Invisible Ancestors

“Will you stop stomping? You’ve broken every twig between here and the Scab,” I hiss at Uli. 

“It isn’t in my job description to tramp quietly through the woods with you,” Uli says. Orange-yellow light from the blood moon sparks off Uli’s glasses and hides her eyes. It doesn’t hide the frown-shaped wrinkle between them, though.

“As my assistant, it is your job,” I say. “Besides, you don’t have a job description.” 

“Your business practices are as criminal as the fugitives you hunt,” Uli says. 

“When you get your bounty hunter license, I promise to come quietly,” I say. 

Uli snorts, and we continue our trek through Grim Forest. The leaves above us shiver, the crisp wind gossiping about the upcoming autumn. White bark trees stand silent and still around us, ghost soldiers guarding Grim Forest. I only hope the infamous genies the forest is named after stay buried tonight. Blood moons are the perfect time to practice dark magic, and the woods provide cover from the Godparent Brigade’s unwanted eyes. While I don’t think Lysander Stone will raise any spirits, I don’t want to take any chances; his bounty is the difference between my sister’s life and death. 

Two versions of Wylie war with each other in my memory: Wylie before Dad’s murder and Wylie after. Before Wylie taught me to read from a beginner’s guide to self-defense. She finessed my haggling skills until I could walk away from Otto, the butcher, with the leanest cuts of dog meat. Fresh baked butter cookies and a crude drawing of Mr. Elbert, the arithmetic instructor, with his pickle-shaped nose awaited me after tests. Wylie’s arms enveloped me like ribbons wrapping around a present when I blamed myself for Mom’s death. She whispered into my hair and reminded me Mom lives within us; as long as we remembered Mom, she could never die. My adoration for Wylie was shared by our neighbors in the Scab, especially after she joined the Brigade. Everyone knew she would protect and defend the Scab, just like our father. 

Childhood Wylie died with Dad. For the last two years, anger radiated through her. Wylie’s words were sparks ready to ignite with the slightest criticism; her temper flared at every inconvenience; the sunny sister I grew up with transformed into a reckless wildfire. She quit the Brigade and started disappearing at night. Each dawn, Wylie crawled home reeking of spirits and smoke. I worried she would become another Scab statistic, lost to snorting fairy bones or moonlighting as an escort. Now, I wish Wylie was a statistic. Anything would be better than what she became. 

I spy Sky Meadow a dozen feet ahead. My heart pings off my lungs and ribs. I never expected Stone’s weekly pilgrimages here to be the most predictable part of his schedule. Every Friday at midnight, Stone visits the site where the Grims and their genie army stood against the Godparents for the final time. It’s the last place the genies were free. Six months ago, the Meadow’s claim to fame changed. 

My palms sweat as Wylie’s laughing red lips, silver-blonde locks, and wolf-like blue eyes blaze through my mind. Sky Meadow is also the last place Wylie was free. Her freedom ended when she slit a smile across a Godparent’s throat. 

Wylie’s crime haunts me wherever I go, but Sky Meadow memorializes it. My heart ticks to the rhythm of an invisible clock that counts down to Wylie’s execution date, the hands spinning faster with each passing day. 

I stop, and Uli runs into my back. I turn to face her. “If things get dangerous, promise me you will get the Brigade.” 

“The Brigade won’t pay us if they take Stone in,” Uli says. 

My love for Uli sneaks up on me sometimes; honeybird wings hug my heart at her words. Uli didn’t hesitate to sacrifice her cut of Stone’s bounty because I’ll need every last copper for a barrister to overturn Wylie’s death sentence. 

“Nobody can pay us if we’re dead,” I say. 

“Then don’t die,” Uli says. Dimples frame Uli’s plum smile, but it’s weaker than the tea she brews. 

My intestines braid into knots. I hated asking Uli to accompany me tonight, but I need Stone to prove Wylie’s innocence. At first, Uli refused to take Stone’s bounty. As the biggest manufacturer and distributor of fairy bones, everyone in the Scab knows not to trifle with Stone. “If I wanted to be fileted like a tuber trout, I would tell Granny she oversalts her fish soup,” Uli had said. Uli didn’t agree to Stone’s bounty until I told her Stone is also the leader of the Twilight Wolves, the genie gang Wylie joined. The same gang that killed my father during a drug bust two years ago. It still took a lot of convincing and desserts, but Uli finally relented. She confessed that taking Stone off the streets might mean her older brother, Silas, loses his drug dealer long enough to sober up. 

Tonight isn’t business; it’s personal. 

“Promise me,” I say. 

“Only if you promise to rent a storefront with a lab after we nab the next bad guy,” Uli says. 

I groan. “You’re a walking fire hazard at the best of times. Insurance for a lab would be astronomical.” 

“I need somewhere to test Dreamy Daze. Granny threatened to chop my desk into splinters if I set it on fire again,” Uli says. She procures the hot pink lipstick tube from her pants pocket. “It’s almost ready!” 

“To be weaponized,” I say. While the lipstick’s function is to put anyone who kisses its wearer to sleep, it’s only proven useful to start fires. I love Uli the inventor as a friend; as a businesswoman, her inventions are a liability. “We can negotiate after we bring Stone in.” 

“Over coffee and elderberry tarts,” Uli says. 

“Fine. But we’re each getting our own tart,” I say. 

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, boss,” Uli says. 

We move slowly, more aware of the twigs beneath our boots and the volume of our breaths. We crouch down at the edge of Sky Meadow. The blood moon dyes the grass a red-orange color. Thousands of grass blades dance in the wind, tiny flames twirling in the twilight. A golden puddle in the Meadow’s middle extinguishes its beauty. It marks the memory of the Brigade guard Wylie killed during a royal transport. 

In the trial, witnesses testified the carriage’s wheels were swallowed by the ground; the driver claimed Wylie appeared out of nowhere behind the Godparent guard when he stepped out of the carriage to investigate. “As if a shadow came to life,” the driver said. “There one second and gone the next.” It didn’t take much to convict Wylie. The crime’s unforgivable nature was enough for people to condemn her before the trial began. How Wylie – a twenty-year-old human – slaughtered a Godparent wasn’t of interest to the Godparent judge or human jury. This question burns the back of my throat so much it hurts to breathe. Although Wylie was reckless, I don’t believe my sister would kill a Godparent. Unless she was compelled by a genie’s magic.

The Meadow is empty. Panic stampedes through my chest. Usually, Stone meditates on the golden ichor puddle. Could he have other business tonight? 

“There he is,” Uli whispers. 

I follow her finger across the circular Meadow. Stone emerges from the tree line, and he holds a black, skull-shaped vase against his chest. He heads straight for the golden puddle. The hair along my forearm bristles, but I can’t tell what’s wrong with the sight. 

“Who’s that?” Uli says. I look past Stone. There’s a person, no a child, tied to a tree directly across from Uli and me. “What’s going on, Emilia? Is this normal?” 

“No,” I say. I squint into the darkness and recognize Stone’s son, Amil, hanging lifeless from a white bark tree. His head lolls off to the side, and his body reminds me of a broken stick. I only saw Amil a few times during my stakeouts because Stone always has a genie guarding him. I thought Stone was protecting his son from other gangs and the Brigade, but maybe I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time Stone used an innocent person to do his bidding. 

Stone arrives at the puddle and removes the vase’s lid. He sprinkles dust around the edge of the ichor stain and mutters something, but we’re too far away to hear. 

“Change of plans,” I say. “You free the kid. I’ll handle Stone. Whatever happens, you get the boy out of here. Got it?” 

Uli glances between Stone and me. I cup Uli’s cheek. I refuse to let someone else fall prey to Stone’s whims. “Can I trust you to rescue the boy?” 

She nods, but tears shine in her eyes. My thumb rubs Uli’s cheekbone and the cinnamon flake freckles sprinkled across it. All the things I want to say to Uli bang against the back of my teeth, clog my throat, stomp on my tongue. But to say them now wouldn’t be fair. Why am I always swallowing my feelings for the people I love most? 

“Go,” I say. The command feels like a betrayal. 

Uli runs through the trees’ shadows. I watch her disappear then return my attention to Stone. He stands with his back to Amil and chants at the ichor puddle. His voice grows louder with each statement, and I catch the end of his chant: “Blood Summoner, General of Genies, Queen of Bones, I beseech you to rise under tonight’s moon and take your true form. Claim your stolen ashes and use the Godparent’s blood to break the chains around your immortality. Rise grandmother and help the genies reclaim what is rightfully theirs!” 

My stomach somersaults as I realize where I am. Who died here a hundred years ago. I pray to the City in the Sky Stone doesn’t have his artifact.

The earth shakes, a slow rattle at first, but then the dirt bucks beneath me. I hold onto grass as trees moan around me. Roots thicker than nose hairs erupt from the ground, and I dive into the Meadow when a tree crashes towards me. The earth rolls me away from the tree line. Closer to Stone. 

A tornado of dust swirls within the ichor stain, spinning around Stone and taking shape. Dust motes twirl into charcoal gray feet, kneecaps, hips, and a smile sharp as a scythe blade. I can only watch as Chiyo, one of the most powerful genies to ever live, rolls her neck and wiggles her fingers. Stone didn’t throw dust earlier; he threw Chiyo’s ashes. 

How did he get his hands on them? The Godparents keep all Grim memorabilia  – including their last remains – locked in the Bone Prison with the artifacts. Only the Brigade knows the prison’s location; it’s impossible to find, let alone break into.

The tidal wave of soil I ride settles flat again. I squeeze my eyes shut as nausea fights its way up my throat. While the ground replaces itself, Wylie’s voice echoes through my mind: “Breathe through it, loser. One breath at a time.” Her words ease the earthquake of emotions rumbling inside me.

Slowly, I sit up. I glance across the Meadow and see Uli patting Amil’s cheek. Frustration bubbles in my already upset stomach. I wish she’d hurry up. Whatever comes next isn’t going to be pretty. 

A flash of gold light returns my attention to Chiyo and Stone. Chiyo beckons the ichor upwards, and golden droplets rise from the ground, a reverse rainfall. Icicles of anxiety rush through me at the sight of Chiyo summoning a Godparent’s blood from the ground. While all the Grims were feared, Chiyo inspired a unique terror because she manipulated people’s blood and bodies. She could invade an enemy’s mind with a nod of her head, make them slit their throat with a twitch of her fingers. I only hope Uli flees the Meadow before I slaughter myself. 

Beads of ichor start spinning and form a golden globe that hovers above the now dead earth. While I don’t know what Chiyo and Stone are planning, I have to distract them so Uli and Amil can escape. 

“Hey!” I shout. 

Chiyo’s ashen figure flickers, and the globe shudders midair. The gray particles separate just enough for her to disappear before she regains her concentration. Stone’s eyes flash knife blade bright at me. I reach for the throwing knife strapped to my thigh, but my fingers stop halfway there. A needle prick sensation travels down my body, the tingles sharp and painful. I try to move my hand, but it says frozen midair. 

“You didn’t tell me you invited a guest,” Chiyo says. Her voice is two stones scraping together, rough and unused. It’s a wonder Chiyo’s voice alone didn’t stop the Godparents. 

“I didn’t,” Stone says. His right hand forms a fist. Suddenly, I can’t breathe. Invisible fingers dig into my windpipe, expelling air from my lungs. Tears stream down my cheeks, but I’m powerless against the invisible enemy choking me. The tingling grows stronger, and a thousand toothpick-sized swords bury themselves into my nerves. I would scream, but that requires air and bodily autonomy. 

“Stop, grandson,” Chiyo says. Her nose twitches as if she’s sniffing the air. My throat and chest burn with jealousy. I doubt Chiyo’s corpse needs to breathe. “She’s one of us.” 

Stone’s fist relaxes. Air rushes back into my mouth, and I fall to my knees. I gasp, greedy to store every air molecule inside before Stone chokes me again. When I stop wheezing like a caught casket fish, I spit at Stone. The loogie lands four feet away from his scuffed boots. 

“No,” I croak. My voice sounds as raw as Chiyo’s. 

“Your blood isn’t as pure as your grandmother’s. It’s been tainted somewhere along the line. That’s probably what kept you alive and free so long,” Chiyo says. “You look just like Aziza, though. Down to the angry curve of your mouth.” 

I shake my head, air burning my teeth, lungs, and heart. Aziza, another Grim, controlled light and darkness. Legend says Aziza stabbed Godparents with shards of sunlight, her weapon of choice; others rumored she could turn invisible between one blink and the next. Before the Godparents could capture her, Aziza disappeared, never to be seen again. 

I can’t walk in a straight line, let alone control light. Chiyo’s brains must have rotted with her body decades ago. 

“She was my best friend. We founded the Grims. Originally, we only wanted equality with the Godparents. It wasn’t until the war started that we realized our freedom depended on their destruction,” Chiyo says. 

“I don’t have powers,” I say. 

Dad’s humanity made him powerful. Sure, he was a master marksman—he could shoot a bugbeak through the eye from a hundred feet away—but practice and necessity honed his talent. The Brigade paid decently, but not well enough to feed, clothe, and educate two demanding, sugar addicted girls. Dad’s greatest gifts were his unfailing patience, work ethic, and unconditional love. After grueling ten hour shifts, Dad never denied our pleas for tickle fights or tea parties or fishspine braids. I didn’t inherit any powers from Dad that weren’t taught or modeled. 

A flicker of movement behind Chiyo catches my attention, but I ignore it. I pray to the City in the Sky for Uli and Amil’s safety. 

“That’s what Wylie thought, too. Until we taught her to use them,” Stone says. Sweat shimmers on his forehead, and his skin is almost gray. If using his powers drained Stone that much, I still have a chance. Slowly, I reach for my knife. 

“Wylie isn’t a genie, and neither am I. All genies do is lie and hurt,” I say. My fingers skim the seam trailing my pant leg, itching to bury my knife in Stone’s smug smile. Unlike Stone, I don’t need magic to win this fight. I just need my blade and an opening. 

Chiyo laughs, a match struck to life. “If only you’d met Aziza, you would understand who the real liars are. We fought for freedom from the chains you wear so proudly.” 

“I don’t have an artifact. Nobody can control me,” I say. 

“It’s harder to detect half-bloods,” Stone says. “You aren’t any less powerful, though.” 

Half-bloods? While there are rumors of half-human and half-genie babies being born in the Scab, most humans won’t willingly procreate with a genie. As punishment after the war, genie children are tracked by the Brigade and undergo an artifact ceremony when they turn five years old. During the ceremony, a Godparent binds their magic to an object so the genies can’t grow up to wield their powers for evil. The object, or artifact, is then taken to the Bone Prison, kept under lock and key until the genie dies. Pure genie children don’t always survive the artifact ceremony; the odds of survival for a half-blood are even worse. 

My mother couldn’t have been a genie. Dad was sympathetic towards genies, but he knew how treacherous they can be. He spent his Brigade days tracking and arresting criminals like Stone. Genies who sell fairy bones to teenagers like Silas that become lifelong customers. Who trick girls and boys into selling their bodies for a few brass coins. Who possess angry, grieving young women and compel them to kill Godparents. 

“How do I know you didn’t force Wylie to kill that guard?” I say. I ignore the whisper of doubt echoing in my mind. Stone exhausted himself after controlling me for a minute. Could he have possessed Wylie long enough to murder a Godparent? 

“No one can force your sister to do anything. If you don’t know that, you don’t know her,” Stone says. He coughs, and blood dribbles from the edges of his lips. My fingers curl around the knife’s bone handle. Maybe Stone didn’t possess Wylie. But he must know the genie or half-blood that did. 

“Enough!” Chiyo shouts. The golden orb resembles a revolving sun between Chiyo’s palms. “Keep her under control. I need to act before we lose the moonlight.” 

Before Stone can lift his hand, I throw my knife. It arcs in the air, the iron blade flashing silver as a star until it sinks into Stone’s shoulder. His scream is a hundred glasses breaking. I ignore the shiver racing along my spine at the sound and run towards the ashen circle. Stone falls to the ground; blood sprays from the wound, a red rainfall coating the orange-hued grass. For a second, hope trickles through me. Then another scream saws the night in half. Uli. 

“You let two girls sneak up on us?” Chiyo says, the disgust in her voice bitter as dragon juice. The first time Wylie and I stole a jug from Dad’s liquor locker, it felt like swallowing fire. After our colossal hangovers, we realized where the name came from; it burned worse coming up than going down. 

The same head-pounding sickness overtakes me as Chiyo summons Uli into the Meadow. Her steps are stiff, a puppet’s wooden joints jerking to life. Uli’s glasses are gone, and leaves weave through her ink-colored curls, a foliage crown. Amil hangs limp and lifeless as a knapsack on Uli. 

Uli marches to the edge of the scorched earth. Chiyo balances the frantically spinning orb in one hand while controlling Uli with the other. Her ashen form slips in and out of shape, the strain to control the ichor and Uli visible. If I can break Stone’s séance, then I can save Uli and Amil. Even if that means sacrificing myself. 

Stone rolls onto his side, and blood weeps down his jacket. “Put Amil down!” He slams his palm on the earth. Uli pulls Amil around her side then gently lays him down. I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding when I see the slow rise and fall of Amil’s chest. Praise the City in the Sky. 

“Weakling,” Chiyo hisses. She floats across the circle, stopping in front of Uli and Amil. “If the other Lawless girl had secured your artifact, you could save your son without me. Pity.” 

The ichor globe unravels into a golden ribbon, slithering snake-like towards Amil. His chin raises, and I watch, horrified, as Chiyo guides the ichor into Amil’s mouth. What kind of sick blood magic is this? 

Amil coughs. Stone drags himself towards his son. I creep forward while everyone is distracted. Adrenaline pumps through me. It’s like walking through a waterfall, ice-cold droplets of energy rippling across my skin and awakening my body. I reach for the manacles in my back pocket. They wheeze open, the iron jaws hungry for Stone’s skin. 

His head snaps around and panic pinches his face. “Where did she go?” 

I stumble. Could the iron blade affect Stone’s eyesight? I’m only a few feet away, so there’s no way he can’t see me. I glance down at my hands to ensure the manacles are positioned correctly, but I do a double take. My hands and the manacles are…gone. I drop the manacles and, suddenly, they reappear, falling through the air then landing with a dull thud in the grass. Slowly, I crouch to pick them up. Besides the icy energy coursing through me, I feel fine, but I still can’t see my hand as it reaches for the manacles. They disappear the second my fingertips stroke the cold metal. Jinx the genies, I’m invisible!

I bury the confusion, betrayal, and disgust avalanching inside me. Uli and Amil need me to save them from whatever Chiyo and Stone have planned. Nothing else matters right now. It can’t. 

I jump over the ashes ringing the scorched earth. Shocks spark across my synapses, a wave of lightning zapping my insides. Chiyo still beckons the ichor into Amil’s mouth as I dig my knee between Stone’s shoulders. He tries to buck me off of him, but I lock the manacles around his wrists. I clamber away from Stone when he starts to writhe in pain. The manacles burn bright orange, roasting his flesh until it’s a rubbery pink. I stop myself from gagging at the smell of charred meat, instead turning to Uli and Amil just as the last of the ichor wiggles into Amil’s mouth. 

“Don’t do this girl,” Chiyo says. Her ashen head swivels, trying to figure out where I am. Slowly, I crawl towards Uli. “The genies must unite against the Godparents. It’s the only way my great grandson will ever be free. Amil’s artifact ceremony is in three days. Don’t let the Godparents control him.” 

I stare at Amil, unconscious two feet before me. Corkscrew curls cascade across his forehead, and eyelashes long as a cellar spider’s legs fan his cheeks. His pale hands clutch at the grass beneath him, twitching and fighting against an invisible enemy. Amil could die during his artifact ceremony; Stone is trying to spare his son from this fate through a bizarre ritual I don’t understand. If I let Amil drink the Godparent’s blood, though, how do I know he won’t become his father? A genie who tempts girls like Wylie to kill Godparents or murders men like my father or traps siblings like Silas with addictions. I can’t risk it. 

I inch forward. Uli’s eyes dart around the circle. I’m only a foot away, but Uli gazes straight through me. 

“How will you explain taking down Lysander to the Brigade? It’s only a matter of time before they realize who your ancestor is. What you are,” Chiyo says. 

Ash spins behind me, a ghost breathing down my neck. My concentration slips just enough because my hand flickers to life as I reach for Uli. Chiyo howls behind me, and ash cyclones around the circle. I’m dragged backwards, gritty fingers digging into my ankle. 

I scream. Ashes coat my tongue and my teeth, incinerate my throat. A face forms in front of me. It hovers before my nose, slate gray eyes hard as pebbles, the lips curving above the fathomless hole of a mouth. “You shame your ancestors’ and your sister’s memory,” Chiyo says. Her words are a thousand swords clashing in battle. “Blood traitor.” 

Suddenly, a blaze ignites around me. At first, I think it’s the heat emanating from Stone’s manacles, but it grows from a flicker of flame and races around the ashen circle. Chiyo’s face disappears, and the wind roars like a beast fatally wounded in battle. I look at Uli. She holds the Dreamy Daze tube to the circle’s edge. I silently vow to never doubt the usefulness of Uli’s inventions again. 

The storm dissipates as fast as it surged. Ashes rain down on us. I push myself upright and crawl to Uli. Between the ash coating her hair and the pallor of her skin, Uli aged twenty years in the last hour. She’s shaking, and I know it isn’t from the wind whistling through the trees. 

“Are you okay?” I say. My hand stretches to touch her shoulder, but Uli jerks away. I stare at my searching fingers, Uli’s rejection stinging them like ice on a fresh bruise. Can this really be the same hand I couldn’t see a few minutes ago? 

“Uli? Are you okay?” I say. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Uli says. 

“Tell you what?” I say. 

“Oh, I don’t know, that you’re a genie?! Or that you can turn invisible. OR that you’ve been lying to me since I’ve known you!” Uli shouts. 

“Uli, I swear on the City in the Sky I didn’t know,” I say. 

Uli scoffs and glances away. “Like you said, all genies do is lie and hurt.” 

Pain cobwebs across my chest, an ache so sharp and steep I’m not sure there’s an end to it. 

Amil chokes between us. I roll him onto his side and pat his back while he coughs up the ichor. Golden droplets freckle his chin and cheeks. I move to block Amil’s vision of Stone who weeps behind me. The smell of his singed flesh flips my stomach, and I swallow bile before it can escape my mouth. 

“What happened?” Amil asks. A golden puddle reflects his ashy chocolate-colored hair and the dimples framing his mouth. His gray eyes are just as intense and piercing as Chiyo’s. 

I glance up at Uli, but she refuses to meet my eyes. “We slayed a couple of monsters,” I say. I don’t tell Amil I became one in the process. 

Adrianna Gordey (she/her) is a writer based in Manhattan, Kansas. When she isn’t writing poetry, Adrianna can be found daydreaming about the Atlantic ocean, assembling overly ambitious Halloween costumes, or reading young adult fiction. Her work has previously appeared in Lammergeier, Connecticut River Review, Passengers Journal, Grim & Gilded and Touchstone Literary Magazine; it is forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review, FreezeRay Poetry, and others.