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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 1/24/19. Winter Season, January 2019 edition.


Warning(s): traumatizing content; violent content.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—

—Edgar Allan Poe,
"Annabel Lee"


1


Alice exited Katherine’s library and looked at the pool of blood Auna had left on the landing at the base of the stairs when she died. The blood, once pulsing with life through Auna’s veins and arteries, now lay in a black crusty pool as the last remnant of Auna’s corporeal being in the Phantom Realms.

Alice stretched out her hand, manifesting a knife in her palm, and ran the blade across the palm of her other hand, then crouched and put her palm flat over the dried pool of blood, letting her own blood mix into it.

She said, “I peer Through the Looking-Glass on page 34, and what do I find but the Red Queen full sore? I peer Through the Looking-Glass on page 91, and what do I find but the White Queen undone?” Then the blood on the landing glowed as two bouquets of roses appeared on top of it, one of red roses and one of white, so she added, “Rise up, oh ye Queens, from the depths of my mind, and unburden yourselves from the chains that bind!”

And the bouquets tore apart in a swirl of red and white petals, and amidst the swirl of petals appeared the Red and White Queens in red and white Sunday dresses, respectively, their bobbed hair and the skirts of their dresses fluttering in the swirl of her spell.

Both queens took a knee and kneeled before Alice, saying, “What do you command, your grace?”

“Escort me to the ballroom,” Alice said and stretched out her hands to them, “for I am your Queen now.”

So the Red and White Queens took Alice’s hands and kissed her knuckles as if they were her suitors, then led Alice on either side of her up the stairs.

But when the ceiling lights flickered, Alice caught sight of Aaron Rancaster manifesting out of a haze on the top landing of the double grand staircase. So she ran up the steps past the M. C. Escher lithographs and mezzotints and met him at the landing and said, “What’s going on, my Lord?”

“We have intruders,” Rancaster said, and turned to the Red and White Queens. “Once you escort Alice to the ballroom, close the doors and let nobody else out.”

“Yes, my Lord,” they both said.

“How many are they?” Alice asked.

“A dozen, at least,” he said. “This mansion is full of surprises, so tread carefully, Bambina. One of them is an old acquaintance of mine, in fact, and she’s not to be trifled with.”

“You really think so?” Alice said, and a slasher’s smile stretched across her face. “I look forward to meeting her.”

“Don’t, Bambina. She’s old enough to be your mother, but don’t,” Rancaster said and smiled and shook his head, then leaned over Alice’s shoulder and whispered into her ear. “You just came back from a long sleep, so your powers aren’t fully manifested yet. Till I know you can stand on your own, I’m here to prevent you from doing anything foolish. Is that clear?”

Alice paused and looked away and said, “But if I somehow get tangled with her, you’ll come to my rescue, right?”

At this, Rancaster cracked a smile, saying, “With guns blazing and sword shimmering, I’ll be that very Prince!”

And with those words, he bowed to her and took her hand and kissed it, sending color to Alice’s pallid face. Then he turned on his heel and walked into a darkening haze enveloping the top landing of the staircase and disappeared before her eyes, leaving the Red and White Queens to escort her to the ballroom.

At this, the Red Queen said, “Follow us, my Queen.”

“Your guests are expecting you,” the White Queen added.

Alice looked at the doppelgängers of the late Auna Wenger (both wearing Sunday dresses, one in red and the other in white) and looked on their deadpan expressions and soulless eyes, then smiled and said, “Oh, we’ll make a beautiful threesome, my lovelies. Carry on!”

Holding hands like the best of friends, the newly-formed trio of doppelgängers stalked into the inclined hallway leading up to the endless rows of hallways and mirrors one floor above, passing six doors along the left side and stopping by a seventh door before the turn into another hallway.

The Red Queen grabbed the handle and opened the door and let Alice and the Red Queen, while she herself stood guard.

With the White Queen accompanying her, Alice said, “Have my guests been waiting long?”

The White Queen shook her head, saying, “Not very.”

“These intruders,” she said, “where are they?”

”Inside and outside these walls,” the Red Queen said.

“Do we know who they are?”

“Rancaster recognized a few of them,” the Red Queen said, pausing in the entrance hall before the double doors leading into the ballroom.

“Who are they?” Alice said.

“Cooley and Blaze, Nico and Mara Cairns and Kendra Tellerman, Colbie and her mother, among others,” the White Queen said, then knocked on the door three times. “Akami and I will watch for them. Enjoy your debut, my Queen.”

When the masked doorman doorman opened the door, Alice felt a strange familiarity emanating from his person, before passing into a long gallery that was the ballroom amid a torrent of applause and whistles from waiting masqueraders. When the doorman closed the door, Alice faced her adoring audience and smiled and said, “My darlings, your Queen has arrived!”

More applause broke out from the crowd of masqueraders, many of the men whistling at her and some of the men and women cheering her name. “Alice, Alice, Alice, Alice . . .”

But Alice herself raised her hand, and the crowd became silent. She said, “Loyal retainers of the house of Rancaster, allies and friends, it’s been a century since I’ve walked among you. You have all proven your loyalty with your presence here tonight, and here I am before you in triumph, unbroken and unafraid!”

Again, another round of applause broke out.

“But my arrival has come under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” Alice said, quieting her listeners into silence, “for this very mansion belongs to one of our enemies: the house of Hearn.”

Now boos erupted from the masqueraders, many of them wielding cane swords and knives and daggers hidden under their garments and coats and dresses, and most of them ready and willing to sate their bloodlust at Alice’s command.

“Have patience, my dears,” Alice said. “There’s a time to live and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to cry. Doubtless, you have done all this and more for my sake, and for the union of Master Rancaster and myself. For that, you have my gratitude and strength and love. There’s a time for all things, and in but a little while, there will be a time for you to fight. I myself have done my share of it. I have seen two scions of the house of Hearn, and just before entering this room, I’ve even fought that nameless Prince Prospero who had stormed this very room and driven you out. What have you to say for yourselves?”

Now the room of masqueraders stood in the hush of judgement from their Queen Alice, none of them daring a word.

“Neither Rancaster, nor I were there when that happened,” Alice said, “but I ask you now. Will you stand and fight for me?”

A resounding “Yea” roared through the room from the teeming crowd of masqueraders.

“Will you stand and fight for the honor of Rancaster?”

And another resounding “Yea” roared through the room.

“Will you stand and fight for the honor of my name?”

And yet another resounding “Yea” roared through the space.

At their acclamations, Alice smiled a slasher’s smile and said, “Then I promise all of you that your time (our time) has come. With you by my side, we will cut down our enemies starting with the house of Hearn!”


2


When Leslie finished, Colbie just stood there gaping at her mother in amazement. Throughout Leslie’s story, images of her mother’s misadventures through the Phantom Realms fluttered across her mind, and she wondered about these references to Edgar Allan Poe, who was something of a mama’s boy himself even by early Victorian standards.

Colbie said, “What does all this mean?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Leslie said, pausing for a moment, then: “Colbie, did you meet Auna Wenger in your dream, by any chance?”

“No,” she said, “but I met someone else. She called herself Alice.” She paused on her mother’s thoughtful expression, wondering what she was thinking about, and said, “What is it?”

“Those wounds you received,” Leslie continued. “Did this ‘Alice’ have anything to do with them?”

“Yeah,” she said, avoiding her mother’s eyes because she had struck her in the face and made her bleed. “She nearly killed me, but you woke me up just in time.”

“And your dream bedroom,” Leslie continued, seeming to connect the dots in her mind. “Did she do that, too?”

Based on what her mother told her, Colbie could just imagine the mess Alice made of it, balling her hands into knuckle-white fights on the kitchen countertop, and said, “I escaped before she tried to kill me, but she better watch out. If I ever see that trash-talking slut bag again, I’m gonna—”

“Colbie, don’t!”

“I can’t help it, okay, Mom?” Colbie said. “That bitch tried to kill me! And she was talking smack about you and Dad, and—ugh! She fucking pisses me off so much!”

“I know how you feel, trust me,” Leslie said, “but you can’t let that get to you—not now,” and she walked over into the family room and checked the time on the LCD clock above the television: 5:16 a.m. “It’s a quarter past five, so we still have time.”

“Time?” Colbie said. “Time for what?”

“Time for one more dream dive,” Leslie said, and she stalked off out of the kitchen and into the hallway.

“Wait, are you serious?” Colbie followed on her mother’s heels into the hallway at the base of the staircase. “It’s less than two hours before daybreak. We need at least—”

“I know that,” Leslie said, and she opened the door into a closet underneath the staircase and turned on an overhead light. The light showed a rack full of jackets and overcoats and boxes of shoes on a shelf overhead.

“But I lost your key,” Colbie said.

Leslie turned and smiled at her daughter, saying, “There’s more than one way to enter a dream, you know,” and she beckoned Colbie to come into the closet with her and said, “Close the door.”

Once inside, Colbie swung the door shut behind her, enclosing herself and her mother in the closet, squinting below the overhead light. All at once, the air around them tingled, and Colbie felt pressure welling up against her ears, as if she were on a plane ascending into the air, so she did what her mother did. She pinched her nose and exhaled to equalize the pressure in her ears and acclimate herself with the space.

“We’ll wait here for ten minutes,” Leslie said. “We’ll be better off instead of entering your dream cold turkey.”

“My dream?” Colbie said. “Why my dream?”

“Because you have some explaining to do,” Leslie said, then pushed aside a row of jackets, revealing a blank partition whereon she placed her palm flat against it and pushed into it. A hidden latch clicked open and manifested another door that opened into the ever-shifting haze of dreams with the turn of the knob, but she delayed opening it. “I need you to tell me everything that happened to you today.”

“But, Mom, I already—”

“Everything, Colbie,” her mother said, “including last night.”

“But why last night?” she said.

“I know something happened to you, because I felt chills this morning right here,” Leslie said, grabbing Colbie’s hand and placing it on her stomach. “I felt it here.” She then looked her in the eyes, pausing for a moment as if to reflect on everything she felt when she woke up this morning. “I already told you everything I know. Now you have to tell me everything you know. I need you to be straight with me, okay? Don’t hold back anything, no matter what it is.”

But Colbie refrained from meeting her mother’s gaze, unsure if she was able to tell her mother just yet, let alone prepared to face her mother’s reaction if she told her the truth. And on top of that, even in the realm of dreams, her mother’s presence daunted her with the threat of being found out, of facing the slings and arrows of her mother’s rebuke, and of crumbling to pieces as her mother left her when she needed her most.

So she tested the waters and looked into her mother’s eyes and said, “Promise you won’t get angry?”

“I’ll try not to,” her mother said.

Colbie looked away again, shaken at her mother’s words, and wondered if she could confide in her mother at all with her attraction to girls or even with her near-death experience. She still felt her eyes raw and red from crying many times after her friends told her about Nico’s sacrifice that brought her back to the world of the living. Now, on the edge of losing herself as these secrets threatened to choke off her words, Colbie played the coward and went the easier route, telling her mother everything that had happened during her fight with Alice and everything that had happened on the previous night in her collective dream dive with her friends, yet she never mentioned Mara stabbing her.

Instead, she said . . .


3


While Colbie let her mother have it, Cooley materialized before the mirror in the underground vault and said, “I’m back! Did you miss—” Cooley stopped when she caught Nico and Blaze (both girls down to their bras and panties) egging a blushing Mara into taking off her bra with whistles and innuendoes, because she had lost the next hand of Strip Poker at the table. And under the peer pressure, Mara had caved in and was about to reach behind her back to unclip the fastener of her bra when she looked in Cooley’s direction and froze. “What’s going on here?”

That’s when Nico and Blaze looked back amidst their game, as well, with their table strewn with cards and cans of root beer and the floor beneath covered with discarded clothes.

“Oh, we’re just having some fun to pass the time,” Blaze said, smiling at Cooley. “Isn’t that right, girls?”

“We didn’t want to play,” Nico said, “but she bribed us with root beer—“

“—and we love root beer,” Mara said.

“Not as much as tonight, girls,” Blaze said, ogling the twins. “Oh, we’re gonna have soooo much fun tonight!”

“Blaze,” Cooley said, crossing her arms over her chest, “what’s going on?”

“Oh, just some harmless fun,” she said. “Care to join?”

“Are you drunk?” Cooley said and looked from Blaze to Nico to Mara. “Are you all drunk?”

“What do you mean?” Blaze said and took another swig at her beverage and burped. “We’re not drunk! We’re drinking root beer, not actual beer, I promise.”

But the disbelieving Cooley went ahead and grabbed a can—

“Hey, that’s mine!” Nico said.

—and took a sip out of it and repeated the same process for the rest of the open cans on the table, then felt relief slipping past her gullet and coming to rest in her stomach. Even so, she glared at Blaze and said, “You’re still a bad influence! Now all of you,” she added, glaring at the trio of miscreants around her like a mother about to scold her naughty children, “clear all of this up and PUT YOUR CLOTHES BACK ON!”

The trio of penitents cowered under Cooley’s glare, till they each got dressed and cleaned after themselves, yet all the root beer they drank had filtered out of their stomachs through their kidneys and into their bladders.

So Nico said, “Where’s the bathroom?”

“We need to pee,” Mara added.

“And I think I need to throw up,” Blaze said and burped again.

Cooley just stood there and face-palmed herself, then summoned another mirror and placed her hand over the reflection. Since the last thing she wanted to see was three root beer-filled girls emptying themselves on the toilet, Cooley imagined the door to the bathroom and manifested it in her mirror. A moment later, an astral copy of the door to the bathroom appeared in the underground vault beside the table.

“There’s just one toilet, so go one at a time,” Cooley said, “and please flush it after you're done!”

The trio of girls traded glances and smiled and said, “All right, Mamma Goose!”


4


After the bathroom break, when they all got settled onto their chairs, Cooley asked the Cairns twins if they had that kind of relationship when they made out. At first, Mara and Nico were adamant about not making out, but when Cooley and Blaze challenged them with their observations (for they were themselves sisters in love), Nico admitted to kissing her sister, much to Mara’s chagrin. Cooley and Blaze traded knowing glances and smiled at their charges and reassured them that there was no harm done. Love was love, Cooley said, no matter what guise it wore or what orientation it followed.

Cooley’s observation eased the twins into a more trusting mood, so Nico whispered into her sister’s ear about the key they had found, saying these two might know what to make of it.

So Mara walked over to the bunk bed in the back of the underground vault, where she had placed the underneath the pillow for safekeeping, and came back with it.

Which Cooley saw and said, “What have you got there?”

“A key,” Mara said and handed it to her. “Nico and I checked for initials earlier, but we found nothing.”

Even so, Cooley looked at the key and felt an aura emanating off of it, like that of a guardian’s or a steward’s key. “Where did you find this?”

Nico pointed to the table, where they had been playing Strip Poker, and said, “We found it there.”

Cooley and Blaze looked towards the table, the exact copy of Katherine’s table in the underground vault of her own dream mansion. So Cooley thought of her conversation with Blaze there about Leslie Amame and sensed a synchronicity leading to some unknown link in a web of disparate circumstances.

Which wasn’t lost on Blaze, who asked, “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Cooley nodded, then turned to the twins and said, “Were you two talking about Leslie Amame?”

“Yeah,” Nico said.

“When we were at Kathy’s place,” Blaze said, “were you listening in on us?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” Cooley said.

“Because I felt something when I touched it,” Mara said, “but it’s kind of hard to explain. I didn’t just feel something; I saw something, too.”

“You mean like psychometry?” Cooley guessed. “Like channelling a reading or a thought from an object?”

“Is that what it’s called?” Mara said.

Cooley nodded her head and said, “Yep. I spend most of my time reading stuff like this. The word, ‘psychometry,’ is just a term used to describe an interconnection between living auras, in which objects like this,” and she held up the key, “embody that connection in physical form.”

Mara and Nico and Blaze deadpanned, none of them having any clue what the hell she was talking about.

So Nico said, “And that means what exactly?”

“We call these living auras memories,” Cooley went on, “and we call the objects that hold these memories together totems. We use totems like this one to ground our sense of place on what we think is reality, and that keeps us from losing our sense of who we are. Everybody living has them, but only lucid dreamers can use them to take control of their agency when they dream.”

At her words, Mara gulped and looked at the grim expression of Nico’s face and grabbed a hold of her hand, feeling it clammy and cold in her palm.

She said, “And what happens if we lose that agency?”

Cooley said, “You mean if you die?”

Mara nodded and looked to her sister, who kept her eyes to the floor as if trying to keep it together, so Mara put her hand over Nico’s and squeezed it.

Cooley and Blaze followed suit, and all eyes were on Nico.

Cooley said, “There are many ways of keeping you grounded, whether it’s totems, or a flesh-and-blood body housing a soul, or memories of those we care about. In the absence of a totem or a living body, our memories are all we have.” At her words, Nico was about to cry, but Cooley added, “But in the case of siblings (and especially identical twins), there’s a stronger bond likened to a golden chain that lets you experience what the other experiences.”

On this, Mara and Nico traded a nervous look of recognition, for their visions were not just chance glimpses of their attraction to other girls. They were really a reflection of their halves of the same coin, two minds and two souls (one dead and one living) in opposition to each other, like Yin and Yang.

“But above all else,” she added, making one more observation, “the strongest connections are made with our intentions. We call them pacts and promises when we promise to keep our word, we call them vows and oaths when we swear to uphold our word with spoken words, we call them treaties and contracts when we uphold our word by writing our names on them, and we call them covenants when we uphold our word with God through our actions and our conduct.”

Mara and Nico blanched on Cooley’s observations, for her observations described two such promises: one, wherein Colbie vowed to be Mara’s sister, sealed with Colbie’s death and resurrection; and two, wherein Nico made Kendra and Celia promise to save Mara, sealed with Nico’s prayer and self-sacrifice. One promise sealed with actions, and one promise sealed with words. Mara and Nico: two sides of the same coin.

Cooley and Blazed sensed the wheels turning in their heads, so Blaze said, “Did anything happen between the two of you?”

The effect was immediate. Mara and Nico blushed and refused to look at each other, so as not to let either questioner pry any further into their love lives, but their hands stayed connected.

Cooley and Blaze had some inklings and both smiled mischievous smiles.

“That’s it,” Mara said, standing up and glaring at her two pryers. “Get your filthy minds out of the gutter, you freaks!”

Nico stood up and placed her hand on her sister’s shoulder, saying, “Calm down. I don’t think that’s what they meant.” And to break the ice, she pointed to the key in Cooley’s hand and said, “Do you think that key belongs to Leslie Amame?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Cooley said, “but I’ll need one of you to help me do it. Are either of you up for it?”

Mara and Nico gulped, but nodded their heads, anyway, while Blaze knew what was on Cooley’s mind and added, “You mean hacking into someone else’s dream, right?”

“God, Blaze, don’t scare them!” Cooley said, then turned towards a nervous Mara and Nico. “Don’t mind her, you two. It’s not as bad as that, trust me. We’re just looking to return this key to its rightful owner, and we’ll go from there, got it?”

Again Mara and Nico nodded.

“Good,” Cooley said, and she placed her hand on the surface of her mirror, where the reflection shimmered on contact. She then raised the key to eye-level between Mara and Nico and let it go, where it stayed floating in midair. “I can’t touch someone else’s totem when I’m scrying, so I need one of you to hold onto it.”

Mara grabbed the key.

“Okay,” Cooley continued, “I need you to press that key against the surface of my mirror and visualize the person you think it belongs to in your mind.”

So Mara did just that, pressing it flat on her palm against the mirror’s surface, and tried her best to think of Leslie Amame, but her thoughts fluttered onto Colbie Amame sleeping in her dorm room. Her thoughts manifested like a television show in Cooley’s mirror, in which Mara’s dream-self would enter her room and turn on the light and see her sleeping on the bed—

“Don’t change your mind,” Cooley said, keeping Mara from removing her hand and breaking the spell. “Just let it play out. Nico, press your hand on top of Mara’s, so she won’t break my spell.”

Mara panicked, though, and looked at a smirking Blaze enjoying the impromptu peepshow at her expense and a pensive Nico biting down on her lower lip. “But I’m not sure—”

“Don’t doubt yourself. Just let it play out,” she said. “Come on, Nico. Help her out.”

So Nico pressed her palm against Mara’s on the mirror, and Mara let her naughty thoughts go on, despite the embarrassment. There was a shift in perspective in Cooley’s mirror, revealing Mara’s dream-self in the nude, pulling off the bedsheets to reveal Colbie also sleeping in the nude and getting into bed with Colbie, who was unaware of her presence.

“Oh, you naughty girl,” Blaze said.

“Quit it, you sicko,” Cooley said, then turned to Mara. “Ignore her. She has her own sick tendencies, trust me.”

“Hey, I’m not that bad!”

Through it all, Nico kept her palm pressed against Mara’s as she bit down on her lower lip, as Mara’s vision played in her mind and her emotions pulsed through her heart.

“It’s okay,” Nico whispered in her ear, “I’m with you.”

So Mara closed her eyes, encouraged by her sister’s words, and let the thoughts play in her mind as she was pressing her head onto Colbie’s bare breasts, shedding her tears onto her skin, wrapping her arms around her waist, tangling her hands in her hair, and planting hungry kisses on her cheeks and lips, only to look into her eyes and see a different girl's face.

For it was not the face of Colbie Amame.

Nor was it the face of her sister, Nico.

It was the face of Alice Liddell.

And in that moment of recognition, Mara’s dream-self unsheathed her phantom blade and stabbed her bare stomach, bursting the image of Alice into bloodstained petals of daisies and roses and purple carnations—


5


And plunging it through Alice’s stomach. And somewhere in the fog of Mara’s confusion and disbelief, somewhere between elation and horror, was the feeling that she had fucked up, that she had committed an unpardonable sin, that her soul was done for as visions of Mara’s own crazed self stabbing Colbie through the stomach flitted past her eyes.

She pulled out the dagger and Alice fell to her knees, her eyes entranced in a look of disbelief.

Then another wave of pain seared through her stomach, and Mara fell to her knees, letting her dagger clang to the floor in splatters of blood, like the knell of a funeral bell clanging through a silent night. She gritted her teeth hard against the spasms digging deeper and deeper into her, pressing her hand onto the wound and feeling the warmth of her blood running rivulets through her fingers.

She looked up and saw Alice still holding her knife, despite the blood flow seeping from her stomach. Yet the look on Alice’s face changed and contorted into a grimace, her smile stretching wide across her cheeks, her eyes burning red in a demonic glare. And Alice rose to her feet just as Mara’s vision blurred and doubled and tripled and quadrupled, her astral body finally giving out and collapsing to the floor in Cooley’s mirror . . .


6


The mirror flashed and faded to black, and Mara jerked her hand away, dropping Leslie’s key and bumping into Nico behind her. She thought Nico said, “Are you okay?” But Mara couldn’t decide whether she was okay or not.

She just stayed silent, entranced by the key that was now floating at eye-level before her and glowing in her face. She looked behind her at Nico, who seemed just as entranced, then looked back at Cooley and Blaze. They, too, seemed spellbound and awed into silence. Then she noticed the silence of the air around her, as though the dream itself had taken a deep breath and was now holding itself in suspension, and when she looked back on the faces of Nico and Cooley and Blaze, she saw what had happened.

This dream and everyone except for Mara was frozen inside it.

She then grabbed the key and looked into Cooley’s mirror. The aural connection through it had solidified into a door glowing in the reflection, and its astral counterpart had manifested behind everyone’s backs.

With the key in hand, she stalked off towards the door, inserted the key into the lock and turned it over, then grabbed the knob and twisted it, but it wouldn’t budge. She yanked on it, pulling her weight against the handle to make it turn the mechanism inside, but nothing moved on this side of the door.

Only then did she realize why: this key was someone else’s totem, and in the hands of another dreamer, she couldn’t use it.

She said, “Hello? Is anybody on the other side?”

That’s when she noticed something else: she could move and breathe just fine, but the suspended animation of the dream prevented her words from carrying beyond the door—or, for that matter, sounding out her voice.

So she did the next best thing, raising her hand to the door and knocking three times—


7


And shattering the silence on the other side of the door, in which Colbie had been waiting for her mother to digest the contents of her story through her mind.

Three more knocks resounded from the other side of the door, and Leslie held a finger to her lips and placed her hand against it and manifested a blank omamori charm on its surface. Three more knocks (harder this time) resounded through the space, revealing the name of Mara Cairns on the charm and sending a thought of her own missing key into her mind.

Leslie grabbed the knob and opened the door, revealing Mara Cairns frozen in time, just about to knock three more times. Leslie and Colbie peered through the door past the statue-like Mara and spied three others in a vaulted room frozen in a similar state before a body-length mirror.

“What the hell is this?” Leslie said.

“Mara, is that you?” Colbie waved her hand in front of her face, but she never reacted, then said, “What happened to her?”

“She’s under my spell,” and Leslie pointed it out in Mara’s hand, “because she has my key.”

Colbie looked at her. “You put a curse on your key? Gee, that’s a little overboard, you know.”

“That’s not the point! It’s just a temporary spell for strangers using my key without permission, that’s all,” Leslie said.

Colbie pouted and crossed her arms across her chest. “I guess that includes me, too, right?”

Leslie sighed and said, “You don’t think I trust you? Here, I’ll prove you wrong,” and she grabbed her key from Mara’s hand and placed it in Colbie’s hand. “Don’t lose it.”

“I won’t,” Colbie said.

Leslie then beckoned her across the threshold and asked her to shut the door behind her (which Colbie did) and said, “Stay right there beside her and hold her hand. You and Mara will be my control subjects.”

Colbie obeyed, grasping Mara’s hand, and wondered what her mother was thinking. She merely observed her mother stalking off towards the three other figures standing before the mirror, then recognized Mara’s sister, Nico, and the spirit doubles of Katherine and Madison Hearn (Cooley and Blaze, respectively), all three girls standing still like statues.

And for a time, Leslie remained silent in her observations.

Colbie sensed the gist of it, though, and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t get it,” Leslie said. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”

“What isn’t supposed to happen?”

“My spell only works on those possessing my key. If no one else is holding it, no one else in this room should be affected. Unless . . .” she said, looking around the vault at the spare shelves and other furnishings, letting her thoughts drift off onto various suppositions, perhaps on the source of interference in the room, or even an outside source.

Colbie said, “Maybe it’s someone in this room.”

“Maybe, but I hope not,” Leslie said under her breath, and looked into Cooley’s mirror and saw in the reflection the image of the closed door, still glowing on the edges of its door jamb. She turned towards the door where Colbie stood besides the statue-like Mara and added, “Stay right where you are, Colbie, and don’t let go of Mara. I think it has something to do with this mirror.”

“Maybe she was scrying into it.”

“God damn it, why does it have to be this?” Leslie said, for Colbie was right. “Of all things, it has to be a cluster-fuck.”

“What’s going on?” Colbie said.

“Colbie, listen to me,” she said. “Mirrors aren’t just portals to different places. They also reflect things, so I’m thinking that this mirror reflects the same spell as the one on my key.” Leslie looked at Cooley with her hand still pressed to the reflection, and said, “She must have deduced the spell on my key and tried to reverse it using her mirror, but she froze this room, instead. God, this sucks!”

“Seriously?” Colbie said.

“And it looks like I fell into the same time-trap,” Leslie said, then pressed her hand to the mirror and manifested another omamori charm, with the Greek for ’reverse’ on it. “I froze this place the moment I opened that door,” and she pointed toward the door she and Colbie had entered. “And I let you close it without realizing. Colbie, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought you with me.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?” Colbie paused, feeling her palm slicked over with sweat in Mara’s hand, and was about to—

“Don’t let go,” Leslie said. “Keep holding her hand.”

Colbie said, “Mom, you’re starting to scare me!”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” she said, “but after I do this, I want you to take Mara with you and find out what’s going on.”

“But what about you?” Colbie said, taking a step.

“Don’t get any closer!” She said, “And don’t let go of her!”

“W-what about the others?” Colbie said. “You’re not gonna die, are you?”

“No, but I might be stuck here for a while,” Leslie said, “and that goes for the others. Just take her with you and find out what’s going on. Maybe she can fill you in.”

“But, Mom.”

“Go,” she said, “but be careful. I’m putting my trust in you, so take care of yourselves out there.” And before Colbie had a chance to speak, Leslie summoned her spell (“Antistrophe!”) (Reverse!) and froze herself into the underground vault—


8


And broke Mara out of the time-trap. In that moment, Mara noticed Colbie’s tight grip on her hand and yanked herself free as Colbie yelled for her mother to stop, but it was too late. Leslie Amame stood in suspended animation with Nico and Cooley and Blaze before the mirror, and there was nothing Colbie or Mara could do about it.

Mara looked at Colbie’s face and saw her eyes wide and her mouth gaping and figured that the older woman was this girl’s mother. The thought brought memories of her own mother screaming for her to run away from Aaron Rancaster’s stage just before Rancaster shot her and the echoes of the gun blast exploded through her head and brought up the moment just before Nico’s death, just as Mara was screaming for her to keep trying, but Nico’s final words to her were that she was sorry.

“I’m sorry,” Mara said, then grasped Colbie’s hand and repeated it: “I’m really sorry.”

The touch pulled the girl out of her reveries, and wiping tears with the sleeve of her pajamas, Colbie said, “Don’t be sorry for me. My mom’s okay.”

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “I mean, I’m sorry for stabbing you . . . and for causing your friends so much trouble.”

For a moment, Colbie looked at her, and Mara felt her gaze like that of a puzzled lover who said something inexplicable or even inappropriate.

But Colbie said, “Don’t worry about it,” and she pulled Mara towards the door that was reflected in Cooley’s mirror, placed her hand on the knob, and turned to Mara: “Stay close to me, okay?”

Mara nodded, wondering what she was planning to do. She had ideas, but they were inappropriate ones about kissing Colbie, among other things, so she kept her mouth shut and prayed she wasn’t blushing.

Mara just watched Colbie close her eyes, wondering what in God’s name Colbie was thinking, and when she opened the door into the void, Mara followed her into the darkness—


9


And stepped into a different part of the Phantom Realms, where Colbie and her friends called their Floating World, their dream dive retreat. It was the same sukiya-zukuri mansion that bore witness to Mara’s fury and Colbie’s death and Celia’s and Kendra’s tears over the dead, as well as the miracle that took place between Nico and Colbie’s friends.

The place was a mess: long splinters and tatami mats lay scattered over wooden planks, a shoji screen door lay dislodged from its frame, another one was smashed asunder, a hole gaped in the wall that overlooked a ruined garden, and the back wall was caved in where Colbie resisted the fury of Mara’s psychic waves.

Colbie turned to Mara and said, “Do you remember this place?”

She did and wiped her eyes brimming with tears. “Why did you bring me here?”

“Because this is your place, too,” Colbie said. “It belongs to you as much as it does to me, Celia, Kendra, and your sister.”

“Nico?”

Colbie nodded. “Celia and Kendra told me everything that happened here, Mara. Everything.” And she pointed to the dried pool of blood and said, “That’s where you stabbed me, and that’s where I bled out, and that’s where Celia and Kendra were crying over me,” and she turned to Mara, adding, “but that’s also where Nico saved my life. And that,” she said, pointing to the hole in the wall, “is where Kendra punched you through a wall into that garden and almost killed you, but she didn’t. As mad as she was, Kendra couldn’t kill you. And that same place where I bled out on the floor,” she said, pointing to the dried pool of blood again, “was the place where Kendra and I carried you from the garden and where Celia and I checked up on you.”

At Colbie’s words, more tears trailed down Mara’s face. She wiped them away, but more tears came like an overflowing cup filled with something Mara and never felt before in her life, something that washed away the blood from her hands and cleared the guilt from her soul. Prison wardens called it release, judges called it acquittal, kings called it pardon, priests called it absolution, and God called it mercy, but Colbie called it something else.

“Mara,” Colbie said, reaching out and wiping the tears from her eyes, “you don’t have to be sorry for anything. If anything, it’s me who should be sorry. I can’t imagine experiencing what you went through, but I’m here for you now, and I’ll be there for you whenever you need me. It doesn’t matter when or where, I’ll be there for you if you need me.”

Mara nodded her head as she squinted out more tears and choked on Colbie’s words, tongue-tied on what to say.

So Colbie expressed her words with actions, placing her hands on Mara’s shoulders, kissing her eyes, then her cheeks, then her lips, before pulling Mara into an embrace.

And Mara felt the chains of guilt breaking away from her, letting her heart stretch out its wings and flutter and lift off, and for a moment freeing her mind from all pain. Doubtless, Nico would always have a place in Mara’s heart, and nothing would ever change that, but Colbie was here and Colbie was hers.

After a time, Colbie and Mara let go.

Mara looked around and said, “Did I really do all this?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling, “and I want you to do the same thing when we get to the ballroom.”

“Really?”

“Yep,” she said, and stalked off towards the storage room and beckoned her to follow, “but I want to show you something, first.”

Mara followed and found Colbie opening the pantry door and pushing into the back partition, till it clicked on the inside and opened into a hidden space large enough for them to pass through. Colbie stepped inside, beckoning Mara to follow past the threshold, and Mara followed—


10


And found herself in a blank space of endless white with nothing else in it when Colbie pulled the door shut, encasing them inside.

“What is this place?” Mara said.

“This is Connie’s place,” Colbie said.

“Who’s Connie?”

“She’s our mentor,” Colbie said, “and she designed this place. Whenever Kendra, Celia, and I participate in her dream experiments, it’s always in this format. In this place, we can think of anything, and it’ll become real in this place. Come on. Give it a try. Think of anything you want.”

“Anything?” Mara said, trying to suppress inappropriate thoughts.

“Anything.”

But Mara’s thoughts manifested Colbie Amame sleeping in her dorm room, wherein Mara’s nude dream-self entered her room and turned on the light and saw her sleeping on the bed and pulled off the bedsheets, revealing Colbie also sleeping in the nude, then got into bed with Colbie—

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” Mara said, putting her hands to her face. “I’m not that kind of girl, really!”

Colbie smiled and dissipated the scandalous scene with her own thoughts and said, “Aaaaanyway, back to what I was saying. We use this place to think up anything we want, and during Connie’s experiments, we practice honing our skills here under her supervision. For our purpose, though, we can use this place in another way,” and she manifested the ballroom of Katherine’s dream mansion into the space.

They were now standing at the end of an empty ballroom, near the double doors of the giant grandfather clock in the violet section.

Mara looked around and noticed the clock without hands on the dial-face, wondering what Colbie was up to. “What are you planning to do?”

“Sneak into the ballroom,” Colbie said. “Alice attacked me in my dream bedroom, so I didn’t have a chance to think things through when I made the jump into this place the first time. If I’d have known it would be that dangerous, I’d have done it this way and given myself a way out, instead of getting myself trapped inside with Alice.”

“You met her?” Mara said, knowing full well that this Alice character was nothing short of diabolical.

“Yeah. She’s one tough bitch, I’ll give her that,” Colbie said, then pointed towards the grandfather clock before them. “I couldn’t get that to open when Alice was in this ballroom, so I’m thinking Alice had something to do with it.”

“Can we open it from here?” Mara said.

Colbie shook her head and said, “We can’t open any doors from this place that are closed on the other side, but we can open our own doors from here. It’s how I enter my own—”

A click of a door latch resounded through the space, and another door like the one Colbie and Mara had entered now swung open to their left. Both girls turned and saw Kendra Tellerman and Nico Cairns entering the space dressed like they were on last night's dream dive, with Kendra wearing the same torn Mandarin dress and Nico wearing the same bloodstained shirt that Mara had tucked into her dress skirt, both girls breathing hard when they entered.

“Nico!” Mara yelled, and ran towards her sister and hugged her and kissed her. “How did you get out of that room?”

Nico seemed to blank on her words, saying, “What room?”

As Kendra was shutting the door, Colbie ran to her and said, “What happened to you two?” And on looking at Mara gushing over Nico’s escape from the time-trap of Cooley’s and Leslie’s combined mishaps, she added, “And how did Nico get here?”

“Long story, and longer story,” Kendra said, then looked around the ballroom and whistled. “I like what you did with the place. What’s the occasion?”

“A bad one,” she said, then felt a brainwave flash through her mind, and so she teleported all the way to the blue section at the other end of the ballroom, where she found the program lying atop a salon sofa at the start of her dream dive. She picked it up, looked at the pages, then teleported back towards the violet section, and showed her Katherine's letter and said, “Read this, and you’ll understand.”

So Kendra took it and read it, allowing Mara and Nico to read along with her. This is what they read:

Dear Colbie,

I’ll try to keep this short, because I don’t have much time before the sleeper spell takes effect. And if I ramble, try to bear with me, okay? Anyway, I hereby grant you, Colbie Amame, temporary access to and control over this library, that you will act as stewardess of my knowledge in my absence under the sleeper spell. Once this sleeper spell wears off, which I hope won’t take too long, you will have probationary access to my library. For now, though, you’ll have complete access till I wake up.

Colbie, I know you hold some misgivings about me, so I wish to amend those by granting this to you, but I’m telling you now that I’m not making this grant on a whim. I’m doing this, because my sisters and I are in danger from a man named Rancaster and a girl named Alice. They’ve already seized my dream mansion, and this library’s the last place out of their reach, and I want to keep it that way. By the time you can read the contents of this letter, I’ll be under their sleeper spell, and it looks like I won’t be getting out of it for a while. So I implore you to look after this library, and look after my sisters during my sleep. They’ll need you by then as much as I need you now. . . .

Kendra looked up from the letter, gaping in shock, and said, “Whoa, whoa! This has to be a joke, right?”

Colbie shook her head. “I wish it was.”

“I saw what happened to her,” Mara added, “and it was bad. Her dream mansion’s been compromised, and Cooley’s hideout has been frozen, but what I wanna know is,” and she looked at the anomaly of her sister, Nico, who had somehow escaped from Cooley’s underground vault, still wondering how she did it, “how did you get here, Nico?”

“I wanna know, too,” Colbie said. “Last time we saw you, you were frozen in a time-trap with my mom and Blaze and Cooley. How the hell did you get out of that?”

Kendra and Nico traded looks, and Nico said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What do you mean?” Mara said.

Nico said, “We didn’t get trapped anywhere—”

“—but we did run into a lot of trouble,” Kendra added.

“What happened?” Colbie said.

Kendra looked at Nico, who nodded her head, so Kendra said, “I met Nico on top of a dragon’s staircase, but she was beyond my reach above me while I was one the top step. Nico challenged me to meet her all the way where she stood in the sky, and I thought it was Mara, so I . . .”


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!

Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.

Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!

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