Asan, no, no!”
But the ethereal contraption was too fast. It swerved around the circle, flashing lights and roaring loudly, and came back around again. Tian reached for it, trying to grab hold of her sister, but she was going too fast. She sped out of reach again.
The ghosts of this circle were becoming more solid. They had a definite shape, and tore along on four thick wheels. They were vehicles like carts, but propelled without beasts or drivers. The grass of the perimeter had become something like the cracked asphalt of the ruins.
Asan shouted something Tian didn’t understand. But she was smiling, laughing!
Tian leaned heavily on her stick, and exhaled in relief. Surely this was Zaluat magic. Surely the ancestors wouldn’t hurt Asan.
One of the men was arguing with the Kalo. It stretched out a long, too-thin arm and pointed at Tian.
“Cross,” it hissed.
The man looked scared out of his wits. Tian wondered if he was part or wholly Zaluat himself, and whether he knew about circle magics. He might be from another people who had known them, too, long before the Kalo had come.
But a determined look set on the man’s face. He started forward into the perimeter—
—and was sent flying when a vehicle smacked into him. He crashed to the asphalt, and screamed as the vehicles ran over him again and again as they looped round the circle. His body was soon nothing but a bloody smear on the ground.
Another man, horrified, raised his gun and aimed. Tian shouted in alarm, and shrank down.
The man fired. But the bullet did not reach Tian. Instead, she heard the man shrieking, and looked up to see him clutching his bloody shoulder. He dropped the gun in terror, then turned and ran. The other men, along with the frantic dogs, fled after him.
Only the Kalo was left. It regarded Tian with beady, alien eyes. She shrank back from its penetrating gaze.
It growled at her, showing its fangs, and raised its long, spidery arms. A greenish glow radiated out from the tips of its clawlike fingers.
The yellow lights dimmed, and the asphalt started to turn back into grass. The vehicles slowed, and started to sink back into the ground. Asan yelped, surprised, and threw herself clear.
The Kalo made a satisfied little clicking sound in its throat, and started to walk towards her.
“No!” cried Tian. “Leave her alone!”
“Girl,” said the Kalo, its voice half hiss, half growl. “Take the one you stole back to the city.”
“What do you want her for?” Tian protested. “Take me instead!”
“She is young,” said the Kalo. “She will grow to love us. She will be our subject. She will serve us.”
The Kalo turned to look at her again, and she could see greed in those horrible eyes.
“Her love will feed us.”
Tian burned with fury. “Ancestors!” she called into the air. “Help me!”
“Your dead cannot help you,” said the Kalo, turning away from her again. “They are nothing. Ghosts. We are stronger.”
The Kalo stepped onto the grass where the pavement had been, back still toward her. Tian hobbled towards it, knowing it would kill her if she tried to stop it. She’d seen the people killed by Kalo; it would not be an easy death.
But she couldn’t stand by and let her sister be taken by the Kalo.
She stepped onto the circle. And then, suddenly, her ankle stopped throbbing—as if a dozen hands were holding it together. She hesitantly put her foot down. It held; solid.
She gathered her strength and ran at the Kalo. She swung the stout branch back, and brought it down on the Kalo’s head with everything she had.
The Kalo, surprised, staggered and fell to the ground.
At once, the light turned to yellow again and the ghostly vehicles roared out of the ground, racing around the circle.
Tian couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. She braced herself for impact as one bore down on her.
At the last second it swerved, missing her by a hair’s breadth. Tian tottered and fell over onto the grass, out of the circle.
She looked up in time to see dozens of vehicles slam into the Kalo, grinding it into the earth.
No other men or Kalo came after them.
Tian’s ankle was still purple and swollen, but not so painful now. She’d made a crude bandage from her overshirt, wrapping it tightly to keep the ankle stable. She still had to rely on her walking stick, and so they made slow progress.
Asan stuck by her side, helping her. She began to re-teach Tian all the Zaluat she had forgotten, so that the farther they got from the city, the more she felt like herself—like who she could have been, if the invaders had never set foot here.
At last they came within sight of the lake and the cliffs that Tian remembered from when she had visited the old village with her mother, long ago.
That night she sat outside the house of a distant cousin where they’d been given leave to sleep the night. Tian had managed to piece together that Asan would stay here, to be raised as a part of this family. The Kalo and their servants would hopefully overlook her. If not, there were other villages to send her to. There was a kind of freedom in being small and hard to see.
They had offered to let Tian stay, as well. But Tian had shaken her head no. There was so little here. The houses were falling apart, and there was hardly enough food to go around as it was.
But the training school was so full of children like Asan… like herself. She couldn’t allow them to come to love—and feed—the Kalo. She would find a way to bring them out of the city; she was clever, and the old magic had some strength yet. The ancestors were some use, after all.
Hers would probably not be a long life; the Kalo were strong, and she was just one Zaluat girl. But she couldn’t think of any other way that she wanted to spend it.
Tian gazed up at the full moon as sparks ignited the fire of her heart. She traced a circle counter-clockwise in the dust with her finger, around and around and around.