Here’s how it began, my phantom half-life:
First, something in my head went dark, like the wires to the festival lights were lopped off at all ends. Propulsion seized, the fireworks tipped over halfway into the sky. Then there was that lingering moment, a silence of about five seconds or so, as the lights in my thoughts fizzled out into stars, and I was left with these dim, glassy husks of those thoughts, wondering what had changed.
And then I opened my eyes, looked down, and saw through myself.
The spectral population in Shenkuu is surprisingly high. I’m sure it’s a cultural thing. The kids here like to pay respect to their ancestors. For example, they put out food for their great-grandparents on the anniversaries of their deaths—which might sound weird if, let’s say, you didn’t grow up in Shenkuu, but it’s a normal ceremony here. And even though most ghosts can’t really eat any of it, they still appreciate the thought, which is why they tend to visit. Somewhere in the streets, the souls of the first emperors and empresses might still be floating around, in an age where schools make lectures of them from the history books.
Shenkuu’s people write fat tomes of poetry about us, the half-living. Shenkuu is filled with artists. Artists have an obsession with beautification. So these poets write about, you know, what all poets like to write about: personified nature, small children, moonlight, ladies with character, and the haunting beauty and melancholy of the ghosts.
Of course, these are poems written by the people who are still one-hundred percent alive, so they tend to miss the point, say, one-hundred percent of the time.
When I became a ghost, I couldn’t touch anything. I tried touching the walls, the floors, forks and spoons, all of that. In the stories, the Neovian films, most ghosts figure out that they can touch anything they want, either effortlessly or through intense and heroic meditation. I tried that. It didn’t work like that for me. I happened to fall flat just before my noodles were done cooking in the microwave. Now, suddenly, I couldn’t open the microwave, or pick up the noodle bowl, or eat anything. So of course I was like, “What a worthless afterlife.”
Then I tried opening my front door, but naturally that didn’t work, so I ended up just passing right through it. And I remember, on that first day, there was a wedding procession in the streets. Everyone nearby was being pushed back to the sidelines, beaming, as the scarlet lanterns pushed forward, swinging, and through an accidental gap in the carriage window I could see the shine of the wife’s phoenix crown. Then I floated up to the rooftops and found another ghost—not a Shoyru, like me, but an older Techo, whose lazy eyes followed the parade.
He glanced at me. “What?”
“I think I just died,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, in a bizarrely nonchalant way, like I’d just told him his laundry was done. “Well, that’s tough luck, son. I’m sorry to hear.”
“Thank you, sir.”
After a few heartbeats—or just moments, I should say, since neither of our hearts could work—he leaned back on his elbows. “And? What?”
“I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do.”
The Techo raised his eyebrows. “You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re a ghost now. You’re not obliged.”
“Then where do I go now?”
“Wherever you want,” he answered. “We’re spirits, boy. What we do doesn’t particularly matter.”
You’d think he’d have something smartly comforting to say to his fellow apparition. Instead he rose into the air, following the red wedding as it gonged and rattled through the street. And I never saw him again.
The half-living really only get half of what life is. I learned that very quickly. Sometimes I had these clarion moments where I knew exactly who I was, and then I’d drift through a solid object and remember that I was distilled, I was drifting seaward spread out like a sheet while at the same time standing sentinel over a place as cold as loud as wide. So let me say this: it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re freed from literally all of your deadlines.
Shenkuu’s a good place for self-reflection, self-prevention. Faerieland used to be good for that, too, until it fell. But Faerieland never had the flying ships. Shenkuu’s ships are perfecting for taking you where you don’t necessarily need to go—everything’s fairly contingent, there. So at some point, after some time, I decided to sneak onto one of those things, see where it’d get me. I wasn’t even trying to hide, but the crew didn’t notice me until the ship was picking up some speed in its sails. The captain was the first one to approach me.
“What’re you doing here, boy?” the captain called, tipping back his salakot hat. He was a Yurble, but big, asserted in his boots.
“I’m not here for trouble,” I called back.
“Then what are you doing?”
“Hitching a ride?”
“Get off the foremast.”
I floated down. The sky was coated in two layers of clouds, and one of them was cloven, split like a cake to reveal the second gold lacquer beneath it. The captain looked down and through me and said, "We’re merchants, son. This isn’t a cruise ship.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just here for a bit of a ride, honestly.”
“And as I just said—not a cruise ship.”
“I know, but I figured this would be a longer trip. If you don’t mind, I...I need a longer trip.”
The captain stayed silent for an uncomfortable length of time. I thought he’d say no. Most captains would—I wasn’t sure what I was expecting in the first place. But instead he said, “Ghost or not, there won’t be any messing around on my ship. No distracting the crew. No nuisances.”
“And your name?”
“Dracolius. Drac is fine.”
So I stayed on that ship and flung my legs over the great rim, pretending that I could sit. I couldn’t feel the breeze, and I couldn’t taste the sea’s air, but I could see the massive white waves tumbling along the hull’s length, impossibly strong. We didn’t take flight on that first day at sea. Moriko, one of the riggers, gave me a tour in the meantime, and she was alright, you know, in that tough, tousled way of girls who aren’t dazzled by the big shows, and she had these two nine-stroke symbols tattooed on the back of her right shoulder-blade that formed the word Quilin, eponym of the ship.
“I’m the freeloader here,” I’d said, by way of introduction. “It’s great to meet you.”
The Usul grinned. “Hey, freeloader! We don’t need any help, anyway. Unless you wanted to learn how to work the masts?” She leaned over to pat me on the arm, and froze when the gesture passed through. The other riggers who were watching us shared a good laugh.
“Tricky to do when you’re undead, isn’t it?” I reminded her, sweeping my hand through hers for emphasis.
The rigger rubbed beneath her jaw. “So you really aren’t solid at all? But they say Hubrid Nox’s ghost can touch things. That’s how he messes around, gets his name in the papers.”
That didn’t strike me as a particularly fair argument, seeing as Hubrid Nox was an eccentric guy and could therefore get away with being an anomaly. “There are different types of ghosts. Some are like me, and others are luckier, like him.”
Moriko shrugged. “Well, it’s fine if you can’t do much. Freeloaders can keep us company.”
A lot of these kids in Shenkuu have this misconception that all ghosts should be revered. They think we’re the characters in their picture books, the beings who bless their flowers or make the light rain. Moriko, on the other hand, talked to me like I was still one-hundred percent alive. Except she was still curious, naturally, so eventually she had to say, “I’ve never really met a ghost like you before.” And I had to reply, “I’m the rare, special sort.”
“What’s it like, being that sort?” one of the other riggers asked.
“It’s terribly fun,” I replied. “I can float through walls, at least.”
The Quilin took flight on the fourth day, rising from the ground like the empress she was. I got a good front seat for the spectacle. The fins unfurled like a flock of birds in a whipping, whistling roar, and the deck rocked when a wave hit sideways while we were halfway up in the air. Everyone was shouting, a lot of them were cheering. The wind in the hair was their regalia, the sea-salt the stars pinned across their shoulders.
I could see the ocean canvas stretched all around, a blue plate below the curling knots of cream in the sky. But I didn’t have those stars, and I couldn’t feel the wind, or taste the salt. I loved the ride and I hated the ride. It was such a confusing experience.
The one thing I could feel, though, was the air magic resonating from the powering room, settling like fine grain over the curves of the Quilin. Magic penetrates all levels of existence, and the sensation of the spell of flight nearly blew me away. The living can’t feel it as well as we can. It’s the one good ability we have.
When night fell on that fourth day, I joined Moriko for her couple hours of night-watch. We sat up at the top mast—or at least, she sat there, I floated. “Why did you become a ghost?” she asked, as if it were a choice.
“Well, that’s hard to say. I don’t know. I felt cheated, maybe.”
She laughed, the moon a cataract in her eye. “Really!”
“Out of years, definitely. Those would’ve been fun years. They say, you know, how you never realize what you had until it’s gone.”
“You talking about life?”
“Huh. You ever miss being alive, Drac?”
Just then, the spell around the ship tipped sideways. If magic was water, then the entire ocean had just sloshed to one side of the ship, see-sawing the other end into the air. “Uh-oh.”
Moriko frowned. “What? What’s ‘uh-oh’?”
“I think one of the flight charms just broke.”
She stared at me, absolutely motionless. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious? Sorry,” she said as I groaned into my hands, “sorry, it was too good to resist. But are you sure?”
“Positive. Here, we can go look if you want.”
So we went down, peered into the powering chamber, and found one of the flight charms spluttering, its light flashing red.
Moriko went pale and laughed, in that incredulous sort of way. “Oh. That is bad!” And then she pulled herself back up the ladder and onto the deck, sprinting for the engineer’s cabin.
I followed her. Girl moved fast, like there were faeries in her back. The engineer answered his door with a yawn, Moriko spoke, and his brimming eyes went wide and dry, piercing the haze. He called to the other night-watchers on deck, who ran to wake their friends in the sleeping quarters, hollering like bells as they went.
The Quilin groaned as it drifted. I watched as the deck began to swarm, the riggers throwing themselves to work, devouring the distance to the nests. Moriko emerged into view again with the captain and his vice in tow, who glanced at me in passing.
A few minutes later, after the panic had been smoothed out and compartmentalized, the captain called me over. “You could sense the charm?” he asked. “You knew it was broken?”
“I did,” I replied.
“How did you know?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was clear to me. Ghosts tend to be more sensitive to magic.”
He looked skeptical. “That so?”
I shrugged. “So what happens now?”
“We’re putting in a temporary placement—a seal, of sorts. It’ll trick the charm, overwork it until we can replace it with a good one. We hold out until we cross the last of the range, then make a stop at the nearest port.”
Moriko gave me a wide smile. It was really all just teeth, cubed and cute and shining at me in rows. “You did good, freeloader.”
“Really? Did I help?”
“Well, no,” admitted the captain. “We would’ve found out eventually once the Quilin started to tilt. But then again, with bad fortune, she might’ve slipped and hit a peak instead of an air bump.” He made a move with his wrist, only to abort it, likely remembering I couldn’t feel anything as physical as a pat. “Good work, boy. Not a deadweight after all, are you?”
“That’s the worst joke I’ve ever heard, sir,” I said, mostly in surprise. “But thank you.”
The captain’s plans sailed smoothly after that. I saw the ship through the mountains, the white flags catching the stars. The hull made little noises of complaint, sometimes, but you couldn’t hear them up high, and there wasn’t much they could do for it, anyway. So we crossed through the slopes. The skin-like snow was creased with these little dips, and above us I saw the clouds streaming over the peaks, faintly, in fine smoke. Everything glowed. And it was so marvelously silent.
The crew bundled themselves up in thick furs, their breath falling white. “This is a good view,” Moriko told me. “There’ll be a lot more sights like this one, especially after we make our stop at Central. Faerieland looks beautiful from above.”
“Faerieland is a wreck now,” I reminded her. “It’s only a crater.”
“They’re rebuilding it inside. You should see the new towers in construction, and the streets. Or are you hitching a ride to somewhere else?”
“Only to places like this,” I replied.
The Usul grinned. “I like that. You’ve got priorities in life.”
“In half-life, you mean.” I gestured at myself. “Ghost, remember?”
“No, I mean, life.” She made a sweeping gesture towards the stars. “The world of life. Not the possession.”
I followed her gaze, and wondered, but not bitterly, if she could really understand the difference. “You mean, the encompassing,” I said.
“The encompassing,” she repeated, with a teasing wrinkle in her nose. “Go write a poem, you poet.”
The next afternoon, the snow peeled away from the little farm-squares below. They lowered the Quilin onto a river leading up to one of those small port-towns near Kiko Lake. It looked ridiculous, really, this massive Shenkuu merchant ship sliding up next to the modest quay.
The town of Marlette was simple and pretty, and there were a lot of little kindergarteners skipping the dirt paths, rolling leaves in their hands. While the engineer and some others took to the repairs, the rest of the crew went hunting for a respectable middle-class hotel.
Moriko went for a walk in the local gardens, running her hands through the fluff of the peonies. In Shenkuu, they’re a popular flower. “So do you miss it?” she asked me curiously, as I was tagging along with her, like usual. “Being alive, that is.”
“Well, sometimes I wish high-fives would stop passing through me all the time. And I really miss eating food, if that’s what you mean.”
She laughed. “Oh, that’s right, boy. You can’t eat spicy noodles, can you?”
“Or sweets, or desserts.”
“Yeah, not only that. Water, too. It’s been years since I drank water. It’s amazing, really—I don’t think I can even remember how it tastes.”
“Really? Water is water, though.”
“You’re awfully descriptive today.”
“No, I mean, it’s so bland it’s distinctive. I didn’t know you could forget something like that. But anyway, what else do you miss?”
“Mainly? Touching things.”
Moriko considered that. “But you can float through walls. Isn’t that—”
“I miss feeling things, like...fabric. Wind. Grass. I can’t remember what sunlight feels like on the back of your neck, but I know it must be something warm, wonderful. Street yooyuball, too, although I still remember some of the throws. And hugging people, though I never really did that much. And running, and flying, and I miss smelling scents, like from soup, or soap.”
“You can’t smell the smoke from the fireworks on New Years,” she said, and stared at me. It reminded me of when grown-up kids look at their grandparents sometimes, when they’re hungry for a story. “What’s it really like,” she asked, “being a ghost, like you are?”
I smiled, because I was the circumvention of an aspiration, a recollection of synthetic sounds, I was this kid who once held festivals of thoughts in my head and I said to her, “The novelty of the whole ‘being transparent’ thing wears off after a while. See, when you’re a ghost like me, you can’t just continue with your life like the way you used to. Sure, you can’t feel a punch when it comes at you, and you can’t pick up a pen to pay your taxes. But eventually you start missing those things too. Better than being cut off from everything. Better than being nothing at all—that’s the real nightmare. And some ghosts stay for a pretty long time, so who knows? I might be hanging around like this for centuries.
“The world of ghosts isn’t a nice place to stay forever, though. It’s a lonely place. I wish I was with the living, still. I wish I could still make some sort of impact. The living is such a mess, it’s such nonsense, it’s rubbish music. It’s where everyone cares too much about everything. Now I’ve stepped out of everything, and I’m looking at a picture book, feeling nothing much and caring too little. I loved being real, honestly. I loved not being alone.”
“Drac, I’m sorry,” Moriko said, and opened her mouth, and closed it, wordless, and opened it again. “You can still change the world through words, too.” She stopped herself again almost immediately. “That sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud. Forget that.”
“It’s fine, really. It doesn’t always seem so bad. It was nice, for instance, to do something meaningful back there on the ship.”
“I—” The rigger brushed her fingers over her mouth. “Hear me out, Drac.”
“I hear you.”
“Let me put it like this. People can make you feel real, can’t they? At least, that’s what they do to me. It’s easier when you have friends. Family. They say—They say that your loved ones can guide you...”
I nodded. “I know that.”
“Ah.” She glanced away. “Alright, then. So long as you know.”
“Thank you. You don’t have to say anything that fixes it all. You just have to listen. I love that. You’ve already done the best thing.”
“Oh. Well.” Moriko glanced back, and the smile she gave me was rain on pavement and sunlight striking the atmosphere, and it was everything I ever wanted to see. “Thanks to you too,” she said, “for telling me. About this, and the rest of it all.”
So then we went back to the hotel, and in one of the six rooms that were checked out in the captain’s name, we found the crew playing casual cards with a couple of the other hotel guests. One of them was a Kacheek, a university kid. The other was a light faerie. Faeries, you know, weren’t often seen in small towns like Marlette, but so many things had changed since Faerieland’s fall.
Discreetly, Moriko sat down with her other friends, while I hovered around the tie-beam roof. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” one of the braver crewmates was saying to the faerie, “but do you suppose Xandra thought that she was justified, in a way? To do what she’s done?”
It looked like we had arrived at that late time of day when people strike up the more thoughtful conversations. The faerie cocked her head in that graceful manner of all faeries. “There is a reason behind every crime,” she replied, being terribly diplomatic. “There aren’t many others who will tell you this, but I believe that Xandra’s intentions, while traitorous to her words, were spurred by many truths.”
Everyone glanced up from their cards and conversations. “Is that right?” asked the navigator, while the others leaned either backward or forward.
“We faeries, by nature or by choice, have rarely been willing to help Neopia freely. This is a trait in all our history books. We offer you power for a price, and the kind souls among us give you soup and good healing. That is what we have always been to you, hasn’t it? Just that, and nothing further. And that reluctance, that miserliness—that is exactly what Xandra saw.”
At this point, the faerie had gathered the mottled crew at her knees. I saw that in her face there was this odd grief, this contradiction of bitterness and joy.
“I was in Faerieland,” she said, “when it fell down. It is a waste of a home now, a wasting homeland. The others are too proud to tell you this, and Her Majesty may speak otherwise, but it will never rise up again. Not Faerieland. Yet I had been returning to the ruins of my once-home when there came a brilliant star leaping towards us from the direction of the fen, and we faeries could see the wave of magic that followed, undulating like wind across the half-chewed rubble. The Space Faerie was running across the destruction, and in her wake she left a streak in a galaxy’s colors. And her magic was so gloriously whole compared to ours, and I watched as she slowed and came face-to-face with the Queen, who had arrived to meet her halfway, and the first thing the Space Faerie said to her was, ‘Do not be afraid.’
“It occurred to me then that we have always been scared of being on this ground with all of you, rather than in our clouds, high up above. Now it feels as though we have sunken into your world for the very first time—into this strange, cacophonous place. We faeries, you see, will live a long time in this crater, this mingling earth. We live far longer than all of you. This is the first time that the thought has truly frightened us. Before, when a pet planted a flower, we would watch its petals trembling from above, and we would sing to it and play these silly games and bargain with its caretakers. And now we are like the flowers and the caretakers, looking for summer’s light in the fall.
“I am still dreaming of the sky. And we are still wishing to be alone.”
And at the table, there were five long seconds of silence.