Osten was no capital city, but for all intents and purposes, it was a big city nonetheless. Sandra Charneski supposed that such a city, what with its armed guards and curfew, was not the best choice for her permanent living situation. Certainly, her grandmother and her brother, Robbie, had opposed it vehemently, but something about the poignancy of it made her feel some measure of security, even if she refused to admit such heresy. There was consolation within the walls, between the stern glares of the men and women who watched Osten with grim eyes and big guns. There was safety. Within, she knew it was under the case of her ever losing it. They wouldn’t hesitate to shoot. This, too, she supposed her loved ones knew. Today might have been that day. Leaving the cafe early on the pretense of being ill, equipped with a rush to the bathroom and the extraordinarily realistic retching she’d managed to conjure up, was enough for her boss to let Sandra go without griping. She thought it was with no small help of the concerned customers who were either mewling with worry or blanching with disgust. There was something rising in Sandra’s chest, but she knew that it wasn’t her lunch. The terror, which she had trained out of her face and suffocated when under watchful eyes, was coiling in her belly and constricting her quick movements. Vehicles being the unbearable economic burden as they were for someone who flipped through jobs like the pages of a book left her walking to work. At times like this, she regretted it dearly, though there weren’t supposed to be times like this. Feeling the hot glaze of sun burrowing itself into the back of her neck, she was reminded that her twenty-sixth birthday was still several months away. Dodging through the streets like a rat through the shadows of a house, Sandra found herself at her apartment building. She scanned her wrist at the door and the device blipped angrily at her, a sort of safety measure that allowed tenants to ‘clock in’ and ‘clock out’. Most of the people living there didn’t think it would ever matter. If they were murdered in their room and never ‘clocked out’, it would still take months for the landlord to notice. Guests could still come and go as they please, without so much as a ticket stub. Maybe it was just so if they were murdered, the smell of the corpse didn’t have as much time to peel the walls. Climbing into the archaic lift, Sandra pressed the button ‘4’ and felt the old mechanism jerk to life. The movement was a spear straight through her gut and she gasped at the weight of it. Doubling, she felt sweat bead at the pores of her forehead. Her dark locks, braided over her left shoulder, began to feel damp. Relax. Cool. Calm. The makeshift mantra repeated again and again, but the heat was still rising. When the sliding doors slammed open, Sandra nearly crumpled out the door. Nearly running, she slumped against her door like it was sanctuary and shoved her keys in. Damn old things. Couldn’t get a fucking wrist reader for this. The door squealed as it eased open and she pushed it closed. Heading for her bedroom, she meant to lay down, to meditate. Use what Mikami had taught her, focus the dull agony. Shit… shit. Too late. Her hand on the knob, she felt the ice on her fingertips, the cold metal jammed in response. A whirlwind whipped her brain into a frenzy, a throbbing building at her temples. “No! God dammit, no!” She shouted at it, gliding to the floor, her hands pressed to her head. The more she struggled, the more it grew, a persistently cruel stranglevine that meant to choke her will. The pain split her head like an estranged thundercrack, causing Sandra to shout, though her voice was lost to the air that had began to swirl about her living room. So the whirlwind wasn’t in her head. Still. Cool. Calm. The inferno began, a fiery snake crawling its way up her throat, like those that crawled down her arms. It would swallow her alive, leaving her mind to burn in its wake. The fear only fed it, the desire to make it stop pushing it forward. Her mind struggled and she offered it a buffet. --------- It had been hours before the fire receded and the winds died away. Sandra was left an exhausted husk, curled on the floor of her living room. Very faintly, with her ear against the carpet, she could hear the thrumming of music. The person below her did that sometimes, when they could hear Sandra and her screaming, but she supposed they didn’t think she was really screaming. Maybe just having very vigorous sex. No one assumed the worst around here, because then they might have to get involved. A sheen of sweat blanketed Sandra’s skin, and her braid had become undone at some point. She’d pulled off some of her clothes, desperate not to let the fever of the fire burn her alive. Now, of all times, the beautiful tattoos of beasts, mythological and otherwise, began to softly glow, working their magic. Working with her mantra. She would call Mikami tomorrow. Dark lashes framed blue eyes, eyes that felt a somber glow to them. They stared at the living room, now an utter disaster. It was mostly devoid of personal items and large furniture. What she had was now crispy and black, like the tabloid that had sat on the coffee table and the coffee table itself. “I liked that,” she told herself with a sigh, before rising to clean the mess up.