Ashley was dying.
She had been dying for quite a while, slowly but surely. Her terminal illness wasn't cancer, however, or heart disease, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, or even a rare incurable blood-borne ailment from some tropical insect. In fact, no one who had evaluated her could say for certain what it was. Nonetheless, it had stolen the vitality of her muscles, the color and shine of her hair, the brilliant blue of her eyes – she looked and felt the part of an animate skeleton, complete with bright red eyes, and she loathed every second of it. Her life of excitement and novelty had been stolen from her. At least, stolen from her up until now.
For a while, outside of squatting in a condemned apartment building, she'd scarcely been able to manage doing much of anything. Admittedly, the last few doctors she'd seen had unanimously advised her to stay in bed, but if they couldn't even figure out what was wrong with her, then why should she bother listening to them at all? Regardless, deep in these woods sat a well, which wouldn't have been particularly noteworthy if not for the ladder rungs that lead down inside of it. She'd been content up until now with a simple curious glance down into the darkness before walking away, but now the thought of doing nothing but looking and then coming back to sit in this room and rot further filled her with a loathing and nausea so intense that she found herself gagging.
Before she fully realized it, she was fully dressed and walking out of the apartment complex toward the woods, a battered flashlight poking out of her skirt pocket and a corroded length of rebar in her left hand. The ligaments of her arm quickly began groaning under the weight, but she barely noticed: Her heart was hammering eagerly from her defiance of the routine, her hands trembling in anticipation of what new thrills awaited her at the bottom of the well. She grinned broadly at a wary passerby, then began whistling for the first time in years as she turned off onto the trail into the woods.
Ashley had just reached the well when, much to her delighted surprise, someone hurriedly clambered out of it. She readied the rebar clumsily as though she were up for bat, only for the person to tumble to the ground, swearing loudly and clutching at his foot. After regarding the figure for a moment, her eyes wandered to the object he had dropped – a book bound in dusty black velvet – when pulling himself over the lip of the well. She knocked it away from the figure before picking it up and flipping through it.
Most of the pages were filled with an elaborate, curlicued script that she couldn't quite decipher, so she skimmed until she found a detailed illustration of what appeared to be a vampire with unusually long fangs in elaborate and opulent robes. The subsequent page showed an image of people lying prostrate before more of these vampires, accompanied by a gruesome depiction of someone being sacrificed in front of them. Chills ran up and down her body while revulsion swelled in her stomach, and she felt her hands trembling, yet she felt compelled to read more, to study the book at length.
“I'd like that back, if you don't mind.”
She jumped and whirled around, fumbling and dropping both rebar and book in the process. She dove for the book, then grabbed the rebar and pointed it up at the figure while lying on the book.
“You may relax, as I have no intention whatsoever of hurting you. My name is Isaac. I am collecting books, strange and rare, from all over the world, and the text on which you're currently lying there happens to be one such book.”
“...I'm Ashley.” She stood up and held the book against herself defensively, eying him with intermixed suspicion and curiosity. “I wanted to go in that well, but now I want to know about this book. Was it in the well?”
“If you'd be so kind as to return that book to me, then I'd happily expound upon its whereabouts during my recovery of it.”
“You talk and I'll think about giving it back.”
They stared each other down for a moment, then he looked away, sighing.
“So be it.” He sat down and began working off his right shoe. “It's precisely as you've surmised; I retrieved the book from that well, or more specifically from the aged and rather curiously-located library accessible therein. The most peculiar aspect of it concerns its physical condition, as the other volumes present had expectedly mildewed to illegibility due to the moisture and warmth of their subterranean locale, yet that one remains fascinatingly intact.”
She gazed at the book in her hands as he took a small bottle of peroxide from a bag and sanitized the wound on his foot. “It didn't rot? How?”
“That, my dear” – Ashley snorted – “is the million-dollar question, but regardless of the answer I'm certain of this item's immense value, and I intend to have it appraised and placed accordingly amongst my other artifacts. That is, assuming that you'll cooperate with me as you've previously stated.” He finished tying a strip of gauze around his foot, then slipped his sock and shoe back on.
“I said I'd think about it. I want to see your book collection.”
“I'll gladly give you the grand tour, provided that you in exchange return to me that which is rightfully mine.”
“Rightfully yours? You just said you stole it from a library.”
“It was scarcely stealing, since it… Er, if anything, the act falls more along the lines of recycling, as it would've sat there, cluttering up the, uh… Anyway, I'd personally categorize this with the term 'artifact recovery'.”
“I'll hold onto it. Show me your books.”
Isaac sighed heavily, then began limping off back toward civilization with a happily humming Ashley in tow.
“As I give it additional consideration, you're of a rather unusual type yourself, aren't you, Miss Alyssa?” As he spoke, they approached the gate of an expansive estate enclosed by a tall fence. A mansion of impressive size sat at the far end of a tastefully sparse courtyard.
“Ah, yes, of course. My difficulties with remembering names notwithstanding, my stated observation still stands, does it not? Your hair is as white as a lamb's fleece, and you've skin to match, yet you're clearly younger than I, and I've not a gray hair anywhere on my body.” He swiped a card at the gate, which slowly opened inward. “And that's making no mention of your piercing red eyes. Are you, perhaps, an albino?”
“I don't know. My condition did this.”
“A condition that causes albinism? I don't believe that I've ever heard of anything of that sort. For that matter, is a condition of that nature even physiologically possible? Nearest that I can recall, albinism is a characteristic present at birth, determined strictly by one's genetic make-up. What condition did you say you have?”
“It doesn't have a name. Or, I mean, no one's seen it before.”
“How tantalizingly perplexing!” He caught her withering glare. “Er, to be certain, though, it's an undeniable tragedy. Completely awful, without argument.” He cleared his throat. “I daresay regardless that both yourself and the scientific community at large could stand to benefit considerably from a meticulous study of this ailment of yours. That is, I could be accredited with documenting an entirely new illness, and a potential live-saving cure might be discovered for you in the process.” He threw open the doors to the mansion, then gestured for her to follow.
As they wove through a series of ascending staircases and hallways, she gazed about in unmasked amazement at the staggering opulence. It made sense to her, naturally; it typically takes a person with an unscrupulous streak to achieve such heights of wealth, and, for all of his talk, this Isaac was a thief. He took what he wanted, and she couldn't help but respect that. She swiped an apple from a real-yet-decorative fruit bowl – rebar and book tucked in the pits of her arms – and idly bit into it as they arrived at what appeared to be the top floor of the building.
“We've at last alighted at the threshold of my book collection, but, before we proceed inward, I'll have to ask for a small entrance fee.” He glanced at the book, then back up at her. “Nothing that you can't afford, of course.”
She hesitated, then stuck the apple in her mouth and took the book into her hands. After staring at it for a moment, she offered it to him.
“Thank you kindly. With that affair settled and behind us, let's continue, shall we?”
The first few items were bogglingly ancient tablets inscribed with such dead languages as cuneiform and Linear B, atmosphere-protected in specialized glass cases. Though rather mundane in their actual textual contents, he explained, their extreme age and uniqueness appealed to him. The next display contained several of the once-missing segments from the Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, allegedly obtained “at great personal risk” and occasionally loaned out to Vatican scholars for study – though at an hourly rate so astronomical that Ashley nearly choked on a bite of apple upon hearing it.
“They can afford that?”
“Oh, you'd be surprised at the astonishing sums of wealth that the Catholic Church has lying around in its coffers. That piece there is one of my biggest bread-winners, as a matter of fact. I'm hoping someday that I'll be able to utilize it to haggle my way into the Vatican archives; I've not had luck thereat yet, but I'm a patient man.”
They advanced to the next set of displays, which started with a tattered leather volume written by a Jordanian who had apparently developed severe paranoid schizophrenia without warning one night and subsequently filled the book with dark mutterings of eldritch rites and monstrous entities that dwelt deep in interstellar space. Of particular interest was the following text: A personal journal scribed by a man who had spent far more of his life beneath the ground than he had above it; it was reading through this diary, Isaac explained, that lead to him learning about and exploring the well at which they met.
“He found the library?”
“He did indeed. He visited it a great many times, in fact, repeatedly commenting that it had an especial draw to it that was exceptional amongst the many other locales of his spelunking.”
“Did he mention that book?” She nodded toward the black-bound volume he held.
“Yes, along with a partner volume. He spoke of them as being items of 'intense evil', but this fellow was extremely superstitious and his sanity fairly twisted from his extended isolation. For instance, he thought of star-nosed moles as being his brethren, and had concocted this quaint notion that equated being underground with being in the womb from which Mankind originated. For that matter, my question is, were that library such a repellent, odious, and evil place as he asserted it to be, why did he return to it time and time again?”
The last pair of items in the collection comprised a systems manual for the PDP-1 in pristine condition – “Admittedly, it's not of tremendous value, comparatively speaking, but I'm nonetheless fond of that piece.” – and a thick, cloth-bound book with an illegible title.
“The title is 'Title Illegible'?”
“Indeed, and it's the only extant copy of that publication. It's actually a formidably thorough treatise on orchids, though you'd never divine that from the title. Perhaps the author wanted to make a statement about not judging books by their covers? The real question, however, is how it got published with that title at all and without listing either the author or the publisher.
“At any rate, the tour concludes here, though I'll be pleased to augment it further with this mysterious mold-retardant member. I hope you've enjoyed this showing of texts most exotic and unique, Miss Alicia.”
They stepped out of the gallery into the hallway. She placed the browning apple core into the fruit bowl, then, hefting the rebar up against her shoulder, turned and regarded him.
“You really like the sound of your own voice, don't you?”
* * * * *
After returning to her apartment and promptly sleeping for fifteen hours – much as she had loved it, all of the excitement had harshly taxed her ailing body – Ashley stood before the well once again the next day. As she pulled herself up over the lip of the well and began descending, she thought back to what the talkative thief had said, about there being an underground library at the bottom of the well. That would explain these ladder rungs, but if this were an old sewer tunnel instead, that would explain them as well, to say nothing of the fewer assumptions made.
It didn't make any sense: If libraries are places where many books are kept so that people can read them, then why would anyone put a library in a well in the forest? Plus, wells are dug in areas with large amounts of groundwater, so wouldn't putting a library in one spell disaster for the books? An image of the strange black book – wholly free of water damage and decay – flashed in her mind, followed quickly by recollections of the unnerving illustrations present therein. What in the world was that book? The thief mentioned that there was a second book like it in addition to the one he took; she resolved to find it.
Reaching the bottom of the ladder, she hopped off to the floor, much to the displeasure of her feet and legs. The rebar, which had given her trouble during the descent, now slipped out of her grasp entirely and clanged loudly against the ground. As she stared down the narrow and pitch-dark passage before her, she felt her pulse quickening and her hands trembling in anticipation. Lightly biting her lower lip, she fished her derelict flashlight from her pocket and, after retrieving the rebar and resting it against her shoulder, trekked forward into the gloom.
Whether she walked for minutes or for hours without incident, she couldn't be sure. Eventually, she marched straight into a cloud of stale, moldy air. Coughing and gagging, she noticed that the passageway opened up into a larger chamber a short distance ahead. She hurried her pace and passed through, only to stop and gawk in thrilled awe at the ruinous library that now lay before her.
Many of the wooden bookshelves had collapsed, leaving the books scattered across the floor in disarray. Those few that remained upright tilted crazily or sported fungal growth along the sides. She readied her rebar and began walking from book mound to book mound, pushing and poking through the piles in search of any volume not encased in mildew. Here, the acrid odor of rot was overwhelming; her eyes began tearing up, and her stomach churned in protest.
At the sound of movement behind her, she swiftly turned and found herself facing a dizzyingly tall, strikingly beautiful woman in a foot-length sheath dress as flatly black as outer space.
“To think that my library, my one remaining refuge, has fallen into this state: Forgotten, decaying, visited now only by thieves.”
“It's in a well in the woods. What did you expect?”
The woman's eyes narrowed malevolently, but her somber expression soon returned. “You do not understand, interloper, but it is beyond your ability to grasp. Leave this place and never return.”
“No. Tell me about this library.” In the midst of her thrilled bafflement and curiosity, an odd detail stuck in Ashley's mind: This woman and her outfit were strangely clean despite the grimy environment.
They stared at each other in silence for a moment, then the woman looked away. “My library and I are the remnants of a world that no longer exists, of a plane of existence that destroyed itself. As you have observed, we are out of place, yet here we remain.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Melancholia, once of the Anti-Magical Order. I was entrusted with maintaining this library and with the security of certain dangerous items. At one time, I would have professed an unwavering loyalty to my duty, though remaining allegiant has proven… difficult.” At this, her gloomy expression saddened further ever so slightly.
“I met a thief who said he came here yesterday. He'd stolen a black book that wasn't rotten. What was that book?”
“It is a book of the history of my world. A protection was placed upon it, and that protection is responsible for preventing its decomposition.” She took a large step toward Ashley, who backed away in smaller steps, her feet further scattering the books on the floor. “You said that you know the location of this book?”
“Yeah. Your world had vampires?”
Surprise briefly illuminated Melancholia's features. “Yes, though I am curious about how you know that word. They are the ultimate cause of the destruction of my world, having utilized their magics to conquer all but a few fortified provinces of the country of my people. It is regrettable, but the decision was made to annihilate the vampires at the cost of annihilating the world as a whole.” Another big step forward, more uneasy steps back. She seemed to retreat into her thoughts for a moment, then nodded to herself and stared back down at Ashley. “Take me to this thief who has stolen my book.”
“Not so fast. Why weren't you and this library also destroyed?”
“An experimental and powerful protection had been placed upon this facility, due to the security required here. It is my thinking that this unorthodox protection preserved this place when the destruction of my plane occurred. In retrospect, it is fortunate that the encroaching vampires stole the dangerous items that were contained here, as they could have posed a serious threat to my safety and to your world.” She advanced yet again; Ashley's retreat was cut short when her back collided with the wall. “Speaking of that subject, you should beware letting the protected book out into your world.”
“The vampires relied on magic in all aspects of their strategic operations, so we attempted to combat them through our specialization in anti-magic. In response, the vampires devised a way to manipulate a magic from a different plane of existence, such that our anti-magic lost much of its potency against them. They further designed a method to create new vampires from nothing through this foreign magic. It is possible that these mechanisms are detailed in that book, and could be used to bring vampires into your world.”
Ashley's stomach dropped as the ghastly images from the black book flooded again into her mind. “Why the hell did you let it get stolen, then?”
“I did not notice the intrusion until it was too late. Prior to the thief that preceded you, no one had trespassed here for a very long interval, and I had come to anticipate no further such incursions.” Her expression hardened. “I intend to retrieve it with your assistance, however, whenever you decide to stop irritating me with your questioning.”
Ashley took a deep breath to calm herself, only to break down choking and gagging.
“O-OK, let's go get that book back.”
The pair stood before Isaac's gated estate, with Ashley staring into a video intercom.
“Why, if it isn't Miss A! How simply marvelous to interact with you again, and so soon after our last meeting; perhaps you've come to discuss my proposal concerning conducting a systematic investigation of your condition?”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“Ah, superb. In that case, I'll unlock the gate and see you inside presently.”
As the intercom shut off, she cracked a grin. While he may be a competent thief and swindler, this Isaac was something of a fool. Anyhow, what made him think that he could cure her when other so-called world experts threw up their hands even trying to identify a cause? At the same time, though, her best-case expiration date wasn't too far off, and even then she hadn't exactly been taking stellar care of herself. Her grin faded, and she sighed through her nose. Melancholia regarded her silently.
Isaac came striding up the path through the courtyard, pausing not even for a second at the sight of the otherworldly second visitor. After passing through the open gate, he stopped in front of Melancholia, sized her up for a moment, then nodded politely. He stuck out his hand, which she examined with a puzzled expression.
“I don't believe that we've as of yet been introduced. My name is Isaac, and I'm a collector of literature most esoteric and recondite. While any associate of my dear friend Miss A” – Ashley rolled her eyes – “is most welcome under my roof, I'd like greatly to make your acquaintance.”
She stared down icily at him. “I am Melancholia. I am here to reclaim a book that you thieved from my library.”
“I don't know that I'd describe it using the word 'thieved', as that has such a negative… Wait, did you say your library? My, my, this sounds indubitably intriguing! Please, please, come inside, don't be shy!”
“So, you intend me to believe that you and that dusty library which is allegedly yours survived some sort of self-inflicted Universe-rending cataclysm instigated by your society of fellow anti-magicians as a last-ditch measure of desperation in a conflict against vampires, and that that tome that I recovered yesterday might potentially contain technical diagrams which would enable the generation of the aforementioned vampires in our world, and thus I should relinquish it to you for safekeeping?” Isaac stopped pacing for a moment to look expectantly at an annoyed Melancholia, who was seated on a sofa next to Ashley.
“I am telling you the truth. If a hostile force obtains the book, then your civilization will fall. I am making an effort to help you here, so why would I bother to deceive you?”
“Considering that the book has been appraised at a value greatly exceeding the average American's annual salary, I daresay that there's an obvious motivator for wanting to fool me and thereby regain control of it. For that matter, your story isn't internally consistent: There's no way that vampires would be able to organize in such a fashion, thanks to their characteristic trait of spontaneous combustion upon exposure to sunlight. Because of that, their numbers would never remotely grow massive enough to levy an army — unless you're suggesting that they sparkle instead of burn?” He paused for a moment, smirking at his own joke. “Moreover, the notion of an 'anti-magician' makes absolutely no sense, as anti-magic is merely a field or projection that nullifies magic, yet you describe it as though your people went around conjuring 'anti-spells' with 'anti-wands' and so on.”
“What is this about vampires bursting into flame due to solar radiation? That is nonsense. It is evident that you have no understanding of the truth of things at all. Must I explain everything?” She blinked her eyes several times rapidly in a gesture of irritation. “Have your people deduced atomic theory? I would hope you are familiar with the two categories of atoms: Anti-particles and particles. Should an anti-particle and its opposing particle contact one another, they are eradicated in a flare of energy. Chemical bonds and reactions can occur, however, within either category provided that all of the component atoms in the reaction are the same type. Anti-magic and magic operate in analogy to that.”
“As fascinating a hypothesis as that may be, we're still operating on the false premise that such things as magic exist at all. That is, unless you, Miss Melanie, would be so generous as to give a demonstration of your purported anti-magic for us?” His eyes gleamed mischievously.
Her glare seemed to drive straight through him into the far wall. She stood from her seat next to the bored Ashley, towering far above them both. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and held out her hands, which became enveloped in a hissing black energy. Her dark hair billowed, and her features tightened in concentration as she traced out several blocky figures in the air. The others' astonished gaping was disrupted by the explosion from the front of the estate that shook the building. As the lights flickered, she relaxed, the unnatural black glow departing from her hands.
“I generated a very minute quantity of anti-matter in the open space through which we passed earlier when entering this place. I hope that that was a sufficient demonstration. I further request that you do not misspeak my name; I am Melancholia, not Melanie.” She slowly fell back into her seat.
“That was incredible, Mel!” Ashley's eyes shone with excitement and admiration.
“Incredible, indeed… And incredibly expensive, at that.” He stepped away from the window. “That's quite a crater you've 'generated' in my lovely courtyard, but I suppose it's a reasonable price for an incontrovertible confirmation of the existence of magic – er, anti-magic, that is. How in the world did you perform that sorcery? Could you perhaps educate me?”
“I did not come here to tutor you in anti-magic. Return to us the book you stole.”
He froze up for an instant, then cleared his throat nervously. “Ah, yes, uh, about that. It truly is an incident of unfortunate timing, truly, but at present the book is not in my possession.”
“What?” Ashley stood up, taking her rebar in hand. “What happened to adding it to your collection?”
“Without a doubt, I had every intention of neatly filing the volume away with its compatriots of similar obscurity until Miss Melancholia convinced me otherwise just now. Even with that in mind, however, I nevertheless felt it prudent to assess its value beforehand.”
“You told us the assessed value, so it's already done, isn't it?”
“Er, right, well, that was a mere preliminary estimation of its worth. I've a trusted friend in the appraisal business with whom I operate whenever I should encounter such artifacts and thereby find myself needing services of his specialty. After you departed from my abode the prior day, Miss A, I directly contacted the aforesaid friend, and, after I illustrated to him in elaborate detail the nature and condition of the text in question, he delivered a loose estimate based on a few back of the envelope calculations – namely, the estimate of which you speak. He and I shortly thereafter arranged a meeting, during which I passed the book into his care for a more comprehensive evaluation.”
“Bring us to him, now.”
“As much as it would please me to comply with your demand, I lack the knowledge of his address. In his line of employment, he naturally deals with many a valuable object, and thus he consequently runs a considerable risk of being burgled. To that end, he strives to minimize the number of people with whom he shares such endangering information. I can and will, however, call him.” Isaac turned and walked over to a wired phone sitting on an end table in the far corner of the room. Ashley curiously glanced over at Melancholia, who lay with her head reclined and her fog light eyes closed.
“Hello, Robert, my good man! How are you?” Whatever the reply was, she noticed his shoulders tensed in response.
“Oh goodness, I'm tremendously sorry to hear that. Whatever could be the matter?” There was a lengthy pause, during which the color steadily drained from his face. Her hair stood on end.
“I… I see. Nothing to be done about it, then. No, don't worry yourself over it; you've enough on your plate, I shouldn't wonder, what with how you're on the run now. Take care of yourself, Rob.” He sluggishly replaced the phone onto the receiver, as though in a trance, then spoke quietly without looking up.
“It seems that the government became privy to the black market dealings in which my friend partook as a side business. There's been a raid on his premises, and all of his assets have been seized, vampire book included.”
“Son of a bitch!” The rebar crashed through a lamp, scattering sparks and shards of masonry across the richly carpeted floor.
“Miss A, please, try to calm yourself. To be certain, this development is potentially problematic, but such violence–“
“Potentially problematic? It's gone! The spooks have it! I've got less than a year left, and now I won't even be able to enjoy it because of some vampire invasion! God damn it!” The decorative flower pot shattered easily, peppering the floor further with soil and bits of ceramic.
A jagged bolt of black energy struck Ashley squarely in the back of the head. Her eyes rolled back, and she slumped to the floor, soundly asleep.
“Goodness! Thank you, Miss Melancholia. I was worried that she'd be liable to strike you or I next.” He began picking up some of the larger fragments of debris from the floor. “Incidentally, regarding that condition of hers, are you at all knowledgeable of it? Is it perhaps something that you're capable of curing with your anti-magic?”
“I was unaware that she was afflicted with a terminal illness at all. It it not anything that I have ever seen, though my knowledge of medicine is limited at best, and at any rate I am ignorant about the biology of your race. While I could slow the progression of her deterioration if I had the relevant knowledge, I am not skilled enough at healing to conduct a full cure for a disease so serious. Were a novice to attempt an advanced procedure such as that, Ashley's state would worsen in all likelihood.”
“That truly is lamentable, but I suppose it's not anything that can be helped at present.” He gently lifted Ashley and laid her on a sofa clear of detritus. “We now face a problem both time-critical and obstinately difficult, a conundrum among conundra: However shall we recover the book?”
Ashley awoke feeling unusually well-rested; the air was fresh and pleasant, quite unlike the stale stench of her apartment. After taking a moment to stretch, she sat up and surveyed the room. For some reason, she had slept over at the thief's house, and stranger still she had no recollection of lying down to sleep. The flashlight had fallen out of her pocket onto the floor from her tossing and turning, and someone had placed the rebar up against the adjacent wall. The carpet seemed oddly clean, though she couldn't quite place why that felt odd.
As she stood up and idly brushed stray specks of dirt from her white skirt, her stomach audibly growled. The fruit bowl directly outside of the book gallery from a few days prior flashed into her mind, so she struck out in the direction of the collection, scratching a vague itch on the back of her short, messy mop of hair.
Along the way, the events of the prior afternoon began to coalesce in her mind: Melancholia's anti-magical explosion, the thief admitting that he didn't have the book, him calling his assessor friend, the news of the government raid, her flying into a fury. She felt her rage boiling up again, but she considered that the thief hadn't done anything unreasonable, and that what had happened wasn't anyone's fault – except maybe the assessor's, but he was out of reach, luckily for him. She sighed, the anger flowing out of her. Still, the possibility of major social upheaval from the vampires sounded like it could be pretty thrilling; it would shake things up, to be sure, and it's not as though society in its present state had anything to offer her.
Her arrival at the fruit bowl interrupted her reverie. After shoving an apple into her pocket, she took an orange and started peeling it as she wandered back to the study where she had slept, discarding the strips of peel on the floor as she went. She had just taken her first bite when Isaac came up behind her, peel chunks in hand.
“Good morning, Miss A. I was wondering exactly how long you'd remain unconscious, but I see that you've at last awoken and helped yourself to my selection of fruit once again. You're entirely welcome to it, of course, but since you already seem aware of its location and how to navigate to it, I daresay leaving a breadcrumbs trail is unnecessary.” He emptied his hands into a waste basket in a side room, then jogged back up to her side.
“Either way, it pleases me that you're in better spirits today. I had busied myself with consulting the mad writings of the Jordanian and the underground man's notes in a search for any word about these vampires, but at no point that I could notice did either make reference to them.”
“Where's Mel?” She wiped away a stray droplet of juice with the collar of her gray top.
“Oh, Miss Melancholia, you mean? She bustled off back to the library not too long ago. She informed me that she was securing the second of those two black books, as she had reasoned that the probability of it being purloined would be significantly reduced were she to have it in her possession, not to mention that it's supposedly a manual on anti-magic and thus would undoubtedly prove to be of undeniable utility in our endeavor to retrieve the first book. I can't imagine that she'll be gone for much longer.
“By the by, I've been thinking in greater detail about this most recent unfavorable development, and perhaps our despair is a bit shortsighted? Namely, as has been repeatedly stressed during our discussions on the subject, none of us can be certain of whether or not the book actually contains any sort of algorithm for the creation of vampires, so it could in all likelihood be the case that there's no real cause for concern. Furthermore, since it's been taken into government holding by means of that skirmish at my friend's place, my intuition is that it'll gather dust along with other assorted contraband assembled by such activities rather than immediately being perused.”
“I don't know. It had this… feeling to it.” She swallowed and took another bite.
“A feeling? However do you mean?”
“As in, it almost made me want to read it. The thing scared me, but it was like I couldn't put it down once I opened it.”
“I hope to the stars in the heavens above that this is nothing more than a mere mistaken impression, and that we were not in error in our assumption, otherwise we would find ourselves in the worst conceivable circumstances.”
* * * * *
The trio stood around a large table in one of Isaac's studies, on which a massive map of the continental United States had been placed. Melancholia read over a page in the spell book, nodded, and set it aside. She inhaled, the hissing black energy enshrouding her hands, and she carefully drew a number of geometric figures in the air. The glowing black outlines persisted until she had finished the last of them, at which point they faded into invisibility. Three spots on the map abruptly burst into flame, then extinguished themselves with equal suddenness. Small circles had been charred at those three points.
“The incantation that I performed was a query for the locations of all protected objects. Are these positions meaningful to either of you?”
Isaac leaned in closer to the map. “Indeed, they are, or at least two of them are. That first one there would be the exact position of this very estate — by virtue of your protected spell book being here — and the one next to it could only be that of your library beneath the well, based on your mentioning it also being protected. We can only conclude then that this third location is, as they say, where the money's at.”
Ashley folded her arms. “But it's a government base, right? We'd never make it inside.”
“I know of a technique that we could use, though I cannot guarantee either its efficacy or its safety.” Melancholia picked the spell book back up and began leafing through it. “It would entail the performance on my part of an advanced conjuration that I have never attempted, which makes the probability of an error on my part quite high. There are also the risks associated with infiltrating a military installation, and I would not be present to assist you with what offensive ability I have due to the nature of the conjuration.”
“What's the spell?”
“It opens a tesseract between any two points within a plane, allowing for instantaneous travel between them by means of traversal of the Nothingness. It is dissimilar from a standard incantation in that it requires the caster to channel anti-magical energy for the full duration rather than only for the casting phase. As such, were I to perform this spell, I would have no choice but to remain behind to keep the tesseract open.”
“What's the Nothingness?” She pulled the apple from her pocket and bit into it.
“The Nothingness is a void between the planes of existence that does not have a temporal dimension. To phrase it another way, it lacks a flow of time. While this makes it ideal in hypothesis for faster-than-light travel, it also means that time-dependent objects, such as anything from any plane of existence, cannot move within it under normal conditions. Through the expenditure of large amounts of anti-magical energy, a caster can propel objects through the Nothingness, thereby making navigation possible. These energy costs, however, are enormous even for trivial distances, and they increase with an exponential relationship to the distance covered.”
“To think that such mystifying and phantasmagorical aspects of reality existed wholly outside the realm of my knowledge for all of this time… But I digress. Miss Melancholia, I don't mean to question your competence, but do you believe yourself capable of handling this task?” He paced along the side of the room. “You've highlighted that you've not attempted this sophisticated maneuver in the past, and from your delineation this mission sounds as one that would daunt experts. I fear to think of what would become of us were something to deviate from our plan.”
“Perhaps I have overstated the difficulty, though this is without question a daunting mission. Despite that, with proper preparation and utilization of the methods enumerated in the manual, I believe I would be able to hold the tesseract open without incident while you two recovered the book. A more exact location query on the position of the book will enable me to deposit you in close proximity to it within the military facility, so I do not anticipate that there will be much danger from hostile personnel, but you should still arm yourselves to ensure your safety.”
“Oh goodness. I hope my concealed carry license hasn't expired.”
Melancholia had taken over an empty room in need of remodeling, and had remodeled it herself, though with a vision slightly different than what Isaac had originally planned: Intricately overlapping angular shapes covered the walls, ceiling, and floor. As Ashley observed, she drew one last triangle and capped the magic marker. She checked the walls against the bookmarked manual resting on the floor, then nodded in satisfaction.
“With this, channeling the anti-magic for an extended time should not drain me as much as it otherwise might.” She turned to face her quiet spectator. “Ashley, would you help me test this channeling setup?”
“Sure. What do I need to do?” She stopped leaning on the door frame, standing upright.
“Come into the middle of the room.” They stood facing each other. “Now, I will invoke a spell to restore in part the vitality drained away by your condition, if you will allow me to do so. It will not remove whatever illness it is that afflicts you, as that is beyond my power, but it should slow its progression by a slight amount. Do you wish to proceed?”
“Hell yeah I do. Let's do it.”
As Melancholia focused and outlined shapes for the invocation, all of the symbols on the walls glowed and hissed softly. She rested a shadowed hand on Ashley's head; a warm euphoria washed over Ashley, and her body lightened as the chronic fatigue retreated from her arms, legs, and core. She removed her hand, and the channeling symbols swiftly fell silent.
“It would appear that the setup is working as intended. How are you feeling, Ashley?”
“I'm feeling mega-good! This is the best I've felt in over a year! Thanks a million, Mel!” Ashley gave her a quick, tight embrace before skipping out of the room, grinning broadly. Melancholia stared after her, her face tense with perplexion.
The three of them stood assembled in the channeling room: Ashley with her rebar over her shoulder and an excited smile from ear to ear, Isaac with a pistol at the ready, Melancholia behind a book stand on which the manual lay open. A glance passed between the humans as the anti-magician inhaled deeply.
The hissing from her furiously gesturing hands and from the symbols around the room increased steadily in amplitude until it sounded as though the air were alive with snakes. At that moment, a glassy black seam materialized in the center of the room, lengthening as the noise loudened further. When the seam stretched nearly to the ceiling, the din reached a crescendo with a tremendous tearing sound as the seam split open; the hissing was then replaced by a deep thrumming. The resulting ovoid portal gave a blurry view of a nondescript office; the black book was visible sitting on the surface of a desk.
Ashley and Isaac stared at each other breathlessly, then looked over at Melancholia. Nervous concentration had drowned her typical gloomy expression, and she shaped figure after figure in the air with such rapidity that her arms blurred, the lamps of her eyes almost completely blotted out by the swiftly appearing and vanishing symbols. She noticed their dumbfounded staring and her expression contorted further in frustration.
Ashley jumped into the gateway, Isaac right on her heels.
She had been expecting some sort of travel delay as she passed through the Nothingness, but her boots touched down on the utilitarian carpet of the office instantly. She blinked in surprise, then stumbled as Isaac collided with her from his exit.
“Hey, watch it!”
“Ah, my apologies, my apologies! I suppose I wasn't expecting my momentum to be conserved between the portals.”
“Let's just hurry and grab the book.”
They approached the desk. Isaac holstered his gun and picked up the book, then glanced down at the disorganized stack of paper next to it on the desk.
“Miss A, these documents here appear to be a summary, discussion, and analysis of book and its contents. I think that we should take them, and perhaps we should destroy this computer workstation as well to ensure that–”
“Just shut up and take the damn papers. I'll handle the computer.” She pulled the tower out from beneath the desk, expertly removed the fortunately screw-free case, and yanked out the hard disk drives. Tossing them to the floor, she deftly crushed each one with a precise rebar strike. As Isaac threw the book and papers unceremoniously through the portal, the door to the office flew open.
“What in the– Freeze! Hands where I can see them!” A security guard pointed his gun at Ashley, then wavered to Isaac. At that exact moment of indecision, Ashley sprung forward like lightning and struck the guard across his head with all of her strength. The rebar impacted him with a loud crunch, and he promptly collapsed to the floor.
“M-Miss A! That's–”
“Just shut up and go!” She pushed him in, then leapt through herself.
They fell in a heap atop the book and papers on the channeling room floor. Immediately, Melancholia ceased gesturing; the portal closed with a ear-numbing pop, and the thrumming died away into quietude. Ashley picked herself up, then leaned heavily on her rebar, exhaling in relief. Isaac scrambled to his feet and pointed accusatorily at her.
“How could you do such a thing? That was one of the most foul and odious occurrences I've ever had the displeasure of witnessing! And what's more, you stand before me now no more guilty or ashamed than before your diabolical act!”
“What're you talking about?”
“What am I talking about? Surely, you jest! I am speaking of that blatant affront to the natural order that you committed! You murdered that security officer!”
She stood upright, gaping in disbelief. “Are you joking? He was gonna shoot us!”
“You easily could've assaulted his legs, or his gun arm! Anything to buy us enough time to pass through the portal again would've more than sufficed in place of homicide!”
“Oh, come on! It was kill or be killed! I didn't exactly have time to think it through! Plus, it never would've come up if you hadn't wasted so much time yammering!”
“Don't you dare try to pin any culpability for this loathsome misdeed on me! Need I remind you whose weapon is still sullied with–”
“ENOUGH!” Melancholia's terrible glare petrified them. “While I did not bear witness to the events that you are describing, I can state this from what details you have shared: As reprehensible as her actions may be in hindsight, Isaac, Ashley did what she had to do to complete the task at hand. Had she not reacted when she did, one or both of you could have been captured, wounded, or killed.”
A moment of silence passed.
Isaac shuffled his feet slightly. “Yes, well, I'll be reviewing these documents that we recovered in detail in my study, if anyone should need me.” He picked up the black book and the disarray of papers from the floor, then strode out of the room.
“Are you OK, Mel?”
“I am quite exhausted, but otherwise I am fine, as there were no problems with the tesseract. How are you feeling, Ashley?”
“I need a drink.”
“What in God's name is that?”
Three security guards stood around a computer, which displayed the surveillance footage recorded earlier that evening in one of the facility's offices. On the screen, a black line had spontaneously appeared, and, to their perplexed astonishment, it grew longer and opened up into a rounded window. For a moment, nothing was visible save for some vague, blurred movement through the window, then two figures exited it and set about ransacking the office.
“Hey, see if you can get an ID on these two. I'm sure the boys in the lab will have a lot of questions for them.”
“You got it.”
“Y'know, sometimes I wonder if we'd still have our jobs if the Freedom of Information Act were actually enforced.”
“Hah! Probably not. Thank God for national security, right?”
The two scientists stood before a large glass vat, in which a comatose person had been lain. An opaque mixture of fluids puddled around the body, and an intricate sigil had been branded onto its chest. On a workbench in front of the scientists lay an open folder; the taller of the two, brunette with her hair in a pixie cut, consulted one of the sheets in the folder.
“Yeah, really. Anyway, the specs here call for a corpse. Will this experiment still work with a living person, even if they have no higher brain activity?”
“Would it work at all either way? You forget where we work.” The shorter of the two, blond with his hair slicked back, stuck out his tongue playfully. “That said, it's not like corpses grow on trees, so I guess we've gotta use this zombie that R&D gave us. Of course, if we needed to, we could simply shoot it and then try again, yeah?”
“I guess so.” She paused. “Say, is it just me, or is this one weird, even for us?”
“I don't find it particularly weird. I mean, not much weirder than some of that stuff we tried after that report from our Wiccan insider. Why do you ask?”
“Well, we were scheduled to test the gestalt memory prototype today, but it was suddenly shelved in favor of this. Something about this being 'top priority', even though this is the first I've heard of any of this. On top of that, nothing in our briefing here says anything about the premise or the motivation for this experiment. It's not like the brass to keep us in the dark. Something's up.”
“I say you're overthinking it. It's probably some military thing that's been rushed for rapid deployment in the Middle East since ISIL's been making gains. Remember the 'not a chemical weapon' temporary blindness tear gas they suddenly shoved on us back during Occupy Wall Street? It's like that, I bet.”
“Yeah, you're probably right. Anyway, all that's left to do here is to irradiate it. I'll let you do the honors.” She gestured to a switch set in the wall.
“Why, you're too kind.” He winked and she rolled her eyes as he flipped the switch, activating a lamp positioned above the vat.
The sigil promptly illuminated to a bright orange. The murky puddle of chemicals began to boil, then crawled up along the sides of the body into the center of the sigil, at which point they were absorbed. The body fell into violent convulsions, startling the scientists into a note-taking frenzy. Several minutes after the depletion of the chemical pool, the sigil seemed to sink into its chest; the body then fell still, at which point the shorter scientist powered off the lamp. The body twitched and sat up, making them both jump. The taller scientist began speaking into a tape recorder.
“The subject has become conscious. The conversion seems to have completed successfully despite the subject's body being alive. Its upper canines have grown significantly longer, such that they protrude from the mouth down past the chin. Its body hair has thickened such that it almost resembles fur, particularly on the limbs and abdomen. Its skin tone has become washed-out, and there are no visible signs of radiation damage despite the intense irradiation. I'm attempting communication with the subject now.” She made eye contact with the body. “Hello there! I'm Samantha. What's your name?”
The body looked around in confusion, then began crying.
“The subject appears to have a level of intelligence comparable to an infant. Perhaps this is due to the subject's body not possessing any memories prior to the conversion? I propose the conversion of a corpse of a natural-born human for future experiments.” She stopped the recorder and stuffed it into a pocket on her lab coat. “Alright, that's all for this test. Let's get this big baby down to the R&D nursery and then call it a day.”
“Sounds good to me.”
* * * * *
“Project Unholy Crusade?” Ashley pulled a grape from a bunch she had taken from the bowl and stuck it in her mouth.
“That's the codename of the operation that this memo we recovered proposes. Our greatest fears have been realized in that the vampire book indeed contained the documentation for generating new vampires, and worse still the government operatives who apprehended it pored over the book and made extensive note of the aforesaid documentation.” Isaac closed his eyes and squeezed his temples with his right hand. “It's almost certainly the case that this printout — which exhaustively outlines the blasphemous procedure — wasn't the only copy, and that numerous others were sprinkled throughout the building, to say nothing of how many digital copies there may be of it. For that matter, they may very well have scanned and digitally replicated the book itself.”
“What's the project about?” She popped another grape into her mouth.
“The underlying premise appears to be the hypothesis that the vampires can be controlled, trained, or reasoned with in some form or fashion, and consequently the military intends to produce a sufficiently large battalion of vampire soldiers for deployment in active combat zones. Specifically, they're hoping for a full-scale deployment of at least one thousand such soldiers for ground operations in Syria by the end of next year. There are obtuse mentions, although, of what I can only conclude are secretive and esoteric research technologies that they hope might expedite the process.
“At any rate, it seems that we have inflicted upon the world a scourge that we ourselves cannot remove, though it was my theft of the book from the library that ultimately commenced this chain of events. Redemption, I fear, is thus beyond all of our reach, but outside of mine most of all.” Isaac slumped back into his armchair.
A heavy silence filled the room, broken only by Ashley's quiet chewing.
“You know, something's been bugging me for a while now. How could they read the book if it's written in a language from another planet? Also, how can you speak English, Mel?”
“I obtained the ability to speak your language some time in the past, long before either of you encroached upon my library.” Melancholia, who lay sprawled on her back across a couch, did not open her eyes as she spoke. “When the first of your kind stumbled across it, I attempted to perform a mind meld with him, so that I would know all that he knew. Due to the apparent differences in mental structure between our races, however, the procedure did not work beyond a partial extent. Though I succeeded in gaining an understanding of your language, I garnered little else, and the mind meld broke the psyche of the encroacher, leaving him in a state of dementia.
“As for the interpretation of the book, there is another spell placed upon the book alongside the protection. When a person opens the book and starts to read it, they become compelled to keep reading it and to study it in greater depth. From the effect of this conjuration, they develop a fluency for the language if they continue to read it for a prolonged interval without interruption. This is possible because of the nature of the language used to write it: It is an artificial language of the vampires' invention, engineered toward the goals of simplicity and of resonance with the symbols used in magical incantations.”
She chewed for a moment. “What are the vampires, anyway?”
“You are very persistent in your questioning.” She shifted on the couch. “The vampires were a race of magicians, a vicious and ancient society that originated long ago in their past from packs of blade-toothed beasts that prowled the northern wildernesses. They reviled those that were not of the same race as them, as they believed themselves to possess a purity of form that no other creature possessed. This fueled the war between the vampires and the Anti-Magical Order, which began when a settlement of scholars in the north provinces of our territory attempted to infiltrate one of their holy sites for study and were detected. They damaged part of the site by accident in the resulting confusion. To the vampires, that was unforgivable.
“I am filled with deep remorse at the actions of my people and at my own actions. It was in our carelessness that we caused the conflict that lead to the slaughter of millions on both sides, and it was in our desperation and cowardice that we obliterated the world rather than face enslavement or extinction due to that very same conflict. As for me, it seems that I am in keeping with the shortsightedness of the others of the Order, as greater diligence on my part would have ensured that the protected book were never stolen from the library. Isaac was not in error when he stated that I was beyond redemption. Perhaps it would have been for the best had the Order been slaughtered by the vampires in full, and I with it.”
Ashley stood up, glancing back and forth between the two dejected forms. “All that stuff sucks, sure, but it's in the past. Moping about it won't make it go away. If you feel bad, then do something about it.”
“And what is it, precisely, that you posit we undertake as a means of atonement?” Isaac eyed her with unmasked frustration. “In case you've forgotten, the method for vampire creation resides all over a military network now; we'd have to incapacitate the entirety of said network infrastructure, and that's not touching upon physical copies of the description and backups of the computer systems.”
“Well, uh… Eating ice cream always makes me feel better, so I was gonna suggest that.”
Melancholia shot her a confused look. “What is this 'ice cream'?”
The trio sat around a circular table outside of a local ice cream parlor, attracting more than a few looks from the other patrons. Melancholia, sporting a stylish pair of men's mirror sunglasses, stared warily down at the vanilla-filled waffle cone in her hand. Isaac helped himself to a bowl of chocolate chip, while Ashley happily licked at her chocolate cone.
“Go on, Mel, give it a lick!”
She lifted it to her tongue, then leaned back in surprise, her eyebrows arched high. “Oh! It is as cold as snow, but it is sweeter even than fruit. How mysterious.” She took a large bite of it, then quickly squeezed at her forehead, hissing in pain, which set the others giggling.
“See, if you eat it too fast, you get brain freeze. Just lick it or take small bites like us.”
“Very well, though I wonder why anyone would dare to eat this substance at the risk of having ice crystals form within their brain.”
“By the by, Miss Melancholia, I don't believe I've observed you eating at all since you've been in our company, and I certainly didn't notice any food down in that musty library of yours, yet you've fully functioning taste buds and thus are clearly built for eating. For that matter, I've yet to witness you sleeping. How've you been sustaining yourself? Anti-magic?”
“Yes. I should note that I cannot eliminate the need to sleep as a whole, but instead have reduced the amount that I need to rejuvenate myself. You have not seen it because I have been sleeping while the both of you are also asleep, and I awaken before either of you do. As for eating, I can supplant that altogether, though I often miss the satisfaction that accompanies the completion of a meal.” She bit off a piece of the cone; Ashley noticed that all four of Melancholia's upper front teeth were canines. “Is all of your food this sweet?”
“Quite the contrary, our cooking varies in flavor from spicy to salty, sweet to savory, sour to smoky. If you're thusly interested, then I propose that you and I conduct an expeditionary outing in which you'd gain more exposure to our culture's culinary spread – that is, a dinner date of sorts. Does such a notion pique your interest?”
Ashley, who was about to swallow the last bit of her cone, started coughing and spat it out upon the ground. “No way!”
“I don't recall asking you anything, Miss A, and as such I'd appreciate it if you kept your outbursts to yourself. Now, Miss Melancholia, what do you say?”
Melancholia regarded the both of them for a moment. “There seems to be some social implication here that is lost upon me. What is a 'date'?”
“It would be my great pleasure to show you—”
“He's trying to put the moves on you!”
She was nonplussed. “The moves?”
“As in, he wants to start up a romance. You know, to woo you and such?”
She seemed to weigh the notion in her head. “Is this one of your race's mating rituals?” Ashley nodded; Isaac was looking away, his face bright red. “That would explain your unusual behavior. I must disappoint you, Isaac, as I have no concept of anything of that sort. The Order was populated in its entirety by self-fertilizing females, so mating never was a component of our society.”
Isaac noisily cleared his throat. “What an exotic distinction! Of course, even taking this newfound information into account, I nevertheless maintain my offer, minus the subtleties of romance. I want to assist — out of respect for our camaraderie, mind you — in familiarizing you with the multitude of facets and aspects of our world, especially since it's now also your world.”
“My world? No, I am—”
“Mel, please. You're not intruding. You're our friend. We want you here with us.”
“Indeed, Miss A phrased it quite aptly. One way or another, you're here to stay on Earth, and thus it's your choice either to remain an intruder or to strive toward integration. I'm confident that I speak for the both of us when I say we'd be happy to help you with the latter.”
Melancholia's face flushed a light blue, and a smile played on her features. “Thank you, my friends. You are much too kind to me.”
“Blushing blue? Out of curiosity, Miss Me—”
Ashley tightly hugged her. “Mel, you're just too damn cute!”
By the time they drew near the entrance to the estate, it had grown late in the afternoon, and the sun hung low in the sky. The sight of the gaping hole in the middle of the gated courtyard made Isaac sigh and melodramatically hang his head.
“Oh, right, I'd almost forgotten that that crater still remains unfilled. It seems that, whenever it crosses my mind that I should proceed with having that damage repaired, some tempestuous turn of events distracts me such that I forget, but I shall deftly thwart that pattern on this occasion by placing the necessary call imme—”
Suddenly, an unmarked black van flanked by two SWAT trucks pulled off of the adjacent road and screeched to a halt in front of them. Armored officers sporting assault rifles poured out of the vehicles and trained their weapons on the trio.
“Stay where you are! Put your hands behind your head, now!”
Ashley's heart hammered in her chest; fear and delight battled in her mind. She swore under her breath, but complied along with the others. After being hand-cuffed, they were herded into the rear of the van, which promptly sped off. She turned to one of the officers.
“Aren't you gonna read me my rights?”
The officer snorted.
Samantha strode down the facility's hallway toward the debriefing room, puzzling with significant irritation as to why she had been chosen for this questioning. Her superiors knew all too well how enthusiastic she was to continue working on the gestalt memory prototype — and her contributions to it were already considerable, so it's not as though there were some reason to remove her from that team — yet they'd been throwing her from one secretive military pet project to the next as of late. Sure, national security meant job security, but she had ambitions outside of merely holding down a job.
She entered the debriefing room, squinting against the harshly bright lighting. Two armed guards stood in the far corners of the room, and a small albino girl sat hand-cuffed in front of the desk. The girl glared icily at her as she took her seat at the desk, though there seemed to be a hint of a smile on her face. Samantha glanced down at the information that security had managed to assemble on her.
“Ashley Rust, is it? I'm Doctor Samantha. I have a few questions for you, so I kindly request that you make this easy for the both of us and answer them truthfully.”
“I'd like you to tell me about this.” She slid over a printout of a still taken from the surveillance footage; it showed the girl and one of the other people they'd taken into custody exiting the anomaly in question. “Having reviewed the footage of it, I can only surmise that it's a two-way portal of some sort. How did you produce this?”
Samantha's eyes narrowed.
“Oh, my bad. Anti-magic.”
She retrieved the printout. “At any rate, you and your partner there must've been pretty desperate to get that book back if you generated something like that to reach it. Why is that? What's the significance of the book?”
The girl yawned.
“Don't try my patience, Rust. Answer the question.”
She felt her eye twitch. “When we apprehended you, there was a third person present in addition to you and your raiding partner. Who is she?”
“Eh, I don't really feel like answering. Why don't you ask me later, Sammy?”
She snapped the informational folder shut, her smoldering glare meeting the girl's smug one. “Very well then. This interview is over. Take her away.”
“You're Isaac Charles, correct? I'm Doctor Samantha. I have a few questions for you, so I ask that you cooperate with me and answer them truthfully.” She passed over the same picture as during the previous interrogation. “I'd like you to start with this. How did you create this portal?”
“Frankly, my dear, you wouldn't believe me even if I told you every last detail, as I can still scarcely comprehend the mechanics of it myself, and at any rate I have no inclination whatsoever to divulge any information to you.”
“Your albino partner said that it was 'anti-magic'. What exactly did she mean by that?”
“That sounds utterly preposterous, as even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that magic and other such preternatural phenomena existed, it's been quite thoroughly and unambiguously established that any variant of anti-magic functions as nothing outside of a field or projection capable of nullifying the efficacy of magical conjurations. To phrase it more succinctly, I believe that my, as you say, partner was feeding you false information. She's quite the firebrand, that one.”
“I see.” She took back the image. “What about the book? It looks like you two went to a lot of trouble to get it back. Why is that?”
“If you must insist upon your questioning, then I'll tell you, but this is strictly in confidence, you understand?” She nodded, and he leaned forward, speaking in a hushed tone. “That book has been appraised at a value significantly exceeding the annual salary of the average American. We're speaking of monetary quantities on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He sat back in the chair. “For that matter, as you and your organization are undoubtedly aware from the extensive background checks that you've presumably conducted on me, I'm a collector of no small repute, one who specializes in rare books from across the globe. I obtained that particular volume at substantial personal risk and thus had no intention of letting it fall out of my possession permanently due to the folly of my associate in the appraisal business, Robert. I'm certain that you can sympathize with my position, good doctor.”
"Of course. What about the portal?”
“Your steadfast perseverance is something to be admired. I suppose that, having emptied out my memories to this extent already, there is no purpose in hiding anything further from you. There is a tome among my collection that was written in the dead of night by a Jordanian stricken by an acute case of paranoid schizophrenia, the origin of which bamboozled even the brightest psychologists of his home country. This text is a vile, treacherous object, overflowing with murmurings that mention unspeakable rites and forgotten gods. It is through my unscrupulous utilization of one such rite that I formed a bridge through the void between dimensions into that office and regained that book which had been wrongfully seized from me. In a way, one could say that my so-called partner's lie was accurate, as while one imagines magic to be graceful and harmonious with nature, this force was in opposition to such a notion, being unambiguously unholy and reprehensible. And yet, I don't regret my actions, as my passion for my collection precedes all else. ”
“Is that so?” She shuffled through the documents. “When we captured you, there was a third person with you in addition to your partner. Who is she?”
“Ah, yes, she's quite easy on the eyes, wouldn't you say? Her name is Melanie, and I was originally hoping to send off my nominal partner and thereafter spend the evening enjoying her company, though obviously that scenario was prematurely terminated when your strong-arms arrived and hauled us away to this place. I expect that she'll be in a bit of a bad temper, and as such you should expect resistance on her part.”
“Duly noted. Thank you for your cooperation, Mister Charles. This interview is over.” She closed the folder, then nodded to the guards. “Take him away.”
“I'm Doctor Samantha. Please identify yourself.”
The woman regarded her impassively. There was something very strange about this woman; the whites of her eyes struck Samantha as being almost too white, to say nothing of her being over a meter above the average height.
“Is your name Melanie?”
After a moment, she nodded very slightly.
“What were you doing with those other two people with whom you were apprehended?”
“Can you tell me anything about the elliptical anomaly in this image?” Samantha passed over the still shot from the surveillance footage.
She cast her gaze down on the picture, then back up, her face expressionless.
The doctor sighed. “This interview is over. Take her away.”
Ashley laid on the wall-mounted cot in the holding cell and stared up at the ceiling. She had none of her equipment with her, and who knows what had happened to Melancholia and the thief. On top of that, this place seemed to be some sort of government research facility, so it was probably crawling with armed guards — even if she were to escape this cell, it'd be nearly impossible to get away even on her own. Plus, part of her balked at the thought of leaving without the others. She sighed. Maybe at the very least some scientist would take pity on her and use secret, bleeding-edge technology to cure her.
A bang was audible from the outside corridor. She stood and approached the door, but her diminutive stature almost completely prevented her from seeing out of the safety glass window. A second bang — louder than the first — reacher her ears, but nothing was visible from her limited perspective. Annoyed, she turned and scanned the room for an object on which to stand, to no avail. Glancing back up at the window, she was pleasantly shocked to see Isaac's visage. He disappeared, then the locking mechanism on her door abruptly exploded, producing the same banging noise she had heard earlier. Isaac and Melancholia quickly ran into the room, shutting the defunct door behind them.
“Wow, hey! How'd you guys get out?”
Melancholia began a conjuration while Isaac turned to face her. “We'll happily explain this development in more detail momentarily, but first Miss Melancholia is apparently going to grant us a brief reprieve.”
“A brief reprieve?”
A perfectly circular black hole around six feet in diameter opened up in the middle of the room. Melancholia stooped over and stepped through, followed by Isaac. Ashley hesitated for a second, as something deep inside of her objected to this aberrant hole, but then passed through as well. Save for the aperture giving a view back out into the room they had exited and the figures of her rescuers illuminated from that external light, everything around her was an inky black. With a few further gestures from the anti-magician, the aperture closed, leaving her entirely unable to see. She was struck suddenly by a fear far more intense and paralyzing than any she had ever experienced.
“M-Mel? Isaac? Y-You're still there, right?”
* * * * *
Ashley spotted Melancholia's luminescent eyes and hurriedly huddled up against her. After a moment of casting, Melancholia's hands began to glow a dull orange, reminding Ashley distinctly of embers in a fire or red-hot iron. Isaac was visible standing nearby, his arms folded and his shoulders tensed; at the sight of them, he edged into the dim illumination, throwing an uncertain glance behind him.
“W-Where are we?”
“The Nothingness. I generated a very small volume of space in which time will flow for a short interval so that we could reside in of it. It would not be inaccurate to think of it as a transient pocket dimension.”
She looked up at the warm light. “Y-Your hands, aren't they burning?”
“This is a temporary effect from a conjuration to decrease the wavelength of the black-body radiation of my hands. It is not harmful at all.”
“Miss Melancholia, I'm exceedingly delighted that you've emancipated us from those dingy cells, but from the picture you've painted it sounds as though we're not all that much closer to an escape from that military facility than before we stepped outside of the Universe.”
“I do have an idea that would enable our escape and would hinder or stop the development of the vampire soldiers, but it would have considerable negative externalities.”
He quirked his eyebrows. “Considerable negative externalities, you say? Though I can scarcely say that that sounds appealing, it can't hurt to hear out your idea nonetheless.”
“If I produced a sizable enough quantity of anti-matter, the resulting explosion would eradicate the building and allow us to exit without fear of pursuit. A detonation of that magnitude, however, would kill everyone inside of and near the facility.”
He seemed to freeze over in contemplation. The oppressively loud silence made Ashley's hair stand on end, and she found herself physically clinging to Melancholia, who glanced down at her curiously but didn't otherwise react. For the first time, Ashley wished that Isaac would resume speaking.
“Obviously, we can't linger here forever, and simply stepping back into existence with things remaining as they were when we left will spell our imprisonment regardless of whether we return inside or outside of the facility, as they will ceaselessly hunt us should we simply leave. For that matter, we could face something even worse than mere imprisonment, as they might conceivably vivisect you, Miss Melancholia, to catalog your biological discrepancies and to identify whatever gland or organ it is that enables you to manipulate anti-magic — and possibly dissect you as well, Miss Ashley, to identify the cause of your enigmatic condition.
“Moreover, should Project Unholy Crusade be allowed to proceed unchecked, an uncountably massive number of lives would likely end up being lost, certainly more than would be extinguished from the demolition of that research base. Furthermore, the lives erased there would be those of wicked individuals, relatively speaking, for are they not those responsible for the conception of that vampire soldier plot, and for our detainment without the slightest thought to our civil liberties? Compare that to the eventual casualties of that foul project, whom would largely be proud soldiers or innocent civilians.” He mulled it over silently for a moment more, then nodded grimly to Melancholia, who initiated the invocation, shutting her eyes in concentration. The hissing dark energy smothered the weak light from her hands; Ashley trembled and clung desperately to her. After what felt like an eternity, the gentle wash of orange and white returned.
“It is done.”
“We should remain in here for a short time longer, so that we are not hindered in our escape by the aftermath of the explosion.”
“Y-You never explained how you guys escaped.”
“It was a simple matter of creating a minuscule mass of anti-matter in the locks of the doors. The resulting annihilation damaged the locking mechanism such that the doors opened without any resistance.”
“I believe you've made mention of this Nothingness a while prior, dating back to before our escapade to obtain the vampire book from that office. If my memory serves, you said that nothing can move in it due to it not having time, but that you could somehow shuttle objects through it by virtue of anti-magic, correct?”
Melancholia nodded. “Yes, that is an accurate description.”
“Right, but that method seems to be awfully inefficient by my observation and thinking. More exactly, I remember how utterly drained you were following that affair, yet you've magicked – or, perhaps, anti-magicked – this space here into having a normal arrow of time and haven't broken a sweat either literally or metaphorically. My intuition thus asserts that the preferred method would entail creating a time-enabled route through the Nothingness in the form of an overlapping path of time bubbles like the one we're in between the desired endpoints and traversing said path as a means of extra-existential travel, thereby saving a substantial amount of energy and exertion.”
“That is a valid hypothesis, and its efficacy has been verified through experimentation. One caveat, however, is that distances in the Nothingness are many orders of magnitude greater than the analogous distances in a plane of existence. When this factor is combined with having time flow through the relevant segment of the Nothingness, the benefits of using it as a method of travel are nullified almost in full, as one would have to cross a much vaster distance while time progresses at the same rate. It might have utility for navigating around dangerous terrain, but otherwise its appeal is overshadowed by that of instantaneous travel, even after taking the higher energy costs into account.”
“Ah, I wasn't aware that the distances were larger, but that does indeed render my alternative infeasible.” He paused for a second. “Wait, navigating around dangerous terrain? Perhaps we should utilize this alternate method to avoid having to crawl across the hazardous rubble from the building.”
“We would have to walk for a significant distance in here. Are you two opposed to that?”
He shook his head. “After sitting in that cell for however many hours, I could very much use a decent walk.”
“I-I just want to get out of here. P-Please.”
“Be at ease, Ashley. No harm will befall you here. This is one of the safest places in all of Existence.” As Melancholia started the conjuration and threw them into darkness once again, Ashley fell into a fit of whimpering and fervently desired to be somewhere dangerous.
When the aperture leading back into existence appeared before her some untold hours later, Ashley threw herself through and clutched at the ground, softly crying in relief. Never had the nighttime sky looked so beautiful, nor had the Earth felt so comfortingly solid. Isaac and Melancholia stepped over after her, both stooping to help her to her feet.
“Goodness! I noticed that you were atypically uneasy in there, but I didn't realize that you were that thoroughly perturbed by it. You've my sincerest apologies for my suggestion that resulted in our extended stay there.”
She sniffled and wiped at her eyes. “I-It's OK, but I don't ever want to go in there again.”
They turned as Melancholia closed the gateway, then almost lost their balance at the sight that had been obstructed by it. A colossal burning wasteland of broken, charred rock stretched out as far as they could see. Mounds of discolored concrete strung together by twisted lengths of rebar dotted the landscape, and the slightly molten remains of an armored vehicle had come to rest nearby their exit point. The plant life around the building had been reduced to piles of charcoal and ash, peppered with red embers. Further from the epicenter, numerous trees were knocked flat as though they had been bulldozed over.
“By the stars in the heavens above, we've created a welt upon the face of the Earth, not merely destroyed a building.” He fell to his knees. “We… We made the right decision, didn't we? This was for the greater good, right? Right?” He turned to the others: Melancholia did not meet his pleading expression; Ashley gazed back at him sadly. “I… I was petrified in there, of being detained indefinitely, of being tortured for information, of losing the first genuine friends I've found in some time. I didn't properly and fully weigh the consequences of that operation, yet I nonetheless made the call to proceed with it, and now…”
The resulting silence was broken by faint sounds of movement from within the wreckage of the armored vehicle. Isaac leapt to his feet and was next to it in an instant. Spotting motion through the scorched and cracked bullet-proof glass of the passenger-side window, he pulled at the slightly ajar door, heedless to the jagged metal. It groaned and resisted at first, then relented and fell open, revealing a battered and burned but alive Samantha inside. A large bruised lump rose prominently on her head.
“Ah, thanks for that…” She promptly tumbled out of the vehicle, unconscious.
“Oh dear, do be careful, good doctor! She's in severe need of medical attention; we'll have to deliver her to a hospital directly.”
“Wait, Ike, that's the egghead who interrogated us! You're really gonna lug her around all the way to a hospital?”
He blinked at the nickname, then set off walking away from the ruins, carrying Samantha. “I absolutely am, Miss Ashley. If there are any lives that're remotely within our ability to salvage from this disaster of our own engineering, then we are duty-bound to do exactly that. You might lack the sense of ethics to understand that, but I most decidedly don't.”
She matched his pace. “What are you talking about? We don't owe her anything! She was part of everything that was scaring you stiff, remember?”
He stopped and glared at her. “And what are you proposing, precisely? Abandoning her to the elements, to her certain death?”
“I'm 'proposing' that we scram before we get caught again and brought to some other secret prison that we have to blow up. If we take her with us, then she'll call the cops down on us as soon as she comes to her senses.”
They glowered at each other for a moment, then he resumed walking off. “That's a risk that I'm fully willing to accept.” He glanced back. “Miss Melancholia, will you be joining us?”
This startled Melancholia out of her stupor, and she turned away from the destruction and walked after them. Ahead of them lay an expanse of scrubland, awash with the light of the gibbous Moon. Abruptly, Ashley wondered where exactly they were, and a fuzzy image of the ash-encircled locations on the map of the United States flashed through her mind.
“This was the same place where the book was, right?”
“To my understanding, yes, considering that they possessed the closed-circuit footage of us recovering the book and consistently inquired as to why we valued it so highly. Additionally, I managed to inspect partially the doctor's notes during my interrogation, and some of the headings on them were identical to those on the document describing the book.”
“In that case, we should be somewhere south of your house, based on map we used for that spell to locate the book a while back.”
His face lit up from the recollection. “Why, of course! I had almost entirely forgotten about that map. Thank you kindly for that reminder, Miss Ashley.” He scanned the starry sky, then nodded in the direction they were facing. “And, as luck would have it, this path heads almost perfectly due north, according to our celestial companion Polaris.” He struck off down the path with renewed vigor, though Ashley's legs – already quite sore from the lengthy trek through the Nothingness – objected as she strove to keep up. She sighed inwardly. It was going to be a long walk back.
“It exploded? You're sure the contractor's research facility just exploded?”
“Yes, sir, it's been confirmed. It exploded. Though we believe this to be a targeted attack by a terrorist group, there are no viable leads for any individual suspects.”
“I'll be damned. Don't tell me we've lost all of the documentation for Unholy Crusade.”
“Because the contractor was the only group working on the project, and because of the classification level of all information associated with the project, no other sites had been notified of the project to any extent. As such, all records were lost with the destruction of the facility.”
“What about backups? There are off-site backups, aren't there?”
“The contractor did keep off-site backups, but they were created on a twice monthly basis, and as this project was introduced shortly after such a backup was created and had not been in effect for longer than two weeks–”
“Son of a bitch!”
“Are you OK, Mel?”
“Hm? Yes, I am fine. There is no cause for concern.”
The four of them were seated in the bed of a pickup truck, having successfully sold their case to a driver headed northbound back to their area. Samantha slept in one corner, Isaac sat near her watching the passing scenery in silence, and Melancholia, who had been regarding fixedly the plumes of smoke receding in the distance with a forlorn expression, now faced Ashley, who sat beside her.
“What do you think of her” – Ashley nodded toward Samantha – “coming along?”
“I do not think that she will pose any problems, as her immediate superiors were in all likelihood killed in the blast. Thus, she has no one to whom to report us. I further fail to see a situation in which she would notify any authorities about us, unless she were loyal to her cause to such an overwhelming extent that she would hand us over after we rescued her from the rubble.”
“Never mind that we saved her from a danger of our own invention.” They looked over at Isaac, but he didn't meet their eyes.
“What about you, Ashley? How are you feeling?”
“I hurt all over, and I'm dead tired.”
“If you would like me to, I could conjure a spell to make you fall asleep.”
Ashley repositioned herself and rested her head in Melancholia's lap, smiling up at her. “That'd be great, actually.”
Melancholia, unfazed by the gesture, rested a hissing hand on her head while casting with the other. For the first time in a long while, she peacefully drifted to sleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ashley walked along the damp, frosty trail, taking in the wintry air. She had halfway expected to grow homesick after relocating away up north with the other two, but somehow her old life of squatting in condemned apartment complexes didn't call back out to her. Isaac had assured her that this change of scenery was temporary, and that they could readily return once the heat was off from the shattered remnants of the military researchers, but she honestly wouldn't mind staying here for quite a while. Colder climates were better, anyhow, and snow was always so pleasant and pretty to watch – at least, when she didn't have to find shelter. A sudden gust prompted her to tighten the orange scarf she wore, and she hurried her pace back to Isaac's somewhat less ostentatious second house.
Once inside, she hung her scarf around a coat rack, then tromped over and sat next to Melancholia on the sofa, leaving a trail of slushy footprints. Isaac, who sat opposite them in an overstuffed armchair, rolled his eyes, then stood and busied himself cleaning the prints with a strategically placed towel near the door. A fire roared in the hearth on the far wall, and Ashley found herself feeling delightfully cozy. A contented smile spread on her face.
“Miss Ashley, might I introduce to you a groundbreaking invention known as the doormat? As it so happens, you neglected one entirely not a minute prior.” He replaced the towel and resumed his seat. “At any rate, while I am loathe to sour your good spirits by mentioning it, Miss Melancholia and I were discussing the matter of your medical condition. More exactly, we were expressing our concerns regarding the utter lack of any potential substantive treatments – even anti-magical cures were discussed, but such things as the vitality boost you were given are strictly temporary, and furthermore lose potency with repeated application.”
“Don't worry, it doesn't bother me to talk about it. What about that spell book?”
Melancholia tilted her head. “What about it?”
“Well, you said that you couldn't do the Nothingness tesseract thing alone, but once you had the spell book, you could. If you can't cure me yourself, then maybe there's some trick or spell in the book that could help?”
“It is unfortunate, but the spell book is more of a technical manual for the mechanics of anti-magic and the structure of the planes of existence. The use of anti-magic for such medicinal purposes as curing diseases constitutes a wide and unrelated field of study. In addition, I was a student of the former school, hence my relative knowledgeability in that area and my ignorance in the latter.”
Isaac leaned forward. “More mundanely speaking, Miss Ashley, if there are any manner of medical tests that haven't been conducted on you that could possibly reveal some critical clue about the nature of your state, then it's wholly within my ability to–”
“Don't bother with it, Ike. I was poked and prodded by so-called experts for years, and they ran so many different tests on me that I lost count. At this point, it'd take a miracle or something to cure me.” The room fell silent for a time save for the crackling of the fire.
Isaac's face lit up in remembrance after consulting a wall clock. “Ah, I hope that you two won't think of me as being impolite, but I've a previous engagement and must be departing now.” He felt for his car keys in his pocket, then stood and walked to the door, tying on his snow boots. “I'll return later this evening, so do take care of yourselves until then!” Ashley and Melancholia gazed quizzically after him as he hustled out of the door.
“Well, that was sudden. Where'd he run off to?”
“I am not sure, though my guess would be that he is visiting the interrogator from the research facility, as she is still interned at the hospital for her injuries.”
“What, her? Why would he drive all the way back there to see her?” Something clicked in her head. “Does he have the hots for her, maybe? She wasn't that good-looking, though.”
“What are 'the hots'?”
“Er, human mating desire thing.” She pulled off her boots and tossed them haphazardly toward the door.
“Ah. I cannot say, but it would seem that our destructive actions from around that time still weigh on his conscience to a significant degree, based on his subsequent erratic sleeping patterns and tendency toward dour temperaments.”
“He has been gloomy a lot lately, hasn't he? You know how he is, though. He wouldn't want us to worry about him. Also, no offense, Mel, but you don't really have much room to talk about people being sad.”
“Oh… Perhaps you are right. I am sorry.”
“Aw, I'm only teasing!” Ashley cuddled up against Melancholia and embraced her, causing her cheeks to flush a light blue. “In fact, I like that about you, Mel. Happy-go-lucky people get on my nerves, but your calm and collected attitude relaxes me.” She looked up into Melancholia's dark eyes. “Of course, that's just one of the very many things I like about you. Or, what I guess I'm t-trying to say is, um, that I-I, uh…” She broke eye contact, her face burning a fiery red.
“Is something the matter, Ashley?”
She vigorously shook her head and held up her hands placatingly. “N-No, I'm fine, really! You just mean a lot to me, that's all!”
Melancholia smiled softly. “Thank you for your kind words. You are a valuable friend of mine as well, and I am glad that I can provide reassurance to you.”
Ashley did her best to smile back through her self-directed frustration.
Isaac sped down the interstate back toward his northern homestead, his face somber. His cell phone rang, and, after noting the unfamiliar number, he answered it.
“Hello, this is Isaac Charles currently speaking.”
At the response, he nearly swerved into the adjacent lane.
“What the Devil do you mean, my mansion fell into a sinkhole?” He impatiently listened to their explanation, then cut them off. “That's impossible! I specifically had that plot of land examined in comprehensive detail by a dedicated team of geologists to avoid precisely this sort of situation. I'll be there to investigate it myself presently.”
He hung up and tossed his phone into the passenger seat, then spotted a gravel maintenance road spanning the median to the opposing lane of traffic a short distance up ahead. Ignoring the “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign, he drove bumpily across and accelerated back toward the peculiar development.
“Thank the stars that I had the foresight to relocate my book collection beforehand.”
Ashley's eyes flickered open. The fire now burned low, and dusk had settled outside. Sitting up and stretching, she noted that Melancholia had relocated to the armchair opposite the sofa and sat staring into the flames of the hearth with a familiar forlorn expression.
“Hiya, Mel.” At the sound of her name, Melancholia was jolted out of her stupor.
“Ah, hello, Ashley. Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah. Sorry for dozing off like that. Are you OK?”
She hesitated, looking away. “Perhaps not in full. I was recalling a memory of an incident that occurred long ago, prior to the fall of the Anti-Magical Order.”
Ashley scooted to one side of the sofa and patted the cushion next to her invitingly. Melancholia walked over and took the seat next to her, and she closed the gap between them.
“So, do you wanna talk about it?”
“…There was a surprise attack by the vampires during the war. I was studying at one of the planar sciences training facilities with my mentor, the one who had given birth to me. The vampire forces struck without any warning, and the building was burned to the ground. My mentor was killed, but I managed to survive despite my severe burns.”
“Oh God, they killed your mother? Mel, that's horrible! I'm so sorry!” Almost automatically, she tightly hugged Melancholia. She found that her eyes were welling with tears. To her considerable surprise, Melancholia returned her embrace.
“It is alright. I am not troubled to any debilitating extent by it, though the sight of fire or destruction tends to prompt this undesirable memory. At any rate, it is my understanding that your culture produces a much stronger bond between a mother and her daughter, as the mother is responsible for the upbringing of her children. In the Order, however, the task of raising a child to maturity was assigned to a task force of nurses. This was feasible due to the very low birth rate and due to the rapid growth of our young.”
“Didn't you miss your mom growing up?”
She considered it. “There were times during which I was lonesome due to her absence, but she visited on occasion, and I worked under her quite often once I matured. Her absence never was much of an issue.”
“I guess I just have trouble wrapping my head around it.” Melancholia's face furrowed in confusion at the idiom. “It's so different from how things are here. Or, well, how things usually are. I didn't exactly have a normal house life myself. Hell, I didn't really have one at all.” Ashley sighed.
“Is it something that you would like to discuss?”
“My mom died when she gave birth to me, and my dad killed himself because he couldn't stand losing her. Since I had no other relatives, I was stuck in an orphanage, though I spent a lot of time later on in hospitals as my condition came up. Because of the medical bills, the house and other stuff I would've inherited were all seized by debt collectors, so when I got too old to stay at the orphanage I had nowhere to go. I was squatting in condemned buildings and scrounging for food scraps up until I met Ike and then you.”
“Pardon my asking, but what is an orphanage?”
“It's this place where they keep kids whose parents are dead and who have nowhere else to stay. While it's better than nothing, it's a pretty miserable replacement for a home. That's why I didn't really get it when you said that your Order basically sent all newborns to orphanages, and why I didn't get why you being away from your mom didn't affect you.” The pit of her stomach soured. “Then again, maybe I'm just weak.”
Melancholia took the initiative and hugged her. “You are not weak, Ashley. You are strong beyond description. You have survived immense hardship, you possess impressive willpower, and your determination is something to be feared.” Melancholia gently squeezed her. At this gesture, the turbulent storm of her conflicting emotions overwhelmed her, and she broke down sobbing, clinging to Melancholia, who petted her head comfortingly.
Isaac pulled off of the main road onto the driveway for his estate, only to discover that his estate was no longer there. He staggered from the car, gawking at the tremendous sinkhole in which rested the twisted debris of his mansion. Representatives from various authorities stood around the hole, the similarly varied multicolored emergency lights from their vehicles flashing. One of the officials noticed his arrival and approached him.
“Yes, that's me. How in the world did this happen?”
“Well, like my man told you over the phone, this sort of thing happens–”
“I kindly request that you not waste both of our time with hollow, irrelevant explanations. I know with certainty that that chasm wasn't present when I constructed this estate of mine. For that matter, the bedrock of this region is solid metamorphic rock – formed entirely from an igneous intrusion – thereby precluding the presence of any caves or limestone deposits that might allow for sinkhole formation. Unless you can present me with a genuinely plausible explanation for the cause of this occurrence, I'll be on my way.”
The bumbling geologist started to sputter out some inane theory, but Isaac didn't hear him, having taken a renewed interest in the sinkhole. Though the rupture hole at the surface was irregular, the interior volume had a perfectly defined spherical shape. By the illumination from the halogen lamps the authorities had erected, he could see where the topsoil transitioned down to the bedrock; the face of the rock was smooth and continuous, giving the distinct impression that it had been cleanly cut. A chill ran up his spine, and he hastily walked back to his car and drove off, heedless to the hapless official's curiosity.
A sniffling Ashley lay cuddled up in Melancholia's embrace, blissfully warm and fuzzy now that her tears had passed. A lovely new feeling of serenity had washed over her, submerging entirely the normal buzzing of her thoughts. Right as she felt herself starting to drift off to sleep, the phone started ringing, to her supreme annoyance.
“Is that the telephone? I am not familiar with its operation, so I must ask that you answer it, Ashley, provided that you are feeling up to it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I'll get it.” She strode over, glanced down at the caller ID, and snatched the phone up off of the receiver. “Ike, this had better be good.”
“Miss Ashley, I'd greatly appreciate it were you to put Miss Melancholia on the line. I've stumbled across an occurrence of prodigious peculiarity, and as she's our resident knowledge base on such affairs, I find myself in need of her expert opinion.”
“I don't see why it couldn't've waited until you got back, but OK.” She carried the phone over to the sofa, turned on the speaker functionality, and held it between her and Melancholia. “You're on speaker now, Ike. Talk to us.”
“Thank you, Miss Ashley. Miss Melancholia, a sinkhole has swallowed my mansion. What do you make of that?”
“That is unfortunate, but I do not understand why you are calling to tell me that.”
“More exactly, a sinkhole unexpectedly opened beneath my estate despite the geographically solid bedrock and the lack of a underlying cave system collapse. Additionally, the sinkhole into which my estate fell had this uncannily spherical shape. It looked as though it had been artificially formed. Do you know of anything that might possibly be responsible for this abnormal cavity?”
She mulled it over for a moment. “I do not see how this could at all be the cause, but I have witnessed the performance of a conjuration that could warp a sphere of matter out of existence. The resulting space left when the targeted area of effect is within the ground matches your description.”
“Your knowledgeability never ceases to impress me, Miss Melancholia. I must admit, however, to a nonnegligible level of newfound confusion, as I was under the distinct impression that you were the sole remaining anti-magician, and I don't expect that you and Miss Ashley conspired to obliterate my mansion in my absence.”
“Yeah, Mel, what gives?”
“That spell is not anti-magic. It is magic.”
* * * * *
“Magic? As in, anti-anti-magic?”
“Yes. I assure you, I share your confusion. The last time that I saw any magic in use was back during the vampire war. I was convinced that magicians had all been exterminated along with the rest of the inhabitants of my world. Is there no other potential explanation for the shape of this sinkhole?”
“Nothing else comes to mind, considering its unprecedented size, its atypical and eerily well-formed spherical shape, and its inexplicable appearance despite the reliable geology of the region and that of the particular plot of land on which my estate was situated.” He paused. “You don't think that Project Unholy Crusade might've proceeded unhindered despite our efforts to halt it, do you?”
“You can rest assured that that is not the case, or at least is not the underpinning for this event. Though there is a minor degree of biology involved in their channeling, the incantations of magic and anti-magic are learned, not instinctual. As the vampire book did not outline any magical casting sequences, this cannot be a result of that government project.”
“But if it's not vampires, then what is it?”
“That, Miss Ashley, is the question of the hour, but as I'll shortly be exiting the interstate, I should terminate this call here. It won't be too much longer before I reach the house, so we can discuss the circumstances in lucid detail upon my arrival. Stay alert, you two.” With that, he ended the call.
Ashley replaced the phone on the receiver, then resumed her seat on the sofa. She leaned in expectantly, hoping that the cuddling would resume, but Melancholia had instead picked up the spell book from the end table and started reading through a section close to the rear of the book. Pushing aside her disappointment, she stepped out of the main room and pilfered a peach from the fruit bowl sitting in the adjacent room. She took a large bite from it, idly wiping the juice leaking from her mouth on her dark gray top as she strayed back into the room.
“So, got any ideas?”
“I do have one idea, and this book elaborates upon it, but I hope that I am wrong.”
“What's your idea?” She sat down next to Melancholia.
“This could be the work of another intruder from a foreign plane.”
“As in, someone who jumped here from another Universe?”
“Either that, or a wanderer from the Nothingness that forced its way in through a thin spot in the planar boundary. I cannot think of why there would be a targeted jump to this plane, however, nor can I think of a reason why there would be any thin spots in the–” A dreadful thought seemed to pass through her mind, further darkening her tense expression. “…Ah.”
“What's up?” Ashley took another bite from the peach.
“In all likelihood, when my library and I were thrown into this plane, a thin spot was produced as a consequence of our entrance. Because of that, an outsider could very well have pierced through the planar boundary into your plane.”
“What's a thin spot?”
“A plane of existence has a planar boundary that separates the interior from the Nothingness. Thin spots are points on this boundary at which this division is not continuous. It would perhaps be more accurate to think of the phenomenon as a crack in the boundary rather than a literal thinning, but 'thin spot' is the term used throughout the field of study and the literature on the subject.”
“But, wait, we went into that Nothingness place even though we weren't anywhere near the library.” She swallowed and bit again. “What difference does the thin spot make?”
“Crossing the boundary without benefit of a thin spot is possible with a large enough amount of anti-magical energy. Thin spots, however, enable passage across the boundary without the need to discharge any energy.” Melancholia turned the page and read for a moment. “According to this book, there are entities that lurk within the Nothingness and seek out planes with thin spots. I do not recall ever hearing of an encounter with such a being, but since one would have to be either anti-magical or magical in order to traverse the Nothingness, an intrusion from a being of the latter type may be the explanation for this sinkhole.”
“But why'd some random thing from outside the Universe want to trash Ike's place?”
“I must disappoint you, as I do not have an answer for that.” Melancholia closed the book and set it back on the end table.
Ashley found that her hands and feet were growing cold. Noticing that the fire had all but burned out, she ambled to the fireplace and tossed a handful of crumpled newspapers onto the faintly glowing embers, along with the peach pit and one of the dried logs from the neat pile against the wall. She went to blow on the coals, then spotted the hand-held bellows lying nearby. As she worked the bellows to encourage the flames, she wondered if Isaac could be any more bourgeoisie. She took back her seat. All of this chatter about hypotheticals was beginning to bore her; there had to be a more meaningful line of questioning.
“Is there a way to find it? We can sit around guessing about what it is all day, but we'll still need to find it sooner or later.”
“Though I could cast a location query on it, the probability that the entity will remain in one area is low, so we would end up having to repeat the conjuration many times to track it. A further issue lies in that the entity could thwart the querying in full or confound it such that it gives inaccurate results, enabling it to set traps for us in a false location.”
“Is that the only option?”
“An alternative would be to summon it to us.”
Ashley blinked in mild surprise. “You can do that?”
“I might be able to, but summoning is as distinct a field of study from plane mechanics as they both are from medicine. In addition, the fact that this entity is magical complicates the situation, as a careless summoning could result in a dangerous annihilation reaction. It is regrettable, but I am so unskilled at summoning that characterizing my level of skill even as amateurish would be generous, and this task requires the expertise of a specialist if we–” Her face lit up. “Oh! Jubilant!”
“Long ago, I had a close friend and colleague who insisted that I aid her in inter-plane travel, as she professed that she wished to explore and document all of Existence. Her name was Jubilant, and she was the most adept summoner that the Order had ever produced, to my understanding. If I could get in contact with her, then we would be able to summon this magical entity without any problems.” Melancholia picked the spell book back up and consulted its table of contents.
“Wasn't everyone in the Order other than you killed off, though?”
“Yes, they were, but she left our plane prior to the start of the vampire war, so she evaded its erasure and thus may still be alive somewhere.” She flipped to a section near the middle of the book.
“Wait, so, she's off in some other Universe? How're you gonna find her?”
“She devised a pair of incantations that could be used to pinpoint her current plane of residence and her specific location in the plane. Out of respect for our friendship, she entrusted them to me and me alone, such that I could reach her should I ever want or need to do so.”
Ashley folded her arms and tilted her head in thought. “Will it be alright, us warping off to some other Universe and leaving this magic intruder person here alone? There's not some kind of time flow difference that'll result in things going to Hell while we're gone, right?”
Melancholia glanced away from the book over at her. “I am not familiar with this 'time flow difference' concept, but I suspect that it is a fabrication, as I have never heard of any theory that postulates that time passes at different rates between planes.”
As Ashley pondered how in the world any sort of scientist – anti-magician or otherwise – would be able to know the rate at which time passed in another Universe, the front door opened to reveal a road-weary Isaac.
“After numerous delays, I've at long last returned. Have there been any developments?”
Isaac and Ashley strolled along the outside of the property through the snowy evening, the latter briefing the former on the long discussions and subsequently formed plans to travel to find the summoner who would be able to draw out the magical interloper. The two had left Melancholia to read more on inter-plane travel and to mark up as needed the interior of an empty utility shed on Isaac's property. Ashley finished summarizing as they passed through a thin grove of trees, and Isaac stretched as he mulled it over.
“To think that I'd someday find myself confronted not merely by the prospect of venturing onto another planet, but by that of spanning the gulf betwixt Universes as well! For that matter, I'll have the uniquely distinguishing opportunity to acquaint myself with yet another anti-magician. I must say, Miss Ashley, you're a veritable magnet for extraordinary events and scenarios.” He inhaled the wintry air and smiled. “This fills me splendidly with nostalgia, the two of us walking together like so. It brings to mind that fateful day when we first encountered one another outside of that underground library, bickering over that vampire book. Good times, wouldn't you say?”
“You'd stepped on a nail.”
“True as that may be, I'd assert that that day held positivity and fortune for us both – if for no reason other than because the wound on my foot didn't become infected, but of course you understand that there exists a plenitude of other reasons for my saying so. Ah, but forgive me, as I've digressed from the next subject at hand. I believe you mentioned wanting to discuss in confidence an unrelated yet serious matter?”
She nodded, then blushed until her ears were red. “W-Well, it's just that I, um, kinda have this c-crush on Mel…”
“Goodness! Well, I concur that Miss Melancholia certainly is a statuesque woman.”
“I-It's just so frustrating because I want to cut the crap already and tell her, but I get all embarrassed whenever I try. Plus, when I drop hints, they all go over her head. I guess it makes sense because they don't have any romance or anything in her society, but telling myself that doesn't make the crush go away or make this any less of a pain in the ass to deal with. I don't know what to do.”
“This is indeed a conundrum. My suggestion to you, however, would be to approach her and discuss this matter openly and directly, regardless of her aromanticism and asexuality. Barring anything else, venting out your feelings should ease the strain on your mind, and there's no downside since none of that standard messy awkwardness will ensue thanks to her not being a typical disinterested human.”
“But I don't want just a non-awkward understanding. I want…” Her face reddened yet further. “I-I want her!”
“You've my deepest sympathies, Miss Ashley, but Miss Melancholia's mental and biological construction diverges fundamentally from ours, and consequently our familiar concepts of romantic love and relationships are wholly foreign to her. I'm tremendously sorry, but outside of encouraging you to communicate with her I lack any meaningful advice.”
“It's OK. I guess I'll talk to her once we get back from this other Universe or whatever. I just wish my emotions weren't so stupid.”
Isaac took his leave and trotted off to the shed, giving Ashley some time alone with her thoughts. A light flurry of snow showered down on her, sticking invisibly to her hair as she admired the small grove. Forests of any tree density never failed to calm her, no matter what was on her mind. After a few minutes, she began following back along the gravel path toward the property. Traveling to another Universe? It sounded like a plot out of a cheesy science fiction story, and yet here it was, staring her in the face. Pleasant thrills ran up and down her body from the mere thought of it. She laughed aloud as she recalled the recommendations from all of the doctors who had worked on her, telling her not to exert herself and to stay in bed, as if staying bedridden and missing out on all of this would've been a better idea. It wouldn't have surprised her if many of the people in nursing homes ended up dying due to boredom or the depressing atmosphere.
Before she knew it, the shed was in front of her, but something rubbed her as being strange about it. After backing up a few steps and squinting, she noticed a faint, blurry distortion in the air, forming a sphere that cut into the ground around the shed. Cautiously, she approached and stuck her arm into the field. Nothing felt amiss, but seeing part of her forearm blurred and the rest in clarity unnerved her viscerally. She quickly proceeded into the building; Isaac and Melancholia glanced in her direction as she entered. As with the channeling room from Isaac's mansion, the interior of the room had been covered in a myriad of geometric runes, though these were smaller and far more numerous.
“What's with that blurry ball around the shed?”
“It is part of the preparations for our voyage. Unlike with the tesseract, this conjuration does not open a gateway through which objects can pass without restriction. Instead, it displaces a volume of mass in the destination plane with an equivalent volume from the source plane. The field that you observed delineates the volume from this plane that will be transposed.”
“With this friend of yours, why'd she leave your Universe? I mean, I can understand wanting to explore new places, but weren't there other planets and galaxies and stuff that she hadn't seen?” She dusted the snow off of her hair.
“I must disappoint you, as I do not know. I never quite understood her motivations in full. She was always a bit… unusual. What I can tell you is that she had formulated this theory about higher-order consciousnesses that would arise when large clusters of objects interacted in a fashion analogous to a neural network. She asserted that, with the proper spellwork, these consciousnesses could be coaxed into a physical avatar of sorts. She desired nothing more than to interact with one of these avatars. As esoteric as the notion seemed to me in the past, I find that I am now curious as to whether she ever met one.” Having paused for this recollection, Melancholia resumed drawing more figures on one of the last few blank sections of wall.
“What're we gonna do about food and water? Or, I guess you could use anti-magic for that, but will the air be safe to breathe?”
“Actually, I'm able to answer that one, and I'll do so since Miss Melancholia's otherwise preoccupied. She's produced these wondrous belts” – Isaac held aloft a nondescript brown belt – “that project an inertial barrier of air around the wearer; this bubble of atmosphere is of identical composition and pressure to Earth's at sea level, such that respiration in hostile environments won't be at all an issue while wearing it. For that matter, they regulate the air's temperature based on the wearer's internal body heat, therefore that aspect of whatever realm in which we find ourselves also won't be problematic.”
Ashley nodded, impressed, then took an idle interest in some of the symbols on the nearby wall. Melancholia busily continued to fill in the last empty sections of the floor, frequently referring to the spell book resting next to her. Isaac set the belt back next to the others, then consulted his smartphone. He browsed disinterestedly through the news for a second, then something caught his eye.
“Another inexplicably spherical sinkhole seems to have appeared, this time beneath…” He scrolled down the article. “The ice cream parlor that we visited immediately prior to our temporary incarceration.”
“Aw, man, I loved that place!”
“OK, are we completely certain that we have absolutely everything that we need for this expedition? Somehow, I imagine that we'd have considerable difficulty obtaining supplies after we leave the confines of our Universe, so let's go over everything one last time for the sake of our collective sanity.”
“Come on, Ike, we've been over it a dozen times. You've got your pistol and ammo, I've got my rebar. We have a lantern, a headlamp, and three flashlights each – both hand-crank and battery – along with tons of batteries and bulbs, not to mention enough glow sticks to throw a rave party. We have those water jugs and the MREs just in case, and we have the tents and the sleeping bags plus the foam mats. There's also the literal miles of glow-in-the-dark rope you bought so we can tie ourselves to the shed to not get lost. What else could we possibly need?”
“This, of course.” He held up a video camera. “What could be more unique and valuable than footage – and 4K footage, at that – taken from another Universe? I've a veritable cornucopia of fully charged spare batteries and SD cards, too. It might not be a written document, but I'll find space for it among my collection, never you worry. And best of all, I've prepared a mount for it” – he gestured to the harness he wore – “such that I'm capable of recording while simultaneously keeping my firearm ready. I've even practiced at the firing range with it fully equipped to ensure its functionality, and it works like a charm.” With some effort, he fitted the bulky camera onto the harness.
Ashley stifled a giggle. “You look ridiculous wearing that.”
“That's a minuscule expense for such an invaluable recording in conjunction with my ensured physical safety. At any rate, I believe we're at long last ready.”
Melancholia nodded. “In that case, I request that you put on your atmosphere belts and ensure that they are fastened and firm. Following that, it might be in your best interest to take a seated position, as the transition could be… turbulent.”
“Wait, one last question: You said you had a spell to figure out what Universe your friend is in, but how'll you know where she is in that Universe?”
“Note that we will not transition to the other plane at first, but will warp into the Nothingness.” At Ashley's distressed expression, she held up a hand consolingly. “Do not worry, as we will not linger there for long. I cannot conduct her location query – the incantation that will tell us where she is in the plane – from within a different plane than her current one, but I can from the Nothingness.”
Ashley picked up her belt, fastening it around her waist as securely as it would fit. Instantly, a cloud of fresh air enveloped her, giving her a pleasant and comforting impression of being shielded on all sides by a dense cushion. With their belts secured, Melancholia rapidly traced out the sequence of shapes for the conjuration, her hands and the walls darkly hissing alike. The shed began to shake. Ashley's heart raced, and she tightened her trembling grip on the rebar. Isaac – camera mounted and recording, pistol in hand – stood completely still. The light creeping in around the door frame faded away, leaving only the harsh illumination from the battery-powered lantern.
Melancholia's casting shifted in pattern. An expression equal parts confusion and amusement danced across her face, followed by a wistful smile. “Oh, Jube, you are as peculiar as ever.” At this, her gestures accelerated into a blur, and the shaking from before increased in magnitude to a balance-upsetting rumble. Ashley tumbled back onto her rear, though it felt like her fall was broken by a thick, downy comforter. Isaac widened his stance and remained upright. It continued for several minutes, then died down into silence. Melancholia ceased gesturing, and the symbols on the walls powered down. No light was visible from outside.
“We have arrived.”
* * * * *
Ashley poorly attempted to mask her excitement as she opened the shed door. Shining her flashlight out into the shadows, she noticed that a circle of the snowy ground around the building had come along with them; it bordered an unfamiliar dusty black rock of some sort that stretched off out of view into the inky darkness. She adjusted the loop of phosphorescent rope sitting atop her belt, checked that the colossal spool attached to it gave slack properly, then trekked outward. Isaac and Melancholia followed closely behind her, the former with a headlamp, the latter empty-handed. On a whim, Ashley flicked her light skyward, revealing a opaque, low-hanging blanket of slowly drifting clouds. While still walking, she turned and spoke to the others in a hushed whisper.
“What kind of place is this?”
“We are on a rogue planet deep in the intergalactic space of this plane. Jubilant always had a quaint preference for dim, isolated places such as this.”
“I don't know if 'quaint' is a good word for that…”
“Indeed, and, for that matter, characterizing this locale as simply 'dim' and 'isolated' constitutes a monumental understatement. With the obvious exceptions of ourselves and your reclusive associate, are there any other living creatures dwelling herein?”
“I do not think so, but I cannot say for sure, so be careful. We should reach her location before much longer.”
They continued forward. It seemed incredibly strange to Ashley that, in their hunt to root out the invader in their Universe, they'd intruded into a foreign Universe themselves. Come to think of it, what exactly was this invader, anyway? Why was it making holes in the ground, and only underneath oddly specific locations that were relevant to them? Summoning it was more or less the best option at their disposal, but what were they going to do once they summoned it? Talk to it and find out what it wants? Tell it to stop? Trap it back in the Nothingness? Kill it? Whatever the ultimate outcome, the situation had been sending thrills up her spine since the moment they'd landed. She had just noticed that she was softly biting her lower lip when a large outcropping of the dusty rock rose up in front of her. A sizable hole yawned in the middle of it, with the cave floor sloping downward beneath ground level.
“This should be it.”
She gazed back toward the shed – now little more than a pinprick of light with a long, glowing tendril wrapped around her – then marched inside. After a protracted few minutes of stumbling down the unstable tunnel, a faint light became visible from ahead. Before much longer, they stood facing a metallic door with a curious purple corrosion on it set into the stone wall, flanked by two spherical stones steadily emitting a soft white light.
No handle was present on the door. Melancholia approached it and drew a single symbol on it with shadowed hands, and it opened. She strode into the next room, the other two on her heels; scarcely more than a cave with a flattened floor with a desk-like mesa in the center, it overflowed with notebooks, journals, and pads filled with alien scribbles. More unnaturally luminescent globes dotted the walls. Melancholia scanned the room, then called out in a resounding shout a phrase that neither of the other two could make out.
Almost immediately, a tall, light-haired woman in a flowing, electric green dress flew out of an adjacent room and embraced Melancholia. She was ecstatically grinning from ear to ear, and she jabbered away at her in an incomprehensible language as she lifted her in the embrace and spun around in place. Isaac and Ashley gaped as this woman set Melancholia down, who responded in the same tongue at first and then faced the confused pair.
“Ashley, Isaac, I would like you to meet my dear friend and colleague, Jubilant.”
“There will be a slight delay, as I shall perform a partial mind meld with Jubilant in order for her to learn how to communicate with you in your language. This should not take long.” She looked back to Jubilant and spoke quickly in their tongue, gesturing to the two standing there. Jubilant nodded and gave a short reply. Melancholia inhaled and drew a few figures with her glowing hands, interlocked her hands with Jubilant's likewise hissing hands, then stepped in close to Jubilant and kissed her on the lips. Shock and envy rocketed through a paralyzed Ashley. She had a vague perception that Isaac had abruptly taken interest in a nearby notebook, his face crimson. The two towering women remained lip-locked for a few moments longer, then came apart. A grave demeanor had come over Jubilant.
“So, the whole Anti-Magical Order has…”
“Yes, it is true. Our plane has been destroyed, and the Order along with it.”
“And to think that we used to call ourselves the guardians of our world. I always knew that the idiots in administration would draw the rage of the vampires at some point, but even I did not suspect that they would rub out the whole plane just because they were losing the war. What filthy cowards.” She grabbed Melancholia by her upper arms. “I am so very glad, though, that you escaped, Mellie.”
“And I am grateful for your inexplicable desire to travel amongst the planes, as is it because of that eccentricity of yours that you are still alive, Jube. At any rate, as pleasant as it is to see you again after so long, you know that I am here for another reason as well.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, I know. You want me to summon something. Can we not wait to discuss it until later? We are not even on the right plane yet, after all. Besides, look at yourself, Mellie! You are exhausted, and it is not a surprise, since you just jumped planes.”
“I am not so tired that I cannot–”
“You are just as hurried and impatient as I remember. Where is your courtesy? You are about to steal me away to do you a favor, but you have not even allowed me to meet your companions here.” Jubilant approached Ashley and regarded her curiously, who returned the attention with a distrustful glare. “You are Ashley, the one with the health problem, right?”
She then puzzled over Isaac and his camera setup. “And your name is Isaac? Are you sick as well? What is this contraption attached to you?”
He stuck out a hand, which Jubilant examined with fascination. “Yes, my name is Isaac, and it's an absolute delight to make the acquaintance of any associate of my good friend Miss Melancholia. Fortunately, I'm not sick; I'm a collector of strange and rare books in my Universe – or 'plane', to use your parlance – and I've come here not only to support and accompany my comrades but also to record extra-dimensional video footage by means of this, as you put it, contraption.”
Her emerald eyes flashed excitedly. “Ooh, how intriguing! In a way, your interest mirrors my own, Isaac, and that is great if I may say so, even if I do not understand in full what 'video footage' is.” She clapped her hands together. “Either way, it is super to meet you two, just super. I will lend you my services as a summoner with the greatest of enthusiasm, though I ask that you wait until my work here is completed.”
“Wait? For how long?” Though she tried to hide it, Ashley's distaste was obvious.
“Oh, not long at all. You see, I have been hard at work in my experimentation regarding my hypothetical manifestation induction procedure for higher-order collective consciousnesses.” The two humans swapped a puzzled look.
“Speaking of that matter, Jube, did you ever confirm that theory?”
“Why, Mellie, I thought that you would never ask!” To Ashley's further irritation, Jubilant took Melancholia's hands in her own. “Please, please, come look over my documentation and tell me what you think!” She dragged Melancholia into the side room from which she had earlier exited. Ashley sighed loudly, untied the rope from around her waist and knotted it around the makeshift protrusion desk, then stomped back out of the room toward the surface.
“Wait, Miss Ashley, where are you going? We haven't–”
“I'm going to get some sleep, since apparently we're not leaving anytime soon.” She stormed up the slope leading out of the cave and disappeared from view, dislodging small bits of rock in her ascent. Isaac fidgeted, took a few steps toward the exit, then turned and poked his head into the side room: The two anti-magicians chattered away – Jubilant much more so than Melancholia – in their native language, unaware of his presence. He backed up and stepped out into the entryway, then sat slumped against the front-facing wall of Jubilant's house. Without thinking, he pulled out his smartphone and was greeted by a “No Signal” message. He sighed, then pocketed the phone and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I wonder if I was so fortunate to have found that library after all.”
Ashley stood on the bank of a river. The water ran a murky gray, and it stretched to her left and to her right for as far as she could see in either direction. On the far bank of the river, Melancholia was visible, calling out and beckoning to her. Ashley began to ford through it toward her, only to discover that the water was extremely frigid. The riverbed sloped steeply, such that the water cut at her neck after a few steps. Undeterred, she attempted to push forward until Melancholia's expression changed from welcoming to disappointed. At that very moment, she lost her footing and was quickly swept off into the distance by the current.
Ashley awoke groggily, curled into a ball within her sleeping bag. She stuck her head out, looking for an indication of how long she had slept; as before, however, there was no light save for the dim green glow of the phosphorescent rope. She groaned as she rubbed her eyes. Right, they were still on a rock out in the middle of nowhere in another Universe.
Her stomach growled. She pulled herself to her feet and trudged over to the rations, where she downed a whole bottle of water and dug up a bean and rice burrito MRE. As she warmed it up, she wondered why they were still there at all. They should have left as soon as they found the summoner. Even despite her blathering about whatever pet project she had going on, the fact that Ashley was able to sleep for however long and wake up to them not being ready to go yet was absurd.
Right as she took the first and surprisingly appetizing bite from the burrito, the others walked in – the two anti-magicians were burdened with Jubilant's monstrous collection of notebooks, and the bored Isaac was weighted down by the coil of rope they had previously laid out. A hint of relief colored Melancholia's somber expression when she spotted Ashley.
“Oh, there you are, Ashley. I was wondering where you were.”
She nodded once, chewing silently. Isaac tossed the rope coil next to its spool, then activated one of the the battery-powered lanterns, filling the shed with a sterile white light.
“I am sorry for the delay. Jube insisted that I sleep after poring over her notes.” She set down her share of the notebooks. Ashley swallowed and bit again.
“Mellie, please. There was no way that you could have performed another jump in the condition that you were in. But now, however, thanks to my insistence, we should have no problems at all.” Jubilant placed the remaining notebooks next to the first stack.
“That may be, but it was not necessary for me to sleep in your bed.” Ashley stopped chewing. “We brought sleeping bags with us for that exact purpose.”
“Those tiny little pouches? I doubt you would have gotten any sleep at all in one of those pitiful things!” She threw an arm around Melancholia's shoulder. “Besides, I want to offer the very best I can to you. Sharing my bed was the least that I could do, since you came out all this way to see me.”
Ashley spat the half-chewed bite into the MRE packaging and stuffed the remainder of the burrito in alongside it.
The shed shuddered to a rest back in its rightful position in Isaac's yard. Melancholia let her arms fall to rest at her sides. Ashley removed the atmosphere belt, tossing it to the floor. The cold morning air rushed in around her, making her shiver involuntarily. She swiped the belt back off of the floor and refastened it, basking in the warm cloud that enveloped her. Isaac set his camera equipment carefully aside, though he extracted and pocketed the SD card. Jubilant readied a stick of graphite and a notepad.
“I do not believe that I have happened upon this particular planet prior to now in my expeditions.” Her face lit up in a smile as the sky became visible when the others opened the shed door and trudged wearily back toward the house. “Ooh, a cute yellow main sequence star! I was expecting a red one, but this is much better. And the sky is such a charming shade of blue! Your planet here is gorgeous, if perhaps a bit overstimulating.” She trailed after the trio, dutifully scrawling away at the notepad and craning her neck every which way. They assembled in the main room at the front of the house.
Isaac spoke around a yawn. “I'm most undoubtedly in need of sleep, but before I take my temporary leave of you ladies, is there anything that you're confident that you'll need for our summoning project, Miss Jubilant? I expect you'd greatly prefer to start working in the meantime rather than merely waiting around for me to awaken.”
“All I need is a room where I can sketch all over the walls. Do you have such a room?”
“Due to requiring such a room not too long ago, I prepared one shortly after my friends and I relocated here in the recent past.” He pointed toward the interior of the house. “You'll find it should you follow that hallway, descend the flight of stairs, and pass through the door on the left.” At this, she smiled brightly at him, then slowly strode off down the hall, curiously observing and noting the interior design.
Isaac nodded to Melancholia and Ashley, then departed for his bedroom, yawning and stretching. They stood and watched the other two until they were no longer visible. Ashley glanced up at Melancholia; an unwelcome recollection of the mind meld kiss flooded into her thoughts, accompanied by a mental image of Melancholia and the summoner sleeping together. Though she knew on some level that there probably wasn't any romantic or sexual component to the relationship between those two, she couldn't completely convince herself of that, nor could she lessen her worsening nausea.
“So, you and this Jubilant go way back, huh?”
“Yes. We were in the same student grouping at the Order's primary academy during our training and education. I cannot say how long it has been since I had last seen her before now. It is pleasant beyond my ability to express to see her again.”
“So, you're just friends, or…?”
Melancholia was nonplussed. “What else would we be? Yes, she and I are friends.”
“And there's nothing going on between you or anything?”
She blinked and tilted her head. “Going on between us? I do not understand.”
“Actually, just never mind. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Ashley, are you feeling well? You seem distre–”
“I said never mind!” She stomped back out of the house, her frustration boiling over, leaving behind a thoroughly bewildered Melancholia.
Ashley sat on a thoughtfully-placed bench in the middle of the grove on the outskirts of the property, cooling down after having vented her fury on the now bruised and broken plant life around her. Her foliage-smeared rebar laid on her lap perpendicular to her legs. As she stared out at the sparse trees, a sudden impression of motion to her left startled her to her feet. The rebar fell to the ground with a soft thud, and she clumsily grabbed at it and held it at the ready. From a cursory scan, there was nothing there, but upon further inspection she could make out the blurred outlines of a hunched, hooded figure standing a short distance away from her.
“Who's there? What do you want?”
A moment passed, then the figure took a few steps forward and lowered its hood. The pale face of the figure was framed in very short brown hair that thickly coated its neck, almost like fur. Two long fangs protruded from its mouth and stretched down past its chin. Ashley's blood ran cold, and her heart pounded with equal parts fear, excitement, and slight confusion.
“You're a… vampire?”
* * * * *
The cloaked figure's bronze eyes widened in surprise at Ashley's recognition of him, then narrowed. “How do you know that word? I'm very surprised that a native from this plane recognizes my race, racial slurs aside.”
Ashley blinked, her fear subsiding somewhat. “Racial slur? You mean, you're not actually called vampires?”
“Of course not. In your language, we would be properly called Blade-Tooths. In particular, I'm a specialist from the Southern Blade-Tooth Expeditionary Force, and I was sent into your plane by order of the Protectorate on a search-and-destroy mission.”
“And what're you searching to destroy?” Something about what he had said struck Ashley as strange, but she couldn't quite place it.
He let out a gruff chuckle. “Well now, if I went around telling everyone, that'd be bad operational security, wouldn't it? By the way, I hope you'll pardon my stealthy approach, but I needed to confirm that you weren't a threat.” He took a step closer, and Ashley took a step back. “I do find it extremely interesting, however, that you're wearing an air barrier belt, and one created using anti-magic at that. Would you mind telling me about that?”
“I'll think about it if you tell me what you're hunting.”
“You drive a hard bargain, madame, but since you've become a person of interest yourself, I don't see any harm in it.” Ashley felt butterflies in her stomach. “There's a huge boundary fracture on your plane. A Void Wanderer that I've been tracking for a while has infiltrated into your plane through this fracture. I'm here to find it and exterminate it. Now, how did you obtain that belt despite this planet's lack of anti-magic users?”
“Halt, vampire!” Melancholia approached from the opposite path that lead back to the house, her hands enshrouded and held in casting position. She stopped between Ashley and the figure, towering over them both.
“Wait, Mel, I don't think–”
“A sorcerer from the Anti-Magical Order? Well, isn't this a surprise! And here I thought they had all died out. Relax, I'm not going to harm you or your native friend.” He held up a clawed hand reassuringly. “I hail from the Southern Blade-Tooth Protectorate. Don't tell me you've forgotten my country's friendly relations with your Order. Remember, that war of yours was with the northerners, not us.”
Melancholia remained on guard. “Why should I believe anything that you have to say?”
“Well, you'll note my brown fur, compared to the distinctive white fur of the northerners.” He gestured to his neck. “Also, make note of my metamaterial cloak, versus the typical northern strike party garb of all black. Most telling of all, I'd say, is that I haven't attacked you on principle for taking such a threatening stance toward me, as a northerner would.”
Melancholia glared at him for a moment longer, then gradually lowered her stance. Ashley felt her fear melt away, replaced initially by excitement and curiosity, then colored with concern when she caught Melancholia's troubled expression. The figure gave a short bow.
“I'm Plex. I'm pleased that we're on at least neutral terms.”
“Same. I'm Ashley, and this is Melancholia.”
“I do not understand. How is it that you are here?”
“The Protectorate's VWTA detected an intrusion through the boundary fracture in this plane. The Wanderer in question was one that I've been tracking for a while, so I took the mission to investigate and jumped here…” He counted on his fingers; Ashley noted that he was missing nearly all of his left little finger, save for the segment between the knuckle and first joint. “Maybe a week ago?”
“How did you and your Protectorate escape the destruction of our plane?”
“Destruction of our plane? What do you mean?” After a second, understanding replaced the confusion on his face. “Oh, you don't know? The Anti-Magical Order only attempted to obliterate the territory of the northern Blade-Tooths, but there was a miscalculation somewhere along the line that resulted in the entire subcontinent being wiped out. The rest of the plane, however, is fine.”
Melancholia seemed to freeze over in a reverie, her countenance a furrowed combination of confusion, disbelief, distress, and contemplation. Ashley moved to speak to her, but thought better of it – Melancholia could probably use a few moments with her thoughts to piece everything together. As Ashley took the opportunity to turn it over in her own head as well, a distressing notion surfaced in her mind: If Melancholia's plane weren't actually destroyed, then wouldn't she want to go back to it? No, perhaps not, since none of the other Order members survived and thus there'd only be vampires left – even if some of them were friendly, it seemed unlikely that she'd be comfortable living alone among them.
An image of Jubilant's irritatingly cheery visage disrupted her feeling of reassurance. Would the two of them want to go back together to rebuild their Order, or even just to keep their race from dying out without intruding further in this Universe? It seemed that it'd ultimately boil down to whether Melancholia's loyalty was stronger with her and Isaac or with the summoner and the idea of the Order. The interplay of anxiety and nausea churning within her magnified; she took a deep breath, which calmed her slightly. She'd just have to convince Melancholia that she should stay here and that the summoner could handle the repopulation effort on her own.
She nodded to herself, then suddenly noticed that Plex was casting something. A striking ultramarine energy had enveloped his hands, and they emitted a continuous hum while he drew out several curlicued figures. He completed the spell, paused for a second, then met her fascinated gaze with a serious expression.
“The Wanderer is still jamming my pinpointing spells. The last time that I had a lead on it, however, it was south of this location and headed this way. I certainly see why now. Either way, I think I might've overtaken it by accident.”
“What is this Wanderer thing, anyway? Why's it coming here?”
“It's a magic-wielding monster from the Void. Based on what information I have, it enters a plane through a boundary fracture and seeks out sources of anti-magic. It then consumes any sources it finds and powers itself with carefully controlled annihilation reactions, which it generates within itself.”
“How're you gonna kill it?” She hefted the rebar up against her shoulder.
“Well, I was planning on trapping it in a time-frozen bubble, then dropping that through a tesseract into the center of your star, as the super-heated plasma would be sufficient to destroy it permanently once the bubble dissipated.” He eyed the silent Melancholia. “It'd be much simpler with the sorcerer's help – Melancholia was her name, you said? With her assistance, we could overload it with anti-magical energy. That way, the magic keeping it alive would be annihilated, which would obviously result in its death.”
“Sounds good to me. What do you think, Mel?”
“Hey, Mel, are you OK?”
Melancholia blinked, as though only just then hearing her. “Oh! I am sorry for not giving a prompt answer. I do not foresee any problems with that strategy. I further propose that we conjoin your plan, Plex, with our intention to summon the intruder to us.”
“I like the sound of that. It saves us a lot of risky tracking. Since that's our plan, shall we return to your base of operations?” Ashley nodded and struck off back toward the house, grinning excitedly and gesturing for them to follow. They did so, Plex scratching his head at Ashley's disposition, Melancholia on edge and closely watching the vampire.
“So, you're a summoner and a plane jumper? That's not too shabby, I've got to say.”
“I wish that that were the case.”
Ashley took the last bite from an apple while loitering outside of the summoning room. Melancholia and Plex had entered a few minutes prior in order to explain the new developments to the summoner. She knew that it wouldn't be much longer before the room was ready for business, and it'd probably be too late to sell Melancholia on remaining earthbound – or to open up about her feelings and get a meaningful response, at that – after this whole mess was resolved. The time for action was now.
She spotted a trash can a good distance away and attempted to toss the apple core into it. It rebounded off of the lip of the can and fell to the floor. Right as she snapped her fingers in disappointment, the door to the summoning room opened and Melancholia stepped out. Her pulse immediately spiked, and she unsuccessfully attempted to swallow the lump that appeared in her throat. She inhaled deeply.
“Hiya, Mel. Are you busy?”
“Hello, Ashley. I am not occupied at the moment. Why do you ask?”
“It's just that you seemed shaken up over that stuff involving your Universe not being destroyed, so I was wondering if you maybe wanted to talk about it?” She fidgeted with her hair. “If not, that's OK, too.”
Melancholia gave a tired but genuine smile. “That is very considerate of you. I accept your offer, though I request that we move to a more secluded location before we begin.”
Ashley's legs refused to stop shaking.
Ashley and Melancholia sat side by side on an overstuffed couch in a lounge enclosed on the second floor of the house. A huge window of atypical thickness dominated the southern wall, the furniture arrangement affording them a sprawling view of the downhill surrounding property. Ashley was struggling to quash her nervousness and start the conversation when Melancholia surprised her by starting it herself.
“I can say without any doubts that I am glad that my home plane was not destroyed in full. There were many locales there that held importance to me, and not all of these were within the borders of the Order's territory, so the knowledge that several of them still exist puts me at ease.” Her faint smile faded. “I am no less troubled, however, by the actions of the Order and by the near extermination of our race at our own hands. These two factors are causing an internal conflict, as my sense of self-preservation is now driving me to return and endeavor to save my people from the brink of extinction, but my disappointment with the Order makes me fear that I may give rise to a group of comparable harmfulness or worse in the process.
“You may think less of me for this, but I believe that the best possible outcome for all of Existence would be for my race to die out.” Her despondent expression darkened further. “We were infamous for our arrogance, belligerence, cowardice, and destructivity. I spoke of the vampires as considering themselves superior to all other beings, but they were not so presumptuous as to invade a sacred site and damage it, then refuse to concede in the subsequent conflict but instead attempt a genocide in order to avoid losing. And this incident is a mere single anecdote taken from the vast history of the Order. There is no questioning that our negative reputation was justified in full.
“Were I to jump back to my home plane and dedicate myself to the survival of my race, preventing the reemergence of the Order would be an impossible task. It is a struggle to keep my own warlike tendencies in check, and enforcing such impulse control on my offspring would be intractable beyond my ability to overcome. I am further fearful at the thought that a new Order built around my specialization in planar sciences might seek to conquer other planes of existence as well as their own. In all likelihood, the most beneficial course of action for everyone that I could take would be to end my life without delay, but my cowardice has stopped me at every opportunity.”
Silence filled the room. After a minute, Ashley repositioned herself and softly hugged Melancholia, her voice shaking from withheld heartbreak.
“Please don't kill yourself. You're not bad at all, really. And, if you don't want to go back, you can always stay. Ike and I want you here with us, remember?”
“You say that I am not bad, but my race is a scourge–”
“Please!” She squeezed Melancholia as hard as she possibly could, tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. Melancholia blinked, taken aback.
The room fell quiet once again. Ashley's embrace gradually weakened down to a loose hug, at which point she detached herself and dropped back into a sitting position, her face unreadable. Melancholia regarded her with concern.
“I have wanted to ask you about something for a while. It has seemed as though there has been something distressing you ever since we relocated to this northern house, and that your distress has become acute in particular following our retrieval of Jubilant. Is it something that you would like to discuss?”
“I-I don't know that I have it in me to talk about it right now. I'm a bit overwhelmed.”
“That is understandable. We do not have to discuss it at present.”
“I can't talk about it now, but…” Ashley turned and looked directly into her eyes. “I want you to promise you won't go anywhere until we do. OK?”
She smiled softly. “I shall do everything in my power to fulfill that promise.”
* * * * *