The City Breathes – Part One – 4,218 words

“Oh, fuck this.”

The door was made of rotted wood and rusted metal, but it still withstood four kicks before finally giving in on the fifth.  Eve stepped into the stairwell behind it, groaning as she shook debris from her clothes.  It appeared that the rest of the old apartment building had fared no better than the door; trash, crumbling stonework, and dust decorated the stairs.  Adeshell was the “pinnacle of civilization”, but that didn’t mean it was free of places like this.

She didn’t want to be there any longer than she had to.  Eve touched the nearest stone wall and Hummed.  It was a low, off-tune sound.  After a few moments, the city responded to her.  Its Hum joined hers and suddenly she was so much more than Eve Montgomery.  She felt all six stories of the building— the rats scampering through the floors, the aging stones, the wind whistling through shattered windows and into empty rooms.  She tasted the sea and the dirt and the rust.  

Her perceptions strained further, reaching for the rest of the city beyond, but she reined them in.  She was only human.  Forcing her brain than that to be more was never a good plan.  Besides, Adeshell had called her here.  It was time to find out why.

At a glance, the abandoned apartment building was just that— abandoned.  The Hum couldn’t even find a squatter.  Most rooms were stripped bare, and the weather had taken its toll over the years.  But it wasn’t hard to find why she had been brought here.

On the top floor of the building, there was an entire room she couldn’t see.  A hole in her perception.  The only way she knew it was there at all was an absence.  The Hum circled it, hunting for any way inside through stone or wood or air, but it found none.  There was something very wrong in that room.

“Okay,” she said aloud, “I see it.  What do you want me to do?”

Whether Adeshell had an actual mind or not was something that Eve still wasn’t sure about.  It had intentions, sure, but did it think?  There were slight, barely noticeable tremors in the Hum that felt almost emotional, but these weren’t thoughts either.  However, they carried the closest thing to a reply she was going to get.

Fear, uncertainty, urgencyDesperation.  She felt them within the Hum as it traveled through her.  There wasn’t a coherent thought, but she didn’t need one.

Eve patted the wall reassuringly.  “Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”

Adeshell didn’t answer in any obvious way.  Instead, the air shifted, and when she turned around, there was a dirt-caked box sitting on the dusty ground behind her.  The floor slid back into place around it seamlessly.  Inside, she found a velvet-coated interior and a small assortment of items.  

It looked like the city had “borrowed” a war veteran’s box that had been buried some time ago, with a dusty war medal sitting atop a silver-plated revolver and a couple dozen rounds.  Firearms like that were rare, too difficult to produce widely.  A twinge of worry passed through her for the first time.  Adeshell had never, ever armed her before.  It had to be terrified.  

Luckily, this wasn’t the first time Eve had ever held a gun.  She stowed the gun in her duster and stepped away so the city could swallow the box once more.  Between the weapon and the Hum still coursing through her bones, it was hard to feel afraid as she started climbing up the apartment stairwell.

She continued to Hum, the lonely sound of it echoing up the stairwell and down the empty halls.  As she ascended, Eve caught glimpses of greater Adeshell through shattered windows and smoky glass.  Sunrise was leaking into the sky like blue and yellow paint leaking onto black glass.  Stone and steel and concrete built the city, most of it mined from the very hills and mountains that filled the region.  It was a shining jewel, even as the years let ivy and rain take their own claims on the city.  

The Hum entered her at will, and she felt it; the ground vibrating as trains passed through the district.  Coal and wood smoke filled her nose without ever touching it.  She smelled and tasted shit, rock, metal, food, salt, poison, medicine, and the heavy smell of rain on the wind.  

Anyone could say that they loved Adeshell, and they had every right to.  It was a beautiful, colorful city.  But it wasn’t quite the same way that Eve loved Adeshell.  She had been born on the streets, cradled by hardship, sleeping in gutters and holes her entire life.  When she needed warmth, the city provided her with a steam vent.  When she needed food or water, she’d find inexplicable caches or impossible streams of clean water.  When she needed clothes or medicine or a better place to rest than a storm drain, she found lost wallets and coins.

Adeshell was her home, her bed, her parent, her friend.  Eve didn’t know why it had chosen her, but the city had always been there for her.  Answering calls like these was the way she could begin to pay it back.

The top floor was different than the rest of the building.  The details had been easy to miss through the Hum, but through her own eyes, they were unmistakable.  The usual debris of junkies and drifters was accompanied by wheel tracks and loose sheets of paper that littered the floor.  Symbols and letters in languages Eve had never seen covered their surfaces.  Spent charcoal shavings joined the marks here and there.  It looked like someone had been trying to draw each symbol perfectly.  Hundreds of sheets for dozens of symbols.

A pang of pain pierced her skull as she drew closer to the invisible room.  The Hum shouldn’t be there— couldn’t be there.  So she let it go.  “I’ve got this,” she told the stones beneath her. She stopped Humming.  After a few moments, her perception crunched and shrunk onto itself until it was just her in that hall.

Losing the feeling of Adeshell made her anxious, but this would be much easier without its discomfort in the back of her head.  She took a deep breath of the cold morning air and steeled herself.  

The floor plan had been burned into her mind after seeing it from the city’s point of view, but it was still unfamiliar to her eyes.  The corridors of half-decayed doors held a very different energy when she wasn’t sure if there was danger waiting for her just out of sight.  

She couldn’t imagine this dried out, abandoned ruin ever being a place where somebody lived.  The birds and rats owned it more than people did.  She liked them more anyway.

The closer she drew to the room, the more washed-out she felt,  like she was being diluted in something much larger than herself.  It was as if she was falling into an ocean and watching the light fade away above her as she sank.  

It was so overpowering that Eve was surprised that Adeshell could see any details of the top floor, let alone the area around the epicenter.

The ground vibrated beneath her feet every few steps she took— the usual way that Adeshell tried to catch her attention.  Normally it was a call to listen in to the Hum, but Eve wasn’t so sure she could attune to it right now.  Was it a warning? A plea to stop?

Tuning into the Hum here, when she didn’t know who was in earshot, wasn’t on the list of things she was eager to do.  Whatever it was, it would have to wait.  The closer she drew to the hole, the weaker and weaker Adeshell’s nudges became until they faded into nothing.

The door to the room didn’t look particularly special or different than any of the others.  The placard hanging from it displayed the number 614.  There was a faint whirl of machinery beyond the door that was just audible through the old wood.

These observations came to her as separated facts.  No strings or thoughts to connect them.  She felt fear, she felt worry, but she had trouble piecing together the sensations to anything else.  The strange effect on the air left her too spaced out.  

Eve pinned the mission in the forefront of her head.  She had to stop whatever was causing the hole.  It had to be the disconnection— it scattered her, and she was all in one place.  It must’ve been enough to blind Adeshell.

She tried the knob.  Unlocked.  Whoever was behind this either didn’t expect anyone to come after them or didn’t care.  Eve drew her revolver, took a breath, and opened the door.

The stench of coppery blood greeted her.  It made her eyes water and a gag start up her throat.  Intricate, swirling symbols had been painted in blood all over the walls of the room.  They formed a web that nearly left the walls a uniform crimson shade.  

The scattering of papers outside the room made sense now.  When someone was drawing with blood, it was better to get it right the first time.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the runes were what shielded the room from the Hum.

In the center of the room, a cylindrical machine had been rooted to the floor.  Clear tubing split off from it and into the walls, ceiling, and floor.  Air pumps worked tirelessly on the outside of the machine, pulling something that looked like fog out of the stone and through the tubes. 

Eve took a few cautious steps inside, trying to process it all.  As she did, she reached out and ran a finger along a tube.  It was warm to the touch.  The fog inside wasn’t right— it was swirling and dancing unnaturally.  She had never seen anything like it.

Whatever the machine was doing, whoever had put it there was hiding it from Adeshell.  She maneuvered around the cylinder, ducking under and stepping over tubes.  The entire room was a spider’s web of plastic and blood.  

On the opposite side of the contraption, a rubber mask hung loose.  It was an inhaler— the kind doctors used to administer sleeping sedatives before surgery.  Was someone inhaling this shit?

Eve heard it a moment too late.  One of the ceiling boards shifted, and behind the hiss of gas and pumping machinery, it was barely audible.  She tensed— started to turn—

The man tackled her to the ground, tearing tubes free as they fell.  Fog exploded out into the room like it had been waiting for the opportunity.  Desperate hands clawed at her revolver.  She tried to throw the man off, but it was in vain as he ripped the firearm from her and threw it across the room.

She looked up through the gloom to see her attacker just as his fingers closed around her throat.  His skin was paper-white, but his veins bulged out as black as ink.  The few strands of white hair on his head were thin and wild.  It was like looking into the face of a corpse, save the rage-filled eyes.

“The Breath is mine,” he snarled, roaring and spitting like an animal.  “You won’t take it from me, girl.”

Black spots bloomed in her vision as he began to crush her windpipe.  She struck out at his stomach, his neck, his groin, but the man didn’t even seem to notice.  It was like hitting a statue.

Her lungs screamed for relief as her strength started to fail her.  She couldn’t even Hum, for all the good it would do, her vocal cords crushed by two thumbs digging into her neck.  All that was left was to stare up at those angry eyes and die.

A moment of lucidity leapt upon her suddenly.  Eve didn’t want to die in an abandoned building.  She didn’t want to fail the city.  She struggled and found the energy to try one more time.

This time she went for his eyes like a cornered animal.  Her fingers found purchase in the soft jelly of his eyes and plunged in.  He bellowed in pain, leaping off her and against the machine.  The behemoth of steel teetered, and the man spent a terrified moment keeping it upright.

Eve had already sprung into motion.  By the time he had steadied the machine, she had already recovered the revolver and turned it on him.  He froze, looking at the revolver like it was the last thing in the world.  

The fog, or “the Breath” as the man had called it, continued to hiss and muddle the air into a murky gloom.  She tasted its strange earthy flavor eagerly— after coming so close to never breathing again, she wasn’t going to be picky.  The lack of air had left her vision blurred and her head dizzy, but she could still make out the man’s form in the shadows.

Before she could find her voice again, he rushed toward her.  Eve pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times.  Each shot earned an explosion of dark blood but the man still reached her and struck her in the chest.  The blow launched her into the wall, sending pain scorching through her back.

This time, her grip on the gun was iron.  She whipped it up and fired a fourth and final time.  This bullet passed through the back of the man’s skull with a nauseating crack of shattering bone.  Eve shut her eyes tight.

The hiss, hiss, hiss of the machine… then the sound of a heavy and wet body hitting the ground.  Hiss, hiss, hiss.  He was dead.  He had to be.

But she had to check.  Eve opened her eyes to see unnatural black blood spilling across the bare floor of the room.  It stank of rot and metal.  Like she was smelling machine oil rather than blood.  It curdled in her stomach, and she bit her tongue to stop herself from retching.  There was something deeply wrong about the man, and his death did nothing to dispel the dread.

Hiss, hiss, hiss.

All she knew was that she was knee-deep in something she didn’t understand.  Going any deeper without Adeshell’s Hum felt like a death wish.  Eve went to the bloody runes on the walls and, picking one at random, scratched through it with the butt of her revolver handle.  Something within the symbol snapped with a gentle burst of heat and wind as its power was released.

She moved on to another, then another, then another.  Each broke with the same quiet escape of energy.  Eve could feel the web of symbols strain to keep functioning as it lost node after node.  The nullifying field thinned with each one.  Like a twine slowly giving way under weight.  If she cut enough strings, the web would break all at once.

When she severed the last blood mark, a moment passed where nothing changed.  Where the entire room held its breath.  Then, a tempest wind engulfed the room, ripping tubes from the walls and blowing the Breath into a swirling hurricane.  The remaining runes flaked from the wall and disintegrated.

Eve Hummed and Adeshell responded.  Its resonance exploded through the walls that had once held it back, filling every space that it had been denied.  She felt something through their bond that was identical to the dull ache that rose from her injuries.  

Pain.  The city was in pain.

Instead of trying to comprehend how that was even possible, she turned with a fit of base anger and ripped the rest of the tubes from the walls.  Once the contraption couldn’t extract any more Breath, Eve slammed her weight against it and sent it crashing to the ground.  Something fragile inside didn’t survive, and the entire machine went still.

“Does that help?” she said, “What was it doing to you?”

Adeshell couldn’t respond, of course, but she could feel its relief.

But that only lasted a moment.  The Hum showed her a group of several men passing through the broken remains of the door she had kicked in downstairs.  They didn’t hesitate to start taking the stairs two at a time, even weighed down by broadswords and single-shot handguns.  Adeshell’s song shifted back into alarm.  These men weren’t here for a talk.

Eve went for the door, but the city stopped her with a harsh shuddering of the floorboards.  And then the song changed.  Her expanded perception blurred, but all it took was a corrected note in her Humming to correct it.  In response, the tune changed again.  She fixed herself again.

Adeshell was showing her a new song.  Eve followed it without question, trying to forget the approaching danger so she could learn.  A new melody formed, note by note.

The last song tasted of wind and the sea, of flowers and salt.  The new rhythm was darker— dirt and stone and fire.  It rooted in her mind as surely as the first one, which she had known as long as she could remember.  

She looked down to see a glowing thread running through her hand, both ends extending out into the stones of the building.  It shimmered in the air, ethereal and immaterial.  Her fingers closed around it, revealing a golden web of the threads intertwined throughout the building and beyond.  A stretching infinity that sat unseen within the city.  Only this new resonance let her eyes perceive it.

It took effort to actually touch the thread.  Her hand passed through it whenever she tried.  She put the melody into the center of her focus, Humming each tone deliberately and with force.  And then she could feel the thread, its warmth and strange weight.  She tugged it gently, and a crack split the floor beneath her feet.

Her shock let her hand pass right through the thread.

The power of the melody had been in her grasp for only a moment, but it had been enough to terrify her.  What had Adeshell just handed her?

She returned to the first melody, finding the armed men almost to her floor.  The machine caught her eye.

Right.  She couldn’t just leave it to be discovered and repaired.  

It was much easier to touch the thread a second time, but she hesitated, stepping out into the hallway while keeping the fallen extractor in view.  Eve reached for the thread, and, without looking at it, pulled hard.  The room that housed the contraption crumbled, collapsing into the floor beneath it, then into the floor beneath that.  Dust and chips of stone obscured the destruction, but she didn’t have to see to know the machine was scrap.  A terrified, giddy smile appeared on her face.

It definitely wasn’t something she had expected to be able to do when she woke up that morning.

Footsteps echoed down the hall.  Her first instinct was to hide, but the only place she could have gone had just turned into a forty-foot pit.  She hurriedly tucked the revolver away.  Hopefully being unarmed would buy her some time.  They were between her and the exit, and she really had no clue how to control this new ability.  She could talk herself out of this scene.

At first Eve thought the men were from the city-watch.  They wore the same coats, flat field caps, and blades clipped at their waists.  But there wasn’t a single identifying mark on any of them.

The man at the lead, bearded and grizzled, held up a hand to stop his compatriots.  He affixed her with a glare and dropped his other hand to the gun at his waist.  It took a few breaths for Eve to realize that they were waiting for her to do something.

“I’m sorry sirs,” she called out, trying to pitch her voice up to seem younger.  “I thought this building was abandoned.  I was just looking for a place to stay before the rain reached us.”

He scowled at her.  “You should know it’s illegal to squat on a property you don’t own, miss.”

She looked down at the ground dramatically.  “I’m just trying to get by, sir.”

The man seemed to soften, relaxing his grip on his gun.  He was going to let her go.  But another man stepped forward to the front of the group.  He lacked the cap that the others wore, instead wearing a coat that hung to his knees and was spliced with plates of steel.  Eve didn’t have to ask to know this man was the leader.

“Do you know Doctor Horace?” he shouted.

“No sir.”  At least she wasn’t lying.

“Did you hear that rumbling just now?”

Eve had to bite her cheek to stop herself from looking to her right at the room she had just destroyed.  “No sir,” she repeated.

The leader sighed.  “Right.”  He gestured to the others.  “Kill her.”

Eve’s heart hammered into her throat and whirled around as the first bullets sliced the air around her.  Bits of wood and stone exploded around her from missed shots.  Two rounds still caught her in the lower back.  If she hadn’t been nearly forty meters away and under fire from shitty single-shot pistols, she would’ve been dead.  But her duster was heavy and the guns weren’t built for range.

It still hurt like hell.

She launched herself into a door before the pain stopped all her momentum.  The old wood fell apart beneath her and she tumbled to the ground inside the abandoned apartment building.  

Hot blood began to soak her duster, an agonizing pain accompanying it.  All she wanted to do was lie right there on that floor forever, but the adrenaline boiling her blood reminded her exactly why she couldn’t.

Eve got to her feet and stumbled into a bathroom with yellowed tiles and a cracked mirror.  The single window let in scarce light and a sea breeze that made its tattered curtains flutter.  The sink was dry and cracked after a decade of abandonment.  She slammed the door shut behind her and leaned back on it, for all the good it would do.

She Hummed, returning back to the simpler old melody.  The expanded perception made the pain bearable, and she felt the approaching shock retreat.  The agony couldn’t leave her body to join her mind in the rest of the world.

A couple of the men were outside the bathroom, but the rest were investigating the pile of rubble she had created.  They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get to her, and why would they be?  She was cornered in a bathroom on the sixth floor.  There was nowhere to go.

Adeshell resurfaced, tinged with fear and pain that only added to her own.  Something else was wrong.  It nudged her back into the tune of stone, and she followed it.  Right now, the city seemed focused on keeping her alive.

Outside the window, a strand of golden wire dangled stoically, ignoring the expanding wind of the storm.  It fell all the way into the street below like a rope.  She reached out through the half-broken pane to pull on it, wrapping it around her fingers.  This wire didn’t feel like part of the “structure” of the city’s web.  It was more like a free thread.

Maybe she wasn’t cornered.

Eve ripped the curtains from the window, wrapping them around her hands.  She balled her fists and smashed a big enough hole in the glass for her to climb through.  Her boots crunched the glass as she got up on the toilet and started clambering through.

“Hey!” The door to the bathroom shook on its hinges, peeling paint flakes free.  “What are you doing in there?”

She got both of her legs through and dropped onto the ledge outside.

“Break down this door, now,” the leader demanded.

The men began kicking down the bathroom door, which immediately started to crack and sag on its hinges.

Anxiety tore the melody from her vocal cords and the string passed through her fingers, out into the sky.  She scrambled for it, leaving only her heels on the ledge as she stretched out her hand.

The door gave way in a shower of splinters behind her.

Her heels slipped on the uneven ledge.

Eve fell.

The melody found her just as she began to plummet.  She closed her grip around the thread of light, and gravity took her.  The rope carried her straight down, the curtain-gloves she wore not even warming from friction as she slid down six stories of invisible string.  The shouts of disbelief vanished into the wind the farther she fell.

The ground greeted her all at once.  The wind exploded from her lungs and she cried out as the pain of her wounds was driven deeper like burning stakes.  Eve lied on the ground like that, struggling to breathe as the first biting drops of rain began to prick her skin.

Adeshell was there, swirling around her with a silent and unavoidable help, help, help, help.

It needed her.  Eve shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them.  And then she got to her feet.

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