a shot rings out in the night and I duck instinctively. bark fractures on a nearby tree wooden shrapnel flying in an explosion of metallic fire. a ripe peach bursts scattering the sweet nectar across the lawn pulp and seed alike sprinkle the yard forest green glistening in the nighttime. makes me hunger for that sweet juice makes the fear boil up in my empty belly and the Instinct take over urging me to duck and twist and rise. I do. the world blurs and rights itself and the Ebenezer is coming at me knife in hand his wizened features crinkling and creasing with a terrible hatred a bloodlust I've never seen from the old man before. the blade sparkles and shines as it swoops down in a wide arc and—

I snap back to reality with a gasp, feel the crisp spring air biting my cheeks to sharp red apples—stinging my fingers icicle blue. Dark, dry grass gives under my tightened grip, crumbling to sand. My mouth tastes like ashes and copper, my eyes are burning, my skin feels pinched and cold and tight. My blood runs like frozen fire, flickering through my veins. Sapphire embers.

'Jumps' are like that.

The grassy expanse of the Ebenezer's lawn stretches out before me, the ripe pink peaches soft and glowing in the moonlight. A breeze rustles the branches, the midnight wind carrying echoes and howls of what is to come—its fingers reaching out and stroking my shoulders, urging me back to the Den, where I belong. Daus doesn't know I'm here, he won't be disappointed if I come back empty handed.

But I think back to the Jump I saw earlier—the one where his face lights up in that rarely seen expression of sheer happiness and he seems to glow—and I push this new, less pleasant Jump away. There are as many Jumps as there are possibilities, and possibilities are nothing if not infinite.

My leather boots dig into the giving earth for a moment, letting the soft dirt sift underneath my weight. I take a deep breath, steady my nerves for the possibility of a fight—the promise of one, most likely—before launching myself forward, dashing across the lawn and snatching the tender fruit as I go, throwing the more beaten elder fruit in with the tough young ones, in no mood to be picky.

The countdown of the predicted's collision with reality resounds in my body like the beating of great metal drums; a cold sweat breaks out all over my skin, ice racing down my back, my fingers trembling from a greater chill than one that mere seasons or sicknesses can inflict. My heart pounds faster and faster—wild, untamed, impossible to control, impossible to hold. A wild bird in the grip of the hunter, struggling to be free—until my hands fumble when I'm twisting a stem and the pounding explodes into a roaring cacophony before quickly falling into eerie silence. I zip my bag.

A shot rings out in the night and I duck instinctively. Bark fractures on a nearby tree; wooden shrapnel flying in an explosion of metallic fire. A perfectly round peach bursts from the impact, scattering the sweet nectar across the lawn. Pulp and seed alike rain down on the yard, forest green blades of grass glistening in the nighttime. Makes me hunger for that sweet juice; makes the fear boil up in my empty belly and the Instinct takes over, urging me to crouch, twist and rise before he gets another shot in.

I do and the world blurs for a moment before righting itself again. The Ebenezer comes at me, a knife in his hand, his wizened features crinkling and creasing with a terrible hatred. A bloodlust I've never seen from the old man before. A hint of madness glinting in his eyes.

The blade gleams and shines as it swoops down in a wide arc and carves a gash into the back of my neck. A thin line of pain erupts and spills over—my shirt soaked, my nerves on fire, no longer icy cold with the sheer power of the Jump—but I force myself to focus.

Survive, whispers the Instinct. Give me the reigns.

I close my eyes for a moment, but that's all it needs. It pulsates with the same sapphire blaze as the Jumps, but it controls itself and comes only when I let it. Only when I feed the flames. Otherwise, it's just...there. Burning quietly and flickering to life, like an ember in the hearth that refuses to die.

The blue fire flares up. My body twists and contorts; I duck low and step far—the knife slicing thin air—I kick high and leap higher still. Instinct shapes us and I am a bolt of lightning, slipping through his fingers, leaving only my burn for him to remember me by. I used to be alarmed when I let myself go to the Instinct, but no longer. Now it's only a glove that I slip on and off, when the situation so demands it.

What alarms me is when the glove unravels itself and falls to the ground in a pile of threads without warning. Suddenly, I'm not lightning. Suddenly I'm vulnerable and—even though it's only for a moment of shocked incomprehension—the Ebenezer sees it too. Gun long gone, he lunges with his knife again; this time aiming for my torso; aiming to stab; aiming to kill.

I hold up my bag at the last moment and the sweet scent of peach juice fills the air. He has hit one of the elder peaches and, I realize as he tries and fails to withdraw his blade, the pit has saved my life. I whip out my leg and nail him between his, sending him crumpling to the ground like a paper doll.

Taking the knife and my fruit, I turn and run—not understanding, not believing, not wanting to believe—knowing that my Instinct has finally failed me.

Without that, I'm just another Lonely.

Without Instinct, you're just another casualty of a nonexistent war.

Every island in the Labyrinth chain is special in its own strange way. Lluvia and Loria are elemental siblings; the Lluvian Crestfallen Skywalkers and the Lorian Winterheld Earth. Dremix has their Betwixt; able to walk the shrouded line between this world and the next. Veneficus has Inks, otherwise known as the realm of the weavers. I've never been there, but legends say that Inks have the ability to alter reality itself; turn lead into gold and cotton into silk. Old school magic.

Cerai has its Paradox; creatures that are part man, part animal. From what I understand, most only possess certain animalistic traits. Exceptional hearing, breathing underwater, the occasional bulletproof armadillo... only one reported Flier so far.

Geminus? We have our Instincts. It's not too different from the Paradox, once you cut down to the core. Some of the more mystical of the islanders insist that Instinct is simply opening your soul to the world; receiving everything and only reacting, not transmitting. Others call it a survival instinct, heightened from the past where our fights for survival were against wild beasts; where the only way to win those fights was to become a beast yourself.

Either way, like Cerai, not everyone has what makes us special. Some are born with Instinct, some aren't.

Labyrinth—in this world where the old magics are not only possibility, but reality—remains the only mystery yet that we're aware of. I suppose, once its secrets have been uncovered and the world is once again dull and explored, we'll all branch out further and try to find more mystery.

But that'll be far beyond my time, and it's not what I'm thinking about as I dart through the alleyways back to the Den. No, I'm still thinking about my Instinct—the Instinct that's always obeyed my every beck and call—and how it vanished at a moment when I needed it most.

How I'll be a Lonely again if I don't find a way to fix this.

There's different breeds of people on Geminus, as I imagine there are everywhere in the world. It starts with the circles; outer ring, inner ring, centerpiece. From there on, the subcategories begin. I've never been to any of the inner rings, so I'm not exactly sure if they're any different from the ones here in the outer ring.

All I know is that, in the outer ring, people with Instinct have always had an advantage. Fights are more desperate without it, mortality rates far higher. It's the ace in your hand when you have it. The ticking time bomb when you don't. It affects your tier.

The authorities would like to make you believe that the highest tier you can gain in the outer ring is that of a member of a hardworking family—no matter what your vocation may be—but that's a lie. When it became clear that the inner rings weren't going to help us out here, the outsiders developed our own system.

At the very bottom is the Lonelies. They exist outside the system, only the barest attachments to other people or the higher tiers. Directly above them, where I partly rest on the pyramid of power, are the Selfish. People with Instinct or Gifts who didn't want to become members of the Obeyed—the Ash King's private army—or the Gifted, either because of a quarrel with the King, his policies or the tier members themselves. Selfish can move upwards to their otherwise designated tier at any time, so long as they swear absolute fealty to the King.

Above that, the Indebted. Outsiders who have made their fortune thanks to the King's personal aid and deliver him a piece of their profits for the eventual betterment of the ring. Up higher is Daus's tier, Gifted. His brain is more valuable than any treasure, but he's been cast down to Selfish for choosing to work with me instead of the other Gifted.

Higher still are the Fortunate, which is basically an independent merchant class; people who have succeeded and made their fortune without the King's aide. They're respected as financial advisers. Above them, the Obeyed and above them, the Pinnacle—not a single class, but a group of six individuals, the Ash King himself at the center and his most trusted followers at his five points.

You would think the Ash King would reserve the highest seat of power for himself.

But you'd be surprised.

At the very top—the highest seat of power in the outer ring, commanding even the King himself if he feels so inclined—sits the Wise Man. Gifted with glimpses of the uncertain future and haunted by the ever present ghosts of the past, he governs the Ash King with lessons of painful history and visions of the future.

It's supposedly a seat of tremendous power, honor and responsibility. Only problem is that there hasn't been a Wise Man in over two hundred years.

Until me.

And I'm no Wise Man.

Daus and I live out of an abandoned factory near where we met. There are plenty to choose from, so shelter isn't exactly scarce. Twelve years ago there were more struggling businesses that derelict buildings; nowadays that ratio has completely reversed itself, and we quickly occupied one of them as soon as we figured out how to make lock picks.

The factory itself is beyond large; so far beyond that it took us a week to check the whole place out, and two more weeks after that to install rudimentary traps and security measures. We quickly discovered that there are two kinds necessary for unsupervised living; the kind people notice and the kind they don't. Authorities occasionally sweep the old factories for any signs of life. Those are the kinds of occasions that warrant silent bells and whistles.

Cannonfire comes out when it's people looking to encroach on our territory. Anything with a roof is prime real estate and there are plenty of people who are constantly prowling the market. Big traps and bigger bangs make them reconsider, think that it's more trouble than they need, that there's more to this building than the two skinny street rats seen going in and out.

Sometimes they're looking for a fight. Sometimes we give it to them. Most times we hunker down in the old storage spaces, surrounded by rotten cardboard boxes and shelved memories that have long since been forgotten beneath layers of dusty paint, and watch the show unfold before our greedy eyes.

Call it sadistic, to enjoy watching grown men and women break down and sob like two month old babies, but Daus and I take our entertainment where we can get it.

I round a corner in the alleyway, counting the cracks in the dirty red bricks leading up to the factory. When we were younger, Daus and I carved meaningless words and images into the walls, trying to write our stories far before they really even began. White scratches that have long since been washed away by torrential storms.

daus hides cowering behind a tower of rotting cardboard. shadows mark it as midday peeking through the window in a radiant golden shower. I am crouched beside him the heart in my chest pounding in terrified synchronization with his. a man stalks the halls of our factory not dissuaded by our traps our warnings. survival warns me to flee but stubborn pride forbids me from doing so our home the one we built after so many years of sleeping in boxes so very like the ones we now hide behind will not be lost to a beast with a man's facade. I can do this I tell myself hoping as much as I am trying to reassure. ignoring daus's panic I stand and

I stumble out of the Jump, holding my head in my hands as I lean my back against the wall, trying to get back the breath that the Jump has stolen from me. Trying to sort through the mess it just made of my head.

The more Jumps I have in a day, the worse it feels. While the first time felt like being dropped into ice cold water, this one feels somewhat akin to being hit square in the gut by a building. My ribs ache, my lungs struggle to inflate under the crushing force, all my muscles tremble together to the tune of an agony filled song. It's all I can do not to sink to my knees and curl up in a ball of quivering pain.

When the haze in my mind finally clears, I allow myself to think back on the Jump. I remember that day—from years ago, before Daus or I knew I had Instinct—and I remember the man who had wandered in, looking to take our home out from under our feet. Looking to gut us with his knife and hang out skins over the door as warning to the next cheeky brats who wanted to live there.

I know this because he declared it all, hoping to frighten us out from our hiding places so, like scared rabbits, we would either be skinned or allowed to scamper off into a new hole.

And knowing all this—remembering all this—sends me running home as fast as I can.

Wise Men can see the past and the future, but both are limited without proper training. All I can see in the past are my own memories and those of the people close to me. All I can see in the future are things that will impact me directly; I can see the tornado destroying my house, but not the butterfly's wings fluttering halfway across the world.

But one thing is always certain about past Jumps; they are almost always a warning.

That something is going to happen.

That somehow, sometime, history is going repeat itself in some way.

All you can do is try to stop it as quickly as you can.

Before I know it, the factory is right in front of me and I'm lifting the rusted metal gate. I squeeze in through the small gap underneath just before it comes falling down; a heavy, echoing boom resounds throughout the massive main floor. I reach into my pocket, pulling out a book of matches before groping my way over to a spot by the gate, finding the lantern hidden there. I set it down on the ground before attempting to light a match.

My fingers shake too violently and I fumble, dropping the sticks and the book into the flour. A quiet curse escapes my lips as I crouch over, scrambling to find them. Luckily, I do, though it takes three tries before a match blazes to life in my hands. I light the lantern quickly, letting it light up the room with a pale yellow glow. I do a quick sweep, looking for anything that seems out of place. The first four tripwires are in place. The old machinery is untouched. No footprints in the flour scattered at the main entrance besides my own, but in reality, this means very little. Real threats rarely use the front door; they prefer the element of surprise.

My gaze drifts upwards to the old storage space we typically hunker down in. Once upon a time a lift was used to bring the packages and crates up there. Now, the power has long since been cut and the only way up is an old rope ladder we wove.

I'm careful to dodge my own traps as I hurry over, knocking the code onto the building below. One knock. Pause. Two knocks. Pause. Five quick knocks. Long pause. One. The wait is probably less than thirty seconds, but it feels like years.

Words cannot explain the massive relief I feel when Daus's face peeks through the grated floor above me and the ladder comes tumbling down.

I set the lantern down and simply can't climb fast enough. When I reach the top, I take his face in my hands and turn it every which way.

"Are you okay? You aren't hurt?" He reaches up, grabs my wrists and pulls them away, frowning.

"Other than your sudden and disturbing urge to touch my face, yes, I'm fine. Why?"

"I... I thought someone might be here. I got scared." Try utterly, I-might-have-just-shat-myself terrified.

"It's been nice and quiet, Lark. Calm down. No bells and whistles today. Did you see any prints in the flour?" I shake my head.

"But you know that doesn't mean anything with the bad ones, Daus."

"It doesn't, true. But seeing as how I'm not hanging from the ceiling in meat ribbons, I think it's safe to say that we're alone here. Okay? Honestly, what had you so bugged out in the first place?" He pauses, catches my eye and, in that way so strangely like Instinct and so utterly like Daus, he knows. "You Jumped, didn't you? Forwards or...?"

"Backwards. A warning. It was Strafe, when he busted in."

"And threatened to gut us and hang our skins outside as warning. Yeah, I remember him. What did you see?"

"Us, hiding behind the crates. It ended when I stood up to fight him."

"I remember that too. You scared the shit out of me. Seriously."

"I do what I can." I offer him a small smile and he returns it with a half smirk. Then it vanishes. He grabs me by the shoulders and turns me around, inhaling sharply. My neck, I belatedly realize. It's still bleeding from the fight with the Ebenezer. Between being shaken at my Instinct's sudden failure and the panic inducing Jump, I had all but forgotten it. The sticky wet warmth of blood makes itself known on my back as my thoughts return to it and I groan.

Another shirt, ruined.

"This looks horrible. Did you get into a fight with a chainsaw?" He grumbles and shakes his head before grabbing my arm and pulling me into the storage area. Behind our castle defense system of boxes, crates and dust galore is a tidied up sleeping space. A thick wool blanket with random patches of gossamer fabric hangs from the ceiling. In the winter, it's our tent and we drape another sheet over it to keep the heat from escaping. In the summer, it serves as a comfortable enough bedding.

"More like the Ebenezer." I answer his question as he pulls me inside and sets me down on a more recent wooden crate, sanded smooth to remove the splinters.

"The Ebenezer? What were you bugging that old Indebted for this time?" He stands behind me, already pulling out the bag of carefully scavenged medical supplies.

"How do you know I was the one bothering him? I'm the one who walked away with a cut up neck." I complain and I can practically hear his eyes rolling.

"Because you've been consistently annoying him for ten years. I doubt you went there in the dead of night to give him a fruit basket."

I grin, but it's shaky. "Something along those lines, actually. I brought us back dessert."

The sharp sting of disinfectant brushes my neck and I cringe away from it. "I'm happy for the snack and all, but stop moving. You'll just make it worse."

"I honestly don't see how 'worse' is a possibility right now. What are you cleaning it with, a cheese grater?" He chuckles and calls me a baby, but I feel a new found gentleness in the warmth of his touch regardless.

"You really need to be more careful. If he'd poisoned that blade beforehand, you'd be rotting in his compost pile."

"Thankfully, he didn't and I'm not. But I appreciate the concern."

"Who said it was for you? I'm just a brain. If you die, who's going to feed me?" This time it's my turn to roll my eyes, because I know just how hollow that rings. If Dausker wasn't with me—if he wasn't a Selfish and actually lived according to his tier—he'd be living in semi-luxury in the Ash King's court. Not to mention, he's grown quite a bit of muscle from years of summer factory work. Odds are, he could bash the Ebenezer's head in three times over.

"Mm, fair enough. Guess I'm stuck with you then." I fake a sigh as he tapes a cotton pad to my neck, then wraps it in gauze to keep it in place.

"Poor thing. Having someone to watch your back and waste bandages on you must be such a heavy burden to bear."

"Sometimes it's so tiring I don't even know how I get out of bed in the mornings. Peaches are in my bag, by the way."

"Oh, goodie. Just gimme a minute." He closes up the bandages with metal clips and his hands fall away. Automatically, my own hand lifts to the wrappings; trying to get a feel for this strange new fabric wrapped 'round my neck and convince my body that it isn't a noose. Bits of flesh still tingle with the pleasant heat of his hands, even though they're gone. The warmth soaks into my bones and chases away the remaining chill of the Jumps.

I glance over at him as he picks up my bag, and after discarding the knife stuck in it with a faint look of amusement mixed with disgust (being covered with blood and peach juice as it was, an interesting combination to say the least), his face lights up.

Living together from the frozen wasteland of childhood onwards through the teenaged years of knobbly knees and protruding ribs and further on still into the early spring of adulthood have taught me things about Dausker. Simple truths, but important ones.

One, he rarely believes in coddling, so when he does it, treasure it. Two, the past is irrelevant in most instances; it's already happened. There might be echoes, but it's never the same trick twice, so he's not big on dwelling on it. Three, he's utterly terrified of most urban legends.

Four, he loves peaches.

My Jump from yesterday unfolds before my eyes as I see the glow behind his skin start—like someone's lit a candle inside of him—and his eyes flicker with genuine happiness as he plucks a perfect peach from the bag and takes a juicy bite. However, just as quickly, the inner glow fades away as he pulls himself back under control.

Five; even after all these years, there are still parts of himself he hates to show. Even to me.

Sometimes when I look at Daus, I'm reminded of a statue, carved from black marble. His skin is a warm brown, his hair pleated into long, thick dreadlocks that are tied back, away from his face and his eyes the same warm, dark chocolate color as they were the day he saved me. Most times, you look at him and think, wow, he's beautiful, because he is; on the inside too, even if he hates to show it. But then there are the other times I mentioned, where the light is sucked out of him, leaving behind a cold, stony sculpture where my friend used to be.

Every time he stops himself from smiling in front of me—from being honestly happy instead of snappish or teasing or the millions of other shades of the rainbow he can be—I have those thoughts.

Every time he does this, I catch myself wishing he would just show himself to me. Just a small glimpse.

A distant rumbling makes the factory shudder and the light of our oil lantern waver. Outside the tent, I hear the boxes shift and imagine the fresh coat of dust floating down to the ground, like snowfall. "Sounds like there's a storm coming in." Daus comments, taking another bite of the fruit. I grab my bag and empty the remaining peaches into a nearby bowl we unearthed ages ago, slipping outside the tent for a moment to toss the bloody, stabbed one out the factory window.

"Strange, I didn't see any clouds earlier." I linger at the window, looking at the sky. Sure enough, a dark wave of storm clouds, already crackling with lightning and thunder, is creeping towards us. "But, in other news, they're definitely there now."

"Thanks for the update, Sherlock." He chuckles.

A particularly bright flash illuminates the horizon, outlining the various abandoned factories in our district—claimed by gangs or the authorities—and, further beyond that, the crumbling houses in the residential areas. Just barely peeking over them is the wall separating the outer ring from the middle one. During the daylight, it's easier to make out the barbed wire atop it and, up close, the various Ink symbols trailing over the entire structure, creating a barrier powerful enough to repel a volcano falling from the sky.

Strong enough to keep the outsiders out.

I return to the tent and sit down on my bed roll before letting myself fall over completely, closing my eyes. Daus pauses in his eating.

"You feeling alright? Jumps didn't take too much out of you, did they?"

"It's two in the morning, smart guy. This is when I'm supposed to feel tired."

He chuckles again. "Since when do you ever do what you're supposed to?"

"Valid point, but I'm gonna try and get some shut eye before the storm hits."

"At least wash up before you pass out. I cleaned up the restrooms while you were gone; spic and span now."

"Not just one of them? Color me impressed."

"Consider yourself colored. But seriously, go on and wash up. Change, while you're at it. That shirt's a goner and you don't need to ruin a bedroll while you're at it."

"You sure? Figured I'd go big or go home with this one; aim for the gold."

"The red, in this case. I'm sure."

"You just want the peaches for yourself, you fat bastard." I sigh, pushing myself back up to a sit before grabbing a fresh change of clothes from my duffel bag. An occupational hazard of being a squatter and an amateur thief is always having to pack your life up in bag; you never know when it can change. When you'll have to move on to the next hollow home, the next mark. We've been lucky to have a place this long, but that luck could run out any time.

A fact that the Jump backwards has made me acutely aware of.

The bathrooms are back down on the first floor, but they're located in a hallway off to the left, rather than near the equipment or the would-be workers. I'm not sure why, that's just how it was built.

I descend the rope ladder once more and retrieve the lantern I had foolishly left below, still burning, wary of the great machines that still rule the floor as I head over. I can handle myself well enough in a fight, thanks to my Instinct—well, I guess I could—but the ideas of machines never settled well with me; unthinking, unfeeling, with razor sharp blades and heavy gears, hungry to crunch on the bones of workers.

Daus and I could have signed up for factory work when we were younger; age didn't matter, able bodies did. Children with nimble fingers were needed to move small parts back into place, to feed the machines. We could have, but we didn't. Too many horror stories about young girls with long hair losing their scalps to spinning wheels; about young boys who sacrificed arms and legs to the mechanical monstrosities.

Figured we'd rather take our chances with the real monstrosities; people.

I enter the women's bathroom but do a quick sweep of the stalls to ensure my privacy. My jitters haven't faded yet and probably won't for awhile. When I'm certain I'm alone, I lock the door behind me and jam a chair under the doorknob (it's in the bathroom solely for the purpose). The room itself is nothing special.

Blue tiles on the ground have long since lost their shine and are now dull and faintly gray; the grout between them dirty, but not filthy. The walls are much the same, except the tiles are white and old mirrors are affixed to them, above the rows of sinks, older still. The mirrors themselves have been scraped and broken beyond consideration; I don't have much of a use for them aside from when I wash my face and Daus keeps to the men's bathroom.

Bathroom stalls are lined along the back walls, kept clean and disinfected regularly; a dirty toilet is one of the few things I will not abide by. A dirty tub would probably be next, if we were on the subject of unacceptable bathroom items, but the factory doesn't have one. As we're still unsure what it made, I suppose there could be one stored away downstairs, but it'd be far too heavy for us to lug upstairs anyways.

Power is easy enough to filch from nearby grids when we need it, though most of the time we can substitute electricity for candles and lanterns. People pay less attention to dark factories than brightly lit, supposedly abandoned ones. On terms of water, however, we lucked out as they still haven't cut the supply to this place, even after all these years. If they had, we'd have to go out and either buy barrels of it at the market or fill our own with the sea and purify it ourselves.

It's not overpriced—living on an island, water is one of the few things we have in overabundance—but that really doesn't change the fact that it's a hassle we'd rather avoid.

I set the lantern in one of the sinks before heading back to the small cluster of showers next to the stalls, turning it on. The water is cold but I peel off my clothes and jump under the spray, grabbing a bar of soap and scrubbing at my hair, face and body, trying to wash away the scent of blood and the bitter aftershock of the Jumps. A brief splash of red washes down the drain before the water turns clean again.

Alone and no longer plagued by worry about Daus, I finally allow my body to relax and my mind to think back on everything that happened. The Ebenezer tried to kill me. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise after all those years of stealing fruit from his garden, but... it does. He's chased me from his property with a cane, threatened to cut off my thieving hands. He's never followed through. He's never hated me that much; he's always understood that I'm just doing what I can to ensure that Daus and I survive.

We all do what we have to, I sigh, knowing this is true. Knowing that there's no way to change this, unless the Inner authority ends and the Ash King's court expands.

They've been talking about the Expansion since the days of the first king, but it still hasn't happened. Probably never will.

"Okay, Lark, venturing into depressing territory here." I grumble to myself, trying to redirect my thoughts to something less... blah. Spring. Summer. Peaches. Happiness.

But no matter what, my train of thought seems to want to go on one of two paths; the Ebenezer or the king. I choose the Ebenezer; I choose my Instinct.

Reaching out, I twist the knob on the shower and the water turns ice cold. My body recoils instinctively under the chill, but I force myself to remain grounded to the spot. Your body fighting to survive is what draws out Instinct. You don't have to face a knife for it to start panicking.

Sure enough, I soon feel the soft nudge of it against my consciousness, asking if I need it, offering to help. My consent is given and soon I feel the warm glow of summer lighting me up from my cooled core to my icy fingertips.

Loving protection surrounds me like a gentle embrace; soothes the weariness from my bones, chases the doubts from my heart. I must have done something during the Ebenezer's attack; must've chased it out somehow, closed it off in the adrenaline rush.

I can still protect us, I think, and this time my sigh is one of relief as I reach for the knob again. The instant my fingers touch the cold metal

I stare at the mirror my fingers faintly tracing the gilded frame scratching the thin gold paint cold paint actually. I recoil from the feel. My body is heavy with the silks so I peel them off and stare at myself in the mirror even harder trying to see the ghost that lives underneath my skin the ghost with pale hair and eyes and skin with sharp bones at the corners and angles. I can see her core and she is still the same she will never change never bend never break the same bolt of fiery blue lightning she has always been and this pleases me. dark hands snake around my waist and I jerk away but they hold me to the spot and I cannot move not for the life of me because the touch upon my skin fills my blood with lead and acid. one hand man's hands traces up the curve of my back to my shoulder blades and fingers the hair now long enough to touch them. phoenix-

I collapse to my arms and knees, coughing violently. The bitter taste of copper fills my mouth again and again as I offer up mouthfuls of warm blood to the drain. Above, the showerhead's unmerciful torrent of frozen rain now seems like a blessing, as it dulls the absolute agony in my body. Every muscle seems too cramped, too tight, too contracted. They all scream to relax and breathe, but I only draw closer to myself, like I can force the pain out for sheer lack of room.

Eventually the coughing stops and I force myself to sit up long enough to turn the water warm once more. Then I just let my body curl back up the way it wants and do my best to suffer through the pain. It comes in waves and currents; ebbing and flowing like a sea of fire.

By the time it dulls and my pounding heart has calmed its frantic drumming, I can only recall the vaguest details from the Jump. It was definitely forwards, but further than I've ever been; my hair was long, almost reaching my shoulders. I've never let it grow past my ears. Long hair is really all that separates the little girls from the boys on the streets and I didn't want to do anything to stand out. Eventually it became habit.

In that Jump, I'd broken the habit and it looked like nothing good had come of it. But what of the silk and the mirror? It was... ornate. Designed like nothing I'd ever seen; a treasure, until I saw the dull gray beneath the shining exterior.

I push into a shaky stand, opening my mouth and rinsing out the remaining taste of bitter blood and spitting it away, letting the warm water wash it clean. A final twist of the knob and the steady shower trickles away into nothing and I'm left quaking in the aftershock once more.

My only towel is quickly procured and I give a half-assed attempt at drying my hair before wrapping it around my chest and going back over to the mirror above the lantern. And I stare.

What stares back at me is a nineteen year old girl with a pale, boyishly cut carrot top and pale skin, save for the occasional smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and on her shoulders. She has a small pink mouth, which is currently drawn into a tight, somewhat perturbed line. But the most interesting thing about her face is her eyes; they're blue; like the sky on the water, slightly darker than a robin's egg. Blue, like all the Wise Men before her. They're sharp and clear, like the rest of her face—from the small lines of her nose to the somewhat delicate angles of her chin. They've seen things that they shouldn't have.

Sometimes I like what I see in that mirror.

Most times, I don't. She looks weak and the eyes are like flashing signs to me. Telling stories of who I am, who I might become if I go to the Ash King and offer myself into his service.

If I leave Daus and everything I love about this life behind.

I'd rather be Selfish.

I'd rather be Lonely.

Yup, I'm back. Please review.