Fantasy and Horror Stories

Out Of The Corners

I was a prince once. I guess I still am, technically, but it doesn’t feel that way. Until a week ago I could go anywhere, do anything, at least within Lumier’s city limits. Now I’m tied to a peg, yapping at the end of a chain. I don’t even know how far I can shift, it’s some sort of amorphous fairy tale distance like the length of a piece of string or the trail of a mermaid’s tears or some bullshit like that. If I knew what the rules of this were, I wouldn’t be here, would I?

Nada is feeling her way through the dusty border town of Baoloire. Population 478, rising to 1,300 on average during the harvest season, under the nominal suzereignty of Millarch Alain since the Northern Settlement of 1106 C.L. (78 A.M. on the Republican Calendar, The Turn Of The Red Moon on ours), but effectively controlled by Marn-Challot Solzac, a Pallist merchant with quiet ties to the Soloist Heresy. I know all this without even hunting around my jacket pocket for the document. I’m the librarian, that’s why I’m here, I know all the things that can help Nada. But if I knew all that, why didn’t I know that shadowing a virgin into the Aetherwood with a mind empty of intention would bind me to that woman forevermore? I had been pushing for a breathing human scout we could imprint on for decades because I’d no idea that rule existed, I just imagined having an “imprinted” person wandering out beyond the Aetherwood would serve as an anchor for the rest of us Esprit. I suppose that was the point, since knowing about the curse automatically excludes an Esprit from being susceptible from it. But if I, designated repository of knowledge, could be unaware of something so important…what else were Lucille and the others keeping secret from me?

Just the amount of planning needed, it’s mind-boggling. S-One’s emergence and escape had been flukeish and recent…this subterfuge must have been over a century in the making. It gives the impression that the other Esprit have been playing an elaborate prank on me ever since my inception. I’m a youngster compared to the others, I know that much, and for all the confessions by my friends that their origins are as much as mystery to them as my own is, there’s something in the way they look at me: a stolen glance, a snicker, a minor betrayal of their real thoughts that happened once a year, if that, but accumulating and accumulating over decades into an overriding feeling that I’m not “one of them” somehow. In those moments I envy the Lumieris in our charge. I know why we must stay above the field of understanding we’ve cultivated between the mortals…someone has to stay in charge, with a clear head and no sentiment…but if I could only wrap it around Lucille and the others then I might know at last why they giggle so behind my back.

I’ve pointed Nada towards a bar where we might gain some insight into mysterious non-irised people’s coming or going. The crows have spied members of Solzac’s clique sifting through the haunt, and some beneficiaries of his illicit deals have crossed Aebar palms with the crystals they’ve earned, but now I actually have a living, breathing skinny girl with eyes and lungs to walk in and talk to them like a normal regular limited-lifespan meatbag. It takes the young lady intolerably long to swing her skinny knee-padded legs up to the swing door and inside the dive: I’m already inside by the time she gets there. There’s a nice shaded seat at the back where nobody’s coincidentally looking. I lay back and put my feet up on the table like I’ve always been there. Looks nicer than I thought it would, seems they clean the tops more than once a fortnight, and the tattooed Pallist patrons are laughing and joshing instead of playing dice and arm-wrestling. Maybe it’s too early for that sort of thing. More delays: there’s a burly man at the swing doors jabbing at the broadsword on Nada’s back and jabbing again at the pile of discarded weaponry next to the entrance. Nada’s trying to sweet-talk out of it, what is she doing, don’t sweet-talk out of truces, girl! I’ve heard Nada complain about it before, it takes her ages to tie the big lunking thing to her back in a way that doesn’t crimp her spine, every time she has to use it means a major hassle afterwards. Eventually she pouts and kicks a foot and relinquishes the unwieldy blade, her iron comfort blanket and possible boyfriend-substitute. I don’t even know how she lifts the thing, I certainly couldn’t. But then I have trouble lifting a broom, my metaphysical structure isn’t really geared towards handling tangible objects. This barmaid hovering over me could crush me with one hand if she wanted…very easily with muscles like those. The trick is to not be there when the crushing happens.

Hold up, why is the barmaid hovering over me? Her arms are crossed and so’s her temper. Did I do something wrong? I’m not doing anything these other fully grown and adult fellows aren’t also…ohhh. I see. I supposed since the Republic has such strict licensing rules excluding the under-16s that bars in the Dominion would welcome sprogs as young as they came as a kind of passive-aggressive “take-that”. There weren’t any signs up or anything…except hardly anyone in the Dominion can read, so I presume it’s up to muscular barmaids to carry the message. I doubt they’d buy that I’m only play-acting a ten-year-old, even if I was inclined to expose the Esprit’s Greatest Secret Ever to the outside world (tempting in light of how the jerks treated me, but no). Fortunately, the Esprit’s Second Greatest Secret Ever exists precisely to get me out of conundrums like these. A quick grin, then I duck beneath the table-legs and grab the bannisters on the first-floor landing.

I spy the barmaid hunting under the table for a kid who isn’t there anymore. She must think I scarpered through her petticoats and sprinted elsewhere, and sure enough she’s twisting around and looking everywhere else in the pub, bewildered. It never occurs to her to look up. Refuge in audacity, that’s our secret. Nobody can believe we can do the things we do, so they edit something much more banal into their memory. Nada’s at the bar, questioning haltingly about strangers poking about and getting suspicious eyeballs in return. The barmaid pokes her shoulder, probably to ask about a little boy rummaging about the place. Nada’s eyes turn roofward. No, you idiot, keep her off me! Her gaze snaps back to the barmaid, and she shrugs. It’s not a very convincing shrug, but the barmaid seems to buy it. She huffs and looks elsewhere. That’s it, that’s how this spying work is done, act natural and don’t admit to the supernatural.

Nada carries on nattering and getting a steely gaze in return. I wonder, sometimes, what it must be like for her. Living one moment to the next fixed to one physical place in one physical form. A long time ago it sounded nightmarish. But watching the Lumieri, day in and day out, walking and eating and sleeping and shitting and fucking and engaging in all those biological functions as befits moving slabs of bone and muscle…I can’t do any of those things. I float, I observe, I offer pithy cryptic advice (when I’m in the mood, anyway), that’s what I do. All that physical stuff is for “lessers”, and we carefully manage and cultivate these lessers so that their lesserness doesn’t consume and destroy them like so many other civilisations. After over a century of watching them, I can see the appeal of letting go and indulging yourself. You connect, you feel, you touch, you interact. I can do no such thing. I can only watch, out of the corners, and see the world slowly fall apart without me.

At the bottom of the garden

I walk through the door and I find myself in a strange forest. The trees are crooked and some seem to move on their own. The leaves are pastel-coloured. Everything is pastel-coloured in this world as if I’m seeing through a pastel haze. It should be frightening, but I don’t feel afraid, I hear a low, soothing hum that eases me into this peculiar place. It sounds like song. A stag darts through the forest, its fur as deep and colourful as a pheasant’s. He stops and looks at me. It is a firm, fierce, commanding stare. I think things that don’t feel like my own thoughts, as if he is putting them in my mind with my eyes. This is a place of sanctuary, he seems to tell me, and I can stay here as long as I like. But there is a danger beyond the forest, a darkness that threatens everything, and though the journey beyond the forest may be long and deadly, my help may be vital in stopping it. The choice is mine. I look to my brother. It isn’t a choice at all.

I sip the Americano and allow the hot lava to scald my tongue. I’m a professional now, I can’t afford to do anything so undignified as to blow on it to cool it down. If my colleagues at Home notice a speck of brown on my business dress, I can kiss my burgeoning authority goodbye. Of course the men can come in with rumpled shirts, loud ties and lager bellies and get the security brief anyway, but I have to be the ice queen. It gets exhausting after a while, I can’t even “relax” properly.

My brother’s one of those guys that suits were made for. I see him through the coffee shop window coming up Whitehall, he looks effortlessly smart. I already have his Cappuccino ready on the empty side of the table, I really need to expunge these secretarial instincts, I’m the one that’s supposed to get Cappuccinos sent to her, not the other way around. He swans in and slides onto the seat opposite me, picking up his coffee and raising a toast to me, the insufferable charmer.

Cheers, sis!’ he gulps. No grace at all. He wipes his mouth and his sleeve somehow never gets dirty, ‘tough luck on the Manchester gig.’

I stir my drink and pretend not to be bothered, ‘there’ll always be another sweep. You couldn’t have nudged your friends in the Ministry into backing our involvement, could you?’

You know the drill, any whiff of nepotism and we’re both calling the Job Centre,’ he also never cared about confidentiality, but then spooks did meet in this particular coffee shop for a reason, ‘besides, you know how territorial the army gets, no way in hell would they ever let MI5 get the credit for this op.’

Mm…’ I sip politely. We’re both too grown up to start accusing each other of underhandedness. The unspoken rule was that we’d only ever suspect it in private. For all I wish he’d tell me what was really going on, even asking is beyond the pale…after what we’d been through. Besides, I’m sure as hell never telling him anything…

So…’ he rotates his cup around. I’ve never known him to look nervous. He takes a breath, ‘…you remember that world we found at the bottom of the garden?’

Don’t react, don’t react, just drink my coffee… ‘I thought we both decided it was a coping mechanism for dealing with our parents’ divorce?’

Oh yeah, definitely, no doubt about it,’ he keeps his eyes on me while he sips, he only does that when he’s worried about me, ‘it’s just that I was talking to some friends in Oxford and they found it funny that we had the same psychosis. You never found that funny?’

I can’t tell him about the diary, ‘…I thought you were humouring me.’

I thought you were humouring me,’ he slaps the cup down. It was a small thing, but I felt for a second that he was mad at me for some reason.

I don’t understand, why is he bringing this up now? It’s been years since we even talked about it. We spent a fortune on the best psychiatrists so that we’d never have to talk about it. That way, we could continue to function as sensible adults and I’d never have to admit that I still believe what happened really happened. I’d intellectually decided that it hadn’t, but that’s not the same thing, is it?

How soon do you have to be back in the office?’ like a light switch, he’s back to being pleasant.

I check my mobile, ‘twenty minutes. Why?’

I think you might like to rephrase that,’ he gets up out of his seat, ‘bring your cup.’

He’s still smiling, and he’s wandering out the coffee shop as if my following him had already been decided. It hadn’t, I could still tell him to piss off and stop acting so cryptic. I should do that. That would be by far the most sensible thing I could do. But…well…he’s my brother. So I shut up and follow him.

A black Mercedes pulls up on the pavement just as we leave. My brother walks over and opens the door as if it’d been parked there the whole time.

I feel like I’m being kidnapped, ‘what’s going on?’

Just get in the car, sis,’ his smile drops just a little.

I intellectually decide that I should go back inside and finish my coffee. I believe I should do what my brother says. The menacing leer makes my choice a little easier…

The Pillars are a tough climb. Hirnu warned us it would be tough, but I thought ‘tough’ as in Maths homework, not ‘tough’ as in Mount Snowden. We need to climb the Pillars to speak to K’thi, the one who sees. He is one of the oldest creatures in this world, so ancient that even the Foegerelk of the forest sanctuary are like saplings to him. Imagine how he’d react to kids like us?

Badly, as it turns out. He doesn’t bother with the introductions and jumps straight to clawing at the mountain pass. His massive pincers leave crimson smears on the rock, he’d been hunting recently. When the colossal feathered serpent deigns to stoop and look at us, a Houmphehant is still struggling in his beak. It’s heartbreaking to see the big lug strain and cry and beg to return to his children, one of the gentle brown giants that led us along the safe path through the Maelswamp, and know there’s nothing I can do for him. K’thi bites him in two and sucks up his remains like a piece of liquorice. Bits of Houmphehant dribble off his beak when he fixes his beady eye on me.

Hirnu warned me, there’s only one way to stop K’thi chomping me like a light snack and that’s to look him in the eye and show no fear. No use sucking it up and putting on a brave face, he’ll know. Oh yeah, he’s huge and fierce and impossibly old and gobbles up giants just because he feels like it, but beneath it all, he’s just a big bully. Like Becky from Year 6 with claws. I’m not afraid of him, if just ‘showing no fear’ is enough for him to leave me alone.

It’s my brother I’m worried about. He’s gripping my hand with his back pressed against the mountain. If he’s afraid, he’ll be gobbled up, and I’ll scream and cry and completely lose it, and we’ll both be gobbled up. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? If I worry about how he’ll react, I’ll show fear, and if he worries about how I’ll react…if I finish that thought, I’m dead. I have to trust him. He has to trust me.

And what do you know? I don’t feel a single shiver in his hand.

K’thi blows a hurricane out of his nostrils. Bits of snot slap my face. He can huff and puff all he likes, he won’t get what he wants. So he settles. His claws relax a bit. He gets a bit closer…not too close, just enough to properly study us instead of just glower at us. And then he tells us what we came up here to find out.

My brain shrieks and rattles. Like Hirnu, he doesn’t ‘speak’, he shares his thoughts and makes us think they’re ours. Except his mind is infinitely greater than ours, it hurts to think what he thinks. I absorb only shards. Dive The Depths. Steal The Gem. Climb The Backbone. Find The Mother. Break The Seal.

It’s well past lunch and I’m well past the M25. When my brother said something about friends in Oxford, I imagined spires and manicured lawns, not…whatever this place is. It looks like an aircraft hanger, the road leading up to it is pocked with potholes, ploughing through ungrazed fields. Most of the paint had come off the sign we passed when the Mercedes brought me in, but I think it said ‘RAF Highbarrow’.

Where we used to keep the V Bombers, till the Americans sold us a lovely little package called Trident,’ my brother explains as if I gave a damn.

Lovely,’ I finished my coffee twenty miles back, I’m jonesing for a refill, ‘now are you going to tell me what’s going on?’

In a bit,’ he raps the window with his knuckles. The driver dutifully parks. The air’s bitter when we get out, one side of my stockings freezes solid. He leads me up a flight of clacking metal stairs, new and silver-looking, ‘you ever watch Stargate? I used to love that show.’

Huh?’ I’m too busy trying not to trip over my heels to wonder why he’s asking about sci-fi at a time like this, ‘I remember that crappy movie, I didn’t know they made a show out of it.’

See, sis, this is why we needed to go on a magical quest just to bond, we’ve got almost nothing in common,’ he swipes a card in a reader and holds the door at the top of the stairs open for me, ‘I was about to say “this is kind of like that”, but you’d have no idea what I’m talking about, would you?’

I have to give him a long hard look when I reach the top. His smiling face is more ineffable than K’thi ever was. So I duck inside. It feels like I’m stepping through a black hole’s event horizon. And I don’t mean that just because it’s dark and vaulted and filled with buzzing sounds and smells kind of antiseptic, I mean it feels like stepping through an event horizon, something in my cells goes “shloomp”.

The balcony we step on rings the upper level of the hanger, and my spine automatically straightens when I see the big men in fatigues strolling around the balcony with rifles held lazily in their hands. The floor is festooned with terminals and cubicles, people in white coats and puffy overalls milling downstairs, upstairs, everywhere. Right in the centre, raised on a pedestal with spotlights coating every square inch, is a sheared section of cobbly viney wall with a knotted old door in the middle. It seems ridiculously out of place…until…

Recognise it?’ my brother says just as my brain catches up with my eyes. It can’t be…

Did you…?’ I lean over the rails to squint. Every scratch, every speck of rust, every patch of moss, the door from the bottom of the garden is just as I remember it, ‘…did you chisel the old door out of the Mawley House gardens and ship it to an army base?’

Army base? No. It’s an airbase. Keep up,’ he’s sniggering. He’d been waiting a real long time to see my reaction to this, hadn’t he? He leans over next to me and shouts down, ‘how’s the current flow holding up!?’

Much better, since you got back!’ a lady scientist on the ground floor perks up from her clipboard. She’s young, and she answers a little too quickly with a smile a little too broad for a military researcher. I wonder what other bombshells my brother’s been keeping from me. She glances at some graphs on a laptop, ‘up to 17 terahertz! That’s the highest it’s ever been!

Good work!’ he plants his elbow on the railings and grins at me like he’s proud of himself, ‘you see why I brought you here?’

‘…no,’ I scowl back with the look I usually reserve for when he’s scoffed through all the biscuits, ‘no, I don’t see. Explain.’

My brother rolls his eyes. No, he is not allowed to roll his eyes at me after pulling shit like this. Under a lot more scowling he finally relents, ‘you do remember what happened at Mawley House, don’t you?’

I’m not going to finish his sentences for him, either, ‘Uncle Spencer let us stay there after the divorce so mum could do some “bonding” with us.’

That was the plan, instead we spent the summer nicking precious stones from golems,’ my brother traipses along the gangway to a spiral staircase and expects me to follow again, ‘don’t think she took it well…waiting for us to come home, listening to us try to explain why we looked like we’d been through the wars…’

I’d felt like I’d learnt something about mum in that other place, I just wanted her to understand that I’d realised, that I knew what she was going through. I follow my brother down the steps, ‘it was cruel. It was a cruel, stupid joke we played on her which is why we shouldn’t have done it. I don’t know why you kept pretending our make-believe was real, and I really don’t know why you’re picking up the baton again decades down the line…’

Oh drop the act, sis, I’ve read your diary,’ he reaches the bottom. He doesn’t even look at me.

I stop dead on the steps. The bastard. The unbelievable bastard…

You remember the trouble we went through finding the key for this thing? That was a quest in itself, wasn’t it?’ my brother carries on, the other scientists in their white coats making way for him, ‘the letter great-grandpa left in his study? “Some secrets best left buried?” Following the clues, searching the attic, that freaky eye symbol on its end? Our heads were running wild imagining what could be behind that door at the bottom of the garden. Doctor?’

The perky young scientist bounds up the pedestal and grabs the latch. She swings the door open to reveal…the back of the hanger.

My brother turns and shrugs, ‘turns out, it’s just a door.’

No! Really!?’ bestill my shock that magic doors to fantasy lands don’t actually exist.

That’s not what I meant,’ he tuts and mounts the pedestal himself. I find myself descending the steps and drawing closer in spite of everything. I watch him lean into the doorframe, and…I see something. I’m not sure what I’m looking at. It’s a little shiny thing, but it isn’t shining by itself like some flashy special effect. It’s more like a light’s reflection in a car window, as if the air in the doorway is stained with luminous paint. He keeps talking, ‘remember what I said? “Our heads ran wild imagining.” The connection is psychosomatic. Some flukeish quirk of relativity or quantum entanglement or whatever linked our emotional investment in escaping mum with the fabric of space-time.’

It’s actually more complicated than that, but…um…he, uh, he asked me to keep it simple…’ the young scientist giggles nervously. My brother doesn’t seem to notice the interruption. Maybe they aren’t fucking after all. Why that pops into my mind now of all times I can’t possibly answer…

I watch him pick his nose and flick a bogey through the shimmer. It doesn’t come out the other side. It’s real. It’s completely real. The world I’d been trying to convince myself was fake all these years was totally real the whole time. I’m such an idiot…

We can send through ball bearings, pellets, even the odd spy camera or two,’ he eyeballs the gap in reality, ‘we know another world is there, but we can’t get to it. My connection isn’t strong enough. Now you see why I brought you here?’

I try to speak, fail, try again, fail, swallow some phlegm, and try once more, ‘…but…I stopped believing too, just like you. I stopped believing first. Why would my “connection” be stronger…?’

Because you lied,’ my brother slams the door shut. He doesn’t hide his anger anymore, ‘the old man with the specs asked us for the hundredth time if we’d made the other world up, and you lied and said we had. And I believed you. I believed we had made it all up, that there was something wrong with my brain and that you were pretending my mad visions were real because you loved me. I believed you because I was your little brother. You have any idea how much you crushed me, that day?’

I can’t look at him, ‘…he…they were talking about hospital! They were going to take us away! I couldn’t…I had to! Don’t you see!?’

Oh, I understand, very grown-up, very sensible,’ he steps aside, hands in pockets, ‘here’s how to make it up to me. Put your hand on the door.’

I don’t budge. He isn’t serious, is he? He’s serious. He’s totally serious. I don’t believe this. I don’t believe any of it. No amount of burly men with guns or people in white coats or hangers or cubicles or floating points of light is going to convince me that there really was a magical world at the bottom of the garden. One of my feet steps forward. Then the other. And before I know it I’m on the pedestal. Who am I kidding, nothing can convince me because I’m already convinced. I was never unconvinced.

Sir, the reading’s picking up!’ the young scientist calls from her laptop. I barely hear her. My hand’s stretching out, my palm’s sweaty, my heart’s doing laps around my chest. I don’t want to do it, but I can’t stop. My digits brush the wood. The young scientist’s breathless, ‘unbelievable! It’s…five hundred terahertz! …and it’s stabilizing! Sir! I…I think we’ve done it!’

I already know. I don’t need to open the door to know. I know the other world is there, on the other side of that rotting wood. Is my brother grinning like a know-it-all next to me? Probably, but I don’t care. I know it’s there.

The Mother cleaves with a mighty vine. The path before me is ripped asunder. I’m huffing, my ears are ringing, I’m scared out of my wits but I keep on running for god knows what reason. A bit of torn masonry lingers, ready to fall. It’s my stepping stone. This is crazy, I keep telling myself. This is crazy, but I have to do it. I plant my feet on the plunging masonry and jump the gap. My fingers just about scrape the other side. They’re already so bloodied and numb that some more scrabbling makes no difference. I make it, I’m that bit closer to the Seal.

The chamber at the peak of Eve’s Backbone is all Mother. The walls are Mother, the floor is Mother, even the ceiling is mostly Mother. The great tree at the centre, her roots running all the way down the Backbone and into the planet’s core, that is definitely Mother. But the ribbons of purple flesh binding her body, poisoning her veins and driving her insane, that’s something else. If we don’t do something to get it off her, she might strangle the earth itself in her madness. The stone walkways built by the Criginnies for prayers and offerings are the only solid surfaces that won’t eat us. The great rock seal tying the flesh together is within my reach.

My brother shouts. He’s made it to the walkway below and got The Mother’s attention. Before she can strike, he lobs the Teardrop at me, the precious gem locked in the Depths. All those lazy Sundays playing cricket finally pay off. I catch the stone and slam it into the Seal as hard as I can. The impenetrable rock cracks, snaps, and finally shatters. At once the vines quiver and spasm, and the flesh starts to roll up, shrinking and contracting into a dense ball at the foot of The Mother. The craggy roots seem to soften, curl up, and lose their anger as The Mother settles into a calm sleep.

I hop down and join my brother to watch the purple blob emerge. The thing’s no bigger than a plant pot now. Two glowing eyes pop into being on its surface, curled up into an immensely sad frown. I recognise the adorable thing from the murals I saw in Mak’do: he’s Gulligidoo, the Gatherer, the one who wanders the far seas collecting memories from the deep. I feel his loneliness, The Mother’s constant outpouring of memories must have been the only contact he’d had with another living thing. When he tried to get close he ended up smothering her, but by the time he’d realised the harm he was doing he had already locked himself in union with no way of escape. Now he’s free to sludge his lonesome way back to the sea, where he belongs. He rolls over a root, splashes into a puddle, and that’s the last we see of him.

We finally understand why daddy had to go away.

There’s a briefing, with coffee and everything, and then I’m back in the hanger for the final suit-up. My brother drills the importance of all this into me: we need to find out everything we can about the other world and I’m the only one who can do it. It feels so contrived I half expect Michael Bay to pop out and yell “cut”. At no point did I ever agree to anything, and yet here I am, pulling on some fingerless gloves.

MI5 did give you firearms training, didn’t they?’ my brother hands me a Desert Eagle. Tad excessive, isn’t it? Unless Mak’do’s discovered gunpowder while we were gone.

Home is like primary school, everyone gets a go,’ I pull back the pistol’s slider. I let this cannon off, it’s likelier to fly out my hands and smack me in the face than hit anything. The flak jacket seems a bit much too, the only projectiles I remember were icicles and lobbed rocks. I like the combats, mind…that skirt was doing nothing for my legs and those heels were murder. I expect a satisfying click from the pistol, but I’m not feeling it, ‘there’s no ammo in this.’

We’ll send a cache once you’re on the other side. The MoD doesn’t mess about with this sort of thing,’ he fiddles with some wires running up my collar, ‘make sure your equipment works.’

Test, test,’ I look over my brother’s shoulder. Little Miss Scientist focused on the laptop gives me a thumbs-up. I’m ready to go, but I don’t feel ready, ‘you still haven’t told me “why”.’

Thought it was obvious,’ my brother fusses over me like it’s my first day of school, ‘imagine if the NHS had access to the Lakedancers’ cleansing song? Not to mention, giving the Assembly Guild a hobby would do wonders for our balance of trade.’

You don’t think Lady Skiara might take issue with that?’ I slot the pistol in its holster.

Not if we send her a Ducktales boxset,’ he steps back at last, ‘”I shall spare your lives, master storytellers!”’

I still can’t believe that actually worked, that must’ve been a million-to-one fluke. I take a deep breath and step towards the pedestal.

Remember, you won’t pop out the same place as last time,’ my brother calls after me, ‘we’ve found that sending an electrical impulse through the field shifts the door’s location. It’s crude, but it should put you down outside the forest. Don’t think Mister Horns’ll appreciate us bringing weapons into his sanctuary.’

‘…his name is Hirnu,’ I mutter.

He speaks telepathically, sis, we could name him whatever we wanted,’ he chortles, ‘your first objective is to seek the Ra’i. If anyone knows anything about psychosomatic dimensional portals, it’s pixies that can zap across caverns in the blink of an eye.’

They teleported us across the Rift because we were on a quest to save the world,’ I mount the first stair, ‘how do I convince them to help me this time?’

The cause of wisdom? I’m sure you’ll find a way,’ he seems awfully sure about me, ‘if they can’t help, keep searching. Nobody there treated our appearance as a great surprise, there has to be another way to open a door back.’

I reach the top platform, ‘what if there isn’t one?’

That isn’t an option, I’m afraid,’ he coughs.

When I stop to wonder what he’s implying, I notice the metal bars either side of the doorframe that I’d assumed to be braces holding the wall up. Looking closer, I realise they’re actually locks, ‘you’re trapping me in there!?’

You might fall under a spell and lead an army here,’ he shrugs, ‘it’s nothing personal.’

I turn my head and look him in the eye, ‘…it is personal, isn’t it?’

Look, I’d love to go there in your place, but I can’t, I physically cannot! You know why I can’t!?’ he’s fuming, stroppy, just like he was back then, ‘I can’t, because even though you trusted me when we faced a fifty-foot dragon, you couldn’t trust me in front of an old guy with glasses! That’s the bugger of it, the wide-eyed naïve kid lost his faith while bloody Miss Pragmatism kept on believing! If that’s supposed to teach us some valuable moral lesson, I haven’t a damn clue what it could be! You’re unreliable, sis! I can’t trust you! You owe me…hell, you owe the fucking country! There’s only one way you can pay us back, and this is it. You don’t get a choice in this.’

I wait for him to finish. Is that it? Is he done? Right then, now he’s finally got his tantrum out of his system, I can get on with it. I walk to the door. I put my hand on the latch. I know the other world is there, waiting for me. Waiting for me to charge in and plunder it like some damn conquistador. I think of the Criginnies, and the Ra’i, and the Houmphehants, and Hirnu. I think of the messy, compromised, paranoid realm I’m about to inflict on them. And I stop.

My brother’s come closer, his testiness fumes through the atmosphere, ‘…well?’

My hand falls away from the latch, ‘it’s not right.’

He sighs, long and hard. He clicks something and prods a lump of metal in my back, ‘just open the fucking door, sis.’

I close my eyes. Here’s my choice. I still have one, no matter what the monster that used to be my brother says. I can stand my ground, get shot, and end everything right now before something bad happens. Or I can step into the place that’s haunted my memories for decades, that I’ve itched to return to every second of every hour, waking or sleeping.

I open my eyes, pull the latch, and enter the world at the bottom of the garden . It isn’t a choice at all.

Balancing act

To this day legends are sung about the great deeds of The Arisen, who defeated the Sun King Anis and freed these lands from the Legions of Light, restoring balance to the world.

For millennia, this tale had played out the other way around. The Sorceress Vala, smarting from her own vanquishing many centuries before, ruminated in the Badlands, licking her wounds and biding her time before she could rise again. Meanwhile, the Sun King reigned supreme on the Silver Plain, his subjects at peace and wanting for nothing. But Anis knew that it was only a matter of time before darkness swept the world, and the Three Champions of Light called for once again to bring the earth back to alignment. This time, he was sure to get his lot in first.

Vala was weary of the eternal struggle, having her chance to run riot on this planet for a couple of years, spreading chaos wherever she set foot, only to be undone by three goody-two-shoe brats with no sense of fun. Her hordes did their best to carry on in their pockmarked wasteland, inventing ingenious ways of making do with what little they had and experimenting with how best to organise themselves for the coming battle, often raucously and rather inconclusively. Their divisions and disagreements gave rise to some catchy and imaginative warcries, but served them badly in the face of the Sun King’s united armies.

In a meticulously organised and brutally efficient pre-emptive strike, Anis’ Legions poured across the Badlands and subjugated all who dwelt within. Vala was forced to flee underground, her hordes scattered and enslaved. With all the world under his dominion, the Sun King sought to ensure that darkness was extinguished from the realm, and peace and order ascendent forever. Edifices were flattened, walls and roads erected to ensure passage for his Legions, all discord abolished, and unity imposed by force if necessary.

The people soon came to rue the victory of the Legions of Light, as peace was maintained at the tip of the sword, and want abolished by the imposition of hard labour. From her exile in the caves below, the Sorceress Vala sought to gather Three Warriors of Darkness to defy the Sun King and…she couldn’t believe she was saying this…’restore balance’. She didn’t buy into this whole fate schtick, so she selected by merit.

Strongest and least brave of the three was the self-centred rogue Snark, who had a bone to pick with the Legions of Light for closing his favourite gambling dens. There was no fight that he wouldn’t run away from, later to snipe his pursuers from behind while they looked around in confusion. Only he could make cowardice look dashing.

Wisest and least reserved of the three was the powerful witch Malnise, beautiful and very ready to be seduced by anyone who might actually respect her as a person. Her lack of success in this quest is testified by the plague of frogs she may inflict at a moment’s notice, the trapped souls of the many men…and more than a few women…who had jilted her over the years. Bound by the Sun King’s ludicrously stringent moral expectations, she’s more than willing to aid Vala’s battle against the light.

Sneakiest and least rational of the three was Tira, the assassin. Having graduated from street thief, she was mollified to find the slums she preyed on bulldozed clean and their inhabitants shooed into the wilderness to starve. She had a massive chip on her shoulder about people telling her what to do, and paradoxically for someone who was supposed to stick to the shadows, she was the one likeliest to leap out of them and start stabbing stuff.

Together they were The Arisen, and they travelled the lands seeking injustice cloaked in the banner of righteousness, wronging rights and breaking stuff. They overcame many tasks, tackled overwhelming odds, and journeyed up into the perilous skylands to face their angels until they journeyed to the very heart of the Silver Plains. There they faced the Sun King at the height of his powers, and through tempestuous in-fighting and more than a little trickery finally defeated the tyrannical despot. The Legions of Light were banished from the Badlands, and liberty restored to Vala’s hordes.

The Arisen returned to be celebrated by their freed countrymen, drowning in wine and showered with propositions, some of which actually panned out well for Malnise. The Sorceress Vala tore down the hated roads and walls, lifting the suffocating strictures and allowing the people to return to their homes to rebuild. The Sun King ruminated in the Silver Plain, licking his wounds and biding his time until the next confrontation. And the balance between light and dark was restored again.

To this day, the deeds of The Arisen are sung about in the Badlands. And unlike the tired dirges celebrating the Champions of Light, the songs of praise for the Warriors of Darkness were a lot catchier and full of funk.

Sit ye there and hear me tell of places far beyond

The traveller Ze’amus begs your kind attention, for he has travelled far and seen many lands that will fascinate and astonish thee.

‘You don’t want to stop and take a bath first?’ the sceptic begs also, the foam lather of his beer halted halfway to his lips, ‘there are, like, bits of you falling off.’

The telling cannot wait, Ze’amus must use his remaining strength to transmit his journey while the sights and sounds and taste and touch of these faraway realms still linger on his body.

‘No telling needed for that, mate, we could smell you coming down the river,’ the sceptic toasted his own wit and slurped his sickly drink.

It was in the seventh glorious reign of the Emir Ma’tus that Ze’amus set forth from the capital Qirna. He travelled over the mountains with a band of traders carrying our famous wool and olives. In these warm and wet climbs our wool is no more than useful, for ropes and cleaning scarves. But across the hills in rocky Vernaan, our wool is a necessity. There they have many dyes and swatch them in many colours, so that they can be seen against the snow in that harsh and unforgiving hinterland. The men of Vernaan scour the outcrops for the iron and silver the people of Qirna take for granted, and their hardiness extends to how they eat their lamb, they do not mince it as we do but instead cook it whole and chew it from the bone. We overlords see them as dogs, but Ze’amus was there to see the dyeing festival, where the womenfolk gather around great springs in the foot of the valleys and beat the wool until it is swathed in the most brilliant colours. The dye, which is no longer needed, becomes a pool in which all the people gather and bathe themselves in what they believe to the blood of their god. As Ze’amus watched this fantastic explosion of colour, he met a strange old woman who was also content to observe the Vernaanese. The woman, named Ashtari, sported a greyish tint to her skin and possessed the most peculiar features. When Ze’amus enquired, Ashtari told him that she too had come from afar, but from across the desert at the foot of the mountains, the opposite way from Qirna. Love had convinced her to stay, but her husband had been claimed by the mountain, and she longed to return.

‘Right, annnd…why were you there again?’ the sceptic wipes the flecks from his mouth.

Ze’amus was at liberty and of means, so he found a guide to take them across the desert. This young hothead named Guikhal was adept at racing across the baking desert at dawn and dusk and sheltering at sunken oases for the rest of the day, an elaborate network that existed only in his head and which he would not allow Ze’amus to take note of. The oil in our lamps is found by chancers such as Guikhal at the bottom of these oases, and competition is fierce amongst the desert racers that seek to claim the black gold. One day Ze’amus encountered another such desert racer in Guikhal’s “territory”, a black-bearded beast of a man, but because it was the day when the god of the desert fasted in respect of the scorpions who burrowed from the sun and forewent their food, they parted without fighting. Even in places such as these there is a mercenary code of honour. Guikhal took Ze’amus and Ashtari to a great canyon at the other side of the desert after many days and nights, but could not follow as the god of the desert forbids crossing water. They parted on good terms and Ze’amus continued down the canyon.

The sceptic bangs his tankard on the counter, ‘so, was this a thing you did for fun or…what?’

At the end of the canyon the river widened into a delta, and the desert gave way to a rich and verdant land filled with striped cats and many-coloured birds. They travelled to the rich city of Gajamat, Ashtari’s home, and while her time-faded tales suggested as to the clamour of its streets and the majesty of its vocal music, it was as nothing next to the reality. It is from here that many of our dyes come from, passed from desert trader to desert trader until the city itself is no more than a whisper. They are not ruled by an Emir but by a Peshwa, yet he rules in name only. True power is held by the Tai, the master of ceremonies, a woman chosen from a special order of girls when the last Tai dies. There are many gods in Gajamat and it is the Tai who secures order in this chaos by speaking with them, through visions and rituals, and to ignore her directions risks great peril. Gajamati rituals are more raucous than those in Qirna, with a proud tradition of choir music and conjurors producing magic tricks such as fire from their mouths. They eat food with the most fabulous and injurious spices, for which milk is usually recommended. Ze’amus contemplated following Ashtari’s example and staying, but in the days that followed a dark mood had descended on the city. The old and lenient Tai had been succeeded by a younger, crueller Tai, who railed against the sins committed in the neighbouring country of Ikatta and demanded they be stamped out. The Peshwa was forced to begin raising armies, and Ze’amus’ presence as a foreigner attracted suspicion. Thankfully, the Peshwa wasn’t full-hearted about charging into battle, so Ze’amus had a little time to make his arrangements.

‘Mm, yeah, fire-breathing, real impressive…’ the sceptic chugs, ‘…but a lady in charge? Now I know you’re pulling my leg.’

Ze’amus left Ashtari to be with her people and went to the docks to board a ship home. Amongst the sailors, a sullen young woman with unusual eyelids stuck out, and it transpired that the boat she served on, captained by an old soul called Kormaat, was carrying pelts and ivory to an even more distant land beyond the ocean that the young woman, Mishi, knew the route to. Ze’amus leapt at the chance, and before long he was travelling over the placid waves. Many days later they were struck by a perilous storm and had to take shelter on a jungle-covered island. There Ze’amus discovered a solid stone city rising from the trees, and the ruby-skinned people that dwelt within. The people, who call themselves the Naptec, were like no other he had ever seen. They were ruled by a Queen who was also their priestess, and dressed in a tunic studded with gold bars. Their normal tunics were triangular in shape, and the rest of their bodies they covered in paint. The Naptec were a hospitable people, eager for news of the outside, and Kormaat exchanged some of his ivory for their head-shaped bronze statues, which were a wonder to behold. Together they ate of corn a most delicious paste of various crushed herbs. Mishi was most concentrated on having the boat repaired, missing the exciting stamp-dance to discourage the wind that ended our visit.

‘Cuz we can’t have a travelogue without throwing in a lost civilisation, can we?’ the sceptic licks his lips for the last of the beer.

A few more days after Ze’amus left the Naptec, they came to the great country of Xiao. It is a rich and populous place, where administration is very highly developed and great power is kept by grand offices. Their Emperor is never seen, but visitors are always reminded of his presence. Mishi smiled for the first time when Ze’amus came to her home, as it was the first her family had seen of her since she was a little girl. The people of Xiao feast indoors in great underground halls, and they eat dumplings and rice and want for nothing in all the world. Instead of gods they worship many spirits, who are all manifest of a larger metaphysical field, and they forgo gathering rituals in favour of private and intimate forms of prayer. However, the authorities of Xiao kept Ze’amus closely watched, and Kormaat found it very difficult to sell his wares. Days passed and Mishi seemed to disappear, until one morning Kormaat woke Ze’amus and bid him to return to the boat as soon as possible. It was not long before the word rang out that the Emperor had been assassinated, and Mishi seemed to be the culprit. It seemed that the tip Kormaat had received back in Gajamat was part of an exiled girl’s long plan for revenge. The boat had barely left harbour before it was blasted apart by blazing pillars of fire shot from the shore, and Ze’amus barely survived by clinging to a piece of flotsam.

‘You saw me nodding off and just added some drama, didn’t you?’ the sceptic pushes away his tankard.

The current took Ze’amus into icier waters, but before he could freeze and go mad from seawater, he was rescued from the ocean by a long ship of dark oak. The pale, hairy, hardy people who rescued him were fishermen from Hargrig, a land of always-night. These isolated folk were led not be one man but by a group of chiefs who all had their mettle tested in combat against the mighty whales that plied the waves just off-shore. They wore pelts and ate a great deal of fish, so Ze’amus’ hunger was soon sated. The women all handled the delicate task of ritual, preparing fishbone necklaces and headdresses. Like the Xiaoese they believed in spirits instead of gods, but for them spirits were all there were, practicality infused their rituals and beliefs. When Ze’amus proposed travelling over the tundra back south, the Hargrigmen thought him mad, since for them the sea was all there was. But he could not be dissuaded, and travelled alone across mountain ranges and down rivers, to tell his story to the first Qirnan he came across. He had seen all colours and beliefs, kindness and cruelty, and tasted every kind of foodstuff the human tongue had ever conceived of, but in every realm he found links to something shared, something common, and he wanted everyone to know that this bond exists. Because no matter how depraved the other may seem, no matter how hard the spirit may be crushed, there are things in this world too beautiful to be kept to themselves.

‘Ahhh…so it’s a metaphor for us all getting along!’ the sceptic pays his tab, ‘why didn’t you say that in the first place instead of wasting my time?’

Wampyr

Sophia glared at her reflection in the mirror.

Yes, she could see herself in the mirror, thanks for asking.

She wished she knew who she was hectoring with these internal monologues. Her as she once was? The ten-year-old brat who poked dead frogs with a stick? The mortal her often came out to poke dead her with a stick after she hadn’t eaten for a while, erupting like a bad rash once a decade. She tugged calloused fingernails through the knot tangles around her face. To any mortal she’d normally look like she was sweeping her dainty pinkies through smooth jet hair. There was a reason non-people like her avoided mirrors, it was like the difference between Dorian Grey and his picture. Not that it mattered now, her reflection looked pretty much like her these days. A pallid, sunken-eyed, bony little snot balancing on a stool to reach the bathroom mirror, flicking in and out with the fluorescent bulb. She tried her best to look halfway presentable. Mortal Sophia cheekily suggested kissing a prince to turn into a frog. Immortal Sophia told her to bog off and mind her own dead business.

Her gums felt funny, no matter how much mouthwash she swilled, the plaque kept rising. She gave the little tooth next to her right canine an experimental wiggle. It came out between her fingers.

Shit!

Sophia pressed the molar desperately into the gaping hole in her teeth. No no no! If she lost this one, it was gone for good, she’d spend centuries looking like a ten-year-old granny. She could see it now, hobbling about, smacking gams…ugh! It won’t stay!

Damn it. Nothing doing, she guessed. She descended the stool and re-entered the dingy bedsit. As had become tradition, her passing brought out a hissing fit from Balthazar. The stupid tabby. Nikolai’s suggestion for coping without eating, get yourself a trusty animal companion to share your frustrations with. Pfft, easy for him, the bastard nomenklatura had exclusive access to the freshest hospital runoff, maintaining complete command of the bats and the rats and the gnats and all the other dumb beasts ending in “at”. She has to rummage round the back of the meat processing factory once a week, not even fruit flies respected her authority, she had to swathe herself in insect repellent every evening. So her relationship with Balthazar is unrelentingly adversarial, he bares his fangs and raises the hairs on his back, she bares her fangs and hisses right back. It was a sanity check if nothing else, independent verification that she still existed and wasn’t a figment of a mad Irishman’s imagination.

The fridge opened for Sophia, and rummaged inside for a crimson bag that wasn’t too coagulated. She stood up, the fridge clunked shut by itself, the microwave opened above the kitchenette, she chucked and the door clacked shut. She tried setting the time the same way, but it was like clairvoyance through beer goggles, three numbers were getting pressed at a time. She had to reach up on tip-toe and punch the keypad herself. God, it felt so damnably plebeian to do things by hand. Seeing the box light up and the bag spin slowly around, buzzing, she felt a crystal clarity come over her, like her mortal child self was sitting in the sink and pointing at her. Things weren’t right, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, lying in a bedsit clutching her own tooth while a sachet of industrial runoff got zapped. Mortals must’ve felt this too, she’d seen enough crummy TV movies at three in the morning to know this was thing they went though. But decades and decades of it, all because the modern world had caught up with them, it was relentless and made her feel constantly inadequate.

She remembered the old days with perfect recall. No fuzziness with this dead brain, she reminisced about descending on some nameless Bavarian hamlet and slowly massacring it, one disappearing spinster at a time. One night a family saw pretty little her wandering in the street and hurried her indoors to escape the monsters, unaware they’d let the monster inside. Good times, enriching and tasty. You couldn’t get away with that kind of shit these days, they’ve got fingerprints and CCTV and blood splatter analysis now, even Stephen King’s favourite middle-of-nowhere haunting places would call in the FBI and the jig would be up. They might not have been able to kill her, but they could make her undeath very difficult. The microwave dinged pathetically. They’d made it difficult for her already. A shadow passed through the microwave and the crimson sachet plopped out of nowhere between her feet. Curses. Sofia’s knees creaked picking the bag up. Holding it in her hands, she gathered the distant impression that it was scalding her fingers. She used to be better at sensing things like that. Speaking of, how long had that envelope been there?

Sophia glanced at the letter she’d detected on the doormat. The postman had given up braving the night, never mind that nobody knew this address, so who…? A shadow passed over the door. She held up the recycling bag that’d been lying there for a month. Damn it. Throw away, try again. Letter now in hand, she curled up on the couch and levered open the valve on the sachet with her long incisor. The nuking had made the sickly plasma halfway digestible, but it was still a ghastly livestock mixture that was sufficient to keep her limbs from falling off and little else. Swallowing it and sloshing it around her mouth, she pressed her free tooth back into its gap in a vain hope that the infusion would force the molar to adhese with her gums again. She inspected the envelope to pass the time. A great big black sharp-edged plain and simple cross was printed on it. That wasn’t a good sign. Her aversion to crosses wasn’t that mad a superstition, it wasn’t the crosses themselves so much that the people wielding them tended to be nutters. A cross-stamped meant one of two things: Jehovah’s bloody Witnesses or vampire hunters.

There was something loose inside. She tore the envelope slowly open with a fingernail and upended its contents. Little white pods tumbled onto the carpet. Cute, real cute, oh har har, that sure showed her, the self-righteous twats. Vampire hunters, then. Only they would know how much the garlic thing really got on their nerves. All because one household in one village somewhere was spared for one measly night when they hung the stuff around their window. Creatures like her had irritably sensitive noses, the better for smelling orphans under the floorboards, so all things being equal they preferred to skip the house that stank to high heaven. Smearing manure around their window would’ve had the same effect, but she couldn’t remember any pompous idiot mortal ever trying that. The garlic thing always got a rise out them, which was why hunters always brought it up, just to see them flap about and throw a hissy fit. Y’know, before cremating them and storing them in an underground vault under triple-locked armed guard.

The envelope yellowed and flaked to bits in her fingers. So these self-appointed moral guardians knew where she lived, and they wanted her to know that. Not one of the Orders, then…or as she called them, “three old farts who met up every Sunday to play darts”. Those groups at least pretended to be professional, and if you laid low and didn’t kill anybody it was pretty easy to fly under their cataract-encrusted radar. No, this was a local mob. They didn’t care what she was or what she did, only that she was in their approximate vicinity. If she’d buggered off and terrorised Ruislip, they’d be fine with that, they wouldn’t give two monkeys. She wondered if it was worth doing just that. She wasn’t two-hundred anymore, she couldn’t just up sticks and fly to Switzerland whenever the mood took her. She could call upon Nikolai and some of the other old contemptibles to come and ahahahahaha no, she’d bite her own arm off before she relied on any of those arseholes for help.

That, Sophia reflected, was the greatest weakness of creatures like her. Not garlic or silver or sunlight or any of the other romantic fictions mortals made up to pretend they were anything more than zombies with airs, just the simple fact that none of them could stand the sight of each other. Surprise surprise, strip a human of their humanity and they turn into insufferable bitches. They hardly ever turned anyone else, since it was an exhausting mission in itself and at the end of it you got someone else you’d really rather stayed dead. She’d turned a guy ages ago…unresolved mother issues and all that…and when the Orders caught up with the bastard during the First World War it was a blessed relief that the feckless layabout wasn’t around to ask her for money anymore. It was about when Bananarama was in the charts that he reconstituted his ashes and escaped (that was happening more often lately – the guards’ average age was reaching seventy), they hadn’t been in touch since. Once a decade some bolshy turd would talk about storming the Paris Catacombs and freeing their charcoaled brethren, and nothing would ever come of it because (besides the impossibility of any of them working together) none of them especially liked the ones who got caught. Whenever any of the ashes got a stray waft of humidity and scarpered, they usually left everyone else there. So they all survived on their lonesome, sharing tips and little else, making do with what they had and screwing everyone else. It was a ghastly existence, mere subsistence and survival, but there were no alternatives.

Sod it, she thought. Let the local pitchfork-wielders do their worst. She was tired, her tooth was just about wedging in, and after centuries of shuffling about she was due for something exciting. The first rays of harsh light were cresting the edges of the always-drawn curtains, and she slumped on the couch for a good long nap.

There was shuffling in the hallway, clicking hairpins in the lock. Sophia couldn’t be arsed to investigate, it was too early in her day-long siesta and her cold limbs were jelly. The door creaked on its hinges. There were voices in the unseen light.

Weird,’ said a young cracking voice.

Ssh! What?! What is it?!’ replied an old croaking voice.

She’s on a couch.’

Why…yes. Annnd…?’

I dunno, I thought she’d be in…like…a crypt or something.’

‘…why would she be in a crypt, you crazy, crazy arsehole?’

Sounded familiar. The experienced old fossil who couldn’t let go of battling evil, either out of an ironic quest to reclaim his lost youth or because he’d read the Daily Mail too many times, usually both. Then the young’un buzzing with a bit too much Buffy, someone with the incessant need to crack heads looking for a legitimate reason to do so. She’d run into people like that in every age – some became fascists, others anti-fascists, some found religion and chopped the heads off middle-easterners, others found religion and chopped the heads off the walking dead, it was all much of a muchness. She’d normally do something about these cads, but it was so obnoxiously bright out…

Footsteps shuffled through rumpled shirts and bras stuffed with socks.

So…is she in some kind of hibernation state? Recovering energy?’

‘…yes, otherwise known to us normal people as sleeping, you dense fuck.’

Right, right, it’s just…she’s not moving.’

She’s technically dead, what were you expecting her to do? Snore?’

The crusty old guy a tenth her age was being a little harsh. She needed rest, sure, she could hardly get up at sunset these nights, but she hadn’t had a dream in five centuries. It was just darkness, day after stultifying day of darkness. That had to drive anybody up the wall, she reckoned, it was like waking up after thirty minutes shut-eye with a dead spider in your mouth, but all the time. She wished these intruders would totter off and harass some other nocturnalist, but she was so so tired. Maybe she’d swat them off some other time. After all, they were obviously idiots, what could they do to her that was any worse than how it was now?

CRACK

What…

the…

FUCK…

did they just do?!

Funny, I thought that’d kill her for good.’

Nothing kills ‘em for good. Her heart’s been functionally useless for hundreds of years now, what made you think driving a stake in it would do anything?’

A stake?! Did they just…?! She stammered and gargled and levered her head up. There it was, a great big rusty spike straight through her ribs and into the couch. She tried grabbing it. Her fingers couldn’t get any purchase. All her bones were locked, no energy in anything. She tried again. One thumb, one pinky…damn it! Her senses had funnelled, the big stupid mortals were looming outside her bloodshot view and the light, the idiot light, even through the curtains it was blotting everything out. She tried once more. No, she couldn’t get it. She couldn’t move. Get it out. Get it out. Get this stupid thing out!

So what’s it do?’

It lets us talk.’

The mortals are stalking around. No, not the curtains, not the…

AAAGH!

That damn sun! Nooooo, close it up! The horrible rays were irradiating her, her skin couldn’t absorb it! She was going to look like Kilroy by dusk!

Didn’t you get our message?’

Sophia’s throat was clogged, she couldn’t answer. The light was blinding. The stake, she couldn’t feel it but it was unmistakeably there. Damn it. Damn it and damn everything and especially damn these twerps.

In case you didn’t understand it, here’s what it means: leave. We don’t want you round here. We don’t care how rehabilitated you are, and we don’t care if the Orders didn’t think you worth the hassle. This is a monster-free area, and your kind isn’t welcome here. We’ll be visiting tomorrow, and the next day, and if you still haven’t got this message, we’ll keep delivering it again and again until you do get it. You understand now?’

God, she couldn’t nod, the unbelievable bastard.

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?’

No, they were going to close the curtains, they were going to pull this thing out of her chest, and they going to get down on their knees and beg forgiveness before she ripped out their larynxes they were already gone, weren’t they? Everything was muffled and blasted with sun, she couldn’t tell, but those shadows definitely weren’t looming anymore. Fuck everything.

Right, first thing was to get out of this stupid sun. No shit it didn’t kill her, that wasn’t why their kind kept out of it. They kept out of it because no amount of lotion in the world was going to get rid of their sunburns afterwards. They were dead, remember? It wasn’t like their skins could recycle. It was the mirrors thing jacked up to a thousand, except they’d look like shambling wrecks in public, no, fuck the sun and fuck everything about it. How deep was the stake? She shuffled. Oh for god’s sake, it’d only gone through the cushion and that was enough to pin her down. All right, after three. Three! Oof, it was no good, not enough purchase. This was pathetic, no strength at all. If the sun would only go down, she could turn into a pack of rats and be out of there. With what strength? Half of her would get gobbled up by Balthazar before she’d piece herself back together again, never mind she’d be a giant raisin by then. She dug her fingers in, she’d terrorised half the Alps, she could get off a bloody couch. On two. Two!

Sophia flumped. The cushion flumped with her. Spent, in the shade at last, she lay like an undead cocktail sandwich on the clumpy carpet. Unable to move, unable to get her breath back because she didn’t have any, this might not have been the worst moment of her un-life but it easily made the top hundred. Her mortal child-self must’ve been in fucking stiches. She creaked her head up and stared out the narrow gap between the cushion and the floor. Balthazar was hissing at her. She couldn’t be arsed to hiss back.

Fuck this. Fuck all of this. Sophia summoned five centuries of pride and resolved. From this moment on, she wasn’t the only dead person walking in this town…