June 3rd, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Carlotta
The fit had had all the usual warning signs. It always started with sparks in his not-vision, sounds like bells on the edge of his hearing, other taps and cracks in his senses. Then material things stopped making sense. Glass melted. Wood rotted into sponge and crumbled when his fingers tried to grasp some reality. The floor was the ceiling and the ceiling was the floor, and spots of heat were pools of water.
Most people could warn you about seizures and mini-seizures in a clinical way. What people didn’t understand was the pain that came with the big ones. It wasn’t only physical. An irrational world could actually make the brain hurt because a blissful dream state wasn’t there to detach from it.
Added to that was the fear of, “What is it this time?” and “What if this time is it?” at the onset, before thoughts got too hard. The doctors had said seizures were like playing the shell game with a grenade; it could be something like dying until it actually was death. And since his senses were mangled, tangling sound with sight and taste with touch—anything could be the thing that killed him and there’d be no time to say goodbye, to let go in peace.
At times like this, his mind ran away from itself. Some smaller part of him, specifically the part trained to answer to Pastor Wellington, dove off that high rise of consciousness, into the dark below where everything else was buried.
It was the same place he’d learned to go willingly in meditation. That helped the journey. It might even, the first doctor had pointed out, save his life to give his mind an escape. Whether or not he’d make it back was left to chance.
His mother hadn’t gone in “for all that eastern-religious-meditation-paganism,” but words had power. She couldn’t get them out of Pastor’s mind, nor drown them out, no, not even try anymore.
He dove away from his racked higher mind and reality’s implosion. In the abyss, dark fire lulled his tired mind in its warm embrace. At length, shapes and faces rose up out of the darkness and melted into it again. He watched them warily, not sure he could flee if something unpleasant arrived. Eventually, the inner fog thinned. He was dismayed, though not surprised, to see the permanent resident of the pit waiting. She was sitting cross-legged, even as he often did, staring out of dark brown eyes like he pictured his own had once been. She was thin these days, naked and malnourished, but still with sharp Anglo-Italian features and maternal curves. The angles of her face weren’t unlike his either.
She reached across their plane of melded existence and took his wrist.
With that contact, it was hard to tell where she ended and he began, but he could see her distinctly. She was not a memory shape born of synesthesia. She was another part of him, or perhaps it was the other way around.
“Tori,” he said, though it wasn’t words so much as meaning in a look. He just as quickly looked away, up from the bottom of the abyss.
“Let me help you,” she said.
They shared a mind’s eye, but she was not blind here or above, unlike he was in the dark.
He said, in their own way, “No,” quietly, because there was no use yelling in your mind. “I can do this alone.”
The aches were coming back. Soon he’d know what furniture he’d thrashed into and how bad it all was.
“You’ve never been alone.”
But she never insisted, not during a fit. They were both safe down here, in this place where things were born before birth.
She drew back her hand, and waited. The connection was still there. He watched her until his inner eyes closed. Then things were dark again, but for sounds and voices and worry in the air, and Rose’s hand on his chest, quickening his pulse.
It wasn’t until he’d been sleeping later that he managed to fall back down of his own volition and not necessity, to look around. She was still there, always there, her back arched now, her eyes closed, lost in some dream he could half feel himself. She already knew about the distant shapes, the darkness falling around the dingy motel.
There was something else, whispering at the borders miles south of there too, fire and fear taking the place of arid desperation. It seemed important, but it didn’t have a name, and it was becoming less important to the moment as darkness was not only snapping at his heels this time but coiling around the shoddy motel like a constrictor. Its dismay seeped through the doors and the windows, then rose over everything like a building wave. He could hardly breathe.
She opened her eyes and stared up from the abyss. “Now?” they asked.
Voices again, mostly one voice. Her eyes narrowed, her fingers clutching at the broken stones of their buried pit of unconsciousness.
But he hesitated. “Is there a chance?”
“With those people? Only for me. Never for you.”
The air was shivering. So was he.
“But I will see to it.”
So he let her.
It felt red like fire and rubies, that feeling of being set aside. He imagined that was how it would end someday. Later he’d feel the echoes: There would be a memory, almost like sight, of standing and owning and connecting to every joint in every board and every fiber of every inch of carpet and curtain. She would always see because everything that connected was hers.
And what divided…
Rose was on her hands and knees. She looked up. The big man in his big suit was staring at Pastor. Rose looked across to see why and felt her heart jump. She hadn’t seen her friend standing like that in a long time.
He said she was gone…
“What is this?” the Slight Twice King demanded, but he shivered, uncertain.
“I know a mask when I see one.”
The Slight Twice King stared, bug-eyed, looking more froggish than usual despite having lost his signature smirk. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, twice he tried to grin, and twice he turned that grin to a wincing, unbalanced grimace.
“Now, you’re a very rude young”—He stammered again—“person.”
Rose clutched at the carpet. Fred started forward and she caught his hand, shook her head.
Pastor took a step forward. In attempts to draw back, the Slight Twice King jostled the dresser. A lamp there shivered and tinkled. The mirror made a strange, threatening snap as it jarred.
“You slimy frog,” Pastor said, his voice deeper than usual, hot with anger. “You little beast. You dare wear our face?”
The King of the Western Faeries sculpted his grimace into a rictus, then he straightened his lapels. “Heroes,” he said, and laughed desperately. “It never fails. You should have stayed in the dark. You know what happens to blind guides in these kinds of stories.”
But the sight of Pastor’s empty eye sockets had set the King shaking. He clutched at the edges of the dresser. He seemed to shrink—not like there was less of him there but like he was compacting somehow. Even so, he kept his smile fixed in a sudden welling up of pride. Decisively, with a glance at Jill and then the hatchet in the wall, he vanished. There was a glint at the partially exposed window, as of light bouncing through, flashing across the glass panes, then out, over sun-polished cars and away.
Jill started to weep and shake. Rose picked herself off the ground, and hurried to help her up.
“Are you okay?” Rose asked, checking her for injuries. “What happened? How’d he get in here?”
Meanwhile, Pastor suddenly shuddered, then sagged and moaned.
“Pastor,” said Fred, shutting the door quickly and hurrying over. “Hey, are you okay? Don’t pass out, we gotta go.”
“What was that?” Jill asked him, her voice pitched in a strangled half-shriek. “How did he know your name, Rose?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said.
Pastor waved Fred off and braced himself against the foot of the bed. Fred cast him a worried glance, but stood back to let him breathe, and pried the smaller ax from the wall. Fred glanced down at Jill, and rolled his shoulders out in a sudden nervous motion. He turned away to grab his pack as Rose held Jill to her side.
“What did he want?” he asked Jill worriedly.
Jill shivered. She seemed hardly able to stand but for her friend’s grip. “He… made it dark outside.”
“Probably glamour, it’s day,” said Fred, closing up his pack with practiced efficiency. “Where’s his escort, the cars, the secret service?”
“He wasn’t coming here as the president,” said Pastor firmly. His voice had slid back up to its usual tenor. “The most important thing is, how did he find us?”
“He said something about heroes…,” said Fred.
Jill shook her head. “I have no idea what he meant. Pastor, what did you do?”
Slowly, Pastor was pulling himself up. He followed the edge of the bed back to the small table beside it, reached out a careful hand, and found his blindfold. He stood and snapped it out a few times before creasing it.
Rose watched as he tied it back on in deliberate silence. “We need to leave here,” she said at last.
“I can change the bus tickets,” Fred said. “We can go south, west, or in between.”
“But how did he find us?” Rose repeated Pastor’s question.
“Was it the darkness—that hunting… thing?” Jill asked.
“I’ll check us out of here,” said Fred.
“He got the manager to open the door,” Jill suddenly remembered.
“He didn’t see me or Rose get in. I’m paying,” said Fred firmly. “We don’t need anything criminal against us. That just makes it easier to get us. Let’s go.”
He headed out, his pack slung onto his back. Somewhere out in the hallway, they heard the rustle of a bag of dropped groceries quickly being gathered and consolidated.
Pastor dug his staff out from under the bed. Rose was still following him with her eyes. Jill frowned. It bothered her sometimes, how her best friend watched that blind man. It was like she was waiting for something.
They hadn’t had much time to unpack, but what little they had was gathered up again.
“Where will we go?” Jill asked.
Rose flipped her coin. At the ping of her nail on the silver, Pastor stopped and waited.
“Heads?” he suggested.
“South,” she said, in some affirming way.
It wasn’t until they were at the bus terminal, and Fred had changed their tickets at a machine there, that Jill thought about telling her best friend about the King, about his visit to her house, and the offer of service that had saved her life—
Not that it had been to keep it very long. It hardly mattered now, did it? It’d been no good.
What on earth had he meant by, “Give them a show”? And why was everyone in this expedition suddenly special? Rose had just had a dream. That was all. They were fumbling in the dark to find a way to defeat the Fair Folk, but they weren’t about to do anything epic, right?
Suddenly, Jill worried she wouldn’t like any of these answers. This was all random, completely random. It wasn’t supposed to make sense like this. Fred was no hero. Pastor was a handicap, not a guide, and Rose was… Well, she was just emotional and indecisive, but a dreamer Jill could admire for her convictions.
They rode the bus in silence to a southern campground. It took the night and part of the morning. When they disembarked, Fred asked directions from the driver, to some place they didn’t intend to go. They waited for the other passengers to disperse while they mimed over a map, then made their way off down a trail, heading towards the thicker forest near the borders.
By then it just seemed best not to talk about it.