Urban gods

The war between the gods of the city ended on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, when Duke Denver impaled the old patriarch Black Fern with a sharpened lamppost in the middle of a busy intersection. The traffic backed up for twenty-two kilometres, and in the following hours, dozens of drivers and passengers were hospitalised for heatstroke. Hundreds of bats fell out of the trees, their small bodies littering the pavements. Half the city succumbed to the blackout.

The next day, the good denizens woke to frost on the windowpanes. Finally, after a summer that had lasted seven months, winter assumed its rightful place.

Troops of Inspectres marched through the brisk iron cold, cleaning up the streets while the shattered factions of mages buried the bodies. Inspectre Brood ranked highly, so the Council gave him one of the toughest assignments of all.

Richard Heads-Or-Tails, polished businessman and right hand of Duke Denver, had not lived to see victory. His portfolio had included the luxury trade of king phoenix feathers. Someone in the business had been selling dozens on top of the permitted quota – and still was, after the man’s untimely heart attack.

After weeks of combing through the evidence, the loose ends led the Inspectre to a dingy inner-city block that should have been demolished years ago.

He followed an old lady through the front entrance and walked up two flights of sagging stairs. He rechecked the address. He knocked. Bits of peeling paint clung to his gloves.

Thirty seconds dribbled by.

He lifted his fist just as the door opened a crack. Behind the security chain, a dark-eyed girl peered up at him.

‘Hey, angel. I’m looking for the mage Sydney.’

‘That’s me.’

He looked her up and down. The Duke had been too generous with mage licences, even for the contingency of war. The girl was small; her thick-soled combat boots merely emphasised it. Possibly she had not cast a single spell for their cause. She might have been pretty in a fragile sort of way, if not for her shapeless, oversized t-shirt reading ‘Aliens: Keep Out’ and expression of bored teenaged insolence.

‘May I see your licence?’ he asked politely.

‘May I see yours?’

He flashed his Inspectre’s badge. Sydney held back a grimace.

‘Let me look for it,’ she said, and headed for her bedroom before he could reply.

‘It’s him.’

Chi looked up from the bed. A painfully hunched back and purple eyebags made them look a bit undead, but they were no older than twenty. Their cropped hair was ink-black. When they typed, their travelling cat tattoo would leap between their fingers, swatting at the keys.

Now their hands shook as they shut the laptop.

‘Are you going to run?’

‘No way. I’m done with that. Plus, we can find out how much he knows.’

Chi drew Sydney into a hug. Their touch was hot, nearly scalding, and they smelt faintly of burnt toast. ‘Be careful, for god’s sake.’
‘He can’t do anything to me. I’m of no value anymore.’

Chi’s cat tattoo crept up their skin and slunk onto Sydney’s neck. ‘To him,’ they hissed. They pulled away. ‘Are we going ahead with the plan?’

‘Keener than ever.’

‘Great.’ They grabbed their backpack, flicked up the hood of their heavy jacket and ducked out the window.

Sydney took out the licence tucked in her shorts. She took three deep breaths and returned to the door.

Inspectre Brood grumbled something about the time before plucking up her licence. ‘Sydney Yue, seventeen,’ he read. ‘Good. I’m afraid I have to take you in for questioning.’

He went all the way. Intimations of life behind bars. Handcuffs (‘Safety procedure … in these troubled times, we can’t have any wayward spells in the station). The hours blurred, the overhead LEDs burning headaches into her skull.

It had only been a matter of time. A single feather was worth a small fortune. They only stayed intact when plucked from a live phoenix, and the bird was as hard to keep in captivity as it was exquisite. Tales abounded of would-be keepers returning to cages of ash.

‘I said I don’t know.’ She slumped back, cringing as the seat pressed against her scars. ‘I worked as Richard’s housemaid for a while.’ She hated saying it. ‘Chores and stuff.’

The Inspectre nodded as though they were getting somewhere. ‘Our priority now is the conservation of these critically endangered birds. And saving Richard’s legacy.’

‘I’m sure we’re all poorer from his loss.’

The silence was as uncomfortable as a loading screen at ninety-nine.

‘Do you know what happens when a phoenix dies?’ he said at last.

‘Oh, I don’t know, their value doubles?’

‘It turns to ash.’ His voice dropped low. ‘Which is exactly what was found in that bathroom stall, next to the hatchet.’

Her heart quickened. ‘What bathroom?’

‘Where were you on the night of April twenty-fifth?’

She felt the hatchet, slamming into bone. ‘I don’t remember. That was, like, three months ago.’

‘Have you ever seen a real phoenix?’

It had screamed like a mandrake. ‘No.’

In the end, he was too eager. Gave away his cards too early, and she denied everything in a steady stream of ‘no’s and ‘I don’t know’s. At last, with menace simmering in his eyes, he unlocked her handcuffs.

‘Can I have my licence back?’ she asked, rubbing her wrists.

He gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘We needed as many hands as we could get during the war. But it led to bad choices like licences for underaged girls. How much can you really do at seventeen?’ His rubbery lips pulled back into a smile. ‘Thank goodness peace has returned – your licence is hereby revoked.’

The cold outside hit her like a wall. She blasted through with so much purpose that the other pedestrians parted around her. Chi’s cat tattoo skulked around her forearm – it couldn’t get past where her wrists were scored with the ice-burn of iron. She stroked it until it began to purr soundlessly.

‘Witch,’ someone hollered.

The cat darted down her sleeve. She shoved her hands into her pockets and hurried into the Maccas across the road. She nursed a coffee, but the cold kept spreading through her veins.

‘Thank goodness peace has returned,’ she murmured.

It was time for night patrol. She shut her eyes and fell into the city.

A gust of wind snatches away hundred-dollar bills just as he is about to close his wallet. He catches one, but the rest whirl away down the moodily lit street. For a moment, he can’t believe what just happened. With a resigned shake of his head, he turns back to the ATM.
Somewhere underground, between walls trembling to the beat, a stray hand knocks over a glass. ‘Shit!’ The watered-down vodka, laced with benzodiazepines, spreads in a puddle on the kaleidoscopic dance floor.

To the west, a woman rushes through a park. So lovely in the daytime, she thinks, but it makes her uneasy now. ‘I’m nearly home,’ he hears her say, adrenaline seizing him as she slips her phone into her jeans. His steps quicken, his heart races, they always said he had a wild imagination –

Something drops on him. Warmth dribbles down his temple. He looks up, in time to see a pigeon vanish into the trees.

To the east, a man grips the wheel so hard his knuckles bulge like spikes. The goddamned GPS keeps cooing at him in a lifeless feminine voice. ‘You have taken a wrong turn.’ In the apartment under his name, she bundles a passport into a duffle bag, her warmest coats, packs of nappies. ‘You have taken a wrong turn.’ The baby cries and she wants to too, but it’s time – time to leave for the last time.

‘You have taken a wrong turn.’

Sydney checked her watch. She was shivering so hard she could barely read the hands; she had spread herself too thin. She pulled out her phone instead. Nearly three. She gave the pimpled boy at the counter an apologetic smile before stepping back out into the cold.

The bus, though nearly empty, was somehow delayed. She missed her stop – everything looked different at witching hour – and sprinted back along the road.

Sotry giveme 5mins, she texted.

‘Fuck,’ she said, rubbing the ice out of her fingers.

She reached the old tram shed. The crumbling brick edifice lived in a pocket of darkness, the entrances boarded up with metal panels. It was a witch secret. Covered in enough iron that whatever went on inside threw out few magical signatures for astute Inspectres to find.
At witching hour, when her magic peaked, she could make the city’s good denizens forget this place existed at all.

She pulled her sleeve over her hand, pried open one of the panels, and stepped through.

The open space inside still took her breath away. It was untamed. Verdant with weeds and living graffiti – where Chi had found their cat tattoo, restlessly prowling the bricks. Through the patches in the vaulted ceiling, Sydney had spent sleepless nights counting stars.
Now the whole place flickered. The source of light was Chi, crouching up on the rafters.

Or rather, their feathers.

Wings of fire unfurled behind them, painting every surface with the drama of light and shadow that was their favourite word. Missing many feathers, but still more brilliant than any king’s crown.

Chi saw Sydney and swooped. They crashed together, falling in a heap.

‘You’re late!’ And then, gripping her wrists, ‘What did he do to you?’

She laughed. ‘He’s like the Duke, and all the others. They come and go, come and go, but they have no idea. He just took my licence.’
Chi gasped. ‘But your night patrols.’

‘As if I’d let him stop me.’ She sat up, wincing. ‘That was a majestic landing, Chi.’

Each night at witching hour, Chi came here for practice. Sometimes Sydney would accompany them and fall asleep in the weeds, while up above they climbed and jumped, beat their gap-toothed wings, tumbled, picked themself up, clambered back up the rafters. Their arms and knees were shifting constellations of bruises.

Now, it was Sydney’s turn to show herself.

‘It’s not too late to change your mind,’ Chi said, taking out the camera.

In response, Sydney turned around and tugged her zipper down. One by one, her clothes hit the ground – her hoodie, her turtleneck, her t-shirt. The camera snapped and flashed. The cold pricked her all over, inside and out.

She closed her eyes. The warmth of phoenix wings embraced her. Held her, she who had no feathers left.

‘Do you want to see?’

She looked. In the winglight, at the camera in Chi’s hand –

Her back was a landscape of screams. She traced the scars, remembering every jolt as the blades made a canvas of her flesh. The runes were cracked now, but she could easily tell where they had once curved along her shoulder blades.

Shaped, almost, like wings.

She had been among the first. After Richard Heads-Or-Tails realised people were easier to keep alive, and people like her and Chi more easily forgotten, than the renowned phoenix.

Fire danced behind her eyes. Over the voracious growl of the chainsaw, the bird screeched like a child. Her flesh seared, acrid, as the surgeons shouted and sweated overhead to attach bird to human.

At the tips of her shoulder blades, yellowed scapulae protruded, severed bones still pointed outward.

She had begged Chi.

After first escaping, life was a sleepwalk of fear. They had nowhere to go. Nowhere she wanted to go. If someone so much as looked at her, she thought it was over – time to be locked up once more, making another’s fortunes.

Only one way to start over: make herself worthless again.

Finally, Chi relented. They locked themselves in a bathroom stall together. Sydney thought she could handle it – after all, it was worth it – but once she started screaming, she couldn’t stop.

A good denizen called triple zero.

By the time the Inspectres arrived, Chi had finished the job. They both walked free. The Inspectres were here to tidy up pressing post-war matters like poaching, not deal with a hysterical girl and a hunched back with a hatchet.

‘Is it… okay?’ said Chi.

‘Yes.’ She covered herself back up, layer by layer. Her voice cracked. ‘But what if the Council doesn’t listen?’

Chi opened their laptop. ‘Fuck that. This isn’t about them. It’s for others like us. Transplants this lucrative, they don’t just happen once or twice.’

Toast and coffee perfumed the apartment. The cat on Chi’s collarbone bristled its tail just before someone banged on the door.
Sydney squinted through the viewer.

‘Inspectre,’ she said, opening it just as he was about to knock again.

He drew himself up tall. ‘Sydney Yue. Last week, a vital order of phoenix feathers was cancelled. Right after we spoke, in fact.’

She raised an eyebrow.

‘It’s almost as though someone is feeling squeezed,’ he said, jabbing a triumphant finger. ‘The Duke has signed your warrant – ’

‘I’m only an underaged girl,’ she simpered. ‘How much can I really do at seventeen?’

She shut the door. The sound left Inspectre Brood dumbstruck. Never had he been treated with so much impudence. ‘You’re under arrest,’ he boomed, banging and banging. ‘Don’t make me blow down your door. By the order of the Council –’

It opened. He stared in shock at the photo-lined and floral-scented entranceway, and the old lady who now glared up at him.

The city roused beneath Sydney’s gaze.

Though she was not always visible and not always whole, she would always be here, as long as the city was. She’d read somewhere that the moon caused the tides, and she liked to think of herself that way. People like the Inspectre, like Richard Heads-Or-Tails – they were drawn to her rebellion, her refusal to look away. But they could no longer touch her. They merely came and went. Came and went, looking to extinguish her before giving up, only to be replaced by another.

She felt every street and twisted alley like the threads of the shirt against her skin. The tossed breadcrumbs, painted-over walls, the loose change tucked beneath waiting-room cushions and vending machines, the traffic rolling to a stop in rush hour for the flashing green man, even when there were no pedestrians – she inhaled each instance like an offering.

With each exhale, she would protect the city. She pocketed secrets like business cards and heard cries for help at the end of disconnected numbers. She would fight the battles that played out not in busy intersections, but behind locked doors and in the in-between spaces.
Behind her, Chi said, ‘I still wonder how Richard Heads-Or-Tails died the way he did.’

Sydney leaned over the parapet and tipped over a tiny urn. The wind picked up the ashes, scattering them over her city.

‘Me too.’


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Cherry Zheng

Cherry Zheng is an Honours student in Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

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