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This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
Israel’s stomach twisted into knots. He saw the Elder’s face, open with fear, and the knots pulled tighter.
“Grab your swords then aim for the exit, quick,” the Elder yelled as he began to lumber for the black doorway on the far side of the chamber. “We don’t have any more time.”
Alyx was already moving. She grabbed her weapon and his lying on the floor where they had dropped them. “Israel.” She threw his sword at him and began to sprint for the door, yelling as she dodged a piece of falling ceiling. Without thinking he caught his sword by the handle and sheathed it in one movement.
Then he ran too. “Come on, Elder,” he yelled.
“Curse this tiny body,” the Elder cried as he waddled along up on his squat hind legs.
Up ahead Alyx had reached the exit. There was a huge crack and a groan behind him. Israel turned his head just in time to see a pillar break away and fall towards the Elder.
“Elder, hurry!” Israel skidded to a halt.
The pillar toppled upon the Elder, knocking him down. Israel ran to him, dodging pieces of falling stone and leaping over the cracks that were appearing in the floor. He skidded to the Elder’s side.
“Leave me,” the Elder said. “Go. Get her out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you.” Israel tried to yank the pillar off the Elder’s tail but it was too heavy.
“Israel, there’s not enough time. Get out of here.”
“We’re not leaving you.” Alyx grabbed the pillar too. She’d come back. She lifted her eyes to Israel. “On two.”
He nodded, his eyes fixed on hers. “One.”
He pulled as hard as he could. The pillar was so heavy, sweat was pouring from Israel’s forehead and his hands, making his grip slippery. Alyx’s face was twisted with strain too.
But the pillar wouldn’t move.
“This isn’t working.” Alyx stumbled back from the pillar.
“Go, both of you,” the Elder said. “I’m not important. I just need to tell you before you go…”
“No,” Israel said. “You’re coming with us.” He glanced at the Elder’s tail. It was almost crushed through. “I have an idea,” he said to Alyx. “But it might hurt him.”
“Will it hurt him any more than having a building collapse on him?”
“Good point. You cut his tail. I’ll pull him.”
“We have no choice.” Israel grabbed the Elder under his arms. “Do it.”
She nodded, her lips going pale as she pressed them together, her polished features furrowed with determination. She unsheathed her sword and swung. It cracked through the stone of his tail.
Israel almost fell back as the Elder pulled free.
“Now, silly children,” the Elder said, the gray coloring of his cheeks going almost white. “Run.”
Israel hoisted the Elder onto his back. “Hang on.” The Elder’s arms went around his neck and Israel bolted after Alyx.
A second pillar broke loose and fell towards them. Israel didn’t think, he just moved, leaping off the ground. He felt his body go weightless and he twisted in the air, kicking off the side of another pillar. The Elder’s grip tightened around his neck and his short hind legs dug into his sides.
The falling pillar missed them by inches.
Israel landed on the shaky ground and didn’t miss a beat. He just kept running.
As he reached the doorway, Alyx was standing there, her mouth agape. She must have seen his acrobatics. “How did you do that?”
That was a damn good question. Not one that he could answer. “No time. Go.”
She turned and was swallowed up by the dark stairwell. He chased after her, taking the stairs two at a time, a thunderous crash closing off the chamber behind him with a spitting of hot dust. In the tight stone stairwell he was shaken about like a dice in a cup, his shoulders bouncing and scraping off the sides. He squinted through the blackness and falling grit, aiming desperately for the light coming from the exit somewhere above. Any second now these coffin-like walls would collapse and crush them. Please, hold. Just hold for a few more seconds.
Finally, the exit, a doorway filled with light at the top of the staircase. He burst out into a grand stone church, his breath heaving, his lungs stinging from the dust and effort. He was in what looked like the inside of a cathedral, the gothic ceiling soaring up well above him, the hanging thuribles shaking on their chains, wooden pews clattering against the marble floor. They must be above ground now because light streamed in through the stained glass windows. He knew this place. It was Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Saint Joseph.
He raced after Alyx, already sprinting down the center of the aisle towards the exit, the Elder’s stony body knocking bruises against his spine as he ran.
“Israel, wait,” the Elder said in a hoarse voice.
They couldn’t wait. Before Israel could answer, the Elder’s arms crumbled from around his neck like pieces of dried clay. The weight lifted from him as the stone gargoyle crashed to the ground.
“Elder!” Israel spun around. The Elder was lying in pieces, limbs shattered, his torso cracked in three places.
“Israel…” It came from the Elder’s mouth, still moving. He was still alive. Israel dropped to the Elder’s side.
“Elder, oh my God.” Alyx dropped down next to him.
“It’s fine. I was never meant to be here anyway,” the Elder said, speaking out of the corner of his broken mouth. His eyes in two separate pieces, blinked once, twice.
“We can fix you. We can−”
“No, Alyx. You have to listen.” The pieces of him were still collapsing, as if he was watching a time lapse of the wind breaking down a rock in the desert, the edges disintegrating into sand and dust. “You need to get out of here before winter is over.”
“Find the Mapmaker. He has the map. The map is the key to getting out of here.” If there was anything more that he wanted to say, he lost his chance. The Elder’s last remaining pieces fell away to a pile of sand and dust.
Alyx’s face crumpled. His chest squeezed, a reflection of the loss he could see in her eyes. But there was no time to mourn him. Pieces of the ceiling crashed down around them, smashing apart the fragile wooden pews like unforgiving fists. That would be their bodies in splinters if they didn’t move. He grabbed her hand. “We have to go. Now! This building is going to collapse on us.”
Still holding hands, they sprinted down the rest of the aisle. The large iron chandelier fell from the crumbling ceiling, diving into the floor with a terrible clatter and a shower of metal and sparks. The colored glass in the windows shattered as the walls groaned, then collapsed.
Israel and Alyx burst through the doors − thank god, they were unlocked − and tumbled down the stairs. The cathedral fell in upon itself with a thundering crash and a billowing of dust. Israel fell upon the lawn, rolling until he came to a complete stop beside her, his arms wrapping around her as she gripped his shirt in her fists. They stayed right there as the broken building ceased its spitting and the dust settled. Behind Israel’s closed lids an image overtook him.
She lay naked against his chest, his arms holding her to him, her soft body molding around his hard one, her scent in his nose; of the wind and of sun-warmed jasmine.
There was no end to him or beginning to her. They were one and the same, born in the same breath, pieces of the same star. They were…complete.
He barely knew his own voice when he spoke, so full of raw, swollen reverence, yet so quiet he wasn’t sure she heard him. “Why do you fit so perfectly here?”
His fingers traced her shoulder and she shivered against him. How could an angel-piece fit alongside his dull and roughened edges? How had he managed to capture in his hands the light of a star? How long could he hold it?
He felt an overwhelming ache growing in his heart; he didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve…her.
Israel’s eyes snapped open. He gazed at Alyx’s face, looking almost identical to the Alyx of his mind, his mouth suddenly dry. What the hell had he seen? He searched her face looking for answers. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her lashes coated in dust as if it were snow. She had the most beautiful skin, smooth and pale like polished marble. He raised his fingers to brush her cheek before he knew what he was doing. Her skin was as smooth as it felt in his…fantasy…memory…whatever that was.
Her eyes flickered open and stared at him, surprise clear in them. This close he could see all the specks of gold and pale green in her emerald eyes. Like the leaves when they were just beginning to turn in autumn.
“You had a smudge,” he lied. “On your cheek.”
He brushed her cheek again. It took all the willpower he had not to cup her face and pull her closer, to reach under her clothes for the softness he knew was there. “There,” his voice cracked. “It’s gone.”
“You know,” he tried a joke, “we must stop meeting like this.”
She didn’t laugh. She chewed on her bottom lip and his gaze dropped to her lips.
She pressed her mouth to his, lightly, her finger caught between the corners of their mouths. Her kiss was so light, he could barely believe it was real.
Israel blinked. Alyx hadn’t moved. She hadn’t kissed him.
What was happening to him? What was he seeing? Was he going mad or was the Elder…right? “In a past life, the two of you meant something very special to each other.” He hadn’t realized he had pushed her away until she cleared her throat and scrambled to untangle herself from him. Israel felt the loss of her nearness at once.
He stood, trying to clear his thoughts as he brushed down his clothes, pants and hair. There was dust everywhere.
“Yeah?” So much damn dust.
Alyx tugged his arm. “Israel, look.”
He looked up to where Alyx was pointing. Over the top of the stone wall that circled around the cathedral grounds was a looming purple mountain rising up in the distance. In the sky above the mountain was a shimmering, faded image of Alyx asleep in her hospital bed, just as she had been when he had left her there.
That’s where they had to go. That was their exit.
“That’s me,” she said quietly. “I really am lying in a coma.”
He hated how her voice tightened. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
But he didn’t think she sounded sure at all.
That was fine. He would be sure for both of them.
He glanced around him. In the real world the end of spring was coming, but here the garden was bare, winter’s faded touch clear in the frost on the pale grass and the sun was low in the sky. The stone wall rising up around the perimeter of the now ruined cathedral was covered in a leafless vine like a dried spider’s web. This vine and a few spindly trees planted along parts of the wall were just beginning to dot with pale green tips.
“Look. It’s just coming into spring here.” The Elder had seemed so urgent when he told them that they needed to get out before the end of winter. But winter was still eight or nine months away. “We have plenty of time to get you out.”
“We need to find the Mapmaker, whoever he is. Wherever he is.” She made a face. “We need a map to get to the Mapmaker.”
Israel spotted the wrought iron gate, one of the few discreet entrances set into the stone wall. Through the bars he could see the cobbled street beyond. If this cathedral looked just like Saint Paul’s, what were the chances…?
He strode across the grass and stopped at the gate, aware that Alyx had followed him. Through the gate was a narrow gritty street and a sign reading “Hell’s Fire” in tacky fluorescent flames over a basement bar partly hidden under street level.
“Yes,” he pushed open the gate with a shove. “We don’t need a map.”
“But the Elder said…”
“We don’t need a map because this…” he stepped out onto the street, Alyx following him, “this isn’t just a replica of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, this is a replica of Saint Joseph. And I know this city like the back of my hand.”
* * *
To Alyx walking the streets of Saint Joseph had always felt like walking along giant trenches. It was an ancient city having survived two world wars, some buildings still carrying the scars of bullets and shrapnel, but the largest scars were the deepest, only sensed and unseen, weaved into the culture and into the peoples’ deepest fears, a sense that the next great war was just biding its time and that peace was just a translucent veil.
In the old parts of Saint Joseph the buildings rose uniformly along four stories. Something about not being able to see the horizon unnerved her. Even as a child growing up in Saint Joseph, she had always had the sense that she didn’t belong here. That she had been born in the wrong place. The wrong time…
Alyx walked alongside Israel down another street, their steps fallen into unison without trying. Even with his presence beside her, her eyes darted about, her sword shifting against her thigh, a weighty reminder that in this place she was in danger. Why else would the Elder have given them swords and wanted to teach them to use it? Her nerves tremored under her skin. She had not been able to conjure up her memories like Israel had.
She couldn’t believe it when she had turned around in the doorway of the underground vault to see Israel twisting in the air like an acrobat. Time had seemed to slow as she watched him, even as the ceiling crumbled around them. He was darkly magnificent, his movements so sure and powerful, fluid like water, and her chest had tightened at the sight. At that very moment she thought she had heard Israel’s voice in her head. In this life and the next. But it was just her imagination, right?
They walked for a few more minutes, Israel leading the way before Alyx was game enough to ask something that had been bothering her for a while. “Can I ask you something…personal?”
Israel glanced over to her and grinned. “Yes, I’m single.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I was about to ask you.”
“But it’s good to know anyway, right?”
She snorted back a retort. “What I wanted to ask was…why are you helping me?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you heard the Elder back there. He said that if you died in this dream, you’d get to wake up in the real world. Why are you staying in here to help me?”
Israel shot her a look. “Why wouldn’t I help?”
“You don’t know me,” she said, her voice tight. “Why do you care?”
Israel grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him, his gaze boring into hers. “There’s a reason why I was brought here, even if I don’t know yet whether I believe everything the Elder said. I watched you get hit on the head. I watched them pack you into the back of an ambulance and I saw you lying helpless in the hospital bed. Even if I didn’t believe that we…” He swallowed and his grip loosened. “What kind of person, what kind of man would I be if I didn’t stay and help?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve always managed on my own.”
“You don’t have to do this alone.”
Liar. A heat flared inside her. “Let go of me.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Get away. He was too close. Too close. “Why would I let myself rely on you? You’re just going to leave or give up at some point.”
His eyes widened as if he suddenly saw something he hadn’t seen before.
Damn him. He didn’t see anything. He didn’t know anything. She yanked against him again. “Don’t expect a thank you fuck at the end of it. You’re not my type.”
She yanked her arm but he just pulled her in closer, so close his hot breath fanned her cheeks. His nostrils flared even as his gaze remained like molten steel. “I know what you’re doing? It’s not going to work.”
Her breath stuck in her throat. “W-What are you talking about?”
“Be a bitch. Be ungrateful. Throw a tantrum for all the good it will do you. I’m not leaving. Do you hear me? I’m. Not. Leaving.”
A knot tightened in her stomach and the backs of her eyes stung. His stare… She turned her face away. She couldn’t handle the way his stare made her feel…naked. Like he could see her. Like he could see the raw and swollen parts of her with skin like paper. The parts she wrapped in a cloak of anger and guarded behind thick impersonal walls. She hated him for seeing it. Because now she saw it too.
“Fine,” she growled out. “Stay or don’t. I don’t care. We’re wasting time.” She tugged her hand but he wouldn’t release her.
His voice was so pained and resigned that it startled her. She lifted her eyes up.
He opened his mouth then closed it, pressing his lips together. “Fine. Let’s go.” His fingers slipped from hers and she felt a rush of loss.
They began to walk down this slim street again, the empty apartments seeming to stare at them as they walked past.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a bright yellow sunflower facing her from the side of the closest building; she almost felt like it was watching her.
Israel directed them deeper into the oldest part of town and she had the sense that she was being swallowed whole, bones and all, by this city. The eerie quiet of this place was made stark by the clatter of their boots echoing off the buildings that rose on either side of them.
More often than she wanted to, she found herself stealing glances at Israel, her eyes drawn up to his face, almost a head taller than her. His stubbled jaw was set and his chin was high, his eyes alert, scanning the buildings around them. She found her eyes dwelling on his thick lips, found her gaze tracing the curve of his neck and over his broad muscled shoulders.
Perhaps having him besides her wouldn’t be too bad.
He looked over to her and caught her staring. She thought he would turn serious again, perhaps bring up their earlier conversation, the edges of it still raw in her mind. Instead a sly smile teased at the corners of his lips. “See something you like?”
Alyx crossed her arms in front of her. Idiot. Why did she let him catch her looking? Now he thought she was ogling him.
She had been. But he didn’t need to know that. “Are you sure you know where you’re going? I still think we need to find the Mapmaker. The Elder said−”
“The Elder underestimated how much I know about Saint Joseph. The mountain is in the north and I know the quickest way to get us through this city. It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
She had grown up in Saint Joseph too, but there was something about this place that didn’t seem familiar. Sure, it looked the same, the streets were cobbled and the buildings rose, slightly tilted into the street like it was bending over from age, the old ornate Victorian lamps were fixed into the side of exposed bricks, now containing electric bulbs instead of oil burners. But the air smelled different. Saint Joseph smelled like smoke and incense and the sweet caramelizing sugar of the open stalls that sold freshly made pastries. This place had this strange undercurrent of something sharp in her nose. Like disinfectant.
You’re not really here, remember? You’re in a hospital in a coma. This place isn’t real.
This thought didn’t comfort her. This place felt and looked as real as life did. She already knew that pain in here felt real enough. “You must get out before the end of winter.” What if she didn’t?
She shoved that thought aside. There was no time to think about such things. It would only make her start to panic and that would not help them escape.
Israel halted at the entrance to a thin alleyway. “I live here.” He pointed to the tall slim building a few doors down from the corner. “Well…at least I live here in the real world version.”
Alyx glanced around her. The bricks hadn’t appeared to have been washed in years and were turning black with mold. There was graffiti on every surface, a scrawling mess of illegible black tags. One of the windows had been smashed as if someone had thrown a stone through it. “Nice neighborhood.”
Israel shrugged, his mouth pinched slightly. “It’s not that bad.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Forget about it.” But the tightness in his voice begged to differ. “We can go through here and take a shortcut through Tarragon Alley.”
Not Tarragon Alley. Was he crazy? Tarragon Alley was one of Saint Joseph’s bad areas. Over the last few decades it had only gotten worse as the city’s crime seemed to concentrate here. It used to be scattered across several areas including the Valley, but the Valley had gentrified and had become one if the hippest commercial areas stuffed full of cool bars and cafes and avant garde clothing stores, while Tarragon Alley seemed to collect the dregs like a sewerage net. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Come on, Alyx. There’s nobody here. It’d save us time if we cut straight through instead of walking around the area. It’ll be fine. Besides,” Israel touched his sword at his side, “I’m armed.”
Alyx touched her fingers to her own sword sheathed to her hip. She wasn’t sure it would be a great help anyway but it made her feel a little better knowing that she had some sort of weapon on her. She glanced around the street. There did seem to be no one here. She was just being silly, right?
Her gaze fell upon one of the few trees that grew up from the cobbles and gasped. “Israel, look. The branches…the leaves…they were all just tiny buds minutes ago, now they’re larger, bigger.” She spun and stared at another tree farther down the street they had just came from. The green tips were beginning to fan out into leaves. “The seasons here…they’re going faster than on Earth. We’re already weeks into spring.”
Israel’s mouth was a grim line. “It looks like we have no choice. We need to take this shortcut.”
Alyx didn’t like this alleyway. Not one bit. There were too many nooks where people could hide and ambush them. On the sides of the buildings was a series of crisscrossing ladders and haphazardly hung clotheslines. A small breeze floated through the street lifting the corners of the hanging sheets like a ghostly hand. A dark shadow seemed to fall about the alleyway even though the sun was out. She shivered.
Something flashed overhead. She snapped her face towards it but it was gone before she could even be sure that she had seen anything. The hairs on the back of her neck rose.
“Israel,” she whispered.
“Do you get the feeling that we’re being watched?”
He glanced over to her. By the press of his lips she knew that he felt it too. “Stay close, okay?”
They walked deeper and deeper into Tarragon Alley until the entrance in which they came from couldn’t be seen behind them. She walked so close to him that their shoulders kept brushing against each other, sending small sparks down her arm every time it happened. She felt safer with him by her side but this ominous feeling never left her.
“We should be out of Tarragon Alley soon. Just up here,” Israel said as they turned a corner. He skidded to a halt. She did too. The street went for only a few meters before coming to a dead end. “This isn’t right. This dead end isn’t supposed to be here.”
Alyx tried to swallow down the knot forming in her throat and failed.
“I know another way. Come on.” Israel led her farther down another street then another. “We can go just here…and turn this corner and−”
It was another dead end. Another blank wall rising up before them.
“What’s going on?” Israel said.
“Guys and asking for directions,” she muttered. “I told you we need to find the Mapmaker.”
“Where? I don’t remember ever seeing a Mapmaker’s shop in Saint Joseph.”
Before Alyx could answer, something dropped from the sky, hurtling straight for her. Her hand went to her hip and she drew her sword out of instinct. It flew around her in an arc, too far out of her reach.
“What the hell is that?” Israel hissed, his own sword drawn.
The creature swooped around again then hovered at eye level several meters from her, black beady eyes trained right on her, large brown feathered wings beating powerfully, blowing up dust from the ground, the sunlight glinting off a silver bracelet around its leg.
“It’s an eagle!”
The giant bird let out a long cry and soared back up to the sky.
“What did it want?” Israel asked.
“I…don’t know.” Alyx frowned at the space between the roofs where she could see the eagle circling above, its loud cry calling over and over like a siren.
Like it’s sounding the alarm.
Several silhouetted figures appeared over the roof edge and began to clamber down the ladders towards them. The alleyway filled with growls and the clatter of boots on iron rungs.
“It’s an ambush,” Israel cried.
Alyx gritted her teeth and steadied her sword, hoping to hell that she remembered how to use this thing in time. “You take those three, I’ll take the other three.”
“Are you serious?” Israel hissed at her. “Christ, you’re going to get us both killed.”
“What are you so worried about? You’re the one who actually remembers how to fight.”
“Even if we both remembered, we can’t take on six against two.”
“What do you recommend then?” she snapped.
He grabbed her arm and their eyes met. “Run.”
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