Within a Tempest

Chapter 1

Moss Bay was a dark, rainy city on its best days. Torrents dyed the concrete a deep grey, water spat through open screened windows or seeped through cracks, and golden lights from every storefront invited soaked pedestrians to step inside the nearest shop or restaurant. A lot of people joked that the city’s focus on technical pursuits, like robotics, chemistry, or even demonology, emerged because no one wanted to leave their heated offices or homes.

It wasn’t bad news for everyone, though: the city’s handymen were always happy to see curling silver clouds blanket the night sky, and the benevolent demons of the lake, the rusalki, lived on the northern coast of Japan because of its cold and steady rain.

At least, it wasn’t bad news for everyone normally.

Vivian watched the rain hammer her attic window. It was made of glass older and sturdier than most people, round and small and stout, but she was still worried it wouldn’t hold against the storm. It had fogged over so she could no longer see the house across from hers, let alone the houses down the street or the tall evergreens over them. Only a few feet above her head, the roof sounded like a castle wall under siege. If it started to thunder, she doubted she would be able to hear it over the rain.

As rainy as her home city was, she’d never seen a storm like this.

The attic was soothing. Dusty paintings hung from the wall on old hooks, fragrant wooden chests contained decades of memories behind thick iron locks, and her favourite chair was here. It was no place to keep new clothes, so all of her merchandise was downstairs, but this space was meant for Vivian alone. It was somewhere she could relax and unwind the negative energy that she accumulated in day to day life.

But she couldn’t help but worry for everyone else. It had been raining for four days and four nights without pause.

Vivian sat down on her knees next to one of the chests and took out its key. It was heavy, flanged iron with a broad ring to grip it, and it had needed reforging by a local locksmith before. They’d offered to replace it for cheaper, but Vivian had wanted to keep the key. Like most things she owned, it had sentimental value to her.

She slipped the key into the lock with some resistance and turned. A loud metallic groan rattled the chest’s frame for a moment, and then the lid popped open. Vivian grinned as she surveyed the contents, teeth bare, but soon that smile faded to a controlled frown.

Most witches kept useful artifacts around. Using them didn’t tax your mind, body, or whatever your power source was, most of the time. They could let you do things you couldn’t normally. If they weren’t too powerful for you to control, they were basically free power. According to most witches.

The artifacts Vivian kept were more sentimental than they were solutions to her problems.

But they could, nevertheless, potentially help her in finding and stopping the cause of the storm, if there was such a cause. In that sense, they weren’t entirely different from another witch’s collection.

On top there was a silver scarf made of fine silk with puffy, cotton-tailed ends. It gave the wearer protection from flames, and supposedly, according to the elderly priest who sold it to her, it had been crafted by a deity to protect their chosen hero. It might provide Vivian with some protection from the storm too, she thought, but she didn’t want to test that and risk losing it.

There was a pinkish, patchy teddy bear pierced from side to side with a dozen sewing needles. Anyone holding it was immune to harm, at least until the teddy bear fell apart in their place. Vivian didn’t want to abuse it like that, and she kept it above the other, heavier items for a reason.

Gently, Vivian placed the teddy bear and then the scarf on the floor to the side. The items beneath them were bulkier, heavier. One was a hollow cube that appeared to be made of glass, but it was actually much sturdier and it emanated magic, faint but steady. Vivian had used it to hold and move her other belongings from place to place, to study it, and as an ersatz mirror, but she’d done all of those rarely and gingerly.

It had been made by a grandmother who wanted to preserve her lost grandson forever. A witch herself, she had made him into a homunculus, a tiny little man animated by magic like a real live Pinocchio. When her death was fast approaching, she begged Vivian to take the box and look for her grandson, then to keep him safe inside the box or with her.

Vivian was still looking. But for now, the box would remain stored away and empty.

She didn’t often keep artifacts of an offensive nature – the ones that could change, hurt, or even kill others. For the worst of them, the very thought of using them stoked negativity within her. But for the rest, those she could bear to keep around, she didn’t see a point. Until now, anyways; a thought bubbled up within her that she had been wrong, that she should have kept the sandstone staff that dried anything it was waved at.

Instead, she noticed her flute. It was made of ash wood, and engraved on both sides with silhouettes of a squirrel and a cat standing together. All who heard its notes would grow calmer, first ceasing hostilities and then beginning a conversation. But Vivian wasn’t under the illusion many people were, that all magical artifacts had already stood the test of time and so would never break. If played poorly, the sharp, discordant notes would cause the flute to grind away into soft pulp, though it would work for a time. And she wasn’t a flutist. What was more, the flute was the magnum opus of an alchemist who did play.

But her face hardened. She couldn’t leave the attic empty-handed, not if there was a true threat behind the storm. And she worried that there might be. She couldn’t simply dismiss her worries, the way normal people might; they would grow within her, stoking her magic, turning her problems into everyone else’s problems.

She took the flute and stowed it in her dress, then continued sifting through the chest.

A silver dagger shone in the lamplight, even stowed at the bottom and in the corner. Its small grip was made of platinum rings, and it had a cross-shaped hilt. It looked more like a ceremonial trinket than a medieval sidearm, but looks could be deceiving. The blade’s cutting power depended on who it cut. Vivian had found it on a pedestal deep inside an abandoned shrine, surrounded by corpses flayed to ribbons as red as blood. The inscription upon the pedestal in faded kanji had told her what she needed to know: it pierced the impure without even prickling the pure.

Unsure if she was pure-hearted herself, Vivian had picked up the dagger only after taking many precautions. She thought its purpose was noble, and the magic in it felt right, perhaps even holy, so she had brought it home for safekeeping. Now, without knowing what had caused the endless rain, she wondered, almost hoped, if the dagger would help her stop it. Did that make her heart impure?

She looked then to another treasure in the chest, the second-to-last she’d stored there. It was a thick flaxen cloth that suppressed the magic of anything held in it. If she tied it into a bag, she could take the dagger with her, without having to handle it directly unless she wanted to use it.

The thought of using it on someone else, condemning them and their heart, made her almost nauseous, but a deeper, darker weight already filled the pit of her stomach. Whatever was causing the rain, it made her more nervous than she would ever confess to someone else. Few witches got by without trusting their feelings, their instincts. That was one of the few things common between her, Eleanor, and Ain all.

She swept the cloth over either side of the dagger and then rolled it in. After carefully covering the dagger’s length with the cloth on all sides, she tied it into a bow-shaped knot. Then she turned back to the chest; she had one more artifact to consider.

It appeared to be nothing more than an ovular glass lens, the sort you’d put in a pair of glasses if you had a second one to match. The glass was cloudy in spots, and there were several small cracks at the edges. In reality, it was probably the most powerful artifact she’d owned. All the weight of the others could not crack it any further than the day she’d found it, and its previous owner had attempted to destroy it to no avail.

By holding it over your eye and looking someone in theirs, you could peer into their mind. You could understand their beliefs, their concerns, their thoughts, their grudges. It was, in many ways, like her own magic, and could be used as a conduit for it. Doing so could allow Vivian to unlock a deep, dangerous level of power. She could turn an emotional battle into a physical one, entering a person’s mind to pit their hatred for her against her hatred of them. Or she could use it to relive a person’s life as a storm of hazy, emotionally-charged, often inaccurate memories.

But it was dangerous for both her and the victim. There was no safe way to channel her powerful magic through a powerful artifact of its type, no matter how much she could accomplish by doing so. When she held the lens to her eye, she saw ego death around every corner.

A needle touched upon her heart, leaving it bleeding something darker and more spiritual than blood. The truth was, she didn’t have enough information to go without the lens. If the force causing the storm was great enough, the lens might be her only hope. The hope of others, too. Her stomach roiled as she contemplated the idea of using the lens, even on someone who needed to be stopped.

She clenched her eyes closed, reminding herself that by stepping out into the rain to look for the culprit, she was taking responsibility for stopping them. Going out under-equipped, and failing or dying, would be the worst choice of all. If she couldn’t commit to it, she may as well stay inside, and join the rest of the townsfolk in their helplessness.

Vivian opened her eyes, reached down, and pocketed the lens. Then she took the scarf and the teddy bear from the floor and closed the chest. With those three artifacts, the flute, and the dagger, she was as equipped as she could be.

She hoped that it all would make her more ready, if things turned to despair or violence.

With her mouth pressed grimly closed, Vivian descended the ladder from the attic, passed by her bedroom and kitchen, walked through the mess in her clothing store on the first floor, and stepped out into the tempest.

Chapter 2

Samuel Sato wanted out of his house.

The storm had been going on for longer than any other he could remember, and at the age of eighty, he could still remember what the weather was like when he was ten. What’s more, he had the records his parents had left behind, some of which were as old as their choice to name him after a religious figure. They had been superstitious, treating astronomy and meteorology as fervent hobbies. Moss Bay was known to them for being rainy, not stormy, and having long nights, perfect for stargazing. And yet now, with an aching back, he had been forced to empty his basement as it flooded.

The rain beat down upon his roof as ceaseless as the chatter in a shopping mall, with the ringing depth of an old drum. The building was made of old but hardy brick on the outside, with thick walls on the inside. On most days, he couldn’t even hear the rain from his living room or bedroom. And yet he did.

It was also unusual for him to be able to hear his neighbours across the narrow alleyway between their townhomes, even without such a terrible storm. And yet he did.

The noises they were making went from sharp screams to long, drawn out moans and back again periodically. If they hadn’t kept up for the past hour, Samuel would have worried that the neighbours were hurting or killing each other. As it was, he’d tried to no avail to move his mind off of the subject. He could avoid the noise by staying in his living room, on the far side of the house, but with the pain in his back he found it difficult to relax on his old, lumpy sofa.

And then there was his meal. He had torn open a cup of instant noodles, inspired by old-fashioned Nissin, and heated it up with water from his favourite kettle. It bayed the cold somewhat, and had a pleasantly salty taste, but it was nothing without the fresh scallions he would buy from the market if it were open. Or from the grocer, if he could get out of his house at all.

He wouldn’t starve, he hoped, as long as the storm ended within the week, but he had run out of fresh food, and that, his cramped confines, and the ceaseless noise made him jittery and unhappy. He had at least been able to do laundry; the company that effectively owned Moss Bay kept all of the utilities on, even through the storm. But his favourite pair of pajamas had torn earlier, and he couldn’t get outside to visit the sweet tailor girl down the block.

So Samuel laid on his stomach on his old, hard sofa, listening to the rain, hoping the passage of time would mean the passing of the storm. His neighbours’ deepest and most sustained moans carried all the way into the living room, but only faintly.

He pondered his bookshelves in the other room; he’d read everything there at least once, and now he wished he hadn’t. He wondered if he might feel less isolated with a house pet, but his allergies had made that no good option. As for his stock of coffee grounds, he’d tasted everything at least once since the storm began, and while some were better than others, none would be novel now.

Above all else, he wished he had a computer. He had just enough room for one if he moved his books, going by the few he’d seen, and it would provide him with a city’s worth of entertainment and knowledge. But only one person on his street owned one, too many houses and too uphill in this weather to get to. He’d heard conspiracy theories that the most powerful computers could transport living things from one place to another. Oh, if only that were true, and if only he owned one then. Then he would have a ticket out of his home physically as well as mentally.

Instead, he had his sofa. It had served him well all these years, since before his retirement.

And he had the noise. Endless, dithering, softly changing noise. He thought he heard a knock on his door through it all, but just like television static, this sort of noise could play tricks on the mind.

But it sounded like there was a knock on the door. What if there was?

The thought awakened his dead nerves and his tired mind half-way. It was unlikely anyone could make it through the storm to him, and even less likely that they would prioritize visiting him over-prioritize visiting him over finding help, getting to their family, or just buying their own groceries. He wondered if anyone was managing that.

His back popped as he pulled himself up off of his couch. Stumbling to his feet, he steadied himself before going down the stairs. It was four flights; simple enough when he’d bought the house, but more complicated in his current state. Still, he made it to the bottom without tripping and falling, and he heard another knock, louder, from right outside. He peered through the peephole, but of course, it was drenched. Seeing a flesh tone or a person on the other side, like he thought he did, could just as easily be a trick of the light on the water.

Hopefully, whatever was on the other side was there, and real, and human. And hopefully, they’d come inside before the foyer flooded.

Samuel opened the door.

“Hello, Mr. Sato!” Vivian, the tailor up the block, dashed through the door, her long silver scarf whipping around her. She closed the door before he could, and immediately set to mopping up the puddle that the rain had left with the cotton balls on the scarf’s ends. Samuel found himself standing wide-eyed and stunned, not only that someone had come to visit him, but that she had made it through the rain seemingly untouched.

Vivian had always been a strange girl, and he had never asked questions, but now more than before his idle mind burned with curiosity.

“I brought you this,” Vivian said brightly, so brightly that before Samuel caught up to what she was doing he already started to feel better. She reached behind the folds of her scarf and pulled out a small paper shopping bag.

On the verge of impoliteness to a guest but too hungry to care, Samuel took the bag from her before it was offered. It smelled of fresh vegetables and, just as it smelled, there was baby bok choy and kernels of western-style corn inside. And she’d kept it all dry.

Samuel bowed his head to her, remembering himself. “This helps so much, thank you.” A beat passed. “You seem… very aware of the situation, Vivian,” he ventured.

“Well, for now, I’m just going around, checking in on everyone in the neighborhood.” Vivian had that restrained smile on her face she always kept, though Samuel could swear he’d seen her with a grin so large she could swallow small animals. He just couldn’t remember where.

“Through the rain?”

Vivian played with one end of her scarf, indicating it to him. “This keeps me dry. I wouldn’t think too hard about it; it’s very water-absorbent. And I’m tough enough to handle a little wind!”

“More than a little, surely. More than a little.” Then Samuel remembered that hospitality takes priority over curiosity, and he turned away, towards his small kitchen, deciding to ask his questions later. “But I’m sure you could use some tea after your walk here. Would you like some ramen?”

Vivian audibly paused behind him, neither accepting or declining the offer on a reflex. “Yes, I’d like some. Just half a cup, if that’s okay with you!”

It was. In fact, he considered it a very good arrangement. He could save some of his noodles and vegetables for later, while still treating her as a friend. While it would have been the polite thing to do to decline, Samuel had hoped, on some level, that she would breach politeness. Besides, even a small meal would keep her around to talk to for longer.

Samuel’s mental state was a mix of minor negativities, somewhat complex but not changing quickly. The fact that he had fresh food and a guest hadn’t eclipsed the doldrums he’d been in before Vivian arrived. So Vivian had no problem with staying for a bit, to improve his mood. In fact, it would nag at her if she didn’t, and if there was a true threat behind the storm, she needed to be in top form.

She sat across from him at a table in the living room, small and round, on a chair with hand-knitted cushions. Steam rose from a pair of styrofoam cups between them, warming the air and filling it with the scent of salty chicken broth. Vivian leaned in to blow on hers, disturbing the chopped scallions floating on top.

“It’s good when it’s hot,” Samuel told her, face red, between small spoonfuls of the broth.

“I know, but I like it a little cooler, personally,” Vivian said, which wasn’t entirely true. In reality, she didn’t want to eat something so hot she might end up with her mouth hanging open in front of him. She loved smiling – she loved to express herself – but the average person didn’t love what lurked past her lips. Even she couldn’t answer just how long her teeth really were, she only knew that her grin dominated her face and reminded people of an ill-starred cat from a classic movie.

Samuel leaned over his cup of ramen, staying hunched and still as he ate. But after cleaning the noodles off his chopsticks, he looked up at Vivian again. “I’m glad you came, you know. Really, I am.”

“I know.” Vivian gave him a small, restrained smile. “Weather like this is hard on everyone.”

Samuel chuckled dryly. “Not the weatherman.”

“Even him. No one likes to break bad news to others, even people who think they do.” Vivian glanced at the dented wooden box with a screen in the corner. “Is your TV not working, still?”

“Wakana came over earlier, to fix it.” Samuel sat up slowly, and waved a finger around in a circle. “Earlier, before the storm. She couldn’t do it, though. I begged the company to send someone over, they said they would, and then the storm happened. So no TV.”

Vivian thought about that as she lifted the noodle cup to her face, enjoying the salty smell of the steam. Samuel was content to keep eating his. She didn’t need to think for long, though, because she had her feelings to go by.

She felt like, whatever was causing this storm, it would take her a while to deal with. Maybe more than hours. Maybe days.

“I’ll see if I can bring over my TV,” she offered without any more hesitation. Samuel raised his eyebrows, swallowed quickly, and opened his mouth to speak, but she preempted him. “It’s smaller and lighter than yours, so I can carry it. Don’t worry.”

“You’re very insightful for your age,” Samuel said evenly. “How did you know I was going to mention that? Come on, what’s your secret?”

Vivian kept her smile restrained, even as it threatened to blossom into a show of nervous teeth. He meant it as a joke, of course, the sort of thing you say as you punch someone playfully on the shoulder. But she really did have a secret. She’d seen his concern in the corner of his mind, covered in mental dust, mostly but not entirely forgotten. It wasn’t quite mind reading, if you asked her, but then again, she didn’t talk about her powers enough to describe the difference.

“It’s what I would’ve said,” she offered. That was half-true. If she were in the business of declining things offered to her, some of her best excuses would be appealing to the gifter’s inconvenience. But generally, people were happier when you accepted their gifts, even if they were big and unreasonable.

“Well,” Samuel continued undeterred, stirring the nearly empty broth in his cup, “won’t all the rain get in it? Or you? Even if you can cover it up, it’s big and bulky. Electronics aren’t supposed to get wet.”

Vivian nodded eagerly. “I was thinking about that before you asked, but not too far before. There’s no secret to that – that’s a good question. Actually, a friend of a friend has a nice car with a really thick trunk. She uses it to transport electronics, so the TV should be fine.”

Samuel lowered his spoon as it was partway to his mouth and laughed. “Everyone knows everyone in Moss Bay, don’t they? How many people live here now? About 10,000?”

Her toothless, polite smile was iron-still by this point. She wasn’t going to tell him, of course, that she knew this friend of a friend because of supernatural and technological dalliances most people didn’t know were happening. Or that said friend had a tail and horns. It’s not as if Samuel, or anyone else in Moss Bay, was unaware that these things existed. They just slept easier when they kept their distance, even Samuel, and Vivian liked it when people slept easy.

“I don’t know,” Vivian said honestly. “I think the company was looking into ways that people can work from Sapporo or elsewhere for them, so that might mean fewer people moving in. But that’s not important! What is important is I’ll come back with a TV for you. Hopefully today!”

Samuel had a spoonful of broth before he responded. “As you say, Vivian. You win this round.” He chuckled, again, and had another spoonful of broth.

“Don’t worry too much about me.” Vivian said, turning away to tip her head back and down what was left in her cup. “I’m going to do some other errands before I get back to you, so it’s not as much of a commitment as you might think!”

Vivian didn’t understand the logic behind what she was saying: in his position, she would want the other person to get back as soon as possible. But it’s what she needed to say to assuage his conscience, she figured.

And she figured correctly, as the grey clouds of gloom within him parted further, revealing the silvery sky of his mental landscape to her. He had been refreshed, though not completely, by her arrival and her offer.

“What are you going to be doing?” he asked, opening his now-clear mind to her answer, spending his renewed mental energy on a simplified sort of scholarly curiosity.

Vivian yanked herself away from his mind and stood up, tipping her head in his direction politely. “I’m going to check on our other neighbours,” she said, which wasn’t a lie, but she’d left out the truth. “Will you be alright for the rest of the day?”

What else could she do but leave it out, though? He wouldn’t feel right letting an innocent young girl pursue what was most likely a powerful supernatural entity, and it would ruin their friendship if he knew she wasn’t innocent.

“I’ll be alright, thanks to you.” He gave her a grandfatherly smile. “I’ve got real food to eat and a TV to look forward to. I think I can swing a nap, now.”

“Perfect.” Vivian wrapped her scarf around her neck in what was almost a knot, and made for the door. “Thanks for the food. I’ll see you later, Samuel!”

It was still too loud to sleep in his bedroom, with his neighbours still gripped by whatever brought out those ghastly noises, so Samuel slid open the hallway closet, between the living room and the bedroom, and retrieved an old, dusty futon. It was bumpy and uneven, having spent perhaps years under a blanket of heavier household goods, but still less worn than the sofa. And it had depth.

Enough depth, he discovered after tossing it flat onto the floor and lying down, that his head could sink part of the way in, protecting his ears a little bit from the moaning next door and the roaring rain assaulting his roof. He could sleep like this, and he dared say he would feel outright good when he woke up.

Vivian’s arrival had been like a gift from heaven, giving him the energy to take the first step back onto the road of normal life.

He was grateful to her – grateful enough that he decided he wouldn’t ask so many questions the next time she visited.

He had an inkling she wasn’t really a gift from heaven, but something else, closer in nature to an escapee from hell. He decided as he drifted off that whatever she was, it was none of his business, not even as an astronomer in a demon-scarred world. It was oddly comforting to have someone like her on his side, and he wouldn’t trade her friendship for a chance to indulge his curiosity.

Chapter 3

Being a witch was a lonely thing. Many people were secretly lonely:pushing away their friends and family when they needed help, or losing touch with those they cared about. That perspective helped Vivian feel less lonely, because she was more like the average person than other witches realized. And just like those average people, she was friendly with her neighbours and chatted with her clients while she sewed their clothes back together.

But there was still no denying that when magic took centre stage in her life, she was largely alone.

It was hard not to think about that as she sloshed uphill through ankle-high water, on a carless road without even one person on either sidewalk. Even if she didn’t have her magic scarf, she would be able to withstand the battering force and breezy cold of the storm for longer than an appropriately-dressed athlete. And if she were more like Ain, a witch who didn’t just hit the gym but ran it, she would be able to pretend the storm wasn’t happening.

Her resilience wasn’t truly superhuman – not compared to some other witches, let alone demons. But to normal humans, it would look the part. She was glad probably none of them could see her marching on through their closed, rain-soaked windows. But she did wish, in brief pangs, that she had someone with her.

At the very least, there were people she could be mostly honest with. Like Kezia.

Vivian came up to the door of a big, two-story house with deceptively dark windows. The lights were on, they were just further in; if you peered through one of the windows on the side, as Vivian had once before, you’d see fluorescent lights bathing a room with three LED monitors on a table and tissues and water bottles beneath it. That was where Kezia worked, though to her credit, when she knew she had guests she’d clean up as fast as she could.

So when Vivian knocked, she expected to wait a minute to be answered, and she did. She had to hope the storm wouldn’t drown out her knock and that Kezia was on the move, but when she sensed the gentle jostling of a mind inside the house, she was confident she’d been heard.

After that sopping-wet minute, with only the roaring rain to keep her company, the door opened.

“Get in,” Kezia said, long dragon tail lashing to one side to make room for Vivian. She was happy to do so, not only because bits of fluff were starting to fall off her scarf but because Kezia was probably desperate to avoid the wet and the cold of the outside.

Sure enough, once Vivian stepped into the foyer Kezia slammed, locked and bolted the door, and used her tail to nudge a towel back into place at its bottom. Only then did she pay any attention to Vivian.

“Hi. What’s up?” Kezia asked.

“It’s actually not urgent,” Vivian admitted as she put her shoes in the box by the door, “but I want to use your car.”

“No deal. It’ll get beyond totalled in this weather.” Kezia spun on her heels and began slinking down the hall, back towards her lair of a room. Unlike Vivian, she didn’t have any socks on; she probably didn’t care if she stubbed her toe on a stray motherboard, or maybe her skin was as tough as her scales.

“I don’t just mean being able to drive it,” Kezia spoke as she walked away. “No paint job could survive that kind of washing.”

“Well, that’s true,” Vivian agreed. As she followed Kezia she tapped her nails on the wall here and there, thinking. Kezia’s head snapped towards her and back again as she did so, an alert look on her face, but Vivian kept her hands well away from items on the ground and open closets where she could, in theory, steal something from Kezia.

“In that case,” Vivian continued once they were just outside of Kezia’s bedroom, “can we just hang out for a bit while I think of something?” Kezia looked ready to slink back inside and close the door behind her, which wasn’t unusual, but as far as Vivian could tell this was her last chance to stick around without being awkward.

Kezia shrugged. “Sure. I was just taking apart and scanning some books so I can upload them for my homies.”

Vivian breathed a small sigh of relief. She was good at reading people, of course, but Kezia made it hard. She always had the mildest looks on her face, never smiled, and her emotions were rarely strong enough to register on Vivian’s magical senses. But it was those mild emotions Kezia acted on, as she went from one creature comfort or one work project to another, or expressed fleeting annoyance with pithy one-liners, or indulged her vaguest, smallest curiosities almost at random. It made her at once easy and hard for Vivian to deal with.

“Good. I hope they’re enjoying the books. People really need joy right now.” Vivian paused for a beat. “Should I come into your room, or… stay out here, or…?”

“There’s nothing for you to do out here,” Kezia said at first blandly, before adding a small edge to her voice. “And I don’t want you sitting around all my stuff alone.”

“Noted!” With half a twirl, Vivian made her way past Kezia, into her room. It was just like she remembered.

There were a lot of water bottles; it was impossible to miss them, stacked against one wall and in piles underneath her desk. The stacks were interesting, with larger bottles with rounder bottlenecks at the bottom and narrower bottles from premium brands at the top. Even with the caps on, they had to be delicately balanced. They were empty now, but Vivian wondered if Kezia filled them in bulk, using them like an in-room water cooler. It wouldn’t surprise her, especially in the fall and winter months, when she hibernated in this room with her space heater on all the time, just like now.

The heater’s dull roar blanketed the room in dry heat that smelled faintly of electricity. After one long winter, Kezia had turned it off in front of Vivian, and then clapped her hands around her ears, as if deafened by the silence left without it. It was noisy, that was for sure, and probably made for a bigger room than this one.

But it worked for Kezia: the carbon fibre back of her chair was folded against the seat, and she sprawled over it, belly-first, arms stretched out to reach the keyboard and mouse on her desk. In the summer, she would just move her chair closer to the window and pull down her blackout curtains almost all the way, so that she could bask in the warm sun without having to actually see it.

Kezia was odd by human standards, but almost normal by dragon ones.

Almost. As far as Vivian knew.

Even your average witch had never met a real, full-blooded, full-sized dragon, like in the myths – any of them – and in that regard, Vivian was average. So it took guesswork, at times, to deal with Kezia, or with Moss Bay’s other dragon, MAYA.

But Vivian was good at social guesswork.

“Did you upgrade that again?” Vivian asked, pointing at Kezia’s computer tower. It glimmered with bright green LEDs, which she knew were a luxury feature even before history itself had restarted.

Kezia did not smile, but a little positive energy formed within her, just like it did when people did smile. “Yeah.” She patted the top of the tower. “Took a lot of soldering, but now it runs more of my salvaged game collection.”

East or west, dragon myths agreed that they were prideful. A little flattery never hurt your case, as long as you didn’t mess up and offend them somehow.

“More games?” Vivian sat down on the heap of blankets Kezia called a bedspread, on a single bed Kezia rarely used in favour of her sprawling. “Should I let you know if I find some in Sapporo? Or elsewhere? You know I don’t travel much, but–”

Kezia had already reacted to her question, turning her head to look at Vivian with a sense of anticipation bubbling up in her soul. “Yes. Absolutely. One-hundred percent,” she said, interrupting Vivian.

That was another thing dragons liked: offerings. In Kezia’s case, she didn’t want gold, and she’d only take gemstones, but even suggesting that you’d get her something she liked would get her attention. And improve her mood, although she was a bit too proud to let most people see that.

“Well, I was thinking of taking a trip farther out soon,” Vivian explained, “but it’s obviously not possible in this weather on foot.”

Kezia narrowed her eyes, and Vivian looked past them, into her mind. Was she onto her? Somewhat. It was more like she wasn’t thinking of this as intentional manipulation, she’d just been reminded that her car wasn’t “kitted out” enough to handle a storm. At least, that was Vivian’s best guess. She wasn’t truly a mind reader at the end of the day, and she waited for Kezia to answer.

“You can use my car if you have a way to protect it,” Kezia agreed, “and if you bring me back something good.”

Vivian clapped, making her delight clear. “Wonderful!” A beat passed. “But I still want to hang out.”

“And don’t skimp out,” Kezia continued.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Kezia, seemingly satisfied, turned back to her computer, with her flickering emotions dimming further down to dull candlelight as she tapped away at her keyboard. She hadn’t told Vivian she couldn’t stick around for a bit, which, with Kezia, was essentially permission.

Kezia, seemingly satisfied, turned back to her computer, with her flickering emotions dimming further down to dull candlelight as she tapped away at her keyboard. She hadn’t told Vivian she couldn’t stick around for a bit, which, with Kezia, was essentially permission.

The truth was, though, that there was only so much to do in Kezia’s house. Plenty to see, of course: the stacks of water bottles like houses of cards, the plush blackout curtains, and the carbon fibre chair that Kezia treated like the throne of some angelic judge, placed one pillow’s width across from the monitor next to her glowing computer tower. But if you didn’t keep to the walls, there was always a chance of Kezia getting crabby with you. Even the water bottles were part of her hoard.

“So, what have you been up to lately?” Vivian ventured.

“System maintenance.”

“Yours this time, or the city’s?”

“Mine. My contract ran out, which is nice, since I don’t have to work anymore.”

“How much is there to maintain on one computer?”

A twinge of offence startled Vivian out of the reverie that any homey bedroom caused her, but it was quickly replaced by an impulse of pride as Kezia started speaking again.

“Lots. You don’t know this, but my computer is one of the only digital archives north of Sapporo. In the past, they used hard drives and optical discs for everything, which was a stupid idea, since it all got fried like yesterday’s breakfast. Even the company uses some, since they had salvage crews early on looking for hard drives that were stored ‘right.’ But I’ve got a solid state drive.”

Vivian listened with a particular sort of intent. The exact words didn’t matter to her so much as the passionate, positive feeling behind them. She didn’t ignore them either, of course. She got what Kezia was saying: one part history lesson and one part bragging. But it always cheered her up to hear the people she knew talk like this. Even if she wasn’t personally interested in computers, it was a good thing Kezia was.

She continued. “Oh, actually, that’s what you can get for me. A tape drive. I heard they actually make those in Sapporo these days. I’ve always wanted to try one, but you don’t really get them around here. So this isn’t my first solid state drive. Kind of annoying.” Kezia frowned deeply and furrowed her browbut Vivian couldn’t quite pick out what that was about; it was probably some logical or factual thought.

Well, Vivian thought, that would make completing the task she’d been given easier. She only half-remembered the library of things Kezia had, and she’d probably get an earful if she came back with something she already had. Besides, it sounded like this tape drive thing would help her preserve the things she valued, and that other people might have valued too, and Vivian liked that idea. So she asked Kezia to describe one.

“And you think it’s possible that one’s survived all this time, Kezia?” Vivian asked.

“Well, they’re magnetic. That’s what tape is.” Still looking at her monitor, Kezia tapped the bottom of her lip with a clawed finger. “So probably not, unless you look somewhere underground, or in the world’s toughest safe.”

Despite her perpetual aloofness, Kezia liked explaining these things to the people she hung around. So Vivian prodded her for more information. “Why does magnetism matter?”

Now Kezia turned to look at Vivian, slightly incredulous. “Do humans forget what they learn in school that fast? Well, I guess you only look human. The missiles destroyed most technology. That wasn’t because it was all turned on or something, it’s because they busted up most of the laws of physics that technology needs to work.”

“Oh! I’ve read something about that, I think,” Vivian added eagerly. “A memoir, where they described what happened when they saw the first blast. ‘My phone is still on, but I can’t call anyone. Not mom, not Reina.’ Is it that sort of thing?”

Kezia tilted her head, accidentally poked some computer part with a horn, and snapped back upright. “...I’m surprised you know that. Yeah, it’s all about waves. There’s lots of invisible stuff that can fry a computer. That’s why you need to look in a vault. Or maybe there’s some secret Sapporo illuminati making tape drives so only they have backups.”

Vivian always made it a point to be open-minded, so she seriously considered the possibility that such a group existed. At least briefly. The truth was, when powerful and secretive groups formed these days, it was never to boggart small but valuable things. They always had grand plans and grander sponsors. It was a little sad; at least a group obsessed with tape drives would have a passion more meaningful than power. Every day, Vivian was grateful that those sorts of cults had little sway over the governments in Hokkaido.

Still, for all she knew, Kezia was hoping that some obsessive preppers had taken a nearby tape drive factory in good repair, and that Vivian could persuade them to part with one. So she didn’t say any of that. Instead, she said, “I suppose that’s possible! Either way, I’ll do everything I can to find one for you.”

“You’d better. My car is worth more than your house.”

“Well… my house doesn’t have a lot of property value, I believe.”

“Oh. Then I guess my car isn’t worth much either.”

Vivian chuckled good-naturedly, then stood up. “I’ll treat it like it’s a princess’s personal ship. Thank you again for letting me borrow it.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t rub it in.” Kezia grabbed her car keys from her pocket and tossed them over her shoulder. “I’ll see you later, right?”

Vivian caught the keys in her left hand and nodded, even though Kezia couldn’t see it. “Of course! Good luck with your system maintenance, Kezia!”


Although Kezia’s house was full of all kinds of technological odds and ends, many of which Vivian worried were a bit too exposed to the elements, she kept the doors clear enough for someone with horns and a tail, so Vivian herself was no problem. The hallway, with boxes on either side, was a tighter squeeze than the way into the garage, which was heated just as thoroughly as the bedroom but otherwise pretty typical, grey and sized for a single car.

The rain hammered the garage door like a burglar trying to break in. Vivian took off her cloak then and there, and spread it on the car’s roof. Just to be safe, although she was sure that the cloak would stay on its own, she fished through Kezia’s shelves for a roll of magnetic tape and did her best to connect the cloth and the car together.

Then she popped open the door and hopped in. The inside of the car was clean, almost eerily so, compared to Kezia’s house. But that made some sense to Vivian: Kezia took good care of her machines. Jealously, even. She really was thankful that she’d been allowed to borrow the car. If she couldn’t, she might be too late to help people like Samuel trapped in their homes by the storm.

As it was, she still wasn’t sure how she would do that, but with Kezia’s help, she’d manage.

She just had to remember how to drive, and hope the rules hadn’t changed in the past fifty years.

Chapter 4

Watching the windshield wipers sway in front of her face, flicking away sheets of rain but accomplishing nothing, made Vivian a little nervous.

It was true that she could push through the storm, though at a crawl and with the aid of her magical cloak, and reach Kezia’s house unscathed. After all, she’d done it. But that was on her own two feet. Kezia’s car swayed only gently, its custom tires preventing fishtailing or worse. But Vivian could barely see where she was driving, and only if she strained her eyes. And if she crashed, she wasn’t sure she’d come out of it unharmed.

That wasn’t worth worrying about, though, Vivian told herself, and it wasn’t her real worry anyways. She was more worried that she wasn’t getting any closer to her destination. She had a destination now, at least: she’d driven around the block near Kezia’s house, and felt the faintest tug of negativity when she reached the east side of Eighth Avenue. So she’d fired up the GPS, picked a random point to the southeast, and started driving.

But was that her real destination?

Vivian leaned her arm on the steering wheel and sighed. She at least wasn’t going to total the car, she told herself. Kezia was too exacting with her favourite possessions to let one go unmaintained. Whoever had the most updated GPS map of Hokkaido, Kezia had gotten it from them, by hook or by crook. That had borne out so far: the GPS said she was on a road, and the car drove like she was on a road. A road that was more water than concrete, where even winter tires didn’t have perfect tracking, but still a road.

But cars needed gas, or… well, Kezia’s was a hybrid, so it had two power sources, essentially, but she still couldn’t drive for days without stopping to refuel. And there was a real risk that every gas can vendor in the prefecture had shuttered their windows and blocked the doors because of the storm. If she didn’t solve this soon, then at best, she’d have to abandon something Kezia valued in a storm that’d wash it away, never to be found again.

Why was she thinking about this?

Vivian pushed the brakes, as slowly and gently as she could, and waited some seconds for the car to stop. She was letting her anxiety get the better of her. No, maybe not just her anxiety, but something more. Something that lurked hidden within the storm, or something that haunted her specifically. She didn’t know. But she knew she needed to calm down. She had grounding exercises for that. She had to do them.

To be continued…