Chapter 1: Shadow over the Sun
Sam was reading when the sun dimmed.
As he looked up from his book, he caught the sky outside his window shading into twilight. Overhead, the light blinked off, then on and the music playing on his laptop—Beethoven’s 7th—croaked a discordant jumble of notes before the screen went black. A breath of cold air left goosebumps on his arms.
“What the—” Sam pushed up from the chair as the overhead light faded again. His breath caught in his throat, like he had swallowed a lump of ice. His room was not large, made smaller by the piles of boxes making up his collection, and now shadows rose between stacks of waist-high containers. He wormed through them in the dim light, heart racing. Was this really happening, or was he having an attack? Why now? It took two tries to pick up his grandfather’s pocket watch from where it rested on an end table beside his bed. His hands shook, and the thump of his heartbeat nearly overpowered the rhythmic ticking transmitted through his palm. He focused on the mechanical beat—let it inform his body with the regular beat of time.
Calm down. Stillness evaded him, left him unsteady. Everything is going dark in the middle of the day. At least the watch was working. He made sure to keep it wound, and kept it safe in his room.
While watching the darkened sky, his other hand fingered the lid of a small shoebox. His collection of boxes contained grass clippings, shells, sand, and other things, bought by friends and customers of his aunt. They reminded him of favorite sights and smells. However, the shoebox contained things more precious than the rest: half a belt, stiff from water damage, and the heel of a woman’s left shoe, sheared off cleanly.
No. Can’t think of them now. They’re gone, and I can’t change it. He shivered at another gust of cold air. His room felt like late January instead of August. He eyed the window, but the thought of opening it—letting in the places he didn’t know—made his hands sweat. His hand left the box, moving to the windowpane. He hissed and shook his fingers. The window was colder than the house, which meant outside must be too. He breathed out and raised his watch to his ear, listening to the steady beat.
Is this all in my head? He hadn’t heard a transformer blow, and there was no storm. It was so quiet his rough breathing was like a train. He rubbed his arms, and a quick touch on his laptop’s case nearly numbed his finger. His cellphone was powered down and wouldn’t restart.
Aunt Martha will know what to do. Get to safety. Sam weaved through the precise stacks of boxes, trembling. She would be in her sewing shop. Sam wiped sweaty hands on his shorts before pulling a coat from the closet and socks from a drawer. He dropped his watch in a pocket of the coat, but kept one hand on it. If the power outage kept up, he couldn’t log in for his shift in technical support. What will they think? Will they fire me? He couldn’t get his ethics essay done either, and he had to email it in by tomorrow night for the ethical theories class at his online community college.
The chill air in the hall made him regret the shorts, but he shrugged his coat on, then leaned against the wall, pulling his socks on carefully. If the seams were going the wrong way, they’d just distract him, and there was too much going on already. He closed his eyes. Don’t shut down. Keep moving.
The dark wood-paneled hallway was cold even through his socks, and Sam made a detour to the front door to get his sneakers, adjusting his feet in them, making sure the laces were the same length. It took two tries with his shaking hands. The dark was deepening outside, and by the time he got to the other end of the house, he was using his sense of touch more than sight to navigate.
He met Aunt Martha coming from the small one-room addition that served as her workshop. She held a flickering beeswax candle in her hand. It’s not just in my head.
“What happened?” he asked. His aunt only shook her head at him. Her posture was precise as always, like the romantic ideal of a noblewoman. He didn’t know exactly how old she was, except that her once graying hair was now almost totally white.
She moved slower than when he first came to live with her, but the clothes she made for shops on Market Street in Charleston, plus his job, would let him afford college. His aunt wanted him to go to a real college instead of online, but it was so much easier to learn at home. Since he had started taking classes online, he didn’t have to deal with the crowds at high school, or worry if he forgot his homework.
“Do you think the power plant has a problem?” Sam tried again. If his aunt had something to say, she would, but nothing could get her to talk when she didn’t want to.
“If it were, all the lights in the house would go out at once,” she replied. The rounded syllables of “house” and “out” betrayed her Charlestonian heritage. “Haven’t you looked outside?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He swallowed. Something was trying to catch in his throat, and Sam put out a hand to steady himself on a wall. His other hand snaked into his pocket to stroke the comforting curve of his watch. He couldn’t feel the ticking over the pulse of his heartbeat and his panting breaths.
They watched the candle flame dwindle to a speck, and Aunt Martha cupped her hand around the flame—so close Sam worried she might burn herself. She only nodded impatiently at him to move.
“To the living room, boy.” She still called him ‘boy,’ even after ten years. He moved, but she was at his heels the whole time, urging him on. If she hadn’t been using both hands for the candle, she would be poking him in the back. Her closeness was a comfort, in the dark and cold.
The formal living room was a contrast with the rest of the house, filled with overstuffed furniture, throw pillows and doilies—all the accouterments one would expect from a little old lady. Sam shivered violently, and knocked against the curio cabinet with the creaky leg, making the little porcelain figurines inside shiver with him. His aunt was staring at the ancient fireplace, unused since the last big snow, eight years ago.
No dressing down about being clumsy? She is worried. “Wh-what do we do here, Aunt Martha?” Sam’s body tried to shiver him to warmth, but even his coat wasn’t holding in the heat. Are the chills from the cold, or the panic?
“Hush,” she said. Then, still shielding the candle, barely alight, she cocked her head toward the hearth. “Lay us a fire.”
Sam knelt obediently. Aunt Martha kept a well-stocked hearth. There was a pile of old newspapers, some kindling, and even a small cord of wood, just in case. He placed the fire as quick as he could, hands numb with the cold, stopping every few seconds to rub them together. He snuck a glance up at his aunt, but she watched the tiny candle flame, eyes narrowed. She was shivering, but only what her proud bearing would allow. He laid the fire quickly. Like Dad taught me. It took his mind off what was happening, and he felt his shoulders unknot a little, until he thought about what had happened to his parents—the similar temperature, the speed of it. No. Keep it together.
“Good,” commended Aunt Martha, and creakily, she knelt beside him, both hands still around the candle. He couldn’t smell it any longer, in the cold. He steadied her as he could, surprised she didn’t wave him away like normal.
Aunt Martha bent forward, hands creeping carefully to keep the flame from guttering, until the little light was just below a corner of newspaper. They both watched the fire—so slowly—blacken the newspaper. It should have caught in an instant and devoured the kindling, but the flame moved unnaturally slow, like the fire was a slowed down recording.
Sam’s aunt sat back with a grunt as the newspaper lit, and the fire gradually grew. Her hands trembled as she took them away, and Sam saw the candle was completely extinguished. He reached out to the flame, feeling his hands tingle. His aunt did the same.
“Can we make it bigger?” Sam asked. It was an effort to speak in the freezing air.
Her voice was soft. “There is cooking sherry in the kitchen, but I believe we must leave, instead. We shall warm ourselves, then I shall drive us into town and see if this condition is prevalent over the entire region.”
Sam’s mouth went dry. “I can’t,” he whispered. Crowds. People. I haven’t been in the middle of the city in years. It’s probably changed. I won’t know where to go.
His aunt only rubbed her palms together. “You shall.” She wobbled as if she might fall, and Sam supported her. She put one hand to her chest and swallowed. Sam could see the discomfort she tried to hide. “If you wish to teach one day, you must learn to be around crowds of students.”
I can’t let her down. His breathing was fast. His application to the College of Charleston was unfinished, in his room. People he knew were one thing, but so many, all together… More warmth was what they needed. “Let me put more wood on.” Sam’s joints were tight from the cold as he moved.
“No,” Aunt Martha said, putting her shaking hand on his. “Let it die, and then we shall leave.” The fire was already losing against the cold.
“Let’s stay here,” Sam suggested. “We can get more fuel, make a bigger fire.”
His aunt attempted to rise but fell against him, and Sam caught her awkwardly. “You must go,” she said. He was suddenly aware of how much willpower she must be using to stay conscious, to fight the cold that sapped their strength. She’s been strong for me, all these years. Now she was tiny, leaning against him. Her bright green eyes fixed him in place. “You save yourself. The keys are by the door. Get to the car.”
“I don’t know how to drive,” he said.
“N-no excuses.” His aunt shook, and one hand tried to reach for him, failed. She made a small sound he had never heard from her.
“Aunt Martha?” It was like a rock had lodged in his chest. She never submitted to anything. She couldn’t now.
“Go.” Sam scarcely heard the whisper. Aunt Martha’s eyes flickered and her head fell against him, unconscious.
With his remaining strength, he pushed her closer to the failing fire and wiggled onto the hearth. Something is deeply wrong with the world. His heart beat too fast, and his stomach clenched. The air’s too thin. It was as if the very energy around them was leaving, electrical and natural. He struggled to grasp his watch, raise it to his ear. Even the watch was ticking slowly, winding down. He put it back in his pocket. Their only hope was to get warm enough. Then he could wake his aunt up. She will wake up.
He prodded the weak flame with the thinnest piece of kindling, hoping to spark the fire back to life, but it wouldn’t catch. His hand shook, and he dropped the sliver of wood. He fumbled below the stacked kindling, fingers trembling as he tried to close his hand around the tiny sliver, but they wouldn’t respond. Can I get to the kitchen, to the cooking sherry? His legs didn’t want to unbend. Sam’s head nodded forward. Just a moment to rest…
Sam’s eyes snapped open, as if a voice called him. He jerked his neck up, wondering how much time he had lost. Ice crystals cracked around his mouth, nose, and eyelids. He tried to move, and fell to one side. He was slumped half in the fireplace, his aunt’s head on his leg. His fingers and toes ached as if tiny needles bored into them.
He reached down, but when his fingers brushed his aunt’s white hair, the strands broke with a tiny crack and fell, like little ringlets of glass. He jerked back, then touched her wrinkled forehead. It was colder than his hands, and he winced at the pain in his fingertips. The skin there was dark. He brushed ice from Aunt Martha’s skin. Sightless eyes stared back. No.
He should feel something, but his hands and his mind were numb. His aunt had put up with him and his fears for ten years. Should have obeyed instead of questioning. Sam’s eyelids dragged him down to sleep. It was pitch dark, save for a hint of light hidden in the pile of charred wood in the fireplace, like a little campfire in a cave. He was drawn to it.
Take the heat. He reached out to the little light, hoping to delay the inevitable. His aunt’s body was a cold weight against him. He wouldn’t waste the extra time, however small, she had given him. He wanted to be far away from here, somewhere safe.
The tiny light winked out, and he heard a plunk of a bass string snapping in his head, shattering into a thousand harmonious notes. Warmth flowed into him, then away, leaving him colder than before. He gasped as a thick ring of light erupted on the hearth, barely as high as his kneeling form. Two colors intermixed and rotated around the edge of the ring, one color bright, the other shiny, like circlets of gold and silver. In the ring’s center was a pool of blackness.
Sam reached out to the glowing circle. His mind was sluggish, but he craved the glow. Instead of intersecting anything physical, his hand passed through the darkness, to someplace warm. That was where he needed to be. It was not cold there. The world was not dying there.
Another hand, warm and alive, caught his arm in a vice-like grip. Sam’s eyes widened, and he pulled back instinctively, but whoever was on the other side of the circle was stronger. He grabbed for his aunt’s body, trying to bring her along. His numbed fingers slid across her frozen shawl, down one arm, clutching. His hand closed on nothing as he was dragged head-first through the hole in the air.
Chapter 2: A Portal to the Nether
-Many new maji first use their abilities in a blaze of power, then are unable to use them again for several days. Scholars believe there is an overload of music from one’s first contact with the Grand Symphony and the aspiring majus is rendered ‘deaf’ for a time.
Yaten E’Mez, Highest of the House of Communication, 356 A.A.W.
Sam’s head burst into a splash of light and warmth. He closed his eyes tight against the brightness, hands clenching in hard dirt. The air here was a contrast to the still strangulation of his house, but a breeze carried the scent of ammonia and rotting wood. His fingers tingled at the sudden change in temperature, sending up spikes of pain.
Pressure on his arm made him open his eyes. The man who had pulled him through let go, cleared his throat, and stood up to his full height. Sam scrambled to his feet, backing into rough wood siding. There was maybe one body length between him and the next building, behind the man. He had to look up to face him—not something he did often. Nearby, the hole in the air imploded silently, and Sam inhaled, his mind clearing. Aunt Martha was still back home. Had he dreamed her glazed eyes? He grabbed for his watch, in his coat pocket. Stopped. He was hyperventilating.
He lunged for where the ring of light had disappeared, trying to get back, clawing the air as he stumbled, braking before he hit the other wall. He was in a dead-end alley somehow, between buildings with wood slatted siding, far away from home.
He had to get back to his aunt and find out what happened to the house. The warm breeze ruffled his hair, too long since his last haircut. It carried angry trills between two birds overhead, and snatches of conversation. This was not a place he knew.
The thought flitted through his mind as his heart raced. Sam’s joints locked and he flattened to the dirt like a squashed toad, trying to hold on, to keep the alley from falling in on him. Too much—too new. I’m not safe.
“What are you doing, opening a portal outside designated grounds? You are lucky I was the one catching sight of it, in this alley.” The voice pulled his gaze up and Sam tried to focus. The clash of color on the long robe the man wore was jarring, half bright yellow, half burnt orange, with a silver belt and stripes of blue and green. He had wrinkled, liver-spotted skin, and hair with small feathery tufts of gray, hints of blue and pink peeking through. The top—crest was the only word—bristled as the man did, a comb rising in the middle of his head. A moustache made of what could only be feathers ran down either side of his chin, hanging almost to the large collar on his robe.
“What are you?” Sam breathed. He had to be imagining things again—so cold he was hallucinating, while his aunt lay helpless beside him. He took his watch out, wound it, his tightness bleeding into the motion, then held it up to one ear, listening for the calming tick. It still worked. It had to be real. Not imagining this. Is that better or worse?
The man’s large purple eyes narrowed at the movement and he cocked his head as he watched. “I am of the Kirian,” he said. “You come from Methiem, yes? Your town must not be getting much interspecies traffic.”
“I…I’m from America.” What’s a Kirian? What’s Methiem? Those words didn’t make sense. His heart was trying to strangle him, climbing up into his mouth. One sweaty palm gripped his watch while the other dug fingernails into the dirt. Sam scrambled away, but hit the wall, his right leg spasming. The wood siding rose overhead, blocking his view of whatever was above them. Blocking escape. He looked past the man to the entrance of the alley. Unintelligible sounds wafted in, and a splash of some jaunty music. There were more people out there. Crowds. No escape that way.
He was hyperventilating. Breathe deep. Aunt Martha’s sightless eyes filled his memory. No. Not her. She was his only family.
The man, the…Kirian?…studied Sam. “A fledgling majus? Your first change to the Symphony?” A pause. “I did not make the portal. You were doing that.”
He’s real. Oh God, he’s real. Where am I? “I have to get back!” Sam pointed to where the hole in the air had been. He was ready to accept anything at this point. “Can you make another one? I have to get home. I have to get back to her.” He was talking too fast, and tried to stop. “How do I get back?” Sam sniffed hard, then swallowed. His eyes burned, and hot trails ran down his face. Cold flesh at his fingertips, sightless eyes staring up. He would have to…clean up the body. She would accept no less.
“You must be opening another portal yourself.” The Kirian was annoyingly calm. Why wasn’t he doing something? “Or communicate to me the location. Difficult, if you have not changed the Grand Symphony before.”
“How do I do that?” How could music help his aunt? Why wasn’t the man helping? Maybe he was hearing things. He held his watch close again, but the ticking didn’t calm him. I already checked that, didn’t I? This is actually happening. He held his breath, then let it out. He was panicking, and he couldn’t stop. He had to stop.
The Kirian made an irritated noise, a clicking in his teeth. “Are you able to hear the Symphony?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Sam said. He heard the words, but they weren’t going anywhere in his head. They didn’t mean anything. “Just help me.” He sniffed again, and his nose cleared suddenly. There was an acidic tang in the air, like this place had been used for a toilet. It made him have to pee.
The ridge of feathers on the man’s head ruffled, rising like hackles. Annoyance, Sam somehow knew. How can I know that?
“I have not time to teach a majus, with his song scarcely written, how to access the Symphony. If you are wanting to get back to your home, you will need to learn for yourself or pay for a portal. I am very busy.” The man turned, and Sam gasped at an icy spike of fear.
No! I can’t be in a strange place all alone. “Wait.” He stretched out a hand, and the stranger paused. “Don’t leave me. I don’t know how I got here. I think she’s gone. She was cold, and the fire burned out. Nothing worked anymore.” He swallowed past a lump, gulped for more air. “I have to get back—” He was babbling, but the man turned back sharply. He wasn’t going to leave. Sam ran a hand down the wood behind him, splinters poking his skin. The rough surface had to be real.
“What—exactly—did you run from?”
Sam had to keep him talking. Something his therapist told him bubbled up in his mind: notice what was happening to him, review it, then respond to it. He had to sound reasonable to keep this man here. If he really wanted to teach, then someday, he would have to stand in front of a class of students. If he couldn’t talk to one strange man, what did that say about him?
Sam closed his eyes and brought his watch close, letting the ticking set a beat for his thoughts. He was taking quick, short breaths, and made himself hold them. One, two, three ticks.
What had happened? Sam recited, his eyes closed. “I was reading, then it got cold, and all the lights went out, and the sun was dark.” His voice got stronger as he spoke. “Aunt Martha and I—” His voice wavered upward, breaking. She’s gone. “We started a fire, but it burned out. We were freezing, and then the hole appeared.” He opened his eyes. “I couldn’t take her with me. I didn’t have time—”
The Kirian held up a hand, palm out. He had long and thin fingers, each with a nail ending in a wicked-looking curved point. “I believe you are needing to come with me.”
Wasn’t he listening? “No. I have to go back. Didn’t you hear me?” Sam straightened, just a little. He could do this. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Ah. I have not introduced myself. I am Origon Cyrysi, majus of the Houses of Communication and Power. You may call me Majus Cyrysi.” The first syllable of the last name was hard, almost a click of the Kirian’s mouth.
“I’m Sam,” he said in a small voice. The man was going to stay. He wouldn’t be alone. His breathing slowed to match the watch. He was safe, but he needed to get home. Something the man—Kirian—said nagged at him. He slid up the wall, shaking. His legs fought to stand. “You said I could tell you where my home is and you can open a…a portal?” Then I can forget all this ever happened.
The majus’ already thin lips compressed to non-existence. After a moment, he stepped closer. Sam swallowed as Majus Cyrysi touched cool fingers to his forehead. He’s going to help, right? Suddenly, yellow light dripped like syrup along the man’s arm, arching toward him. Sam jerked away. “What’s that?”
The Kirian twitched, and the color spiraled back up his arm, like mist retreating from the sun. “Do not move.” The majus looked pale. “I was almost losing part of my song and I do not have extra to lose.” His crest ruffled, flattened. “So you are able to see the colors. You can be trained as a majus then, can hear the Grand Symphony.” He reached out again. “Do not move. Think of your home. Pretend you can be showing the picture in your mind to me.”
The long nails pricked his forehead as the swirls of color crept closer. Anything to get back. Home was familiar, easy to imagine. This was probably all a hallucination. Sam thought of his room, the boxes in his collection. The cozy kitchen, filled with his aunt’s southern cooking. His heart raced at the remembered smell of hominy grits with cheddar and butter. She’s gone. He grabbed the memory, visualizing Aunt Martha’s workshop, filled with scraps of cloth, half-finished shirts and pants, and the sound of a sewing machine. His aunt teaching him to sew on a button. The living room, frozen and quiet, spread out in his mind’s eye while silent tears streamed down his face.
Majus Cyrysi’s brow eased, and finally, the hand receded. “Reverse communication leaves many questions, but you are acceptable at transferring location pointers.”
“Then you can open a hole back to my home?” Things didn’t have to make sense in a hallucination.
“Portal. Yes, I believe I am having enough information.” The man turned to one wooden wall of the alley. “This is to be highly illegal outside a portal ground, but to catch a Drain like you were experiencing in action is more important. If I were not friends with those on the Council, I would not even be trying this.” Sam nodded along, no idea what the Kirian was saying. The majus watched the wall for a moment, then raised a hand, frowning. Then he raised both hands.
As his fear receded, Sam’s curiosity grew. That’s not how it happened before. “Are the colors going to appear again?” he asked. Majus Cyrysi gave him a sharp look and Sam hunched down.
The majus watched the wall, both hands outstretched, then dropped them. “The location is changed too far from your mental picture.” He sounded out of breath. “As happened when I was experiencing my own Drain.”
“What does that mean?” Something wasn’t right, but his heartbeat was slowing. Keep breathing. Three ticks in, three ticks out.
The man ignored him. “This is the second Drain I have encountered. Both times, the phenomenon was powerful enough to warp the environment it was in, breaking down the very fabric of reality. What is happening to the energy—the notes? They cannot simply be destroyed!” He looked back at Sam. “You must be accompanying me back to the Council. Maybe this time they will listen.”
Destroying energy? That makes no sense. Was what happened to me one of these Drains? “That’s it?” Sam’s voice rose, his hands clenching. “Just look at the wall, then tell me I can’t get home?” This hallucination sucks.
“You are welcome to try yourself.” The majus gestured curtly at the wall.
“Maybe I will,” Sam said. Anger made his panic lessen. He stood, chest out, staring at the wall, willing the hole in the air to open. It was his hallucination and he needed to see Aunt Martha. He needed the safety of his room.
The faint noise of the crowd grew in his perception, as did the wail of whatever street music was being played. He was fairly sure that wasn’t the same thing as the Symphony the majus referred to. The Symphony seemed an internal concept. He closed his eyes and, just briefly, might have heard the same bass plunk as when the portal opened from his fireplace.
But nothing happened. He couldn’t make a hole through space because that was impossible.
Sam slumped and turned back to the majus, who was watching him like a chicken eyeing a worm.
“Are you finished?” He looked disappointed. Sam nodded wearily. “Then come with me. The Council needs to be seeing this evidence.” Majus Cyrysi’s robe swished around heavy boots as he strode to the mouth of the alley.
The icy chill seized Sam’s chest again. His feet rooted to the ground. Maybe. Maybe this isn’t a hallucination after all. “No.”
The majus looked back. “Why not?”
If this wasn’t a hallucination, then the sounds that drifted from the mouth of the alley came from a crowd of people, possibly as strange as the majus. He blinked rapidly, willing the scene to fall away, to see the frozen living room. It didn’t work.
This is real. He swallowed. Aunt Martha always wanted him to meet more people. He owed it to her memory to try. What else would he do—live in this piss-stained alley? He took one step forward.
“We will use the maps at the Spire of the Maji to determine where on Methiem you are from,” Majus Cyrysi called back from the end of the alley.
Sam’s step faltered. “Methiem?” He put one hand to his chest, willed the thumping there to quiet.
The majus frowned. “You are from Methiem, are you not? You are unfamiliar with other species, so I am assuming you know little of the Great Assembly, or the ten species. You cannot be from one of the other homeworlds.”
“I’m from America,” Sam said again. “On Earth.” Questions were piling up, but he had to focus on one thing at a time.
Majus Cyrysi’s thick eyebrows drew down. “I have not heard of this place.”
“You’ve never even heard of Earth? Then where are you from?” I preferred the hallucination.
“From Kiria, naturally. My birthplace was in a small mountain town called Asbheriton.”
“A different planet?” Freezing darkness. Aunt Martha. Holes in the air and aliens. If this was real—
Sam found one wall with a hand, leaned against it. His breathing was speeding again. Suddenly, fresh tears carved hot lines down his cheeks.
“It is the planet on which most of my species are born,” the majus returned, his words sarcastic. “Though some are born in the Nether, or on other homeworlds.”
“The Nether?” No. Too much information. Get home first.
Majus Cyrysi spun around, robe swishing around his feet, gesturing with a long skinny arm to the mouth of the alley. “This, boy!” he cried. “We are in the Nether.”
Sam peered out of the alley, keeping his hand on the rough wood of the structure—a point of stability. Before him buildings loomed from all sides. The light outside the alley was wrong, as if from giant fluorescent lights instead of a sun. He shrank back. Strange people thronged a small square across from the alley. They gestured and talked to each other. Too many, too close. He would have to go out there. So many chances to mess things up. He couldn’t just reset, like in a computer game. This was why he hadn’t finished his college application.
A red squid-like creature with tentacles sprouting from its head was selling something to another of Majus Cyrysi’s species, who was wearing a crazy quilt of a robe. Two eight-foot tall beings strode across the square like faintly blue, two-legged giraffes. They both wore long flowing pants with split skirts, swishing loudly as they moved. They passed a seated figure like them, who blew into a long tube. That was where the music was coming from. Sam’s fingers tightened on the rough edge of a plank. He wanted to pull back in the alley, but he also wanted to see more.
There were humans too. A woman wearing a loose wrap of fabric spoke to a being covered in green-brown hair, with sharp blue eyes and a snout. The woman’s scarf looked like something Aunt Martha might have knitted, and Sam choked down a sob. How were there humans here when Majus Cyrysi hadn’t heard of Earth?
Buildings of wood and stone, reaching far overhead, hemmed in the square. A bridge crossed between the tops of the buildings on either side, greenery trailing from it. Vertigo caught at Sam, and he took comfort in the packed dirt of the alley and cobblestone of the street, pressing back against the wall.
“I can’t go out there,” he mumbled to his shoes. “It’s too much.”
“What is this?” Majus Cyrysi said, bending down beside him. “More excuses about your Earth?”
“It’s not that,” Sam said, looking up into the other’s strange face. “I…I don’t like new places.” His eyes darted to the alley entrance, back down to the ground. “Or crowds.”
The Kirian frowned. “I see.” He tapped a long finger against his cheek, looking Sam up and down. Did he ever poke himself with those hooked fingernails? “Do you think you are able to be walking through the city just a bit? The Spire of the Maji is much quieter, enclosed.”
Sam shook his head. Not after what happened. How much did the cold touch? Did it affect my house? All of South Carolina? The whole world? “Maybe later. I need to sit down for a while.” With time, he could calm his breathing. He peered out of the alley again and his heart raced.
What if I don’t have to go through the crowds? “Could you make a hole in the air to where we need to go?” Sam waved a hand at the alley entrance.
Majus Cyrysi shook his head. “Portals are not working in that manner. There is a limit to how close the endpoints can exist to each other, on the scale of continents. Certainly not within a city. The songs of the two endpoints so close together would cause harmonics overpowering the majus changing the Symphony.”
Sam slumped. So much for having a good idea.
The majus stroked fingers down his moustache. “Will you stay here for a short while? The information you hold is very important.”
Sam looked up. “You’re leaving me?” Alone? Or the crowd? Alone was better.
“Not long,” the majus said. “A friend of mine has experience with fears such as yours. She has techniques to help you cope, if I am bringing her here.”
Sam gulped, wiped at his eyes. “Yes. I’ll be better soon,” he snuck another peek outside the alley, shivered. Or the hallucination will end.
“Then I will be back soon.” Majus Cyrysi strode to the end of the alley, turned back. “Do not leave, even if you feel you can. It is easy to get lost here.”
Sam nodded, and slid down in a corner, pulling his knees in. Alone, he wept for Aunt Martha.
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