1.

CINDER.

 

The night I met Rivet, his music saved my life.

Not that I wanted to hurt myself, not really. I just lost myself that night. Like so many others in the world’s last human city, I finally succumbed to hopelessness.

In Haven, we called it the languishing—eventually, a lifetime spent within the same looming walls undid even the best of us. The knowledge that our future lay dark before us snuck in slowly, eroding hope. People sometimes jumped when the languishing took hold. Or they tried to drown their desperation, drinking and dancing themselves into oblivion.

Or they ended up like my brother.

For me, though, Haven’s decadence had never held any allure. Instead, I’d staved off the languishing by chasing the only hope humanity had left: ridding our city of memory eaters.

That dark mission had always sustained me, but on that awful night, as I shuffled home from yet another heartbreaking visit with my brother, the cold white stars and dark sea air robbed me of hope. I understood, suddenly, that the languishing had been creeping in for months, maybe years. Every time I saw Everett, he drifted further from reach. His glassy stare, his wheezing laugh—it all chipped away at my soul, breathtakingly painful and insatiably cruel. I had no idea why I kept visiting him, hoping for something to change, except that he was my family and I loved him more than anything in the world.

He was the only thing I loved in the world, really.

But as I drifted amid the stuttering gaslight of the shadowed street, the future unfurled like a horrendous banner. With bone-deep certainty, I knew: the memory eaters would breach Haven’s walls and devour us all. They’d gulp down our childhood memories, feast on our heartbreaks, siphon away our most fervent hopes. They’d consume every last recollection of sunbeams sifting through frosted windows on blue winter mornings. They’d rob us of the way a lover’s smile had once caught the firelight. Piece by piece, the leeches would steal our souls, just like they’d stolen my brother’s.

Eventually, the memory eaters would rule the world, and there’d be nobody left like me—nobody to hunt them, nobody to challenge them, nobody to snuff them out like the vermin they were.

I saw that future, clear as day.

Desolation washed over me, hollowing out my insides. I quickened my steps, trying to outrun the sensation, but speed didn’t help. Instead, the midnight passersby shrank away, their chatter dying as they glimpsed the telltale sword hilt jutting over my shoulder. Or maybe they saw the scar overlying my eye. In the flickering gaslight, I couldn’t tell and didn’t care.

“It’s her,” a boy whispered to his friend. “Don’t look her in the eye.” They skittered to the far side of the cobblestoned avenue, giving me a wide berth.

Normally, the fearful whispers rolled off like raindrops down oiled canvas. But something about the crisp, relentless moonlight—or maybe my visit with Everett—scoured my soul raw, leaving me as barren as Haven’s wave-battered cliffs.

Still, the warden in me knew what to do. With a glance, I made sure the passing boys weren’t leeches. Sure enough, their eyes held none of the depthless cold that gave the memory eaters away.

They were safe from my sword.

They retreated into the night, their glances glinting in the shadows. Once they’d gone, the languishing tightened its grip. The city closed around me like a cage, spurring me toward the one place our borders ended—to the ocean, where sheer cliffs plunged to a thunder-gray sea. Haven had never built a wall there, simply because no living thing could scale the wild, wave-roughened stone to enter the city. Not even a memory eater.

That didn’t mean we were safe, though. Someday, the leeches would find a way in, and Haven would fall.

Driven by a gray, pervasive anguish, I veered off the avenue and threaded through a narrow stone alley. Rain-darkened gargoyles perched overhead, their silhouettes stark against the navy sky as they scrutinized my passage.

My breath shortened as I broke into a run. Behind me, Haven’s walls—the same ones that had kept the leeches out all my life—closed in. I fled blindly, turning corners, forging through the labyrinthine alleys toward the sea.

What would happen when I reached the water? As my heart ached and my lungs burned, I wondered if I’d just keep on running. Maybe I’d reach the cliffs and finally leave Haven for the first time in my twenty-six years. I’d leap from the city’s edge, and, like so many others who’d succumbed to the languishing, let the sky to swallow me whole.

The idea should’ve shaken me, but I was too desperate—to escape, to evade the endless stares, to outrun the inevitability of a future as bleak as the nighttime sea. After all, the world beyond had died. My brother had, too, even if his body still lived. I should have admitted that long ago.

Sprinting past a twisting iron gate, I rounded a bend in the alley. Somewhere ahead, the cliffs plunged away, calling my name.

Cinder...

I pushed faster. Then...music. My panic snagged on a faraway melody, my panting misting the sharp night air.

I slowed, glancing around. Somehow, I’d strayed into the deserted Ashen Quarter. Long ago, the neighborhood had burned, leaving nothing but timber skeletons and scorched stone. Afterward, the hollow ones—those who’d surrendered all their memories to the leeches—had emerged from the city’s shadows and descended on the ruined neighborhood, claiming it as their own. Now they floated through the wreckage like darkened stars, smiling their mad, empty smiles and spouting their gibberish to the cold moon.

Needless to say, everyone avoided the Ashen Quarter.

Still, with the languishing’s talons sunk in deep, the sea’s promise of escape lured me further into the rubble. One step, then another.

But the music called to me, too, an anguished strain that pierced my chest like a shining knife.

At the end of the burnt-out alley, I reached a scorched lane and faced a choice: left, toward the water, or right, toward the music.

I wavered for a long time, lost in the brutal moonlight and the tortured cry of that phantom melody. Eventually, a single question cut through the haze of my despair.

No hollow one could possibly make music like that...could they?

I couldn’t imagine. But if so, that would change everything.

In the end, I turned right, and left the sea behind.

***

The lane gave way to a ruined plaza in the heart of the Ashen Quarter. Dried-up fountains dotted the cracked flagstone, their bowls choked with the charcoal of cremated homes. The hollowed bones of buildings slumped around the plaza’s edges, and my boots scraped against blackened stone, launching echoes off the dead walls. Amidst the devastation, a cascade of ghostly notes quivered on the air.

At the square’s center, a man stood tall in the frosty moonlight, playing the violin.

He was a mess. Shaggy black hair tumbled into his eyes, the tangled locks falling longer over one shoulder than the other. An unruly beard had overtaken his face, while tattered rags hung from a long, lean frame.

I sucked in a breath. He was hollow. But unlike my brother, this man’s family had lost track of him. Now he wandered this deserted ruin, utterly forgotten by the world.

In spite of that, or maybe because of it, something about him sliced me to the quick. He swayed to his own music, his eyes closed, his hands reflecting the wan moon. I found myself stepping close, drawn to the impossibility of those pale fingers flying across the strings. How could he have lost his memories and still play that way?

The melody ached from his violin, flooding the night, singing a torment as real as the roar of distant waves. Each note cut into me like a blade, rendering me bleeding and awestruck.

I moved in, so close I could’ve reached out and touched his moon-silvered cheek. While I counted his night-dark lashes, my heart tore to pieces beneath his tortured song.

He opened his eyes.

My breath stalled. He wasn’t like any hollow one I’d ever seen. Luminous gray eyes stormed like the sea, but instead of the vacant, glassy-eyed stare of the hollow ones, this man’s gaze held the endless depths of madness.

A surge of warmth blossomed in my chest, loosening the languishing’s hold. Mad or not, if this man could play the violin after his mind had been stolen, if he could stand there in the moonlight, looking at me like that, then something fundamentally human in him still remained.

Which meant that maybe the hollow ones could find a way back. Maybe there was a return journey from the hell of that non-existence.

And if that was true, maybe my brother wasn’t lost forever, after all.

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