Alice and Autumn
Autumn Suzuki swings her legs back and forth over the edge of the roof, the buckles of her heavy boots flashing over graffiti-splattered apartment complexes. The sky around her is painted in fiery pastels, and below, coaly blue shadows leak from buildings which crowd the street and stretch towards her like a sea of grasping hands.
Between the peeling paint and event posters and infinity-mirror reflections of skyscrapers, packs of teenagers congregate and circulate between bus stops and fast food places and board stores, laughing and calling as they jerk their necks and flip faded unnatural haircolours out of their eyes.
Observing them reminds her of her old job. She used to work at the zoo, way back in her old life. It wasn't bad. You got used to the smell and the animals liked her, she suspected because they could tell she sympathized with them. She knew what it was like to be trapped. (She still knows.) She always liked animals better than people. But she doesn't mind watching people like this. Far away. It's like they're behind glass too.
The zoo was a long time ago. She has to keep reminding herself that. It's over.
She needs a job again. Kale's collecting rent soon, and she was two weeks late on the last payment. He's not going to put up with much more. Especially from her.
A clamor of feathers jolts Autumn from her thoughts, and she's all too grateful for the distraction. She turns her head to peer into the liquid black eyes of a raven. It tilts its head expectantly.
"Okay, fine," says Autumn. Her voice is dry leaves a cigarette smoke: airyrough and softly, permanently pissed off. She unclasps the messenger bag slung across her chest. Like most of her belongings, the bag is faded black and held together by duct tape and patches – names of local bands (not local here, her old location, she reminds herself) as well as classics like Siouxsie and The Clash, slogans like EAT THE RICH, a sushi roll, a rainbow, a gun shooting out flowers, alien smiley faces with one or three eyes. She digs past her cell phone, lipstick and mascara tubes, the soft pages of battered paperbacks, a single glass vial carefully tucked into a side pocket, until her hand closes around a crinkly wrapper.
She removes the packaged curry bun, opens and tears it in half. She passes one piece to the raven, which caws its thanks before devouring it in three massive bites. Autumn eats the other half slowly, knowing she's going to get sick soon after, but too hungry to care.
She goes over the points on her mental to-do list. Get a job. Get some food. Rob a pharmacy. Not necessarily in that order.
Several blocks away, Alice Montague jumps down from a seven-foot iron fence into the tall grass of Blackfeather College's alchemical gardens. She checks around her, seeing no one amidst the dense overhanging vines. Not that that tells her anything.
She closes her eyes. "Ghost?" says Alice.
"You got the codes?" a male voice intones.
"I promised, didn't I? And can you take off that charm? You know it creeps me out talking to you like this."
The air cools as a shadow falls over her. Alice opens her eyes and turns to face the tall, black-haired man. "And did you hold up your end of the deal?" She looks directly into his ember-coloured eyes.
He reaches into the pocket of his baggy jeans and retrieves a gold chain with a chipped, roughly circular purple stone affixed. Alice grabs it and fastens it around her neck, then tucks it under her t-shirt. The stone is ice cold against her skin, but she refuses to flinch. "Thanks, Ghostie," she says. "Come on." Ghost is already ahead of her, striding through the green-black forest.
They walk in silence past the knife-toothed leaves and perfumed pitcher plants of the obvious traps, and overstep the more discreet sensory-roots and screamgrass alarm systems. The air is thick with insect buzz, punctuated by the cries of birds of prey.
She wonders what they eat. The insects are toxic and even the plants are carnivorous. It's predator against predator. As Alice and Ghost progress, the foliage thins and sounds grow softer. Eventually, they emerge in a clearing.
A translucent purple dome sits in the center, radiating bareness. A few tufts of stubbly grass sprout at the periphery of the circle, but within several feet of the dome is nothing but red dust. Alice stalks towards the center while Ghost hangs back,
She's surprised how fast it is. As soon as she enters the clearing it's like a punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She's cold, and strains to keep her breathing even as she walks closer to the dome, the air growing thicker with each step – it's like inhaling oatmeal. But she's still on her feet.
The necklace is working. She reaches around her neck, clenches her fist around it. The stone is hot now, almost blistering, but it feels good to have something to hold onto.
Almost there. A few more steps, each one stone-heavy, but then – there. Alice kneels down in front of the dome. From here, she can see behind its iridescent sheen to the thumb-sized mushroom inside. "Open," she says in the old language.
The dome buzzes and a ray of light shoots upwards from its center, widening to the transparent, hovering form of Professor Orre. "Please cite your authorization code," says the hologram. Orre's dark eyes seem to bore straight into her, and Alice has to remind herself it's not really him.
She rattles off a string of letters in various languages, and Orre nods once before vanishing. The dome splits open and withdraws into the ground, and Alice is once again hit with the force of the mushroom's magic. "Lift," she says. The mushroom slowly rises a few feet into the air and hangs there, clumps of dirt dangling from its roots. It's wrinkly and the colour of old blood. "Store."
A space opens up over Alice's shoulder, an oily black rip in the air. The mushroom floats inside the gap, which closes around it before disappearing, like the Cheshire Cat's grin.
Gravity releases her with a jolt, and Alice stands, feeling light and boneless as a rag doll. "Let's go," she says to Ghost, trying not to smirk. They make their way back towards the fence.
"Thanks," Ghost says as he flips over the metal bars, landing easily on his feet. He reaches up to help her down after him.
"It was nothing." She ignores his offer of help and shows off with an airborne sommersault.
"No. Really. Thanks."
Alice looks at him, his messy hair and baggy clothes, the shadows under and the light in his eyes. She smiles and slips her hand into his, his strong warm fingers entwining with hers. "You're welcome."
Alone in a flickery, shadowy room of bookshelves and boxes, Mr. Allans brushes a thick layer of dust off the surface of a book and squints at the tarnished gold lettering. Blackfeather's Compendium. He twists the knob at the side of his glasses, lowering a minute magnifying glass in front of the right lens and his gold eye, and closes his left eye, the cloudy blue one. Second Edition.
"Penny!" he cries. "Penny, come see this!"
"I'm coming!" a voice shouts down from the library's second floor, followed by the staccato clunks of platform boots. A young woman appears in the stairway, her entire form composed of black and white and red. Her hair falls down to her shoulders in two shiny curtains, one ink black and the other the red tone of hot metal, divided straight as a ruler down the middle, and her pale body is clothed in a short black dress. Even her eyes are a dark enough brown to look almost black in the lantern-lit room.
"Another Blackfeather's?" she says, walking over to Allans, "You called me away from the radar for – woah, am I reading that right?"
Allans nods. "Second edition."
"And how did you get that?" Penny traces a black fingernail over the hard cover, underlining the title.
Allans gestures to the cardboard boxes scattered at his feet. "It was in with the other donations."
"Weird. You should probably do a tracing spell on it."
"Yes, of course. But I can't sense any magical energy from it."
He passes the book to Penny, who turns it over in her hands, pores over the first few pages. "No," she says. "I can't either."
"Though that's suspicious in itself," says Allans.
"Right... a book this old – what is it" she checks the copyright date "almost 300 years - it should have remainders of spells on it, even just incidental ones."
"Precisely. It's been wiped."
"So what does that mean for us?"
Allans sighs. "Well, we can't pass up the opportunity to record what may be in this book. Look at it; it must be twice as thick as the modern day Compendiums. Whatever's in here, the censors don't want us knowing."
"That could be anything from military secrets to a non-regulation strudel recipe."
"I doubt Blackfeather dabbled in strudels."
"How can you tell with all the image-rehabilitation?"
"Yes, well. Whatever the case – "
A piercing eeeeeeeeee sounds through the library.
"Shit!" exclaims Penny, nearly dropping the book. "See what happens when you pull me away from the radar?"
Allans does not deign to answer, instead rushing towards the stairs. Penny sets the book on the desk and makes to follow him, then turns back and moves the heavy text to a drawer, locking it with a key on a chain around her neck. Then she thunders after Allans.
As Autumn walks back towards the apartment, a sensation like a hot blade pierces her stomach. She doubles over with a gasp, feeling strangers in the street inch away from her. She swallows hard, tasting blood, and tries to clear her head. The feeling passes quickly, but she's left covered in cold sweat. As she straightens herself, she catches sight of her reflection in a department store window and her face is the same colour as the bluish-white mannequin on which it is superimposed.
Autumn curses under her breath, trying to calm herself. It's alright. You've got a long time before it gets serious.
A few days. After that, the disease will start to damage her organs. Three days is more than enough time. You just need... shit, I need money so bad.
It's getting quite dark, and in the orange glow of streetlights, she walks and shivers and plans. I could sell things to get the money. Would anyone want my raggedy-ass boots? I could hock my art, but the people who would buy it are all broke as dirt too. Would Jeff catch on if I broke in? Shit, right, he set up a restraining charm against me. The pharmacy's just a few blocks away. I could shove the bottle in my pockets and run. If they're closed, I could kick the glass in and dash off. I'll be on the camera, but what if I just keep running? What if I get enough meds to last me a month, or a year, and I leave this town? No one would bother coming after me.
A metallic crash interrupts her thoughts. The hell? She walks towards the sound, clinging close to the side of a building. Several more crashes ring out, followed by a pair of shouting voices.
"Let her go!"
"It's a spell, Ghost, it's not going to listen to you!"
"I don't care what it is, it needs to leave you alone!"
"That's sweet but YOU'RE NOT HELPING."
Autumn inches towards the edge of the building and peers around the corner. In the alleyway, a blonde girl hangs suspended in the air, kicking against some unseen force. Six feet below, a tall guy in dark clothing shouts up at her, "Well what am I supposed to do?"
The girl's arms aren't flailing about like her legs – something has them pinned to her sides. Whatever's attacking her, it's got a physical form under some sort of cloaking charm, rather than a suspension spell that screws with gravity or air pressure.
In her bag, Autumn's fingers close around a small glass vial. Last one. Better make it count.
The pharmacy is across the street. Autumn zips up her jacket and pulls the hood low over her eyes, messing her uneven hair so as to obscure even more of her face. Here goes.
She bursts from the shadow of the building, flings the vial towards the invisible creature, and kicks in the pharmacy window in a blur of black and a shatter of glass.