Fae fell, watching the pale blue light above grow steadily farther and farther away. The wind whipped past her as she picked up speed, and she closed her eyes, bracing for impact, desperately wishing, hoping that she wouldn’t die here.
I couldn’t destroy my hands. But please…
Please don’t let this be the end.
Winds swirled around her, and suddenly jerked her to the side. She cried out in pain as a shock ran through her body, and then she was tumbling, end over end, totally lost in the rushing passage of wind around her, until –
Fae screamed. She landed on something hard, foot-first, and her left leg collapsed under her with a sickening sound. Pain lanced through her body. Nausea rushed over her, and she screamed again as she desperately tried to adjust herself, to move into such a position where she wasn’t in such pain.
Panting, groaning, she clawed against the grass and rocky dirt beneath her, turning this way and then that, fighting for some kind of relief from her indescribable pain. Every single movement brought sharp stabs of pain that rolled through her body, from her left leg up through her torso, her arms, her head. But staying still was no better. It felt as if a knife was lodged in her leg and was slowly twisting, pushing in deeper with every second.
Tears stung Fae’s eyes, streaming down her face. Her vision was a blurry, swaying mess. Every moment it was harder to breathe, and she panted in desperate, shallow gasps. She couldn’t scream anymore, but inside she was screaming so loud her thoughts were utterly drowned out, save one desperate plea.
Make it stop!!!
Her whole body grew numb, and she realized she was losing consciousness. She should fight it, should stop it. If she fell asleep now…
She might not wake up again.
But the merest thought of relief from her agony was too seductive. She let out a shaky, ragged breath.
Darkness took her.
Fae looked around the classroom. For some reason, she was blinking and squinting against the brightness. But wasn’t it always this bright? They were the same light bulbs, the same amount of lights, so what was that about?
“Fae?” Madeline asked in a whisper, nudging Fae with her elbow. “You okay?”
Fae looked at her friend, and for some reason…
She wanted to cry.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Madeline asked.
“Sorry, I just –” Fae started, wiping her eyes hastily. “I feel like…”
I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages. I’ve really missed you.
But that’s not right. It’s just another day. I just saw you yesterday.
Why do I feel like I’ve been somewhere else? Why do I feel like… like I was somewhere so dark…?
“Greyson?” Mrs. Lancaster asked from the front of the classroom. “Crowley? Do you girls have something you wish to share?”
“Um, well, we’re not feeling so well,” Madeline said. “Could we go to the infirmary?”
“The infirmary?” Mrs. Lancaster asked. She took a few steps forward, eyed them suspiciously for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes, Greyson does look rather pale. Go ahead, you two. You already have your homework assignments.”
Madeline and Fae left the classroom, heading through the familiar halls of Grimoire University’s Arts Center. When they were down two floors and out into the open air, Madeline stopped and looked at Fae. “Something’s up, and it’s really up if you’re not telling me what it is,” she said. “Are you having a nervous breakdown? Is there something going on with your family? You know it’s no good when you get all closed-off like this.”
“No, I just…” Fae said, waving her hands. “I just…” She sighed. “It’s weird. I feel like I was… somewhere else. Like I’ve been away a long time, and I wasn’t expecting to be back so soon.” She looked around, held out her arms, furrowing her brow. “Why’s it so warm? Isn’t it October?”
“October?” Madeline asked. “It’s August. The new term just started.”
“The new term…?” Fae looked around even more. The sun was shining. Grass was green and swaying in a warm breeze. Flowers bloomed, bees buzzed, birds sang their songs.
It was all…
Wrong. This is wrong.
Why am I so sure?
“Which term?” Fae asked.
“Which –” Madeline started, but then stopped herself. She nodded, her expression one that made clear she was taking Fae seriously now. “We just started the first term of our fourth year. We’ll graduate next summer.”
“Bear with me here,” Fae said slowly. “But I swear to you… the last thing I remember is October, of our third year.”
“Third?” Madeline asked, gaping. “Whoa. Hold up. Amnesia? Really? Maybe we should go to the infirmary.”
Fae shook her head. That wasn’t right.
This wasn’t right. None of it was.
Even looking at Madeline…
“Who are you?” Fae asked.
Madeline stared back at Fae. She blinked, three times, then twice, just like she always did when she was surprised by something but trying not to show it. She cocked her head slightly to the left side, like she often did. And when she replied, it was Madeline’s voice, just as Fae knew it. “I’m Madeline Crowley,” she said, followed by a short, nervous laugh that cut off quickly.
It’s her, it’s Madeline, but…
“How are you so real?” Fae asked. She swallowed a sob, raised a hand to wipe at her eyes. “It’s been a really long time, and I miss you so much, and you’re so real, but… you’re not you. This isn’t Grimoire. And I can’t… I can’t stay here.”
“But you have to,” Madeline said. “You know what’s waiting for you back there! I…” She bowed her head, eyes glistening with tears. “I just wanted to pull you out of that. I didn’t want you to suffer.”
Fae shook her head. “I appreciate the thought. But… there’s a lot I have left to do.”
“But you can’t handle that pain.”
Fae closed her eyes. “I know. But…
“I have to try.”
Fae opened her eyes, screaming in pain.
She slammed her fists against the ground, gnashed her teeth together, kicked her uninjured right leg, tried rolling, crawling, arching her back, but nothing changed.
I’m dying. I’m dying, aren’t I? If I’m dying, just let me die! Don’t put me through this, please!
Fae’s boots crunched in the snow. All around her, white flakes danced, swaying to the rhythm of the wind’s fickle flow. Moonlight melded with pale lamp light, bathing the streets and buildings all around in a shimmering, wondrous silver.
Grimoire in winter was the most magical place Fae knew.
A dull impact against the back of her shoulder, followed by a spray of wet snow, made Fae turn around. There in the street was Shana, already packing another snowball, grinning mischievously.
“You gotta watch out!” Shana said, laughing. “You know winter’s a dangerous time of year.”
“For you, maybe,” Fae countered, ducking Shana’s next throw and scooping snow into her hands. She packed snowballs faster than her sister, and threw two before Shana could pack a new one. The first grazed Shana’s elbow, splitting apart in a snowy spray, but the second knocked Shana’s hat clean off, much to the dismay of Shana – and the satisfaction of Fae.
For several minutes, the sisters threw snowballs back and forth in the narrow street, dodging – usually unsuccessfully – and laughing all the while. Eventually, Shana ran in for a tackle, which turned out to just be a hug, and the sisters embraced for several moments.
“I just love winter so much,” Shana said, her breath misting the air. “And snow. Snow’s the best thing. The number one, undisputed champion of things.”
Fae laughed. “You may have a point, there.”
Shana straightened out her hat and began walking, Fae alongside her. The younger Greyson swung her arms back and forth, humming little snatches of a tune here and there. After a while, she turned around, her big eyes sparkling with curiosity. “Do you think you’ll come home for Christmas this year?” she asked.
“I always do,” Fae said.
“Yeah, but I mean…” Shana stared at her feet, idly kicking at the snow. “You don’t really come home, if you know what I mean. Like… Fae’s body shows up, but her soul stays behind. You barely talk, you’re all tense and stuff, it’s no fun for anyone.” She suddenly waved her hands, her cheeks turning red. “I mean! I’m sorry! I just!” She sighed, dropping her hands. “That’s just how it seems to me. I don’t mean to be rude or anything.”
Fae stared at her sister and let out a heavy sigh. “I…” she started.
I’ve known for a few years now. I get exactly what you’re saying. I don’t “really” come home.
Because I don’t want to.
But I can’t remember why. I don’t…
I want to really come home this year.
What changed? Where did I…
Fae shook her head, wiping at sudden tears with her gloved hands. “Sorry, I…” she started, shaking her head again.
“Fae?” Shana asked, hurrying forward.
All over again.
What do you want from me? Stop showing me these tempting sights and experiences. Stop showing me things that I desperately want to be real.
If you’re trying to spare me my pain, I appreciate the thought.
I have to bear it.
I have to go back.
“Fae?” Shana asked, taking Fae’s hands in her own. Fae stared at her sister, the sister that wasn’t real, but seemed so perfectly real.
And she cried. But she also smiled.
“I’ll see you again soon,” she said softly. “And when I do…
“I’ll really come home for Christmas.”
Fae bit back a scream. The pain had returned.
But she was going to fight it, with what meager scraps of strength she could cobble together.
I won’t –!
I won’t run from this. I won’t run to comforting dreams of what I wish was real.
This is real. This… agonizing… insane… unbelievable… pain.
Fae fought against all the desperate movements of before. She lay on her back, pushed and pulled with her arms until she had both of her legs relatively straight, stretched out.
She couldn’t bear to look at her left leg. She hadn’t this whole time, and she continued not to.
I can tell enough just by how it feels. If I saw it…
I’d pass out. Definitely.
She clenched her fists, again and again. Gritted her teeth. Shook her head.
Tears flooded her eyes, and as she stared up at the dark, swirling, endless sky of gloomy night, she wept, sobbing, gasping, crying out all the pain and fear and despair she was feeling.
She wanted to be strong. She wanted to be fearless.
But how could she be those things? Even if she could fight the pain, even if there was no pain, she couldn’t move. There was nothing to lean on, nothing to grab hold of, nothing to – if she even had the skills and knowledge – splint her leg so she could at the very least hop along on one foot.
She was completely crippled. She tried crawling, just once, and immediately stopped, sobbing in agony.
The pain had receded, just below excruciating, but only if she held still in this position.
If she didn’t move, she could just barely bear the pain of her mangled leg.
But I can’t…
I can’t not move…
So what do I do? And how do I do it?
Why does it hurt so badly? Why can’t I make it go away?
Fae winced as a sudden, unintentional movement lanced pain through her leg, up through her spine, out to her fingertips. Her chest heaved as she took deep, desperate breaths through sobs.
She hurt more than she’d ever imagined she could, and she didn’t think she’d ever stop crying.
Things keep changing here. Maybe, if I just stay conscious instead of slipping into pleasant dreams, I’ll end up in a better circumstance.
That’s my only hope. My tattered, shredded scrap of hope.
No. There’s no way.
But she heard it. She heard a voice in the silent emptiness. The voice was sobbing and groaning and moaning, just like hers. And it was accompanied by staggered, uneasy footsteps in the grass.
Fae stared in disbelief. The sobs and groans cut off as a face came into view. At first, she wasn’t sure she could quite make it out.
There was a lot of blood.
But when the girl mustered a meager smile, showing off those perfect teeth, Fae found herself crying for a wholly different reason.
She wasn’t alone anymore.
“I finally found you,” Mercury said. She staggered, caught herself against the trunk of a dark, dead tree. Her sleeve was in tatters, and long bloody cuts ran up and down her arm. Her breathing came in heavy, pained gasps.
And yet she smiled.
“Thank goodness,” she said, reaching up with her other, less bloodied hand to wipe away some of the blood and grime and matted hair from her face. Her brilliant blue eyes, bloodshot though they were, shone wonderfully. “You are real, right? I’m really sick of fake people, hallucinations, illusions, all that stuff. Please tell me you’re real.”
“I’m real,” Fae said weakly. “Are you real?”
Mercury laughed – laughed, in her sorry state. “I’m pretty sure I am,” she said. “Pain lets you know you’re alive, right? Looks like we both have plenty of evidence for us being real.” She winced, leaning more into the tree. “Ouch. Wow. We both… wow. Rough go of things for us both, huh?” She looked at Fae’s leg, grimaced. “So, I heard this phrase a long time ago. Or maybe it’s one of those memories, like I told you, that I can’t place. But it goes something like ‘a true friend picks you up when you’re down. And if they can’t pick you up, they lie down and listen for a while.’ So, considering…” She slid down to a seat against the tree, and then slumped into the grass, lying next to Fae. “I can’t exactly pick you up right now. So I guess I gotta lie down here with you, huh?” She laughed again.
“How are you laughing?” Fae asked.
Mercury groaned in pain. “I’m pretty sure my sense of humor is the only thing that’s kept me going here. Without that, well… ah, I don’t want to think about where I’d be. I sure wouldn’t have found you.”
“Where are your sisters?” Fae asked hopefully.
“No clue. You jumped in right as Neptune was saying we should hold onto each other so we don’t get separated, and, well… I didn’t wait to grab onto anyone.”
Fae turned her head slightly, staring at Mercury in shock. “You jumped in right after me?”
Mercury smiled. “Sure did. And I only just found you. You’re a tough girl to get a hold of, you know that? And I…” She let out a ragged sigh that seemed mingled with a faint sob. “Well, you don’t need to do anything. Just don’t disappear, okay? I’ll be able to stay smiling as long as you don’t vanish on me.”
She’s counting on me?
She doesn’t need anything from me except for me to be here?
“A true friend…”
She really sees me that way.
“I can’t exactly go anywhere like this,” Fae finally said.
Mercury burst out laughing, and then groaned and winced in pain. “Ah, you said it.” She grasped some of her hair that was matted dark red with her blood, and held it up. “Say, I make a pretty decent redhead, don’t you think? Jupiter would be so jealous.”
Fae groaned, and it was only partly from pain. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Mercury laughed, immediately followed by a series of groans. “You know,” she said, “considering this is all nightmares and stuff, even with all of Gerick’s warnings, I never really expected it to hurt so… physically. Wow. We’re both really messed up. And if I could use magic, I could heal your leg, and myself. I’m a decent Healer, you know.”
“You can’t use magic?” Fae asked.
Mercury reached into her pocket, pulled out her guitar pick Talisman. Her hand shook as she held it up. “I’ve been trying ever since I came in here. It’s like our magic just doesn’t work. Had me pretty freaked out for a while. If I’m being honest… I’m still pretty freaked out. I’ve never been without magic.”
And my Talismans vanished as soon as I entered this place. I never even got to test that.
I guess that’s a good thing. I would have freaked out much more if I had a Talisman but it didn’t work.
“Hey…” Mercury said, pushing herself up with many groans and pained expressions to sit back against the tree. “Do you remember what I said to you way back when, about art? Ah, probably not, it was so long ago –”
Fae smiled slightly. “Art is magic.”
Mercury’s whole face lit up as she grinned. “You did remember! Well, I just had a great idea. This place probably can’t take the magic out of music. So I’ll sing. Maybe that’ll do something for us. You don’t mind, right?”
Fae sighed. “As long as you don’t sing one of your annoying songs.”
Fae felt heat rushing to her face.
I said that out loud?
“Oh. I mean… um… well…” she stammered, struggling for words.
Mercury laughed. “You finally gave me some criticism. You always seem to be holding back. It’s nice to hear you say what you feel, even for a little bit.” She sighed, but it was a happy sigh. “Well, just tell me if I start an annoying song. I’ll do my best to accommodate you.” She opened her mouth, took in a breath, and then began to sing.
She cut off after just a single word, coughing and sputtering. She shook her head. “Sorry. Hard to sing after you’ve been screaming for hours.” She swallowed twice, took a few slow breaths in and out. “Okay. Let’s try this again. Man, I wish I had some water.” She smiled. “Don’t give me too much grief for my pathetic voice right now, okay?” And then she started to sing once more, her voice crafting a haunting melody that seemed to physically take hold of Fae and remove her from the confines of the Nightmare Road:
“I think sometimes when I’m lost in the sea
Of times and sensations, desires unseen
For the hopes that we’ve lost, the songs that we’ve sung
Cast away on the wind with the bell, soundly rung
My friends, if I may –”
Just as Fae was finding herself entranced by Mercury’s singing and by the lyrics that were transporting her somewhere far away from this darkness and pain, Mercury suddenly cut off with a heavy sigh. “No, that’s not right, it’s too somber for this place. That’s one of Neptune’s, too, and I can’t sing at all like her.” She pursed her lips in thought, and then smiled. “Let me try something else.” She cleared her throat, and then sang once more. Now her voice was bright and clear, fitting of the bouncy, staccato tune she chose:
“Oh, I wish I was
A fuzzy little puppy
‘Cuz then I’d wag my tail
And everyone would love me!”
Fae couldn’t help it – she burst out laughing. It hurt, but not as much as she expected, and the laughter seemed to slice through a bit of the darkness with a light all its own. “What kind of nonsense is that?” she asked.
“Hey now, it’s one of my favorites!” Mercury said with a pout. “I made it up while I was taking a bath one time. And come on, who doesn’t wanna be a fuzzy wittle puppy?” She grinned as Fae laughed, and started up another verse:
“Oh, I wish I was
A dreary grey raincloud
‘Cuz after I finished raining
There would be a rainbow!”
And on to more verses, seeming to take delight in Fae’s laughter as she smiled and sang on:
“Oh, I wish I was
A happy rolling panda
Chewin’ on bamboo
Across the forests of China!
Oh, I wish I was
A swimmin’ little tadpole
‘Cuz after I was grown
I could jump in all the puddles!”
Through her laughter, Fae shook her head and said, “You aren’t even rhyming anymore!”
“Hey, I’m making up lyrics on the spot, okay?” Mercury asked. “Show a little respect, huh? And besides, it got you to laugh. And –” Mercury looked at Fae, eyes widening, and then at herself. She grinned wide, her smile even more brilliant now that her face wasn’t covered in blood, now that her hair was back to its golden, shining yellow. She leapt to her feet. “That did it! Ha! No Nightmare Road can take the magic out of music! Fae, how’s your leg? If you can’t stand…” She held out her hand. “I’ll pick you up.”
Fae swallowed back a swell of emotion. She flexed her left foot, was shocked to find it responded normally and without any pain. She reached up to grasp Mercury’s hand, smiled as the girl pulled her to her feet. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Mercury smiled back at her, but then suddenly looked away, almost as if she was nervous. She shifted on her feet, bobbing her head back and forth. “Hey, um… do you mind if… I mean I just… considering how scary and crazy everything is… I know you’re not the most open or affectionate person but…” She spread her arms out, in a gesture Fae instantly recognized.
Fae, tears dancing in her eyes, nodded once. She leaned into Mercury, and Mercury into her, and they hugged each other tightly. In that closeness, Fae could feel the tension slowly draining out of Mercury, could feel all the pressure and struggle the girl had been through all alone in the Nightmare Road, searching for her.
When they pulled away from each other, a few tears were rolling slowly down Mercury’s cheeks.
But she was smiling.
Then her eyes widened, and she turned Fae by her shoulders, pointing in the distance. “Look at that!”
Out across the dark, grassy field was a narrow staircase, rising just a little ways before stopping at a platform that was lit by two street lamps shining a brilliant white.
Between those lamps were Neptune, Jupiter, and Gerick.