Kemet, Chapters 1-8

Forward

This is a story with a female protagonist who doesn’t fall in love at the end. Just wanted to let you know that upfront. No relationship can survive without honesty, so I’m going to be honest with you from the beginning. There is no man (or woman, for that matter) in the following pages that I end up with, just my cat and my parents and my friends and my new… coworker? Partner? Tormentor? I’m still not entirely sure what to call her yet. She dragged me kicking and screaming into her world despite my best attempts to ignore and avoid her. Now we fight monsters and save the multiverse together. Make of that what you will. And if by the end you think I could have done more to prevent getting into this situation, well, you try blowing off a goddess. See how long you get away with it. The adjustment period was rough (I almost died, several times, thanks a lot Bast!), but this is my life now and it is exactly how I want it, so don’t you dare feel sorry for me. I don’t.

I know what some of you are thinking: What!? A female protagonist who doesn’t fall in love at the end? What else could this possibly be about? And I get that. I personally know a number of people who can’t imagine a leading lady not riding off into the sunset after being swept off her feet by her handsome prince. Well, I do get swept off my feet, sort of, and I believe that the guy who did the sweeping genuinely thought he was saving me, but then the jerk turns around and literally murders an entire world. More on that later.

The point is, if you fall into this camp of love/romance fanatics, you may want to stop reading now, before you become emotionally invested, and reach for your worn-out, well-loved copy of Pride and Prejudice. I’ll try not to take it personally.

Chapter 1

My life started out normal enough. In fact, in the moments before my life went hurtling out of control, I was on my way to game night at my favorite hang-out.

            I was strolling down the sidewalk, looking up at the blue late-afternoon sky with cheery relief from under the visor of my white fedora. Finally, a nice day. I was starting to forget what the sun looked like. The birds were singing, the late spring sun was shining, and in that moment I didn’t have a care in the world.  I sniffed at the gentle breeze that blew off the lake and ruffled my frizzy ponytail, grateful that the soppy weather that had been saturating upstate New York for the first half of the year had finally let up for a day. Cars whooshed past me on my right as I ambled down the street, swinging my canvas shopping bag with its heavy board game absently at my side. Wonder if Karl brought his copy of Terra Mystica this week? I’ve been interested to play it. If I knew how to whistle I would have.

I hopped over a fallen tree branch and stepped carefully over the leafy twigs. Man that was some storm last night. Good on the utility people for getting the power back on already. It was such a strange storm. For twenty minutes the wind howled like a wild animal and torrents of rain sluiced down from the heavens. Trees were toppled, shingles were ripped off roofs, and electric lines were wrecked in the storm’s fury. The weather man couldn’t explain it. Just hours before he’d been predicting clear skies all night. There was nothing on the radar all day and then bam; a green blotch appeared on the map covering the entire area, seemingly from nowhere.

Finally I reached the plaza with the game shop. The Enchanted Badger had a tinted-glass storefront with a colorful neon sign beside the door proclaiming “We Have Games!” It had been two years since I had moved to Ithaca, but I still looked at this place with the same affection as the first time I had walked through the door.

I hadn’t known anyone in the area before moving here and I was desperate to meet people, but didn’t have much clue of how to go about it. Supporting myself working two jobs through college hadn’t left me much time for making friends or socializing the last half decade, and so I was left with the uncomfortable knowledge that I was entering the adult world socially awkward and friendless. My only idea of where to meet people came from my high school days playing Dungeons and Dragons with my fellow nerds as we drank cup after cup of coffee at the local Denny’s in my hometown outside of Pittsburgh. Those gaming sessions had been among the few things I actually enjoyed about high school, so I figured a game shop might be worth investigating in this brave new city.

Cthulu-shaped bells tinkled merrily as I walked through the door that first day and the woman who owned the shop turned to me and gave a smile that was all kittens and rainbows. She walked up and asked if I was looking for someone to play with. I liked her instantly. This angel with twenty-sided dice dangling from her earlobes had immediately recognized a lonely soul and pulled me over to one of the long wooden tables to introduce me to a group of others who would be lonely but for this place.

I smiled faintly at my reflection in the dark storefront as I snapped out of my reverie and grabbed the door handle, but then paused, listening. A rhythmic clippity-clippity-clippity noise was coming this way from down the sidewalk. I frowned and turned toward the sound. It was definitely something with hooves. Once in a while a confused, hormone-crazed deer could be found running around downtown during mating season, but this sounded much heavier than a white-tail. What would a horse be doing here?

My gaze fell on the creature racing toward me and I froze in place, eyes widening. It wasn’t a horse. It was a unicorn. A shining white unicorn. I only had a moment to take it in before it blew past me, but even in that brief time I could see that its coat was immaculate, its eyes dark, and its forehead graced with a tapering spiral horn. I swiveled on my heels and watched the creature disappear as it veered right off the sidewalk and galloped across a small urban park. My mouth hung open, and I took half a second to decide whether I should call animal control or pull out my phone and take a video since, you know, I was looking at a freaking actual freaking unicorn for freaking real and when was this ever going to happen to me again? I pointed my phone’s camera at the rapidly receding hind-quarters, hoping at some point the creature would turn its head and I could get a profile pic, when something collided with the back of my skull.

Whoa, what!? It wasn’t heavy or hard, but it hit me with enough force that I pitched forward a step and felt a flash of pain spread through my neck. I reached my hand up but couldn’t feel anything sticking to the back of my head or see anything on the ground around my feet. So what just hit me? “Sorry!” a sheepish little voice chimed. I looked up from the ground. Hovering at head height, perhaps three feet from where I stood, was a fairy. She was about six inches tall and daintily built, with light brown skin and long forest-green hair hanging loose about her shoulders. She wore a knee-length sundress that appeared to be made of sewn-together birch leaves and grass blades. Her wings were hardly visible; they flapped so quickly they were an iridescent blur behind her.

            There’s a fairy hovering in front of me… She looked flustered and red-faced and her hair and dress were rumpled, one of the grass blades that formed the shoulder straps of her dress torn in half and dangling down her chest. For a moment time stood still, frozen by the sheer strangeness of the tableau. I rubbed the back of my aching neck, lost in a world that had suddenly stopped making sense as the fairy giggled uncomfortably and tried to smooth out her appearance. After patting ineffectually at her dress the fairy looked up at and opened her mouth to say something, then paused. Her gaze slid over my shoulder and she gasped, her face going deathly pale and her eyes widening to outline her emerald irises.

Visibly trembling, she turned back to me and squeaked, “Run!” before turning and zipping off in the same direction as the unicorn with a sound like dragonfly wings. My stomach sank and my heart fluttered. I had always scoffed at the stupidity of horror movie characters for turning to face the monster slowly, but now I understood why they did it. They didn’t want to know what was behind them, didn’t want to enter the moment they had to face the Big Bad Thing. And so, fully conscious of how melodramatic it was, I slowly turned around to see a…

Oh, shit…

            My guts turned to water as adrenaline crashed through my muscles like an electric current, instantly raising every hair on my body and propelling me down the street with the crazed energy of a woman trying to outrun death itself. I dropped my bag and broke into a dead sprint, grateful for all the cardio I had been doing at the gym lately. My peripheral vision darkened, narrowing the world to the strip of sidewalk directly in front of me. It was charging from about ten yards behind me, roaring with the fury of an enraged sun. Height-wise it wasn’t much taller than the unicorn, but its slim, sinuous, serpentine body was much longer. Brilliant blue scales glittered with hints of green and red like opals in its hide, fading to a lighter aquamarine on its underside. Ivory horns curved from the top of its skull and steam curled from a snout full of fangs. Nasty-looking talons as long as my hand clicked on the pavement with every stride, growing closer by the second. It would have been beautiful if I hadn’t been sure I was about to get a chance to examine its tonsils up-close.

A hot-metal smell like the tin hot-food containers that caterers use at buffets reached my nose and I cried out, despairing at the wave of fire and burning agony I was sure was about to wash over me. Would it flame-thrower me until I was crispy? Would my charred skin crunch like fried chicken when it bit into me? I darted a look at the traffic whipping past and considered playing Frogger. Getting flattened by a bus couldn’t hurt anymore than being burned and/or eaten alive right?

Suddenly I felt a pop in my left thigh and my options evaporated. My knee buckled under the quadriceps that had given out and I could only watch as the sidewalk leapt up to slap me in the face. No, No, NO!

I crashed to the pavement and skidded a little, banging and scraping my knees and the heels of my hands. I thought with mounting resignation that there was no way I could get up before it overtook me. I rolled onto my back, knees bent to my chest, and hoped I could get in one good kick before…

The freaking dragon wasn’t behind me!

I sat up. There it was, maybe twenty yards away. It was turned away from the highway and snarling in the direction of the park. Something red glistened on its face. Blood… The dragon was bleeding from a gash under one sapphire eye. Was that there before? I don’t think so… I followed the dragon’s gaze to see a cat-woman standing in a wide stance and looking like she was ready to kick serious ass. And why not? I’ve seen a unicorn, a fairy, and a dragon already, so why not a kung-fu cat-woman? She was quite a sight. Her skin was the color of bronze, sun-kissed, and her eyes the exact shade of gold. She had glossy black hair that fell straight to her shoulders and facial features that were an elegant combination of human and cat. Pointed ears pressed flat against her skull, the fur on her black tail raised on end. She wore a green scoop-neck shirt under a darker green leather jacket and form-fitting black capri pants that accommodated for the human legs that ended in cat’s paws. Completing the look was a brown leather satchel slung over her shoulder. I crossed my legs where I sat and stared, dazed. I’m being saved from a dragon by a cat-girl in a green leather jacket… How has my life come to this? I reviewed all of the events of my life and honestly couldn’t see where I’d gone wrong.

The dragon opened its mouth wide and roared, unleashing a jet of yellow-orange flame from its jaws. With an effortless grace the cat woman flipped out of the flame’s path, landed lightly on her feet, and with speed almost too fast to follow charged while bellowing a battle-cry that almost made me pee myself. Claws dug furrows along the dragon’s side from shoulder to hip leaving four deep, bloody lacerations like drippy racing stripes. The dragon’s sapphire eyes grew wide and it let out a deafening shriek, but needed only half a moment to recover before it whipped about with fangs bared. A fist smashed into the side of its face with enough force to send several of the beast’s teeth plinking onto the pavement.

Taking advantage of its disorientation, the cat-woman stepped forward and executed an impressive side-kick that toppled the dragon to a sprawling heap on the ground and left a paw-shaped dent in its hide. For a moment the dragon looked dazed and then curled up on itself, tail wrapping around its forelegs and wings furling over its back. Its mouth hung open and blood ran freely from its side and its broken teeth. The cat-woman panted and ran a hand through her hair. “Now,” she said, “If you’re done screwing around it’s time I sent you back where you belong…” Sinewy legs gathered beneath the dragon’s body, and it launched itself into the air toward the trees and houses across the park.

A look of outrage twisted the cat-woman’s features. “Hey! Get your scaly ass back here!!!” she roared as she dashed after it, leaving my scraped, terrified, rattled self sitting on the sidewalk staring after them. I started to push myself to my feet while still watching the pair disappearing into the distance when a voice called out, “Hey, are you ok?” I whipped around to see a middle-aged man in sunglasses and a Yankees ball cap leaning across the seat of his stopped sedan with a concerned expression on his face. “Oh my God, did you see that!?” I blurted, pointing toward the park. The man craned his neck looking past me, and then asked in an interested tone, “See what?”

I looked back, but dragon and cat-woman were gone from sight. I opened my mouth to tell the man what had happened, but then the part of my brain in charge of common sense came back online. “Ahh… never mind! I’m fine!” The man looked like he was about to ask something, but the cars behind him were starting to blare their horns, so after a final concerned look in my direction he put his car in gear and continued on down the highway.

I dusted myself off and looked around. It was strange; everything appeared to be completely normal. The sun was still shining; the trees lining the street swayed in the breeze, and commuters drove past on their way home from work. Nothing remained of my encounter to suggest that this little corner of the world was experiencing anything other than a typical Tuesday evening. I stood there trembling, not knowing what to do with myself. What were you supposed to do after an experience like this? For several minutes I stood there wringing my hands, paralyzed by indecision. Eventually, I decided that whatever I did next, I didn’t want to be alone. And then something occurred to me; the sun was shining directly on my face. My hat was gone, must have blown off at some point. I gasped, looking around. And my bag! The bag with my wallet and my copy of Scythe in it! Half dazed, I limped as fast as I could back to the game shop. I let out a relieved sigh a few minutes later when I found the shopping bag laying on its side where I had dropped it and found my wallet and game undisturbed. A few feet away I found my phone. The screen wasn’t damaged but the purple cover was pretty scuffed. Well, that was alright. I mean, that’s what phone covers were for, right? My hat, however, was not so fortunate. I could see it in the middle of the highway, crushed by several cars and covered in dirt. I made a mental note to pick another one up next time I went to the mall.

Shaking with the after-effects of an adrenaline rush, I staggered to the door and this time made it into the store without incident. The familiar flamboyant green walls, whimsical posters of cartoonish badgers announcing upcoming gaming events, and nerdy paraphernalia scattered about the room comforted me immensely. Coming here always made me feel as though I were walking into my second home. As I stepped past the counter I was greeted warmly by the gamers seated at the store’s four long wooden tables. I had gotten to know most of them in the last couple of years, and as I smiled and returned their friendly hellos in this place that was so comfortable and familiar, the previous events started to feel unreal and distant. I went straight into the Badger’s small bathroom and cleaned my scraped palms and knees as best I could. It was funny. My hands and knees hadn’t really hurt when I fell, but now that I was calming down the scrapes were really starting to sting. After doing what I could to clean up I let myself out of the bathroom and saw three of my friends at one of the tables beckoning me over.

The majority of the Badger’s clientele were pale, stocky, bearded men, and the three guys setting up a game of Terra Mystica all fell within this category. To my left sat Karl, a man in his late twenties with dark brown eyes and long, dark, wavy hair and beard. He tended toward very casual clothing; tonight he was wearing a blue t-shirt and blue plaid pajama pants. My guess was that this was what Karl was wearing while working today and he just hadn’t bothered changing before coming here. And I could hardly blame him; if I worked from home selling insurance plans over the phone all day I would want to be comfortable too. It was nice that he could join us tonight. Karl couldn’t make it to game night often since many of his evenings during the summer were taken up by gigs. He played guitar in a band, mostly 80s rock music, and I would occasionally see him doing a set in local bars and stuff around town.

Across the table sat Gary and Frank; both men in their 50s sporting grey hair and glasses. Like me, Gary had a bachelor’s degree in Biology and had a job on Cornell’s campus, but he worked as a technician in a Biochemistry lab whereas I was employed in greenhouse complex. He was bald with a full but tidy grey beard and pale blue eyes, and in his typical manner he wore a dark t-shirt and jeans. Gary adored twisty puzzles and pieces of art made from scraps of metal and mechanical bits. I looked at his hands and saw he was fiddling with a small wooden puzzle now.

Frank was the slimmest of the three men, with brown eyes, slightly disheveled hair, and neatly clipped beard. He had the prim posture and academic air of the university professor that he was, and was slightly more formal than most of the gamers present in his white dress shirt and khaki pants. I had heard Frank explain what he taught once, but didn’t fully understand it. He taught at Ithaca College and his class was called “Artificial Intelligence”. Most of his students were computer science majors, so it sounded like the type of class that would be useful for designing smart phones and programming robots and such. When he wasn’t teaching he either came here to hang out with us or he went to rehearsal with his medieval story-telling group. He was big into his Icelandic heritage, which explained why most of the games he owned were Viking-themed.

I looked around the table and breathed a sigh of relief to be in a familiar place surrounded by familiar people. I had no idea what had happened to me, had no explanation for it, but sitting in such a normal place doing such normal things made it feel almost like a dream. A frightening dream, and one I was happy to forget about while I was here. “So how was your day Erin?” asked Gary from across the table as he placed his pieces on his player board, and I cringed and wrung my hands together under the table. So much for forgetting about it. “Uneventful,” I replied after a pause. “Got up, went to work, ate Thai food, came here”.

“Story of my life,” Karl murmured as he examined the game board. Desperate to get off the subject of me, I asked, “So Gary, how is your son doing?”

“Vince’s doing great,” he replied, straightening in his chair and smiling all the way to his eyes. Gary always brightened up when talking about his twelve-year-old son, and it was a subject he would cheerfully go on about for hours. “It’s so cool. We’ve been playing games together for years and I’ve always creamed him, but in the last few months he’s come close to beating me several times. It’s so amazing, watching his cognitive abilities develop right in front of me like that.”

The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly and after a while I was able to stop running my fingers over my knuckles and relax them on my lap. We terraformed our territories and built settlements and temples for the next two hours, until Frank finally claimed victory. “Good game,” I said quietly while sorting my pieces into a baggie. “Thanks for bringing it Karl.”

“My pleasure,” he replied. “I see you brought Scythe today. I’m interested to try it but I’ve heard it’s a longer game and we’ve only got ninety minutes or so until the store closes.”

“You’re right,” I agreed, handing him my baggie full of plastic pieces for him to put in the game box. “It is a longer game, so maybe we could play it first thing Thursday evening?”

“I won’t be able to make it on Thursday,” Frank interjected around a mouthful of the chips he’d bought from the counter. “We’re putting on a production of Beowulf at the high school that night, but I could make it next week.”

Gary folded his hands on the table and added, “Well, I’ll be around for Scythe day after tomorrow. I’ve played it twice and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.”

“Cool, I’ll bring it Thursday then.” I gathered up my things and stood.

“Heading out?” Karl asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, I want to get to the gym before it closes. You guys have a good night ok?”

I picked up my bag and wished everyone still in the store good-night. Several patrons turned and wished me a safe trip home as I pushed my way out the door and into the cool spring evening, wincing slightly at the pain in my thigh. I’d have to make sure to do plenty of stretching when I got to the gym. I had planned to use one of the stationary bikes but it was starting to look like this was going to be a swimming night. The rapidly cooling evening breeze blew through my thin clothes, making me regret not bringing a jacket as I walked as quickly as I could under streetlamps that created pools of light and shadow down the length of the sidewalk.

For the first time in hours thoughts of earlier crept into the forefront of my mind. What had happened today? A brief loss of insanity? An incredibly vivid daydream? I shrugged and rubbed my thumbs against my finger pads; I had no plausible explanation for what had happened and would really rather forget about the entire incident. Hopefully this was a one-time, momentary thing caused by stress at work or something. I shook my head to clear it and started to consider more important things, like whether I should go to the Laundromat tomorrow or wait for the weekend. For the next few minutes I mentally tallied how many clean pairs of socks and underwear I had left and wondered how many days in a row I could wear the same pair of pants without anyone noticing. I had just decided to put the tedious chore off until Sunday when something dark emerged from the shadows and slunk into a circle of yellow street light. With an audible gasp I jumped and was ready to drop my bag and hobble away at top speed, but then I realized the little dark figure trotting up to me was a cat.

Feeling suddenly exhausted and extremely glad no one was around to see me freak out, I squatted down carefully, taking most of the weight on my right leg, and held out my right hand palm facing downward. My heart melted as the little creature sauntered up to me. I had grown up with cats and couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have at least one. This was a lovely animal, sleek and lean with glossy black fur and golden eyes. It sniffed at my fingers for a moment before shoving its head under my hand, purring loudly.

I smiled and stroked the cat’s warm coat. “Hi baby, out for a stroll? I would love to take you home but you obviously belong to someone, and my cat doesn’t get along with other kitties.”

I scratched its head and ran my fingers along its back, and after a few moments the cat slunk a few feet away and turned to look squarely at me. It stood up on its hind legs, and suddenly grew to several times its size, its limbs lengthening and twisting, its facial features re-proportioning until before me stood the cat-woman from earlier. I let out a shriek and my entire body twitched. As I stepped backward my legs got tangled up in my bag and I fell onto my ass. I gazed up at her with my mouth hanging open. She seemed taller up-close than she had in the distance. I thought she had to be close to six feet in height, and her golden eyes almost seemed to glow under the glare of the street lamp.

“You have no idea how happy I am to hear that you’re a cat-person,” the cat-woman purred quietly in a rich alto voice, her mouth curling into a smile. I sat frozen, pinned in place by that golden gaze. “It means you’re in your right mind and getting you over this learning curve should be pai-…” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “…relatively painless. I foresee a good working relationship between us.” She stepped toward me gracefully on her cat’s paws as I struggled to stand up with a bum leg and a heavy bag throwing me off balance. “Now we need to get going; things to do, people to see, a dragon in need of your talents, et cetera et cetera.” Then quick as a snake she grabbed my wrist and hauled me to my feet, the tips of her claws digging uncomfortably into my skin. “I’m sure you’re completely freaked out and have about a million questions for me, but we’ll have time for that later. For now just be satisfied that things are going to get weird from here and you’re going to learn stuff about yourself that’ll melt your brain for about a week. But then you’ll be fine. Probably.” And with that the cat-woman turned and dragged me off into the darkness.

Chapter 2

            Oh God, what now!? I panted with the effort of keeping up with the cat-woman. We were tearing past houses and backyards at a sprint and the pain in my leg flared up with every step, so I ended up being half-dragged across the neighborhood. It was incredible how strong she was; her warm hand gripped my arm like a vice. This close I could also smell her perfume. I had some body spray at home, but it smelled like flowery alcohol compared to what this woman was wearing. The scent coming off of her was a spicy, exotic aroma of cinnamon, lilies, and incense. I breathed it in, for a crazy second wondering whether Bath and Body Works might have something similar, when she made an irritated noise. “Come on, move it!” she growled impatiently. “That stupid lizard keeps running off after the human that stole her treasure and she tries to barbeque me every time I catch her! I can’t do my job and babysit at the same time. I still have a full night’s work ahead of me even without the distraction, damn it, so move your ass!”

“Wait a minute, we’re running toward the dragon!?” I screamed. “What are you going to do, feed me to it!?” The cat-woman looked back at me with an expression like she wanted to club me upside the head. “No, stupid! We’re sending her home! Well, you’re sending her home and I’m standing by to make sure she doesn’t eat you while you do it.”

I wanted to cry. The arm not being pulled out of its socket by the cat-woman’s unforgiving iron grip was starting to ache from holding my shopping bag with the heavy Scythe game inside, and my leg felt like it wanted to detach itself from my body and curl up on the ground in agony rather than run another step. I wouldn’t be making it to the gym tonight. If I got out of this alive I was going straight home, crawling under all of my blankets, and whimpering into my cat’s fur until the sun rose and I woke up from this nightmare.

Finally, just as I was about to drop and make the cat-woman carry me the rest of the way to where the dragon was waiting to crunch my bones, she abruptly came to a stop in a backyard at the end of a cul-de-sac. I bumped into her and peered over her shoulder. Speak of the devil; there was the dragon, curled up in a little patch of woods on the edge of the residential area. The light was poor and it was hard to see, but I thought it looked even more injured than the last time I saw it, as if it had gotten into a fight with a wood chipper and lost. It cringed and whimpered as it saw us approach, wrapping its bloody, tattered wings protectively around its body.

“Ah, good, you didn’t try to sneak off this time,” snarled the cat-woman through bared, clenched feline teeth as she glared menacingly at the dragon. She grabbed it by the lower jaw, forcing its face up to look directly into her eyes. “Smart choice, because you wouldn’t like what would happen after you made me chase you down. Again. Now, my human is here. We’re going to open the way to your world and you’re going to slither home without any more mishaps.” She pulled the dragon’s head forward until their eyes were only inches apart. Her glare exuded such malice that the little spark of outrage I felt at being referred to as “her” human was instantly doused by a wave of terror that left my legs quaking and my guts gurgling. I couldn’t even imagine the level of fear the dragon must have been feeling.

“Isn’t that right?” she growled. The dragon and I both quivered visibly and the beast made a series of rumbling and sibilant sounds. Was the dragon speaking? Or was that just the sound they made when begging for their life? It certainly seemed like the dragon was saying something, because the cat-woman sneered at it and said, “That isn’t my problem. I get that having something valuable stolen is upsetting, but I can’t have you running around attacking humans. And besides, does this human look like she just made off with your horde?” She turned its head to face me and I saw pain and anger in the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. I felt sorry for it. It had tried to eat me earlier today but still, I felt bad seeing such a majestic creature cower and grovel like that. “You’ll just have to find some new shiny objects to fill your lair with.” The cat-woman turned her gaze on me and my back immediately stiffened. “The door to her world has either closed or I just can’t find it,” she said, irritation plain on her face. Then she let go of the dragon’s head and sauntered over to me, swaying her hips as she walked until she stood in front of me. “So I need you to open another one for me.”

I stared at her with a blank expression. Sure, portal to another world? No problem, I’ll just pull one out of my ass for you. Anything else you want with that? Some anger management classes maybe? Fortunately my instinct for self-preservation kicked on in time to keep me from saying something that would have gotten me a hard stare at best and beaten into the ground at worst. Instead, I bit my tongue and responded with, “Huh?”  

The cat-woman sighed and flipped open the leather shoulder bag hanging at her hip and pulled out what appeared to be a string of black beads and a sheathed knife. She draped the beads around my neck and put the handle of the knife into my hand. As soon as she did, I felt something I can’t adequately explain in words. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was warm. It washed over me like hot bathwater and pressed on me like the pressure you feel when you swim to the bottom of the deep end of a pool. This force also pulsed, kind of like a sub-woofer blasting at an ultra-low frequency; a sound that was too low to hear but could be felt thrumming in your bones. My vision swam a little, and after a second I realized the feeling was emanating from the cat-woman.

Power. The word popped into my head out of nowhere, but I knew it was the right one. Somehow, I knew that it was this being’s power I was feeling, immense, weighing down on me like a pulsing thirty foot column of water. “These are a perception amulet and Opener’s dagger,” she said, pointing to each one. She spoke slowly and over-enunciated her words, like she was talking to a slow two-year-old. “They will amplify your abilities until you become proficient enough to do without them.”

“Um, wait,” I stammered, struggling against the press of her aura. “There must be some mistake. I don’t have any abilities…”

She patted me on the shoulder a few times and clicked her tongue. “Come, come now, everyone has abilities and yours, my young friend, is to travel between worlds, so let’s not waste that talent and put it to use. Now, where is the closest portal to this dragon’s world? Another dragon came through right around here earlier so I know the portal is close by.”

A faint tone and a flicker of color in my peripheral vision caused me to look off to the side, and I started at the strange quality the world had taken on. All around, I could see what looked like pockets of colored mist. Directly to my right, encompassing a raised bed of pansies, was a pale yellow haze with glittering motes of gold that gave off a resonating noise like a note of flute music being drawn out. With a sense of wonder I put down my bag and walked over to reach my hand into the mist, and was surprised by the warmth of it. I had expected it to feel cool and damp, but instead it felt as though I had extended my hand into a patch of sunlight. I marveled at the sensation and the way the gold motes swirled and danced in the air currents when strong, clawed hands settled onto my shoulders. “I realize it can be overwhelming at first”, the cat-woman said, tugging at me with her almost fever-warm fingers. “But you can explore later. Let’s keep focused on the task at hand shall we?” She turned me back to face the dragon. “I need you to find a point at which her world touches this one, and then open a doorway so we can send her back. Everyone carries some trace of their home-world on them; you should be able to sense it if you focus.”

I peered at the dragon for a long moment and realized that, just at the edge of hearing, I thought I could discern a low cello-like tone resonating from it. Wandering amongst the fantastic clouds hovering about the cul-de-sac as if in a dream, I listened for a matching tone. A few minutes later I found it coming from a swirling aqua mist under a large oak tree in front of one of the houses. “It’s over here,” I said, pointing.

The cat-woman turned to the dragon and snapped, “Get moving!” Heaving to its feet, the dragon slunk in the direction of the oak tree, head down and tail dragging the ground. Upon reaching the spot, the cat-woman indicated the knife in my hand and said in a voice that sounded like she was regurgitating something she’d been forced to memorize from a manual, “Use it to cut open a door. Simply imagine that you are slicing through the barrier between your world and hers. And don’t worry about your technique or looking cool. Intention is the most important thing.”

I looked down at my new accessories. There was a pendant hanging from the heavy beads that was made of an opaque blue stone, possibly turquoise, carved into the shape of a man holding a scroll. I pulled the knife from the sheath and examined it next. Hilt, sheath, and blade all appeared to be made of gold, polished and gleaming. Encircling the hilt were bands of engraved wave and diamond patterns, and the sheath depicted an image of a jackal standing in profile. The blade had smooth, straight edges that gradually tapered to a fine point, and bore a matching jackal etching. It was heavy and warm in my hand, and I felt vaguely uncomfortable holding something so obviously old and valuable. I stepped cautiously into the bluish mist and was instantly enveloped in the fresh smells of wildflowers. Holding up the knife in my left hand (I’m left-handed), I followed the cat-woman’s instructions and imagined cutting my way into the dragon’s world.

My eyes flicked nervously around the neighborhood and I hoped the owners of the house I was standing in front of weren’t home. I mean, I had to look like a crazy person out here, standing in some family’s yard making Tai-chi-like movements while holding a ceremonial golden dagger in my hand. Better get this done before someone called the cops.

To my amazement, where the tip of the blade passed a line of light appeared in mid-air that slowly widened over several seconds until I found myself standing before a glowing oblong portal about as tall as me. On the other side was a sunlit meadow in an oak grove filled with flowers of every color and description. Little fairies like the one I had seen earlier turned surprised faces toward us as they fluttered among the blossoms, their flower-petal clothing making them resemble colorful hummingbirds zipping to and fro.

Something heavy shoved me to the side and almost knocked me over. When I regained my balance I saw it was the dragon forcing its way past me. It immediately curled up on the soft, fragrant grass as soon as it was through the portal, wrapping its tail around its snout and giving the cat-woman a mournful expression. The edges of the portal began to move in toward each other, closing the gap. Giving the dragon an evil smile, the cat-woman said cheerfully through the shrinking aperture, “You caught me in a playful mood today, dragon, so I’ll let you off with a few bumps and scrapes, but next time I may not be so forgiving.” I don’t know which one of us shivered harder, but as the view of the world beyond grew smaller, I envied the dragon being able to put a world of distance between it and this sociopath. After a few moments the portal closed completely, leaving only a view of an oak tree and a house through a turquoise haze.

I stepped backward out of the mist. My mind suddenly caught up with the last few minutes, and I began to notice a salty taste in my mouth and a fine trembling in my hands. The cat-woman folded her arms and nodded approvingly. “Hey, not bad. A little practice and you’ll be able to do this without a focus. In no time moving through worlds will be like walking through a door for you.”

I sheathed the knife and lifted the beads from around my neck, the portals instantly evaporating out of existence, or at least out of my ability to see them. “No, I don’t think so.” I turned and shoved the pendant and dagger into the other woman’s arms and backed away shaking my head. “This is crazy, ok? Totally freaking nuts!” My voice rose steadily and started to sound shrill in my own ears, but I didn’t care. “I don’t know if this is a dream or if I’m hallucinating all this, but either way I am going home now and I’m going to bed and I’m going to forget about this whole freaking day!” I grabbed my bag and started off toward my apartment in as fast a walk as I could manage when the cat-woman called after me, “No, it’s alright, I get it. This is a lot to take in. You did good today; go home and rest up. We’ll pick this up again tomorrow.” I ignored her, moving briskly toward the familiar sidewalks and streetlamps.

By the time I turned the final corner on my way home I had broken into a sweat and half ran past the tightly-spaced houses of my street. Lights shone from the front windows, and through them I could see people doing ordinary week-night things; eating dinner, watching television, folding laundry. How could their lives still be so normal when mine had gone so out of control? It didn’t seem fair somehow. I slipped through the narrow gap between two houses and hurried toward the back yard. Quickly I clomped up the blue wooden stairs onto the covered white-painted back porch and pulled out my apartment key, but my hands shook so badly it took several attempts before I actually inserted it into the lock and twisted the bolt free.

Cloe darted out of the door as soon as it opened and rammed her shoulder against my legs, scaring the hell out of me. I jumped backward and yelped, but then mentally slapped myself for startling at the sight of my own brown tabby. Suddenly exhausted, I reached down, scooped up the little feline before she could jump down into the yard, and shut the door behind me.

As soon as I was inside I bolted the door and leaned my back against it, sighing. Cloe purred in my arms and I scratched her head. The apartment was quiet and dark, and small enough that closing the door felt like closing out the entire rest of the world. Within these four walls was a tiny island of peace on a suddenly chaotic planet. For a minute I just stood there in the gloom, drinking in the quiet and rubbing my face in Cloe’s fur.

Then I noticed a slight trembling under my feet. Cloe struggled out of my arms and hid under the desk, yowling as the entire building started to shake. Several picture frames rattled off their shelf onto the floor, clattering as they hit the beige carpet. Outside I could hear car alarms wailing as my next-door neighbor’s huskies howled like a pack of wolves. Holy hell, this is it. The end of the world has come to Ithaca. Then everything stopped.

I stood in front of my door, heart pounding. I’d never experienced an earthquake before. One of the attractions of living in this part of the country was its dearth of natural disasters; it was a major reason I didn’t move out of the Northeast. I mean, California dealt with earthquakes and wildfires on a regular basis, the entire middle of the country was routinely decimated by tornadoes and hellacious winter storms, and the length of the east coast got pounded by hurricanes every year. Why wouldn’t I stay here? Natural disasters were something that happened to other people. Except today. I closed my eyes and sighed. A perfect end to a perfect evening. Eventually I flicked on the light switch beside the door, set down my things on my desk, and padded into the bathroom to examine myself in the mirror.

A slim, pale, narrow-faced woman in her mid-twenties stared back at me, her curly light brown hair pulled back in a frizzy tail at the base of her neck. The corners of her chapped mouth tugged down into a frown. Tired blue eyes that looked about two sizes too small thanks to her corrective lenses scrutinized me from behind purple-framed glasses. Other than the marked pallor of my skin, I couldn’t see anything off about my reflection. Certainly I couldn’t see anything to suggest that I was experiencing a mental breakdown. “Then how do explain today?” I asked my reflection. She only shrugged and gave me an unhelpful “I have no idea” look.

Clearly I needed to talk to someone; preferably someone qualified to handle people experiencing recurring hallucinations. For a minute I considered calling my mom. She was always the first one I called anytime anything happened, and she always seemed to know exactly what to say to make me feel better. But what could she do in this situation? Nothing, and telling her about this would only worry her. No, I wouldn’t tell her about this, not yet anyway.

My phone chose that moment to ring. I walked into the main room and checked the screen: mom was calling me. Have you ever had this happen to you? I swear mothers are psychic. On the third ring I picked up and turned on the camera to see my mother’s smiling face. “Hey mom!” I said, forcing a smile of my own.

“Hey sweetie, how’s it going?” Marie was shorter, curvier, and darker than me. Her eyes were a warm brown, framed by voluminous reddish-brown curls. I’d inherited some of the richness of my mother’s hair, but mine still couldn’t compare to the original. She could easily style her hair to look like an eighties rock star, which she did often since she loved going to eighties tribute concerts. She was pushing fifty, but had largely retained the beauty of her youth and still turned men’s heads every time she walked into a bar.

Tonight she was dressed in navy-blue scrubs. I wasn’t sure if she was just getting home from work or getting ready to leave; nurse’s  schedules change too often to keep track of. “Not too much,” I said as I settled onto the bed. “Went to work and then to game night; how about you?”

“Auntie is visiting from D.C. this week,” she said as she propped the phone on the table in front of her, and only then did I notice the toddler bouncing in her lap. Ah, my little cousins were there too.

“That’s nice. Are you having a good time?”

“Oh, yes! Auntie brought the boys with her.” She hugged the giggling child to her chest and sighed. “When are you going to give me one of these?

My smile froze in place. When hell freezes over. “Ah, well,” I stumbled. I hated it when she asked stuff like that. “You know, I’m not even with anyone…”

Mom leaned forward. “Yeah, about that. I was talking to one of the girls at work, and she has a son around your age who lives in Binghamton! That’s only an hour or so from you right? Why don’t you check him out? He’s a high school teacher and sounds like a really nice guy.”

I cringed inside, scrambling for a way to change the topic. Since graduation mom had started making it clear that she wanted me to settle down and have babies, and I’d never had the heart to tell her I had no intention of doing either. I had no desire for men at all, but this wasn’t something I talked about since every aspect of American culture declared that if you weren’t engaged in or actively seeking love there was something wrong with you. How could I explain my disinterest to a woman whose favorite author was Jane Austen? “So what has Auntie been up to lately?” I asked desperately.

She gave me a look. “Alright, you don’t want to talk about it.” Mom huffed and said, “This is why I had to get dogs; neither of my girls are giving me grandchildren. But anyway, Auntie was telling me she thinks she’s going to get a promotion soon…”

We chatted for a few more minutes and then said our good-byes. With a sigh I hung up, brushed my teeth, and crawled under my purple comforter. If nothing else, mom distracted me from my problems for a while…

Within minutes I felt myself sinking down into sleep. Cloe jumped onto the bed and curled up in her accustomed place between my knees. I reached down and stroked her fur until my hand became too heavy to lift. My body relaxed, my eyes closed, and with a profound sense of relief I drifted off…

Chapter 3

“I’mmmmmm coming up so you better get this party started!” I lay in bed sleepily listening to the radio play from across my studio apartment, promising myself that I would get up when the Pink song ended. As the last few bars played I still hadn’t quite worked up the motivation to haul myself out of bed, so I turned onto my side and listened to John Legend’s “All of Me” as well. I was starting to drift back off to the soothing tone of Mr. Legend’s voice, but then the song ended and a news segment came on. “Strange incidences happening all around the Ithaca area,” the earnest-sounding reporter read out. My eyes snapped open and I propped myself up on one elbow, fixing my blurry, near-sighted gaze on the alarm-clock as the news continued. “Residents around town began calling in yesterday with unusual reports, including a rash of mysterious thefts from pedestrians walking through the downtown area, an unexplained column of fire that suddenly appeared then disappeared in Cass Park, and unidentified animal tracks around Cayuga Lake that have animal control workers baffled. Ithaca police have looked into the incidents, and while the cause of these occurrences is still under investigation, they conclude it is most likely a series of pranks and acts of vandalism…”

I staggered out of bed, almost tripped over Cloe, who was rubbing against my legs to remind me that it was meal time, and mashed the buttons on the alarm until it turned off. It’s too early to be dealing with this already. Wide awake now, I made my bed and raised the blinds on the windows to let in the morning sun. The light gleamed in cheerfully and painted the west wall of the room a warm orange, but it didn’t look like it was going to last. Clouds were moving in from the South, and they looked like they were bringing rain with them. Typical. Ithaca was every bit as cloudy and rainy as Pittsburgh had been. Sunny days were a rarity in this part of the world and were treasures to be cherished.

Cloe jumped onto the sill to soak up the rays while she had the chance. Here was a cat who knew how to appreciate nice weather. I walked into my tiny kitchen to turn on the coffee maker and scoop a handful of kibble into Cloe’s dish, and then freshened up in my even tinier bathroom, noticing my face had a little more color to it this morning. A few minutes later I poured myself some cereal and a cup of coffee, sat down on the loveseat in front of the television, and watched Star Trek on DVD as I munched my breakfast. The smell of the coffee permeated my little living space, and I picked up the cup and smiled. During my college days I’d had to make do buying cans of the cheapest bulk coffee available. It was rough and bitter, but it was caffeinated and all I could afford working behind a cash register. Now I lifted the steaming mug to my lips and savored the smooth richness of Pete’s brand.

Finishing up my breakfast I looked over at the radio. The bus was due to arrive in about six minutes, so I turned off the television, tossed a jar of nuts and a couple of apples into my black-and-white striped lunch bag, threw on a form-fitting blue t-shirt and a pair of black yoga pants, stepped into my purple New Balance sneakers, and headed out the door. As an afterthought, I went back into my apartment and grabbed my phone from its place on my nightstand, then locked the door behind me.

I jogged a block down the street and made it to the bus stop just as the bus was turning the corner. I nodded to the driver when I waved my Cornell ID in front of the fare box and sat down in one of the empty seats. As soon as I was seated I set my bag beside me and brought up Pokémon Go on my phone, keeping my eyes down and carefully not thinking about last night. The bus made its way through downtown, climbed the long slope through Collegetown, and wound among the tall academic buildings and expansive green spaces of Cornell’s campus. Ten minutes later I got off in front of the Plant Research building and pushed through the front door.       The entry area was a spacious, airy two-story atrium filled with shade-loving foliage plants and a round pool churned by a small waterfall. Plenty of natural light filtered in through the skylight this morning, giving the room a tranquil feel. After crossing the atrium I turned into a hallway and breezed by one of the young janitors as he pushed his machine down the dark linoleum floor. I smiled and waved at him, “Mornin` Carl.” He smiled and nodded and I passed the first-floor laboratories and administrative offices before stepping through the automatic doors to the concrete-floored plant growth facilities.

A couple of graduate students ambled past me as I turned the corner into the long concrete tunnel that comprised the entire back of the building. Pop music drifted out of the cavernous potting room off the corridor, and as I walked by the doorway I could see an intern repotting potato seedlings at the steel bench while jamming to Maroon 5. I passed the room and made another right into the greenhouse office, a narrow, cluttered, rectangular room that ran parallel to the main corridor. As I walked in, I looked to my left to see my boss slumped in his chair, staring red-eyed at his computer screen. I had seen pictures of him from twenty years ago; apparently he used to be a total gym rat and had a body like Atlas, but decades of constant fretting coupled with the depression from a nasty divorce a few years back had whittled him down to a grey old man. In the time I had worked here, I could count on my hands the number of times he had seemed genuinely happy. He smiled and chattered constantly, but there was such a desperate quality to it, and he kept that strained smile on his face even when he was whining about something, which he did often.

I sighed. Dave was always complaining loudly about something, be it his kids or his girlfriend or his finances or something one of the researches did that got under his skin. Negativity poured out of the dude’s mouth like a noxious fog from the time he got up in the morning to the time he laid down and stared at the ceiling at night, unable to sleep because he still had so much to complain about (his insomnia was something I got to hear about often). I guess he figured that if he couldn’t be happy then no one around him should be either. Still, he was my boss, so though working with him made me uncomfortable at times I made a point of being civil with him.

He was definitely struggling today. It was normal to see him vibrating behind his desk in the morning, but today he looked even closer to an emotional breakdown than usual.

Tell me his girlfriend broke up with him again. “Morning, Dave!” I chirped in my perkiest voice. “How’s it going?”

Dave pivoted slowly in his computer chair and gave me a feeble smile through half-lidded blue eyes. “Not so great, unfortunately,” he said in that irritating nasally tenor of his. “I broke up with Marsha last night.”

You broke up with her? That’s new. “Oh, wow, so sorry to hear that! Are you alright to work today? Do you need to go home?” Go home! Go home and take your raincloud with you!

“No, I think it’s best if I’m here today. At least at work I’m too busy to think too much, and I get to spend time with you guys!” I’m going to have to listen to him whine about how horrible his life is all day… I looked over at the big wall calendar we used to schedule personal time and weekend coverage. At least Art will be here, so I don’t have to deal with Dave by myself. Am I a bad person for thinking this way?

I turned back to him. “Ok, well if you feel like you need to leave early, Art and I can handle things here. We’ll hold down the fort!”

“Thanks, buddy! You’re such a good person! I really appreciate you!” I smiled uncomfortably, gave him a quick “Sure, Dave, it’s no problem!” and walked over to my desk. I was hoping for a quiet morning, but of course the non-verbal cue of walking to the other side of the room wasn’t obvious enough for my boss to leave me alone. Dave stayed turned toward me in his chair. “It was awful, you know what Marsha did last night?”  I sighed and paused the cat video I was trying to watch as Dave whined about his breakup, sharing way more detail that I wanted to hear. Can’t you at least wait until 8AM to do this? My workday hasn’t even started yet and I already want to go home. Mercifully Art chose this moment to walk in. Dave broke off his monologue long enough to greet Art as he sat down at the desk next to mine. He asked Dave how his night was, and like a dog catching a tossed bone Dave happily started his complaining over again.

I loved Art for this.  My fellow greenhouse assistant was a few years older than Dave and thin to the point of looking scrawny, but he wore the look well. Art looked like the proverbial sweet old grandpa. He had an expressive face with laugh lines outlining his mouth and his pale blue eyes. A fringe of scruffy grey hair encircled his bald head, and rectangular glasses perched on his small nose. An aura of calm emanated from him the same way a miasma of anxiety radiated from Dave. His most impressive ability was absorbing Dave’s negativity like a dream catcher and sending serenity out into the universe instead.

After a while Art got Dave calmed down enough to turn around and talk to me. “Mornin! So how was game night?”

I looked at him and gave a genuine smile. “It was good. I got chased across town by a dragon, saved by a cat-girl, played Terra Mystica, then helped the cat-girl send the dragon back to its own world.” Art raised his bushy eye brows and burst out laughing.

“Sounds like you had fun,” he commented. “Did the dragon breathe fire?”

“Yeah, I thought I was going to get fried to a crisp there for a minute.”

He considered this for a few seconds. “Hmm… Well, I’m glad you made it through the evening un-charred. I would have had to do all the watering myself today.”

Art turned away and logged onto his computer. “By the way, Art,” I said casually. “There was an earthquake downtown last night. Did you feel it at your house?”

Art scrolled through his emails. “No, but I heard about it. It didn’t cause a lot of damage from what I hear, but it certainly shook people up.” He smirked at me.

So I didn’t imagine that. My heart fluttered, but I managed to roll my eyes and smirk back. “Very punny, Art.” Eight o`clock rolled around and with a sigh I paused my cat video and pulled my water-proof boots from under my desk. Dave took a few steps toward me wringing his hands and looking strained. “Will you be ok doing the houses by yourselves today? I have a meeting with one of the labs in half an hour and I need to prepare for it. ”

I stood up and made for the door. “Sure, that’s fine. It’s not a problem.”

Dave smiled and held up his hand for a high-five. “Thanks buddy, see you later ok?” I stared at his hand. A grown man really wants me to high-five him right now. I smiled awkwardly while cringing inside and touched my palm to his before Art and I hurried out of the office.

Each of the facility’s twenty greenhouses had a door with a large round window that cast circles of sunlight along the concrete floor, creating a pattern of light and shadow. Sort of like the streetlamps last night. I shook myself and stared directly ahead of me.

Art and I reached the far house, picked up the watering wands from their holsters on the side walls, and fell into the familiar routine of tending the plants. We slowly made our way down the line of greenhouses, watering, fertilizing, and looking over the occasional plant for signs of pests or fungal infection. It was almost Zen, standing in the quiet spaces under the blue sky and the bright orange sodium lamps. I felt truly relaxed for the first time since yesterday. Suddenly the peace was shattered by a dull thump against the back wall. I jumped and felt my heart pound, remembering the cat-woman’s words: We’ll pick this up again tomorrow! Letting the leaf I had been examining slide through suddenly cold fingers I crept up to the glass and peered out, expecting the worst. What would it be this time? An ogre? A werewolf? Some horrible beast with ten heads and claws everywhere? I looked outside, trembling, to see a soccer ball resting on the grass.

I let out my breath in a whoosh and clutched my chest. Summer students. That’s all this was. A group of college students playing soccer. The roughly rectangular lawn behind the building was about the right size for a playing field. Still, there was too much glass around for me to feel comfortable with them playing so close. After I finished up I would head outside and ask them to take their game to the football field down the street. No one used it this time of year and it eliminated the risk of the greenhouse panes getting smash-

A red figure darted up to the back wall of the greenhouses, snatched up the ball and stood, and I found myself standing nose-to-nose with a fox. Our faces were inches apart, separated only by the glass. It stared at me in surprise for a moment, and then I swear the fox smiled. One paw raised and waved at me. Not sure what else to do, I waved back. Satisfied, it dashed back to the middle of the lawn where an entire group of foxes stood waiting. They were larger than normal; standing on their hind legs they were nearly as tall as a smallish person, and each one of them wore an ornate cotton kimono. Their triangular ears pricked forward and their jaws dropped open in canine grins as their retriever threw the ball in the air and resumed their game. They were incredibly fast; I watched with my mouth hanging open as the foxes raced across the entire length of the field within seconds, their colorful sleeves waving at their sides and their bushy tails trailing behind them like banners.

“What are you looking at!?” demanded a stern voice from directly behind my right shoulder. I practically leapt out of my skin before I whirled around to find Art doubled over laughing, one hand holding his chest and the other leaning on a wire bench full of tomato plants. He looked up at me, tried to say something, and then shook with another wave of laughter. I slumped heavily against the bench, almost collapsing onto it. “Aaaah ha, Art. Don’t laugh too hard, old man, you’ll give yourself a heart attack.”

This of course only set him off again. Finally he choked out, “You were looking out so intently. I couldn’t resist!”

“Yep, I will admit, I did make myself an easy target there,” I acknowledged with a nod.

Art straightened up, grinning. “So what were you looking at anyway?”

“There’s a bunch of foxes outside playing soccer.”

He rushed over to the wall and look out, craning his head back and forth to take in the entire lawn, looking but not seeing. “Ooooo, where?”

“Right in front of you.” I pointed to a knot of four foxes fighting for control of the ball. “See, they’re right there.”

He looked at me and chuckled. “I see. They’re not just soccer-playing foxes. They’re invisible soccer-playing foxes.”

So, Art can’t see them. I sighed. It’s true; I really am going crazy. I folded my arms and leaned a hip against the glass. “Yep. And they run around on their hind legs and wear Japanese-style kimonos.”

Art’s mouth stretched until his smile threatened to split his face. “Man, you are full of it today. You oughta tell Dave that one.” At this, he walked out of the greenhouse and into the next one. I watched him go, feeling bleak and so, so lonely. Art couldn’t see the foxes. And if he’d been there with me yesterday he probably wouldn’t have seen the dragon or the cat-woman either. Tears welled up in my eyes and my breath caught in my throat. I was losing my mind, and I had no idea who to talk to about it.

I shook myself and blinked back the tears. There was nothing to be done about it for the moment. I was at work right now; I had to hold it together. After work I could worry about this. Giving the game outside a final glance, I picked up the hose and finished the morning watering, then walked into the potting room to wash up and check on the supplies. Long stainless steel benches and a double row of 55-gallon barrels filled with various custom potting soils took up most of the center of the room. Lining the side walls were large cubby-holes filled with pots, flats, and cell packs in several shapes, colors, and materials. The near wall was taken up by a large, deep sink next to another steel bench covered in freshly scrubbed pots stacked in pyramids to dry.

While washing my hands in the sink I noticed the stack of paper towels was almost gone. I refilled it and checked the soil barrels. One of the mixes was getting low; I whipped up another batch in the soil mixer, sanitized and programmed an empty house for a graduate student to move her plants into, and generally made sure to stay busy all day.

Lunch time came and went, and the afternoon went by quickly. Finally the end of my shift was in sight. Art and I were doing the final watering of the day when I saw Svetlana pruning her tomato plants in one of her houses. I groaned inwardly and tried to slink past her without being seen, but she caught sight of me and stormed over. I could tell she was angry just from the way she held herself. Another dragon is chasing me today, but I can’t even run from this one… “You!” Dr. Svetlana Rostkowski barked. That’s how she always referred to me. I was “You” because she couldn’t be bothered to remember my name. I resisted the urge to bolt as she planted herself directly in front of me and demanded, “Why do my plants look so terrible? Are you overwatering them again? They never look good; why can’t you greenhouse people ever seem to keep them healthy?”

I stared at her with my tongue clamped between my teeth. It’s not our watering that’s the problem; it’s the fact that you work in other greenhouses before coming here, drag all manner of microbes in from outside, and never, ever clean your pruners between plants. I looked at the teal lab coat she wore over her clothes while trimming. In the two years I’d been here I don’t think she’d ever washed it or changed it out. Why do I even bother putting buckets of disinfectant in your house? You never use them.

            Anger was starting to well up in my chest like lava rising up through the earth. I could feel my face start to turn red. For just a second I thought I was finally going to let this unreasonable, domineering woman have it. She’d been making life miserable for the greenhouse staff for decades now, and she got away with it because she was married to the Dean. Just once I would have liked to knock her down a peg and tell her that she couldn’t just bully anyone who didn’t have a PhD. But then my anger knocked into a wall, like always, and dissipated like vapor. I felt myself deflate, all the air leaking out of me the way it leaks out of a balloon, and I sighed. This is what happened every time, ever since I was a kid.

Growing up, my little sister had a terrible temper. At least once a week she would have an explosive episode where she would rage at our mother or tear the house apart. Mom did her best, but Jen was pretty hard to control once she’d gotten good and irate. After these incidents Mom would look at me, exhaustion in her eyes, and run a hand through my perpetually messy hair. “Thank goodness for you, my easy child,” she would say. It was nice, knowing Mom loved and appreciated me. I did everything I could to make her proud: behaving perfectly in public, helping out around the house, getting excellent grades in school. But being an easy child, I found, wasn’t so easy. It meant that certain emotions were forbidden.

Jen could scream and break my things and generally raise hell at home, and would receive little more than a half-hearted scolding and a resigned order to go to her room. Meanwhile, if I so much as let the slightest amount of heat creep into my voice when I spoke to Mom, I would be shut down immediately. “Don’t you take that tone with me!” our mother would growl as she towered over me. “I get enough of that from your sister!” And so it was. Mom already had one challenge child and couldn’t handle another, so even the smallest display of anger from me was unacceptable. I wasn’t allowed to be angry.

Eventually I learned to suppress it. I didn’t want to be a bad girl; I wanted Mom to love me. So I buried the anger deep and focused on school, until anger became an emotion that rarely intruded into my life. And then one day Jen got mad at me about something. I don’t remember what it was. All I remember is that I didn’t deserve it. I’d done nothing wrong, and yet she was screaming at me and tossing things around the room. Most people would have gotten pissed off and fought back, but not me. A barrier had grown up inside my soul, sealing off the forbidden feeling behind a thick, impenetrable crust. Sadness was an acceptable emotion, though. It was ok to cry. So I stood there with tears running down my face while Jen shrieked and slapped me.

I guess Mom had reached the end of her patience that day, because she stomped into the living room like a hurricane. Jen could sense the storm coming, and so she backed up into me, causing me to back up against the wall. We were pinned in a corner with nowhere to go. Mom screamed at Jen for probably five minutes, for once leaving my sister speechless. “You need to quit being so mean!” she screeched. It was terrifying. Even though it wasn’t me she was yelling at, Jen was smushed up against me, so I could still feel the full brunt of Mom’s wrath. Then her smoldering brown eyes swiveled over to mine. “And you…” she began, but then she paused, as if uncertain of what to say next but sure she had to say something. Because of course this whole thing had to be partly my fault somehow. I must have done something to set Jen off. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times before she finally came up with, “Grow some balls!”

Heat welled up in my chest and my hands balled into fists. Grow some balls!? You’re yelling at me because I didn’t fight back? You’re the one who’s always telling me I have to control myself! But the barrier within me held fast; my fury crashed against it and bounced off, fizzling out and receding back down into the depths. I sighed. It’s not worth it. Yelling would just make things worse. So instead I turned my eyes downward and to the side and said quietly, “Sorry Mom.” I’d gotten so good at shoving the rage down I couldn’t even summon it when I needed it.

Svetlana glared at me impatiently, waiting for me to say something. I would probably lose my job if I flipped out on her. It’s not worth it.  Turning my eyes down and to the side I muttered, “Sorry Svetlana, I’ll be more careful.”

She sniffed and sauntered off, satisfied that her dominance had been asserted. Finally five o`clock came, and with relief I locked up the office and walked across the street to the bus stop. The day had grown from cool and pleasant in the morning to sweltering and sticky by midday, and judging by the dark clouds gathering above this warm front was bringing a storm with it.

I stood at the stop with a couple of guys for a few minutes, sweating in the damp heat and tapping my foot at the bus that was running late. Motion in my peripheral vision suddenly caught my attention; I turned to the right and noticed a young woman standing a few feet away. This girl looked like an Indian princess; she had delicate, almost doll-like features, with eyes the warm color of milk chocolate and full red lips that looked ready to smile at a moment’s notice. She wore her shiny black hair in one long braid down her back, and numerous bangles jingled on each slender wrist every time she moved. Her small, lithe body was graced by an iridescent blue and green sari that gleamed in the sunlight. It was a lovely, eye-catching ensemble that gave the overall effect of delicate beauty. The two guys standing with me must have thought so too; they had both turned to admire her.

She looked around as if lost, then caught me looking at her and smiled shyly. “Excuse me,” she said softly. “Do you know which way it is to the botanical gardens?”

I pivoted and pointed to the nearest cross street. “Yes, just turn left at that intersection and go down the hill. The gardens will be on your left. In fact,” I nodded toward the wooded slope behind the bus stop. “You can see the gardens’ gift shop through the trees from here; it’s the building just across that lawn at the bottom of the hill.”

The woman smiled and thanked me, then made for the slope. It was then I realized that instead of a pair of small feet poking from the folds of her sari, long serpentine coils stretched out behind her as she slithered down to the botanical gardens. I stood staring after her for a minute or two, and then turned to look at the men. They stared after her too, but they acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. The bus pulled up to the stop and they climbed on, perfectly calm.

They could see her, I’m sure they could. But I’m the only one who saw her as a snake. I sat on the bus and wringed my hands the entire way downtown, wondering how much it would cost to see a psychiatrist. Would my insurance help cover that? I’d ask the HR department tomorrow. The ride down the hill was uneventful, and then I got off and started across the Commons toward my street.

Walking across the Commons was always interesting. Depending on the day, you could encounter anything from musicians and street performers to gaggles of screaming children, vendors, protestors, and homeless people. I remembered the first time I came to the Commons, shortly after moving to Ithaca. There wasn’t anything like it in any of the places I had lived before, and I had marveled at the idea of a pedestrian-only area three blocks long plunked right in the middle of downtown, lined on both sides with three-story buildings filled with trendy shops and apartments. “Come, see some magic!” shouted the Magic Man from behind the little stand he had set up in front of the fountain. “Best magic in town!”

I looked up. The Magic Man was pretty much a fixture in the Commons when the weather warmed up. He was a youngish African-American man, and every time I’d ever seen him he was wearing a long, dark coat and a top-hat patterned like the American flag. I’d watched his show once a year ago and he was pretty good. I walked past him toward the alley that led to the public library and the indie-film cinema, but then I did a double take and stared.

The Magic Man was smiling and taking a bow while a couple of spectators clapped, but they all were moving in slow motion. I rubbed my arm over my eyes, but when I opened them again the Magic Man was still straightening up at a snail’s pace and his spectators’ hands were nearly frozen in their applause. Something flashed in front of me. I thought I caught an image of a woman stopping in front of me and waving her arms frantically, but it was over so fast I wasn’t totally sure I saw it.

Then time seemed to start running normally again. The Magic Man thanked his spectators as they turned and walked away, and a number of people around the Commons were looking about with distress clear on their faces.

I’d reached my limit. I looked down at my shaking hands and knew I didn’t have long before I lost it. I needed to get somewhere that I could freak out in peace, right now, so I spun on my heel and hurried across the street to the library. Automatic doors whooshed open and I walked into the cool, open entrance area, nodding to the security guard on my right and waving to the circulation desk librarians on the left. I loved libraries. I loved the tranquil spaciousness, the smell of ink and paper, the serene background noise of people turning pages or talking quietly. And Tompkins County Public Library was an especially nice one. Probably the only library I had ever been to that was nicer was the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

I wove past the tables where people sat reading and through the non-fiction stacks to the study rooms. To my intense relief one of the rooms was empty with the lights off. Quietly, I let myself in, closed the door, pulled out one of the wooden chairs around the central table, and slumped into it, resting my head on my arms. For a while I just sat there in the dark, trembling. What was happening to me? Around this time yesterday everything had been fine. So what the hell happened? My eyes stung, and I sniffled as the first tears ran down my face. Were the things I was seeing real or not?

I wiped at my cheeks and did my best to compose myself. Ok, so one of two things is going on; either I’ve gone crazy, or the world has. I sighed, not sure which thought was worse. I could really use a distraction right now…

Pushing myself to my feet, I grabbed my bag and went into the restroom to splash water on my face. Once I’d washed off the tear streaks I pulled out my phone and checked out what was in theaters now. Looked like there was a new Marvel movie out, so I texted my friend Hannah:

Hey Hannah, I know it’s kind of short notice, but do you want to see a movie                                 today?

Almost immediately I saw her start to type back, and after about thirty seconds I got a reply.

Sure! As long as it isn’t too late a showing.

I left the library and walked down the street to my apartment. The movie was due to start in about forty minutes and I wanted to eat something beforehand, so I hopped into my grey Subaru without even going inside to drop my things off.

Driving to the mall took a little longer than usual since the going-home crowd was on the road in force, but I still got there in time to scarf down a foot-long from the food-court Subway before getting my ticket. I had just paid and was thanking the cashier when behind me I heard a cheerful “Hello!” Turning, I saw Hannah walking through the mall doors and up to the box office.

Hannah Skarsgard’s family was of Swedish descent, and she looked every inch the Viking warrior princess. She had long, straight blond hair, eyes the color of robin eggs, and a round pink face. Hannah stood a couple of inches shorter than me and was much curvier than I was, and had about three times as much energy. Whereas I was generally quiet and self-contained, Hannah was vital and flamboyant, making it seem as though a ray of sunlight followed her wherever she went. We made an interesting pair of twenty-somethings.

She worked as a tech in one of the upstairs labs and the first time we met was in the greenhouses; I was doing a water-check and she was pollinating tomato plants. Being shy I didn’t usually talk to the researchers beyond the normal greetings and maybe occasionally making a comment about the weather, but Hannah had the gift of gab. She could immediately jump right in and start chatting with strangers as if she had known them her whole life. We had become fast friends, with her generally doing most of the talking.

“Hey, Hannah,” I said smiling. “How was work today?”

“Good! I finally finished sequencing the fruit I harvested from House 15 last week (the midnight-blue house), and we’ve decided we’re only going to be keeping a few of the tomato plants. I’ll start tossing the rest tomorrow; sorry in advance for the mess I’m going to make for you guys!”

I waved it off. “It’s not a problem. Keeping the houses clean is our job.”

“Great!” She walked up to the counter and bought her ticket and we pushed through the heavy glass doors into the cinema. “So how is Gidget?” I asked, and with all the enthusiasm of a life-long cat lover, she whipped out her phone to show me pictures and chatted about her feline until we took our seats, but then she switched to a very different subject. “Did you hear about Cayuga lake being closed until further notice?”

I turned to look at her in the dim light while the previews rolled. “No, I didn’t. What happened? Was there an algae bloom or something?”

“Apparently, there’s a huge animal living in the lake that’s preying on people’s dogs.”

My stomach fluttered. I do not want to be hearing this right now. “Has anyone been hurt?”

“No, but one of the people I pet-sit for was walking her dog next to the lake last night and something came out of the water and grabbed it. Dragged it right under then threw the entrails back on shore. It was awful!”

I swallowed. “Did she see what it was?”

Hannah shook her head. “Huh-uh, she never saw it, but it was getting dark at the time and it all happened so fast. Rumor is someone released their pet alligator into the lake. The cops found another gut pile along the shore too, but they think it was from a deer.”

I sat back in my seat and watched bleakly as the opening credits came on-screen. I felt a little sick and I barely registered the first half of the movie. My fingers twined and my palms rubbed against the backs my hands. Thoughts kept whirling through my brain. What if I wasn’t crazy? What were the odds of so many strange things happening around town in the last day? What if everything that I had been seeing was actually real?

Eventually the action on the screen was able to grab my attention enough to muffle the noise in my head, and my hands stilled on my lap. The movie was satisfyingly upbeat, an entertaining mix of sci-fi, action, and comedy that ended on a high-note. For a short while it distracted me from the anxiety that had been gnawing at me, for which I was grateful. “That was pretty good,” I commented as I got up and stretched after the credits ended.

“Oh, yeah, CG has gotten to the point now where the visuals in these movies are just breath-taking,” Hannah replied while we walked out of the theater. Dusk was gathering out in the parking lot, and after about ten minutes of Hannah comparing this movie to other Marvel films we said our good-byes and I drove back into town.

I pulled up to my building and got out of the car when a sudden blast of wind squalled past, causing the neighbor’s wind chime to tinkle crazily. A flickering lit up the sky, and I looked up in time to see a flash of lightening, followed by a snarling crack of thunder that practically shook the ground. Here it comes. I hurried around back toward my apartment, but stopped a few steps from the back stairs. A rustling noise and a damp, marshy smell drew my attention to the dimness of the back yard. I sniffed; the air tonight smelled like a wetland, a mixture of water, mud, and the swampy plants that grew in it.

Something slunk toward me from the darkness. Another bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and by its eerie glow I glimpsed a huge, dark, worm-like creature propelling itself toward me on dozens of coiling tentacles. I recoiled in terror. There were no eyes, no mouth, no distinguishing features on its body to determine which end was head or tail, and its dark form glistened as if coated with a layer of Vaseline. I gasped and dashed for the road, my mind going blank with horror.

They’re at my place now! Oh my god, that thing is straight from the pages of Lovecraft! I put everything I had into escaping, but I’d only gone about three steps when tentacles as thick as my wrist wrapped themselves around my thigh and waist. The creature’s body was cold and incredibly strong; I screamed and struggled against the tentacles with all my strength, but the muscled limbs barely budged. Then, something thin and slithery like a half-dozen worms started creeping up the back of my neck. Shrieking, I reached back and grabbed them in my fist, squeezing appendages no bigger around than shoestrings, and the creature let out a horrible screeching noise that could have been pain or anger. More of the larger tentacles shot forward to bind my arms, one wrapping around the wrist holding the writhing bundle and constricting with bruising force until I thought I could hear my bones grind together. Gasping at the pain I let go, and the smaller limbs pressed themselves against the base of my skull.

Oh god it’s going to lay eggs in my brain or crunch open my head or –

And then came the strangest sensation I had ever experienced.

Chapter 4

Please, please help me! I just want to go home! I was only here for a minute, I swear! I just wanted to see what was on the other side, but then the way back went away and I want to go home!

            It was disorienting. We could feel the concrete walkway under our shoed feet and the cool pressure around our limbs and on the back of our neck; but we could also feel the grass beneath our tentacles and the nearly scalding heat emanating from the bony body we were holding onto. Our rib cage expanded and contracted under the appendage wrapped around our chest, and panic was momentarily overwhelmed by curiosity. It seemed like such a strange thing, and somehow kind of gross being full of hard bits. Shouldn’t it hurt, being full of hard parts that were right next to soft parts? Then the shock of merging with such a foreign creature passed and the fear returned; horrible anxiety, mixed with desperation that caused our chest to tighten and the entire length of our body to quiver.

My breath was coming fast when the tentacles disengaged from the back of my head and retracted into the underside of the creature’s body. It shrank down in front of me, convulsing with what I now knew were sobs. I rubbed at my sore wrist and considered the being coiled on the ground before me. The mind that had touched mine felt afraid, trusting, and simple. A child’s mind. This horrifying creature was a little kid trying to get home, and had been waiting for me. Me, specifically; from our brief encounter I knew it wasn’t an accident that it was in my yard. How had it known to come here?

“You shouldn’t keep this little one waiting. I am sure it is quite terrified, and its mother is probably worried sick.”

I looked up onto the porch to see the cat-woman sitting on the railing, eating a bag of dried apricots. Had she been there the whole time? She slid off the railing onto the porch and glided down the steps, pulling out the necklace and dagger and offering them with a grin on her face. “Come on, you better get going. It looks like it could start pouring anytime now and the faster you get started the sooner you’ll finish.” I scowled at her. “You brought it here didn’t you?”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and popped an apricot into her mouth. “I did. Look, the rip in reality in this area is big. It’s letting a lot of aggressive things through and I’m a one-woman show trying to keep a lid on things right now.  I don’t have time to wait around for you to pull your head out of the sand, so I decided to help move things along. Besides, I did say we would pick this up again tonight didn’t I?” She ate another amber-colored fruit then held the bag out to me. “Want one?”

Irritation swept through me, and for a moment I considered stomping past the instigator of this most recent episode and slamming the door in her face, but decided that would be childish. Not to mention the kid who was still lost and alone in my back yard. I growled and pushed a loose strand of hair behind my ear with more force than necessary. This was such a pain. I doubted I was crazy at this point; too many other people had been affected by strange things, even though they couldn’t see them like I could. But in a way that was worse. If I wasn’t crazy, that meant all the weird shit around town was really happening, these creatures were really here, and I had to deal with it. Somehow.

“Alright, fine. Fine!” I raised my hands in front of me, feeling my stress level climb through the roof. “But this can’t become a habit. I have a job and a social life and I can’t be spending all my time runni-” The cat-woman handed me the necklace and dagger. “We’ll talk about it when you get back.”

I looked at her in horror, a terrible feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. “There is nothing to talk abou-“

“Scoot!” She shooed me back toward the street. “It’s about to get wet out here so you’d better hurry up and get this thing done.” With a sigh I turned to walk to the front of the house, but then realized, “Um, I don’t actually know where I’m going. I mean, I can see a couple of places that lead to other places from here but I don’t know if they’re where I’m supposed to go…”

A slithering noise moved up behind me, and a single tentacle wrapped itself gently around my fingers. I looked down at my charge, and it began to move forward, tugging me along. I decided to just let it lead the way; after all I had no idea where I was going but the little one seemed to have a specific direction in mind. We turned left in front of the house, moving away from downtown and toward Cass Park and Cayuga Lake. Several colorful blotches of mist leading to other worlds were visible from the street, but none were obviously the one my companion belonged in. Unlike the dragon, this being didn’t give off a signature tone that I could match to a cloud. The only sensory information I got from it was the coolness of its skin and its marshy smell.

We walked along for several minutes until we eventually came to the bridge on State St that crossed over the inlet, and I saw a way to another world at the near end of the bridge. It emitted a sound like a long trumpet note and looked like a cloud of swirling orange smoke. Certainly this wasn’t the right place, but the little one had stopped moving and was now looking up at me. I think. It was hard to tell since it didn’t obviously have eyes. From my bond with it earlier I knew it could see, but it wasn’t like human vision where you saw from one viewpoint near the middle of your face. This creature saw from its whole body, as if it had little visual organs everywhere. But its “head” was pointed toward my face, so I assumed it was directing its attention at me. I looked from the kid to the bridge and back again. “Hey, are you sure this is the right place?”

Small appendages unfurled from under it once more and I got another peak inside its mind. The experience was less jarring this time, probably due to already having done this once before and not fearing for my life while it was happening. I got from our link that the world on the other side was indeed not the kid’s home world, but it was the world it came through to get to this one. Apparently the little dickens had gone exploring through more than one portal to get here. And to further complicate things, the kid couldn’t actually see the points that led to other worlds; it could just remember the general areas where the portals appeared. This was starting to look like it was going to be more than a quick jaunt.

I sighed and looked up and down State. Of course the portal would be right in the middle of one of the busiest streets in town. Luckily traffic was light this time of night, so I walked the two of us over, pulled the dagger from its sheath, and opened a portal large enough for us to walk through.

On the other side, I found myself standing on another bridge, but instead of concrete this one appeared to be constructed from some shiny black material. I bent down to touch it and it felt smooth and glassy under my fingers, like obsidian maybe. This bridge was very simple in design; it had no railing, no overarching trusses, no sidewalks, and no joints where the slabs of material fitted together. It was a single enormous piece of black glass ten or twelve feet wide and long enough that neither end was within sight. I looked over the side of the bridge and saw that it was supported by a series of arches and pillars made of the same shiny black material. About a body length below the surface of the bridge, an unfathomably vast swamp spread out to the horizon in every direction.

My companion tugged at my hand and we started walking along the giant boardwalk.  A yellowish sun shone weakly through a layer of high, thin clouds, making everything look a little hazy. Colorful plants resembling reeds in the swamp below blew in the breeze, creating waving clusters of pastel blue, yellow, and lavender stalks against a background of grey-green water reflected by a grey-green sky. Delicate white flowers consisting of countless layers of feather-like petals floated on the surface as fish with scales that gleamed like mother-of-pearl glided and shimmered just beneath the surface.

The air here smelled surprisingly crisp and clean, but then the wind changed and I caught a whiff of a familiar marshy scent. As we walked the smell grew stronger, until finally we came to a group of rocks sticking up out of the wet land. There were five of them, irregularly shaped but reasonably flat rocks extending out into the swamp like stepping stones, each one higher than the last. The closest one was only a few feet out from the bridge and sat high enough in the water to be level with my knees.

Suddenly the kid’s tentacle unwrapped itself from around my hand and she (I’ve decided to start referring to the creature as “she” because I feel bad referring to her as “it”, like she was a chair or something. This species doesn’t actually have gender; I learned some time later that they reproduce asexually, so it wouldn’t be incorrect to refer to all members of this species as “she”) lowered her long, long body over the side of the bridge, tentacles working in a strange, wave-like synchrony that allowed her to glide through the murky water. She twisted and swam in figure eight patterns all around the rocks, playfully splashing enough water up at me to drench my clothes and soak through my shoes to get my socks nice and wet. Great.

I sighed and called out, “Look, I’m glad you’re having a good time, but I need to get home. Is this where you came through into this world?” She stopped frolicking in the shallows and climbed up onto the rock furthest out, where she curled up her body and turned to look at me. Of course it would be the hardest one to get to.

I inched toward the edge of the bridge and looked out at the stones. They weren’t spaced too far apart; I thought I could jump between them. Taking a few steps back, I darted forward and took a running leap. To my relief, I landed on the first rock without slipping or toppling into the water or twisting an ankle. Alright, one down, four to go. I made the next three jumps with relative ease, but hesitated when I looked at the last one. This one was spaced a little further than the others, and was about level with my thighs from where I stood. I would have to jump across and then scramble up over the ledge.

I tossed the dagger over first, and thankfully it landed about where I wanted it to instead of skittering over the edge. I think that if I’d had to go fishing for it I would have curled up where I was and cried. Now that it was safely on the next rock and I had both hands free, I just had to get myself across the gap. What a pain in the ass. Whatever, here goes… I can say with some pride that the first part of my attempt was successful. This final jump knocked the breath out of me when my belly landed on the ledge and my knee banged against the rock face, but I ended up with my forearms and chest on top of the stone. Now all I had to do was clamber up and…

A loud crack and a sudden shifting sensation told me that I had misjudged the structural integrity of the surface I was trying to climb onto. The section of stone I was hanging from split away from the main mass, and I began to fall with it. Instinctively I reached upward though there was nothing to grab onto and hoped that there weren’t more stones hiding in the water below me. My life flashed before my eyes as I fell to near-certain death, but then a strong tentacle whipped out and grabbed my hand.

I dangled over the edge for a moment as the debris splashed down, reflecting darkly on what almost happened. After about a minute I recovered from the latest adrenaline rush to finally scramble up onto the damned rock. Lying on my back, I looked up at my companion and muttered, “Thanks kid.” I stood and brushed myself off, sniffing the air. This was definitely the place. The marshy smell seemed to be coming from everywhere, and the world around me was slightly distorted, as if I were looking at it through a haze.

I picked up the dagger and opened a portal to see another swamp through the opening. Whereas the place I was in now was mostly open to the sky, this swamp was heavily shadowed by the thick canopies of trees. The ground was mostly covered by water, but here and there were dark mounds as tall as I was coiling around and amongst the trees. My companion launched herself forward and dashed through the portal, heading straight for one of the mounds as I stepped forward carefully onto a tree root sticking up above the water level. When she splashed up to one, it heaved upward and turned toward her. I realized with a start that they weren’t mounds at all, but bigger versions of the being I had escorted home. Several of them began to converge on her, surrounding the little one, sending out their smaller communication tentacles to touch hers. She spun from one adult to another, clearly overjoyed to be home and at the center of attention.

One of them turned to face me and began to swim in my direction. It didn’t move quickly or show any sign of aggression, but it still made me nervous to see something so large coming at me.  The hulking creature stopped a few feet in front of me, causing a little wake of water to splash up over my shoes, soaking my already damp socks. I picked up one foot and looked down at it mournfully. Wet feet were the worst. I contemplated having to squelch all the way home, but then felt the large creature’s cool limbs press themselves to the back of my head.

This being was very different from her younger counterpart. She didn’t cause me to lose myself in the connection for one thing. Oh, her thoughts were there, and I could feel them, but I was still myself. Apparently experience allowed them to maintain a degree of separation.

The first thing I became aware of through the joining was the matron’s age. She was ancient; my body ached with the weight of so many years. There was a great, patient calm in this being that had lived and endured for unfathomable amounts of time. Beneath the vast stillness, though, was genuine happiness and relief. She was grateful that her descendant had been returned to her, and wished to express her goodwill to the entity that had brought her back home.

            Several tentacles wrapped around my left arm and I felt something hard and smooth press into my palm. The elder disengaged and turned away, and I looked down at what was in my hand. Cool and round, it appeared to be a river stone or something, except it was transparent. I held it up to the dim light filtering through the canopy above and could not see one speck of dirt, not one crack or chip or any other imperfection. Not stone, then. Glass, or maybe crystal. I shrugged and turned back the way I came, wishing I had a pocket to put the crystal in. The portal to the other swamp had closed, so I cut another opening and leapt onto the broken stone leading back to the obsidian bridge.

I hopped down the stones onto the solid causeway and sloshed along the bridge for a few minutes, promising myself a hot shower and a change of clothes as soon as I got back. Eventually I reached a patch of mist that I assumed led back to my own world. I think this is the way back. The scenery doesn’t change much around here, and I don’t recall seeing any other worlds between the stepping stones and the spot I came to this swamp through.

             This connection between worlds was a fabulous cloud of every color of the rainbow, shot through with glittering white sparks in a swirling pattern. Beautiful…it looks like a nebula. I cut through the technicolor haze and with a sigh of relief stepped out onto State St.

Chapter 5

The sky looked like it was going to start pouring any second now, so I started briskly down the street back toward my apartment. I turned the corner around a building and saw the cat-woman leaning against the wall. She fell into step beside me. “Not bad,” she said. “You got to the swamp and back reasonably clean and in very good time. Well done.” She draped an arm over my shoulders and steered me through a small parking lot to the front door of Liquid State.

“Why are we going to a beer garden?” I asked as we let ourselves in. “Because I want to have a drink while we talk. Here, I’ll buy you one too.”

“Hey, wait a second!” I said, looking up at her. “How do we explain you?”

“Nothing to explain.” We took our seats at the polished wooden bar and the bartender turned to look at us. “Welcome to Liquid State,” she said with a smile. “What can I get you ladies?”

“I’ll have a stout,” the cat-woman told her, then turned to look at me. “You?”

“A pale ale please,” I told the bartender. The woman nodded and grabbed a couple of glasses.

“She doesn’t notice anything strange about you,” I observed.

“Most humans don’t,” the cat-woman said, resting her forearms on the bar. “Usually when humans look at me they just see a woman. A little exotic-looking maybe, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

The bartender set our drinks in front of us and the cat-woman picked hers up and took a generous swig. “Same goes for a lot of things from other worlds. Humans either don’t see them or they see them as something they can understand.”

I picked up my glass and took a sip of the ale. It was good, crisp and flavorful, with a hint of citrus. “You know at first I thought this was all a hallucination?”

“I know. You over that yet?”

I raised the glass to my lips and took another drink. “I don’t know. All the stuff that happened in the last day is so hard to believe, and to be honest I don’t want to believe it.”

“Well, being honest is a good place to start, so we’ll begin with that.” She finished off her beer and ordered another one. “Here’s the upshot; the fabric of reality has become unstable in this area. It’s causing portals to open up randomly between universes, along with causing all kinds of other crazy phenomena, and I need your help keeping things under control until reality mends itself.”

Nice use of door-in-the-face technique. I think I’m going to need another beer too. “Wow. That’s kind of a lot to lead with. You think we could ease into this a bit? I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

The cat-woman looked over at me and smiled so that her fangs showed. “You may call me Bast.”

I almost laughed, not sure if I genuinely found this funny or if I was fighting back hysterics, but I controlled myself at the last second and managed to make it look like I was just choking on my beer. “Bast?” I finally managed. “Like the Egyptian cat goddess?”

She crossed one ankle over the other and smirked. “The one and only. Try not to be too awe-struck.”

I wiped my sleeve across my mouth then held out my right hand. “Erin Renwick.” Bast stared at it for a moment, clearly finding the idea amusing. Finally she grabbed my cold hand firmly in her own warm one, gave it a shake, and melted back into her barstool. “Alright, ask your questions. You get five.”

“Why only five?”

“That was one of your questions. And because I don’t want to be sitting here answering you all night. Next.”

My mind raced. “Uhh, ok. You mentioned needing my help. Help with what exactly, and for how long?”

“Sending dangerous critters back to the worlds they came from before they eat someone.”

I swallowed. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Once a rip in reality forms it usually takes, oh, a few months or so to heal. In cases like this we put a stabilization spell down on the area, which reduced the number of randomly opening portals and cuts down on the natural disturbances. I’m working on one now. It should be finished in the next day or two.”

“Oh, wonderful.” So this was going to go on for a while. “What do you need me for? Powerful as you are, I would think you could open the portals and send the things back yourself.”

“Psshh, if only.” She finished her dark beer and set the glass on the bar with a soft clink. “It would be a lot easier if I could do this myself, but the ability to go world-hopping like you did is exceedingly rare. In the ten years I’ve been at this job I’ve met maybe a few dozen who could do it. And weirdly most of the people with that ability are human. So for the most part I have to rely on Wepwawet. He takes me to the rip I was assigned to and I send the critters back myself if I can find an open portal to their world. Otherwise I just do my best to hold down the fort until someone’s human partner can come and send them back for me. We’re very short-staffed these days.”

“Wepwawet?”

“He’s one of ours,” Bast replied. “The title we give our human partners came from him. Wepwawet was the original Opener of the Ways. Helped make that, as a matter of fact,” she said, pointing to the sheathed dagger on my lap. “It’s his image etched into the blade.”

She looked forward, leaning onto the bar. “It sucks. I’m told the points where the worlds touch are beautiful, but only Wepwawet and a handful of others can even see them, let alone use them to explore the multiverse. And this is a great world to be in for that.”

“Yeah?” I said, careful not to frame it as an actual question.

“Yeah. This world is the party animal of the cosmos. It touches dozens, if not hundreds of other worlds. Kind of like an airport with direct flights to everywhere. Most worlds have a lot fewer connections than that; my own only has about half a dozen worlds touching it directly.”

My brain was burning. This was so much to take in. I set my ale down and cupped my head in one hand. Then something struck me as odd. “Ten years?” I lifted my head and looked at her. “If you’re really Bast that would make you, like, thousands of years old. Why did you decide to start doing the guardian of the multiverse thing only ten years ago? What’s in it for you?”

Bast looked at me with wide eyes and put one slender hand over her chest. “Why, I do it for all the sweet, innocent little people out there. I protect the weak and defend the helpless because it’s the right thing to do.”

I stared at her. If her sarcasm had been any thicker I could have walked on it. Smartass. Suddenly two guys walked up to us. They looked college-aged or maybe a few years older. Both were tall with brown hair and eyes. One wore his hair a little long so that the ends brushed his collar of his red Cornell hoodie. He may have been on an athletic team or something because he also wore red basketball shorts and shoes. The other guy had his hair neatly clipped and wore jeans and a blue Grateful Dead t-shirt. Their eyes were shiny, and I was guessing they’d already been here for a while. “Evening, ladies,” slurred Grateful Dead shirt, smiling. “My friend and I have a table over in the corner; care to join us?”

Crap. Why did we have to be bothered by a couple of drunks when I was just getting some decent information? I opened my mouth to tell them politely to go away. “Thanks for the offer, but-“

“Love to,” Bast purred. She slunk off her barstool, wrapped an arm around the guy’s neck, and traced one finger of her other hand along his jaw. “And what’s your name?”

I almost fell out of my stool. “Hang on; we’re in the middle of something! I still have one question left!”

“Later,” Bast murmured.

Cornell hoodie stared in open envy at Bast and my discomfort level shot through the roof. I didn’t want to be here. “Um, I’m going to go home now.”

Bast glanced at me and shrugged. “Suit yourself. See you later.”

I gave the three of them an awkward little wave and hurried out. Outside the heavens had finally burst, so I got to have a nice walk through a downpour that left me soaked to the skin by the time I climbed up onto my porch and let myself into my apartment.

I shut the door behind me and took a breath. God, what a long day. I set the dagger, necklace, and stone on the table and stripped off my wet clothes. Turning on the shower, I stood under the near-scalding stream until my skin turned pink and the bathroom filled with steam. When the hot water ran out I dried off, pulled on a set of blue pajamas, and threw some kibble into Cloe’s bowl. The clock on my bookshelf read 10:40. This was around the time I normally went to bed, but there was no way that was happening right now. The shower took the edge off but I was still wired.  How could anyone sleep with everything that was going on? Red envelopes sitting on the corner of the coffee table caught my attention. That’s right; a couple of movies from Netflix came in the mail the other day. I tore one open and put into the Playstation. Tonight’s late-night showing was Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I wrapped myself in the pink fleece blanket draped across the back of the loveseat and flopped down on the cushions as the opening credits rolled. Most of the reviews I’d read for this movie were bad, and half an hour into the film I could see why. The scene where they went into warp for the first time was just plain bizarre and Spock was like a robot when his crew greeted him. Still, there was one scene toward the end that stuck with me.

Spock was lying in sick bay, talking up to Kirk. He had just performed a mind-meld on a sentient machine, a being of pure logic like Spock had aspired to become all his life. He thought leaving behind all emotion and embracing perfect logic would finally allow him to make peace with himself, but Spock was dismayed to find that achieving pure logic had brought the machine no closer to inner peace than Spock himself. “Is this all that I am?” he implored his best friend. “Is there nothing more than this?”

A pang of emotions I didn’t care to name tightened my chest and I jumped up and turned off the Playstation. The movie wasn’t over but I’d had enough. I couldn’t put my finger on it but something about that scene bothered the hell out of me. Is there nothing more than this… No, there wasn’t. I climbed into bed and pulled the blanket up to my chin. There was nothing more than this. I had the college degree, the quaint little apartment, the full-time job with benefits and a retirement plan. Lots to be thankful for. This was as good as it got, and I couldn’t afford to let some supernatural weirdness ruin the life I’d build for myself.

I turned onto my side. Sure, maybe there was a time when I thought there would be more, but that was years ago and I was more realistic now. I wasn’t a fresh-faced, starry-eyed undergraduate out to change the world anymore. There were people who were meant for greatness, but I’d learned I wasn’t one of them. I yawned, drifting off, and felt Cloe jump up on the bed to sprawl out on top of me. She started purring and I scratched her under the chin. There was no shame in knowing your personal limits. If I couldn’t even handle a graduate program I certainly wasn’t cut out to be running across dimensions and chasing monsters like some kind of superhero. Is there nothing more than this…

Quiet sounds of papers rustling, keyboards clacking, and students murmuring under their breath blended together to form comforting background noise as I sat in front of one of the computers at Hillman library. My hands trembled in excitement to an email in my inbox from Mike. Maybe he had a lead about another research assistant job. Mike wasn’t planning on doing more field work next summer so working for him again was out, but I’d heard his friend in the Forest Service was doing some interesting research. So I sent Mike an email the other day asking if he knew anyone who was looking for an assistant. Networking, they called it. Use what contacts you have to network.

There was also an email from Long Island. I clicked on it: it was a job offer from West Kurwa Greenhouses for a section grower position. My eyebrows raised in surprise. Wow. I didn’t actually expect to get that job. I mean, I only went because Kari told me it was a good idea to practice being interviewed. Plus being flown to New York and getting put up in a hotel with a pool was pretty cool… I put Long Island on the backburner and opened the email from Mike.  His response was very curt: “There’s something we need to discuss. Meet me in my office at 1.”

Why bother with a meeting? Just give me some contact information. With a shrug I logged off of the library computer and pulled the earflaps of my hat down onto my head. Bracing myself I pushed out of the heavy doors and braved the December Pittsburgh weather to my 11AM Biochemistry lecture. After class I went to the commuter’s lounge with a couple of friends and scarfed down the vegetable soup and apple I’d packed. I told them excitedly that I was probably going to get another field job this summer, and who knows? Maybe this one would help me get my foot in the door to something bigger, maybe even get me noticed by a researcher looking for a promising young PhD candidate. They told me how happy they were for me and wished me luck as I crossed the street to Langley Hall and walked along the drab concrete basement corridor to arrive at Paige Lab at 12:55.

The door to Mike’s tiny office was open and I could see the doctoral student at his cluttered desk clacking away at the keyboard with his eyes glued to the screen. He rubbed his face as I approached then turned to me and smiled. Mike has a great smile. It is a wide, genuine grin that shows off his very even, very white teeth. After a summer of working with him I had decided that smile was probably one of the major factors that convinced his wife to marry him.

He scrambled to clear papers and textbooks off the only other chair in his office and piled them on his desk amongst the stained coffee mugs, ungraded ecology exams, and scattered pens. He motioned for me to have a seat. I settled onto the creaky chair and looked at him expectantly, but Mike simply stared at the floor between us for several seconds. Just as I opened my mouth to ask him if something was wrong, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend you to be Alex’s field assistant.”

For a second I thought one of the legs of the ancient chair had broken. It felt as though the floor had been pulled out from under me, and the room spun a little. “Alex is more demanding than me. He expects a lot of his assistants, and I just don’t think you would be the right candidate.”

My heart pounded and I could feel my face heating up. “Oh… I didn’t know Alex was looking for an assistant,” I stammered, struggling to put together a coherent sentence. “I was wondering if he knew someone who needed one… I figured getting a little more experience would improve my grad school applications…”

Mike sighed and lowered his head. He steepled his fingers together while resting his elbows on his knees and continued. “Look, about graduate school. I would seriously reconsider it if I were you.”

Time stalled. I could think of nothing to say. My mouth hung open, paralyzed, like it wasn’t accepting orders from my brain anymore. The world was suddenly going crazy. Five minutes ago all was going according to plan, but now my life was spinning out of control and I was powerless to do anything about it. “Don’t get me wrong, you were a big help to me. But I don’t see you making it through a graduate program.”

A single hot tear rolled down my face. I swiped at it, irritated with myself for showing this display of weakness, and said as evenly as I could around the lump in my throat, “I don’t understand. You told me several times that I did an exemplary job and that I was a great student.”

Mike nodded and looked at me with soft blue eyes. “You have a great work ethic, and I think you would excel at a job where you could just… you know, take orders or follow a manual or something.”

His words were a slap across the face. He couldn’t have hurt me more if he’d physically hit me. Take orders. Follow a manual. I already had a job like that. Running a cash register. I’d been working at a gas station for more than four years now, waiting on every cranky commuter on their way home from work, ringing orders for all the drunks who come in for sandwiches after the bars close. I hated the job with my whole being. My desperate desire not to die behind that cash register was just about the only thing that made the stress and loneliness of college bearable. And now, as the finish line was finally within sight, this man who I like and respect was telling me that running a cash register was the only thing I was good for.

More tears escaped as Mike sat back in his chair looking uncomfortable. “You know,” he started. “I had an uncle who I was really close to, almost closer than my own father. When he died, I knew I really needed someone to talk to.” The abrupt change in topic was jarring. I looked at him in utter confusion. How had we gone from there to here? He licked his lips and his gaze wandered around the room. “I realize you’re under a lot of stress lately. You’ve got what, two jobs? And one of them makes you work nights. Oh, I helped you get that greenhouse job by the way.” He fidgeted in his seat. “When Kari was considering people for her new greenhouse assistant last year she asked me about you and I told Kari, ‘You should hire her.’ Anyway…I think you should talk to someone. There are therapists here on campus, so you should go see one while you’re still a student and their services are free.”

Another slap. First you tell me all these horrible things, and then you say I need to see a shrink just because I cried in front of you? What the hell Mike!? I needed to get out of there. I could feel my future slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t stop the tears. The air in that tiny room had become heavy and oppressive; I could barely breathe.

Mike let out a sigh and swiveled back to his computer. “Look, I need to get back to work, but you can stay here for a while. Sit there quietly for a few minutes and compose yourself, and I suggest you take what I have said to heart.”

I felt no need to compose myself. I got up and left without a word, then waved my security card in front of the reader on the elevator to take me up to the penthouse. The hushed sounds of fans and the comforting smell of green growing things greeted me as I got off the elevator and opened the door to the roof-top greenhouses.

There was no one else scheduled to work up here today, and no one could even get up to the sixth floor without a security pass. I would not be disturbed. Gingerly, I pushed open the door to the greenhouse office and gasped to see Dan standing inside. My fellow assistant, like me, was pale and slim. He stood about an inch taller and had neatly clipped black hair and dark brown eyes. His hands were working the buttons on his dark blue down jacket, so I’d apparently either caught him leaving or just getting here. Dan smiled over at me, but then he saw my face and his smile disappeared. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Wonderful, the universe adds insult to injury. I wiped at my face. “Oh, I watched A Fault in Our Stars for the first time before coming in.” I looked up at him. “What are you doing here? I thought I was the only one scheduled to work today.”

Dan nodded in acknowledgement. “Yeah, that movie’s a real tear-jerker. And I’m just leaving. I had some free time today that I wasn’t expecting so I asked Kari if I could pick up a few extra hours.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder. “And oh, super exciting, I heard back from Penn State today. My grad school application got accepted!”

I sniffled, half wishing I would expire on the spot. Finally I choked out, “That’s great Dan, I’m really happy for you.”

He smiled happily. “Thanks! Alright, I’m going to head out. Have a good day, and maybe lay off the sad movies for a while.” Dan let himself out and I was left alone in the dimly lit office. Listlessly I set my backpack and my coat on one of the chairs in front of Kari’s desk, put on my water-proof boots and began my solitary rounds checking on the neat rows of strawberries and kale and alfalfa. Tears streamed freely down my face for the next hour, and I felt such gratitude to the security doors that would prevent anyone from seeing me. I watered the kale flats and trimmed the strawberry plants, my boots scuffing against the concrete floor as I dragged my feet from house to house. Halfway through my shift I stopped and looked out at the campus below.

One of the perks of this job was the view. From up here, I could look out through the glass walls and see the entire neighborhood spread out before me, the buildings small enough I could reach out and pluck them from the street if I wanted. Being up here was usually inspiring. But not today. Today I just felt like a poser. I worked here, in research greenhouses where respected scientists conducted their experiments and worked to make the world a better place, but I didn’t really belong here. I would, never, really belong here.

My throat closed and I cried fresh tears. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have what it took to become anything more than I already was. Then a terrible fear gripped me; what if this was the best job I ever had? Graduation was only a few weeks away. What if, once I graduated and had to leave this student job, I never got out of working behind a cash register? And then I remembered the other email I’d gotten today.

As soon as I finished my shift I went back into the office and pulled out my phone. I dialed the Long Island number and after three rings I heard a middle-aged male voice answer, “West Kurwa Greenhouses, George Kurwa speaking.”

I sat up in my chair. “Oh, hello Mr. Kurwa, it’s Erin Renwick.”

“Erin!” came his jolly reply. “How are you? Did your flight back to Pennsylvania go alright?”

“Yes, sir, the trip was very smooth, thank you. So I got your email today, and I wanted to call to let you know that I accept.”

“Hey that’s great! You think you can start after New Year’s?”

“Certainly. That shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

“Perfect. Hey, enjoy the holidays and then get yourself up here. See you in the New Year, ok Erin? Erin? Erin! HEY! Damn you, wake up!”

I jerked awake in the dark, confused and alarmed. “What!? What’s going on!?”

The ceiling lights flashed to life and I shrieked and covered my eyes with my hands. I scrambled for the night-stand and slipped on my glasses to see Bast standing over me in my dazzlingly bright apartment. “What the hell, Bast!? It’s two-thirty in the morning!” I looked over at my door. “Wait, how did you get in here? My door was locked!”

Bast grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet. “We don’t have time for this. The night isn’t getting any younger and we’ve got something big to wrangle before morning.”

“Hey, wait a second!” I tried to pull my arm back, but Bast’s grip had all the give of a steel bar. “I just got back a few hours ago from running an errand for you and you’re expecting me to go out again already?”

“Yes.”

“But…”

“But nothing! An each uisge has taken up residence in your local lake. We need to send it back before it gets tired of eating dogs  and deer and decides to go after something bigger, like your neighbors.”

Awk ooshka? What the hell is that? “Ok, ok, I get it. Can I just have a second to change please?”

Bast rolled her eyes and huffed impatiently. “Fine, but hurry it up. You have two minutes before I drag you out the door, and to be honest I don’t care what state of dress you’re in.”

I hurried over to my dresser and threw on another of my many pairs of black pants, my emerald-green Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt, and a fleecy Columbia jacket. The day had been hot, but the rain had cooled things off considerably and I wanted an extra layer. Last I grabbed a pair of dry socks and pulled an old pair of black Nikes out of the closet, grabbed the necklace and dagger from off the table, and I was set.

“Ready to go?” Bast asked, opening the door.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I muttered, slipping the dagger into my jacket pocket as we walked out of my apartment into the night. Thankfully the rain had stopped, but the ground was soaked and I had to dodge the puddles beside the house.

I walked up to my grey Subaru and pulled out my keys. “So what part of the lake are we going to?”

“The southern end,” came Bast’s voice from behind me. “I’ve found the most evidence of the each uisge’s activity there. And put your keys away. The place we’re going isn’t far; with all the traffic lights in this town it’ll be quicker if I just take you there.”

“Take me there?” I turned toward her, forehead creasing. “As in carrying me on your back or some- whoa!” Standing on the sidewalk in front of me, larger than life, was an enormous lioness staring at me through familiar golden eyes. Eerily, the lioness spoke with Bast’s voice. “Yes, as in carrying you on my back. Now hop on, we need to get moving.”

“Um, are you sure you don’t want me to drive? I really don’t mind…”

“NOW!!!” Bast roared. (See what I did there?)

I climbed onto her back nervously and bear-hugged the base of her neck. This was a terrible idea. I wasn’t the most coordinated person in the world. My only riding experience came from the pony rides at the local carnival when I was a kid. There was no way we were going to make it to the lake without me flying off and eating concrete. But I didn’t have much time to worry about it. As soon as I was on, muscles rippled beneath the furred hide under me and we took off like a screaming tawny rocket across town.

Chapter 6

Houses zipped past in a blur, and the many traffic-lights between my place and Cass Park didn’t even slow Bast down.  Along the way we passed a number of shimmering contact points floating above the streets and sidewalks. With a gasp I saw one of them split open, creating a portal to another world. Colorful little creatures resembling parrots poked their heads through curiously and several of them fluttered through chirping and squawking. I shouted to Bast and pointed in their direction, but her only reply was, “Don’t worry about them, they’re harmless.”

We bounded across the bridge leading out of town, and then came the worst part of the trip. Instead of running to the end of the bridge and turning the corner, Bast simply leapt over the side to land on the walking trail below. Touch-down was a bone-jarring impact that slammed the wind out of me and left me wheezing as I tried to hang onto the charging lioness. Trees and rain gardens zoomed by on the left in the dimness, while on our right the dark water of the Cayuga inlet stretched out before us like a great ribbon. Only a few minutes passed before the lake came into view, but I already knew I was going to be feeling this tomorrow.

Bast stopped at the boat launch in the marine park near the end of the walking trail and allowed me to shakily dismount. I staggered around the parking lot for a few seconds, re-accustoming myself to solid ground as Bast changed back to humanoid form. I looked around. The marine park looks peaceful tonight. I stood at the head of the concrete ramp that sloped down into the southern tip of Cayuga Lake and took in the racks of canoes, the pavilions and picnic tables, the serene-looking sailboats moored up for the night. To the north the lake widened and curved out of view behind a stand of trees. Everything appeared just as it should be; it was hard to imagine we were about to engage some dangerous beastie here.

Bast walked up to the ramp and flipped open her satchel. She reached in, and I watched in amazement as he pulled out an entire deer. Without ceremony Bast plopped the carcass onto the ground. “Gah!” I gasped, scuttling away from it.

“How was there an entire deer in your bag!?” I demanded. “That doesn’t make any sense!”

Bast looked at me and shrugged. “It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” It’s a Tardis bag… She dug around in her satchel again. “Stay well behind me, and don’t come close to the water until I give the all-clear, hear me?” I tip-toed backward away from the deer, a little freaked out. “Um, Bast,” I said uncertainly. “What exactly are we trying to catch out here? And how is this going to help us?”

Bast lifted a glass vial that glowed bright yellow-orange, like flames, and when she pulled out the glass stopper and tipped the vial over a cascade of fire poured out and instantly caused the carcass to ignite. Within seconds the deer was engulfed in the strange flames and the smell of roasting venison filled the night.

She looked at me over the fire, her features painted in dramatic contrasts of light and shadow by the flames. “In a nutshell, an each uisge is a meat-eating water-horse. It lives in large bodies of water like ponds and lakes and it’s dangerous as hell.”

I swallowed. “Oh, that’s great.” But then I remembered something. “Wait, I think I read a story once about a creature like this. It was called a kelpie or something. Aren’t they only supposed to be dangerous if you try to ride them?”

Bast shook her head as she turned to scan the water line. “Other kinds of water-horses, like kelpies, will settle for trying to lure you onto their backs. But not this one; an each uisge will grab you by the throat and drag you to the bottom of its lake.”

I looked around nervously. “Hey, you can take this thing right?”

She shot me an irritated look. “Of course I can.” Then she flicked a wrist in my direction. “Now go over there somewhere. I can’t get this bastard and worry about you at the same time.”

I turned with a huff and shuffled up to the parking lot, hating the feeling of being ordered around but acknowledging that it was indeed the best place to be. From the sound of it this monster wasn’t anything I wanted to deal with.

The smell of the fire wafted up to me and I coughed a little, pulling my jacket up to cover my nose. It was true that this part of the country had a serious deer overpopulation problem, and I understood that most people didn’t see anything wrong with eating meat. In fact, I did my best to avoid the stereotype of the obnoxious vegan, living by my beliefs without preaching them. But all that aside, even by an omnivore’s standards this seemed primitive. The setup looked like nothing so much as a burnt offering to the spirit of the lake, and it bothered me that the poor animal had to die when it wasn’t even going to be eaten.

“Hey Bast, I have a question.”

She answered me without turning around. “If you’re about to ask if you can go home and go back to sleep until the each uisge makes its appearance the answer is no.”

Crap, that was what I was about to ask…

“Uh…” I thought for a second. Actually, there was something I was curious about. I glanced at the blackening deer and said, “No, it’s not that. I was going to ask you about your job. Why do you send these creatures back? It seems like a lot of trouble for you to subdue these things long enough to shove them through a portal. Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill them?”

She turned to look at me briefly, studying me with those golden eyes before bringing her attention back to the water. “Yes, it would be easier. Honestly I could cut my workload almost in half if I just killed every threatening creature I came across.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “But that’s not who we are. We’re not senseless killers; we are the agents of Kemet. Our purpose is to maintain order in the cosmos, and killing sentient creatures causes an increase in disorder.”

I put my hands in my pockets and considered this, and for the next few hours Bast and I just stood in the night, waiting. Eventually the flames died down to just a few smoldering points of orange heat here and there on the remains, the smell of seared meat hanging heavy in the air. A silver moon came out from behind the clouds and slowly drifted lower in the sky, until I started to wonder if I was dragged out of bed for nothing. I yawned and hugged my jacket to myself, shivering in the chilly night air. Then, just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten and I was dreading the thought of going to work exhausted, quiet footsteps behind me caught my attention. I started at the sight of a dark shape moving in my direction, but after a moment calmed down. Easy Erin, it’s just a man. Probably out for an early morning stroll or something. But this presented another problem. How was I going to explain a fire in the middle of a city park, especially one with an animal burning in it?

“Good evening,” I began carefully.

The man stopped in front of me, peering past curiously at the charred pile. I wondered if this guy was homeless. Or had recently fallen into the lake. His clothes were dark and rumpled, and in the pale moonlight I could see that his shaggy hair had mud and seaweed dripping from it. He was of medium build and was young and clean-shaven, but so smeared with grime that it almost completely hid his handsome features. He sniffed at the air gently. “Whatever is cooking smells nice,” he said appreciatively, before turning his dark eyes on me. “But not as nice as you.”

I backed away, alarm bells blaring in my head. “Hey, Bast…” The man smiled wide, revealing a mouth full of shark-like teeth. I turned and sprinted for the boat launch, screaming, “BAST!!!” Behind me a thunderous whinny and the clattering of hooves shattered the peaceful pre-dawn silence. I looked back and saw that Bast wasn’t kidding about how bad this thing was.

The each uisge was completely black except for its gleaming white teeth. It stood as high at the shoulder as I was tall, and it was almost on top of me. Murder gleamed in its black eyes as it bore down on me, maw open to tear into whatever part of me it got a hold of first. Desperately I veered to the left, and felt an impact against my back as its shoulder barreled into me. But instead of bouncing off the nightmare horse’s side to be trampled underfoot, I stuck to it! My back was freaking stuck to the thing’s side like flypaper. I thrashed around trying to break free, but only managed to get more stuck as the lake shore raced up to meet me.

Bast dashed toward us, roaring a challenge. In response the nightmare horse charged, bellowing a battle cry of its own with me bouncing along on its side, screaming. The two powers collided about thirty feet from the head of the ramp, Bast’s fist connecting with the each uisge’s jaw with a wet snapping noise. Bast grinned as it let out a whinny of pain, but then the each uisge pivoted sharply to the right, and with a shocked look on her face Bast was swept along for the ride. You’ve gotta be kidding me! What is this thing made of, superglue!?

The beast spun with all its might, one, two, three times, causing Bast to sail through the air. I’m gonna throw up… At the arc of its third spin, either the each uisge released Bast or the force of the spin caused Bast to break free and go crashing into a rack of colorful canoes. With nothing left to stop it, the horse plunged into the lake, dragging me down with it.

Cold, murky water rushed over me, instantly saturating my clothes, again, and cutting off the sound of Bast screaming my name. We were sinking, down, down, the each uisge galloping to the deepest part of the lake. Pressure built up in my head and total darkness closed around me as I watched the surface recede higher and higher above me. It was then, floating in the lake that I realized the only part of me stuck to the monster was my jacket. Wiggling out of it would cost me the dagger, but I could live with that. Bast would get over it.

Squirming frantically, I pulled my arms out of the sleeves and kicked off the horse’s side, losing my shoes on its sticky flank, and swam for my life toward the surface. The moon was dimly visible from beneath the muddy lake, and just now it shone like a beacon. I clawed toward it, kicked with all my might, saw the rippling surface edge closer. But then pain like nothing I had ever experienced erupted in my right calf like a starburst and I screamed, sending a stream of bubbles floating to the surface.

The each uisge clamped down on my leg and worried at it like a dog, sending waves of agony through my body. I’d never been injured this badly before, not even close, and the pain paralyzed me. Tendrils of darkness snaked across my vision, and it began to sink in that I could really die right now. Darkness expanded to fill my whole vision and I despaired, knowing that this was the end. And then the horse released me.

I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I took the moment to fight my way upward, until I realized I couldn’t tell which way was up. Oh my god, where’d the moon go!? There was no sense of direction down here. Everything was just inky blackness everywhere I looked. My chest spasmed.  I thrashed about, my entire body crying out for air. Stars exploded across my vision, and finally my breath gave out. Bubbles erupted from my mouth and I sucked in the dark water.

Oh, the pain! The water burned the inside of my nose and lungs; it stung badly enough that I almost forgot about the throbbing in my leg. My body stopped struggling, and I felt myself floating, floating away…

Soft lips touched mine, and a gentle warmth spread down into my chest. My eyes snapped open as I gasped and spluttered. And realized that I was still underwater, but somehow breathing? I looked around. In every direction was total darkness as far as I could see. There was nothing in the featureless dark except for a small mass of bubbles floating around my head. That’s not possible… Bubbles always rose to the surface, but somehow these ones bobbed in place, stationary. Are these bubbles the ones I made? I reached out to touch one, then looked down at my hand, realizing that I could see it. In fact, I could see my entire body, including a red cloud of blood coming from my leg.

What the hell is going on? Am I dead? But then my leg cramped up and caused a nauseating wave of agony. I curled up on myself, grimacing. Ok, probably not dead. I hurt too much to be dead. Which leaves me with the question; where am I?  I felt a ripple brush against me, and turning toward it I saw a man floating nearby. He looked like he’d just popped out of an ancient Egyptian wall painting. His black hair was invisible against the darkness, serving only to frame a narrow face with large, dark eyes and a wide, full mouth. He wore a sleeveless blue shirt with rippling wave patterns and a white, knee-length kilt. Decorating his body were bracelets, armlets, and a pectoral collar that tended toward silver and various shades of blue stones.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am the waters beyond the edge of the cosmos.” He smiled gently. “But you can call me Nun.” He had a soft voice, a mellow baritone that was spoken quietly but still carried across the distance between us easily.

An enraged whinny came from the darkness nearby. Out of the abyss the each uisge roared at us, only its teeth and the whites of its eyes visible in the blackness. I gasped and back-pedaled, but Nun looked side-long at it disdainfully. “I would not advise attacking me. This is my domain. You have no power here. You remain here until I release you, and all of your roaring and posturing will not make a difference.”

From somewhere I couldn’t see Nun produced my jacket and shoes. I slipped them on gratefully, and then with a gesture he turned and opened a portal. The world on the other side was also underwater, but rippling moonlight danced along a silty bottom covered in waving seaweed. Suddenly, a powerful current came from nowhere and swept the struggling water-horse through before the window to that other watery world closed silently, leaving all still again.

Nun turned to look at me and held out his hand. “Now that that’s out of the way, if you could come with me please. There’s something you need to see.”

The strangeness of this day was already dialed up to eleven and beyond, even before this guy saved me. Screw it. Why not? Let’s go look at the thing in the dark with the water man. I took his hand and let him pull me through the endless abyss. “So…” I started. “What is it that you need me to see?” I half-expected to find Kingdom Hearts down here.

Nun looked back at me, looking bleak, and opened his mouth as if to say something.

“Hello, Nun,” a smooth, cool voice crooned from the void.

My hair stood on end. There was something about that voice. Something terrible. I have no rational explanation for my reaction to that voice in the darkness, or the sudden impression it gave me. Somehow I just knew that this was a cruel voice amused by the most horrifying things, a voice that delighted in others’ suffering and cried for joy as entire civilizations fell.

A cloud of grey smoke billowed in front of us and began to morph and solidify into the shape of a person. I never got a good look at it though, because Nun moved between me and it. His expression was one of resignation, but deep in his eyes I thought I saw something else. Anger maybe? He smiled at me sadly and said, “Take care Ms. Renwick. I hope we meet again.”

Tendrils of darkness obscured my vision once more, and when they cleared I was back in cold murky water. I looked up and saw a fading moon glowing weakly above. Little lights appeared around me. They moved and lengthened into wispy masses of pale luminescence with translucent tails that glided silently through the dimness. The wisps circled around me, the suspended sediment in the water scattering the light eerily. It was peaceful down here, and surreal. I watched the ethereal lights perform their slow, graceful dance, like a sky full of comets streaking through the night. They held me transfixed until a yellow glint in the distance caught my attention.

A figure with golden eyes swam into view. The faerie lights lit part-human, part-feline features that were strained with anxiety. Bast gripped my arm and paddled for the surface. My scuffle with the each uisge had moved us considerably north; we scrambled up a low stone wall to see the park manager’s station and the benches placed at the very end of the waterfront trail.

I knelt on the grass and spat up two lungs-full of water while Bast fussed hysterically and slapped my back hard enough to bruise. “Bast!” I spluttered between her sledge-hammer blows. “Bast, knock it off, I can breathe!” She pulled me up by the shoulders and frantically started looking me over.

“Are you hurt!? Did he injure you!? Is anything broken!?” She turned me this way and that, handling me as easily as she would a rag-doll. Finally, Bast saw the tear in my pant leg and the blood seeping through it. I watched as she sliced the fabric and tore off the pant leg just under my knee and I almost threw up. My leg was a mess. It looked more like something you would see behind the glass case at a butcher shop than a living limb attached to a human being. I looked away, pretty sure I was going to pass out.

“Easy, Erin.” Bast stroked a hand down my back and rubbed at my shoulders. “It looks worse than it is. Come on; I’ll take you home, we’ll get you cleaned up, and I have a healing salve that’ll have you back on your feet by lunch time.”

I looked up at her. “Wow Bast, I didn’t realize you cared so much.”

She looked surprised. “Of course I do. You’re no good to me injured, and Isis would never let me hear the end of it if you died on my watch.” I sighed. That was honest. It’s good to know how much I’m valued.

Bast shifted back into lion form and I struggled onto her back. As we started back toward town I asked her, “Hey Bast?”

“Yes, Erin?”

“Who is Nun?” Bast’s pace slowed to a walk. “Is that how you got away from the each uisge? Because Nun helped you?”

I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t see it. “Yeah, he took us to his world and sent the water-horse somewhere.” I thought back to my time under the lake. “But the funny thing is I didn’t see a contact point down there. How did he open a portal between our worlds without one?”

“He didn’t open a portal between worlds,” Bast replied.

I frowned, wincing as my leg throbbed. “I don’t understand.”

“Nun is not a world,” Bast said slowly, as if she were trying to figure out how to word this. “Nun is nothing. It’s the waters that existed before the beginning. The waters of Nun is a void that fills the spaces surrounding the universes. You didn’t see a contact point because the contact points are places where two or more worlds touch.”

“And Nun is just an abyss separating the worlds,” I said, checking to see if I understood.

“Exactly.” She turned her great tawny head to look at me. “And you say he helped you?”

“Yes, is that unusual?” She looked forward and picked up the pace. “No one has seen Nun in some time. It’s been years since he emerged from the void. We’ve wondered what he has been doing down there.”

“If you’re so curious, why not just go to the edge of a universe and ask him?” Bast chuckled. “Nothing’s that simple. We can’t go to Nun; we have to wait for Nun to come to us.” I shook my head. “Why?” I asked.

“It’s the nature of what we are,” Bast replied. “The people of Kemet, the people of my world, draw our power from creation. Our power, the very energy that sustains us comes from channeling a world’s magic or chi or prana or whatever you want to call it. We are beings made more so of energy than matter. A place like Nun, a place that is nothing and has no magic for us to draw on, can’t support us. The moment anyone from my world went there they would become too weak to move or even to stay conscious. It’s a completely inhospitable place where we can hardly even exist.”

“With the exception of Nun.”

Bast nodded. “With the exception of Nun. He is the abyss personified. The realm between the worlds is his domain.”

“Then why wasn’t I affected? I was in the abyss for a while there, but I seem to be alright.”

“You are human. Humans are mostly physical beings. Which makes sense, since your world is mostly physical and has little magic relative to most others. Humans don’t rely on the magic in a world to sustain you and you don’t work spells by channeling the world’s power like we do; your power comes from within. Think of it like running on battery power rather than plugging into an outlet. Humans have a smaller reserve to draw from, but since you don’t rely on an external power source you can use your gifts even in places like Nun.”

This is a lot to take in. “You say you need magic around you to function,” I said thoughtfully. “And that there isn’t a lot of magic in this world. Does that mean you’re weak here?”

“Relatively speaking, yes,” Bast replied stiffly.

“Fascinating,” I muttered. This all gave me plenty to mull over during our return trip. Now that I was out of danger I felt how cool the night had gotten, and I started to shiver in my soaked clothes. I flattened myself against Bast’s warm fur and thought about the hot water waiting for me at home. Getting back to town took considerably longer than it took to get to the park, probably because Bast took it easy this time. Her gate was much steadier, and she avoided jumps and sharp turns, but even so my leg was killing me by the time we trotted up my street.

We were facing east, and I saw with a groan that the sun was peaking up over the horizon. I looked lovingly at my building as it came into view, grateful beyond words that I was alive to see my tiny apartment again. It was then I saw there was something waiting for us. A pale shape stalked out from between the houses in the early morning light. I practically screamed in frustration. “Does this never freaking end!? Come on, enough already!”

Bast stopped a few yards away. “It’s alright Erin,” she sighed, but I could tell from the way her head slumped and her ears folded back that she wasn’t happy. “She’s not here to hurt us, she’s just here to nag about something.” Bast raised her head and said tiredly, “Good morning, Sekhmet, what brings you to this part of the world?”

A lioness padded onto the sidewalk in front of my house, facing us. Now don’t get me wrong, Bast’s lioness form was impressive. It was a great golden shape of fluid grace and rippling muscle. But this other lioness was something else entirely. She was massive, nearly twice Bast’s size, and muscles visibly bulged from her huge frame. I felt like I was looking at the Hulk version of Bast.

The larger lioness sniffed the air. “I smell blood.” Then she turned to look at me sharply before snarling at Bast. “You allowed your human to be injured!? After just two days!? Of all the reckless, irresponsible…” She reared up on her hind legs and her form shrunk down to reveal a woman in red.

Everything about this woman’s look screamed ‘not to be fucked with’. Her features were a blend of human and lioness, and thick locks of black hair cascaded around her face like a mane. Her skin was several shades darker than Bast’s, browned by the sun. Like Bast, Sekhmet’s outfit tended toward leather, but the similarities ended there. Instead of a cool-looking jacket Sekhmet wore armor. It was a mail shirt made of leather scales that covered her torso and her impressive shoulders. Golden wings criss-crossed over the front of the shirt and a wide golden collar protected her neck. Heavy golden cuffs accentuated her forearms and brought attention to the wicked claws at the ends of her hands. Below the waist she wore an ankle-length red gown split at the sides up to mid-thigh, showing off muscular legs and vicious-looking lion’s paws.

Sekhmet strode toward us, growling, and I felt more than a little intimidated. “You just found her and she is already wounded! How could you let this happen?”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Bast snapped, bristling. “Besides, she’s going to be fine. I have a healing salve…”

Sekhmet stopped directly beside me, towering over me, her burning aura enveloping us. Being close to Bast felt like standing under a column of warm water; proximity to Sekhmet was like opening the hatch of a blast furnace. Her aura seared the air; it bit along my skin like a hot wind. I instantly went from shivering to sweating.

At this distance I could see that even her eyes were a little different from Bast’s. From down the sidewalk I had thought they were the same golden color, but now I could see there was a drop of red mixed in, so that it was closer to copper. “Don’t bother.” She reached out one clawed hand and grabbed my leg. Shock and burning pain shot through me and for a second I thought she was going to melt my limb off. I screamed and struggled against her grip, but her arm gave about as much as Bast’s did. It’s not fair! People aren’t supposed to be this strong!       Then the pain faded away. The sudden relief left me dizzy and I slumped moaning over Bast’s back. When Sekhmet released me I expected to see a smoking stump where my leg used to be, but instead saw that I was healed. The flesh was still pink and tender, but my foot was still there and the throbbing was even gone.

She grabbed my hand and pressed two pale blue, faintly-glowing crystals into them. “Healing crystals,” she muttered. “It looks like you are going to need them.” Sekhmet turned to Bast. “This is unacceptable. We cannot afford to spare even one Opener of the Ways.” She tilted her chin upward, eyes narrowing. “She would be better off paired with someone else. Maybe if you spent less time dancing and chasing men and more time training you would be able to keep your human safe.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk about keeping people safe,” Bast shot back. “Heard you had an episode in Turkey last month. Leveled an entire area before you got a hold of yourself. Really, Sekhmet, how could you let a ghoul get under your skin like that? Their insults totally lack imagination.”

Sekhmet roared and I saw with terror that the inside of her mouth was glowing, but then she snapped her jaws shut and steam came out from between her teeth and out her nose. “I may lose my temper on occasion,” she growled. “But I serve our queen wholeheartedly and with no ulterior motive. Unlike some people I could mention, little sister.”

Bast snorted. “Please, the only reason you’re in this business is to satisfy your own battle-lust. Now why don’t you tell me why you came here, unless it was just to annoy me?”

Sekhmet’s hands balled into fists and there was a moment I thought things were going to turn violent. But then she appeared to get herself under control and spat, “Fine. I came to tell you that intelligence has found evidence of Order activity in the area.”

Bast groaned. “Already? That was quick.”

Sekhmet crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, it is the humans’ new devices that are to blame. They share everything with each other to the point where the Order learns of a damaged area almost before we do.”

“Yeah, social media isn’t just for posting cat-videos anymore,” Bast sighed.

“Take this seriously, Bast. We can’t send any other agents here to back you up right now, and to make things worse Asgard has recalled all of their people from the field.”

Bast looked up. “Why would they do that?”

Sekhmet’s long tail trashed in irritation. “Apparently Loki has broken free of the rock he was bound to.” She sighed. “The Aesir have flown into a frenzy; they think that because one trouble-maker escaped them the end of days is nigh.”

“Tch, wonderful,” Bast snorted. “Strange though, how Loki escapes just two years after Set found a way out of his cell.” An uncomfortable silence stretched through the early morning air. “Anyway, thanks for the heads-up, Sekhmet. I’ll watch myself.”

Sekhmet nodded and turned away from us. “Take care.”

Bast carried me around the side of the building and up the stairs, where she let me off and shifted back. “Are you alright?” she asked.

I handed her the crystals, which she slipped into her bag. “I’m ok,” I said quietly, but really I felt like I was drowning. Things were so much further over my head than I’d realized. It was completely overwhelming. I had so many questions, but decided to start with the one that sounded closest to home. “What is the Order?”

Bast nodded toward my door. “It could take a while to explain. Mind if I come in?”

I pushed open the door and peeled off my shoes and socks and slipped into a pair of sandals. “I’ll make tea,” I mumbled as I went into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove. While the water was heating I grabbed my pajamas off my bed and took a quick shower. By the time I got out the water was boiling, so I scooped some tea leaves into my French press and poured the water over them.

I grabbed my sugar bowl off the microwave and two mugs from the cabinet and carried everything into the main room. Bast was lounging on the loveseat with Cloe curled up in her lap, running her fingers over the cat’s fur with one hand and examining the stone I’d gotten in the swamp world in the other. “Is there something interesting about that stone?” I asked. She sniffed as I set the tea on the coffee table and pulled one of the kitchen chairs over to face the loveseat. “Earl Grey? Not bad,” she said approvingly.

Bast reached over and poured the tea, lifting it to her lips without adding any sugar. I added a teaspoon to mine and stirred it. After a moment Bast answered me. “Yes, there is. These stones form in the bodies of the race of beings you met last night. They’re of no use to them; the stones are basically waste products that they produce once in a while. I guess the closest analogy would be pearls forming inside oysters. But they’re cool, because they contain a little of their telepathic power. You can use this to form a mental link with someone else through physical contact.”

“So it’s a Vulcan mind-meld crystal?” I asked, amazed. That was cool.

Bast raised one eyebrow. “Um, sure? Anyway, it may be something you want to hang onto. Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a needle and a thin chain, then bored a hole through the crystal and threaded the chain through it before handing it to me.

“Thanks,” I said, setting it next to the bead necklace and dagger. “So, what about-“

“The Holy Order of Constantine,” Bast began.

I took a sip of tea and looked across the coffee table at her. “That’s what they’re called? Who are they?”

Bast scratched Cloe between the ears. “Long story short, they’re bad news. Stay away from them.”

“Why? What’s their deal?”

“They’re a group that was formed under Constantine, around seventeen hundred years ago. Constantine was the first Roman emperor who thought the newfangled religion called Christianity was a good idea, and he decided he wanted to spread it across the world. So he formed his Holy Order. At first it was meant to protect churches and Christians from persecution. Fairly benign stuff. Traditional polytheistic religions still predominated during that time period and early Christians were not popular people. Eventually, though, the Order started taking on a more martial role. Their purpose evolved into attacking and undermining the other religions, looting and destroying temples, killing priests, et cetera.”

Bast drained the last of her tea, set the mug in front of her, and continued. “When the Catholic Church rose to prominence, the Church folded the Order into their organization and repurposed it to seek out and destroy heretics, evil spirits, and witches.” Her eyes rose to meet mine. “Including people who could travel to other worlds.”

I swallowed. “So they killed everyone like me?”

“Not everyone.” She leaned back and stretched an arm along the back of the love seat. “When they found someone with the gift, they gave them a choice; join the Order or burn at the stake. They didn’t want people like you living outside the Church’s control for fear that they might try to resurrect the old religions. People who could communicate with the gods directly were highly valued in the pre-Christian world and often became priests or shamans or druids, and were thus seen as threatening by the Church.

On the flip side, though, the Church wanted people with your ability on their team. As we saw tonight, once in a while something nasty really does come through to this world. The Church wanted people around who could handle those kinds of things. Especially after the rips started forming.”

I looked up from my mug, surprised. “Wait, you mean they weren’t always a thing?”

Bast shook her head. “No, they only started appearing around three hundred years ago, and only once in a while. At first you might see one every few years. It used to be that hearing about an area of reality that had become unstable was big news, but as time went on they started popping up everywhere. In the last decade or so there’ve been so many that we can barely keep up with them, even with only one of us at each.”

I chewed this over for a second. “So, your people and the Order…It kind of sounds like you have similar goals in mind, keeping the peace and protecting people and whatnot, but you don’t get along? Why?”

“We have differing views on other worlds,” Bast said sourly. “The Order believes that this world is the only one. A typically human trait, believing themselves to be the center of the universe.” She smirked at me and I rolled my eyes. “According to them,” she continued, “all the other worlds are really just regions of Hell, and their inhabitants are imps and demons and such. Especially us, the more badass races humans think of as ‘gods’. The Order really hates us because they can’t do anything about us. We’re way too powerful for them to do much but buzz around and be distracting.

Anyway, the Order’s general policy upon learning of a rip in reality is to go in and kill every other-worlder they can find, dangerous or not. Since, you know, they’re minions of the Devil and they have it coming.” Bast rubbed the area between her eyes. “This creates a lot of headaches for us because, not only do we fail to protect people, we also get a lot of incidences of people coming to this world seeking revenge. And when they hurt humans it further motivates the Order to keep killing, and on and on the cycle perpetuates.

Minimizing the murdering wasn’t as much of a problem years back. We have ways of detecting rips that the Order doesn’t, so it used to be that we could get there and stabilize the area so that things would already be winding down by the time they caught wind of it. But with technology today being what it is, the Order learns of rips almost as fast as we do, so we’ve increasingly been in conflict with them.”

I sent my empty mug down, feeling ill. “I take it your people and the Order fight each other?”

“Well, I wouldn’t so much call it fighting. Gifted or not, they are only human and are no match for us. More like they pop up, kill the critters we’re trying to send home, and disappear again. It’s highly aggravating and keeps reality destabilized for longer periods of time. If we’re running around trying to keep other-worlders from getting Ordered we’re not laying down stabilization spells.

“So why don’t you do something about them?”

Bast’s eyes widened. “Wow, that’s a great idea! Why didn’t we ever think of that?”

I sighed. Smartass.

“But seriously, we have tried to take out their organization before. My people have done everything short of nuking them: We’ve sent in humans to act as double agents, destroyed known bases, disrupted their sources of funding, but they always seem to be a step ahead of us. Like they know what we’re going to do in advance. It’s creepy.”

I cupped my face in my hand. This was all so much, and I was so tired. I yawned. Bast looked over at the window and seemed to notice the sunlight streaming in for the first time. She stood and stretched, then looked down at me and said, “You look like you’re crashing. Get some rest; I’m heading out.” She walked across the apartment, gently running a hand over my head as she passed, and pulled open the door, revealing a mild morning. “I should be able to finish stabilizing the rip today, so things will start to quiet down after this. There will still be the occasional portal opening up in the next few months, but it won’t be anything like the last few days.”

“This spell you’re working on,” I said tiredly, twisting around to face her and leaning my elbow on the back of the chair. “Is this something you need me to help with too?”

“No,” Bast said. She puffed out her chest. “Sekhmet needs her human to help her, but I have enough ability to handle it myself. Besides, your skill level isn’t high enough yet to craft a spell that intricate.”

Bast stepped out onto the porch. “Have a good sleep, Erin. Solid effort today. I’ll come and check on you later.” She pulled the door shut, and just like that she was gone.

Chapter 7

I glanced at my alarm clock: 7:35AM. Crap. I was supposed to start my shift in less than half an hour. Closing my eyes I pulled out my phone and dialed Dave’s number. Talking to him was rarely a pleasant experience, especially when I had to ask him for something. The man stressed out over every little thing. My tired brain tried to think of an excuse for skipping work as I held the phone up to my ear, but my thoughts were oozing along at a snail’s pace. I hadn’t quite thought of anything when his nervous voice answered on the second ring. “Morning, Erin. What’s up?”

“Hey, Dave,” I mumbled.  “Would you mind if I stayed home today?”

“Wow, Erin, you sound terrible!” he gushed. Thanks Dave.  “Come to think of it you looked a little less than a hundred percent yesterday. You coming down with something?”

Aha, an opening. Dave was  a miserable sick person. He avoided illness like it was his job. Last year he brought home a slight cold after visiting his family for Thanksgiving and it was all Art and I heard about for over a week. You would have thought he was battling the plague from how he moaned. “I think I might be getting the flu,” I told him with a small smile. I could practically feel his blood pressure rising over the phone.

“Um, ok,” he said anxiously, and I was about 95% sure he was already pulling out the disinfecting wipes to scrub everything in the office. “You know, if that’s the case why don’t you take tomorrow off too? That’ll give you four days to get over whatever you have.”

I silently thanked the universe for making this one thing easy. “Sounds good, Dave. Have a good rest of the week.”

“I’ll try,” he huffed. I could hear shuffling noises in the background and figured he must have put me on speaker phone. “Man, Erin, everything hurts today! I’m tidying up the office a bit- Ha, knew it!-and I’m in so much pain! My wrists, my back, my shoulders, everything’s sore. Even my head hurts.”

I stretched out on my bed with the phone beside my head. Sounds like he’s winding up for a long one. “Did you drink any water today?” I asked him, already knowing the answer.

“No… I know I should but I never feel thirsty. And speaking of water, do you know what Svetlana yelled at me about yesterday?”

My eyes drifted shut as my boss unloaded the many things that were bothering him. Dave barely paused for breath during his rant and I don’t think he even noticed that I fell asleep. “Erin? Hey, you still there?”

I snapped awake and picked up the phone. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re sick, and oh, my goodness it is eight o clock already. I gotta go water. Feel better ok?”

“Will do. Thanks, bye.”

Thank goodness.

I hung up the phone and pulled my comforter over me. After tossing around for a few hours I got up around eleven, still feeling tired but not wanting to lie in bed any longer. After cleaning up the tea set I went into the kitchen and got a pot of coffee perking. Cloe curled up in my lap while I had my late breakfast on the loveseat. Normally I would watch a movie or listen to the radio, but this morning I ate my cereal in silence.

How did I get here? Reality unraveling into disarray, nightmare creatures trying to eat me, religious maniacs giving me offers I can’t refuse. I almost died last night. That last thought was a brick to the side of my head.  It paralyzed me. If Nun had shown up even a minute later… I pushed my cereal bowl away, feeling nauseous. My life was out of control and I didn’t know how to fix it.

I leaned back against the loveseat and closed my eyes, just breathing and rubbing Cloe under the chin. “I don’t know what to do,” I said to the purring mound of striped fur in my lap. “It’s all too much. I can’t think straight. I need…” My gaze alighted on the bookshelf that held my small board game collection. “I need a dose of normalcy.”

Giving Cloe one last stroke down her back I got up and got dressed. “I’ll be back in a while,” I informed her, lest she think she was being abandoned. “Hold down the fort while I’m gone.” She blinked her eyes up at me slowly and rubbed her face against my pant leg, which I interpreted as assent. To my great relief I locked up my apartment and made it all the way to the Badger without incident. During the walk across town my head started to clear. I’m done. Bast needs to find someone else. Next time I see her I’ll throw the dagger and necklace at her and slam the door in her face. What can she really do if I outright refuse to help her?

The Badger’s bells tinkled when I walked in, same as always, and Stacy smiled and waved at me from behind the counter, same as always. I took a breath. My life’s insanity hadn’t touched this place. Game time was still sacred. There weren’t very many people in the store yet, not surprising at noon on a work day, but I still managed to get a game going with Stacy and a teenager I didn’t recognize. Normally I avoided the kids who patronized the store. The under-eighteen crowd was almost exclusively interested in Magic, and besides that children freaked me out. I felt awkward around them, even by my standards of awkwardness. Kids were strange, unpredictable creatures somewhere between a person and an animal, and I had no idea how to deal with their high energy and crazy emotions. But today I was desperate, and the kid sitting across the table from me didn’t seem too bad.  He looked calm, for the moment at least.

My fellow Badger patron was a thin little guy who hadn’t reached puberty yet. I guessed he was around fourteen. He had blue eyes and shaggy brown hair in serious need of a trim, and he wore a red Angry Birds t-shirt. I looked at him across the table as we set up a game of Qwirkle and something dawned on me, “Hey, isn’t today a school day?”

He set up his tiles in front of him and replied quietly, “Parent-teacher conference day. Mom’s meeting with my teachers and dad’s with his friends. They’re trying to make him feel better because he got passed up for a promotion at work.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” I looked down at my tiles and sighed. I know how that feels…

“I’m giving the job to Jose,” George Kurwa informed me from behind his desk. My ego, still recovering from the battering it took from Mike, sank down through my feet and dribbled onto the office carpet. I rocked back on my thick booted heels, crushed. Five minutes ago I’d been ecstatic when Mr. Kurwa called me to his office. Our head grower had announced his retirement three days before and I thought for sure I was about to get a promotion. Silly me. “Oh,” I stammered. “But, I’ve been here longer than Jose, and I’ve spent more time being mentored by Mark…”

George held up his hand. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re good at your job, very good. You’ve really worked hard here the past year and a half and everyone says good things about you. But… I just can’t see you being in charge. You’re a good grower, but you’re not a leader. Jose will be running the finishing area starting next week.” He looked down at the paper work on his desk, and after rifling through the various forms and work orders in front of him he gave me a quick glance and said, “That’s all.”

I took a step back, speechless. “Oh, um, ok.” Turning, I walked out of George’s air-conditioned office and into the heat of the company’s main loading area. A cacophony of revving truck engines, rattling carts full of wrapped flower arrangements, and shipping crews darting across the expansive concrete floor flowed around me as I walked through the warehouse-sized room toward the entrance to the greenhouses. Sunlight poured in through the glass ceiling of the wide main corridor, mottled by the baskets of ferns hanging overhead. No space went to waste here. On either side of the corridor were doorways leading to the massive two-acre hydrangea houses with their seas of blue and pink blossoms. Electric-powered wagons trundled past me pulling trains of carts laden with petunias while picking crews walked behind chattering in Spanish.

It was the busy spring season and the complex hummed with so many bustling workers that the place felt like an entire village under glass. I covered my ears against the deafening rattle of the carts and walked up to the house I was irrigating. The sprinklers were about half finished in this house but the fertilizer barrel was mostly empty. I dumped a bag of blue powder into the barrel and filled it with water from a nearby hose, and the injector went on happily siphoning the nutrient-rich broth into the sprinkler system. Reflections showed up clearly on the opaque surface of the dark blue stock fertilizer, and in the azure water I saw a sour-faced young woman staring back at me. Not a leader.

Getting this promotion had been one of the two things that made working in this hole tolerable. The place was filthy; most of the floors were ankle-deep mud, and slimy green algae covered every surface of the humid houses. A perpetual cloud of dust hung in the air and the hours were long. Several of my paychecks showed that I’d worked more than seventy hours a week, all without a cent of overtime.

But I never once complained. I showed up every day, learned as much as I could, gave it my all. If I couldn’t be a researcher, I thought at least I could become something at this company. Make my mark on the green industry, gain some recognition from the Kurwa family, and maybe even get mentioned in Grower Talks magazine. Not a leader. My face heated up. Who did George think he was? Dismissing me outright like that. I’d worked long and hard for my position. I knew I could learn to run the finishing area. He was almost never in the greenhouses so how could he know whether Jose or I was better suited? Stomping in my clunky boots I stormed back toward the office to tell my boss…what exactly?

The rising tide within me crashed against a wall and I stopped dead in my tracks. Wait, was I really about to march into my boss’ office and ream him out? That was a great way to get fired. Sadness welled up in its place and sprinkled cold reality on my soul like rain, making my last vestiges of outrage hiss and go out. Who was I kidding?  I didn’t have what it took to be more than a grunt in academia or industry.

I shuffled back over to the injector and stared into the stock fertilizer as if it contained the answers to all the world’. Had I spent my entire life deluding myself? Living in a fantasy where I thought I could actually be somebody? I slapped at the fertilizer, disgusted at the loser staring up from its depths.

“Hey, Erin!” I looked over to see the jovial, stocky form of Jelena walking over to me, a toothy grin threatening to split her face. Her husky voice carried even over the din of the work crews hurrying back and forth through the huge hallway. Jelena was one of the European students who came here to gain the practical experience required for them to graduate with a degree in Horticulture. She’d started working here about six months ago and we’d become fast friends. Jelena was a woman in her mid-30s, about the same size as me, with dark brown eyes, thick, straight brown hair, and a wide mouth that curved easily into a smile.

She strode up to me and threw one arm over my shoulders. “Erin,” she said in her thick Serbian accent. The “I” in my name was stretched out, so it sounded like Ereen. I thought it made my name sound cool and exotic. “We are throwing a party at student house tonight. You will be there, yes? There will be music, dancing…Oh, and I brought some of the national drink of my country. You must try!”

I smiled. It was impossible not to smile around Jelena. “Absolutely, I will definitely be there.”

“Great!” She pulled her arm back and bounced after her picking crew. “See you tonight!”

That was the other thing that made this place bearable; the people. It was amazing how many fantastic and interesting individuals there were in the world. The trailers and houses scattered about the property sheltered examples of humanity from all corners of the Earth. Walking around the company was like taking a walk around the planet. I’d soaked up more foreign culture in the past year and a half than I had in my entire life. It was a fascinating experience I would never forget.

But it was time for me to leave. I had no desire to work my life away at a thankless dead-end job. Finding work that would make me feel like my life was meaningful, that would allow me to achieve a level of success or fame, was a stupid dream I needed to wake up from. I was a nobody. I would always be a nobody. From now on, I would start taking jobs that made me happy. No more settling for work that paid peanuts and no benefits, and certainly no more jobs that demanded overtime hours but gave no overtime pay.

I would go to the students’ party tonight and drink more than was advisable. I would laugh, dance, and enjoy every moment of the evening. Then, I would get up the next day and surf job sites until I found one that allowed me the leisure time and creature comforts I’d never been able to afford as an adult. And it would be enough. A comfortable, stable life would be enough. Is there nothing more than this…

“Hey, it’s your turn. Miss?”

I snapped out of my reverie to see Stacy and the boy looking at me. “Sorry, spaced out for a minute,” I muttered as I placed my tiles.

For the next hour my life went back to normal. Stacy and I creamed the little guy, but he was a great sport about it. After we tallied the final score he waved to us and left with a smile. Qwirkle is a delightful little game. Just like Scrabble, but instead of letters the tiles had colored shapes to line up.

Stacy got up to answer the phone ringing behind the counter. I looked around the store for someone else to game with, but Stacy and I were alone in the shop. Sighing, I pushed back my chair and got ready to leave, but then I heard the bells ring behind me. “Hello, welcome to the Enchanted Badger!” Stacy said cheerfully. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Just looking around,” came a man’s voice from the door. I looked over my shoulder to see if it was anyone I recognized. “Alright,” Stacy replied with a smile, “Let me know if you need anything.”

The man smiled slightly and thanked her with a nod before turning to meet my eyes. He wasn’t anyone I recognized, and he didn’t look like the typical kind of person who frequented this place. Granted, he was a middle-aged man, but he was clean-shaven and tanned, and even from where I sat I could see that he had a strong, muscular build. His hair was blond streaked with grey and neatly clipped, his eyes a clear blue. He wore a very clean white dress shirt tucked into crisp blue-jeans held up by a black belt. His shoes were black leather and looked freshly polished. This guy didn’t look like a gamer; he looked like a blue-collar worker on his way to church. I hoped he wasn’t here to hand out religious pamphlets and tell me about the saving power of Jesus.

He walked over to the table I was sitting at and gestured to the chair across from me. “Mind if I join you?”

“Um, actually, I was just leaving.” I stood and turned toward the door.

“If I could have a moment of your time, Ms. Renwick,” he said quietly.

I froze, stunned. This guy knew who I was. I turned back to look at him, but he continued to stand next to one of the Badger’s long tables, face impassive. My heart started to pound. Was this one of the people Bast told me about? “What if I said no?” I asked him slowly.

He shrugged. “That’s your choice, but I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

Two more people walked into the store, a man and a woman. I didn’t know them either, and they both had the same semi-formal, too-clean look to them that the first man did. Stacy greeted them and asked if they needed help, and they answered that they wanted to look around. They moved to either side of the store, occasionally looking at a game, but mostly watching the doors and windows.

My mouth was dry as I sat back down at the table. The man sat and reached his right hand across toward me. “Nicholas St. George.”

Habit and manners compelled me to reach across the table for his hand, even though my instincts screamed at me to bolt. If I ran, would I make it? Are more of them waiting outside? Nicholas studied my face, and he must have seen the thoughts flying across it because he smiled gently and said, “It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you. I don’t know what you have been told about us, but we want to help you.”

I said nothing, just sat and looked at him. From experience I knew most people preferred speaking over listening, and he’d already indicated that his knowledge about me was limited. No need to tell him how little I knew and how inexperienced I was. Let him be the one to give up information.

When it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything, he stepped in to fill the silence. “I am a member of an organization known as the Holy Order of Constantine, an organization made up of people who can see things most folks can’t, like you.”

I continued to sit quietly, not moving except to lift the corners of my mouth in a small smile. Nicholas fidgeted a little and folded his hands on the table. I think I was starting to make him uncomfortable. “But maybe you already knew that.” He cleared his throat. “We’ve seen you with a creature that calls herself Bast. She has probably told you that she is a goddess on a mission to keep order where space-time has been disturbed, but you need to know this isn’t true.”

I rested my elbows on the table and propped my chin on my hands, giving him a look that I hoped said, “Please, do go on.”

Nicholas also leaned forward with his forearms on the table, apparently reassured that I was giving him my full attention. “I don’t expect you to believe me at first. Trust me, I know, they can be so charming. It’s so easy to get sucked into their lies. But here is the truth; despite whatever they’ve told you these creatures are not gods. They are demons, sent by the devil to open the way for Satan to come here from Hell.”

His eyes bored into mine. There was no humor or guile in this man’s expression; he earnestly believed in what he was saying. If I laughed at him I would probably be shot. “You seem like a nice girl. I think you’re the kind of person who generally tries to do the right thing. Am I right?”

Crap, a direct question. I settled my forearms on the table, mirroring him. “I do what I can.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “And that’s all any of us can do, Erin. Do you mind if I call you Erin?” I shook my head. He smiled. “Great. Now, I’m going to ask you to do the right thing. We’ve been fighting against Bast for some time now, but she is a powerful demon, and crafty. We’ve acquired something recently that can take her down, but none of us can get close enough to her to use it.” He leaned forward again, eyes shining. “But Bast lets her guard down around you. With a little courage you can help us eliminate a creature who threatens the entire world. Will you do it?”

I sat up straight and took a breath. Oh, damn it, what a mess. I wished I was better with words. If I’d had a silver tongue I would have told this guy exactly what he wanted to hear, convinced him I was on board, and then hauled ass out of this shop. But I sucked at lying, so I told him the truth. “I really don’t want to get involved in this whole thing. This fight has nothing to do with me, and all I want is for everyone to leave me alone, you, Bast, everyone.”

Nicholas’ forehead wrinkled with concern. “I’m afraid that’s not possible Erin. There’s no way for people like us who know what’s at stake to not get involved. The Devil doesn’t care whether you want to be a part of this or not.”

I swallowed. Oh. Shit. What do you say to something like that? Nicholas shared a look with the man watching the front of the shop before closing his eyes and running a hand over his face. “I’m telling you this because I care about you. I care about your soul, and I’m telling you it won’t be long before these creatures turn on you. If you’re not ready to join the fight at least take this.” He reached into his pocket and produced a white business card that he slid across the table toward me.

I picked it up and turned it over, but it was the same on both sides. A set of black hieroglyphs that looked like an upside-down sickle, an eye, a twist of rope, a duck, and a lion were the only markings on the white paper. “What is it?” I asked nervously.

“Something to protect you,” Nicholas replied, folding my fingers around the card. “When Bast betrays you just hold that up in front of yourself. The card has a spell in it that will send her back to her own world. It won’t keep her away for long, but it should be long enough for you to come find us.” Nicholas slid his chair back and stood. “We’ll be around.”

He gestured to the two people who came in after him and they nodded and walked out. “Be safe, Erin,” he said looking down at me. “God bless.” And he followed his companions out the door.

I gave it to the count of two hundred before slipping the card into my jacket pocket and leaving as well. Walking beside the highway I looked around for anyone watching me, but the only people out were joggers and the occasional couple pushing a stroller. Of course, that didn’t mean much. They were probably observing me right now and I would never know it. I quickened my pace and said a silent good-bye to this town. It was time to leave Ithaca.

Bast could be a goddess or a demon. Nicholas could be an agent of God or a religious crazy. Either way, this was too much for me. I couldn’t handle this level of insanity, and I was certain that if I stuck around I wouldn’t survive for long. There’s no way to not get involved, Nicholas had said. Watch me.

I didn’t need to take much. I would pack up Cloe and a few sets of clothes and drive to my mother’s house outside of Pittsburgh. Everything else I owned could be replaced. The drive from here to there was several hours long; I could think up an explanation during the trip. My apartment burned down or I got fired from my job or something. Dave would spaz out when he learned I wasn’t coming back, but he could get over it.

I was so focused on getting out of dodge I didn’t register that my door was unlocked until I walked into my apartment to see Bast standing inside waiting for me. Her arms were crossed and the end of her tail was twitching in agitation. “Where were you?” she barked, golden eyes flashing. “I come here to check on you and you’re gone! Were you not listening this morning? The Order is in Ithaca, and if they find you they will kill you!”

My jaw and fists clenched. A wave of heat rose from my belly up into my chest, and for the first time in years it didn’t stop. All the fear and anxiety and desperation from the last couple of days boiled to the surface, cracking my exhausted mental barriers and allowing a spurt of anger to squeeze out. “I’m done, Bast! I’m not doing this anymore!” I shouted. Bast looked surprised by my outburst, but not as surprised as I felt. Anger wasn’t an emotion I’d let myself experience in a long time, so it almost felt like it was someone else who raged, “You’re ruining my life! Everything was fine until you showed up and then it all went to hell!” I stomped over to my dresser and started pulling out clothes. “I’m finished with this shit! I’m leaving town. So congratulations, because of you I’m losing my job, my apartment, and my friends!”

Bast stood stunned for a moment as I started stuffing things in to a back pack, but then she shook herself. “So, things start to get tough and you pack up and run away, is that it?”

“Pretty much. It’s what I’ve done in the past and things have worked out pretty well so far.” I dropped the back pack next to the door and grabbed the cat carrier from out of my closet, but Bast snatched it out of my hand and set it on the table.

“Come on, Erin, you can’t leave. What’s going on is too important for you to just up and vanish. I need you.”

“Give me back the crate!” I grabbed for it, but Bast held it up too high for me to reach. I snarled in her face, remembering the card in my pocket. Maybe I would use it, if only so I could pack in peace. “You got along fine without me. You don’t need me, and even if you did, it still wouldn’t matter. I can’t do this, Bast! I’m not some hero, ok? I’m a glorified gardener, for God’s sake! There are people out there cut out for this kind of thing but I am not one of them, so find someone else to be your sidekick!”

Bast stared down at me. “You’re being ridiculous. I don’t know where this low self-esteem is coming from but it’s time to let it go. Believe in yourself! You have ample enough power for this job. Learn to control your abilities and you could be amazing.”

“You’re not listening!”

Bast threw the carrier onto the floor to bounce across the room and shouted in my face, “No, you’re not listening! There’s too much at stake for you to walk away. For any of us to walk away. We have to do this!”

“Why?” I demanded. “Why do you have to do this? And don’t give me some bullshit answer about defending the weak, because I don’t buy it! How do I know the Order isn’t right about you? Why are you really doing this, Bast?”

“That’s none of your damn business!”

“It is my damn business! I’ve been in more danger the last two days than I have in my entire life! I’ve been chased across town, chewed on, and drowned and I deserve to know why!”

“You don’t need to know that to do your job!”

“I refuse to do this job! Why should I do this job!? Give me one good reason I shouldn’t walk out that door and never come back!”

“I’m trying to find my son!” Pain flashed across Bast’s face. She took half a step back so that we weren’t face to face and exhaled with a whoosh. I could feel the anger draining out of me, leaving me bone-weary. I’m not sure what kind of answer I was expecting but it wasn’t this. “Your son?”

Bast nodded without looking at me. “Maahes. He…he went to take care of a rip in Japan ten years ago and-” She paused, blinking her eyes frequently. “-he never came back.”

Her eyes glistened for the first time since I’d met her. “I told him not to go. I told him to let someone else handle it. Agents were disappearing. Someone would go out to stabilize an area and never be heard from again. It wasn’t worth the risk to him so I told my son to resign.”

“Ten years ago…” I murmured. Bast faced at me, looking wretched. “But Maahes had a strong sense of duty. He’s like his aunt that way. When the rips started forming and Isis called for people to go repair them, he was among the first to volunteer.”

She pulled a chair out from under the table and sat. “Personally, I didn’t see the point to it. So some portals opened up between worlds, so the occasional earthquake happened here and there. What was the real harm?”

“Isis requested several times over the years for me to join the agency, but I refused. I was running a successful perfume business and couldn’t be bothered. When I heard news of agents disappearing I begged Maahes to stop. A few strangers’ lives weren’t worth risking him over. Of course he refused; he’s a stubborn boy.” Bast put one hand over her face. “We got angry with each other. We argued, and he left, and he never came back.” She looked up at me with those pained golden eyes. “So now you know. I’m not doing this for some high ideal or to bring glory to Isis; I’m looking for my boy.” A single tear ran down her face, which she swiped away.

“I have to find him so I can tell him I’m sorry. He’s out there somewhere, but without you I can only look for him in the worlds I’m sent to. It’s probably why they didn’t assign me a partner; they knew I would just go looking for Maahes.”

I sighed. I felt terrible for her, really, but it didn’t change anything. “I’m not sure how much help I would be to you, Bast. The only things I’m good at are running and getting mauled.”

“And that’s my fault. I threw you into the deep end without any training at all. I did what I always do and make everything about me. Patience was never my strong suit, but I will do better. I will train you so that you can handle yourself.”

“I don’t know…”

“Please, Erin.” She stood and took my hands in hers. “Please, if you could just try, just for a while.”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, already sure I was going to regret this. God I am such a pushover… “Alright, I will try doing the guardian of the universe thing. For now.”

“Thank you.” She put her arms around me, and with a sigh I hugged her back. If things go wrong again I can run off when she’s not around. Bast pulled away and wrinkled her forehead. “Hey, do you have something on you?” Her gaze went to my side, and she hovered one hand over my pocket. “I couldn’t sense it before past your aura, but being this close to you…”

Crap, I’d forgotten about the damn card. I stepped back and grabbed it in my fist. How awkward would it be now to tell her that I’d just come from chatting with the Order? “It’s nothing.” Bast stepped up to me. “No, it’s not nothing. Let me see it.”

“Bast, I am telling you, it is nothing for you to worry about. I was about to get rid of it.” I pulled out the box of matches I kept in my desk drawer for power outages and struck one, holding it up to the slip of paper in my other hand. Her eyes went wide. “Those hieroglyphs are Maahes’ name! Let me see that!” She grabbed for the card, but I pulled it back, shaking the match to put it out before it burned me. “No, wait!”

“Give it here!” She gripped my wrist in one hand and reached for the slip in the other.

I struggled against her but couldn’t do anything against her strength. “Bast, no!”

Blinding light flashed the instant she touched it, and we were both blown backward by a deafening boom of thunder. My back slammed into the door and Bast went sprawling on the carpet along with a bunch of things that had fallen off the table or toppled from my shelves. A buzzing noise filled my ears and I staggered around for a few seconds in a daze. When my ears stopped ringing I stuffed the card back into my pocket and knelt down beside her. “Oh my God, Bast!”

Her eyes were rolled back in her head and her limbs were splayed out at odd angles. I reached a shaking hand to her throat, fearing the worst, but I felt a steady pulse under my fingers. Alright, she was alive, but what the hell happened? The card Nicholas gave me was supposed to send Bast home, not tase her. I tapped at her face and shook her shoulders, but she showed no sign of waking up.

Suddenly I heard men’s voices shouting outside, and a moment later came the sound of numerous footsteps stomping up my stairs. I sat frozen as the doorknob to my apartment turned, but the deadbolt was thrown and the door merely rattled in its frame. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911, but before a dispatcher could pick up the door slammed open. My doorframe splintered where the bolt ripped through the wood and black-clad men flooded into my tiny apartment.

Three of them grabbed me by the arms and hauled me to my feet while the rest lifted Bast. “Hurry it up,” Nicholas shouted stepping through my ruined doorway. He’d changed his clothing since I last saw him. Instead of a dress shirt and jeans he and the rest of the men wore long black coats and pants with small silver runes worked in around their hems and collars. Gauntlets covered their hands and forearms and each one of them had a sword at his hip. “We’re exposed out here; it won’t take long before all the noise attracts attention and we need to get the creature secure before it wakes up.”

“No!” I screamed. “Let her go! You can’t do this!” Nicholas turned to me and gave me a pitying look before something heavy slammed into the back of my head and everything went dark.

Chapter 8

I awoke slowly. My vision swam into focus as my eyes drifted open. I was on my back, arms at my sides. Each beat of my heart made my head pound, and I felt dizzy and nauseous. When I could see I realized I was lying on a church pew. Shaded white lamps decorated with crosses hung from the ceiling. I guessed they would cast a soft, shadowless light when lit, but now the only dim light in the room came in through the stained glass windows lining the sides of the sanctuary.

A man walked up and stood over me where I lay. At first I thought I was imagining things, or that I was having a bad dream. It had been years since the last time I saw him, but I recognized him instantly. “Dan,” I moaned. What was he doing here? Last I’d heard he was at Penn State.

“Hey, look who’s awake,” Dan crooned. He smiled down at me, but it wasn’t the pleasant smile I remembered, more a bearing of teeth than an expression of happiness. His dark eyes gleamed, and I tried to sit up but realized I was tied down by the wrists and ankles. I looked down and saw bands of blue energy around my limbs pinning me to the pew. At my feet were mine and Bast’s things; her Tardis bag and my bead necklace, dagger, and mind-meld crystal. Turning back to meet my old friends’ eyes I whispered, “Dan, I need to get out of here.”

He pressed his hands to his knees. “What, no ‘Hey Dan how are you?’ or ‘Wow what a small world.’? I’m a little hurt.”

“Dan, please.”

He straightened up with a smirk. “Relax, Erin, you’re in for a show.”

“Morrison!” called a voice from behind him. “We’re almost ready; get over here!”

Dan nodded to them and walked up to the front of the sanctuary. I looked over and saw that there were candles burning to the sides of the altar. The Order members stood around it in a circle, and lying on top of it was- “Bast!”

Nicholas stepped in to complete the circle behind the altar, facing the rows of empty pews. “My brothers,” he began. “For centuries we of the Order have battled against the darkness. For centuries we have toiled, fought, and sacrificed to make the world safe for Christianity. It has not been an easy undertaking; nearly all of us have lost someone in the war against the servants of Hell.”

Sounds of agreement rippled through the men, and several jeered or hissed at Bast. Nicholas gestured to them for quiet. “But tonight we strike back against the forces of evil. It has taken more than fifteen years of research and experimentation, but we have finally perfected the ultimate offensive measure against the infernal host. The scroll we boldly stole from our enemies has given us the key. We will use the Devil’s own magic against him.”

Cheers erupted from around the circle. “Tonight, our holy rite will destroy not one demon, as our previous attempts have, but will travel all the way back to the den and wipe out the entire nest of vipers!”

Roars of approval rang out, and Nicholas lifted his gaze and raised his arms. “Let us begin, my brothers! Everything comes down to this moment. God’s will be done!”

I struggled and screamed at Bast to wake up, but was drowned out as the Order began singing what sounded like a hymn. It wasn’t in any language I recognized, but it had a fluid, flowing quality to it as their voices rose and fell like waves. Rings of glowing runes flashed to life in concentric circles nearly out to the aisle with the altar at the center. They flashed brighter and brighter as the Orders’ chant rose to a crescendo and the energy of the spell built up until the pressure made my ears pop.

Tears streamed down my face as Bast’s still form began to glow and twitch. Her body lifted off the table, and for a moment she shone so brightly that it looked like she was made of light. Then the light launched upward, causing a shock wave that knocked the Order members onto their backs before it bolted up through the ceiling, showering the sanctuary with bits of plaster and wood. For a breathless second time stood still, but then the light from the runes extinguished and Bast fell back onto the altar, one arm swinging limply over the side.

I closed my eyes and cried as the men stood and dusted themselves off, looks of triumph on their faces. “We did it,” Nicholas breathed wonderingly. “The spell was finally successful!” Noises of celebration echoed through the empty, dark church. I stared at them in disbelief. How could they be cheering? They just killed who knew how many people, and they were gleeful about it. One of them caught my glare and swaggered up to me, flashing a nasty grin.

“What’s the matter, pagan?” he asked. “Your god not as strong as you thought she was?” He stopped right next to me, and from where I was pinned he towered over me. It was hard to tell at this angle, but I thought he was medium height and about thirty pounds overweight. His face was ruddy with a scruffy beard covering most of his jaw and cheeks. He had lighter-colored hair that was somewhere between brown and blond and cold, hard blue eyes.

I’d experienced a lot of things that frightened me over the last few days. Between a dragon, a water horse, and an invasion of my home I’d felt more than my fair share of terror. But the look in this man’s eyes horrified me like nothing else. There was nothing in there to be reasoned with. I saw my death in this man’s eyes. He hated me. He didn’t know me, but he hated me, and it delighted him that I was in his power.

My breath was already coming fast when he grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked my head back, making me gasp and bringing me to the verge of panic. “Well she can’t save you now. She’s dead. They’re all dead. Her whole tribe, all the idols the Egyptians worshipped, they’re all gone and no one’s coming to save you.” I saw his eyes move down my body and back again and I squirmed at his leer.

“Maybe we can have some fun before we kill you,” he almost whispered as he used one finger of his other hand to push up the hem of my shirt, exposing my belly. “Collins!” Nicholas roared.

Collins let go of me and turned to look over his shoulder. “Yeah, Nick?”

“Leave her alone.” His voice lowered, taking on a warning tone. “You do not harm her, you do not touch her, you don’t so much as look at her, do you understand me?”

“Oh, come on Nick, she’s a witch! She deserves whatever she gets-”

“She will have a trial to determine that, Collins. Until the Council decides otherwise she is innocent and is not to be mistreated.”

Collins snorted. “Pssshh, whatever! When have any of them ever been found inno-” He never got to finish his thought, because just then the tip of a sword emerged from his throat, and then disappeared just as quickly. Collins’ expression was one of astonishment. Blood trickled from his mouth, and he made a gurgling noise before his body flopped down to the floor, revealing Dan behind him holding a bloody sword.

At the same time two other men fell to the floor as two other Order members pulled their blades from them. For a second the room was completely silent. “What…” Nicholas blurted. And then the sanctuary erupted with shouting and the sound of swords being drawn.

The bands of energy holding me down disappeared as a sandy-haired middle-aged man fell, and I took the opportunity to hide behind the pew. Screams, exploding bolts of light, and the clang of metal rang around me for what felt like an eternity until finally all fell quiet again. I chanced a look at the altar and beheld a scene from a horror movie.

Bodies littered the front of the ruined church; the only two left standing were Dan and Nicholas. Dan had run Nicholas through and was looking up into the older man’s eyes with a look of mad elation on his face. He withdrew his sword from Nicholas’ body and he slumped to the floor, holding his abdomen.

I stooped down behind the pew again, panting. “Both my assistants bit it; that sucks,” I heard Dan say as he sheathed his sword. “But losses are to be expected. At least I got what I came for.” I peaked down the aisle and saw Dan stoop behind the altar and pick up something. He turned toward me and I saw that it was a large, thick scroll tucked under his arm. His eyes met mine and he smiled, but the effect was ruined by the fact that he was covered in blood. “Oh, hey Erin, I almost forgot about you.”

I got up and ran for the doors, but before I could get half way down the aisle something hit me in the back and sent a shock through me like I’d touched a live wire. I went sprawling to the floor, twitching from the electrical charge. He strolled up to me, casually, drawing his sword.

“Wait!” I shouted as I crab-walked backward, my voice echoing around the sanctuary. To my intense surprise he stopped, looking expectant. “This doesn’t make sense,” I said, holding off the inevitable. “I don’t get it; if you’re a member of the Order why would you do this?”

Dan shifted his weight from one foot to the other and studied me. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt anything to tell you. You deserve that much,” he said slowly. He grinned. “I mean, you didn’t even know anything about any of this until what? Two or three days ago? It would be pretty awful of me to let you die so confused.” He set the heavy scroll on the floor then adjusted his grip on his sword so that he could lean on the hilt and said, “Ok, go ahead.”

Heart in my throat I asked, “Why did you kill them? Weren’t you supposed to be brothers?”

He clicked his tongue once and looked back at the cooling corpses. “’Supposed to be’ being the operative phrase there. They were co-workers, acquaintances. A couple of them I sort of liked.” Dan turned back to me. “But they’ve served their purpose. They perfected the bloodline curse in the Scroll of Shezmu. Now I know how to destroy an entire pantheon of gods, so we have no further use for the Order.”

“We?”

“We,” he replied. “The Children of Chaos.”

My head was about to explode. How many levels of secret societies can there possibly be? This is ridiculous!

“Gods,” I said, mind racing. “You called them gods just now. You don’t believe they’re demons?”

Dan barked a laugh. “Of course not! We gave the Order that idea to keep the gods off our backs. Every time we made a tear in the worlds the gods were there, stitching it back together, undoing every bit of progress we made. Something had to be done about them, so centuries ago we joined the Order and convinced them that the gods were servants of the devil. The fiction worked very well for us. Our plans are finally picking up steam now that there aren’t so many gods around. Their numbers have steadily dwindled while ours have grown, and now that we can wipe entire swaths of them out at once the scales will finally tip in our favor. And the best part is both sides still have no idea we even exist!”

He looked so smug, so unpleasant, so unlike the Dan I used to know. “What happened to you?” I asked, reeling. “The last time I saw you, you were on your way to a graduate program in plant genetics. How did you get here from there?”

“I’m a little disappointed,” Dan said. He pulled his sword out of the floor where the tip had bitten into the carpet and rested the flat of the blade on his shoulder. “I tell you the secret of the millennium and you want to go into personal questions. Fine.”

He appeared to study the images in the stained glass along one wall before he answered. “I did go to Penn State, you’re right about that, and for the first three years things went about as expected. A lot of work, a ton of stress, next to no sleep. But it was ok, because I was doing something I cared about. My work meant something.”

His sword arced over his head suddenly and he sliced off the upper corner of the pew nearest him. I jumped and he turned toward me, rage in his eyes. “And then my goddamn mentor found a reason to dismiss me from my program and claim all the credit for my research. He wrote a paper using my work and got it published in Nature without including my name on it anywhere.” Dan pointed the sword at me and asked, “Does that sound fair to you?”

I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t. If your mentor wronged you like that, why didn’t you go to the university about it?”

“You don’t think I thought of that?” he demanded. He seated himself on the edge of a pew. “Damn right I appealed to the school. But my mentor convinced them that I was a liar and disruptive and that he had no choice but to throw me out. So he got all of the prestige and respect I deserved, and I got nothing! I racked up a mountain of debt and spent three years of my life with nothing to show for it!”

“That really blows,” I said. “You didn’t deserve that.” Keep him talking. Maybe there’s a way out of this.

“You’re right,” Dan agreed. “I didn’t.” He met my eyes. “But you know what? That time was kind of an awakening for me. After I was thrown out of my program I started looking at the world around me. And you know what I saw?”

“What?”

“Everything is all screwed up. Not just this world; I’ve spent time in a bunch of worlds and they’re all just as bad. Look anywhere and you’ll see cruelty, inequality, imbalance. Worthless, undeserving leeches control the world while the rest of us toil and suffer for crumbs.” He rose to his feet, his pale skin flushing red. “It took me a long time to realize it, but once I was finished trying to be a cog in the machine I was able to see that the machine is decadent, corrupt, and rotted beyond repair. And that was went the portals started opening.”

A look of wonder came over his face. “Fantastic, incredible creatures started appearing before my eyes, whole universes that only I could see. At first I thought I was crazy, but then I met others who could see, who shared my belief that the world isn’t how it should be. They showed me that another way was possible.”

Dan’s eyes were bright, almost feverish. “We will create a new world, Erin. One that is fresh and clean, unspoiled by all the crap you see around you. But first the old worlds must be swept away. The Order and the so-called righteous gods need to go, and once they’re gone our Lords will bring an end to the corruption and create a paradise where we can start everything over again.” He got up and advanced toward me. “Now I really need to get going, so let’s get this over with.” I got up again and bolted for the door, knowing I wouldn’t make it, but I’d be damned if I didn’t try. Dan tackled me to the ground and dug one knee into my back. “I’m sorry to do this Erin,” he said quietly, brushing my hair to one side. “But we aren’t ready to come out in the open yet. I can’t risk you exposing us before we’re in position to get rid of everyone who would stand in our way. Just hold still, it won’t hurt I promise.”

I stared longingly at the church door mere feet in front of me. So close. But the outside might as well have been on the moon for all I could reach it. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the bite of steel through the back of my neck. Dan jerked on top of me and I heard him grunt and swear. His weight lifted from me and I looked up to see him hunched over, a look of pain on his face. He twitched again before turning around to reveal two slender knife hilts buried in his back.

Shocked, I looked back toward the altar to see Nicholas on his knees, panting and blood-stained. “You,” Dan breathed. “I thought I’d gotten all of you. Looks like I missed one.” He lurched toward Nicholas, and Nicholas drew another narrow knife and threw it at Dan. Dan deflected it with his own blade, but the effort caused him to groan and slump against the pews, gasping. “Damn, it,” Dan cursed as he pulled something small and dark from a pocket and threw it against the ground.

Smoke instantly filled the room, reducing visibility to zero. I coughed and used my jacket to cover my nose and mouth, but within seconds it cleared, and Dan was nowhere to be found. Nicholas collapsed onto his side, moaning. I picked up the scroll from where Dan left it and walked carefully up to him. A pool of blood was spreading around him, but he still looked better than everyone else in the room. Their faces were already turning grey, and they were still. So terribly, terribly still. I’d never seen a body outside of a funeral home. My hands started to shake.

I walked over to the altar and looked at what was left of Bast. Every time I had seen her she had been so full of vitality. Life and power vibrated through her almost visibly; of anyone I’d ever met I had never seen anyone so joyfully, viscerally alive. And now she was sprawled out on this table, skin bloodless, limbs splayed limply and sightless eyes glazed over. Even the fragrant smell of her perfume was gone, as if it were carried away with her life-force.

All of your problems have been solved. The thought rose to the front of my mind like a bubble rising to the surface. Everyone who knows about you is dead or dying. You can escape now. Just get in your car and drive to California. Start over. All I had to do was live with myself. All I had to do was get up each morning and face in the mirror someone who maybe could have done something but chose to run instead.

“I hope you’re happy with yourself,” I told Nicholas, turning toward his grimacing face and wiping at my cheeks. “Do you have a cell phone on you? I’ll call an ambulance.”

“There isn’t time,” he gasped. “I won’t make it until help can get here.” He raised a hand to me and gestured me to come closer. “Please.”

I squatted down beyond the puddle of blood and he said with difficulty, “You have to get to safety and warn the Order. They’re good people; they need to know that there are traitors among them. There’s a chapter of us in New York City; go to the cathedral on 7th avenue and-”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about the Order!” I snapped. My temper flared, hot rage washing the fear and fatigue from my blood. “The Order and the Chaos Children can wait.” I held the scroll out in front of me. “You used a spell to kill Bast. Well, here’s the scroll you got it from; you’re going to use it to bring her back!”

A dribble of blood oozed from Nicholas’ mouth as he whispered, “I can’t.”

Tears of frustration started running down my face. “You heard what Dan said. Bast wasn’t a demon! She doesn’t deserve what you did to her! There has to be some way to fix this!”

“There is nothing in that scroll about reversing anything. My people have been studying it for years.” Nicholas’ eyes began to wander, as if his vision was failing. “And even if there were, there’s nothing I can do. This is the end for me.”

I punched the floor and ground my teeth together. No. No, no, no, damn it NO! This is unacceptable! All the way up to the end I was completely useless! I couldn’t do anything! If only I had even a fraction of Bast’s strength none of this would have happened. Or Sekhmet’s…

My eyes flew open, and I grasped at a final desperate idea. I got up and rummaged through Bast’s bag. After a few seconds I found what I was looking for and carried them over to Nicholas. I held the glowing blue crystals Sekhmet had given me over the place Dan’s sword had gone through Nicholas’ body. I had no idea how these worked or how to use them, but it became apparent that I didn’t have to worry about it. Almost instantly the crystals flashed and crumbled to silver dust. Nicholas’ wound glowed faintly and his body bowed as he cried out in pain, but then he relaxed and passed his hands over his belly with a look of shock on his face. “The pain, it’s gone.”

I balled the front of his jacket in both fists and jerked him up so that his face was close to mine. “I just saved your life!” I screamed at him. The last of my self-restraint crumbled and the fire flooded through me until I thought I was going to combust. Could Nicholas feel it radiating from me? “You owe me, you lying, murdering sack of shit! And more importantly you owe her!” I grabbed his face and turned his head to look at Bast lying on the altar. “This spell scroll came from her world right?”

Nicholas turned back and stared at me like I was crazy. Reflected in his eyes I saw a savage creature, snarling, disheveled, and desperate. Maybe I deserved that look. Maybe I should have toned it down, but I didn’t care. I’d spent my entire life accommodating and appeasing other people. I was done. In his most level, reasonable tone he answered, “Well yes, that scroll was taken from Kemet’s library.”

“Good! We’re going there! If this scroll won’t help us we’ll search the library until we find one that does!”

He sighed and closed his eyes. “Alright, alright. We will go to Kemet if it will make you feel better. You did save my life just now; I can at least give you a little closure. But I’m telling you now, what was done today is permanent. We won’t find anything in that world now but the dead.” Nicholas hauled himself to his feet and surveyed the carnage behind him, shaking his head. “It’s beyond wrong, this happening in the Lord’s house. I need to call the NYC branch so they can come collect the bodies.”

“That’s a terrible idea. You already know there are people in your organization working against you. How do you know who you can trust now? Call the Order and you’ll be giving away that you know about the Children of Chaos. You might even end up talking to one of them!”

Nicholas made a pained expression. “Morrison has probably already alerted his co-conspirators. And we can’t just leave them here.”

“So call the police. Let them handle it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “No. They have items on them that would be dangerous for people outside the Order to handle. Besides, humanity isn’t ready to know about us. Bringing in the police could expose us to the world and that would make all our lives harder.”

He had a point. “Fine, but make it quick.”

Nicholas nodded and pulled out his phone. I slipped the necklace and crystal over my head and put the dagger in my jacket pocket, then shoved the scroll into Bast’s bag, pleased to see that it fit easily. As heavy as the scroll was I expected to have trouble lifting the bag, but when I picked it up it felt as light as if it were empty. Slinging the bag over my shoulder I picked my way over the bodies to the altar and straightened Bast’s limbs.

Soft footsteps walked up behind me. “You ready?”

“We’re taking Bast with us,” I said, leaving no room for argument.

“Alright. We can give her a proper burial.” He swung her legs over the side of the altar and draped her right arm over his shoulder. I grabbed her other arm and we went out a side door of the church. To my shock we were still in downtown Ithaca. This place was less than a block away from the Commons. “The closest doorway that opens directly to Kemet is miles away; it’ll be faster to cut through a few other regions to get there.” Nicholas said, leading me south. He looked at me. “Be ready to brace yourself. A lot of this trip is going to be over rough terrain.”

“Fine,” I answered curtly. We walked for a few blocks, dragging Bast between us. A few people gave us strange looks as we passed them, but no one tried to stop us or question us. “Hey, Nicholas.”

“Yes Erin?”

“Why was Maahes’ name on that card?” He had the decency to look ashamed. “I suppose I owe you an apology for that. As you saw, the card didn’t send Bast anywhere. It was another spell we got from the scroll of Shezmu, meant to stun any demon who touched it. The hieroglyphs weren’t part of the working at all; they were just there to make sure Bast picked up the card.”

“So you knew she was looking for her son, and you preyed on her desperation knowing she wouldn’t sense the danger because of my aura until it was too late. That’s despicable.” This felt good. My whole life I had passed my words through a thick filter before speaking, to the point where I had trouble saying anything that wasn’t pleasant or consoling. But today every thought and feeling tumbled out of my mouth freely, and it was such a liberating sensation. “We were trying to accomplish a goal!” he said defensively. “You were an unchurched millennial, it’s not like we could count on you being on our side. And I still don’t believe the creatures from Kemet are gods. There is only one God.”

My eyebrows came together in confusion as I turned to look at him. “You did hear everything Dan said?”

“Oh, I heard all right. Morrison believed what he said, I’m sure of that much. But if you expect me to set aside everything I believe in based on a few knights gone rogue you are mistaken.”

“If you still think Bast is a demon then why are you helping me?”

Nicholas glared at me. “Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth, kid. We’re here.”

I looked ahead. We were standing at the edge of one of Ithaca’s many little natural spaces. The triangle of grass and trees and flower boxes in front of us was too small for me to think of it as a park, but it would be a nice place to read or to send the kids to blow off some steam. An icy blue nebula floated almost exactly in the middle. I pulled out my dagger to open a portal, but Nicholas held out a hand to stop me. “No need, I’ve got this.”

We walked up to the contact point, and without so much as a gesture the portal opened wide enough for the three of us to fit through. I stared at Nicholas in amazement. “You did that just by thinking at it.”

His mouth tugged up a little at the corners. “Well, it was more than thinking, but after a few months of training we don’t need to rely on a focus to Travel.” We stepped through the portal into a freezing wind that chilled me to the marrow. The contact point zipped closed behind us as soon as we were through, and I took my first breath of the white, blistering-cold air. A swirling blizzard howled around us. Visibility was limited, but I thought we were standing on some kind of plain or tundra. Enclosing the flat area all around like a bowl was a circle of ice-covered mountains. There was no life that I could see in any direction, and I wondered if this world even had any. I began to shiver violently.

“We can’t stay here!” Nicholas shouted over the squall. “Keep moving!” For what felt like a long time we struggled through powdery snow that came up nearly to my thighs. After about a hundred yards everything from my knees down was soaked and freezing. My teeth chattered and my fingers and toes went numb. We climbed a slight rise, and by the time we crested it I couldn’t feel my feet and was starting to stumble.

Below us was a contact point swirling over the middle of a frozen lake. I looked at it lovingly as we reached it and Nicholas opened the way through a pinkish cloud that gave off a sound like tinkling glass. Let the world on the other side be warmer than here. Please just let it be warmer than here.

Snow stuck to our shoes and clothes and crunched under our soles as we stepped onto solid ground. The frozen world disappeared behind us and I looked around to see a lavender sky and what appeared to be a strange kind of jungle. It was warm here, a white sun shining painfully bright directly overhead. We were in the middle of a lake in this world too, but it also appeared to be frozen. No, not frozen. I tapped a foot against the surface. Some kind of crystal. My body convulsed in a huge, all-encompassing shiver in the balmy air as Nicholas set off again. I winced as my limbs tingled and itched while they thawed out and the snow quickly melted on us, leaving us both soaked.

We reached the edge of the lake and the jungle that surrounded it, and I realized it wasn’t like any jungle I had ever seen. This entire world was made of crystal. Fantastic, spreading fractals grew out of the ground in shapes reminiscent of familiar plants, shining in shades of silver, pink, and purple. The only place I had seen anything even remotely like this was at the Museum of Glass in Corning. Those incredible pieces the gaffers had blown had impressed and moved me, but the sheer scale and intricacy of this surreal forest put anything made by human hands to shame.

The two of us set off through the wondrous understory, stepping carefully to avoid crushing any of the delicate-looking structures. Cries sounded in the distance. I listened and looked around. They weren’t close, but I could definitely hear noises that sounded like birds or animals. What kind of creatures would live in a crystal world? Do crystal monkeys eat gem-stone fruits? Are there glass tigers stalking shining deer?

            Nicholas steered us toward a clearing, where we stepped out of the dappled shadows and came upon a single iridescent obelisk with another contact point at its base. I had never seen a contact point to this world, but I would know it anywhere. This contact point was subtle; it was not like a cloud or a swirling mass of color like many that I had seen. Rather, it was a distortion in the air, like the heat waves that rise from a car’s hood on a hot day. Or from desert sands. The exotic fragrance I had come to associate with Bast emanated from the contact point, and when Nicholas opened the portal I knew we had reached our destination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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