Retreating to the secret stair, Stef lifted the old book and read it through again – to clear her mind of every other thought, and at the same time trying to stave off the urge to go back to sleep – she’d been alive again for less than two days, and had slept through most of it. There was no reason to be as tired as she was.
She lifted the book to her face, breathing in the worn pages and the memories of those that had read it before, taking the same adventure that she so often took. It was a safe adventure, a secret fantasy, and one where the status quo was always restored. Always. No matter how many times she read it, the ending was always the same – unsurprising, but at the same time, always surprising. It was a book, and like the theory of the cat in the box, one could never be sure what would happen on the next page until you read it.
The status quo was always restored.
The cold, heavy lump in her chest made her realise that her own story wasn’t as simple. The status quo not only could not be restored, it had been shattered beyond recognition. Equilibrium – if she ever reached something approaching it – would be so far away from what had been before that she feared she would not even be able to recognise herself.
You thought that about being a narc, Spyder.
No, at least then, I was still a hacker. I still had a frame of reference for what I was supposed to do, even if it was run. I don’t even have anywhere to run.
You ran here.
Even I’m not as naive to think that I can stay here more than a few days.
She held the book as tightly as she would have hugged Alexandria, had she had access to her precious doll. Images swirled in her mind – the warm, inviting glow of the Beavers’ home; the sparkling snow underfoot being lit by a very out-of-place lampost; a city made of crystal, shining like some-
She shook her head at the sudden reality of the image – it wasn’t one of her imagined versions of Narnia, it wasn’t the stark, cold, foreboding home of the White Witch, this had been a real city, a beautiful crystal paradise that-
‘Scrambled brain,’ she said aloud to distance herself from the nagging feeling that the place she had seen was really, really real, and not just some randomly collaborated thoughts making pretty pictures in her mind. ‘Just a scrambled brain, Spyder, you expected this. You knew there’d be a price.’
She shook her head, put the book down and padded softly down the stairs and back to room five – the one that had been assigned to her the first time she’d been in the mansion. The bed was unmade, stripped pillows were stacked neatly at the foot of the bed, and the linen was stored in the wardrobe that had changed her life. She ran a hand over the door, but a small fear – and a small hope – stopped her from opening it
A week ago – according to her memory, if not the calendar – she’d stepped into the wardrobe a hacker, a loner, someone convinced that there was no such thing as…m-word or angels. She’d stepped out into one where her half-remembered, half-dreamed angel was real – even if he didn’t have wings – where there were solid clown-proofing procedures, magic mirrors and the power to conjure cookies.
I really want a cookie.
‘Are you the magic wardrobe?’ she asked of the old cupboard. The plain, unadorned doors stared back at her and gave no answer. ‘Can I get my old life back if I go back through?’
Do you want that life back?
She opened the door, careful to keep her distance until she had the answer, and pulled the quilt out. She didn’t bother to cover the pillows, or put a sheet over the mattress – as someone who regularly slept at her desk and only moved to the bed when her chair slipped and she found herself on the carpet – any bed was comfortable.
Wrapping the blanket around her, she was asleep before she had a chance to clear her mind.
A high-pitched shriek roused her, long teeth tearing into her shoulder ejected her from the Land of Nod. She tried to scream, but a heavy weight on her chest had forced the air from her lungs.
She screamed at Astrin as he set on her stricken triplet – this wasn’t some alternate Stef who’d had a productive twenty-two years, this wasn’t a Stef who’d achieved everything she’d wanted to, this wasn’t even a Stef who had bought into the “save the world” rhetoric. It was her, just her, one that had made a split-second decision – the same one she’d considered – and that decision was costing her life.
The triplet silently screamed at her – the image was able to cross between dimensions, but the sound wasn’t – begging for her help, begging her to-
Astrin lifted his hand and her triplet stopped begging anyone for anything.
Whatever it was that was on top of her – the quilt was doing a good job of obscuring its identity – sunk its teeth in deeper, and she managed a scream as it shifted its weight. There was a wet crunch and her world exploded in pain.
The weight removed itself and she pushed herself – one-handed – from the bed, landing in an ungraceful pile on the floor, she chanced a look back. The thing was translucent. And green. And a tiger.
A huge, green, alien tiger.
Her feet worked on their own to get her standing, and she limped for the door while the tiger chewed on the chunk of flesh it had ripped from her shoulder. Her sleepy feet tripped over each other and she fell – she bit back the scream, but the tiger turned to look at her.
Pray to the gods my soul return to me…
The tiger rose up, snorted, turned toward her and leaped. She had time to wonder if, in another universe, she’d been able to escape. There was another wet crunch, and this time, everything went black.
There was a weight on her chest, much smaller than the tiger had been, but still one that was keeping her pinned to the ground. She lifted a hand to push it away, too tired to deal with whatever wanted her dead now, but felt the edge of a blade.
‘Hands to your side, slowly.’
Her eyes snapped open and was met with the visage of Dorain Gray. Naked Dorian Gray. She closed her eyes, mentally edited her world-view and opened them again. There were huge slashes across his muscled chest, teeth marks on his arm and green blood all over his hands. He was in pain, but more than that, he was angry.
And he was pointing a sword at her.
The weight on her chest was his foot, keeping her still.
‘Hands to your sides!’ he shouted.
She whimpered and slowly lowered both hands, keeping them locked beside her body. ‘Do-’
He raised the tip of the sword toward her throat. ‘What the hell did you bring into my house?’
‘I didn’t-!’ she started, lifting her head to scream at him.
The tip of the sword ran across her cheek, an she felt blood sheet down the side of her face. ‘No sudden movements, Miss Mimosa, else you aren’t going to get up. You’re going to lie there and tell me what you are, what you’re doing here and what you brought into my house.’
‘I told you what I was. I’m hiding. I don’t know what it was.’
‘You told me a story that I took at face value, there’s another very good reason that you wouldn’t have a heartbeat, and explains a lot more about you,’ he said as he pressed his foot harder down on her chest.
‘I like theories,’ she wheezed.
‘Angel,’ he hissed. ‘You’re just one of them. What are you, weapons research? You got rid of Astrin, then you come after the only other starchild in the area? It explains why you alone lived through the massacre, why could you could accept the monster, why part of you looks dead, and why you’re here right now when I saw your corpse two minutes ago.’
She shook her head.
‘Jonowoi’s not dangerous, angels used to have mercy, show yours and let him live.’
‘I wish I was what you think I am, but I’m not. I’m just…an accident.’
He stabbed the sword into her chest. She braced herself to go away again as she heard part of the mirror crack. Her mind floated, and she felt herself stop breathing, thoughts polarised, opposites screaming at her with equal conviction, and all sensation dropped away…but unlike before, she was still…aware. She shivered as sensation returned, and she looked up at Dorian, who was examining the tip of his sword.
‘Mirror,’ he said, ‘so you’re-’
‘Telling the fucking truth?’
Delicately, he wiped the seemingly fluid piece of mirror from the the blade, rubbed it between his fingers, and all of his wounds disappeared. ‘I don’t care,’ he said after a moment, ‘I can’t handle you, or your problems, I can’t take the risk.’ He removed his foot. ‘You need to leave, Spyder.’