Art by @sofa_sofiaa on Twitter!
TW: induced hallucinations, unreality, creepy/unsettling behaviour, body horror
I ignored it, as best as I could. I wasn’t responsible for Nathan. All I was responsible for right now was running—
—Running up the steel stairs that went up, up, with no exit in sight. Fucking hell. It was the bottom of a high-rise, I remembered that now, I’d seen it from outside. Well, that meant the only way out was up, and I’d just make the rest up as I went along.
The door clattered open behind me, and I took off, throwing myself up the steps and taking them two at a time, hand glazing over the banister in an attempt to stabilize myself.
“I just want to talk,” the voice drifted up behind me. “You don’t need to be so panicky.”
Panicky. Right. I came to a grinding halt two flights up. There was a door. I yanked on the handle—
Of course. It was locked. I could see the keycard reader next to it. Nothing for it. I could hear Kiera’s feet on the corrugated-metal stairs.
Another flight of stairs. My breaths were ragged, shallow; I didn’t like today. Nothing about today had been good.
(but that wasn’t true, I liked Nathan except that I’d abandoned him with a stranger)
(and oh, oh I was pissed that she’d hurt somebody who’d done nothing wrong)
(everybody’s done something wrong)
No thinking. Just running.
“Tell you what,” came the horrendously calm voice from behind me. She wasn’t even running. Just walking. Her voice reverberated in the concrete chimney of the stairwell, sounding so normal. Like she couldn’t take on any face she pleased. Like she hadn’t hired me to solve a murder she’d probably committed. “We can do a trade. Help me and I’ll help you. Everybody gets something out of it.”
(everybody’s done something wrong)
I was nauseous and it wasn’t just from the running. The more reasonable somebody sounded—the more work they put into sounding Presentable and Proper and Right—the less I trusted them. Anger was reliable. Anger made sense. Anger responded to anger.
I took another step—
And the banister began to melt under my hand.
Anger. I could stay angry. I tried. But I stared at it, trying to find some reason, some realistic reason, why the metal was suddenly dripping like candlewax, distorting like one of those logic puzzles you see in MAD Magazine or—or—I don’t know.
I backed away from it until I was pressed against the concrete wall, and then Kiera was on the landing below me. Everything else was starting to distort too, dripping or melting or twisting.
“What does it look like?” she asked, incongruously.
I blinked, then took another step upwards, away from her.
“I don’t—” She shrugged, a small, wry smile on her face. “I can’t see it. Is it pretty?”
“Is what pretty?” But I knew what she meant. The way the clockface flowed over its edges and down onto the doorframe. The clouds that were phasing through the concrete from outside, thick nimbuses clouding the upper stratosphere of the high rise. The steps rippling like quicksand when I put my boot down on them.
I didn’t have room for fear, and I didn’t have any time for it. But even worse, warring with it in my throat, was a sense of wonder. What Will and Avery and Lila could do; that was one thing. This was…
“Weird,” I said. Amazing, I thought. And terrifying. All of them, in equal measure.
She reached out and touched me, fingers freezing cold against my face. The cold was enough to bring back to earth. But so was the sudden sense of relief on her face, and I realized what it was she wanted me for.
I took off once more, a stitch forming in my side as I tried to ignore the world crumbling around me. The steps looked like liquid, but I tried to focus on the solid way they felt beneath my feet. It was probably fine. Probably.
And then there was another door, and I threw myself against it. The bar clicked open, and I was outside.
On the roof.
With her behind me.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Time for a great idea.” I didn’t see a fire escape. In fact, it was so dark out I couldn’t see much of anything. I wasn’t sure when the sun had set but I didn’t have time to think about it.
I turned around to face her as she came through the door, the light illuminating her from behind. She wasn’t that scary, really. Tall, with a black coat and black hair—striking, certainly. But she didn’t look that different from any other thirty-odd woman with a short haircut and a Beatnik fashion sense.
“I’m not asking you to do anything so terrible,” she said, and the nausea roiled in my stomach. “I just need your help. I’m even paying for it.”
“No means no.”
Whoever the nameless girl was, wherever she was, I had a feeling she was avoiding Kiera. I hadn’t seen anything about a missing girl on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, the news channels… Even the places that had written articles on Gurjas (articles I’d scrolled past as fast as possible) hadn’t said anything about a missing teenager. That might mean nothing. That might mean everything.
“What if I told you I was trying to help her?”
“I would say you’re a bad liar.”
A flash of something dark passed like a shadow behind her eyes. She took a few more steps towards me.
I stepped back from her and glanced down over the edge of the roof. I could survive that, maybe. If I made the dumpster…
And if you don’t?
I was stuck.
Something vibrated in my pocket, and I ignored it—except it kept buzzing. Well, I was going to die anyway. I dug into my pocket and answered Will’s phone. “Hello?”
“I don’t recommend jumping,” came the voice through the speaker, smooth as butter with a casual disaffectedness that made the phrase even creepier.
“…What? Who is this?” I pulled the phone down from my ear and stared at the caller ID. Ophis. “You’re Ophis? But you’re a girl—”
“Yeah, I didn’t think before I said that,” I babbled.
Kiera crossed her arms, raising her eyebrow. “Shall I let you finish your phone conversation?”
“No, I’ll just hang up and let you kill me,” I snapped.
“I don’t know why you think I’m going to kill you.”
“Don’t be fooled,” drawled Ophis from the phone, still in that detached tone. I couldn’t help but imagine her inspecting her nails. “She’s definitely going to try to kill you.”
“You’re very helpful,” I whimpered into the cell. “Remind me to haunt you later.”
Then the line went dead. I thought about pitching the phone off the building, but I didn’t want to have to explain to the next Salt who found my ghost that I’d wasted my last moments in petty rage.
I turned to face Kiera and noticed with a strange contentment that the moon had a face. Whatever drug Kiera’d given me, it was good. I mean, I was scared shitless. But still.
Kiera raised her hand and pulled it down. A thread of bronze appeared in the air above her fingers, and then like a rabbit out of a hat, the sword emerged. Not a sword like you see in those fantasy movies, with the broad blade; this was a real sword, glittering in all the wrong colours and wickedly sharp.
“I won’t kill you. But I think maybe,” Kiera said in a voice that had lost all of its charm, “you need to learn a little respect.”
…Oh, I so wished she hadn’t said that. Now I had to fight her. Anger had given way to fear a while ago, but now it was back, pumping adrenaline through my veins.
I dropped the useless phone onto the asphalt rooftop and raised my fists. “Better people than you’ve tried.”
Kiera raised the sword–
A girl shot through the air, one leg outstretched, and her foot hit Kiera straight in the face. There was an audible crunch, and I saw a few spots of blood flying from her nose as she flew backwards in a beautiful arc. The sword careened out of her hand, and she hit the rooftop with a satisfying ‘thump.’
The girl –
The girl landed delicately on the rooftop, then winced and hopped back up, hovering a few inches off the asphalt. She was plump and well-dressed, her pencil-skirt, jacket and Mary-Janes not quite what I’d expected from somebody who’d just kicked an eldritch abomination in the face. For all I knew, I was still hallucinating.
She crossed her arms. “There’s three of us here now, not including the freshman. I suggest you retreat.”
Kiera sat up, scowling at the newcomer. The distortions were still there, I realized—there was just less for them to affect out here, but the asphalt kept melting under her. It looked so funny, I almost laughed—but I didn’t want to attract her attention back to me.
Then, she transformed. I’d known she could do it. All the clues had been there. But actually seeing it…
Her flesh turned silver, where it shifted in place, shimmering under the moonlight, and slid into place. Her teeth melted into her skull, her eyes rolling backwards and sinking back into her face, and all of it collapsed in on itself, leaving only a small sparrow behind. Then the sparrow flew away.
I imagined that was how she’d vanished, before. Maybe she’d been a fly, or a spider. I don’t know how I’d missed the transformation, but maybe she could do it faster, slower, I didn’t know, I didn’t know anything—
I stared up at the moon. It was full, and that wasn’t right. It’d only been a crescent yesterday. And it was so bright, so bright that it hurt…
Staring at it hurt. My eyes wouldn’t stop hurting—
Something hit my face, and I lashed out on impulse, my fist swinging out and brushing against fabric but not connecting. Then I opened my eyes, blinking away the stars.
It was daytime. It was daytime—and I’d been staring straight at the sun.
It wasn’t night at all.
Ophis—the first girl I’d ever seen who could fly—gave me a curt nod. “You’re the freshman.”
I tried to come up with a snarky response. I didn’t have anything on hand, so I just let my hands drop by my side. I’d never hallucinated before, not like this. “What…what happened to me?” I asked, trying not to let my voice break.
“I think maybe it’s time to give you a proper welcome,” she said, and gave me a smile that would have been friendly if it’d reached her eyes.