A shudder rakes me; it rises up from my soul, shaking this borrowed body like a fever dream. I press ahead, despite my fear. The Collector is coming for me.
The throng roils on the platform below, hellbent on the open train doors. A giant digital clock in the center of the chaos counts down the seconds. They scurry to board, human vermin pushing their way onto the 7 a.m. Express to Embarcadero. Paper scraps and cigarette butts whorl on great columns of air as the train accelerates. Next departure: eight minutes. I step off the escalator into the crush of countless strangers.
I was barely more than a child the first time I suffered a bruising crowd. The magistrate had dragged me from my home into the village square. “Burn the witch,” the townspeople had jeered, snarling and tearing at my hair, my clothes. Their bloodlust, driven by fear, tainted the air sour. If not for my mother’s magic, I would have died that day.
“Whisper the incantation and your soul will enter the coin,” she’d said, pressing a meager penny-pence into my hand.
The greedy magistrate had no qualms stealing from a condemned girl. As the echo of incantation quavered between us, I’d whisked through the coin, into his body, forcing his soul to take up residence in my doomed shell. The warmth of his hand on mine dissipated, and I tucked the soul coin into his—my—pocket.
Lifetimes later, I still dread the latent savagery of human crowds.
Someone bumps into me and I flinch. “Excuse me,” an old woman murmurs. I nod, reminding myself I’m now a tall man, imposing, with wide shoulders and strong arms. I always choose such vessels; men to be reckoned with. Still, the coin in my pocket comforts me as it thrums, warm and reassuring.
I scan the teeming subway platform. It holds the pieces I need for today’s deliverance: cover to hide from my enemy, and ample candidates for my next body. I gather my composure, and when the crowd surges, I plunge into the maelstrom of morning commuters. Their volatile energy repulses me, yet I endure, evaluating the vessels as they jostle past.
A choice must be made, and quickly. The Collector is in the city, somewhere, tracking me. Is he here, now, in this very train station? I remain vigilant. One mistake and he will take my coin, seize my soul and lock it away in his collection. It’s said he’s captured scores of us over the centuries, but I refuse to become another of his prizes, trapped in his strongbox for eternity. I’ll do whatever is necessary to escape him.
A drab teenager catches my eye. She leans against the map kiosk, studying her phone. Short, mousy, with dull hair and a wide nose. Nothing about her is appealing, and yet I am drawn to her. With a start, I realize why I can’t look away: she’s a mirror image of me. Not the “me” I am now, but the young girl I was, once upon a time.
She’s taller. Cleaner. She smiles and I note straight teeth. A modern version of me.
My feet find their way to her, seemingly without my consent. I fight the urge to reach out, touch her, test the grain of her skin. Does it feel like mine did those long centuries ago? I bite my lip to arrest its tremble, but still I drift closer, reveling in the cadence of her breath, rejoicing at the tune of her heart. The space of a sigh is all that separates us, and I ache, a throb deep in my breastbone, longing to rejoin my soul with this familiar shell, so similar to the one I lost.
I pull the coin from my pocket. The incantation tingles as I draw breath to speak. She turns to me and I freeze. Those are not my eyes. Not the soft brown of my remembered reflection. This girl’s eyes are sharp. Accusing.
The stark hatred of the Collector’s gaze pins me in place.
“I knew you couldn’t resist this ugly mongrel body, Emly.”
Air escapes me in a soundless gasp. “Magistrate? You’re the Collector?” I tremble, too shocked, too stupid to escape.
He grabs me, and I prickle at the oily squirm of his incantation. Spelled gloves, sophisticated magic older even than my mother’s, protect his hands. He can rip my coin away without risking its touch on his stolen flesh.
“But I watched you burn. In my body!”
“You weren’t the only body snatcher in the village square that day. It was the tanner who took your place at the stake.”
“No.” I stumble back, but petite gloves grasp my meaty fist, trying to pry my coin from my fingers.
Another backward step, and the Collector overcompensates. He doesn’t understand how to maneuver in a woman’s body; like me, he’s probably spent most of his time in male vessels. I move again, purposefully, pulling him off balance. I grab an enchanted glove, tug it. It writhes and burns my fingers, but I ignore the pain and wrench the accursed thing away, shoving my coin into his palm. In that instant, when coin touches skin, I whisper the incantation.
“Pence for your thoughts.”
I pulse, an explosion of brilliance pouring into the coin, tracing around its misshapen contours, before rushing into the girl’s hand and cascading throughout her form. I settle in place, luxuriating in the welcome satisfaction of home.
The Collector is still there, shoved into a corner of my awareness, struggling against me. But he’s weak. I snatch his coin from a pocket and fling it onto the tracks of the oncoming 7:08 Express to Embarcadero. His shilling melts on the rails, incinerating his soul in a screech of fury and sparks.
I pocket my pence and slip through the opening train doors. The body of the man I vacated crumples as we speed away. I won’t think about that though, focusing instead on the Magistrate’s hoard of coins. So many trapped witches; enough to form our own crowd, a new kind of collection.
I can’t wait to set them free.
Myna Chang writes flash and short stories. Her work has been featured in Daily Science Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, Writers Resist, and Reflex Fiction, among others. Her story “Midnight at the Crossroads Diner” appeared in Twist in Time issue 5. Read more at MynaChang.com or @MynaChang.