Part 1:

Hell invokes hell

Abyssus abyssum invocate


Chapter 1: Isabelle Cairns

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

-Edgar Allan Poe, A Dream Within a Dream.


A week earlier:

Formidable skyscrapers rose above Manhattan like spindly fingers pointing towards the leaden sky. They were mutations of glass and steel, jarring with the ancient brownstones that dominated the city. Far below, the Hudson rippled like a silver ribbon that had become unraveled. Sometimes- on clear days, Brooklyn Bridge appeared so close to Chamber's Street that you could throw a stone and hit it.

Isabelle Cairns didn't have time to waste on throwing stones though. She darted between the lurid colored cars that made up the traffic and they blared their horns at her in response.

(GET OUTTA THE WAY!)

Isabelle ignored them, winding her way down the cramped street in pursuit of her friend. Only the tell-tale swish of Leah's black hair told her she was running in the right direction. The city swirled around her with every step, adrenaline brightening each color until it became a blur of senses- a blue car, red building… Isabelle shook her head and concentrated on the chase. Distraction wasn't an option; at least it wasn't if she wanted to avoid getting arrested. Her feet flew over the sidewalk, pounding out a staccato rhythm on the cracks in the cold gray stone.

They skidded to a stop when they reached the park. By mutual consent, both girls slowed at the same time, nervously glancing over their shoulders for the security guard who had chased them. He should have been instantly recognizable- bright white shirt, hulking build and furious eyes- but Isabelle couldn't see him. Maybe he'd given up on them. Maybe.

Leah threw herself on the grass, basking in the safety of the park with her head tipped back like she was sunbathing. Only Isabelle could see the tense set of her shoulders. The source of their troubles lay a few feet away, buried in the depths of Leah's dark blue backpack. It sat there like a bruise, a hideous mark on the landscape that Isabelle's eyes found again and again, no matter how many times she looked away.

"Wow, those security guys sure run fast," Leah giggled.

Isabelle nodded in silent agreement, clutching her side as though it were on fire. She couldn't help glancing around every few seconds at the busy street behind them. Deep down, she knew it was pointless but she couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched. Her eyes fell on the trees and the shadows that flowed in the gaps between them. With a repressed shudder, she turned back to her friend.

Leah finally stopped laughing and smiled at her, fingers sliding over the strap of her bag like a lifeline.

"Well?"

There was a pause as heavy as a heartbeat.

"Well what?"

Leah narrowed her eyes and thrust the bag at Isabelle, who cringed away from it as though it was likely to burst into flames.

"I couldn't," Isabelle whispered. Her heart felt like it was lodged somewhere in her throat. She kept telling herself not to look at it, but her gaze kept resting on the bag. She shook her head in disgust. They'd done some stupid things before, but this… They'd shoved it into Leah's bag for God's Sake! It wasn't right. If anyone had seen them, if they'd been caught…

(Mom, I'm sorry. It was an accident, I swear!)

"Izzy, I got it for you!" Leah's brown eyes flickered with impatience.

Isabelle hesitated, hand reaching out for the bag before she could stop herself. The dress Leah had stolen was beautiful, all sheer silk and beading. A fierce longing to race home and try it on gripped her like a sickness. She'd probably look ridiculous, she could see herself standing in the mirror already; her milky skin turned sour by the black material. It would be too short on her tall frame and would cling to all the wrong places. And it would suit Leah better. Yet she wanted it.

Sadness settled into her stomach as she forced herself to look away. Somewhere in the folds of fabric, a price tag still dangled. Hidden. How much had she paid for it?

Nothing, she thought with a sigh.

(Nothing, did you say? Well then, not to worry. Consider it a five-fingered-under-the-jacket-stow-it-in-your-bag-and-run discount, my friend.)

On the house, this one.

Leah was watching her, rolling her eyes at Isabelle's inner conflict.

It was easy for Leah to pretend that everything was fine though. She liked to act. Isabelle remembered all the acting classes she'd been dragged to, and how she'd always felt as separate and distant as a star lost in fog. Not Leah, she took to the classes like a duck to water. Everything was just so easy for Leah. She had a lilt to her shoulders which highlighted her confidence. Isabelle always trailed behind, head ducked low and hoping that nobody would notice her.

"It's wrong," Isabelle complained.

"Come on," Leah whined. "It's not as if you do this all the time. That's me, isn't it? It's just a scrap of fabric, Izzy. Nobody's going to miss it anyways. Did you see that shop? They probably make a fortune. At least go try it on, please? For me?"

For me. That ridiculous chain of words had always been Isabelle's downfall. She groaned, pulling at a thread in her jacket. It wrapped around her little finger as she thought.

Maybe Leah has a point. Besides, we can't return it now.

Isabelle shrugged, yanking at the strap of her messenger bag. It was covered in buttons. NEW YORK RENAISSANCE. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES. DON'T WAKE ME UP WITHOUT GIVING ME COFFEE. Isabelle's hands played over them for a moment, tugging at a button with a picture of a monkey wearing a scarf. Another of Leah's little 'gifts'. Isabelle's stomach rolled and she pulled her hand away, accidently tearing the button off the bag. It dropped to the ground with barely a whisper. She took the dress and shoved it in her bag.

"Hey, careful! You'll crease it doing that."

Isabelle pushed the bag to the side and out of sight before sitting down and leaning into the grass. The tiny blades tickled her cheeks like feathers. She inhaled, letting the scent of the city fill her head. The tang of freshly mown grass and heat, coupled with baking and coffee, was as familiar to her as the city itself. She couldn't really imagine one without the other. It conjured up memories of her brother leaning out of their apartment's window to smoke. Isabelle could picture the ash, hanging suspended in the air like a ghostly snake. The air that smelled of New York. New York and home.

"We got away with it though, didn't we?" Leah said, eyes sparking. Her hands ran over her bare arms, trailing over goosebumps. Isabelle caught her friend's wrist before she could start biting her nails, and frowned at her expectantly. She blinked, dislodging the thoughts that swarmed in her head like a nest of irritable wasps.

"I suppose so," she said eventually, trying not to sound too reluctant. Leah would pounce on any sign of cowardice like a wild animal trapped by a hunter. "The guard's probably called the cops…"

Her voice trailed off. There was nothing left to say. Leah collapsed back onto the grass with a contented sigh. Above her, the clouds began to drift away. Soon there would be sunshine, pouring over the streets of Manhattan like honey. The air was already growing thick and syrupy. Sweat clung to the back of Isabelle's neck, cool and soothing.

A shadow cut across her, halting her thoughts. Isabelle's eyes fluttered open. A vaguely familiar boy with dark hair and a smooth tan leaned over her to smile at Leah, completely oblivious to the fact that he'd almost stepped on Isabelle. Not that he'd have cared anyways. Whenever Leah was around, cute guys tended to pretend that Isabelle was invisible.

She'd grown used to it. She was like a wallflower, the darkness to Leah's light, the Robin to her Batman. At least when everyone was gawking at Leah, nobody noticed Isabelle's unruly hair, or the holes in her fraying jeans. Nobody noticed that she frowned whenever Leah announced a new grand plan.

"Hey," he said.

Leah gave another high-pitched giggle and batted her eyelashes at him. She knew what she was playing at. With a figure a model would die for, she had to. The skin-tight jeans she wore emphasized her slim waist and the endless supply of tank-tops showed a generous amount of her chest. Isabelle, by comparison was wiry and tall and generally uncomfortable looking. She'd never have gotten away with the clothes Leah usually wore, so she simply hadn't tried.

"Hi, Paul," Leah smiled back with one of her thousand-watt grins.

They talked for a few minutes and Isabelle slowly found herself fading away with boredom, eyes flickering over the park for some kind of amusement. Trees waved their branches in the wind like solitary dancers. A breeze tickled the back of her neck, as soft as a caress. Flowers bloomed in a fenced-off section of the park- a riot of colors that burned her eyes like she'd been staring at the sun for too long. A man with a scraggly gray beard was walking his dog. The leash pulled taught between them like a wire, so it looked as though the Labrador was dragging the man along instead.

"You seen Adam recently?"

Isabelle turned her head back to the conversation, biting at her lip.

"He's on his way now," Paul said, beaming. "Just had band practice. And he promised to stop by at the party next week. Said he wouldn't miss it for the world."

Paul shoved his hands into his pockets, searching for his phone.

"There you go, Izzy. Now you have to wear the dress. Can't go disappointing your boyfriend now, can you?"

Isabelle shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. But her hand reached out again for the bag, and her thoughts lingered on the dress. Maybe she could surprise him? He and Isabelle had been dating for four months. Practically a new world record. Not that it had been plain sailing though. He barely talked to her anymore and the silence was becoming daunting. It was like a wall had built up between them and the lack of communication was only making it harder to scale.

He'd been busy with band practice, he told her. He'd spend more time with her when they started getting somewhere. Ambitious guitarist he might have been, but talented he wasn't. Having been a regular visitor to the school's rehearsal room, she secretly thought that a band of yowling cats would have a better chance of making it. Though she hadn't dared to tell him, since she was trying her best to be supportive.

There was a noise behind her. She turned, just as Adam knelt beside her, idly brushing a stray twig from her hair. The movement had been casual- almost instinctive- but it caused Isabelle to shudder. He reached for her hand and smiled at the rest of the group. It was his charming smile, the one that had made her blush the first time she'd seen him. She'd been drawn to his curly blond hair and sparkling eyes too, but it had always been that smile that made her love him.

"What've you two been up to then?"

Leah shrugged, trying once again to appear as though nothing fazed her.

"Oh, I just took Izzy shopping."

Beside her, Adam's friend raised his eyebrows. Isabelle was impressed. He clearly knew Leah better than she thought he did. Maybe he would last a little longer than the previous boyfriend, Alex. There seemed to be a never-ending chain of them, the ones who Leah had grown bored with, just as there was an endless line of guys waiting to be next.

"Get anything good?" He turned to Isabelle reluctantly.

Isabelle nodded, trying to appear as casual about the theft as Leah. Her lip trembled as she spoke, betraying her. It was just so pointless, so stupid. She thought back to the times they'd pulled other stunts, like raiding the principal's office a few months back, but everything seemed tame compared to what they'd just done.

"Sure, a dress."

Adam held her closer, pulling her in for a kiss. It was short, but sweet. Pleasant- like sunshine breaking through the clouds.

"Get a room," Leah snorted, rolling her eyes.

"Already got one," Adam shot back. "And it's not in use at the moment."

He shot Isabelle a wink, and she felt a blush creeping up her face. Was he really suggesting…?

No, she thought. I don't think he is.

Nevertheless, it filled her with a strange mixture of anxiety and excitement. And then disappointment, because he was checking his watch and frowning.

"Shit. I was supposed to go pick up Emma ten minutes ago. Mom'll go ape. Catch you later, yeah?" He leaned over her one last time and the fleeting embrace was warm. His jacket scratched her bare arms, which were starting to break out into goosebumps.

"I've got to get going too," Isabelle said, thinking of the dreaded mess of a house she'd be returning to. She imagined her mom pacing the empty apartment- becoming increasingly frantic as the minutes crept on. Pawing at her phone, false nails scratching at the buttons, checking the clock. Guilt gnawed at her insides.

"Bye."

Isabelle threw her backpack over her shoulders, one hand tugging up a tuft of grass. It sifted through the gaps between her fingers like sand, until all that remained was a lone daisy- its petals wilted and noticeable gaps where a few had already fallen off. As she hopped over the fence, she pulled the remaining petals off too- one at a time. He loves me; she chanted silently, he loves me not. He loves me…

The stem, all that was left of the tiny flower, fell to the sidewalk with a soft whisper.

He loves me not.

On the day of Leah's party, somebody vandalized Isabelle Cairns's locker. When she'd made her usual frantic dash down the hallway to grab her books between second and third class, she was met by a crowd of people staring at it. Even from a distance she knew she'd been the victim. Her heart plummeted on the spot. The tarnished silver door hung nearly off its hinges and was covered in something that looked disgustingly like blood.

Oh, eww, Isabelle thought, cringing even as she fought her way over to her destroyed locker. Faces turned towards her, eyes laughing with glee. She ducked her head and pushed on.

The culprit was obvious.

How the hell did that bimbo sneak a pint of o-negative into school?

It was only when Isabelle shoved her way to the front of the crowd that she realized it wasn't blood. No, just Jasmine Sanders's hooker-red lipstick, scrawled all over her locker. The message simply read: Whore.

The one place she thought would be safe. Isabelle sighed. At least she'd had the good sense to carry her iPod around in her backpack today. She was in a hurry, as per usual- she only had a few minutes until next class started. And no way did she want to be late for English Lit with Miss Cassant. There were rumors about her, stories whispered from student to student, passed down through the years until they bore the quality of a legend. She'd kick you out of a lesson if you were five minutes late and throw the whiteboard pen off the door as you left. No, Isabelle couldn't be late, not because of the stupid blonde from hell. Not again.

"No," she moaned. A few of the goths who confined themselves to the corner of the busy hallway stopped to stare at her. Isabelle ignored them, running her fingers over the broken hinges. Trying to remember exactly what she'd left in the locker that was worth stealing. Nothing much. There were a few bits of paper crumpled at the bottom but that was it. Everything else had gone, including all the books she'd piled in there that morning. She missed the new paperback she was reading already.

"No." Isabelle stepped back and kicked the column of lockers. Somebody shouted at her and grabbed her by the elbow. She didn't know them. The boy who had stopped her shook his head darkly and walked away. Clearly, he thought she was a crazy case. Isabelle's day was not looking up. She wondered if she could skip the class and go downtown to buy new books. Everything she'd needed for the Lit class had been in her locker, there for the taking. Jasmine wasn't likely to return anything she'd stolen, even if Isabelle could get a confession from her. And Isabelle wouldn't try. She was a victim, someone who went to school just to make the bitchy girls enjoy it too. She couldn't stand up for herself against her best friend, let alone a pack of power-hungry girls. But this time Isabelle would be strong. She wouldn't let them see her crying, wouldn't let the stupid bimbo know she'd hit the mark.

Isabelle leaned back against the now dinted column of lockers and put her head in her hands. Somewhere in the distance, the bell for class rang loud. The pounding of hundreds of pairs of feet drowned it out. She counted to ten, then span around. The lipstick message gleamed wickedly.

Isabelle chewed her lip, trying not to let the tears escape her. Which was stupid, really. She wasn't the one they wrote the bathroom graffiti about. She wasn't the one people said screwed Alex Rafferty in the men's rooms between classes. Why did she always have to be the target anyhow? Wasn't it time they picked on someone new?

But they won't, Isabelle thought, resigned. Because they don't get why Adam chose me and not Jasmine.

It didn't really make sense to anyone, least of all Isabelle herself. Jasmine was perfect, in that horrible blue-eyed, blonde-haired stereotype. Dumb as a sack of rocks and dangerous as a black widow spider, definitely, but on the outside she was perfect. Isabelle hated her for that, just a little.

A door slammed shut at the end of the rows of lockers, signaling the end of Isabelle's grace period. No way could she turn up for Lit now. She sighed again and closed her eyes.

"Hey, what do you know?" said a mocking, satisfied voice behind her. "We got us a genuine member of the Nerd Herd."

Isabelle stopped, hands caught in mid-air. She glanced towards the rest of the hallway, but it was as empty as a haunted house. Nobody to ride to her rescue if Jasmine got in her face. Which she would, of course. Jasmine Sanders was just that predictable. Her right-hand girl stood at the side, pouting. Kate, or something like that. Oh hell, Isabelle couldn't even remember. It didn't matter anyways, they were all interchangeable, dependant on the whims of their leader. Jasmine struck a pose, flaunting her low-rise jean wearing figure. Her blue eyes were alight with malice, defined by just a tiny touch of eyeliner. Isabelle wondered vehemently if the glue was coming off Jasmine's false-eyelashes. If it was, maybe she'd have time to run for it while she was distracted.

"Shouldn't little geeky Izzy be on her way to class now? Or is she waiting to meet up with her boyfriend? Has he grown tired of you yet?" Jasmine's laugh echoed off the hallway walls. "I've heard he's already banging someone else. Last time I saw him, he was checking out anything that moved."

Jasmine's right-hand girl joined in too, a second too late. Jasmine turned on her, frowning.

"Jeez, Kate. What are you, a fucking parrot?"

Kate blushed, glaring at Isabelle as though everything was somehow her fault. Jasmine's scowl increased, aware the spotlight wasn't on her anymore.

"I just wanted to thank you for lending me all those books. With your help, I might ace this year."

Another hyena laugh. Isabelle's hands curled into fists despite herself. Jasmine's eyes flicked over them, burning bright with her hatred. She looked bored and dangerous, like a predator waiting to pounce.

"You'll be lucky if you even pass," Isabelle snarled. "What was that shit you said about George Bush being the first President of America?" Then Isabelle made the big mistake. She laughed, a high hysterical giggle aimed directly at the bimbo standing right in front of her.

She was thrown against the lockers before she could even blink.

"Listen to you," Jasmine whispered, leaning close. Her breath tickled Isabelle's neck. "You want to watch yourself, before I decide to get nasty. Just watch what you say to me, freak."

And then came the slap. It came from nowhere and Isabelle never even felt the impact. The sound of it ricocheted off the walls, the crack of a hand against her cheek. Isabelle slid to the floor, confused. Her backpack hit first, pulling her down with its weight. For a second, she thought she might pass out. Jasmine giggled and walked away, high-fiving Kate. The two disappeared outside, probably looking for a spot to smoke without the teachers catching them.

A hand reached out to her and she took it gratefully. Leah dragged her up from her crumpled heap. glaring. Her eyes narrowed to slits.

"Jasmine?" She spat.

Isabelle nodded and collected the scrap pieces of paper from her locker. Every movement was disjointed and shaky.

"Come on, I wanna skip. Turns out Miss Cassant is sick, so we have a Sub instead."

Isabelle frowned. She didn't want to skip, not after she'd gone to all the effort with Jasmine. And now her face felt like it was on fire too, just to add injury to insult. She wouldn't skip.

Ten minutes later, she and Leah were heading towards the train station, their usual skipping haunt. She wished she'd never even walked into the classroom; the lesson had been so dull. The sub droned on and on about whatever he'd been doing last night. She doubted he'd even noticed them leave.

What a crappy day, she thought. No wonder I'm skipping again.