He was running before he found his feet.
“Come on—!” Maïmoú coughed. She was still visible to him but struggling. She yanked his arm to move him faster.
But he faltered. The wall, made of wood and stone and metal, was destroyed by a single thwack of Maïmoú’s own head. Alarm bells were ringing up and down the hall. Something was sparking from the ceiling.
Maïmoú heaved Kevin over the debris and out of the room he’d been quarantined in for weeks.
“Where’re we going?” he asked, tripping. “Maïmoú, the sedatives haven’t worn off yet. What’re you doing?”
“They sedated you?” She showed her sharp teeth in a snarl. They were animalistic, but not like a crossbreed’s. Hers were larger, vicious. “I’m gonna kill them.”
It was odd, escaping for your life, knowing that every officer in this building had weapons able to kill you, and nobody was chasing you. The alarm was disconcerting—it sounded like something from Morgan’s basement—but nothing was being said. It was just blaring for Kevin to stop breaking the law.
He held his stomach as he kept with Maïmoú’s pace. He didn’t want to do this, but he didn’t want to disobey. He didn’t want to get hurt, but he didn’t want to hurt others. He didn’t want to be ostracized. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to leave.
He wanted to be with his loved ones.
A door somewhere down the hall opened up. Two men yelled for him to stop.
“Kevin!” Maïmoú grabbed him by the sleeve and forced him to keep with her. “Come on!”
But he couldn’t. They were at a dead end. There were no stairs, just the elevators you needed a keycard to access. And the Guards were coming in closer, closer. A gun was cocked and aimed.
Maïmoú cursed and waved her hand at the inbound officers.
A sudden force of wind shot through the hallway, and the people running towards them were thrown into the wall. Their bodies made imprints in the metal as they collapsed.
Kevin covered his mouth. “Did you just kill them?”
Maïmoú wasn’t looking at him, instead diverting her energy into opening the door. Using both hands, she ripped open the double doors and gained them entry. She shoved Kevin inside and stumbled in afterwards.
Kevin, shaking, went to the elevator keypad. He didn’t know what was up and what was down. Should they go to the foyer? The bottom floor? That would’ve been a parking garage, right? Or a shelter?
He picked at his thumbs. Time was running out. All of those guards, they hadn’t done anything wrong.
Maïmoú hovered her hand over the broken doors and shut them upon her will, but the force shuddered the tiny room and knocked her off her feet. Kevin moved just in time to catch her and fall to the floor with her.
The ground rumbled. The room lurched down, hopping his knees and bruising them.
“No.” Maïmoú banged on the floor. “Up, up.”
But slowly, they descended. With each floor they passed, Kevin watched the door, expecting a platoon of Guards to come storming in. Each floor came with a harsher sentence.
Maïmoú turned away from Kevin and coughed up more blackness. “I would’ve…would’ve flown you out the windows—teleported you—but I didn’t wanna risk dropping you. I barely have enough strength to stay visible right now. Kevin, click the…the top button. The foyer.”
“Are you alright?” he interrupted. “Honestly. I need to know.”
She wiped her lips. “Head feels broken.”
She burped on a laugh. “Not the same. Have you ever woken up with a migraine? Multiply it by a plane of existence you can’t mentally comprehend, then by a hundred. Perks of being a Deity. You feel pain nobody else can.” She groaned. “God, I sound like a kid I used to know. Forget I said that. I’ll be fine.”
“Why’re you doing this for me?”
“‘Cause you’re my dad.”
That memory he’d dreamed up colored his heart warm colors. “Were you serious? That man, he was me from a past life?”
She nodded. “You and Derek are my everything. I’m not losing you again.”
But you’re overworking yourself to death.”
“I have to. The damn world’s falling apart, and if I don’t work faster, it’s all gonna fall…” She trailed off. “Nevermind. Don’t worry about it. Kevin, the foyer button.”
But he would worry. She was dying, and even if she was too much at times—all the time—who wouldn’t worry about a child hurting themselves? “Do you mean the Muralha?”
She glared up at him, and he let her go. “The Muralha’s been falling apart for years, Maïmoú. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. The Líders have done all they can and not even they can fix it.”
She tried standing up on her own. Kevin hovered his hands over her. All the while, she held her broken head, the other hand digging into the metal wall like it was a cage keeping her in. “It’s not gonna fall,” she mumbled to herself. “I won’t let it.”
Kevin didn’t know the beginnings and ends of what being a Deity meant. He saw Maïmoú and all the work she was putting into “saving” them, but it was destroying herself in the process, and for what? To save them from what?
“Maïmoú,” he said, “are you…keeping the Muralha from falling?”
She cleared her throat of darkness. The beeping went faster and faster, floor by floor.
“As long as I concentrate on holding it up,” she said quickly, “it’ll be fine for, like, another month or so.”
“And if I get you out soon enough—”
“You’re holding up the Muralha? All by yourself? Mentally? Now? How? Why’s it falling?”
“I can handle it. I may be dying—”
“No—ugh, listen to me!” she snapped, and held Kevin by the shoulders. The lights above them flickered with impatience. “I’m not gonna die. I’ve been alive for 3,000 years and I have not and will not die. I will keep the Muralha up and I will get you back to Derek and I will find my Shào if I have to drain the oceans to see him! You can’t keep him away from me!” she addressed the ceiling. “You hear that, you assholes!? You can’t keep me locked in here! I’ve found Shào! I know he’s out there, and when I get out of here, I’m gonna—!”
The girl, who fought to keep positive for Kevin, who pushed herself too far to make sure he could escape safely, heaved over and emptied from her stomach about ten gallons of black sludge.
The elevator dropped a half-story. Metal rattled outside, grinding together. Sirens warned them about a mistake Kevin couldn’t fix, and the only other person who could stop it was dying at his feet.
Holding back tears, Kevin covered Maïmoú with his wings. “What’s wrong?”
Maïmoú screamed as if her stomach would spill out from her belly button. The wailing she made was beastial. “STOP!” she screamed. “STOP, STOP, STOP!”
The elevator dropped quicker, metal grating against metal, a scream echoing down the pit.
Kevin grabbed Maïmoú’s hand. He held her, hoping this wasn’t the last time he got to see her. He still needed to know what she was about. He wanted to know her last name, if such a rare girl had been born—created—with one.
Shoving her arm through the door, Maïmoú stopped the elevator by her own will and grounded them.
Kevin’s head hit a wall. The elevator landed at an odd angle. He smelled iron and smoke, a start of a fire that’d been doused out before erupting. The alarms were distant above their heads.
Maïmoú ripped her arm free and groaned.
She rolled over and held her stomach.
Unforeseen tears welled up in his eyes. “Maïmoú, please. Stop doing this to yourself. I’ll be okay. I’ll serve out whatever time I have, whether that’s forever or not. I’m sure my mom and dad will work something out for me. Just stop pushing yourself for me, please.”
She gurgled something into his chest.
The elevator doors opened.
“Don’t…tell me what to do,” she whispered, and disappeared, taking her darkness with her.
Alone, Kevin held himself until his head cleared. The adrenaline was mixing with the sedatives, leaving him feeling sick and stationary. He needed to crawl out of the broken elevator to escape.
This floor was the exact opposite of his floor. It had solid concrete for walls, no windows, it was dirty. It felt like it’d just rained beforehand, humid and cool, the scent of rust clinging to the machinery chugging in the walls.
He followed the hall’s dim lights. Rusted pipes snaked along the ceiling. The faintest smell of salt lingered in the air, along with the toxic smell of medicine: a waterlogged hospital left to decay.
There was no way she could be holding up the whole Muralha, right? It was hundreds of stories tall, stretching around the whole city. She said she was a Deity, whatever that meant, honestly, but she was just one little girl.
How strong was she, if she could do such a thing for days, years?
What were her true powers, if she were at her full potential?
He came across a few rooms. They looked recently abandoned, filled with IVs that dangled to the cracked tiles. The operating tables looked normal, but some of them had handcuffs fastened to the frames.
Directions were etched into the wall. Some of them made sense, like the ones that pointed him to the elevators and a laundry room. Some wanted to send him to WHALES, SHARKS, and FISH. He didn’t know what those words meant. He only needed the ground level. The way home. He couldn’t dawdle or ask questions. For Maïmoú’s sake, to keep her away.
One hall led him down the deepest and farthest, and just when he thought about backtracking to find another way out, he came across a heavy metal door with a crank-like handle. It was the largest, most accessible door that he’d passed, hiding the most important room. Or way out.
And it was cracked ajar.
The room was circular. And blue. Bluer than the juiciest blueberry, bluer than the deepest part of the afternoon sky. In the center was a tank of water stretching from floor to ceiling, about twenty feet in circumference. In the corners of the room were machines and filters bubbling with liquid. But the tank itself, it was the most important part. He was sure of it. The water sparkled in the limited light that beamed into it. It turned it rainbow.
He walked up to it. The tank continued through the ceiling and floor. He wanted to see where it went, what it was for.
Something floated past him, and he looked up into the blurred lights, blinded.
It was a person. A girl his age, swimming with her clothes on. She stayed as still as the water, staring at him like she’d caught him where he shouldn’t be.
His wings dropped. The water made her dark skin appear cobalt and freckles shine blue. Her long, black hair floated around her round face like it was intentionally framing it. She was beautiful.
And dying. She was underwater. She was in the water and she was dying and he had to save her, right? Bubbles weren’t leaving her lips.
He pressed his hand to the tank. A coolness froze his fingers to the glass. “Are you okay?”
The girl waved her thick, finned tail in the water, keeping her centered. He’d never seen a girl like this before. What on Earth was she? Her freckles didn’t look blue, they were blue. She had cuts on the sides of her neck. An injury?
Another figure popped up in the tank. A tall girl, with hair and skin as white as ice, swam up to the girl and held her arm. Cupping her hand so Kevin wouldn’t hear, she whispered secrets to her friend. Her eyes never left Kevin’s.
Kevin, amazed, stepped back to see these girls more properly. They didn’t need to breathe. No, they did, but they were breathing in the water. He watched their bellies and noses.
The dark-haired girl swam up to Kevin. She slowly brought her hands up to the glass, meeting his.
Even though a few inches of glass separated them, it was as if this girl lived in a completely other world to him. Maybe she was like Maïmoú in that way, a fantasy God talked about in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, with powers nobody in Raeleen could understand.
He curled his fingers against the glass. The dark-haired girl did as well. Her fingers were webbed, with thin pieces of skin connecting them together.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Her mouth moved. He didn’t expect to hear anything, but through the water and glass, he clearly heard the word, “Viper.”
She nodded, then pointed at him. “Who are you?”
“Oh. Kevin,” he said.
“See?” the white-haired girl said. Her breed was also a mystery. She didn’t have fins on her tail like the other girl, but a scaly, pointed tail just as white as her. Her eyes were this pale pink, too: she was albino. “Keep an eye on him,” she warned Viper. “I’ve heard all about him from Pippa. Awfully strange things have been happening to him.”
Viper looked away from her friend, clearly ignoring her but not being rude about it. “This’s Tokala, my friend.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, remembering to blink. “I’m sorry for staring. I’ve just never met anyone like you before.”
“Me neither.” She looked him over, making him feel hot, and turned to show him a fin on her back. It was like a hand. She wiggled it. “I’ve never seen those before. They’re called wings, right?”
He touched behind him, to his wings. “Yeah. I’m an osprey, a bird,” he clarified, reading into how little these people knew of the outside world. “What’re you?”
“Tokala’s an alligator, and I’m…” She frowned. “They don’t know what I am. They’re still trying to understand it.”
“Can I ask you why you’re here? Do you need help?”
“I don’t think so. We’re just swimming.”
“And you breathe in the water?”
She just nodded, like it was that easy to explain. Some breeds did have stronger lungs than others, and he flew. Why not open doors to newer, cooler, prettier breeds?
He nixed that last part, as it embarrassed him too much. “Why’re you down here? I’ve never heard of your breeds before.”
“I think…because we’re not allowed to leave,” she said.
A door clicked open.
Kevin’s wings puffed out as his legs brought him backwards. “I-I have to—” He bowed to Viper and Tokala and ran behind a tank for safety, pushing down his wings so he wasn’t seen. They seemed to understand, for as soon as the door clicked, they swam away in fear of being seen.
The door closed. Two pairs of boots walked into the dark room. Kevin held his breath as if he’d gone underwater to hide.
“I still don’t understand why you care for a baby who doesn’t even know who you are. It’s not like it cares for you.”
“I try to be kind to every child who lives down here.”
Marcos. Kevin was tempted to go to him for help, but he stayed hidden. His programming would turn him in.
“I don’t see why. It’s not like any of them down here like you,” Zantl said, and rounded the tank so Kevin could see them. Marcos was holding a baby that looked like Viper, with the same slits in its neck and tail. He climbed up a ladder attached to the tank and carefully dropped her in.
Kevin watched, stunned, as the baby gulped in mouthfuls of water and got acclimated. Kicking its little feet, it swam a bit before diving deep into the tank.
“I try my best to be approachable,” Marcos said, and fell back beside Zantl. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
He was frowning at what Zantl had said, but Zantl didn’t seem bothered by hurting his feelings. They held the back of their head and started walking in circles. “You’re different, so that automatically means people hate you. You should stop caring. Become indifferent. Soon, you’ll find out how little people actually care about you, and you’ll be ready to accept living only for yourself.”
“That’s a really negative way of living, Zantl. Is that how you feel about the world?”
“It’s the most practical.”
“Zantl—” Marcos touched something in his ear. “What is that?”
“Is there an alert going out right now?”
“I dunno.” Zantl, moving quicker than Kevin had anticipated, jumped onto a railing in the room and started walking atop it. Without any time to hide, Kevin backed up and clipped a piece of metal that echoed his movements.
Zantl lowered their lax arms as their eyes met. “Oh, fuck,” they whispered, and touched something on their wrist. They held it up to their mouth. “Mom!” they screamed. “Mom, the Harrow kid’s in the fallout shelter! W4, west wing!”
“No!” Kevin got up and flapped his wings to give himself distance. He met eyes with Marcos in pleading desperation. “Don’t do this!”
“Yes, he’s here, why the fuck”—Zantl opened a hidden compartment on the wall of the room and pressed a button—“would I lie about this?”
Sirens from upstairs rang out just as loudly down here. Red lights flashed. Shadows danced across the tanks and filters.
The door Kevin had come in from creaked open, and three armed guards tackled him to the ground.
“Don’t hurt him—!”
It felt like being hit by a truck. An “all-over sensation” that numbed his torso and arms. They tackled him. Something cracked in his jaw and his wing bent due to someone much larger than him. His head was vibrating.
“Get off of him!” Marcos commanded. “Get off—you’re on his wings! Get off!”
Kevin struggled to breathe. A guard’s knee was digging between his shoulder blades.
Zantl squeezed Marcos’ shoulder for protection. Their yellow eyes wavered over Kevin’s body. “What the fuck was he doing down here?”
“Zantl, please,” Marcos pleaded. “They won’t listen to me. Tell them to stop.”
Zantl grabbed the nearest guard off of Kevin. They punched them in the head when they didn’t move fast enough. “Off! Now!” They kicked another in the rear. “I told all of you not to touch him! Do you have any idea what she’ll do to us if she finds out you hurt him?”
Kevin, freed, sat up and checked himself for injury. He was hurt but mostly confused.
He looked up at Zantl. The dim lights were flickering with condensed feelings. He waited for Maïmoú’s return, as flickering lights were something she could do.
But this was from Zantl. Things like this happened around them, things even Morgan couldn’t understand. The public knew about it but didn’t know why, because how could they? Only a handful of people, according to Maïmoú, had ever witnessed entities like this.
He held his heart. That voice, echoing through his mind…
The door behind them slammed open. “What the fuck is going on?”
Nadia and Mikhail entered with an entourage of guards at their side. Nadia started ordering the Guards around like the true leader of her pack. Mikhail grimaced at the sight of Kevin laying on the floor, then looked at Zantl and Marcos.
“What the fuck happened?” Zantl asked them. “He was supposed to be contained.”
“We just received word that the door…exploded?” Mikhail addressed Kevin with apprehension. “Zantl—”
“I told you to keep him away from—no!” Their mother was trying to touch them. They shook her off. “I told you that he can’t be touched. Why is he still here? Get him away from us.”
“Because you said he was special,” their mother said. “We wanted to test him as we do you.”
“He doesn’t need to be tested, he needs to get away from me!” Zantl started for the door. “I can’t be near him. She’ll kill all of us when she finds out—nope. Not doing it.”
Kevin’s heart was racing from unknown situations. “You’re just like her,” he said at Zantl, “aren’t you?”
Zantl looked back at Kevin, fear freezing them in place at being related to such a girl.
Someone picked him up by the scruff of his collar. Mikhail, who needed a cane to walk, was surprisingly strong. “Okay,” he said, “come now. Let’s get you back in a cell and we’ll figure out what to do.”
“What’s happening to you?” Nadia asked Zantl. “Tell us. We’ve kept on your side for years, we’ve never pressed you because you told us not to.”
“Mom, now is not the time.”
“Why? Why is it never the time? What is happening to you and our world?”
“You won’t understand. This isn’t about you. It never was! Life revolves around Deities and their messy, fucked up lives that we’re forced to witness.”
“I know, so let us help you,” their mother said. “Please, honey, that’s all we want to do. Let us figure out a way to help. This connection you share hurts you, doesn’t it?”
“Stop it!” Zantl covered their furry ears at the chance to be helped. “I don’t want you to! You’re gonna get killed, all of you!”
Mikhail held up his wrist to the door.
It didn’t open.
He tried again and again. “Uh, hello?” he asked.
“But we want to see you protected!” Nadia said. “How can we do that as your parents if you don’t talk to us?”
“Because I don’t want to be your kid!” Zantl screamed. “I just want to be left alone!”
A bulb above Kevin shattered and rained glass atop him. He felt cold pieces land on his head and through his wings, and instincts sent him back. He ripped his hand away from Mikhail and shook out his body of danger.
His foot slipped. Dripping water from rusted pipes above had made a sizable puddle on the ground, and he immediately hit the ground hard. The back of his head slammed against metal.
He tasted iron. It was like when Mikhail had slapped him: that intense pain that told you something was going to hurt for a while.
He touched the back of his head. His fingers came back red.
Zantl stopped arguing with their mother. Marcos gasped at the sight of pain. Nadia, Mikhail, and their guards didn’t even flinch until they noticed Zantl looking horrifyingly at Kevin’s blood.
“Ow,” Kevin moaned. With the drugs still in his system, the sight of losing a little bit of blood made him lightheaded. He closed his eyes and covered most of his face to control himself in front of strangers.
A droplet hit his face. Touching it, he pulled back to see that darkness Maïmoú puked up. It shimmered with distant sky dots.
Above him, crouched on a water heater, was Maïmoú.
A dribble of darkness was leaking from her mouth, unending, as she snarled at the Líders. She was seizing like an animal in need to tear everything apart. Her teeth were bare.
Zantl backed up into Viper’s tank. Tears formed in their eyes as they were paralyzed by fear. “Unathi,” they whispered to themselves. “Unathi, save me.”
“What’s happening?” Nadia asked her child. “What do you see?”
Marcos looked between all of them. “Who is that?” he asked them. “Who’s that girl?”
Kevin reached out to Maïmoú. “Maïmoú.” He grabbed the closest part he could: her ankle. “M-Maïmoú, calm down. I’m okay.”
She didn’t even look at him. She moved her head like a dog ready to bite whoever dared to move first.
He got up, got in her line of sight. “Maïmoú, look. I’m fine. It was an accident. Everything’s okay.”
Zantl ran to the nearest door. They banged their wrist into the crack to get it to open. “Let me out!” they screamed. “Unathi, save me! She’s here! She—Unathi!”
Something, or someone, came to heed their desperate call. They appeared how Maïmoú did, glitching through time and appearing out of thin air. They kept their back to Kevin, obscuring their face, as they scooped Zantl up like they were a child. They were impossibly tall and beautifully poised, with jet-black hair cascading down their back, wearing a white dress that hugged their curvy body.
Maïmoú screamed. Rage and anger Kevin could feel concentrated in the room. The walls bent inwards. A pipe burst. Growling through pure animalistic synapses, she jumped over Kevin and ran towards the mysterious person.
Without looking back, the person teleported, taking Zantl away with them.
Maïmoú missed them by a hair. She skidded into the wall and screeched with frustration at a lost kill. She kicked her feet as more darkness pooled out of her.
Those who couldn’t see Maïmoú listened to the room for her movements. Marcos and Kevin watched her like a compounding car crash.
Maïmoú scrambled to her hands and knees and slammed her head against the floor. She was screaming incoherently through growls.
Kevin tried to move. He tried to speak out, defend, calm things down, but he couldn’t breathe. Or he was. He was hyperventilating to the point of passing out. What was so wrong? What child acted so defensive with their parent?
He wasn’t a parent to her. He never was.
He was, in every sense, a victim to her own circumstances, and nothing he could do would ever calm her down.
Mikhail was the first to move. Whether to find where his child or the source of the noise, he made a move towards Maïmoú.
Kevin didn’t see Maïmoú move. She was too fast, blinking in and out of existence between the Líders. Whatever she did, Mikhail’s body was thrown into the wall with unnatural speed.
His neck snapped. Eyes rolled back. His body fell and crumpled to the floor. He didn’t move again.
Nadia covered her mouth in delayed horror. Marcos tried for Zantl, but they were still gone, taken away by some unforeseen entity.
Kevin, again, awaited Maïmoú’s return to explain herself and what’d just happened.
But she didn’t come back.