This/Survivors song/heap2

From Zaori


This is the story as was. Let us rewrite it once more.

Contents

Part n+1 - Initiate the end of time

The soft vibrating that you feel in your bones, it is nothing more than the humming air, handsaws twanging, cats purring too many to hear. Do you have a problem with silence?

Notes:

  1. Coraline is a librarian.
  2. Links may cross inter-universal boundaries.
  3. Notes may provide context, but not meaning.
  4. The story is always told from perspective. Translations are built in, even gestures.
  5. Gestures hold transient meaning.
  6. Coraline Henderson is dead.

Midnight - the end of Arling Tor

In the end, the universe is destroyed, leaving behind two survivors surrounded by approximately 3.8 billion sphinxes.

The survivors seem rather annoyed, not so much because everything they have ever known is now gone, but because, as a result, they have now found themselves sitting in a small pocket in the middle of what is effectively a giant, moon-sized wad of winged cats. The sphinxes watch them from all sides. They are sitting on sphinxes. Bertram has a sphinx on his lap. Coraline has a sphinx on her head. Occasionally the walls roil as the sphinxes rearrange themselves, but mostly the interior is just a solid expanse of fur and eyes and wings and whiskers and cute little cat noses crinkling softly in their general direction, filled with the overwhelming sound of purring.

"Good job," Bertram says over the noise.

Coraline glowers at him from under her sphinx hat,[1] but the effect is dulled by her mask, strange and silvery and eyeless.

"Really," Bertram goes on. "I'm impressed. I did not expect that when we destroyed the entire universe, this would happen."

Part 0 - Initiate prologue

The year is 2032 by the Cerrisian calendar. It has been four years since the crown of Soravia fell, sending the kingdom into chaos and turmoil. As the ruling Houses struggle for power and influence, they make alliances and send their armies to march and engage in terrible battles. The devastation only spreads, with no end in sight.

But Soravia is large, and many areas remain almost unaffected.

But Soravia is small, and there is no escape within its shores.

Notes:

  1. This was all planned in retrospect.
  2. Not everything is translated from the original tongues.
  3. Notes may provide meaning, but not context.
  4. The worlds are circular. You may repeat yourself.

String 2943

"Most people have dreams that are very simple. Family, home, food, warm water for a bath at the end of the day. Not that difficult."

~ Unknown

Dreamscape

The strangest thing about the dream, probably, was the fact that it was not green. The sky was not green, but simply hanging grey and low. The ground was not green, but dull and rocky, not tinted by an otherworldly glow, simply there. The wind - for there was wind here - was furtive and blustery, coming in wet bursts. It was going to rain.

And it wasn't green.

It wasn't noisy.

Really, it wasn't anything...

She startled, slowing, looking around. There was something, a noise, a hint of warmth drifting around her. Trolls? They were in the area, and they were hunting her. They were always hunting her, and she didn't remember any point in which they hadn't been hunting her, and so she simply turned and fled, darting down the corridor of trees, into the dark, under the whistling branches. Dull leaves shifted underfoot, muffling her footfalls. It was getting darker. They were getting closer. The rain was coming.

She tripped. She fell.

She was down. Underground. A passage, a tall shaft above, open to the sky, showing little light from so far. The first raindrops fell wet and heavy, but only from time to time, only on one side, thrown by the wind above.

Down here, though, the walls were already wet. Trickling moisture hinted at life within the ground, of strangeness, of alien forces silently at work, always changing. She needed a direction. Two options, two ways to run.

So she ran, and the walls ran with her. She ran, and the walls changed, widening the corridor, opening out into a grand cavern. Further on, jagged rock gave way to strange formations, pillars and columns, almost too precise, but right here, in front of her, was a car, some ancient Soviet model, poking its hood from the wall. It grinned at her, all bumper and headlights, and said, "Whaddya know about that?"

"I'm sorry," she told the car, "But I can't stop. I need to keep moving. The moment I stop, everything goes horribly wrong and the trolls find me, so I need to keep moving, okay?"

"I won't ask him," the car replied, withdrawing back into the wall.

She frowned, but really that was good enough.

She realised she was stopped.

The dream fell away.

Molstead Inn - morning

Coraline Henderson was perfectly normal. She owned an inn and tended bar in the small town of Molstead, got out of bed in the middle of the afternoon, bought random things at market that sometimes made no sense at all, rescued passing adventurers from giants, occasionally went to temple and argued with the statuary, and was, of course, perfectly normal. The only thing particularly abnormal about her was the minor detail that she was actually from another planet, in another universe, called Earth.

This planet was called Cerris.

Here, in Molstead, she tended to go by the name Lyra Zidane. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with her real name, but she was paranoid, and Lyra was a nice, simple name.[2] Most of the ones she used were.

This morning, Coraline woke up relatively early.[3] There was a cat on her head, which helped. It was also the middle of summer, which was probably the main reason - it was very, very warm.

She pushed the cat off her head and stared at the ceiling for a moment in the stewing heat.

The cat slid onto another pillow and curled up again.

"How can you even move in this?" she asked the cat. "All the fur... so warm..."

The cat said nothing, so Coraline just lay there for a bit in extreme discomfort. Everything was warm. She felt like a puddle. The voices in the back of her mind, though contained to a low murmur, felt like dripping, weighing down on her even more than the oppressive heat. There were no trolls. Everything was just... heavy.

Eventually, somehow, she got out of bed, found some clothes, and downed her morning medicine[4] as the cat ran past at her feet.

There was nobody in the kitchen, just cold[5] embers and a horrible lack of any sensible kitchen appliances. As a result there was also no breakfast out.

Coraline rifled through some things to see what her options were. The bread was mouldy. The eggs seemed to be fine. There was a pile of vegetables in a barrel. They looked a bit soggy.

Hastily closing the barrel, Coraline was suddenly very, very glad she was not the cook, did not normally ever have to cook, and in fact did not really know how to cook in the first place. This was not her job. The question was, where was the gal whose job this was? There should have been a cook in by now, or more specifically, a general innkeeper, or most specifically, Jess. Who was not in, and had given no signs of ever having been in today.

She glared at the stove and the coals burst into flame, making it even warmer.

"Fine," Coraline muttered, and put some eggs and bread on to fry.

Grumbling, she then walked into the tavern proper, glared at it, and then gave up and grumped up to the counter when this had no effect, it being an inanimate space devoid of all occupants. Then she almost tripped over the cat again, realised she'd forgotten what she came in here for, went over to prop open the door to maybe get some breeze, and then, on the way back to the cat, nearly ran into a guy coming down the stairs.

She glared at him, which had slightly more of an effect than the previous glare, but only slightly. The guy looked perhaps even more out of sorts than she was. "Morning," he said groggily, rubbing his head. Then he tripped over the cat.

Coraline stared blankly for a moment before it occurred to her to actually get him over to the bar and maybe get him some coffee. And herself some coffee. She clearly needed some coffee.

When she plonked some mugs down between them, he mumbled what might have been thanks and stared glumly into his own, disinclined to do anything with it.

"Drink it," she said, "It'll help." She drank some of her own for emphasis. It wasn't very good.

The guy just sat there.

The cat jumped up and flopped down next to his arm. Coraline petted it angrily, and then told the guy, "Seriously, drink it."

He picked up the mug and stared at his coffee as though it were some strange and foreign potion. Oddly, it wasn't, though Coraline had no idea why. It was just a thing here, and they got shipments with all the other things. And it was very much coffee.

Suddenly he downed it in three solid gulps, stared at the empty mug, seemed to stop, then startled, twitched, stood up, and fell over again. The cat peered after him with absolute disinterest.

Coraline peered over the counter as well, somewhat more worried than the cat, wondering if she'd finally managed to accidentally kill a patron, but the guy was already getting up. He shrugged himself off, looked at the cat suspiciously, and then asked, quietly, "Er, how much will that be?"

"Uhnn, let's see..." she said, rummaging around for a bit under the bar. Then she found the paper pad covered in doodles, and, occasionally, billing info.[6] "Looks like you got your tab up to five, so let's make it eight silver altogether including room and board. Includes breakfast, if you want it."

"Er," he said, passing her the coins, "What's breakfast?"

"Eggs on toast," she said

"Okay," he said.

She got him the rest of the eggs and toast, and watched as he wandered out, munching, before picking up the cat and following after herself.

Molstead - morning

It was a bright sunny morning: horrible and warm and bright and full of birds. Loud birds. Also neighbours.

Bob, the guy down the street, was passing by with a barrow full of what were probably not coconuts, though they looked a little bit like them. A group of women were by the Harrison place gossiping under a tree. They waved, and she waved back, because that was apparently what people did around here.

Some guys were heading up the road with a bunch of saws. A gaggle of kids were playing with a dog.

There was a distinct lack of the one person who was supposed to be there.

"Cat," she said, "Where's Jess?"

The cat said nothing, though it seemed surprisingly happy considering she was holding it at the moment like a sack of potatoes.

"Seriously," Coraline said, "She should be here."

The cat had nothing useful to say to this either, and just sort of dangled in her arms.

"Hmph," she said.

Still carrying the cat, she wandered off toward the market to try to find out just what had happened to her day gal. Asking around yielded nothing, though one annoyingly hamstery guy kept asking her what day it was and then followed her all the way to the square when she tried to just ignore him. Another asked what the deal with the cat was, but she didn't know quite why she was still carrying it herself. She didn't know where it had even come from in the first place. It wasn't her cat.

The market was a fairly standard affair, as far as she could tell. A town this size had a pretty consistent setup, with stalls and tables around the square for when it was nice out, and shops all around that serving as backup. Outside it wasn't necessarily the same folks any given day - a town of a few hundred had a fair bit of overlap, and while the Jameses were the go-to meat sellers where everyone would drop off and/or pick up their meat supplies, they wouldn't necessarily get the same James son or daughter two days in a row.

And then there was Barney, one of the blacksmiths. He kept trying to sell her a sword. Apparently he'd made it just for her, and every time he saw her come by, he'd hurry over and insist that today was the day that she would buy this brilliant piece of moulded metal off of him.

Today was no different. "Lyra!" Barney said, hurrying over to Coraline. "I've got this sword. You know I've got this sword. It's got your name written all over it, and for the absolute steal of a price of five silver it's all yours, all yours!" He held the sword, fortunately sheathed, up in her face and jiggled it around.

She pushed it aside. "Look, you-" she began, but then the other guy was in her face again, the one who'd followed her all the way here, all hamstery and insistent.

"What day is it?" the guy asked for what might have been the eighty-seventh time.

The cat hissed at him. "The day you die," it said quietly, and settled around Coraline's shoulders.

Coraline ignored this, and then Barney was pulling the other guy aside again in order to reclaim his own rightful place in her face.

The hamstery guy, whatever his name even was, wandered off to bother the Jameses instead.

"Five silver," Barney repeated. "Once in a lifetime deal. Just five, and it's all yours!"

The thing was, five silver was a really good deal for a sword. Barney's steel was good, too - she'd previously bought a pickaxe off him, and it'd held up to all manner of non-warranty-covered abuse before she'd finally bent it out of shape - and a decent sword usually went for more like 50, too, even when it wasn't custom-made. The only problem was that she had absolutely no use whatsoever for a sword. The ornate golden staff she always carried[7] was basically a large, ornate golden gun, fashioned after a phoenix with bladed wings extended. At range, it shot energy bolts that seemed to vary in intensity according to whatever she felt like, and in a pinch is was also quite heavy and rather sharp, and thus highly effective when used to whack people over the head. Which she seemed to do a lot for some reason.

But five silver was a really good deal. And she'd always sort of wanted a proper sword. Granted she'd been five at the time, and continued to act like she was five, for a good chunk of her life.[8]

"Five?" she asked.

"All yours," Barney said.

"Oh, very well," Coraline said, fishing out some coins.

The sword was a strange weight on her belt, especially when all she was really wearing under it was a light blouse and skirt.

Barney looked her over and nodded. "Aye, yes, that's the look. Utterly dashing, the lady wizard."

Coraline eyed him suspiciously, then asked, "You seen Jess around?" She figured she might as well try to get something useful out of him while he was here.

"Not today, my lady," he said.

"Blugh," she said. "Thanks for the sword, though. I think. And don't ever do that again." She held up a finger for emphasis.

He grinned at her and backed away with a weird swagger. In another time and place, she suspected the guy would have been right at home in a used car lot.

Asking around some more (and avoiding the Jameses and their unfortunate inherited questioning baggage) revealed much the same - nobody had seen Jess today, though normally the girl did come through here on her way to mind the inn.

Janice, who sold mostly cloth and craft items, suggested she head up and check the family's farm. "Might just have taken sick or something," Janice said.

Coraline nodded. Bit odd for the summer, but it did sometimes happen.

"If not, I'd try the temple," Janice added. "It's near there, and little Jess always did like seeing the statue."

"Little?" Coraline said.

"Well, maybe not so much anymore," Janice said with a smile. "Growing up into a right lovely young lady, that one. Might even take after you some day." She waggled a finger at Coraline.

Coraline smiled vaguely at this, waving goodbye as she headed out again and Janice wished her a good day.

She had often wondered what all they thought of her, but never quite had the heart to ask. They thought she was a wizard, after all. They thought she was from Ord, too, the strange local mirror-universe where magic was even weirder than here,[9][10] and indeed probably thought quite a few other odd things on top of that. But that was fine. People could think what they wanted.


Coraline headed up the road to the Eslinger farm thinking about toasters. Wonderful invention, toasters. She thought about other things, too. She thought about normality and how much she liked it, and how annoyingly not normal this day was being. She saw a stump that looked suspiciously like a guy in rough leathers, and thought about that, and then realised it really was a guy in rough leathers when he moved.

He stepped forward, apparently keen on addressing her, but his attention seemed to be mostly on her staff, slung over her shoulders. "Fuck, that's a giant arse staff. What's the deal with that?" he said, gawping.

Coraline put on her best worrisome smile, and said, "I'm a wizard, mate. Can't you tell?" The staff always sold that one, even though she could hardly do much real magic herself. The stylised phoenix on the end had a bit of an orb that just sort of hovered in place, unattached, where the head should have been. Really magical-looking, that orb, but even in general the whole thing looked too impractical to not be magical. The fact that she was still wearing a cat for some reason probably didn't hurt either.

"Oh. Really?" he said, now looking a little worried.

She laughed, and asked, "You passing through around here? I own the Molstead Inn, if you need a room for the night."

"Great," he said, just sort of standing there awkwardly.

He didn't seem inclined to say anything else, so she just spun about and continued on her way.


According to her mum, Jess had left home at the usual time this morning, with no indication of anything amiss.

It was like she had just vanished, except people did not normally just vanish, and when they did, it was generally not a good sign at all. Coraline supposed that that had been exactly what had happened to her in her own world, though. But she'd had warning. She had agreed to this. Not that she'd told anyone else about it. Were they looking for her?

Probably not. It'd been almost five years now.

Molstead temple - noonish

It was a long shot, but per Janice's direction, she checked the temple, too, poking her head inside while the cat on her shoulders licked its paws disinterestedly. The main room was empty, the large statue of Azorres, god of Light and Life, looking down on the space surrounded by much smaller shrines to some of the other gods.

It was cool and quiet inside, and dark, despite all the windows letting down their respective sunbeams, and she let the door shut gently behind her.

"Hey, statue," she said.

The voice that emanated out was long and low, but one she knew well, having spent considerable time arguing with it.[11] "Welcome back, wayfarer," the statue said. "How are you holding up?"

And it was, specifically, the statue speaking. The local gods did at times speak through their icons, especially Azorres, but in their stead many of the larger statues likewise had voices of their own, and, indeed, personalities. Coraline quite liked this one, though she tried not to show it ever.

"Well," she said slowly, "I'm drunk out of my skull, my life's a bloody Monty Python skit, and my day gal is missing. And I've got this extra cat for some reason. I have no idea where this cat came from."

"No worse?" the statue said.

"No worse, no better, just voices, voices, voices, booze, and voices." Coraline threw her arms out in emphasis at all the voices, wobbling the cat, and sighed. "Seriously, though, have you seen Jess? It's just that her folks said she left, but no one's seen her along the way and she never showed up at work. She didn't come by here today, by any chance, did she?"

"She has not been here," the statue said in its calm low voice.

"Well, bugger," Coraline said. The cat on her shoulder stuck a paw on her cheek, and she eyeballed it out of the corner of her eye. She had two cats, Tress and Thimble. Good mousers the both of them, and also very good lap warmers, despite Thimble's perpetually angry expression.[12] And this cat was neither Tress nor Thimble. Everything else aside, it was a lot larger, prettier, and a very fluffy tortoiseshell longhair to boot, whereas the other two were borderline shorthairs, and respectively brown-pointed and grey.

"Oy, cat," she said. "Who are you, anyway?"

"Does it matter?" the cat said in a raspy voice.

Coraline gave the cat a confused look, then abruptly turned back to the statue. "Statue, was I just speaking cat, or was the cat just speaking... uh... whatever the hell this is?" What she didn't ask was if she was just hallucinating again.

"Just Soravian," the statue said. "But should you not know that, if you speak it?"

"The moment I know anything about anything will be the moment there's been a massive miracle. Like, when I'm dead or something." Coraline shook her head. "Seriously, it doesn't work that way. Somehow I just talk and the language comes out, except there's some things I can't say properly at all. Usually names and perkele."

"Most interesting," the statue mused.

Coraline frowned, a little surprised she'd just come out and admitted that, but then again she'd always been oddly open with what she told this statue simply on account of it being a large inanimate object that didn't seem particularly inclined to try to exact retribution no matter what she told it.

Then the cat said, "You speak cat, I speak Soravian. What does it matter?"

"I could logic you down a hole where nothing matters at all, cat," she said. "If nothing else, though, I need something to call you. That's not 'this cat'. Meow?"

The cat purred and curled against Coraline's cheek.

"Also it'd be nice to know where you came from so I can worry less that you might be an alien or something trying to suck out my brain juices," Coraline muttered.

"I'm Agata," the cat conceded. "I'm a witch's cat. I needed a witch, and you seemed witchy."

"What, did something happen to your old witch?" Coraline asked, then added, "Also, I'm kind of not a witch."

Agata eyed her for for a moment, then stretched out a leg and stuck a claw up Coraline's nose.

"Ow?" Coraline said. It didn't actually hurt, but maybe it should have. She didn't know.

"You'll do," the cat purred.

Coraline frowned at the cat, and pulled the paw away from her nose. This was all very unexpected, and not what she had come here for at all. She glanced back at the statue.

The statue said nothing, and was instead, for the moment, simply very statuey.

"Witch died. Had a run-in with a witcher," Agata said under her ear. "Deathdealer, it was."

Coraline pulled the cat off her shoulders and rearranged it as a lump in her arms, which she proceeded to scratch behind the ears. "What, around here?"

"Around," Agata purred, curling into her fingers happily.

The statue's voice echoed through the room once more: "How do you know you are not a witch?"

"Er... I suppose I don't?" Coraline said. "Nevermind witches, though. If I were a 15-year-old girl on my way to work in the morning, what might stop me from getting there?"

"Everything," Agata said. "Young witches get into all the worst trouble."

"Well, this one's definitely not a witch..." Coraline said.

"Try it the other way around," the statue said. "You are looking for Jess. Where did you lose her?"

Coraline paused and gave it a bit of a think. She wished she could still think the way she used to, carry a thought all the way through, consider every possibility, but it was so hard these days. Was it even the booze anymore, or just the voices coming through distracting her? Except now she was distracting herself thinking about distractions. Not helping.

"The road?" Coraline asked finally.

"Indeed," the statue said. "If she went missing somewhere along the road into town, look for answers there, that they may bring you to the truth."

"Right," Coraline said, then added, not sarcastically at all, "Thanks, statue. You're a wonderful replacement for a working brain."

String 31373

"Losing your way between dreaming and waking, the bright days you once knew so well fade into nothing but a memory. The colours fade, the edges blur and now you see the world only through the eyes of a sleep-walker - not real enough, and yet too real to understand."

~ Unknown

Molstead outskirts - noonish

Coraline went back to the road, Agata now following behind her, and stopped by the bend where she'd run into that guy before. There was no sign of him now, only rocks in the unpaved road that looked suspiciously like rocks poking out of the unpaved road, and dappled sunlight bouncing out of the trees, and waves of hot air rising in the distance.

"So there's some ruins out in the woods," Coraline announced, possibly to Agata, after spending entirely too long just sort of staring off into space. Pulling her staff off over her head and momentarily getting her braid tangled in the strap, she headed into the trees.

Agata trotted ahead, leading her through the underbrush, away from dry patches, around soggy spots, making little noise. A spider fell on Coraline's head and tried to run down her face, but wound up toppling to the ground instead. She stopped to scratch her nose, and Agata stopped too.

Then they heard the voices, rough and raucous, drifting through the trees ahead. Coraline pushed through the twiggage with great ineptitude and peered into the quasi-clearing that opened up before them. It had been a city once, a home to the ancient Torini elves, but now few buildings remained standing, let alone intact. Mostly the white stone blocks and columns lay scattered throughout the ferns and grass, trees growing through and over them, with only the odd wall or pillar rising against the green, clusters of buildings tumbled down into rubble and isolate walls now almost totally reclaimed by the forest. The only thing that really stood out was the building at the far end - intact, still sealed after all these centuries, and nearly untouched by storm or moss.

The only other thing that stood out was the bandit camp flat smack in the centre of the ruins.

Of the rather dirty-looking men, Coraline counted up to about ten or so, but kept losing the exact count as she glowered in their general direction. Two of them were standing some sort of guard, though neither appeared to have noticed her despite her complete lack of care; the general attention of the entire group seemed to be on Jess, who was tied to a tentpole, and a particularly dangerous-looking bandit standing over her saying something loud and unintelligible. Jess didn't respond. She appeared to be unconscious, her dress torn conspicuously.

"Voi paska," Coraline said quietly.

"I count thirty-seven," Agata said. "Most in the camp, scents of two more in the trees." The cat motioned with its head the general direction of the more in the trees.

"Um," Coraline said. Apparently she couldn't even count anymore. Great. And there was also this problem of thirty-odd bandits in a camp who had apparently stolen her employee. She kind of needed that employee.

The voices in her head were getting louder again, so the fished a bottle of vodka out of her nearly bottomless bag, downed a couple gulps, nearly fell over when the world gave her a massive spin, and then noticed Agata had fallen asleep on her feet.

The bandits seemed to be eating lunch. This wasn't good. She supposed she could just shoot the lot of them, but with so many it didn't seem doable. And she didn't know where the other two were. And they also had a hostage. And her reflexes were kind of not good. And they had a hostage. And there were a lot of them. She had vodka, though. She could throw vodka at them. Flaming vodka. With a sword. That might distract them. Except no, no, that wouldn't work. She wished she had brought the statue.

Agata hissed, and something glooped past her foot, bouncing into the shrubbery.

She couldn't go for help, either. She knew the council, and she knew just how ineffective the militia could be in a real situation. Even with crossbows their discipline was terrible, so even if they got the camp surrounded, the moment the bandits fought back it would fall to pieces.

But maybe she could just try talking to them. She was supposed to be a wizard, after all. People listened to wizards.

"Right!" Coraline announced quietly, "Let's get killed!"

She stuffed the bottle back in her bag, hefted her staff, and strolled into the ruins with what she hoped was the confident sort of stride that someone with every right to be there would use. Because, like, confidence and stuff. People with confidence could be dangerous. She was dangerous. Yes.

Agata gave her a dubious look but followed closely.

One of the watchers said something as they approached. Another said something else, standing up and pointing.

Coraline gave him a vague look and then walked right past.

A few backed away, but the dangerous-looking bandit rose to meet her; the others simply sat and stood and watched, leaving the matter to their leader. And he was their leader - this was clear not just from his posture and regard, but also his hat. It was an extraordinarily fluffy hat, faded blue, knitted with considerable care. It had what might have been cat ears poking up on top. It was all in all quite ridiculous. None but the leader could have pulled off such a ridiculous hat.

Coraline stopped a few metres away, and he smiled loudly in invitation.

"You in charge?" she demanded flatly.

He regarded her for a moment, then said softly, "Bold move, coming alone." He seemed to disregard the cat, and Agata disregarded him right back.

They weren't doing anything about it, however. Just waiting. Seeing what she would do first. She had been counting on this. Or she would have been, had she been counting on anything. Probably.

"I thought perhaps we could resolve this matter with civility," she said. "Before anyone should..." she took a moment to glance to where one of the bandits was trying to inconspicuously load a crossbow while she tried to come up with and end for the sentence, "...get hurt." She hadn't actually noticed the guy before she'd said that, but then he'd just sort of been there, cranking.

The crossbow guy laughed nervously.

Coraline levelled her gaze on the leader again. Her staff was pointed in his general direction, though not directly, and he cocked his head at it before returning the gaze.

"Well, I reckon we could come to an arrangement," he said. "Such don't come cheaply, though."

Coraline eyeballed him, then abruptly turned and walked over to where Jess was tied. Only the girl's hands were bound, and loosely; it was clear they didn't expect her to be able to do much. And indeed, the girl was rather bruised, with a black eye, and breathing raggedly. "For damaged goods?" Coraline said, glancing back.

The bandit leader faltered a moment, looking a bit confused. Coraline now had her staff pointed directly at Jess's head. "Ransom's five thousand," he said, recovering himself. "And we'll be all out of your hair. Water under the bridge, as it were."

She smiled slightly. "I'll give you five hundred," she said, slipping a coinpurse out of her bag with her free hand. She pulled a few coins out and then tossed the rest of the bag to the bandit leader. Then she pointed at another bandit, this one a lanky bald guy. "You. Bring her for me."

For a moment nothing happened. Agata put her ears back, and indeed the cat was a her, Coraline realised. Calicos usually were, since it took a particularly odd genetic fluke for a male to get calico fur, and this was also a witch's cat. It was only fitting.

She looked back to the bandit with the hat. The leader, on whom everyone here was waiting. The tenseness was almost tangible, but Coraline's mind kept thinking about daffodils.

Finally he nodded, but motioned for two other bandits to go with as well. The one she'd picked out picked up Jess, and then she was headed back out of the camp, out of the ruins, onto the road, the bandits following behind her with Jess, Agata following them.

Eslinger farm - afternoon

The walk back to the Eslinger farm was over almost immediately, or so it felt to Coraline.

With pursed lips, Mrs. Eslinger quickly ushered Coraline and the lanky bandit inside, directing them toward a room in back with a bed. Then she abruptly turned about and informed the other two in no uncertain terms that they would need to wait outside, daring them to disagree, blocking the entire doorway with her plump frame.

Coraline didn't stick around to see how that turned out, and instead continued in, watching as the lanky bandit set Jess down on the bed with surprising care. He backed out quickly as she took a seat next to Jess.

The girl was in poor shape, and while Coraline wasn't a doctor, Agata's comments about her being a witch hadn't been entirely wrong. Not that she was a witch any more than she was a real wizard, of course, but she did have a little magic to her name: the thing with understanding languages, the ability to occasionally set things on fire, the ability to heal with a touch. The healing in particular was draining and usually made the voices worse, so she usually tried to avoid it, but in this case it looked to be necessary.

She finished off the bottle from before in the hopes of staving off the voices ahead of time, then placed her hands on Jess's chest, feeling for damage, and concentrating on fixing it. Ribs, organs, bruises, more organs. Fear. So much fear and confusion. She didn't know how to fix the fear, though, and let it be for now, smoothing over the rest. In the back of Coraline's mind, voices mumbled incoherently, rising to the fore.

The girl's eyes fluttered open, then she saw Coraline. "Lyra?" she said, sitting up. "Where am I?"

With some effort, Coraline pushed the voices back, and glanced momentarily back to the door. Mrs. Eslinger and the bandits were nowhere to be seen. "You're home, dear. You're safe," she heard herself say, and after a moment of hesitation, took Jess's hand, adding, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Jess's grip tightened, but she just looked away.

"It's all right," Coraline said. "None of this is your fault. What they did says nothing about you. It happened, and you're still here, and you're gonna be fine. We just need to go through it so you can begin to heal, and put it behind you."

"I can't," Jess said quietly. "I just see them... and I can't. I can't. I can't."

"It's all right," Coraline repeated. "Tell me what you see."


After much wheedling, Coraline got the story out of Jess in pieces, doing everything she could to put the girl at ease along the way. When it was done, Jess seemed calmer, though she wouldn't quite let go of Coraline's hand just yet; Coraline eventually used this to drag her into the kitchen and 'borrow' a late lunch for the both of them in the form of some fruit, sandwiches, and wine.

While they were eating, Mrs. Eslinger ran in with a large, bloody knife and dropped it on the table.

Jess and Coraline stared at it.

Finally, Coraline just said, "What."

Mrs. Eslinger gave her a very pointed look.

"Oh," Coraline said, though she still didn't really understand, and scooted out toward the door, grabbing her staff.

Jess, meanwhile, picked up the knife curiously, at which point her mother hastily snatched it back.


Coraline spotted the two bandits immediately. They were hard to miss. They were running right at her, with swords. She walked toward them, then suddenly realised this was probably a bad thing and skirted aside at the last moment, giving her staff a mighty swing as she went. Fortunately she was proficient in waving around heavy objects willy-nilly, and managed to drive a bladed wing into the nearer bandit's side, yanking it out and around as he fell, shooting the other in the face.

The one she'd chopped at tried to get up, but then she just shot him too, this time requiring significantly less luck because this time she had time to actually stop and aim.

When she looked up, Mrs. Eslinger was in the doorway, smiling coldly.


It turned out Mrs. Eslinger had stabbed the other bandit to death near the road before running away from the other two with her deceptively long legs. He lay there in a pool of his own blood, several holes in his chest and abdomen.

"They deserved worse," Mrs. Eslinger said, coming up behind her. Coraline almost jumped when this registered almost a minute later, but then didn't, and just turned slightly instead.

"What they did to her..." the woman began, then focused her very piercing gaze on Coraline. "What did they do?"

Coraline shook her head. It was a lot to describe, and she didn't even know how.

"What did they do?" Mrs. Eslinger repeated.

"Broken bones, ruptured organs, internal bleeding, sexual trauma, a ripped tendon," Coraline listed blankly. "That's all fixed. I dunno what they might have done to her mind, how well she'll recover, you'll need to..."

"I know how to take care of my own daughter," Mrs. Eslinger said darkly.

"Good," Coraline whispered. "She'll need you. Gods, will she need you."

Mrs. Eslinger nodded, looking resolute. "They say you're a wizard. Can you take care of these?" She indicated the bodies, and when Coraline stared at them blankly, went on, "Burn them. Burn them all to dust."

"I can do that," Coraline said. There were only... a lot of them, and this had been the plan, right? Had there been a plan? Where was that cat?

For now, she just brought the staff about and blasted the body before them with enough heat to leave only a small, smoking crater behind.

When she went back to take care of the other two, Jess was standing nearby, watching, Agata held closely in her arms.

Keller's place - afternoon

Coraline hurried into town with the afternoon sun pushing down on her neck and shoulders with surprising force. Her head was pounding, voices rattling around almost as chaotically as her scattered thoughts. She was too drunk, too warm, and as she pulled her white-blonde braid loose for a little more shade, she glanced to the woods again. The trees looked quite odd at this level of inebriation, and it would also only be a matter of time before the bandits caught on and did something about it, especially when the three failed to return.

But she couldn't deal with that just yet. First she needed help. Or something. She was a little fuzzy what the hell was going on at all anymore, quite frankly, and realised vaguely that all the extra vodka and wine must have finally hit her head.

Keller's place was on the outskirts of the town proper. Coraline didn't bother to knock, just pushed inside and slammed the door behind her, then stood there blankly while she tried to figure out what she was even doing there.

Finally she realised she had no idea. And Kit, Keller's apprentice, was staring at her from the table, where he'd apparently been researching some spell or other, books and papers all over. And there was a stuffed moose hanging from the ceiling in the corner. That hadn't been there before.

"Need something?" Kit asked.

"Is that a moose?" Coraline asked.

"I have no idea," Kit said. "Not a sheep, though. Nolan checked."

"Why?" Coraline said.

Kit shrugged. Nolan was the town's resident insane sheep-obsessed kid. Everything was either sheep or irrelevant to him. Nobody knew why, and as a result nobody tended to know why he did much of anything else, either.

Keller bustled into the room, and upon seeing Coraline, exclaimed, "Miss Zidane! So good to see you again!" As usual, his fancy wizard robes were flowing hugely around his ageing frame, and she got the impression his bustle was primarily in effect in order to take full advantage of that. "You've finally come to your senses, yes?" he said, continuing to bustle around. "Of course I can only help you so much so far out here, but-"

Coraline interrupted him by putting two fingers over his mouth when he got too close. "I think I need to use your alchemy lab," she managed, and then went in without waiting for a response.

"What?" He hurried in after her, but she was already going through the compounds.

She selected a shell for a bomb, lined it with some red stuff, lined that with a tissue, and then mixed in a few more substances intended for the actual reaction. She wasn't sure, but if the things she had mixed turned out to be what she thought they might be,[13] the result was probably going to be incredibly toxic.

"Wait, that's dangerous!" Keller was saying. "You shouldn't just be mixing those like that!"

She finished closing the thing, then turned and gave him a rather skeptical look. "You don't even know," she said flatly, and then stopped, brightening. "And neither do I!"

He gave her a worried look, but she just dropped some coins in his hand.

"For the supplies," she said. "I... think."

"Look, this isn't that simple, Miss Zidane," Keller said, pushing the money back at her.

She ignored it and pushed past him, and the money just wound up on the floor as a result.

He hurried after her. "You should be learning proper magic," he insisted, "not... barging in here and mixing gods know what."

"Yeah, that's my job," Kit pointed out. "Get your own wizard."

"I don't have time for that," she said vaguely, then muttered again, waving her fingers, "Time."

"Well, yes, but..." he sighed. "Well at least take a mask, if you're seriously planning to detonate that thing," he said, throwing a gas mask after her.

Somehow, she actually caught it.

Molstead environs - drunkenly

She headed back up the road, passing some kids along the way. They were chucking pinecones at each other. One of them chucked a cone at Coraline and it bounced off her head. Someone who might have been their mum yelled something unintelligible.

She tossed the bomb into the air as she went. Toss, catch. Toss, catch. One-handed one ball juggling, the simplest form, not even juggling at all. Instant death if she dropped it, probably.

Everything was fuzzy. The previously oppressive heat just felt like butterflies, now.


She ran into two more bandits on the the road. One of them pointed at her and said something. The other drew his sword. Coraline swung her staff around its strap with her free hand and shot him, and when the former started to run at her, she shot him too.

She stared at them as they lay on the ground, collapsed, smoking, lifeless. She was too drunk. She had thought she was too drunk before, but now it was really sinking in. She was too drunk now. This was dangerous. She glanced at her hand. She was still holding the bomb, though she couldn't quite feel it anymore. She gave it an experimental squeeze and watched her hand as it squeezed the bomb slightly.

Then she was walking again.


She pulled on the gas mask as she came out into the ruins. The bandits spotted her quickly. There were a lot of them. Several were pointing crossbows, and apparently shooting them too. Others had swords and axes. She was too drunk for crossbows. Swords and axes too, but especially crossbows. She threw the bomb at the lot of them and then dropped behind a section of wall.

Crossbow bolts whizzed overhead and thunked and plinged around her. The bomb exploded somewhere behind her with a hissy flpomph.

There was yelling, coughing, footsteps coming toward her. She sat, back to the wall, clutching her head, until the last bandit stopped rolling around behind her.

After a bit it finally occurred to her to poke her head over the wall for a look. None of them were moving, just collapsed bandits all over, with a particularly large swath of them where they'd fallen coming at her.

The bomb radius had been huge, the effects rapid and potent. All because of a little extra magic. The implications would have terrified her, had she been thinking straight. Instead she tried to count the bodies.

She counted... she couldn't count. She got up to one. Then she lost count. Several dead birds were on the ground. Dead horses made dusty mounds.

Some part of her brain knew it wasn't necessarily safe to take the mask off, however, as she walked slowly between the bodies, fists raised, deliberately extending a finger for each one she passed. She ended up with all fingers up before even reaching the camp itself, and cursed a bit upon realising she didn't have enough fingers. Then she fished a pen out of her bag and just wrote all the numbers on her arm, going back through from the start, a new number for each one she passed, forgetting whether or not she'd alreadied the fifth one, and then subsequently lost count again.

She tried again, this time shooting each one in the head as she went, small-calibre, adding tick marks next to the first five and then resuming the main count.

She ended up in the ruins on the other side of the camp, her arm covered in numbers. It was a lot of numbers. It was only twenty-nine. That wasn't good.

But there had also been three more that had died at the farm. And the two on the road. She added a few more numbers to her arm. That meant two more not accounted for.

She looked around, swinging her head left and right as she tried to focus on the ruins and surrounding trees. Her field of view was... not good. Everything was swimming a bit. She had no idea where they might be. Unless the guy was in a tent. She was standing next to a tent.

She pushed her way inside.

Molstead woods - afternoon

Robert Earnsworth, more commonly known as Huge Bob, was not just a bandit, but a very successful bandit. This, he believed, was because he understood finer points of how the world worked - namely that pretty much every point was based on magnitude. Thus he made a point of being bigger, meaner, and scarier than everyone else. And richer. And fluffier. And warmer. Generally just more of everything.

It was for this that people called him Huge Bob.

Huge Bob was too warm.

He pulled his hat off with a sigh of relief, the sweat rolling down his brow. The woods were otherwise pleasant enough, but this was just uncomfortable.

There was yelling from the direction of the camp, and his hands clenched around the hat. Something was going on back there. His axe was a few paces away, but he couldn't get up just yet.

"Always when I'm taking a shit!" he yelled to no-one in particular. He hoped no-one was around, anyway. His pants were literally down, and he'd gone this far out precisely to avoid having anyone around.

"Fucking shit," he added for emphasis.

The shit took its own time, in absolutely no hurry at all, despite all of Huge Bob's efforts.

Finally he finished up his business, pulled up his pants, grabbed his axe, and hurried back toward the ruins, wondering just what the fuck had happened this time.

He got back to find the camp silent, everyone on the ground, no explanation why. Aside from a couple, they all had holes in their heads. Some were lying in pools of their own vomit. It looked as though many of them had been hurrying toward something in the direction of the main road, but whatever had taken them out had stopped them in their tracks.

"The fuck...?" he said, looking around, and coughed.

He backed away, and nearly tripped over a man. This wasn't right. Nothing about this was right.

Elven ruins - drunkenly

The tent proved to be unoccupied, though a lumpy pile of bedding had required closer inspection, which is to say Coraline had to go and poke it a bunch of times before it finally sunk in that it indeed wasn't a body at all and was instead just a lumpy pile of bedding. That was a bit disappointing.

Finally she pulled the tent flap open, managed to leave slightly more gracefully than she'd entered, and proceeded to attempt to look around. This attempt was almost immediately interrupted by an unusually upright, large, and hatted bandit nearly backing into her.

Coraline yelped and jumped back as he spun about in surprise, taking his axe with him in what turned into an enormous cleave that she only barely managed to dodge, rolling away, landing on her back. The trees were spinning around her. The ruins were weaving about like fish.

He screamed, charging at her, though whatever he'd said was completely muffled for some reason. He raised the axe, swinging, bringing it down.

Coraline had no time to get up and run, no space to dodge, only enough to block with the staff at the very last second. The rod bounced against her breast, the force of the blow resonating through the bones of her arms. He pulled his blade down further, trying to slide it to her unprotected stomach, and she pushed it away enough that it sank into the ground by her crotch instead, pinning down her skirt.

She realised he was still screaming at her, mostly insults, instructions to die, things he would do to her. It lost coherence as the dregs of her consciousness wondered why the hell she felt so cold.

The rest of her pulled away, ripping her skirt, and she kicked the axe back, out of his hands, out of her way. She rose and spun, swinging around the staff like an axe of her own, the sharpened edges of the phoenix' wings singing through the air.

The bandit jumped back, avoiding the swing, but overbalanced in the process, and the second upward swing caught him right in the throat, knocking his head back, knocking him over, knocking Coraline over too in the opposite direction.

Elven ruins - evening

Coraline awoke in misery, a racket of crickets drilling into her skull. It was evening, that crazy time of day when things were finally cooling down, but the sun was still hovering a couple hours over the brink from nightfall proper.

She was still alive.

Suddenly she sat up, looking around quickly. She needed the other twp. She'd missed two, hadn't she? But from the look of it, everything was just bodies now.

She pulled off the mask and took in the sweet, cool, strangely foetid air. Her head was clearer now, and as she got up entirely, using the staff as a crutch, she realised she was splattered with dried blood, and almost fell over again. She had to do something about all this. Best not to feed the bears, or whatever, and she didn't want to waste anything the bandits might have stocked up, either. Weapons, supplies...

It took the better part of an hour to go through it all. She burned the bodies, a single staff blast each, the stench of flesh rotting in the summer heat mingling with the stench of burning.

Molstead temple - evening

Davis, one of the priests, was lighting the candles at the various shrines. He looked up and smiled at Coraline as she entered, then noticed her appearance, and then her smell, a moment after.

Coraline ignored him and made a bee-line for the statue. "Oy, statue," she said, rounding on the thing, her hands on her hips. "So I just slaughtered a bunch of bandits. Remind me, why are you helping me, again?"

"What?" Davis said, behind her.

The long, low voice of the statue echoed throughout the chamber. "And what would have happened had you not?"

"I don't know," Coraline said blankly, in what was mostly not a GIR voice, though only mostly.

"It is likely that they would have come after you and Jessica both," the statue said, each word slow and precise, "on the way laying waste to the outer farms, and even perhaps burning down the entire village. Then they would only have continued - on to other towns and other innocent souls. But you stopped them. You did the only thing that was certain, though you cannot know the price."

Coraline glared at the statue, but then Davis put a comforting hand on her shoulder, startling her. In return she glanced back and gave him a freezing eyeful of death.

Davis laughed nervously, backing away.

Then she admitted, "Okay, I guess I mostly just came here because you lot have the only decent baths in town."

"Blood washes off, but the memory of what you have done will not," the statue said, though the voice had changed, taking on a heavier tone. This was the god himself, it seemed. "You carry the Deathgod's coin for a reason. These are the decisions you make; I can only give you the truth you already know."

Coraline smiled humourlessly, and said, "Well, that's what sleep is for." She waggled a finger at her ear. "Brain washes itself out right proper if you just let it."

Molstead Inn - night

Jess was at the bar when Coraline finally got back to the inn, a large tankard of ale and Agata sitting on the bar before her, so Coraline came over and said, "Yo."

Jess just slid off the chair and hugged her tightly. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Agata was peering at them dubiously.

"Um," Coraline said when Jess finally let go, and then held out the bandit's hat, slightly bloodied.

Jess froze, staring at it.

"Just an object," Coraline said, and set it down on the counter. "They can't hurt you."

Jess was still just staring at the hat, so Coraline turned the girl's head back toward her own with a finger. "Hey," she said. "You're safe now, okay?"

Jess nodded slowly.

"Say it," Coraline said.

"I'm safe," Jess whispered.

Coraline bonked the hat with a fist. "This is just an object. Stay the night, okay?" she said. "Dors will be here to guard the place."

Dors was the inn's bouncer. He was an orcan, a native of Ord, and quite large, with black and white skin patterns, and the one thing he never did was quite fit in. Usually he made a scene instead.

At the moment Dors was striking dramatic poses at one of the patrons, but he gave them a big smile from across the room, with multiple rows of teeth. Then he raised a hand and flexing each finger individually. This was accompanied by no small amount of unrelated sound effects.

Jess nodded again.

"Great," Coraline said. "I think I... kind of need to pass out now." She slid away and wobbled her way into the kitchen, nearly ran over Malla, the cook, and with great care, stumbled out the other side, making her way to her room in what was probably the most roundabout way possible.

Her bed felt like a great, fluffy cloud.

Part 1 - Initiate intermission

Everybody is running from something. They may not know it, and they may not fear it, but still they run. Some even run from running itself.

And yet the bullet you're running from is almost never the one that hits you.

Notes:

  1. There is a map.
  2. To say 'kauhistuksen kanahäkki' may apply.
  3. Events may repeat themselves, precede their causes, and take different forms in different stories. They are the same events.
  4. Please keep reading.
  5. Every word was chosen.
  6. This is not a kids' story.

String 781

"Events do not occur apart and singly. Anything worth the hunting has a cost."

~ Sandman

Molstead - late afternoon

It was autumn, so the day was cool, and the night would come soon now. The market bustled as townsfolk prepared for the annual Harvest Festival, or prepared for preparing for it, or at least discussed preparing for it.[14]

The bounty hunter merely waited in a corner and observed, out of the way, but not at all out of sight or mind. Some passerby discussed him, too.

Laughter and conversation drifted throughout the square. Bright leaves blew past. Brown leaves scurried across the ground.

A few folks greeted the hunter cheerfully, asked what brought him to town. A few others avoided him, concerned by his aspect and appearance, moving away in hushed conversation. He paid it all little mind, watching instead for the signs he knew well. A little madness. A little fear. Eyes not quite right.

One man was going from stall to stall, poking his head at the other folks, asking questions. Insistent, pressing, catching the hunter's eye as he did the rounds. Then the man noticed the hunter, too, and hurried over.

"What time is it?" the man asked. He was slightly dirty, and for all the world resembled an emaciated hamster that had suddenly gotten up and decided to be human.

The hunter checked the sky. "Quarter to five, I s'pose?"

"What time is it?" he asked again, more insistently this time, and this time the hunter didn't answer, merely waited.

After about an hour, the man narrowed his eyes, made an angry noise that was almost, but not entirely, unlike something that would come out of a hamster, and sidled off to pester a random passerby.

Molstead Inn - late afternoon

The Molstead Inn had twelve tables, but one was missing a leg and as a result some drunks had gotten the bright idea to nail it to the ceiling at some point, so in practice the inn really only had eleven usable tables and a hazard sticking out of the ceiling.[15]

Nobody ever mentioned it unless they ran into it.

For now, three of the tables were occupied - two by locals enjoying their evenings with pitchers of ale, and one by three cats sitting on it, with Coraline in one of the chairs. The cats were all staring at Coraline, who was for her part taking a drink every time one of them blinked.

It was a very slow game, and she had been at it for most of the afternoon, though she had originally sat down to draw. Then Tress had sat on her drawing, Thimble had slid off Agata, and the entire plan had been ruined. So instead she simply watched them.

Cal, the new waiter, never commented, instead keeping her properly supplied for the duration and tending to everyone else who came in in the meantime. Clearly he was a keeper.


Later, more townsfolk came in, as well as a few outskirts folks in for the festival, and by the time the evening had settled over the area, the place was full and bustling, leaving many folks standing between the tables and even spilling out outside, laughing, chattering, no room to sit. It was quite loud. Food and drink were bussed around. Jess was tending bar - the girl had recovered quite well over the past couple months, as it turned out - and Dors was at the door.

Nobody took the other seats at the cats' table.

Thimble blinked.

Coraline took a drink.

Tress yawned.

Someone splashed their drink on Agata and she put an ear back in discontent. Coraline scratched her own ear absent-mindedly.

Tress yawned some more.

Over the noise, someone yelled at Coraline asking what was up with the cats.

She held up a finger, signalling for them to wait.

Tress continued to yawn.

Tress finally finished yawning and blinked.

Coraline took a drink, then yelled back, "What?"

"I said what are you doing?" the guy said loudly, leaning in. He was an out-of-towner, but she didn't recognise him as anyone from even the surrounding townships. His leathers marked him as a fighter of sorts, but it was his swords that drew the eye - one steel, one silver. A hunter. Of monsters.

"Drinking," Coraline told him over the roar.

He raised an eyebrow, then asked, "Mind if I sit?" He didn't wait for a response.

Coraline gave him a scathing look, then took another drink when Thimble blinked again. She was finally starting to get a bit drunker; while it was only plum wine, the cats were getting a bit blinky amidst all the ruckus and smoke. Aside from Agata, who had only noticeably blinked once since the morning.

"You look like you own the place," the guy said. "Table to yourself, only some cats on it..."

"I do own the place," Coraline said. "Aside from the cats. The cats own me."

"Oh," he said. Then he added, "The name's Dalric. Dalric of Forst. You?"

"Lyra," she said irritably. Even as long as she'd been here she still hadn't gotten used to the friendliness of people. And the need for names everywhere.[16]

A waitress set a pitcher of ale and mug on the table in front of the hunter, carefully avoiding the cats. While the gal was there, he ordered himself some dinner.

"Got any rooms, then?" he asked a bit later.

"Might be one left." Coraline said, watching Agata carefully. The tortoiseshell seemed to be closing her eyes very, very slowly.

Then, against all expectation, Tress blinked. Surprised, Coraline looked back to Agata, but the cat's eyes were normal again. She'd missed the blink, if there had even been one.

Just to be safe, she took two drinks and twitched an eye at Agata.

The guy waited until she seemed to be done, then asked, "Yes?"

Coraline explained that Jess could actually get him set up with a room, and the game continued while he finished his dinner. Tress blinked twice. Thimble just glared with his perpetually angry face. Agata stuck out her tongue and then forgot to pull it the entire way back in.

Finally, the hunter said, "So I see what you're doing. Why are you doing it?"

Coraline glanced up. "Why not?" she said, then took another drink as Thimble closed his eyes and rolled over.

He gave her a skeptical look.

She shrugged, indicating the half-finished sketch of a very angry-looking Thimble-atop-Agata. "They were there."

He nodded, then asked her about the town, how things were, what people tended to do around the place, how the preparations for the festival were going. She told him this and that, things were good though the threat of the war loomed overhead even now, place was largely farmsteads and tradesmen, preparations were going. Lots to do, why are you bothering me.

Then she quickly asked him what had brought him here, a professional monster hunter into the peaceful lands away from the fields of ruin, this is totally a conversation.

He blinked.

Agata blinked.

Coraline nearly slid out her chair in surprise.

"Towns got bounties, too," the hunter said. "Oughtn't neglect them when there's lives at stake here same as everywhere else."

"Well, we don't have any," Coraline said, pulling herself back into her seat. Then she took another drink when Thimble slid off the table. Then she realised that that hadn't been a blink at all and leaned over to see where the cat had gone, but he was already lost in a sea of legs.

"None at all?" Dalric asked.

"Naw," she said. "We had some lurkers a few weeks back, but the kids took care of those."

"Really. Kids." He sounded skeptical.

Coraline shrugged slightly.

"Don't their parents mind?" Dalric asked.

She shook her head, but was watching Tress suspiciously. "They're pretty responsible about it. Jora looks after them, and they've also got Nolan," she said. "If there is anything out there that is scarier than Nolan, we have yet to see it."

"Sounds like quite the fellow." he said.

"He's completely obsessed with sheep," Coraline said.

Molstead outskirts - evening

To say that Nolan was obsessed with sheep was an understatement. He was not obsessed with sheep. It went deeper. Sheep were simply everything to him, his entire life, his calling, his purpose. Everything about them made him happy. His parents had no idea what to make of this, of course, but they were not sheep. Nolan understood. Only sheep could understand. Only sheep could provide.

There was a noise below him, and Nolan yawned and looked down at the noise that was not a sheep. It was instead Jora, a girl who probably would have qualified as a friend to someone who entirely comprehended the concept of friends, but that would have been someone else who was not Nolan. To Nolan, Jora was sword-person. The avenger. The guardian. Of not sheep.

"Nolan," Jora was saying, "Please come down. I know you have your reasons for being up there, but your parents are worried about you. Just come down, eat dinner with them, sleep in your bed for a night, and come back in the morning."

Nolan frowned at her. There was a logic to it, he supposed. Bed was warm. He was hungry. He couldn't see much anyway. Tomorrow would be better. "Okay," he said, and dropped out of the tree.

He landed right next to Jora, his nose about two inches away from her elbow. She didn't flinch.


Jora escorted Nolan back as the stars twinkled overhead, and wondered if this had anything to do with the riddle that Kit had unearthed the other day. It had translated to something about 'the oldest key' for 'checking signs', and Nolan had just yelled "Boom" and run off. And then she'd found him in this tree. And then he'd remained in the tree the entire time since.

Nolan, meanwhile, thought about sheep. And a few other things too, but mostly sheep.

Molstead Inn - night

Dalric stood when the innkeeper did, receiving a suspicious look for his trouble.

"Don't," she said.

It was an odd response, but he just nodded as she left. He wasn't sure what it was she didn't want him to do, of course, but perhaps this was a local thing. For now he didn't worry about it - he was here for a job, a standing bounty that spanned several holds, and it occupied his whole attention.

The Carrier could be anyone.

The place was a bit quieter now, so he asked around, standard questions, getting a feel for the matter. His focus, for now, was on the hamstery guy from the market. The way he had asked the time, persistent and repetitive, was suspicious; they did that sometimes, when they slowly went mad. Became fixated in their terror, and there was always terror as the hunger ate at their souls. First the terror, then the loss, then the devolution into utter mindless thing, devouring and spreading, a plague like none other.

"Oh, Yink?" a bearded guy answered. "Yeah, I know him. Good lad until he went on that logging trip. Just hasn't been the same since."

"He's always asking," another said. "Always asking, never likes the answer."

"Asks a bunch of things, doesn't he? Like he just picks something at random for the day every morning."

"I dunno that he sleeps at all."

"Been going on a few months now."

"Something happened up there, I'm telling you," a curly-haired fellow insisted. "Others didn't even come back at all, and Yink... he just came back trembling, and he wouldn't speak of it. For the longest time he wouldn't even say anything. But this is worse, if anything."

"Oh, leave him alone. He's harmless. Just a nuisance, really," another said.

But Dalric wasn't so sure. He wasn't sure at all, but perhaps the guy was exactly what he sought, especially if he really wasn't sleeping. Odd that a Carrier might last so long - usually it was a couple weeks at most - but if the rumours that had brought him here in the first place were true, it could be possible that one had lasted far longer. Years, even, potentially.

Dalric did not like the implications of that one bit.

Molstead environs - morning

Morning came with a damp chill seeping through the leaves and across the grass. Everything was wet, including Nolan, perched in his tree once more. There, he watched and waited.


Dalric was also up, though not up a tree, watching the buildings, noting the paths, looking again for anything odd or hamstery. Only a few folk were out this early, and in the wet and cold, their breath formed mist that lingered in place, leaving strange trails to mark their passing.

He found Yink crouching behind the blacksmithy, muttering to himself.

The hamster man stood suddenly, and looked around, quickly spotting Dalric. "What time is it?" he asked, advancing slowly.

Dalric backed away, hand to his sword, but Yink just bounded forward, right into his face, and very nearly his sword as well, stopping only just before he impaled himself. But that was it, nothing more threatening, just a mild invasion of personal space, and that question, again.

"What time is it?" Yink stared into Dalric's eyes insistently. "What time is it?"

Dalric nudged him away with the tip of his sword, and the madman backed off easily enough, though he went no further. Just stayed as close as he could get, and Dalric noted his eyes looked relatively normal. Dark, perhaps, but that could be natural. Some people here did have dark eyes.

Dalric backed away a bit, but the guy just followed.

He pushed past him and still Yink followed.

"What time is it?" Yink asked over his shoulder.

Molstead Inn - morning

There was a dripping. Coraline awoke slowly, each drip cutting into the dream like a big cutty thing, unexpected, unremembered shortly after, until finally she realised what it was. It was still quite early, at least for her, and it occurred to her that, in the future, she should really stick to harder liquors. Nice safe things like vodka and shalott. And even brandy, for that matter - as bad as it tasted, it was a marked improvement washing the horrible taste out of her mouth. Now if only she could wash away the dripping so easily.

She groaned and went back to sleep.

The dripping continued in the background.

Molstead - noonish

The day pulled itself up by the elbows and, with great effort, turned bright and sunny. Clouds pulled themselves across the bright sky. Townsfolk busied themselves with stuff and things, while the children ran about eating miscellany, getting in the way, and occasionally helping amidst a general air of anticipation. Nolan pulled a twig across the bark of his tree.

Dalric had intended to tail Yink about his normal day, see what he did, what oddities arose, and generally just observe. Given that Yink was still following him around, this was rendered somewhat more difficult, though it did afford a few other opportunities. He could lead the guy various different places, for one. It would potentially make the guy quite easy to isolate, for another, decreasing the risk to the townsfolk.

For now, Yink was suspicious, but not too suspicious. Right now he was chewing on his thumb. He made no indication of the hungering, or hearing voices.

"Oy," Dalric said, beckoning the guy over. "You hungry?"

Yink approached carefully, then asked, much less carefully, "What time is it?"

"You don't give a fuck what bloody time it is," Dalric said. "Just answer the damn question. Are you hungry?"

Yink stared at the hunter for a moment, clearly struggling internally, then asked, "What time is it?"

Dalric glared at him.

Yink stared back, then finally nodded, very, very slowly.

"Great," Dalric said, and stuffed a rather large meat pie into the madman's hands.

Yink clutched it in a hamstery fashion. Then he nibbled it. Then he continued to nibble it. Then he nibbled it some more. All the while he stared at Dalric with buggy eyes, not even blinking.

Dalric had stared down all manner of creatures over the years - monsters of the night, undead, rabid bears, cranky old ladies, even demons - but this was just unsettling. Even so, he stared into those buggy eyes, refusing to back down. He was just unsettled in the doing. Very unsettled.

Yink nibbled.

Dalric's eye twitched.

Much, much later, the entire pie was finally all nibbled up, Yink was sidling closer and closer, and Dalric was certain of only one thing: he needed a drink.

But first he had to ask: "Do you still feel hungry?"

Yink shrugged, staring up at him, buggy-eyed and hamstery.

"Well?" Dalric insisted.

"What time is it?" Yink said.

Dalric winced, took a deep breath, and then asked instead, "Do you ever hear voices?"

"Yes," Yink said.

"You do?"

"Yes," Yink repeated, and pointed at Dalric. Then he asked again, sticking his face right under the hunter's, "What time is it?"

Dalric took another deep breath, and then slowly, very slowly, backed away and made his way out of the town centre. Yink, of course, followed.

Dreamscape

The world was a forest of legs: human legs, table legs, elven and orcan legs, ox and dolyak legs. Skirts and leggings rustled in the breeze. Leaves drifted limply about. The sun was high, but the air was cool. The forest was dead, dormant, waiting.

She stalked through the legs, looking for something but not knowing what it was. Then she caught the scent - or perhaps simply the feeling - and broke into a run, exhilaration in the hunt, bounding on all fours, wind streaming through her luxurious fur. The forest thinned, but the leaves were swirling about and now she was fighting to keep going, fighting to stay on her feet, the leaves pushing and jostling, picking her up off the ground, floating, floating.

It all fell away, but really she was falling, falling through the sky, away from the world, everything fading into blackness.

There was a flash of space, of green, of a rocky alien terrain that had become all too familiar, and then in a sudden rush of voices, the dream, too, fell away.

Molstead Inn - noonish

There was a face, worriedly, worryingly close to Coraline's own. It was Malla. She was saying something. Something worried. Something about something upstairs. Something come look. You said to tell you if we ever saw something odd, and there's something odd in one of the rooms, and I'm afraid, milady. Please, you need to deal with it.

"What?" Coraline said groggily. She still felt a bit like she was falling, though the feeling was fading.

"There's something in one of the rooms, milady Zidane," Malla repeated. "You need to come look, please. I don't know what it is, but there's just something not right about it."

"So what is it?" Coraline asked unhelpfully, pulling herself out of bed and into some actual clothes.

"I..." Malla shook her head. "It's black. Shiny. Feels like the whole world gone wrong."

Coraline frowned, but gestured for the woman to lead on. She grabbed a bottle of whiskey on her way out.

The room in question was the hunter's room. Though Jess had been the one to actually assign the guy, Coraline was still reasonably sure of this because there were leathers all over and the table was covered in weapons, mostly knives. It looked like he hadn't actually slept in the bed, either, but simply on.

Staying as far back from the doorway as she could, Malla pointed to the small-table by the bed. On it was a book, and next to that, three shiny stones, two an off white, one black, the size of golfballs. Coraline had seen similar once before. She remembered the cold feeling as the spell had settled over her, like water dripping down under her skin, and shivered.

Then she pushed it aside and attempted to smile reassuringly back at Malla. "Just stay here," she said, and headed over to the table.

As she got closer, she could feel the voices getting louder in her head, and it seemed almost as though she were pushing against a current, and yet at the same time, she was drawn through it, to the black. That black stone. So familiar. So inviting. Safe. Necessary. Needed. The voices rose to a scream.

Her finger touched the stone and everything fell away. Voices, floor, gravity, all the light and sound in the world.

It all just fell away.

Somehow Coraline managed to avoid falling over herself, and a moment later everything was back to normal - the floor where it should be, gravity doing what it was supposed to, the voices just a murmur in the back of her mind. She was holding the black stone clutched in front of her, its cold surface unrelenting in her grip. She forced her hand to relax a bit and gave it an annoyed look.

"Milady?" Malla said uncertainly from the doorway.

"This is a soul gem," Coraline said, turning, holding up the black stone. "Except this isn't a soul in it. Souls are... well, they're not really anything, normally. Just memories, resonance. They might glow a bit." She wasn't sure how she knew this, unless she was just making it up, but either way it made sense.

Malla nodded, confused.

"I need you to go call on the Mayers. Tell Edine I need the council," Coraline said gravely, forcing herself to put the stone back down on the small-table. She knew what... whatever the hunter's name was... was really hunting.

Her.

And a moment later the realisation hit her.

She had just fallen into his trap.

Coraline glanced back to the doorway, but Malla had already gone.

She proceeded to panic for a bit, realised she was still holding whiskey in her other hand, drank a bunch of whiskey, panicked some more, and then finally calmed down a bit. She needed to think, not... make it even harder to think. Except why would it even matter? Of course she'd be here, finding it. She was the innkeeper. And of course they should all be concerned. Duh.

She gave the bottle of whiskey a disappointed look, gave the black soul gem another irritated look so it wouldn't feel left out, and shuffled back downstairs feeling like a bit of an idiot.

Mayer house - afternoon

The Molstead town council was not so much a council, exactly, as it was a tea party that happened occasionally, usually whenever one of the members/members' wives/members' sons/random people staying with a member felt like it.[17] The members of the council either showed up because they had power, or had power because they showed up. Either way, it all worked out, because it was a relatively subtle sort of power - the power that keeps things moving, that resolves disputes, that brings down your scary aunt Edna on you should you step out of line.

Coraline was on the council because as innkeeper she knew folks, and as a wizard she knew things, and as an outsider with some seriously dark secrets, she was also just just bloody paranoid and made a point to show up whether they wanted her to or not. Which they seemed to, what with her being a wizard at all, especially since Keller never did.

The others were generally representatives of powerful or large families, or elders with a lot of sway, or Nolan's mum, who came mostly just because she needed to be sure Nolan wasn't disturbing anyone too much. Merlijn, the head of the militia, tended to come as well, for obvious reasons, along with Davis, who purportedly represented the interests of the temple.[18]

Edine Mayer was hosting.

Davis was eating a cake.

Coraline was mixing the Cerrisian equivalent of Irish coffee. Some of the wives didn't appreciate this. Some of them did.

Agata was crouched under the coffee table.

Folks were shuffling around and sitting down, or considering sitting down.

"What was so important we all needed to come today of all days?" Merlijn asked. He looked decidedly frazzled, though the rest of him not nearly so much as his hair, which was sticking almost straight up.

"A hunter," Coraline said, with as much eloquence as she could through a mouthful of highly alcoholic coffee. "Dalric of Forst." She was momentarily surprised at having remembered his name, but just went with it. Or tried to.

"So?" Edine said. "We've seen him around."

Coraline took a minute to choke on her coffee, then another to stop choking, before following up, "He's hunting the Death of Souls."

There was a stir around the living room, which was saying something because a good chunk of the folks were already still shuffling about for unrelated reasons.

"Are you quite sure?" This was Naran, one of the elders. He was leaning over his coffee unconcerned, but he generally always seemed unconcerned about generally everything. He was like a Finn in that, and Coraline rather approved.

"Quite," Coraline said. "Malla was cleaning the rooms and found something that put her on edge. Turned out to be a black soul gem, just lying out on the end-table with a bunch of empty ones. Hunters use these to prevent the Death from jumping hosts by trapping it instead," she explained, "which is also how you get the black ones."

"But if he just left it there," Moira, another elder, began, "How can you be sure he's hunting now? Doesn't that mean he'd already be done?"

Coraline shook her head. "Carriers are attracted to other Carriers, so it's possible that the gem, too, was intended to draw any out." They seemed to buy this, so she went on: "And why come here, otherwise? We have no bounties. And if he has soul gems, why leave them out? They're expensive, and black ones worth a bounty even beyond that. He's been watching the town, asking around, looking." She looked around at the assorted folks. "It's a challenge. A trap."

The others glanced around too. They all knew what this meant, or at least pretended to in order to not look stupid.

It was Nolan's mum, Gwynne, who finally broke the silence. "We don't have any Carriers," she said. "Do we?"

"Unlikely," Coraline said. "We'd know if there was an outbreak. Carriers don't exactly survive long, so the only way I see it travelling is by folks coming in and passing it on. And even then the voices they'd hear would make them incapable of functioning." Unless, of course, they happened to be alcoholics.

Gwynne frowned. "Nobody's come in from out excepting this Dalric himself," she said. "And nobody's been hearing voices what hasn't been for years already. It's a dead end."

"We can put the militia on alert," Merlijn said. "But until he actually does something, what can we really do, arrest him? And now of all the damn times?" He looked up, mostly at Edine. "Pardon my language."

Edine waved it away, opening her mouth to speak, but Naran interrupted her. "Why not?" he said.

"He was asking about Yink," Everton James noted. "Last night in the inn." Coraline glanced over, so he added, "It was after you'd took over the bar for the night."

"Huh," she said, then she remembered. "Yink, that the guy who keeps asking what day it is?"

"That's the one," Everton said.

Gwynne sniffed. "Been like that for years, Yink has."

"Does he know that?" Edine asked. "Does he care?"

"Do we care?" Naran asked.

The others looked at him.

Naran shrugged slightly. "What? Might as well put it out there. The guy's nuts. Useless. Can't even help himself. We don't even know if he'd be happier dead."

"That shouldn't be our decision," Davis said, though his graveness was undermined by his also choosing that moment to try to surreptitiously nab another cake.

"Doesn't matter," Merlijn said. "Yink isn't a Carrier, so Dalric kills him, then what?"

"But what if he is?" Naran asked. "Or what if someone else is, and we just don't know it?"

"Well we'd be fucked," Merlijn said. He didn't even bother excusing himself this time.

"No, Naran's right," Coraline said. "Why is he here, of all places? And is there anything we can do at this point, or should we just wait and see what happens?"

Davis shook his head warningly. "See what, if people start dying?"

Coraline said, "I don't know."

Davis sighed and ate his cake unhappily.

Granny Höhrmann, an elder sitting in a rocking chair in the corner with a cup of tea, belched. She rarely said anything, but when she did it was well worth hearing, so this drew most of the eyes in the room.

She continued to say nothing and just sat there rocking, looking at her tea.

The eyes in the room slowly drifted back to Coraline. She grimaced. She had nothing, at least not that she wanted to share.

"Lyra," Moira began, addressing Coraline, "What did you do before you came to Molstead?"

"Not much," she said. Oddly this was the first time anyone in town had directly asked. "I used to travel a lot, and before that I studied at university."

"Azorres said you carry the Deathgod's coin." Davis said. "For what did Kyrule grant his boon?"

"Uh..." she said, suddenly starting to panic. They were all too focused on her. They couldn't know, they couldn't, not what had happened, what she had done, how she'd taken the coin in that desecrated temple. How the voices had begun.

She had tried to use a knife instead of her staff. Like she had thought it'd work better to kill a person hands-on, or something. It hadn't. There'd been blood everywhere, on her hands, her hair, her coat. Black was the best colour, but it dried brown and flaked off for days...

"Lyra?" Davis said, startling her.

She jumped. "I... I don't know," she said finally, not looking at anyone. "I wish I could say it was relevant, or it was something that could help us here, but I don't even know what happened."

Davis frowned over another cake, considering.

"It's been two years," Gwynne said, looking at Davis. "And she's done nothing but good for the town. Let her alone, she probably came here to get away from all that."

Coraline nodded, staring at her 'coffee'.

"Okay," Moira said. "So what have we got, then?"

"Um, excuse me." Erik, one of Edine's sons, was standing in the doorway. "There's been a murder," he said.

"Yink?" Gwynne asked.

"Yeah," Erik said, surprised.

"Well, that was quick," Moira said.

Erik frowned.

"What happened?" Merlijn asked, standing.

Erik shook his head. "Feldman found him in his shed." Feldman's shed was generally empty and unused, probably due to the vaguely cow-shaped hole in the roof, and vaguely cow-sized hole in the wall, that made it slightly less than useful as a storage shed. Usually Feldman was chasing badgers and young couples out of it.[19]

"Was Dalric there?" Moira asked. "The hunter?"

Erik shook his head. "No sign of him, though I don't doubt he did it. Yink's throat was slit and this was... there." He held out a soul gem. It was glowing slightly.

"That's not a Carrier," Granny Höhrmann said from her rocker. "The soul gem's white. And your boy wants us to know."

"What, that he messed up?" Everton said.

"That there will be more," Coraline said. "He's gonna find it whether it exists or not."

"Okay!" Merlijn announced, raising his hand. "Who all thinks we have a Carrier here?"

Everyone looked around. Nobody raised their hand.

Merlijn nodded. "Yeah," he said, putting his hand back down. "So. Not knowing the first thing about any of us, who do we expect this guy is gonna go after next?"

"Oh gods," Gwynne said, horrified, and ran out of the room.

"Nolan," Coraline said.

Davis put down his cake.

Molstead environs - afternoon

Nolan was still in his tree. He had a stick, a thin branch whittled down to its core, straight and even. After watching the flock carefully, using its patterns as seeds, he was reasonably sure his hypothesis was correct. This was exactly what Kit needed. A stick.

He poked the stick in the direction of several random passerby. It needed runes. He was no good at runes. Runes weren't sheep.

Nolan slid out of the tree and scampered off.

Mayer house - late afternoon

The council spent the next half hour arguing. First it was about how to protect Nolan, then what to do about the hunter in general, and what even had brought him here in the first place. Then there was the trouble of what to do about Yink, and then Davis found a tooth in one of the cakes, and a fair bit of yelling ensued.

Amidst this, Merlijn gave up and left to go put some kind of protective detail on Nolan, assuming Nolan could even be found.

At some point Coraline also just gave up and had at the whiskey and proceeded to pay no attention whatsoever.

Edine yelled stuff.

Davis yelled stuff.

Naran said something in a completely normal tone of voice which was quickly drowned out by Everton yelling stuff.

Moira looked irked.

Coraline poured her some whiskey.

A bit later, Moira was a bit less irked.

Coraline sat back in a happy drunken buzz and stroked Agata's fur.

Granny Höhrmann rocked idly, knitting, before suddenly setting down her knitting and saying quietly, "Idiots, all of you."

Edine yelled some more.

Everton yelled at her.

Davis and Edine yelled right back.

There was more yelling.

Coraline got up, pushing Agata aside onto the seat, set her whiskey on fire, and dropped it on the coffee table.

The yelling stopped.

"Oops," Coraline said.

The coffee table was now on fire too, the flames licking off the surface, spreading with the whiskey.

Granny Höhrmann stood and walked over to the flaming table, then held a hand out over it. The flames went out almost immediately.

"There has been a murder," Granny Höhrmann said, glaring at the room in its sudden ghastly silence. "Doesn't matter who it was, doesn't matter now why. We assign a judiciary and we handle it."

Everyone just sort of stared at her. For some reason, despite this being exactly what their town charter said they did, this had not occurred to anyone to actually do.

"Lyra," Granny Höhrmann went on, turning to Coraline, "Will you be our judiciary?"

Coraline stared at the elder witch blankly. "Whuh?" she managed finally.

"Get to the bottom of this," Granny Höhrmann said. "You know more about these matters than anyone here, so make your assessment and decide for us all." She glanced around the room, but nobody dared disagree.

"Um," Coraline said. "Sure?"

"Then it's decided," Granny Höhrmann said.

Coraline glanced around uncertainly, then said, or at least tried to say, "Then I guess I'ma go talk to him." And left.


Coraline didn't actually have any plans to track down Dalric. Her main plan at the moment, in fact, was just to get back to the inn and possibly fall over. And find a toilet. She needed a toilet. Toilet, then fall over. Priorities.

Whatever happened, Dalric would probably show up there again sooner or later. He'd left his stuff there, after all. And his trap. And his stuff.

Agata jumped up and climbed onto her shoulders uncertainly. "It's not going to matter tomorrow, you know," the cat said, wobbling. Or maybe Coraline was wobbling.

"Yeah?" Coraline asked.

"Or the next day," Agata supposed. "But it'll be a mess when it happens."

"Always is," Coraline mumbled.


A few hours later, the remainder of the council had finally agreed on something. The tooth in Davis' cake had probably come from Edine's granddaughter Suzy.

Dreamscape

It was cold, nippy, even. They weren't anywhere in particular, just snowy fields, rural, vague. The snow was trampled, frosted. Agata was seated by her boots. Good boots. Old boots. They hadn't fallen apart yet. Good.

They needed to be somewhere, she needed to run, but the train wasn't coming, and the wind was bitter, and it was dark already. They needed to be out of here. The trolls were coming.

Coraline spun around, but there was nothing there, only the wind, the voices, whispering , drifting on the surface of the snow. It was so cold, bitterly so, even trying to get in through her hat, and she wrapped her hood tighter around it.

"Is this Finland?" Agata asked.

"Huh?" Coraline said.

"Seems cold," the cat noted. "And dark."

"I don't recall Captain Obvious being here," Coraline said, peering around. What was she even doing here? The station was run-down, abandoned, the tracks covered in snow.

"Troll," Agata said.

It fell on Coraline like a pile of bricks.

Molstead Inn - night

One of the problems with going to sleep drunk is that the sleep in question tends to not be particularly effective. It is deep and restful right up until the point where it stops being at all deep or restful, at which point the sleeper suddenly wakes up feeling absolutely miserable.

Coraline suddenly woke up feeling absolutely miserable. She was too warm. Her head hurt. Something was dripping upstairs. All in all, it was awful.

She drank a glass of water, almost immediately felt less miserable, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Drip.

Coraline woke up less suddenly this time, and felt less miserable, but the voices were getting a bit louder. She drank some brandy and went back to sleep.

Drip.

She awoke partially, drifting out of a listless dream into a room in darkness. Something warm and catlike was curled up next to her.

Then sleep was reaching up and reclaiming her once more.

Drip.

The warm and catlike thing was Tress.

Drip.

The dripping wasn't stopping.

Coraline rolled over, dislodging a cat. The cat flopped over. Another cat stared her in the face. A third was sprawled next to her.

"Nrrrgh, cats," Coraline mumbled.

"Yes, hello," Agata responded from the other side of Tress. Apparently Thimble had been the one she'd dislodged from on top of her. At least she hoped it was Thimble. She suspected she actually had enough cats at this point.

"What the hell is even up there?" Coraline asked. "Dripping."

Agata rumbled. Tress stuck up a paw. Coraline stared at the ceiling. Bloody ceiling. Why was she even in bed? Oh, whatever.

"You all are useless, you know," she told the cats, and fell out of bed.

"At least we're not drunk," Agata said.


Coraline went up to investigate, torch and staff weapon in hand. She wasn't expecting anything dangerous, but sometimes they did get bogeythings and other weird crap, especially where it tended to be dark. And indeed, the whole place was dark. They'd closed up without her, it seemed. Just how late was it?

Agata followed, all paws.

Drip.

The sound seemed to be coming from one of the guest rooms, and she poked her head in and shone her torch about, illuminating a guy asleep in his bed, and on the floor next to it, a bowl partially filled with water. The ceiling above it was wet, preparing another drip.

Coraline eyeballed it for a moment and then pulled out of the room, heading back to the stairs and continuing upward.

She poked her way into the attic staff-first, holding the torch to its shaft such that she could aim them both about as one.

All in all, the attic seemed to be an attic. Nothing moved besides Agata, who trotted ahead and poked about, investigating this and that. Coraline stepped inside and checked the objects in corners, but it all just seemed to be boxes, dust, bits of insulation. Some logs. A random pile of shoes, almost as tall as she was, that made no sense but had come with the place when she'd bought it.

The dripping would have been coming from the far end, so she headed over thataway, advancing slowly, checking behind boxes as she went, listening for anything unusual. A spent mousetrap here. Shadows that jumped away when she pointed at them. Decorations for Wintersday, leering from the wall, sparkly and bright, but coated in dust and gloom. A broken walking chair. A well.

There was some shouting from outside, but in here the voices were muffled and indistinct. She ignored them and checked that last thing again.

It looked like a well, at least. Traditional-style water well, circular, about a metre across, stone walls rising about half a metre up out of the attic floor, a bucket with a whole lot of rope tied to it sitting on the floor nearby in a small puddle. It was perfectly ordinary. Except this was an attic.

This made no sense whatsoever.

Agata hopped onto the edge and peered inside, and for lack of any better idea, Coraline leaned over and did the same, shining down her torch into its depths.

It was deep. Very deep. Far deeper than the room below it, and yet the room below had shown no indication of having had a well dug through it in the slightest.

They couldn't see the bottom even with the torch.

Coraline and Agata exchanged glances, and even Agata looked confused.

Finally, Coraline said, "It's a well."

Agata sat down and said, "Apparently."

"In the attic," Coraline added.

"Yes," Agata agreed.

"What," Coraline said.

She looked down the well again, but it just looked like a well. Deep, round, and fairly tubular.

This called for fire. She looked around, grabbed a random piece of wood, stared at it in general annoyance, stared at it some more, smacked it on the edge of the well a few times and then gave it a grumpy look.

The piece of wood resolutely refrained from bursting into flame.

Coraline continued to look at it grumpily for a bit, then said, "Phbbt."

A merry flame danced out of the wood.

Surprised, she gave the wood a moment to get more thoroughly on fire, then leaned over the well again and dropped it in. It fell a few dozen metres, illuminating the walls as it went, then hit water and went out with a dull, echoey splash.

"Huh," Coraline said.

Agata's ears perked up. "Someone's coming," she whispered.

Coraline pointed the torch and staff back toward the doorway. A moment later, the door swung open, and Dalric entered, sword-first. He reached up to shade his eyes from the beam when Coraline pointed it right at his face.

"Lyra?" he called out. "Is that you?"

"Stay put and don't you try anything," Coraline said warningly.

Dalric smiled. "It's just me, relax" he said, putting his sword away. For the moment he stayed put. "Is there something the matter?"

She eyed him suspiciously, and said, "You have some answering to do, and it may as well be here as anywhere. Why did you come to Molstead? Why did you murder Yink von Jummerlund?" That wasn't Yink's name. She had no idea what Yink's name was.

"You know why I'm here." His eyes seemed to linger on her staff entirely too long.

"No, I really don't," Coraline told him. "You seem to think there is a Carrier, but so far all you've done is endanger everyone here. What gives you the right to blindly kill, without consequence?"

"Consequence," he said, "is exactly it. There was a foretelling that Molstead would be Taken and destroyed. You must know how quickly the Death passes through, how important it is to act."

"Sure," she said. "When you've actually got something to act on."

Dalric nodded. "But the worst will come, I assure you, and you will need me here when it does."

"Full of yourself, aren't you?" Agata muttered.

"You've already found Yink wasn't a Carrier. Do not act again without coming to the militia first. Am I understood?" Coraline said.

Dalric watched her for a long moment, saying nothing, so Coraline just continued to helpfully shine the torch's beam in his eyes.

"Yes," Dalric said simply.

"Great," Coraline said. "You will be watched. Now go on, shoo," she added, gesturing with her light for him to get the hell back out of her attic.

"What about the dripping?" he asked.

"I'm dealing with it," she said irritably, not moving.

There was another long, possibly tense moment before he gave her a curt nod and backed back out of the attic.

Coraline gave it another moment just to be sure he wouldn't change his mind and come back up before turning back to the well and glaring at it.

"A well in the attic," she muttered. "What the buckets?"

The well didn't answer, and instead just sort of sat there. Being a well. Not doing a whole lot.

She picked up the bucket and eyed the puddle. From the look of it, the well was mostly just sort of there for no apparent reason, and the dripping was just a side effect of the bucket. All she really needed to do to stop it was clean up the puddle. But that didn't make a whole lot of sense either.

Regardless, she had a go at sticking the head of her staff in the puddle, and a moment later, the puddle was gone, flash-evaporated into steam.

Part 2 - Initiate unplanned disruption

You want the answer? You want the end? There is no answer; there is no end. There is only now. In every instance, now, now, now, ever-changing now. Nothing else matters. There is nothing else.

Enjoy your purgatory of the now.

Notes:

  1. We are telling the story now.
  2. Small events gain traction. In time, they may demolish nations. Catch them as they start, and you may miss the true design.
  3. Contradictions belie meaning.
  4. Things will become clearer as you go.
  5. This was not part of the story.

Soravian foothills - afternoon

The prevailing colour was brown, with hints of fire. Long shadows danced through falling leaves. Bare twiggage poked up and crowned the sky. Browning grass rustled in the breeze.

To the bear, it was all the same. It nibbled on some twigs, ate some grass, and ambled lazily along, not really after anything in particular, but possibly a bit of everything. Cerrisian bears, or at least the Cerrisian equivalent of bears, were large, fat, and antlered, with enormous claws and alarming teeth. Like any bear, they ate passing fauna, and a fair bit of flora. Like a moose, they ate various other flora on top of that. Like a goat, they ate just about anything else, too. They were, all in all, quite dangerous, and they filled the deep, dark woods north of Molstead like the dragons out of a bedtime story.[20]

There was a noise behind it. The bear looked about, peering into the nearby gloom with its beady eyes. One of them suddenly had an arrow in it.

The bear stood there for a bit. Then it fell over. Then it died. Then it got dragged back to camp and dumped unceremoniously in a heap.

Soldiers were all about, waiting around, horses set to graze, equipment dropped to the ground. The camp was very temporary, ready to pick up and move at a moment's notice. The men spoke in hushed voices, gambled, traded stories. No fires were lit.

Amidst this, two priests were arguing. Doranis was saying, "This is a bad idea. Have I mentioned that?"

His companion, Edric, answered, "Yes. You've mentioned that."

"Well, this is a bad idea," Doranis went on.

"Okay," Edric said tiredly.

"Seriously, this is a bad idea," Doranis insisted.

"Yes," Edric said again. "You've said."

"Well, it is," Doranis said.

Another guy came up behind them, saying brusquely, "Will you shut up?" This was Nurunn, the Deathdealer leading the operation.

"Sure," Doranis said amiably, and, then added, "but this is a bad idea."

Nurunn nodded. This wasn't exactly unusual behaviour from Doranis, but the priest was one of the best casters they had, and for this, should anything go wrong, they would need the best.

There was a horn call.

"We're up," Nurunn announced. Immediately the soldiers burst into activity, picking everything up, mounting their own horses, and readying to head out. A moment later a scout rode into camp.

The scout pulled up, confirming, "It's a go."

Nurunn and the two priests led the advance with the scout. Unlike the majority, they remained on foot.

It was about ten minutes to the site, easy going, little foliage in the way. A few other scouting parties rejoined them as they went.

The ring of soldiers parted to allow Nurunn and the priests in. Everyone else spread out around them. They could allow no chance of escape.

The horses fretted uneasily, shying away from the circle.

In the middle, the Carrier was pinned down by two layers of netting, staked to the ground and several trees, with a pair of Guardians sitting on top of it to hold him down. His hands and feet were tied, too, but even so he struggled mightily, twisting against the rope, pulling at the netting, hissing and spitting, far stronger than a normal man. His wild eyes were pure black, and they bulged as he strained against the netting, trying to escape, to feed, but for all his efforts he could achieve nothing. Every soldier here carried a soulstone next to his heart.[21]

"Huh," Edric said.

"Well, he's really far gone," Doranis helpfully pointed out.

"Hopefully not too far," Nurunn said.

Doranis nodded and cast a soulbinding on the Carrier, his fingers weaving the motions of the spell. It was normally wizard magic, but the gods could grant their priests many things, and when he was done he gestured to Nurunn with a flourish that the guy in the netting was all his.

Nurunn gave him an unamused look, then practically sat on the Carrier in order to keep the guy put. He wound up with an arm across the dirty chest, and the maddened face mere inches from his own. The man stank.

"Edric," Nurunn commanded.

The priest tossed him a small pendant, and Nurunn pressed its amulet through the netting to the Carrier's neck. Immediately the guy stopped struggling, collapsing back to the forest floor, and the Deathdealer took this opportunity to actually clasp the pendant's chain.

For a moment the Carrier simply lay there. Then his eyes began to clear, not entirely, not enough for colour to reappear, but enough that whites were showing, at least, and he stared vaguely upward, not really at Nurunn nor apparently at anything.

"That feels like something," Doranis said behind him. "Is it working?"

Nurunn lightly poked the Carrier's face. "Hey," he said. "Anyone in there?"

The Carrier startled, then his eyes focused on Nurunn. "What? Where am I?" he asked.

"You're safe," Nurunn said, relaxing his hold slightly, but only slightly. "Can you tell me your name?"

"Kessel," he said, looking around. "Kessel of Trom." He pressed against the net. "Why am I... I'm so hungry."

Nurunn nodded back to the others. "It's progress," he said, getting up, and nodded to Edric.

The priest hurried forward, getting out his notebook.

Something clinked, and they were interrupted by an explosion of sorts, black and shadowy, full of hunger and voices. It sent the Deathdealer flying, swallowing up several of the nearer soldiers outright, bringing Edric to his knees, clutching his head. Doranis threw up a ward, and though it wavered, it held as the shadow subsided. Many of the surrounding soldiers fell over as well, their soulstones black, every one of them, filled and black, but a few just stood there, staring, their eyes turning colour, their minds filling too with hunger and voices.

Nurunn picked himself up quickly, drawing his sword, but as quickly as it had happened, everything was still. The captured Carrier was gone, exploded through bindings and netting alike. And now the inner-most soldiers were taken as well, those few of whom even remained standing... Nurunn dispatched them quickly, not even bothering to soulbind them, just praying it would be enough.

"You know," Doranis began to noone in particular, looking at his soulstone. It was empty. "I don't think that quite worked." He was wobbling a bit, but he seemed largely unaffected otherwise.

Nurunn checked his own stone, and while it was dark, it only repulsed him. It seemed he was clean as well, protected, for now, by his god-given resistance. He cast it aside.

"Guardians, reassemble!" Nurunn called out to the ones in the surrounding woods, many of whom had also been knocked over by the blast. They needed to find this Kessel of Trom again, and quickly. But now he wasn't the only one, either. They had too many casualties. Dead, and worse.

Molstead environs - noonish

The days leading up to the festival proper were remarkably uneventful. Business was usual. Dalric minded his own. Everyone set up to celebrate and just be done with getting everything in from the fields.

Even the council matters were largely resolved, though they met again and agreed on some other things, too. Best keep the militia alert.[22] Don't alarm the townsfolk. Don't over-inebriate anyone. Keep the bonfire from getting too big. Avoid flinging cows. Anyone setting off really big fireworks should remain conscious while setting off really big fireworks. Keep an eye out.

Keep an eye out.

And today was the day. Now it began. The first day of any festival was always the loudest, and this one was no different. The daytime belonged primarily to the children, and to those who acted like children, and they ran around shooting off rockets, doing scavenger hunts, dressing up as monsters, and eating everything in sight.

Coraline made a point to be somewhere else during the majority of this. She wound up sitting on a fence, sketching, near one of the outlying farms, with Agata perched on a nearby post.

It was particularly uninteresting out here, and she rather liked it that way.

String 1265

"In the eye of the storm, there is no way out, no escape."

~ Andromeda

Elven ruins - afternoon

The four kids spilled into the ruins clearing with a surprising explosion of disparate energies, especially considering there were only four of them. Kit was in the lead, with Nolan accompanying, and with them they also had Jora, who tended to act as both nanny and bodyguard for their little party, and Erry, Kit's annoying little sister who just sort of followed them everywhere in spite of everything they did to try to dissuade her.[23]

Their interest for the day was in the Edifice, the mysterious solitary building still standing, untouched by time and weather, at the far end of the ruins, and so they made their way there through the dry grass and shrubbery. Erry kicked at some stones. Nolan had his stick from the tree, and as they made their way, he examined come of the white stone blocks of the rest of the ruins closely to ensure that none of them were really sheep.

"It's the centerfold," Kit announced as they went. "The last mystery. And this time it will be mine."

"Wallets," Erry agreed.

Jora said, idly, baiting, "They say ain't nobody's been able to open the Edifice since the Exodus."

"We'll be the first," Kit said. "And we have it. A mystery to unlock the mystery within."

"We have a stick," Nolan said. He held up the stick for emphasis. "It needs runes."

"It's a mysterious stick," Kit said. "A symbol of something old. Older than anything. The Torini were architects, mathematicians. They valued symbols over form, so we enter with a symbol."

"Runes," Nolan repeated.

Erry looked at the stick carefully, and said, "It doesn't look old."

"It's not," Nolan said.

Erry gave Kit a a pointed look. Her brother totally failed to notice it.

And then they were there. The Edifice, big as life, tall and white and gleaming, carved and adorned with flowing motifs, though the basic architecture was remarkably simple. Even the door was impressive. It seemed to sparkle in the shadows.

They stopped, looked at it, looked some more, looked around, looked at it some more, and then looked at each other.

"Well?" Jora said finally.

"Can you open it?" Erry asked.

Nolan poked the door with his stick.

Nothing happened.

"Here," Kit said, motioning for Nolan to hand over the stick. He did.

The wizardling held it aloft like a wand and pointed it about in various arcane-looking motions, generally directed at the door.

Nothing continued to happen.

He then poked the door with the stick as well, to similarly little effect.

The others just sort of went along with this, watching the door with interest, aside from Erry. Erry made a face and started picking her nose.

Nolan said, "I told you, you need runes."

"On the stick?" Kit said skeptically.

"Yes?" Nolan said.

"What did it say in the book?" Jora asked.

Kit shook his head. "Didn't. It's secrets. Things in books aren't secrets, or they wouldn't be secrets anymore."

"Runes," Nolan repeated.

"All right, which ones?" Kit asked, giving up.

Nolan counted off with his fingers, staring off into space, "Fish. Tree. Hunger. Chaos. Hazard."

"Seriously?" Kit said, surprised.

Nolan just turned slightly to stare at him intently, and so, instead of arguing, Kit quickly looked away and hastily scribbled the runes down the length of the stick.

"Poke it," Nolan commanded when the wizardling was done. "Poke the mysterious mystery with the stick."

Kit gave him a sarcastic look, but complied, and this time the magic sealing the entryway burst into brilliant sparkles before fading away once more. With a click, the door unlatched and opened slightly.

"Boom," Nolan said.

Then Erry ran up and pushed the door open a little more. This revealed an extensive mass of darkness, and she very nearly dove in before Jora grabbed her by the hood of her jacket.

"Hold up," Jora said. "Let your brother put a light on you first."

Erry pouted and held up, mostly because Jora still had a very solid grip on her jacket and it was about all she could do, while Kit cast some magelights on everyone. Then Jora let go, Erry ran inside for real this time, and Jora drew her sword and marched in after.

The two boys exchanged rather meaningless looks and headed in as well.

The entryway was grand but simple, with a high ceiling and staircases going up and down, a pile of bones against one wall, and dust coating every surface, fine, deep, and drifting. Erry was already gone, and Jora was standing at the landing of the stairs up, but she glanced back when they entered, unconcerned, only snapping to alertness when the door thudded shut behind them with a dull boom, resealing itself and sparking vaguely once more. The only light now came from the orbs over their heads, filling the space with their odd glow, casting fuzzy shadows in the dust.

Aside from the bones, there were no signs of life, or even any light sources; where there should have been windows there was only stone, and where a lamp should have hung, only a chain dangled down, lonely and useless.

"Erry?" Kit called.

With a squeal, Erry slid down the banister and landed in a dust-covered heap in from of him.

"Oh," Kit said disappointedly.

"Keep an eye on her," Jora told him. "Everyone should stay together. We don't know what we'll find, or if the place might try to fall down on us now that we're inside."

"What'd you let her run in for?" Kit asked.

"Where are the sheep?" Nolan asked.

Jora looked at him oddly, and said, "Why would there be sheep?"

"Kit said there might be sheep," Nolan replied.

"There might have been a lot of things," Kit said, looking about. "That was sort of the point."

Nolan frowned, looking about as well, and then fixated on the pile of bones. "Maybe," he said slowly, "there are sheep in there."

Woods outside Molstead - darkness

Darkness. Everything was darkness. Shapes looming, careening, drifting in and about, but still, only darkness. He didn't know what they were. He didn't know where he was going. It didn't matter. It was only darkness, only everything, black and close, enveloping, consuming.

Sometimes there would be lights, and he would go to them and put them out, inviting them into the darkness, bringing them home.

Sometimes the shapes would fade away. Movement would stop, and he would be alone, entirely alone in the quiet, the black, the whispers tickling the edges of the void. Then the shapes would be back, and the lights would beckon, beckon, begging him onward.

Shapes.

Darkness.

Hunger.

Everything was hunger. The darkness was hunger, empty, necessary, comforting.

Sometimes the darkness was full of lights. Usually it was only black. Black against the dark. Dark against the black. Another black.

He felt it, calling to him with its silent delirious voice, so cold, so empty, so sweet and comforting, so hungry. It was so dark, so far, but so close, and his hunger paled in comparison. His darkness was so bright. He had to make it, had to get there, to join with it, before the darkness went entirely...

White.

In his single-minded purpose, the Carrier ran onward through the woods, hungering, unseeing.

Molstead environs - evening

Coraline was now sitting on a stump. She was happily drunk, and as the evening was settling in, the real party would soon be beginning. The day belonged to the children, but that was mostly just an attempt to tire them out for when everyone else got properly going come nightfall.[24]

She pulled herself up, nearly fell over, and was very surprised to see Agata then fall over entirely.

"Agata?" Coraline said.

Agata picked herself up very carefully before glancing over with a look of utter disbelief. "How," the cat asked, "do you even function being this drunk? How are you alive?"

"Uh..." Coraline said. "Something something tolerance build-up due to long-term abuse?"

Agata put her ears back, and said, "That's terrible."

"Yeah?" Coraline said. "Sorry. Why's it affecting you?"

Instead of answering, Agata grumbled and headed off, picking her way carefully, nearly falling over on several more occasions, and Coraline followed.


They wound up back in town, amidst the festivities.

It was utterly town-like, and Coraline quickly caught up with everyone else, taking over the inn's obligatory point of primary disbursement, and of course dipping into it copiously herself. As technically a member of the militia herself, she was supposed to refrain from getting too drunk, of course, but merely really drunk wasn't too drunk, so that was fine.

The night wore on, and madness ensued. This time, however, no cows were flung. The notion never even came up. The festivities faded to a happy blur, the market square and surrounding streets filled with music and dancing.

Time was lost, forgotten. Perception drifted in and out of focus.

Coraline stood back and remembered, vaguely, what it was to live. Everyone was so happy, and she supposed she was too, but even so, she wished she could feel it. She wished, vaguely, that she could feel anything.

Things happened. None of them were cows. One of them was a chicken, which walked through at one point. People placed bets. Some folks won. Others lost.

Coraline said, "There is no chicken."

Someone else said, "It's over there. We need to eat the rest of it."

Something caught fire, but it was intentional, so that was fine.

People ran about. Some of them were alarmingly short.

There were many snacks and fireworks, and only one mixup so far.

Agata sat in the crevice of a rooftop in the hopes of sleeping the entire night off, but wound up covered in slugs instead.

Edifice - night

By the time Nolan had finished sorting through every single bone in the pile, the others had long since given up dissuading him to stop, and had gone exploring without him.

He turned the one sheep bone he had encountered over in his hands. It was a rib, and it had been the only sheep bone in the entire pile. This was rather strange, and he wondered what it meant. It was a conundrum that only sparked questions without answers, however, so he merely took it with him as he wandered vaguely down the stairs to find his companions.

On the lower level, they had found an obelisk, about the height of a man, with a hole through the top third of the shaft. It was like the one they had in town (and generally ignored), except this one had a small orb, floating unsuspended, within the hole.

Nolan walked in on the others, still holding the sheep rib, with, as it turned out, about as much of an idea as any of them, aside from Kit. Kit was just staring.

Finally, Kit said, "Yes."

"What is it?" Jora repeated.

Erry poked the orb a few times.

"Erry!" Kit yelled, and the orb pulsed slightly, an odd flare of light in this peculiar gloom, but nothing else really happened.

She gave it a pouty look in disappointment. "I wanted it to go shiny," she said.

Jora steered her away from the thing, leaving Kit and Nolan on the centre stage.

Kit rubbed his brow, then told Nolan, "I think it's one of the real ones. Active, even."

Nolan gave him a blank look, so Kit explained, "They were objects of power, beacons to magic users. The Torini could use them for all sorts of things, like travel to away places, because they put them up everywhere. I suppose a lot of the major cults kept up the tradition, though what we've got now are just a pale imitation."

"We could travel to sheep," Nolan said finally, holding up the rib.

"Something to come back to, then," Jora said. "It's late. We should get back before the party runs out."

"Fooood!" Erry shrieked and ran up the stairs.

"No!" Kit said. "We must go on!"

"We've already lost your sister," Jora said.

"Fine," Kit said grumplily.

Nolan produced an entire roasted sheep leg out of his bag.


Erry was waiting by the door when the others go there, and so Kit readied the stick again for the passage out, but the door gave them no resistance from the inside, simply opening at a touch.

Erry gave it an angry look and sidled out around it.

Kit said, "Huh."

"For emergencies," Nolan explained. As far as the others were concerned, this didn't explain anything.

Jora turned back in the direction of the town as they spilled out, and pointed toward the glare of the fire looming over the trees. "Look," she said.

But it wasn't right, she realised. It was too big, from here. Too wide. Too much of a glow, like the glow of her own village had been, so long ago, and she put a restraining hand on Nolan, mostly because he'd wound up right in front of her; in reality he was the least likely of any of them to do anything stupid.

He looked back, confused, and then, seeing her expression, poked Kit.

Kit poked him back.

"It's too much fire," Jora said vacantly. "Too much."

"Obelisk," Nolan said, handing Erry the sheep leg. She started gnawing on it immediately.

"Erry," Kit said, pulling her back, "Let's play a game. Let's go poke the shiny." He glanced back to Jora, but she was just staring.

Erry, on the other hand, simply continued to gnaw on the leg and made no attempts at all to resist as Kit attempted and completely failed to guide her back into the the ancient elven building. Instead she ran up and jumped around the door until he reopened it, and immediately charged back inside when he did, still gnawing furiously.

Kit, suddenly realising what a terrible idea this was, ran in after her.

Nolan, meanwhile, ambled nonchalantly back toward town, back toward that horrible glow, and Jora followed, the dread filling her like terrible fish, swimming upward and upward, drowning her, almost, in its foreboding.

Molstead - night

Something had happened. This wasn't right.

Coraline was on the ground, with others, too, around her, not moving. The bonfire was low. Several buildings were burning. Coraline picked herself up slowly, swaying. The world was spinning. Agata walked over and leaned against her legs.

At some point everything had gone horribly wrong. They hadn't even realised it at first, as the yells turned to screams, at some point something had shifted. Something had happened.

And now it was later.

She breathed carefully, in and out, in and out. She was still pretty drunk, so whatever had happened, it couldn't have been all that long ago. And now the screams. The voices. They sounded almost the same, distant, unimportant, all consuming. She didn't know where they were coming from, just there. Somewhere.

This was wrong. So wrong... so many voices...

...rising around her.

She was on the ground again, rocks digging into her exposed face and arms. What was she even wearing? Her blue dress drifted around her legs in whispers as she picked herself up, all hands and knees. This time her legs were unsteady, but differently, and they held as she finally dared to look up, wiping off a few loose bits of dirt.

This place, it wasn't Molstead. It wasn't even Cerris, but some other world, all rock and stone and dust, green, green, green. The landscape faded into the distance, jagged and harsh, mountainous, full of cliffs and clefts and ravines, barren. There was no sun, no moons, no stars, but only a strange glowing sky that washed everything in green, hanging entirely too close. Lightning flashed with no thunder. The voices were all around, invisible, drifting in and out of focus.

"Not this again," Coraline whispered. Her voice sounded like thunder.

The dog ran past at the edge of her vision, and she swung about, nearly falling, trying to catch another glimpse, but all there was was rock, and more rock.

If only there were life amidst the rock, but it was only rock and more rock, and no life at all. Only loneliness and rock, and the whisper of the voices, the glow of the dying sky, the broken sky, the broken world.

If only there were something, but there was only nothing. Here she was alone.

Completely alone.


As the odd pair passed by the first few buildings of the town proper, Nolan surveyed the damage almost disinterestedly. Everything was quiet, even the bears, with only the odd scream curdling the muggy air. There was stuff all over. A few people were running about, avoiding each other and ducking into buildings. Some were simply standing in place, not doing a thing. He pushed one of these over and frowned.

The man curled up on the ground, legs to his chest.

"Nolan?" Jora asked, skirting about the guy on the ground.

"We should flee," Nolan said. "Be safer. Easier. But that wouldn't help the story."

"What story?" Jora said.

"This one," Nolan said, gesturing into town. He started walking again, toward the centre of town. Toward the silence, the fire, the worst of it; whatever the folks had fled, it had been from that direction.

"What?" Jora asked again, following.

"It wouldn't work, not knowing what we've fled," he said. "So we need to know. Then we can flee."


Coraline woke up just in time to see something run past, and immediately scrambled up and ran after it. It turned out to be the chicken that had run through before, now running in the other direction.

"Chicken!" she yelled, grabbing after it. Then Agata launched onto the bird, bringing it down and slowing it considerably, giving Coraline a chance to finally scoop it up.

The chicken flapped about in her hands and tried to peck at her, and she wrapped it up in the bottom of her coat.

"Seriously?" Agata said.

"Um," Coraline said, and finally looked around, still holding the chicken. The bonfire was low. Broken things were everywhere. She could still hear some screams, but nothing all that nearby.

A door slammed behind her. People hiding in the buildings, then? The square was deserted, aside from those on the ground. So many of them. She recognised most, checking a couple of the nearer ones, and they seemed to have been trampled for the most part, some shot and stabbed, but with a few it wasn't clear what had killed them at all.

"No, no," she said. She'd stopped, and now this. She knew these people. Edine. Jess. Others. So many others. The one guy in town who actually liked shalott. The resident junk parts salesman. The log lady. Several militia members she'd even trained herself.

She'd thought she was free here, safe. That it was over, but it was never over, and it was maddening. Her anger, like everything else, was dulled by the alcohol.

"Argh!" Coraline snarled, forcing herself to look away. She found Agata back by the fire, watching her with eyes reflecting the dancing flames.

A moment later, Agata gave what might have been the feline equivalent of a shrug, then indicated toward one of the alleys. "Look. People."

There were three of them, but they didn't look like anyone she recognised, and more than that, they also weren't moving in what was generally regarded as a normal fashion even for the overly drunk. It was a sort of vague shuffle, moving toward them in such a way that the legs seemed almost secondary, as if something were pulling them from further up, using invisible strings wound through their chests.

"Are we sure about that?" she asked, and moved a bit to the side, testing, and they readjusted their routes accordingly, still coming right toward her. Then she scooted over to put the remainder of the bonfire between her and them. It was much smaller now, but the thing had been huge, and the embers and low flames were still quite hot.

The three shufflers readjusted their routes again, not even bothering to go around the fire, merely shuffling right up to it, climbing into it, roasting rather well, and kind of falling over after a bit. One actually made it out the other side, but then he, too, fell on his face a couple of metres away, flaming weakly.

"Okay..." she said slowly, and went and nudged him over with her foot. He was wearing plate armour, and amazingly, as it turned out, was somehow still not dead. He turned his seared head toward her and seemed to be trying to say something, but no real words came out. She drew her knife, since her staff was still stowed away in her bag,[25] and kicked aside the chestplate. Then she knelt down and stabbed the blade into the guy's heart, holding the chicken to his face to keep him down.

The chicken made indignant chicken noises.

Only then did she remember she was still holding it at all, and gave it an annoyed look as she got back up.

The chicken made a further chicken noise and flapped a bit.

"Carriers aren't so bright," Agata said. "Now are you?"

"Oh, shut up," Coraline said, tossing aside the chicken. It ran away, flapping.

She gave the now very dead guy on the ground another look, but he was too burnt to tell her anything. Who were these people? What the hell had happened? What had they been doing here, of all places? That had been soldiers' armour, and possibly uniforms under it. And how had so many been taken by the Death of Souls? Three Carriers? Together? That was almost unheard of, unless perhaps a much more powerful one had gotten into a densely populated camp and... she didn't know, exploded or something?

Coraline really, really hoped it didn't work that way, and fished out her staff.


The two kids got to the square fairly quickly, at which point Nolan unceremoniously shoved Jora behind a bush, and then Jora unceremoniously pulled him behind it as well.

Tthe place seemed rather dead - literally. Of the dozens on the ground, not a one was moving, and no lights were coming from the standing buildings. Only two were outright on fire despite clearly nobody having done a thing about it, but the night was wet and cold, and it hadn't spread.

There was just no sign of what had actually happened, either.

"See anything?" Jora whispered.

"Just wait," Nolan replied quietly.

They waited. It was solid advice, really, but even so, Jora didn't like it. Really, really didn't like it. In fact she was terrified. She hated it, but this was just bringing back too many horrible memories, and that they didn't even have a clue as to what it had even been this time around...

She muttered under her breath and kicked a stone, venting a small amount of her frustration, but only a small amount.

Nolan didn't move.

A moment later, they saw Lyra, the innkeeper, come around the fire. She was holding her wizard staff, looking around, one of her cats trotting beside her. Then she just stopped and started arguing with her cat.

Nolan and Jora exchanged glances, or would have if Nolan had looked back when Jora looked at him. Instead he stared resolutely forward, mouthing words in time to the argument.

"What are they saying?" Jora whispered at him.

"I don't know," Nolan said.

"You don't know?" Jora repeated.

"It's not Soravian," Nolan said. "Doesn't matter."

Jora exhaled sharply, trying to reign in her irritation, and went back to watching the argument. Whatever it was, it looked a bit futile on either side - like the cat didn't even care, and the innkeeper didn't even know.

"Militia aren't here," Nolan summarised quietly, watching. "No sign of Dalric either. Whatever happened had to have been huge. Where is everyone, probably hiding. Militia should be out, you know how bad they are, shut up, you really think this is your fault, no, shut up."

They stopped arguing, and Nolan trailed off as well. Lyra pointed her staff at something, and it turned out to be a newcomer, a filthy, ragged man shuffling, almost lurching, slowly toward her.

"Sixteen paces," Nolan said under his breath.

Jora didn't even try to ask.


He approached her like a bum after money, the sort unsure whether to ask nicely or just outright mug. He was filthy, covered in dirt and other things that weren't dirt at all, his clothes torn and ragged. His hair was a solid mat.

Unlike the others, which had been more ambiguous, Coraline knew this man immediately for exactly for what he was - a Carrier, so far gone that there was nothing left, only the pure depravity itself on legs, and all he could do to silence the voices, to fill the horrible void, was to take what wasn't his. A soul. A mind. A life. And more. Dozens already. Hundreds, perhaps?

Coraline tried to back away from the smell alone, a horrible odour reminiscent of rotting chocolate, but as horrible as it was and as much as she knew she needed to avoid such a confrontation, to get away, to be anywhere else than here, it was all she could do to even continue to hold her staff on him. Indeed, she found herself actually wanting him to come, wanting him, to join him, to take him, to devour. Hunger for hunger.

He fell to his knees before her, looking up, eyes as inky as the night, and held up his arms as if in prayer, pleading. Pleading for her. Begging. Welcoming.

She returned the gesture, holding her own hands out, placing them on the sides of his head, gently, caressing. It was okay now. He was home. There would be no more pain, for either of them.

Her staff tumbled to the the ground, forgotten.

Agata watched carefully, ready to bound away at the slightest indication of anything amiss. Or anything more amiss. This was pretty damn amiss already, and yet also horribly witchy.

Agata growled, mostly at the other Carrier. Mostly.

Coraline caught a whiff of this train of thought and almost laughed, and then suddenly noticed what she was doing. What was she doing? This man before her, her hands on his head, mirrored, each of them a mirror of the other. She could feel his pain, too, his loss, his fear, and hunger. So much hunger. She tried to push it away, to soothe the pain, to fix him, because she could, she could fix him, she knew she could fix him, but as she tried the voices in her head only rose to a roar and then a scream and she nearly lost all sense of anything, only voices and pain and hunger, only darkness, the darkness behind the green, the souls rising all around.

It fell away as quickly as it'd risen. She couldn't fix him. She wasn't strong enough, and he was pressing on her, his hands on her head, pulling her down, pulling at her mind, tugging at her very being.

So she tried the opposite. If she could heal with a touch, could she also harm? Could she kill?

It was a single powerful thought. A sense of nothingness, of timelessness. A ceasing of being, not mending, but simply ending.

He collapsed immediately, falling back and splaying in the mud, more dirt for his collection.

Coraline stared at her hands, suddenly empty, alone. The voices had faded into the background, out of sight and almost out of sound. Almost.

She felt almost whole.

"Okay that was fun let's go," Agata said pauselessly behind her, and turned around and left.

"Right," Coraline said, and grabbed her staff and headed after. She needed no convincing. She needed to get out of here, and quickly.


Nolan continued to watch the empty square for some time.

At some point Jora asked, "Are we done now?"

Nolan said nothing, and simply watched and waited. Considering that trying to move Nolan against his will was about as easy as moving a sack of elbows, Jora sighed and went back to watching everything that wasn't the square, just in case someone or something spotted them.

Molstead Inn - night

Someone had barricaded the front door to the inn, so Coraline went in through one of the back windows, berating herself about the entire situation. She had been so wrong about everything. She'd thought Molstead was safe, a place where she could settle down and be free of the demons, the trolls, pursuing her, but it hadn't been, simply because she had been here. She'd done this.

She'd had the audacity to think it possible to make a life for herself.

The laughter startled her, like something out of a horror flick, and then she realised it was her own. So she forced a couple more laughs just to be sure it hadn't been a coincidence, and then stopped. This wasn't helping.

She needed supplies.

Bob was hiding in the store room. Coraline said "Hi" and stuffed a decent stock of bottles and other non-perishables into her magic bag. Then she looked about and also added a couple of kegs for good measure, and, since they were there, a few bottles of her home-brew potion attempts.

She didn't even bother packing up her clothes and day-to-day items, just lumped everything up into a wad and stuffed it in. Then she stuffed in couple more things she'd missed with the initial wad. She could sort everything out later. There was space.

In the attic, she grabbed a few travelling items, noticed that the well was apparently still there, gave it a weird look, and headed back down, doing her best to avoid the small crowd of townsfolk hiding in the common room.

A few saw her anyway, so she just turned and ran.

In the back of the inn, she kept a small room dedicated to pretty things. Keepsakes, memories, books, reminders of home, reminders of who she was and how she had gotten here. An ornate filigree mask wired to a pair of sunglasses. A flower shaped from dried, woven grass. A bright cuddly sea-anemone. A wooden statuette of Ganesh, and with it a smaller one of a wombat in a vest. The sword Barney had sold her a few months back.

She grabbed the lot of it, and put the mask up on her head by the sunglasses, safely away from anything that might crush it, and then grabbed the two cats sitting nearby, too, though these simply wound up one in each arm.[26]

Thimble murred in surprise. Tress purred.

Agata jumped onto her head, sprawling over the mask and crushing it anyway, as Coraline climbed back out the window.

Molstead - night

Nurunn turned the dead Carrier over and retrieved the amulet, examining it carefully. It seemed the amulet had shattered, the black relic destroyed in the reaction. But it had worked until then. Almost.

He handed it to Doranis and turned to the small group of soldiers they'd brought with them into the town square, directing them out into the woods and down the roads, joining the other search parties for any remaining carriers set off by the initial blast.

In the meantime, Doranis began a ritual prayer for the general region. Things about peace and solace and finality, rest for the weary, hope and home. A few of the soldiers bowed their heads as they left.

The ritual went on, and Nurunn listened sadly, letting go even if only a little bit, remembering things long lost. Peace was what they were trying to protect, and if not peace, then the hope of peace. The dream of peace. The rest that he could never have, and indeed, it seemed the worlds never would.


Jora and Nolan listened as well, and Jora's irritation slowly faded. It was just words, but they were powerful words, and she'd always liked hearing them in her own village, where their priests had likewise been more ritual-oriented. Not at all like Molstead, where the only priest to regularly come into town at all had been Davis, and he'd only really come for the cakes.

She wondered if he was even still alive.

Another shuffler was shuffling into the square.

Nolan ran out toward it.

Jora jumped up as well. "Nolan!" she yelled, running after him.

Doranis continued his chant, but moved a bit away.

Nolan stopped in front of the shuffler and did a little dance.

The shuffler stopped and stared at him in vacant confusion.

Nolan did another little dance, this time centred on the other foot.

Nurunn threw a sword through the shuffler's face.

Nolan immediately stopped, turned around, announced, "We're done now," at noone in particular, and started nonchalantly walking back the way they'd come.

Jora just stopped and gawped at him as he passed, and then continued to gawp about a bit after.

Nurunn frowned, coming up behind her. "Is that normal?" he asked Jora.

Jora threw her free hand into the air exasperatedly, yelled, "I don't even know!" and turned and ran after Nolan.

Elven ruins - night

They got back to the Edifice to find it sealed, with Kit and Erry nowhere to be seen. Jora went to give the immediate area a lookabout, taking care not to make too much noise in the dark. Nolan grabbed another, much less appropriate, stick off the ground and very unhappily scraped the same shapes as Kit had done earlier into it with a knife.

He poked the door, got no effect, frowned at the stick, bugged his eyes out at the runes, and then adjusted one slightly. Then he poked the door again, and this time it opened.

"Jora," he said quietly, but it was enough for her to hear.

They hurried back inside, downstairs, and into the room with the obelisk. Still no Kit or Erry. All empty. They stared at the obelisk uncertainly.

"They could be anywhere," Jora said.

"Good," Nolan said, and poked the orb in the obelisk's heart with the stick.

There was a flash of light.

Woods outside Molstead - early morning

Coraline nearly ran into one of the soldiers in the woods, in large part due to how much she was carrying. She hadn't meant to be carrying so much, but three cats, as it turned out, were indeed 'much'. And they were heavy. And fluffy. And floppy. And they made it a bit hard to see when one of them kept sagging over her forehead, digging in the sunglasses and really messing up her hair in the process, and when she couldn't even do anything about it because the other two had both hands entirely occupied.

"Watch it," the guy said, then actually looked at her, a look of disbelief spreading across his face like a slow-motion mushroom cloud.

Coraline watched it with fascination, but was interrupted by his companion, who asked, "You got all your cats, or are you gonna need to go back for another load?"

They were dressed like the three she'd drawn into the fire earlier, but now she could see the insignia on their armour. These were Guardians of the Passing - warriors in the service of Kyrule. They didn't seem particularly alarmed at her arrival, however, so it seemed it was not her they had been after. At least not as far as they knew.

"Yes," she said, tilting her head for maximum cat-hat ridiculousness.

The second one laughed, the other gave her a dubious look, and she just grinned and started on around them.

"Wait," the second said, gabbing her arm and spinning her back around, causing her to drop Thimble. She tried to pull away, but he was much stronger than she was, and before she could really do anything at all he'd drawn her up to his chest, getting himself a face full of Agata in the process and nearly squashing Tress between them.

Agata hissed.

"Let go of me!" Coraline yelled, trying to push him away, but also trying even more so to not squeeze Tress. She could feel the cats' claws digging into her arm and neck.

Then she felt it. The voices rising. The strange dark pull of the Death of Souls, that horrible feeling that had suddenly become so normal in the past few days, haunting her, turning her world on its head and refusing to leave her alone. Calling for her to surrender, to give in and come.

She rejected it, trying to pull away, pushing as hard as she could as Tress began to let out a low yowl, and the soldier abruptly let her go.

She jumped away.

"Sorry, miss," he said. "Had to be sure."

"Sure of what?" Coraline demanded numbly, picking up Thimble and backing away even further.

The two soldiers exchanged glances, and then the one said, "There's Carriers in the area. Had to be sure you weren't one of them."

Coraline stared at them, confused, and then just turned and ran, past the brook lake with the frogs' singing, down the road, and onward.

Part 3 - Initiate transitory period

It didn't just begin. None of it just began. The things that happened, the things with meaning, they grew slowly, subtly, out of nothing. A few phrases tossed around online. A few words offered in a coffeeshop. A few whispers heard, burbling upward, in the back of her mind.

When Coraline had first encountered Rahah, it had been largely at random. Two girls, growing up on the internet, an ocean between them, encountered at random. They commented on each others' art, but they did that for a lot of people. They mingled and interacted.

That wasn't the beginning. It was just something that happened.

But little things grow. They talked and joined games together, roleplayed, commissioned each other's art. By the time they started mailing each other bad jokes halfway around the world, they were as close as sisters.

Notes:

  1. A 'universe' is an artificial construct.
  2. Some languages transcend meaning. They cannot be translated, for they simply are. These are the languages of gods, and of darker things.
  3. Everything is translated.
  4. There is no escape from what you know.
  5. Gods lie.
  6. This is a children's story.

String 3106

"One always approaches the unknown with greater caution the first time around."

~ Dr. John Haugeland

Blocky structure - underground

There had been considerable relief as Jora and Nolan suddenly caught up with the others in the strange new place to which, as it turned out, they had all been transported.

Which is to say Kit and Jora were relieved, Erry said "Hi," and Nolan asked where dinner was.

"Oh, that's what we forgot," Kit said. "So silly of us, after having packed everything else for this little venture."

"Really?" Nolan said.

Kit gave him an annoyed look, which slid right off like ducks.

"Anyone know where we are?" Jora said, getting to a slightly more practical subject.

The others shrugged, dissented, and, in Nolan's case, stared vaguely at a wall and pulled out another leg of sheep. They were in a room of sorts, large, square, dark, and with no discernible doors, windows, or even light fixtures. The only light came from Kit's magelights, including one he had affixed to the ceiling. A trickle of water down one of the walls indicated they might be underground, but beyond that, gave no real clues.

The only notable things in the entire space seemed to be another obelisk - a mirror to the one they'd taken to get here - and a strange circle of runes on the floor.

Nolan poked the wall with the water.

Kit examined the runes.

Then Erry asked, "Are our parents still alive?"

Everyone else just stopped.

"No," Nolan said, still facing the wall.

Erry stared at him, so he turned around slightly and explained: "The Quints were killed on the spot. Mrs. Enori was turned and Taken." The Quints were Kit and Erry's parents, and Mrs. Enori was Gwynne, Nolan's mother, but he always referred to them like this.

Jora said, "I'm so sorry," though she directed it mostly at Kit and Erry. Nolan didn't seem to feel things the way normal people did. It was easier to just go along with it than worry about it.

"How can you possibly know that?" Kit incredulously asked Nolan.

"Probability, previous trajectories, and sheep," Nolan said flatly. "Mr. Enori only survived because he would have wound up in the inn, escorting some of the small people."

"Small people?" Jora repeated incredulously.

"The less erratic ones," Nolan said, looking at Erry.

Erry continued to stare, then Jora hugged her and she burst into tears.

Kit shook his head, frowning, but there was nothing to it, nothing to it at all. "We need to find a way out of here," he said.

Nolan nodded, looking as chipper as ever.[27]

"Couldn't we just go back?" Jora asked.

"No," Kit said bluntly.

"I wouldn't," Nolan said.

"What would happen if we did?" she asked.

"Nothing at all," Nolan said.

For whatever reason, that prospect came across as even scarier than the unknown before them.


After what might have been anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours, they finally figured out that the entire far wall was a door and that, for whatever reason, the circle of runes was the doorknob. By standing in the circle and thinking that the door should open, the door opened.

"Is this Torini?" Jora asked as Kit stepped out of the circle, the door scraping its way ponderously aside.

Kit shook his head. The Edifice they'd come through had been a Torini building, but the architecture here was completely different, solid, dark and blocky. "Perhaps one of the other elven civilisations?" he suggested, but for once he was about as clueless as the others. Aside from Nolan. None of them had any idea how clueless Nolan might have been.

Nolan headed out immediately, walking quickly into the newly discovered corridor and looking about the gloom for anything interesting.

"I wish he wouldn't do that," Jora said to no-one in particular.

Kit hurried after and reapplied lights to everyone's heads, and then Erry ran out and clung to Nolan. This didn't slow him down any.

Like the room they'd come in, the corridor itself was long and blocky, extending into darkness, with more circles of runes next to more expanses of wall as it passed into its horrible, pressing silence. Down its entire length, there was no sign of any light beyond their own.

"It's like it's dead," Jora whispered, following behind. She had her sword at the ready, though there was no sign of anything at all.

Nolan stopped and opened a wall at random, standing in the circle with Erry at his side as the huge stone block slid open. Then he poked his head inside. Then he picked up Erry and stepped a bit to the side, and a moment after, a strange construct of swirling shards of stone flew out through the space where they'd been, turned about, and then started toward Jora instead.

Erry shrieked horrifyingly.

Kit threw a fireball at it.

Jora hit it with her sword.

The construct fell to its component pieces, which clattered across the ground.

Nolan kicked one of the pieces and nodded.

"What was that?" Kit yelled, finally running up.

"Hostile," Nolan said.

"You think?" Kit retorted.

Jora shook her head at them, and instead of answering, went into the room proper to check it out, but it gave no clues, just plain dark stone, blocky construction, an empty space, and a low square pedestal in the centre.

"We don't even know if it was supposed to be here," she said. "But if it was, it would have been here." She nudged the pedestal.

Kit shrugged from the doorway.

Nolan opened a few more chambers despite all protests from the others, and some encouragement from Erry, discovering more empty rooms and one full of featureless cubes, and eventually gave up, passing the remaining side doors by, and heading on down the corridor, the others following closely.

"How far does this go?" Erry asked tiredly at one point.

Nobody knew.

Finally they came to a corner.

"Lo, and behold, there was a... corner!" Kit proclaimed.

"The air is stale," Nolan said.

Kit looked at him and then sent a flying magelight down the corridor to see where it'd wind up. They all watched solemnly as it sailed off into the distance and then stuck to the far wall.

"You don't suppose there is a way out," he said slowly. "What if this is all just a giant dead end?"

"What would be the point of having a giant dead end?" Jora asked him.

"Ask Vitoi," Nolan said,[28] starting down the corridor once more.

The others didn't ask, and merely hurried to catch up.

River Lenn - day

Coraline woke with a start and nearly toppled out of the boat, but then remembered herself just in time. She was in a boat, she needed to keep it balanced, she needed to not topple herself and her cats out into the river they were all, apparently, still lazily drifting down.

Tress stared at her worriedly from her lap before shrinking back into a ball of unusually tense Thimble. The two cats had not been at all happy about getting into a boat, and yet when Coraline had gotten in herself, they had still come, piling in right on top of her. It had made paddling difficult.

Agata, perched at the front,[29] peered back disinterestedly before resuming her watch.

Coraline pulled herself up into a seated position, still being careful not to rock it too much, or disturb the pile of cat on top of her. The boat itself was tiny,[30] and though it had an actual seat, she didn't really try that much at even entirely sitting up, let alone getting onto that. She was still completely exhausted, sore everywhere, and yet the worst thing of all was her head. And her eyes. And all the sunlight dancing across the water right into them.

She groaned and clapped a hand across her eyes and immediately felt 62% better. "Agata," she asked, "did we... was there something...?" Coraline gestured vaguely with her other arm. Or tried to. She just wanted to sleep.

"Everything is perfect," Agata said. "Utterly, absolutely, perfect."

Risking another peek out at the water to be sure, it really did look fine. Flat, calm, and horribly bright, but that was just fine. "Great," she said, sliding back down into her nest in the hollow in the front of the seat. The wood was as soft as dreams.

Dreamscape

The snow was falling wetly around her, draping a soggy blanket across the landscape, drooping off of fencelines, hanging over edges of trees and roofs alike. The town looked deserted. The tracks were as snowy as anything. Coraline wiped some snow off her head and it melted in trickles around her fingers, dripping down her neck and back, slipping beneath her thick coat.

There were trolls around, but they would be dulled by the cold. They didn't like the wet especially. Babies' eyes. Running late. They didn't need to hurry. She could afford to stop.

She could afford to stop.

She stepped onto the station porch and peered about, noting the wetness, the leaves blown into the corners, wet and frozen. The ticketing machines were rusted with disuse. The door was shut, locked.

She tried it anyway.

It opened with difficulty, hinges resisting, screaking, grating all the way until it stuck, and a cloud of stale air drifted out.

It didn't want to. It didn't want her here.

Down here, Agata's voice said, drifting out of corners. You'll want to see this.

The door was only partially open, only a little. Coraline pushed through regardless, squeezing past handle and frame, into the darkness full of shapes. Boxes stacked in the gloom, leering frames of cabinets, drawers hanging open, spiderwebs gaping, empty. She was neither spider nor fly. It was all already over.

The darkness hung like a sieve.

Down here, Agata repeated, driftingly, distant. Coraline followed the voice, twisting through the maze, turning the corners between stacks, deeper and deeper. It was a labyrinth, silent as the grave.

The door stopped her suddenly, looming up around a corner all at once, set into a wall, ordinary, plain. Standard industry handle. Standard frame painted the same as the walls. Walls, barren, unnotable. No windows.

She touched it and the surface vibrated. The paint stirred, bubbled, shifted. It was rough, but not, trembling.

The handle turned easily.

Beyond was only darkness, deep, looming, empty. Voices in the shadows. Singing in the depths. Echoes. It went on and on, but there was only nothing. It went down, but the light stopped at the threshold. Darkness, darkness, darkness.

You'll want to see this, Agata repeated, the same words, the same voice, suddenly loud, right in front of her, all around.

The doorway, hanging open, beckoned, inviting. The darkness beyond hinted at shapes, ordered columns, singing against the black, and beyond it, more.

She almost tried to step forward, but she couldn't. She couldn't move, instead finding herself frozen in uncertainty and fear, paralysing, pulling her down as the dream dissolved around her, pulling, pulling, pulling, reaching, grasping.

River Lenn - afternoon

The first thing Coraline noticed was that, for some reason, she was standing waist-deep in the middle of the river.

The second thing Coraline noticed was that there seemed to be a hand holding to her ankle.

The third thing she noticed was Agata, sitting on a rock several metres away, with Tress and Thimble, drenched and shivering, half-standing on top of her. Aside from being dripped on by two other cats, Agata seemed to be oddly not wet.

The hand yanked her leg out from under her, and Coraline fell back into the cold water with a horrible splash. Completely surprised, she kicked at it and hit something that might have been a head. She stopped, peering blankly through the bubbles, as the sluggish current pulled her about. It was remarkably cold. Also she should probably breathe at some point. Shouldn't she be struggling right now?

Coraline thought about this, and it occurred to her that maybe she was drunk.

Coraline thought some more about this, and realised that, no, she was definitely drunk. Had she been sleep-drinking? She'd been sleep-drinking. How the hell had she been sleep drinking?

She probably needed air at some point.

Milky eyes that looked suspiciously not alive were staring at her out of a sagging, bloated head. She leaned forward and poked one of them. It squished and popped, oozing strange liquids into the already dirty water.

The head was attached to a similarly decomposing body.

This was not the body attached to the hand currently holding onto her ankle. This one only had one arm, and that was reaching for her... boob, apparently. It grabbed at it and slid off ineffectively, and Coraline gave it an annoyed look, before leaning down and to try to dislodge the other hand from her ankle just as all three of them were pulled right into a rock. Suddenly they were tumbling around that, and the hand let go regardless.

Coraline grabbed another rock, pulled herself out of the river, looked around blankly, and then, finally, remembered to actually start breathing again.

Agata and the other two cats half-climbing over her were now somewhat up-river from Coraline.

"Hello," Agata called out. "Having fun?"

Coraline shivered, coughing. It had been cold enough underwater, but now the brisk autumn wind was really not helping. "Um," she said, and her teeth started chattering as well, so she clamped them shut and tried again, yelling back, "What happened to the boat?"

Agata shook Thimble off her head and pointed to a small muddy beach further down with a paw, where the boat had apparently washed ashore. Then she wrapped the paw around Thimble's neck and started grooming his head. Tress was also drying herself at this point.

Coraline shivered violently and suddenly burst into flame. Panicking, she flailed, nearly fell back into the river, and then stopped, confused, when the flames went out almost as immediately as they'd started, leaving her only slightly singed. And dry.

A bloated face was staring at her out of the water.

Coraline glared at it.

The face stared back.

"Agata," Coraline yelled, "why are there dead people in the river?"

"They're called drowners," Agata said.

"But why?" Coraline asked, pointing. "Why are they there?"

"Why are you?" Agata said, and started grooming herself.

"I... what?" Coraline said.

The face was joined by another two faces. And a hand. The hand was holding a detached foot. It would have been creepy, except all they were doing was staring at her. Maybe it was creepy. She wasn't really sure anymore.

Coraline looked around blankly, realised her bag, at least, was still firmly secured to her belt, and tried to find her staff. Only after a bit of searching did she finally remmeber she'd had it out in the boat with her. And now there was something of an entire crowd of faces staring up at her out of the burbling waves. Several of them seemed to be little but bones, long since cleaned of flesh by the sand and stones.

So she pulled out the sword, instead. Barry's sword. Her name written all over it, he'd said.

None of the drowners were actually doing anything.

She unsheathed the sword carefully, examining the blade. Indeed, 'Lyra Zidane' was written down the middle in flowing patterns, with engraved leaves dancing out around it. It was actually quite pretty, but it also looked remarkably functional even despite all this.

The drowners were still just staring up at her.

Fastening the scabbard to her belt, held fast over her thick wool skirts, she squatted down and poked one of the nearer ones with the sword, and it bobbed away, another taking its place.

She poked another and this one grabbed onto the blade, so she stood and pulled it out of the water, still clinging, first arms, head, shoulders, even an entire torso, before the hips and a bunch of what might have been the remains of organs fell off with a horrible sloughing.

Coraline regarded the undead head and torso for a moment.

The undead head and torso regarded her right back.

"What," Coraline said blankly, and shook the sword about a bit, trying to dislodge the unintended passenger, but it clung on surprisingly well, swinging about. A mass of further mostly liquefied organs sloshed out.

Finally she just scraped it off on the rock, held it down with a foot, and stabbed it through the head, trying not to hit the rock with the blade itself in the process. This seemed to kill it, and as it relaxed and quit moving, she kicked it back into the water.

So she sat down and started awkwardly hacking at the ones in the river, too, grabbing a few of them as they got close to steady them, and they fell to pieces, losing coherence, drifting vaguely downstream like nothing more than random bits of refuse.

Another one loomed out from under the murk to also peer up at her from just beneath the water's surface, so she tried to impale that one too, but the blade just pushed it back under the water.

This was stupid. She had no idea how many were actually in the river, but they seemed to be completely harmless in practice. Really, she just didn't want to get wet again, but there didn't appear to be any other way to shore but by jumping back in and wading. And she needed to find her staff. And get the cats. More wading. Upriver.

Groaning and muttering various things perkele, she slid back into the icy water, slashed at a few more drowners, and forced her way back up toward the cats, falling over twice in the process. The second time, she found her staff just sitting on some rocks at the bottom of the river, glinting oddly up at her.

Blocky structure - underground

In the dark there was only silence, broken only by the patter and echo of tiny feet in huge boots, drifting like dust.

Then Erry was asking why they didn't have magic ponies. Why weren't magic ponies a thing? "I wanna ride a magic pony," she went on, her voice huge against the echoes. "It could be shaped like a giant sofa and gallop by flying around."

"That's just stupid," Kit said.

"No you're stupid," Erry retorted.

"I don't think it's stupid," Jora said. "Riding a flying sofa would be a lovely way to get around, especially in summertime. Comfy pillows, wind in your hair..."

Kit harrumphed.

"This place is entirely devoid of sheep," Nolan said.

The new corridor finally led them to a set of blocky stairs, turning back in the direction they'd come, but down. At the base was another one of the door-walls.

Kit glanced at the others.

"Sure?" Jora said.

"I don't think it will crush us, but we'll need to come up slowly," Nolan said.

Kit went down to the circle, the others following him a few feet behind. Jora started to draw her sword, but Nolan stopped her and motioned for her fasten the strap to hold it in instead.

Even more confused, she did.

When Kit stepped into the circle of runes, nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen.

Nothing continued to continue to happen.

"I guess it's-" Kit began, but was interrupted when the door exploded, spurting water everywhere around the edges and then cracking down the middle, too, allowing through another torrent. He threw up a shield, deflecting most of the blocks when the entire thing finally shattered completely and threw bits of door at them, but it only countered some of the force of the water behind it. The surge of water knocked the breath out of him as it carried him off his feet, and almost immediately the entire corridor had flooded.

It was utter chaos. Currents of water still pouring in, stairs and walls tumbling past, bubbles of stale air obscuring any hope of a view. He tried to swim, to pull himself through it, but it didn't work, just banged him up more as the whole world swirled around.

He couldn't breathe. His lungs hurt, burning, needing air that wasn't there, and he thrashed in a panic, trying to get out.

A hand on his arm stopped him, strong, wiry, holding him in place, and Kit realised it was Nolan, perfectly calm, even as the waters darkened around them, gesturing for him to do something, to make something. Magic. Gestures of breathing, to the water around, and suddenly he understood, quickly casting a waterbreathing charm before he passed out entirely.

The effect was immediate as he took deep, needful breaths of the suddenly life-giving water. The pain in his lungs was gone, his muscles were likewise no longer screaming at him for uncertain reasons, and he could see again, clearly see. Nolan was nodding at him.

Kit nodded back, and grinned.

Nolan pointed to himself.

"Oh, right," Kit tried to say, but it came out as a series of weird moans instead of the words themselves. Regardless, he cast the charm on Nolan, as well, who then immediately swam off up the stairs, moving through the water with an oddly snake-like motion.

This came as a bit of a surprise, until Kit suddenly remembered the other two, too. He tried to yell, let out another strange moan as a result, and swam as quickly as he could after Nolan.

As it turned out, this was not very quickly at all.

Nolan met him halfway, pulling Jora, who was holding Erry with all her remaining strength, behind him. Erry had, apparently, already passed out.

Kit did his best to hurry over, finally managed to position himself in such a way that Nolan could get Erry in front of him, and then cast the charm on both her and Jora.

Erry didn't wake up, but Jora took in several grateful breaths before smacking the other girl a few times, humming something very alien-sounding, but also oddly comforting.

A moment later, Erry was breathing again and making strange noises. Upon realising how strange the noises were, she then started making even stranger noises, looking quite pleased.

Kit rolled his eyes.


For lack of any better ideas - or, for that matter, any way to communicate any better ideas - they headed out into the newly-opened chamber. Nolan took the lead, as the fastest swimmer in practice.[31]

The chamber was vast and flooded. Their lights only illuminated a short distance into the water, highlighting each other, the nearest wall and floor, and nothing else against the utter black of the space.

They went in a short ways, lost sight of even the near wall, and stopped, crowding around each other in concern.

Erry stopped singing.

Jora made some noises and gestured a bit, trying to communicate her bad feeling about all this.

Kit made some really weird bubbles with his hands and frowned.

Nolan shrugged and started swimming out again, toward what was probably the centre of the chamber, and was, rather quickly after, greeted by an enormous eye looming out of the black. The eye was attached to an even more enormous trunk, as well as, apparently, a set of really massive tentacles further off to the side.

The entire thing immediately pushed itself upwards, such that several tentacles were now facing the party. They seemed to be lined with hundreds of sharp teeth, and some other things that were even more disturbing than teeth. Hooked and multi-pointed things.

Nolan seemed completely unsurprised to see it, and simply swum up to get back to eye level again. He gestured toward himself, then to it, then around, then made a motion that seemed to mean 'out'.

Then he nodded, gestured toward the others to come along, and swam around and past the massive squid.

They followed cautiously, but it made no motion to stop them, and soon they were utterly alone in the black water once again, swimming through what for all purposes felt almost like nothing at all.

Nolan periodically stopped and waited for the others to catch up.

Finally, after a few minutes of horrible noisy silence, they reached the far wall. It, or least the small patch that their magelights illuminated, was as flat and blank as all the walls they'd passed.

They regarded it for a moment. A mass of tentacles and other squid parts they didn't recognise caught up with them and also regarded it for a moment.

They regarded the mass of tentacles and other squid parts for a bit.

Nolan swam off in another direction, following the wall, and, not wanting to continue a stare-off with a massive squid, the other three once again followed him, and the wall changed as the went, first only subtly, then blatantly crumpled, full of cracks and holes spreading out.

Even the ceiling was looming down. The water here was colder, and felt heavier somehow.

Nolan stopped and bonked what might have been one of the epicenters, and gave it a pushing motion. He gestured for Kit to come over, and repeated the pushing motion.

Kit gave him a confused look, and then suddenly understood and grinned. As Nolan and Jora pulled Erry away, back toward the massive squid, Kit gave the wall a simple magical push, building it up slowly through the surrounding water, and exploding through the wall, the cracks growing, the crumples shifting. He did it again and the wall groaned, before exploding outward in slow motion as rocks and huge boulders alike drifted out and down.

Almost immediately the squid started advancing toward the hole, but as Kit glanced back, he realised the opening wasn't nearly big enough for the thing to get through safely, so before it rammed into him he hurriedly gave the edge of the wall another magical shove, widening the hole considerably.

Then the squid rammed into him anyway, wrapping a tentacle around him and yanking him along with surprising gentleness before pushing him aside as soon as it was out.

The others caught up and gathered around him as the creature disappeared into the gloom, though now the water wasn't entirely black, just mostly. There was also a mostly, but not entirely, indiscernable glow in the direction that seemed to be up. It was a little hard to tell what was what.

Behind them the side of a rough mountain loomed out of the deep, crossed by the other side of what was, next to the mountain, a disturbingly smooth expanse of wall. Aside from the hole Kit had punched through it. That wasn't very smooth at all.

Erry blurbled tiredly and tugged at Jora's sleeve. Jora drew her into a hug, and the girl fell asleep almost immediately.

Jora gave Kit a bemused look. A very, very strange-looking fish swam past them.

Nolan pointed upward and glanced at the other two enquiringly. They nodded, and the lot of them started upwards, Nolan helping Jora to drag Erry's sleeping deadweight up with them. Initially they followed the mountain, but then the mountain ended, still well beneath the surface, and then they ascended alone, slowing periodically to catch some rest. It didn't actually seem to help, but Nolan insisted.

Somn's Post - evening

By the time Coraline got into the crossing town of Somns's Post, she was completely grumpy, and she finished the voyage off by crashing the boat into a particularly large rock at a particularly slow speed. The cats jumped out immediately. Coraline just sat there for a bit while the current slowly turned the tiny boat around and wedged it into another rock.

A few townsfolk were watching curiously.

A drowner drifted up out of an eddy and Coraline stood up suddenly, smacked it several times with her staff, and nearly fell into the river before a guy jumped out onto the rocks and pulled her ashore.

Coraline shook him off, muttered angrily, shot the drowner in the face, and only then turned back to the guy and demanded, "Where can I get a drink, hmm?"

Surprised, the guy took a step back. He looked like a rather common sort, but muscular and fairly well-dressed, and he had just been trying to help, she realised only a considerable moment later.

"Er, sorry," Coraline said. "It's been a long day. Thanks for, um, that." She gestured vaguely at the boat, which was just sort of bobbing between the two rocks.

He nodded, and said, "I'm Tanin. You came down in that?"

"Er... yes?" Coraline said.

"Impressive," Tanin said. "Inn's down the road over there," he added.

Coraline gave the boat one last dubious look, realised her mask had fallen off and was still sitting in the bottom of it, quickly grabbed that and two cats, and, nodding at the guy, headed off in the indicated direction.

String 1990

"One of the symptoms of those going completely yo-yo was that they broke out in chronic cats. Usually cats who'd mastered every detail of feline existence except the whereabouts of the dirt box."

~ Susan Sto Helit

Inn at Somn's Post - evening

Coraline entered the inn amidst only a little hubbub. It was not a busy town, just a town were folks passed through, and folks were passing through, hanging around the inn, getting drinks, chatting, not being terribly noisy.

In fact it was remarkably similar to her own inn, sans the hazard sticking out of the ceiling.

She collapsed into a stool at the bar next to a guy[32] who was hunched over in a manner that looked surprisingly similar to how she felt, plopped a cat down in front of her, plopped the mask on top of the cat, and then plopped her head down on top of the mask.

This resulted in her getting a cheek full of metallic mask bits and an unhappy mew from the cat, so she shoved the mask out and tried again.

"Um," the innkeeper said, stopping in front of her.

"Hi," Coraline said, raising her head ever so slightly. "You got any rum?"

"Not after the incident with the Jenners," he said.

"Grog?" Coraline asked.

"No," the innkeeper said.

"Bourbon?"

"What?" he said.

Coraline gave him a withering look and then just gave up, collapsing back onto the cat. The cat, apparently Thimble, started licking her hair.

"Barkeep, a shalott for the lady," the guy next to her said.

The innkeeper frowned, started to say something, then simply thought better of it and obliged, plopping a suspiciously stinky mug down in front of Coraline before scooting over to handle some other patrons.

She downed it quickly as Tress hopped onto the bar as well to investigate, only plonking the mug back down in front of the cat when it was completely empty.

Then she actually sat up properly, much to Thimble's relief.

"So you're still alive," the guy next to her said, and she finally gave him a proper look. He looked like a guy. An oddly pretty guy, older, muscular and well-built, tired and quite worn, but neat. His long, silvery hair was tied back behind his neck, framing a face far more perfect than she really recalled. The swords, however, were familiar, steel and silver like the hunter's, but very fine, and the longcoat, too, stood out, contrasting in particular with the swords. It looked terrible.

He was a Deathdealer. She'd learned that much before their conversation the last time had dissolved entirely.[33]

"New coat?" she asked.

"No?" he said.

"It was him," Agata said, gesturing toward him with a paw, which she then proceeded to lick.

Coraline gave the cat a curious look.

"He killed my previous witch," the cat said.

"Oh," Coraline said. "Why?"

The guy raised his brow. It was a very well-defined brow. There was a small scar over his right eye.

"She was boiling children for her soup," Agata said, getting up. "I'd told her it wouldn't work. She didn't listen."

"Work for what?" Coraline asked, trying not to stare, but still totally staring anyway.

Agata started padding off across the bar over toward the inkeeper.

"Why are you talking to your cat?" the Deathdealer asked suspiciously.

"Why are you talking to a crazy lady?" Coraline retorted.

He smiled vaguely, shaking his head. "So you're a witch, then."

"You're a witcher," Coraline said.

"Am I?" the he asked.

"Cows," Coraline replied, finally looking away, clonking her mug up and down for emphasis. The shalott was definitely going to her head, and it was pretty great, all things considered. Aside from the fact that there wasn't any left.

She glared at it disappointedly, only for the innkeeper to very suddenly be right in front of her, refilling it. "Nice cat," he told her, indicating toward Agata, who was now standing in front of the Deathdealer, eyeing him placidly as he snaked a hand out to touch her.

Agata paused a moment, taking a moment to sniff his fingers carefully, before curling her head into his hand as he scratched her around the ears.

This time the innkeeper left the bottle, and as Coraline picked up her mug, she paused to smell its full horror. It felt green, glowing, full of broken magic and decaying dreams. The shapes of shattered worlds swirled in its depths.

"You know how that stuff is made, right?" Agata asked, rolling over onto the Deathdealer's hand and sticking a paw up his sleeve.

"Like a fine wine," Coraline said, downing the mug. "With a full bouquet of pine cones."

"Exactly," Agata rumbled.

"That doesn't sound right," the Deathdealer said, pulling his arm out from under the cat, and Agata flopped back over unexpectedly, looking back at him with surprise and disdain.

He ignored this and added, gathering his things and scooting over to sit properly next to her,[34] "I know I know you from somewhere, and you're not fucking..." he stopped, then just asked, "Remind me, who are you?"

Coraline gave him a surprised look, which probably looked almost exactly like any of her other looks.[35] Usually she was the one forgetting other people. Although she supposed she had forgotten his name. Or whether or not he'd actually introduced himself in the first place. Or if she had, either. They'd both been pretty drunk.

"Um," she said. "I think it was in Telegrin, we talked about gods and philosophy and how time works, and there was a lot of shouting, and drinking, and I'm not really sure what happened after that."

"Shit," he said. "That was you?"

Coraline nodded. "I woke up in some alley and you were there too, except you wouldn't wake up at all. But you seemed to be not dead, and not a... um..." she stopped. Not a Carrier, she almost said. She'd been so afraid then that she'd slip up, especially after she'd found out what it even was. She'd been so afraid that what she was doing wasn't enough, because all the lore said nothing could be enough, and all she was doing was drinking, for the first time in her life, far more than she ever would have imagined possible. She'd been so afraid that it would just get worse all over again.

Some guys nearby were arguing about something that seemed to translate only as 'sportsball'.

"Not what?" he asked suspiciously.

"Nothing" Coraline said. What had happened, anyway? Usually she had at least some memory even from when she was completely drunk, but it was entirely possible they'd gotten into more than just alcohol that night. Assuming it had been only one night. Assuming...

"Hah," he said. "So you just fucking left me there, did you?"

Coraline reached out and acquired a cat. "That was a... transitory period of my life," she explained, not really looking at him, "in which I wasn't really sure what I was doing and didn't necessarily want to always stick around and make things worse." She paused, then added, "Um, sorry."

"A joke," the Deathdealer said. "The name's Vardaman. You said yours was Amadi, I think?"

Vardaman. That did sound familiar.

She refilled her mug, but the bottle was almost empty as well, and the last trickles glooped sadly out.

"Perkele," Coraline muttered. Everything just felt off. Slightly upside down, not quite right. Pulling. She glanced over to the guy - to Vardaman - in surprise. It seemed to be coming from him, but not.

It seemed...

"I, uh, I need to go," she said hastily, scooting away. "Sleep. It's been a long day. We'll maybe talk later." Not looking back, she hurried over to the innkeeper to secure a room. She needed to flee; she knew she needed to, but she couldn't now. She was too tired, too drunk.

And then he was there again, right next to her, and she could feel the pull, the strange, seductive pull of the black. He was helping her up the stairs, holding her, so strong and yet so comforting, and she was losing herself again into the welcome darkness, the voices clamouring to get through the veil of shalott, but she couldn't lose herself, not here, not now, not...

Somewhere, amidst all the other voices, she heard someone say, "It's all right to be afraid. Rest, now."

Inn at Somn's Post - night

Coraline woke up slowly. She was in a bed, she realised, but the room was lit, and more than that, she wasn't alone. Vardaman, the Deathdealer, was sitting in a chair nearby, watching her, scratches on his hands, leaning forward with her mask held up to his mouth. His very nice mouth.

Coraline closed her eyes and tried very hard to go right back to sleep, which didn't work one bit. The problem was, if she were the sort of person who'd hit anything, she'd hit that. She'd hit that so hard. There would be definite banging going on. All manner of fucking.

Except he was a Deathdealer, he clearly knew something was up, he was probably going to kill her, and having sex with her was probably the last thing on his mind, and it really, realy, really needed to not be on her mind right now either.

"I know you're awake," he said.

Coraline grumbled and sat up, looking about at everything that wasn't Vardaman - Agata was on the table next to him, along with her bag and a few other things, and her staff and sword were leaning against the wall behind them, well out of reach - and something shifted under her blouse. A necklace?

"You're a Carrier," Vardaman said simply.

Coraline just stopped and stared at him, and only then did her brain finally start cooperating. Sort of.

There was a scratching at the door.

"Were you turned in Molstead?" Vardaman asked.

Coraline shook her head slowly, looking away. "It was my fault," she said finally. "Carriers are attracted to other Carriers. I put them all in danger just by being there."

"How so?" Vardaman said.

"Don't you know?" she said. "I already was a Carrier. It came to me because of that. I wasn't turned there, I've had this thing for years and I just got tired of running and thought... I thought maybe I could settle down."

"How long has it been?" he asked.

"It didn't work," she said. "It didn't bloody work. It was all my fault and it didn't work. I brought the Death of Souls to all of them."

"Now you're just being stupid," Agata said blandly. "Answer the question. Tell him how long it's been since you were turned."

"I don't know," Coraline said. "I mean, I just found out shortly before I ran into you in Telegrin," she then said, looking at Vardaman. "That was why I was drinking so much. I just knew if I drank, it was fine, it wasn't... and if I drank a lot, I could... forget."

"That was four years ago," Vardaman said.

"Very interesting, isn't it?" Agata said. "Here we have a Carrier, and yet she's been so for years, and she's not getting any worse. Aren't you glad you listened to your god?"

Listened to his god? What did you do? Coraline thought vaguely in the cat's general direction.

Agata purred and rolled over, turning into an enormous mass of fluff with legs sticking out, and then the thought returned, You're still alive. You're welcome.

Coraline gave Agata a confused look, but then Vardaman was addressing her again. "This mask, then," he said. "How did you come by it?"

"I got a notification and went to the post office," Coraline told him. This wasn't helping.

"And did someone at the post office give it to you?" he asked.

"Yes," Coraline said.

"How did they do this?" he asked.

"In a box," Coraline said. "Which is how people pick up most things from the post office."

Vardaman gave her an unamused look.

"You want me to tell you a masked man in a robe gave it to me, don't you?" Coraline asked, getting up. "That he said the words, and had me kneel, and placed it upon my head, before giving me my task."

"Not really, no," Vardaman said, rising as well, a hand falling to his sword.

"Then you don't want me to tell you the words I said, completing the ritual. You don't want me to tell you it is the will of the god, that the Voices speak in absolutes, that this is not a mask, but a veil," she went on, pointing toward it, advancing to the table. "That when I put it on, it is all that I am."

The scratching at the door repeated, more insistently.

Coraline plonked a golden coin down on the table by Vardaman. It was large, for a coin, and ornate. On one side it was intricately detailed with a skull and mask - the very same filigree mask as Coraline's - and on the other was a set of scales. Judgement and death, balanced. The symbols of Kyrule, the God of the Dead. Kyrule, whom the Deathdealers served.

"I am what I say," she said. "I did not steal that mask."

"Well fuck me," Vardaman said, picking up the coin. "You're one of us."

On the table, Agata was giggling.

"Clearly," Coraline said.

"But you're not a Deathdealer," he said.

"And you're Captain Obvious," she said.

He sheathed his sword and pulled another coin out of his pocket, and held them both back out in the palm of his hand, identical and exact. "The Deathgod's coins," he said. "Granted to those who offer their names for the Deathgod to keep. But it is said that there are those who make another choice, more difficult still. What did you do?"

"I killed someone," Coraline said simply.

"Why?" he asked.

"I've killed a lot of people," she said.

There was a clonk as Coraline's bag fell off the table. All eyes went to Agata, just behind it, holding a paw out toward where it had been.

Agata said, "I did not do that."

"Then why is your paw out like that?" Vardaman asked.

"I was going to do that," the cat said, irritated, "But then I couldn't. Because it did it for me."

On the floor, the bag shifted again.

Coraline reached a leg over and nudged it with her foot. When nothing happened, she picked it up carefully, and then, for lack of a better idea, handed it to Vardaman.

He took it, but said, "If you expect me to open this, you'll need to disable the fucking traps."

"Traps?" Coraline asked blankly.

"The..." he stopped, scrutinising her. "Something clawed me."

"You went through my bag?" she asked.

"He tried," Agata said. "I warned him, but he tried."

Coraline gave the Deathdealer an annoyed look and took the bag back, pulling things out fairly at random. A bunch of old receipts. A giant wad of bedding. A shovel.

"Hmm," she said.

Several bottle of booze followed. Some underwear. Books. More books. An undead foot. She pulled at the foot a bit more, and then found it to be attached to an entire undead leg when it kicked at her, got loose again, and pulled back into the bag.

"Found it," Coraline announced, stopping. Then she just looked confused.

"That was what he stopped at too," Agata said.

"Agata," Coraline said, turning back to the cat. "Why is there a dead person in my bag?"

"Hmm," the cat said, leaning over. "I was mistaken."

"About what?" Coraline asked.

"The dead guy was not where your Deathdealer gave up," Agata rasped. "He stopped at the cat."

"What cat?" Coraline asked. "Where... are my cats?"

Agata turned and nodded at the door, and it unlocked with a click. Almost immediately it was knocked open as Tress and Thimble pushed their way inside.

Coraline glanced back at Agata in utter confusion as Vardaman stepped over to reclose the door.

"I hate to be the one to tell you this," Agata began, "but you have another cat."

"And a dead guy, apparently?" Coraline said, now eyeing her bag worriedly.

Vardaman was eyeing her worriedly.

"Hey," Coraline said, turning to the Deathdealer, "you're a Deathdealer. You can kill undead stuff, right?"

"Yes?" he said.

"So if I pull this dead guy out of my bag," she went on, "you could kill it for real, right?"

"Why exactly," Vardaman asked slowly, "might you have a dead guy in your bag?"

"Well, there were these things in the river," Coraline began.

"Drowners," Agata corrected.

"There were these drowners," Coraline amended, "and one of them may have possibly gotten inside when I sort of maybe totally accidentally capsized my boat."

"Of course it did," Vardaman said.

"In her defense, she was asleep," Agata pointed out.

"Right," he said.

"I... didn't know it was infested with drowners," Coraline said.

"There would have been signs," Vardaman said flatly.

"Oh, I suppose you're really good at reading signs when you're asleep?" Coraline suggested.

"How are you not dead?" he asked.

"I wonder that sometimes myself," Agata rumbled.

Coraline didn't answer this, instead reaching into her bag again and pulling out what turned out to be a jar of fruit-based preservative spread with a spool of bowstrings stuck to it. This was then followed by a particularly difficult chunk of detritus, which, after resisting quite effectively at first, finally tumbled out on top of her, knocking her back, reaching around her, grasping... hugging?

Coraline was about to try patting it awkwardly on the back when Vardaman shoved the thing away from her with a burst of energy from one hand and rushed forward and dispatched it entirely with his sword in the other, slashing deliberately, cutting it down.

He turned slowly back toward Coraline.

"Hi," she said.

There was a long pause as they just sort of stared at each other.

"No," he said finally. "I do not want to know."

"Okay," she told him.

"How do you feel?" Vardaman asked instead.

"What?" Coraline said blankly.

"Afflicted with the Death of Souls, presumably you have symptoms," the Deathdealer said. "How are they now?"

"Now? But..." Coraline began, then just stopped. She felt fine. She hadn't even noticed before, but the voices seemed to be gone, she wasn't all that drunk, and all in all, she was feeling more alert and aware than she had in a very long time. She felt, if anything, almost awake.

"I'm fine?" she whispered, hardly daring to believe it. "Am I... did you... am I cured?" she asked.

Vardaman shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said. "I put an amulet on you while you slept. The hope was that it might mitigate the effects, and perhaps we could do more from there."

"Well, I think it worked," Coraline said, fishing it out from her blouse. It was small and black, set inexpertly on a loose chain, but the inconsistency of the edges made it seem like it had been broken off of something larger - some bits curved, others sharp and jagged. "What was it?" she asked.

"We're not sure," Vardaman told her. "Only a few pieces of the original artefact were recovered, and even that was largely by chance. But you should know that this is not a solution, and not without risks either."

"You tried it on the Carrier at Molstead, didn't you?" Agata said. "Naughty, naughty."

"According to the report, that fragment exploded," Vardaman said.

"Um," Coraline said, dropping the amulet hastily. It fell against her blouse with a slight bounce.

"Your circumstances differ sufficiently that we have no reason to suspect that will happen," Vardaman went on. "We will need to get you to Abearanoth as soon as possible. Will you be ready to travel come morning?"

"I... sure?" Coraline replied, eyeing the junk strewn about the room. It wasn't like she couldn't pack it up again just as easily, but... what?

"Good," he said, moving to leave, though he stopped at the door to give her one more pointed look. "Do not try to run."

"Wait," Coraline said, just as he was about to leave entirely. "Why?"

"You know the danger you pose," he said simply.

"So why help me?" she asked.

He watched her carefully for a moment, resting in the frame of the rough doorway. Then he said, "Messenger though you may be, this is not for you. If there is a fighting chance to end the Death of Souls, it is worth the danger."

"Be ready," he added, and left, closing the door behind him.

Coraline looked to Agata uncertainly. There was junk scattered about. The magelight stuck to the ceiling was already growing dim. Undead parts were lying on the floor like pretentious art.

"You should know," the cat said, getting up, stretching paws over the spine of one of the books Coraline had unearthed, "I don't like this."

Coraline nodded, sitting down on the edge of the bed. There hadn't been the sound of any footsteps outside. There should have been footsteps.

The book was a particularly thick volume, but largely unlabelled. All it had on the cover was a circle with a slash through it. It looked a bit like a Ø.

Agata rather deliberately nudged it off the table, and it fell to the floor with a thud.

After a bit, Coraline asked, "He's still right outside, isn't he?"

"Yes," Agata said.

Then they heard footsteps, fading away.

Coraline gave it another pause and then said, "He's still there."

"He's good," Agata said.

"Think he does this a lot?" Coraline asked.

"From time to time," Agata replied.

"Wonder if it's actually for the job, or just experience stalking exes," Coraline said.

"I'd hazard a bit of both," Agata said lazily.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Deathdealer said from the other side of the door. This time the footsteps were far quieter.

"Was that one for real?" Coraline asked Agata after.

"Possibly," the cat said.

Lauhen sea - night

When the four kids finally broke the surface, they were greeted by more stars than they even knew existed, glittering down in a brilliant array of swirls and colour. Erry took one look at it and promptly sank.

The other three just stared, treading water, spitting out their odd lungfuls of water and starting to breathe air again, as Erry bobbed up again, flapped about, and then sank again.

Finally, Jora said, exasperatedly, "What was that? All of that? What?"

"Not expected," Nolan said.

"Ya think?" Kit said, and grumbled, "If we ever make it to shore, I'm getting a wand, or some kind of proper focus."

"Why didn't you have one before, then?" Jora asked.

"Keller didn't approve," he responded. "Said a good wizard doesn't need that stuff. Need, my arse! Has he ever even had to deal with these sorts of things?"

"Kit!" Jora said disappointedly.

Behind him, Erry sputtered to the surface again, and, again, almost immediately sank, so Jora finally went to go try to maybe teach her how to swim on top of the water as opposed to just through. The girl wouldn't actually drown with the water-breathing charm in place, of course, but this wasn't helping anything either.

"Even if you are a good wizard," Jora pointed out, hauling Erry aside, "that doesn't mean you shouldn't use the things that can make you better."

"Exactly!" Kit yelled, entirely too loudly.

"There's no shore here," Nolan then pointed out.

"Yeah?" Kit said.

"We need a boat," Nolan said.

"Yeah," Kit said. "Except I can't summon one. I suck at summoning. Even little things. Like I tried summoning a spoon? Wound up with a broken nail."

"Yes," Nolan said.

Kit frowned at him.

Meanwhile Jora's attempts to teach Erry to swim were having no effect whatsoever, so she finally just gave up and pulled the girl back over to the others and shoved her at Kit. He grabbed her before she sank again.

"Your sister is hopeless," Jora said.

Erry grinned.

Kit stared into his little sister's face grumpily, then suddenly exclaimed, "Oh!" He passed her off to Nolan and added, "Ice!"

"That doesn't sound like it'd work very well," Jora said.

"This is magic ice," Kit said, shaping out another spell. "It lasts, doesn't lose its cold, all that." He finished a couple more forms and groaned, then muttered a few words to tie it all together, casting it off to the side and then nearly sinking himself as a result of the motions.

The water where he had pointed began to draw upwards, solidifying into a fairly large block of ice, half-submerged, and flat above the surface with a slight wall around the edges, easily big enough for the lot of them.

Nolan threw Erry onto it and climbed on after.

"Nice," Jora said, and tried to pull herself up as well, but the thing had no good hand- or foot-holds, so Nolan had to help her to get on all the way.

Then Nolan and Jora had to drag Kit out of the water together, receiving no help whatsoever from the exhausted wizardling.

He collapsed on top of them.

They all just lay there for a bit, staring up at the stars and lightening sky.

Kit raised a limp arm and cast a really lethargic cleaning spell into the air over everyone. They could almost hear the spell clunk as it flopped back down and dried everyone off.

They did hear the arm as it clunked down on the oddly-tepid ice.

"Hungry," Erry said, sitting up suddenly.

"I suppose conjuring up some food is out?" Jora asked, not even moving.

Kit moaned helplessly.

Nolan pulled himself out from under Kit and stared off over the waves.

"Need a sofa?" Erry said.

A large fish, several feet long, flew out of the water and onto their raft with a wet plop, almost as though someone in the water had heard them and chucked it out.

"That's not a sofa," Erry said.

The fish flopped weakly, once, and then went still.

Kit quickly scrambled up to see what had happened, though aside from the fish there wasn't much to see. So they all stared at it, instead. Then they stared at the water. Then a tentacle reached out of the water and gave them a little wave before disappearing back under the other waves.

"Our giant cephalopod companion gives us thanks," Nolan said.

"How is that even...?" Kit started to ask, but then he just gave up, flopping back on the ice. "That... no."

"Yes," Erry said.

"This day couldn't possibly get any weirder," Kit mumbled.

"The stars are wrong," Nolan said, more to himself than anything else.

Part 4 - Initiate the prying eyes

Life twists and turns. You don't see it coming. That's the whole point, right? One moment everything looks hopeless; the next it's all changed. One little thing turns all of perception on its head.

But despair lingers. The seeds remain, buried.

Falter. Tire. Drink.

And remember.

Notes:

  1. Words may be recycled.
  2. Everything that is understood is language. Numbers, too, are language.
  3. Truth is singular. Its versions are mistruths.
  4. The Deathdealer has been condemned.
  5. Sisu.

String 37686

"Fear drives the universe. You will find dread among the galaxies. You will find horror in the heart of a star. You will find your fate in a heap of dust."

~ The Diktat of Septa Parisis

Dreamscape

The insects were roaring. The world was a field of green, surrounding her in thick shrubbery, level to her hips, soft, bristling, wet. The roaring was the trees around, lush and tall, full of fronds and hanging vines. The roaring was the cliffs ahead, slick and glistening.

The roaring was the waterfall, torrential, towering, falling down, down, down, up into the mists above, its edge highlighted only by the glow of the sky. And more above. Layer cake. Towering mountains, roaring beneath the giant grasping hands of frothy white, reaching out in fingers.

The trolls were in the trees. She had to run, was running, running to the end of the field, toward the fingers, the one side not bounded by trees. Here the mist was thickest, floating into her arms and face, trickling down her clothes, and the precipice came suddenly, looming, reaching up as she jumped, in the one brief moment of weightlessness before the world remembered its rules.

Inn at Somn's Post - technically morning

It wasn't morning. It was far too early to be morning. Someone was trying to give her something to drink, but Coraline wasn't awake, really wasn't awake, it wasn't, it just wasn't, urghhhh.

"Urrrgh," she said for emphasis, and slid out of bed, collapsing into a heap on the floor. The book with the Ø was right in front of her face, so she wrapped her arms around it and hugged it close like an old teddy bear. It was totally a bear. Light and hairy, poking her in corners.

Dreamscape

She was falling. She was wet, deaf, and falling, cliffs rushing past, hills making strange spires, spearing the mist. Everything was bright, glowing, but the falling wouldn't stop.

It was clearest here. The wrist below reaching. The palm outstretched. Twisting. Gleaming.

She reached out with her own, and it was a match, precise and exacting. Hand for hand. Palm for palm.

And then it hit her.

She was on her feet again, holding the book. She couldn't let go, mustn't ever.

There was a man holding her up, by her arms, by the book. Shaking her. Telling her to wake the fuck up already.

This wasn't real. None of it was real. She needed to get back, to see, down, underneath.

The world jolted, blurring. Just another hour. Another few minutes.

"Amadi!" Vardaman yelled in her face. "Wake. Up."

"Sorry, mum... I'm up, I'm up," Coraline mumbled, swatting him away. He wasn't her mum. He also wasn't letting go.

It didn't matter.

She was standing at the shore, the water lapping hungrily at her feet. She was so close now. She could feel it. She just had to keep going, and not fall.

The small river stones shifted and warbled as she stepped tentatively along the shore, grinding them against each other. The ground was hollow, the water clear and green and blue. The lush foliage hung back, dripping, whispering, warning. Shapes looming in the shadows.

Trolls.

No.

She was tired of running. She turned back to the trees, dark and green, full of shivering shadows. This would be the end. This would be the moment.

The trees shivered, rustling.

They weren't trees.

She was running, fleeing the shivers, bounding from rocks to logs, slipping, scraping, flitting past. The waterfall loomed, a single finger, roaring, shifting, fading into a memory of a memory, greyer than green. Its torrent slowed, and the other fingers too fell silent. There was only the one. The one. The

A single frond of fern trailed across her arm, depositing beads of wetness in a red smear, painting like a maiden's hair. She stretched it out and the pattern shifted, changing, writing. Hello World.

The river narrowed. The cliffs were covered in ferns, in clumps and tangles, hiding the teeth.

She stepped onto the water, and it rippled outward with each footfall, building crossing patterns behind and before. Step, step, step. The narrow cliffs were a corridor, dark, echoing. Silent, as the sky closed overhead. Straight, as the ripples ceased. Dark, as the chatter rose to a scream.

Inn at Somn's Post - technically morning

She was curled up on the bed, wrapped around the book. Vardaman was stuffing things into her bag. Cats were around.

She poked the book open to a random page and peered inside. It was a page about stories. Stories about stories. Voices chattering on, talking about voices.

A door, vast and grand, looming out of the gloom ahead.

Vardaman was looking down at her, his hands on his hips, his face impassive.

"Guard the stories, you know," Coraline told him vacantly.

"What stories?" he asked.

"The stories," she said. "All the stories. Guard them. Keep them."

"That's great," he told her, and hauled her off the bed by the book.

This time she wobbled, but remained on her feet, when he set her down.

"Is this another effect?" he then asked.

Coraline stared at him blankly. She needed to get to the door, but it was too late, fading, fading away.

"A symptom," Vardaman said.

"No, she's just terrible at mornings," Agata said somewhere off to the side.

"Not a morning person," Coraline said, forcing herself to start moving, pulling on her weapons and coat, getting her bag. Everything seemed to be packed. Even the undead parts from the dead drowner were gone. Even the trolls were gone.

"I've never been a morning person," she added, a bit clearer now. "I don't function."

"So what do you do?" Vardaman asked.

"Get up in the afternoon," Coraline replied, and pulled out a bottle of what turned out to be vodka. "Duh."

Vardaman was just staring at her as she took a long swig, so she added, "I'm awake. We can go. Going. What?"

"Are you always drunk?" he asked.

"I try to," she said simply.

The shape of the door hung vaguely in the back of her mind, shrouded in whispers.

Somn's Post - morning

Glints of fire trickled into the lower clouds as the twilight gloamed.

They bought food off a man.

They bought horses.

A monk offered Coraline a smoke as she passed, walking her horse behind Vardaman's. Agata sat in the saddle like an empress among slaves. Cats padded at their feet. Troops marched past, and yet gave them berth.

The looks they attracted were many and varied.

The plan was to travel overland to Soras, where they could take the Gateway to Abearanoth. This was important, somehow. He hadn't specified why.

The morning rose in brilliant colour.

At the edge of town, they mounted the horses in silence, right up until the yowl and thud as Coraline fell right back off again, pulling Agata down with her.

"Ow..." Coraline moaned, trying not to move as Agata grumpily scampered away. She didn't seem to be hurt that badly, at least, and finally just sort of rolled over, which turned out to hurt entirely more than it should have. Then Vardaman was helping her up again, which hurt even more, so she just told him, "I really don't like mornings."

"Are you hurt?" Vardaman asked.

Coraline looked down at herself, flapped out an arm a bit, poked her chest with a finger, and then said, "Yes." It was probably just bruises. She might have broken a rib. It was pretty hard to tell.[36]

Vardaman cast a spell, weaving a hand, saying a few quick words in an accent that did not fit at all, and placed it to her chest with a finger, and suddenly entirely more pain than Coraline had even noticed was just sort of drifting away.

"Oh," she said.

"Better?" he asked.

She poked herself again and then nodded.

"Great," he said, and helped her back up onto her horse.

This time she stayed in place, didn't fall out when Agata climbed back on as well, and even got the horse to stop twitching at her. "We're just cats," she told it quietly. "Perfectly safe."

Soravian countryside - day

The road drifted by in whispers as the day rose wetly around them, promising rain with wisps of low clouds tinted in the low sunlight. It was almost pleasant. A holiday at a reasonable pace, passing through forests and moors, horses clomping along.

Several birds burst into flight from a tree overhead, and Coraline looked up in surprise, but it was nothing unusual. Just the wildlife, the simple autumn ambience.

The cold tingled with promises of frost, sparkling and bright. The morning shifted to noon with shadows by and by.

Others passed along the road with simple greetings, though eyes lingered.

They ate lunch without dismounting.

At one point Coraline said, "Hold up, I need to piss."

Dismounting as well, Vardaman watched her carefully as she sidled off into the trees. He didn't follow.

Agata did, and said, idly, out of a shrub, "At least he has a sense of privacy."

Coraline gave the cat an irate look as she finished off her business, and asked, "Suppose I did just sod off now, what then?"

"He'd find you," Agata said.

When they made their way back, Vardaman gave her a nod and swung back around to remount.

When they were once again on the move, he asked, "Why are you wearing that?"

Coraline looked down, but her clothes were, as far as she could tell, fairly ordinary, if perhaps a finer than the norm. Woolen skirts, heavy boots and coat, gloves. Warm things. "Um..." she said, "what?"

"Your mask," the Deathdealer said. "There is no need for that."

Coraline blinked, confused, reached up to investigate, and when her hands ran into what very much seemed to be mask/sunglasses, took it off and looked at it blankly. "I didn't even realise," she said, slowing. "Everything was so bright anyhow, I just forgot it was there."

"You forgot," he repeated flatly.

"The world gets darker," she said. "The voices get worse, and when things are dark you just adjust until you can't see at all and all you have are a few bright lights gleaming out of the darkness..." She shivered. "There've been bad times. I've lost it before. If I lose it again..."

"I will do what I must," Vardaman said.

"Force-feed me vodka," Coraline said.

"What," Vardaman said.

"Seriously. Works every time," Coraline said. It had worked when Dors had tried it, at least. In the inn, she'd given her bouncer very specific and unexplained orders to do exactly this if she completely lost it. Which she had when a travelling mage had hit her with a bad spell, so Dors gave her vodka, dumped her behind the counter, and then hauled the mage off, and nobody in town had seen anything of the man ever again. Nobody had dared ask Dors about it, either.

"And if it doesn't?" Vardaman asked.

"Uh..." Coraline said. "I guess you can kill me then? Just try the vodka first please?"

Vardaman didn't respond, and simply directed his horse further ahead.

"You may have a problem," Agata said.

"Just one?" Coraline muttered.

"Yes," Agata replied.

Soravian countryside - evening

They went off-road in the late afternoon, following smaller trails and picking their way around the hills and valleys. Coraline had a heated argument with Agata about pine cones, followed by another, less heated argument about flying cars.

Coraline was just trying to explain how people can't even drive properly on the ground half the time, so how the hells are they supposed to manage it in the air, when Vardaman stopped and dismounted and announced it was time to make camp.

Coraline just stopped and looked at him blanky.

"There's less to hit in the air, you know," Agata said in the silence.

"And more ways to hit it," Coraline replied. "And you can't just stop or you fall out of the sky. You don't go having collisions with the ground in a vehicle, do you?"

"We're stopping. Get off your fucking horse and help," Vardaman said.

"With what?" Coraline asked, dismounting with about as much grace as the average armchair.

"Camp?" Vardaman said.

"People do that?" Coraline asked.

"Yes?" he said.

There was a long pause.

Then Vardaman asked, it clearly paining him terribly to do so, "What do you do, then?"

"I, uh..." Coraline began, and then stopped. It was different now. She hadn't had all this stuff with her the last time she'd been travelling. No magic, just her clothes and her staff and what little she could carry in a much more ordinary backpack.

"What?" he said.

"I'd usually just curl up and collapse from exhaustion at the end of the day," she said. "But I was on foot, then, and I didn't have anything. Maybe make a fire to drown out the voices." Even when she'd joined up with a couple of others and they'd travelled on horseback, there'd still been very little actual camping involved, and besides, Costa, as the closest thing to a functional person in their little party, had done all the setting up. Coraline and Merrs, the other guy, had mostly just kept each other sane, reminding each other, in their own respective broken ways, that it wasn't all darkness in the world. That there should be more to life than just survival.

It had usually involved them both just sitting there, not talking for long intervals, and then, occasionally, saying things that to anyone else probably would have seemed incredibly random.[37] She had no idea what Costa had made of it all, only that it was apparently his holy duty to see Merrs safely back to civilisation, and that in general, having her along as well seemed to be helping.

When they had parted in Telegrin, it had been incredibly Finnish. There had been a small wave. Costa had said, "Um, okay." Merrs had patted her on the head.

And then she'd wandered off and completely lost her mind.

In retrospect, things might have turned out slightly better had she stayed with them.

"I have a tent," Vardaman said.

"I'll... make a fire?" Coraline asked.

"Good," Vardaman said, and set about putting up the tent.

Coraline gathered up some wood and put it up in a pile, clearing the ground around it. Then she sat down in front of it and proceeded to stare intently at the twigs and logs.

The twigs and logs resolutely refused to burst into flame.

Coraline stared harder.

"What are you doing?" Vardaman asked behind her.

"Uh..." Coraline said, looking hastily around. "Nothing."

Flames danced out of some bits of twigs and leaves lying on the ground around them, before fizzling out a moment later.

"Clearly," Vardaman said. "Do you need help?"

"No," Coraline said, and resumed glaring at the pile. What was she trying to do, anyway? Set it alight from pure force of will alone? She wasn't even doing anything. She needed to actually do something.

Coraline held up a hand, and then snapped her fingers.

The pile burst into flame, burning through the twigs, roaring into the larger logs, and quickly settled into what turned out to be a decent campfire.

A cat she absolutely did not recognise at all climbed into her lap. This one was dappled and grey-brown.

Coraline froze, hand still half up.

The cat pawed around on her lap a bit before curling up and hunkering down.

"Um," Coraline said, slowly putting her hand down.

Thimble padded over to sniff the new cat, before plonking down in front of the fire next to her. Tress was off... somewhere.

Coraline put a hand on the cat's back, and then when it didn't object to this, started stroking its fur in great confusion.

Sitting down as well, Vardaman took one look and pulled out a bottle of shalott.

"Who are you, cat?" Coraline finally whispered, leaning down toward the cat's ears. "Are you my bag cat?"

No, Agata murmured, her voice standing out against the whispers in the back of her mind, shadowy and bright, so similar, and yet at the same time, so very different. That one's white.

Agata? Coraline said. She wasn't sure how she said it, but then in truth she wasn't sure how she said anything. Like all muscles, it just sort of happened.

Hi, the cat said.

I would like to register my surprise and alarm that we are evidently talking in this manner, Coraline said, then added, Should I be alarmed?

Only as alarmed as you are about anything, Agata purred. It's a witch thing.

But how am I witch? Coraline asked. For some reason she'd never directly asked this, even though it had always kind of bothered her. It had never occurred to her to try.

You just are, Agata said, climbing over the new cat and balancing on Coraline's leg. Witches are. You're born to it, to your knacks. What you do with it is up to you, obviously, but you know. Witches. She craned her neck from side to side, peering up at Coraline's head.

But we don't even have witches where I'm from, Coraline said.

Agata jumped onto Coraline's shoulder and yawned hugely. And where would that even be? Not here, not Ord, certainly not... The cat trailed off, her words fading against the whispers. Are you really a Messenger of Kyrule?

Nope, Coraline replied.

And what happens when your Deathdealer finds out? the cat asked. At the moment, Vardaman was meditating over his shalott.

Kind of hoping he doesn't, Coraline said, getting out a bottle of her own, trying not to upset the spare cat too much. By this point Agata had draped herself over Coraline's shoulders like a bad scarf.

All the way to Abearanoth? Agata asked. And after? You'll be right in the heart of their cult.

I'll just tell him the truth, Coraline said, if it comes to it.

Which one? Agata said.

That I'm really a Keeper of Stories, Coraline replied. That's why I know what I know. That's why I claimed to be a Messenger, because the Keepers are supposed to be a secret.

And what are the Keepers? Agata asked.

Guardians of stories. The real ones, the fake ones, Coraline said. There's the ones the Kyrule peoples tell, and there's ones that contradict those, and some of them are important, and some are dangerous. She paused, than added, At least that's the theory. I don't much like it myself. They make crappy librarians.

'Kyrule peoples'? Agata said dubiously.

Whatever you call them, Coraline said.

Interesting, Agata murmured.

You should ask Vardaman, Coraline said.

Agata peered after him and rumbled. The Deathdealer was now meditating over another bottle of shalott. And he wonders how you're still alive? the cat said, hopping down.

Coraline waved her own bottle for emphasis as Agata climbed onto Vardaman's knees and leaned up to touch her nose to his.

"Yes?" he said, opening one eye.

Agata then leaned over to smell his mouth as soon as he opened it, before dropping down to sit properly in his lap. "Tell me about the Keepers of Stories," she then told him.

Vardaman raised his brow and then gave Coraline a curious look, but from where he was sitting, she still looked sufficiently confused by the spare cat to have orchestrated anything else.

Coraline finally just decided to use the cat as a bottle holder and stuffed her bottle behind one of its legs. "Also we should probably eat food," she pointed out loudly. "Like people. Who eat food."

"Keepers," Agata repeated.

"Food," Coraline said.

"Keepers," Agata repeated again.

"Keepers and food?" Coraline suggested.

Given that Agata was still sitting on him and there is nothing quite like a cat on a person to keep them from moving, instead of even responding to the food query, Vardaman simply said, "And what exactly did you want to know?"

"What are they?" Agata said. "Why are they a secret?"

"If you have it you want to share it, but if you share it, you haven't got it," Coraline told the other cat quietly.

Vardaman, meanwhile, seemed to be considering how to even begin. Finally, he said, "The Keepers are the ones who maintain the Word of Kyrule, passing it down within the world from Keeper to Keeper, sharing it with those in need. Because they know the full aspect of the Word, they can provide guidance without requiring Kyrule's direct intervention, and judge how to act as the God Himself might do."

Agata gave Coraline a curious look.

"Messengers just message," Coraline said. "We're all blatant and stuff. Not subtle at all."

Because your version of subtlety is to be as blatant as possible, Agata said.

Oh, come on, I can be subtle, Coraline said. She was starting to enjoy this. It was like snarking on IRC during a conference.[38]

"Indeed," Vardaman said. "Where a Keeper may have need, he might send a Messenger, but it is always the Word that comes."

How, of all people, are you a Keeper? Agata asked.

I honestly thought you were going to ask about the 'Kyrule peoples' thing, not this, Coraline said.

Agata purred, demanding scratchies, and Vardaman drunkenly obliged.

There was a book, Coraline explained, fishing out the Ø book and some fried snacks. Apparently some other librarian had been brought into this too, also thought it was kind of dumb, and wrote everything down. He figured other librarians would find it, so that was also his way of passing it on, keeping it the same version, without the random changes that accrue in a... spoken history. There's a fancy word for that, but I forget what. She gave the cat on her lap some meat. Anyway, everyone since's just added their own notes in the margins, and new ones have been added later, so you get the untouched originals and commentary.

And you just happened to come by this because you're a librarian? Agata said.

I happened to come by it because I was researching the Death of Souls and it was mentioned as maybe having some real information, so I tracked it down, Coraline replied, flipping open the book on the other side of the new cat. Using my librariany wiles.

The cat peered at it curiously and then climbed onto the open pages.

"Well, you're definitely a cat," Coraline told the cat.

That's the book? Agata said. Should you really be waving it around in front of this guy?

Nope, Coraline said. But you know. Subtlety.

That doesn't even make sense, Agata said.

It has a cat on it, Coraline said. Nobody suspects a thing with a cat on it. "Hey Deathdealer," Coraline said. "You want a cat?"

"No," Vardaman said.

She got up carefully, picking up the book as well while keeping the cat balanced in its pages, trying to support the spine as well as possible, and went to stand over him with it. "You sure?" she asked.

What are you doing? Agata asked.

"Yes, I am sure," Vardaman said, not even looking up.

Coraline stood over him a moment longer, and then said, "Okay," and went to put the book away, cat and all.

The cats were now definitely in the bag.

"You do realise you may still have undead things in there," Agata said lazily. "Or worse."

"Dammit mum, I'll clean it out later!" Coraline yelled, and plonked down angrily.

Vardaman jolted to attention, almost rising, looking about warily.

"Sorry," Coraline told him.

Notes

  1. It makes her look like Batman.
  2. Not that 'Coraline' was her real name either; for a native Finn, it had far too few vowels to be appropriate.
  3. It was still morning.
  4. Brandy.
  5. Well, room-temperature, at any rate. A person would need to live on the sun to consider this weather cold.
  6. Even more occasionally, in the correct language for the region.
  7. Except when she forgot, or had it stuffed in her magic bag.
  8. This had been perfectly fine by her brothers, of course, who had generally also acted like they were five as the entire lot of them did vicious battle on the sofas with a set of tape measures, but a fair bit less fine by their parents, who quickly tired of things getting broken. Usually it was just tape measures, but the occasional broken chair or collarbone were no laughing matter, despite the fact that the kids had tended to laugh uproariously when it happened. While crying at the same time, in the case of the collarbone.
  9. Coraline didn't even try to understand how that worked, but apparently it was a very different deal from how her real own universe was entirely separate, because Ord was only partially separate. Or something. Possibly.
  10. Maybe.
  11. Usually about things like rocks and social niceties.
  12. He wasn't really angry; the look was simply caused by his peculiar brow structure. He would have made an amazing meme.
  13. She wasn't sure what she thought they might be, either.
  14. Or considered discussing preparing for it.
  15. Coraline wasn't entirely sure, but she suspected that one of the drunks in question might have been her.
  16. Especially among strangers. To sum up what she'd like to say, "You aren't my friend. We don't know each other. You don't need my name and shouldn't call me by it even if I do tell it to you."
  17. Or, in that last case, wanted said member out of the house so they could throw a sort of party of their own. Although that had only happened that one time and the man in question had later been forced to marry his 'party' and settle down with a nice herd of goats. They now had a baby on the way.
  18. If this were really true it would have indicated that the temple's primary interest was in cakes.
  19. Both at the same time, on one memorable occasion.
  20. In reality the dragons tended to be in the mountains proper. Dragons like to perch on things too much to lurk in woods.
  21. Whether or not the exact positioning mattered, having a soulstone between self and Carrier had tended to prevent feeding in all two recorded case studies. Nobody had been particularly inclined to go out and specifically test it.
  22. Or at least not totally drunk, if they were going to be reasonable here.
  23. Or, sometimes, precisely because of what they did to try to dissuade her.
  24. It sometimes worked. For some of them.
  25. At least she hoped it was.
  26. Cats were too precious to entrust to a potentially questionable magic bag. Coraline had no idea what it would do to living things, and if she ever did get around to testing it she'd much rather use a dog or something.
  27. Which wasn't really all that chipper to begin with.
  28. Vitoi was the god of dead ends. Nobody was sure what the purpose of this was, but questioning it was likewise a dead end.
  29. Assuming it even was the front; both ends were equally pointy, and this one was pointing more diagonally than actually forward.
  30. She should have found a better one to steal in the middle of the night.
  31. Erry might have exceeded him in theory, but it was hard to say because she kept swimming in circles around the other two, blurbling and singing.
  32. About two metres away. For a Finn, this was almost uncomfortably close.
  33. Loudly yelling 'drink!' and 'fuck' and 'perkele' between shots does not count as a conversation. There are standards regarding these things.
  34. A proximity also known as Nopeville, at least among the more sober.
  35. But not entirely.
  36. She wasn't sure what the monk had been smoking, but that might have been killing some of the pain as well.
  37. For example, Merrs asking, "What do gods taste like?" and Coraline replying, "Mouse." Or Coraline randomly announcing that it was high time they renamed the brook. They weren't even by a brook at the time.
  38. She didn't even use IRC. Except during conferences.