Naomi lay awake under the thin cover on her bed. If she let her eyes close now she would only fall deep into a nightmare.
She looked up to the ceiling where it arched up high, cradling the purple darkness. It was all too silent and she hated it. It left her mind free to wander back to the other realm, which Hector had dubbed 'Zero.' It was a fitting name for a place where not even one shred of happiness could possibly reside, where evil clawed and stabbed at every inch of you.
It would take a few more days for the nightmares to go away.
The heaviness of sleep tugged at her eyelids. She thought about calling to Mara, who slept in the room adjacent to hers, but Naomi knew she would not be able to hear her tired voice call, and she dared not remove herself from the warm safety of her bed. She fought hard as the surroundings began to blur around her.
Something stopped her from falling asleep.
A faint figure had appeared in her bedroom. Light footsteps on the marble floor made her eyes jolt open. She shot a glance at the figure.
"What do you think you're doing?!" Naomi's voice came out a crackled whimper. The figure was a girl. A girl with short hair the colour of honey. She had seen her before, for just a moment. She had seen her just before Hector had pulled her into Zero. So it hadn't been a figment of her imagination.
"Uh… uh," the girl's eyes widened just a little, "you can see me? You can hear me?"
Naomi held her blankets up around her as if they would protect her. "Who are you? You're not a noble. You're a servant? You're not wearing your bracelet. You even dare to trespass in my quarters," Naomi took an accusing tone, "you better have a good reason, else brother could banish you for this!"
"Servant?" the girl stammered.
"You're not a servant? What the heck are you even doing in Louis House then?"
The girl didn't reply, just stared at her with a bewildered look in her eyes.
"Which House are you in?"
"Don't you dare play dumb with me!" Naomi was just about ready to attack her there and then. She knew Hector wouldn't mind. The way the girl just stood there looking clueless- she was mocking her she could tell. She was daunting her. "Get out! Brother will sort you out tomorrow."
The girl didn't move.
Naomi was beginning to feel uneasy. This girl was different. Daring to face royalty in their bedchamber. The girl was either mentally unstable, or she was not from here. Could she possibly be…? "Where are you from? Are you from Zero? Answer me!"
"Zero? I'm from England."
Despite the revelation, Naomi was still frenzied. "That is an Earth country! How did you get here? Are you a Finer Being?" Naomi now sat upright, blanket bundled around her.
"I'm asleep. I'm dreaming," the girl's eyes drifted about the room in curiosity.
Naomi didn't know what to say. The girl wasn't doing her any harm so she began to let her nerves subside, though she still clutched her blanket to her chest. "What's your name girl?"
Trying to sound calm yet stern, Naomi spoke to her, "Susan, let me take you to my brother. He will know what to do with you."
Susan nodded and Naomi climbed out of her bed, her small, elegant feet finding the smooth coolness of the floor. It wasn't until she came closer to Susan that she noticed her body was becoming fainter. Translucent like a ghost. She almost jumped back under her covers in fright. Instead she found herself watching as Susan's being started to disintegrate in the air. "You're disappearing."
Susan's mouth moved in reply but no words came out.
Then Susan was gone. Naomi was left staring at her empty space. Something had definitely been there. And this was no nightmare.
Susan woke up, dusting the sleep in the corners of her eyes away with her finger. She had had that dream again, only this time Naomi spoke to her. Even though it was just a dream it had felt so real, and every time she had it she couldn't help but want to help the girl, who was obviously troubled. Possibly abused by her brother.
Susan brushed off the seriousness of it, laughing at the idea that her subconscious had come up with such a heavy storyline.
The mornings were lighter now. It came in through the cracks between her curtains, not brightly, but enough to let her see her bedroom unshadowed. On her bedside table sat two books, one, the book she had bought from Claude, and the other the one that Claude had given to her. The first book still intrigued her as much as ever- its gory illustrations of plantlife, although grotesque, were enchanting. The second book didn't appeal to her as much. She still wasn't too sure what it was about. It was filled with short stories written like essays, on the possible origins of a group people who travel between worlds. She couldn't quite grasp the meaning of the stories. Perhaps the next book club meeting would shed some light on it?
Slowly she removed herself from her bed, almost an agonizing task. She put on a dressing gown over her nightie and slipped out of her bedroom and down the cold hallway. As she approached the dining room the phone began to ring and she rushed to answer it, wondering who would be calling her at this time. On a little table in the corner of the dining room sat the phone which she hastily picked up and pressed to her ear. "Hello?"
"Is this Susan Bryar?" The voice was deep and male.
"Yes. Who is speaking?"
"Hayden Leopold. You don't know me. I'm a friend of Annie's."
Susan felt a tingle of excitement arise in her. "Oh. Are you enquiring about the flat?"
"Uh, yes. Could I come 'round, tonight perhaps, to check things out?"
Susan thought for a moment, checking her mental schedule. "Okay. You know the address? Seventy-three Maybell Road," Susan could hear him scribbling the address down.
"Thank you, see you tonight."
"Yeah, see you."
Finally. Results. Her heart was beating just a little faster with the thought. An end to her financial worries? Things were finally beginning to turn around. She had Annie to thank for that.
She poured herself a great big bowl of cornflakes and ate them down fast while daydreaming about this mystery man Hayden.
Kristof came running through the shop door, his white-blonde hair in a mess and his circle glasses sliding off his face. He held up a envelope in his right hand and shook it madly. "Claude! Claude!"
Claude awoke from his snooze instantly, lifting his heavy head off his paper-flooded desk. "What is it?" he rubbed his eyes.
"News from Quentin, what else."
"Ah, wonderful," he gestured Kristof over towards him, while his other hand searched his shirt pocket for his reading glasses.
Kristof handed him the envelope. Claude tore it open and pulled the letter out. He raised his eyebrows as he unfolded it, seeing the lengthy amount of text. "It's unusually long. Quentin must have something important to say."
Kristof leaned over to see it.
Claude Ferris and co.
A week ago the few workers left on the site broke through to the secret chamber in the ground and I write to regretfully inform you of my inability to retrieve any items from the ruins.
Kristof saw a hint of disappointment creep onto Claude's face, which quickly subsided as he continued to read the letter.
The site had become a deep cavern in the ground and the dig was slowing, but finally the workers reached it. I knew it because I was overcome with nausea at the density of Subphysical Energy emitting from within. I was thrown off guard by it. In an instant the two other Finer Beings (Cillian and Isaac as I have come to learn) had disappeared. I approached the cavern and saw the two workers lying motionless at its base and another unconscious hanging suspended from the side. Cillian and Isaac were searching the wrecked chamber and quickly located two objects; a large hourglass filled with black sand and more importantly, a book. Both undoubtedly, very powerful objects. I thought the book would be of interest to you so I set to bargain with them. They levitated themselves out from the cavern and I tried talking to them. As you can imagine, they were highly interested in what I had to say for myself. Playing it safe, I would not share too much with them, but that I knew of my condition and that I knew of theirs. I was worried about the unconscious workers so I asked about them. Isaac told me that they aren't dead, just asleep (His ability perhaps? Quite a powerful technique it has to be said.) Upon asking to look at the book they surprisingly agreed. I took it from them and was almost inclined to run with it (still I feel that perhaps I should have.) The pages of the book were blank- every one of them. Now I do not know if this was some trick of the two men, or whether the book was simply unused. They took the book back from me and tried to question me some more, but I remained mysterious. The next thing I knew they had opened up a portal in the ground and they grabbed me by the wrists. They tried to force me down with them, and I will tell you now that it was incredibly lucky that I managed to escape. I admit to the temptation of going with them, but I thought of the repercussions- I thought of leaving Freya and Lucas without a parent again, and you, putting your passage to the other world in doubt once again. Thinking quickly I used my ability to turn my body as hard and heavy as rock. This caught them off guard and they fell into the Void unable to pull me from my stance. Unfortunately, my thinking didn't extend to cover the fact that I was standing on the edge of the cavern, and the effort I put into fighting the pull of Cillian and Isaac, when they suddenly let go, caused me to fall backwards into the cavern, the effect of my ability slowly wearing off. I survived without a broken back only because of the lingering effect of my ability and because the unconscious body of a worker cushioned my fall. I don't know whether he survived that or not and the thought is heavy on my conscience.
The next thing I knew I was in a hospital bed. I couldn't understand what the doctor was telling me as he spoke in an Indian dialect I am not familiar with. I just knew that my body was sore, but I was alright. The next few days I was left to recover and fill in forms and give statements to police (of course I had to lie just a little.) I was released today and had to write to you straight away.
After all this I think I should return to the club after my long absence. The time is coming soon isn't it? By the time you receive this letter it may only be a few more days before you find I've returned.
Please tell Freya and Lucas that I love them and I miss them.
Kristof finished reading and was overcome with a pallor so white even for him. Quentin had been through something awful, but finally he would return. It was good and bad news, but for him the bad news seemed to be winning.
Claude finished a moment after him, taking off his reading glasses and putting them back in his shirt pocket. "Do you want to share the news with Edgar and the others or shall I?" Claude's voice was solemn.
"I think you should."
Claude nodded. "Very well then."
Susan had stopped off at the bookstore after work, but despite the door being wide open, it was deserted. Not feeling comfortable being there without the company of its nosy shopkeeper, she swiftly retreated back to her flat which she would hopefully be sharing with a flat mate in due time. She hadn't had time to thank Annie yet.
An hour after she returned home there was a knock at the door, anxiously Susan opened it. "Hayden?"
The man on the doorstep was a lot older than she imagined him to be. Perhaps he was an adult student at Nielson? Still, she didn't remember Annie ever saying she was friends with an older man. He stood in the shadows, his glassy eyes staring down at her. "Susan?" He ran his hand through his black hair.
Susan nodded. "Come in."
He slinked past her into the dimly lit hallway. Susan could smell his sweat. She tried to push away all pessimistic thoughts. "Would you like me to show you around?"
"Oh, uh, sure," he smiled at her and succeeded in dissolving her slightly negative first impressions of his character.
Susan began to walk him through the flat, starting with the bathroom. She turned the light on.
"It's a bit small," Hayden mused.
Susan felt her face redden as she took in the criticism. "You'll find it hard to find anything bigger for something in this price range."
Susan showed him on to the next room, the dining room and the kitchen. Hayden lurked behind her, not really saying much at all. Then she took him into the cramped little living room, which contained nothing more than a two-seater couch and a small TV which she never watched.
"The bedrooms?" Hayden spoke again, then coughed, slightly spluttering.
Susan wondered if he was a smoker, but couldn't bring herself to ask him. She didn't want to live with a smoker. "Yes, I'm getting to them next."
At the other end of the house was her bedroom, and further down, the spare room which she only ever went in to vacuum. She let Hayden wander about the rooms while she stood in the doorway. She was so scared that he would comment on the peeling wallpaper and the cracked windowsills that she couldn't even watch him while he looked around. If he didn't want to rent she would be crushed.
He lingered in her bedroom just a little too long.
"Would you like a cup of tea or coffee or something? You can ask me whatever questions you have and you can tell me a bit about yourself," she attempted to get him out of her room and back into the slightly nicer area of the house. Hayden smiled that smile again and followed her into the dining room where she seated him at the table. "Tea or coffee."
She turned the kettle on and watched Hayden strum his fingers on the table. She couldn't help but think this guy was a little weird. She couldn't even imagine Annie being friends with such a guy. She hadn't really spent too much time thinking about it, but she could be living in the same house as him. She hadn't even considered the point that they may not get along, she was just too busy with the prospect that she would be paying so much less rent.
She poured both him and herself a coffee each and joined him at the table. She sat opposite him and for the first time truly got a clear image of his face. His hair was black and unwashed, he had bags under his eyes, and his skin clung tight to his cheekbones. He looked like he didn't care too much for himself. Perhaps she wouldn't like to share her home with a man like this after all. "So, how do you know Annie?" a question that Susan felt was in dire need of an answer.
Hayden looked up from his coffee which he had been staring at instead of drinking.
"Ah, okay. You two close?"
"Not really," he was smiling again. He really was beginning to creep her out.
Susan contemplated what to say next. Hayden was obviously not the man to hold a conversation. "Do you have any queries about the flat?"
"It's a bit of a doer-upper."
She had tried to get a question out of him but ended up with a critical comment. "I agree, it could do with some work. You might want to take that up with the landlord."
Susan couldn't imagine living with Hayden. He seemed to be in a world of his own, but some part of her wanted to keep trying and not let this potential slip past her, despite her personal judgments of him. "So are you interested?"
There it was, that smile again. "Yes, I mean, who wouldn't want in with a pretty girl like yourself?"
He put his hand on her hand.
That did it.
She just couldn't share her flat with this man. "Well, I'll have a talk to the landlord and I'll get back to you," she couldn't turn him down outright. She would simply get her landlord to call him and say no. She wanted no more of this. She tore her hand out from under his.
Hayden traced his finger around the edge of his coffee cup while still looking at her. "Could you… show me your bedroom again? Please?"
Susan's palms were sweaty. "I've already shown you."
"Come on," he leaned over her, brown eyes looking down on her.
Susan wanted to say no but couldn't. "You don't need to see my bedroom, the spare room would be your room," she tried to sound firm with him.
"Oh go on," he grunted.
Susan got up from her chair, feeling trapped in by it. "It's getting late, you should probably get going," after all this she couldn't help but try to sound as polite as possible, even when she wanted to punch him in the face.
He stood up, the expression on his face faking innocence. "What do you mean? I'm only getting started," he reached out to her and forcefully pulled her face towards his, his grip tight around her head. She pulled herself away from his clasp. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she yelled, completely flummoxed.
"You don't like me?"
"I bloody well don't! Get out of my house!" She pointed to the door with one arm outstretched, the other in front of her as defense.
"Don't be hasty now Susan-"
"OUT! NOW!" she could be bloody strong-willed when she had to be.
"Come on now," he grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and he licked his lips. In a moment of blind panic, Susan was left completely dumbfounded at what to do next. Her body was frozen still. He tried to kiss her again but Susan regained her senses at just the right time, lifting her knee to strike him in the crotch. He stumbled back in surprise, taking his hand out of his pants and swearing.
Susan wanted to vomit.
Hayden didn't back down. He approached her again, more violently this time as he grabbed her wrists so tight she was sure he was cutting off her circulation. He kicked her in the stomach and she kicked him in the crotch again, with all the force she could muster. He fell to the floor, writhing in pain. "You bitch! You fucking bitch!"
Susan's head spun. The force of his kick made it feel like her stomach had split open, but she refused the pain.
She didn't know what to do. She had nowhere to go, she was already home- where she was supposed to feel at safety. She only knew that she had to get out of there, even if he got up and wrecked the place when she left. She left him there on the floor and ran outside where the thick night air enveloped her. She ran and ran and ran, her feet thudding on the concrete sending pain from her ankles up through her legs. She didn't need to think, she just let her body take her as far away as possible from Hayden and that dank little flat. Everything screamed past her. Approaching town, where there were still a number of people lurking around, she slowed slightly but kept running. Down the street, through the walkway, into the clearing where the bookstore stood, cloaked in shadow, sealed off from the rest of the world. He wouldn't find her here. He couldn't. No one came here. She stopped for a moment to let herself breathe, each intake of air coarse like sandpaper. The shop door was open a crack, but the lights weren't on. She could've just about crept in and hid there on the couch surrounded by Claude's books. The only thing keeping herself from doing so was the inability to lock herself inside. Instead, she couldn't quite believe what she was doing, but she ran down the footpath, taking the left path at the fork, the forest trees passing her in a flash. The footpath stretched on and on, no streetlamps to light her way, just the full moon and the stars. She was out of breath but that didn't stop her. The tall, wonky brick house, chimney sticking out of its roof came into view. Her fist came down on the door, desperately beating it for an answer. When the door finally opened, she found herself having to look down, as Freya, wearing a lacy black frock, had opened the door. Freya's eyes widened as she absorbed the quivering wreck that was Susan. "Are you… are you okay?"
Susan couldn't be bothered lying to the child. "No," she simply answered.
"CLAUDE! Susan's here and she's not okay!" Freya shouted down the hallway, her voice high-pitched and screechy. "You'd better come in."
Claude's home was warm and welcoming as usual, lit by bulbs as soft as candlelight. "Make yourself at home I suppose. I'll run and get Claude for you, he's probably in his study and didn't hear me. One sec." Freya disappeared down the hall.
Susan desperately needed to sit down so she found her way to the lounge where she took a seat in an armchair. When she leant back it rocked slightly, lulling her a little.
Soon enough there were rushed footsteps and Claude appeared in the doorway, Freya behind him. "My goodness! Susan!" his voice was the most shocked thing she'd ever heard from him. He looked completely befuddled.
"Sorry to intrude on you with this, but, do you think I could stay the night here?" her voice came out almost a whisper.
"Of course, of course. May I ask, whatever is the matter?"
"I-I-" she really didn't want to explain the situation.
"Freya, could you leave us for a moment?"
Freya pulled a face but left them nonetheless.
Claude came over to her, delicately pulling a chair to Susan's side, where he sat and eyed her with a look of such sincerity. "You don't want to talk about it do you?"
"No, not really," she rubbed her hand against her forehead, feeling its sweat and its burn.
Claude was silent for a moment, perhaps weighing up the situation. Then carefully, he chose his words. "Did someone do something to hurt you?"
Susan nodded, eyes on the floor, unable to look in Claude's direction.
"Very well then," he wouldn't ask anything more from her. "I don't have a spare bedroom but I could set you up in my study or in the conservatory."
Susan nodded again, her head thumping.
"Right. Stay right there and I'll make you up a bed in the study alright?" he got up and headed back out into the hallway, leaving Susan alone with her thoughts and her headache.
Susan almost couldn't believe Claude's hospitality. Sure, they had grown to know each other over the past weeks, but accepting her so easily into his home like this without questioning her motives… she was grateful beyond words, and so, so relieved. She was only just beginning to come to terms with why she even chose to come here for safety, but it dawned upon her that he, and his odd group of friends, were really all she had to run to. Sure, Claude had always been rather questionable, but after her attack, she realized Claude was nothing like that. He just had an inquisitive nature that she had perhaps mistaken.
Claude was back in a moment, and took her to her room. There was a mattress on the floor, a quilt thrown over it and a pillow on top. "I know its not much but it will have to suffice."
"Thank you," Susan brought her eyes to rest upon his face which was etched with pity and perplexity.
"Don't even think about it. You'd better get some rest. You know, the therapeutic qualities of a good sleep are astounding. I'll leave you alone now, okay? I'll see you in the morning," his eyes sparkled with earnestness. He stood there for a moment, and then left her, shutting the door behind him.
This chapter is far from perfect I admit. Too fast paced and too disjointed. But, the main thing is that it's done and I can move on with the story. Also you may have noticed that the story has gradually changed to a third-person limited point of view (i.e each scene only details one character's point of view unlike some parts in earlier chapters) this is because of my inability in deciding which perspective to use. It might change again later -- Thank you for bearing through this chapter and I hope that my writing will improve for future chapters.