The Archive

by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by tongari

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/51134.html)

As a child, Robin had thought sunlight was a kind of liquid, and continually tried to catch it in jars to keep. Bafflement led to tears of frustration as the glass failed time after time to contain it.

~*~

Perambulatory. Perambulatory. The word had snagged in her brain and it would not stop repeating itself. She couldn’t even remember what it meant offhand. Perambulatory. She wondered if she went and looked it up it would stop. Perambulatory.

It took her a moment to realize that an elderly man was standing there at the circulation desk and had asked her a question. She blinked and shook her head. “I – I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Newspapers,” the man said, a little shortly. Robin wondered if he had asked more than once already. “This is a library, right? You do have them, don’t you?”

“Oh! Yes.”

“Can you show me where they are?” said the man with deliberate patience.

Robin escorted the man to the periodicals and returned to her station at the circ desk with a sense of dread. She was trapped for the next two hours, and she hated it. People made her nervous. When they asked her things she had trouble following all the words, and she often had to ask them to repeat themselves over and over again. Her tongue always felt too big in her mouth and made her sound stupid.

Well. At least it was morning. There weren’t very many patrons in the morning – mornings weren’t so bad.

…She thought, just before That Woman walked by with her swaggering hips and her violet-tinted glasses.

A young black woman around Robin’s age, maybe twenty or twenty-two or so, her hair shorn so close to her head that it was almost bare – she cast the usual unreadable glance in Robin’s direction before taking a seat at a table directly across from the circ desk. She had a stack of several books, certainly enough to last her the next couple of hours. Robin bit back a whimper, and fidgeted, and fiddled around with random things, and tried her best to look as though she were busy and hadn’t even noticed.

It was positively creepy. The lady had been here every day Robin had worked for two weeks straight – never at the same time, but somehow she always managed to show up whenever Robin was out in the public area. Even on the days which Robin spent mostly in the back, cataloguing or repairing books or whatever she’d been assigned to do, if once she stepped out, there the woman would be. She’d appear suddenly in aisles, around corners, anywhere, as if out of thin air.

And she kept giving Robin these looks. Strange looks. Piercing, searching. And occasionally she’d smile, a slow, almost sinister smile that gave Robin chills.

It made Robin so nervous she couldn’t think straight.

Everything about the woman made Robin nervous. Robin was tall and slender as a wheat stalk and felt just as fragile, and she never knew what to do with her elbows. This woman carried herself with an aggressive surety, a smooth, swaggering gait that looked more like it belonged to a man than to a woman, and it made Robin feel like her own joints were all screwed in backward. Though she was only a little shorter than Robin, she had all the curves Robin didn’t, and the muscles in her bare arms were sculpted with graceful strength. Her face was unusual, heart-shaped, with prominent cheek-bones and a slightly pointed chin – it reminded Robin of a cat – and her skin was velvety, so dark in color it was almost a true black.

(Robin’s skin was so pale and thin the blue traceries of veins could be seen running beneath; she felt insubstantial, somehow, like mist.)

The woman just seemed somehow more than real, too vivid, like she had stepped out of some place where all the colors were darker or brighter, and everything was more solid than here. Robin sensed she might fade away, standing next to this person.

Involuntarily, Robin kept glancing over at her. Presently the woman closed one book and picked up another. As she opened it, an object fell from the pages and fluttered to the table. The woman’s brows lifted curiously as she picked it up.

A pressed violet, all in muted shades of blue and cream. She turned it over in her hands consideringly; then she lifted it to her face and brushed it across her lips, breathing deeply. Turning her head, she looked over the rims of her glasses and met Robin’s gaze – and she smirked.

Robin felt her heart seize up and fled for the bathroom.

When she returned, the woman was gone.

~*~

All of the books in her home were stained and fragrant. Robin couldn’t quite remember when she’d started the thing with the flowers. There remained a vague, ghostly impression of the lady who’d taught her how – dumpy, smiling, always wearing a straw-brimmed hat. A neighbor, most likely. Robin had been very young.

She had been delighted by the realization that she could preserve a pretty thing forever – “Well, not forever,” laughed the blurry woman in her memory, “but for a good long time, at least.” After her first few attempts, Robin had at first been disappointed by the changes pressing had wrought upon the flowers – they weren’t the same. But gradually she fell in love with their new forms as well, the papery-thin texture of the petals so very like the pages of the books she pressed them in. They weren’t the same as before, it was true, but something of their essential nature was preserved; and they sometimes left behind splotches of color and scent across the pages of the books, which made it even better. Sometimes the books left their mark on the flowers as well – tiny squiggles of smeared letters on the petals. Robin thought that this was the most beautiful thing of all.

It had become a nervous habit as she grew older. It kept the anxiety back just a little, soothed the instinctual, sinking unease reality triggered within her. It was like a magic spell, something familiar to keep her safe in the world. Something to keep her consciousness from entirely disintegrating.

But no matter how many flowers she pressed, her concentration still flagged.

She struggled not to let her mind wander on the bus home, that evening. It was important not to drift. Not only was there the very real danger of missing her stop – in her childhood it had happened more times than she could count – but there were deeper fears. The disorientation of looking up to find oneself in the wrong place, and moreover, a completely unfamiliar one; this sense of sinking unease never quite left her, no matter where she was, even when she lay in her own bed at night. The world was always strange.

Busses had always seemed alive to her, somehow, evil inorganic beasts full of lumbering malice. She always worried they would roar to life and run her down as she passed them on foot, or snap their doors shut on her exceptionally long hair and drag her along. Certainly they would be all too happy to trick her into getting off at the wrong stop.

She had a recurring nightmare in which she would be riding the bus home, just like now, and she would inexplicably think that it had come to her stop, somehow not seeing it was all wrong through the windows. She would step out onto a narrow two lane road in the middle of nowhere, and before she could even open her mouth, before she could turn and say, “Wait, I’ve made a mistake,” the door behind her would snap shut and the bus would roar away, leaving her choking in a cloud of diesel fumes. The sun had set long ago, and she would know that had been the last bus for the night. To her left there were only a couple of abandoned-looking old shacks of houses; to her right the swamp forest loomed, dark and menacing, exuding a miasma of sulfurous stench. There was something terrible in that forest, something waiting for her. She never remembered what was so horrible about it – she wasn’t sure she’d ever even found out before she woke up, gasping and sweating.

One day this dream would infect reality. It was completely ridiculous and irrational and she knew it, but the conviction remained. She had to pay attention. She had to hear her stop called, had to recognize it without mistake. She had to watch the streets outside carefully, to make sure they weren’t trying to fool her.

But today it was even more difficult than usual to focus on her surroundings. That woman. Her smirk kept uncurling behind Robin’s eyes, sly sliver of moon in the woman’s dark face. Looking straight at Robin, all smugness and knowing. But she couldn’t have known where the flowers had come from. That was impossible.

Who was she?

Odd movement flickered at the corner of Robin’s eye. She turned.

The man next to her lowered his newspaper to his lap, looking up at her – Robin blurted out a shrill cry and shrank back against the window. His face – lit all wrong, the shadows inverted, the features elongated in a grotesque fashion, resembling both feline and canine at once – it leered at her with a horrible grin, mouth bristling with teeth.

Her eyes watered, and she blinked.

It was gone.

The man sitting there was just an ordinary man – though he was staring at her like maybe she’d grown an extra head. Several other passengers were doing the same.

All Robin’s breath left her in a rush. That was another reason she couldn’t let herself drift. She was far less likely to find herself startled by things that weren’t really there if she didn’t.

Robin’s face burned. “Sorry,” she muttered into the awkward silence. “I thought – was just the light – it’s nothing. Sorry.”

Slowly they all turned away, focusing on their newspapers, their crosswords, on fiddling with their purses or the hem of their clothing – looking anywhere but her. She knew these not-looks. She knew what they meant.

Don’t make eye contact. It might draw her attention. Best not to agitate a crazy.

The looks didn’t bother her nearly so much as the not-looks.

Robin’s ears were on fire. Indignance pursed her lips. “I’m not crazy!” she wanted to say to all the not-looking people. But of course that would only make her look more like she was. Besides – they were probably right. Probably she was crazy.

She stifled her protests and shrank down in her seat, attempting to make herself invisible. An impossible task, as tall as she was, but she tried her best.

Once the bus finally let her off, she took the last block to her apartment at a near-run.

She made herself a dinner of microwave pasta that evening but found she couldn’t eat much of it. Afterward she turned on her small television; usually she preferred silence, but tonight she couldn’t bear it. She found an educational program about the mythologies of ancient Greece and Egypt, and after a couple of hours she felt much calmer.

She dressed for bed and, leaving the television on for company, wrote a few pages in her notebook.

This was a ritual at least as important as the flower pressing. It wasn’t a journal in the traditional sense – she did not chronicle the events of her day, at least not in any cohesive fashion. She wrote idle thoughts, sometimes connected to things that had happened and sometimes seemingly unrelated to anything, and quite frequently with little logical sense in them; she wrote snatches of conversation she had heard, or that trickled through her mind from nowhere she could recall; she wrote the strange bits of images and people she saw in dreams.

She did not write stories. Never stories.

Sometimes she wrote utter gibberish, meaningless invented words and sounds. Frustration propelled her on, trancelike, as the marks bled onto the paper, as if somehow she might find a cure for the perpetual fog of confusion and uneasiness that plagued her in the patterns of letters.

Patterns! They stared up at her from the page, all graceful curves and wild angles, their random arrangements seeming premeditated, as though a force from without were guiding her hand. The nonsense looked meaningful, somehow, like a hidden secret for her eyes only.

But if there was any meaning in those patterns, she could not find it.

She put down her pen and went to bed.

Robin dreams.

First she is standing on a sphere made of green felt. No – it is a planet, covered in lush grass and moss and clover. It is night, and stars crowd the sky. A river of light traverses it, made up of so many tiny stars the eye cannot tell them apart. No moon, but the stars are so brilliant that the night is awash with silver. Near the horizon, at the edge of the river of light, one star glows brighter than the rest, enormous, ripe and swollen.

She feels the compulsion to reach up and pluck it from the sky like a fruit from a tree – but when she lifts up her hand, it is still very far away.

On the ground beside her, a stream flows, burbling with a bell-like tinkle; a sweet smell wafts up from the water. Its surface reflects a rippling image of the river in the sky above, and of the large star on its bank.

She sees a clay pitcher on the ground by her feet, and picks it up. Kneeling at the edge of the stream, she reaches toward the star’s reflection; she has to stretch, stretch impossibly far to reach it. Straining, she dips the pitcher into the water and captures the star’s reflection.

Righting herself, she looks inside the vessel. The water inside glows silvery-white, though when she looks back at the stream the star’s reflection is still there.

She lifts the glowing water to her lips and drinks. It is the sweetest, coldest, most deliciously intoxicating thing she has ever tasted. Her skin prickles all over. She drinks it dry, and then sets the pitcher down, staggering a little as she stands up.

She doesn’t hear it so much as feel the rumbling through her feet, the sense of eyes fixed upon her back – she turns around, and she doesn’t see it so much as see where the stars are not. The lights are blotted out in the shape of a giant cat. In the midst of this shadow, set in the pitch blackness of its face, are two green stars for eyes. The cat growls, the pitch so low it is inaudible to Robin’s ears, but again the rumbling tickles through her bones.

It stalks over the sky. A detached note of fear resonates – it is stalking her, Robin thinks. It prowls all around her, the green star-eyes glittering poisonously; it disappears over the edge of the earth, and, as Robin spins around to find it, it climbs back up the other side of the sky. Its tail lashes, the stars winking in and out of existence as the shadow passes over them.

Robin thinks: It will devour me.

She looks back at the stream. She can see the beast’s reflection – or rather, its not-reflection. Its contours are actually more clearly defined on the surface of the water than they are in the sky. Robin wonders if she should drink this not-reflection; if she contains the beast, it can’t eat her. But it is too large. It will never fit in the pitcher. She would have to drink the whole stream.

Robin kneels next to the water once more. How can she drink an entire stream? She hesitates, doubting. But she shrugs – sometimes things are larger inside than out. She can only try.

She bends down her head and drinks the sky.

Robin woke up in the middle of the night with the echo of a woman’s voice in her head, saying, “No, wait, not yet,” and the dream garbled into incomprehensibility.

The next morning, as per her ritual, Robin skimmed back over all she’d written the previous night. She read:

“Tonight is a serpent’s egg hatched, and the whole world clawed its way out and flopped onto the table and died, unsuited to this poisonous atmosphere.”

She didn’t remember having written it. This often happened, but for some reason, today she found it more disconcerting than usual.

When she left for work she shoved a stack of overdue books into her bag on her way out the door. Two of the books contained flowers; she checked them back in and returned them to the shelves herself, so that no one else would have the chance to notice.

Better flowers than uncooked bacon, she thought disjointedly.

The strange woman did not show up that day – nor all the next. Robin was relieved, and yet there was a curious sense of anti-climax that left her just a little disappointed. After two weeks, she had expected… something.

It was on the third day that the books started getting the wiggles.

Books kept getting found scattered on the floor all over the library and no one knew why. Of course everyone suspected some evil child up to mischief, but no one could catch the little beast in the act.

Robin was shelving late that afternoon when she heard two distinct, tumbling thumps on the other side of the shelf; she ran around the corner, but no one was there. She couldn’t even hear any footsteps. If it was a child, it was an unnaturally quiet one.

Robin replaced the fallen books and returned to her cart.

It kept happening all that afternoon and evening, and the culprit remained undiscovered. At closing time all the books were retrieved from the floor and properly shelved, and everyone went home.

The next morning, the first employees to arrive discovered them scattered in the aisles by the dozen.

Giant rats were hypothesized, as were poltergeists, library ninjas, and other such implausible and silly things. Robin offered no opinions. A deep uneasiness was building within her. She began looking at the check-out records in the back of all the books she found on the floor; her own name was listed in most of them.

But there were so many – she couldn’t have really checked out all the books that were falling, could she? She wasn’t quite sure. She had checked out an awful lot of books.

That night at closing time, she was finishing up shelving in the fiction section when Orlando moved in her hands.

She dropped the thing and reared back from it as if it were on fire. It bounced on the corner of its spine, its covers falling open, and then it toppled forward, pages crumpling beneath it.

It lay there just long enough for Robin to come to the conclusion she’d imagined it, and she stepped forward to pick it up. It flapped a cover at her as she reached out her hand.

She threw herself back against the shelf behind her so hard she banged both her arms. The thing worked its covers, scraping the edges against the carpet as if trying to find purchase enough to drag itself along. Its pages crinkled underneath. It looked absurdly pathetic; Robin had to fight the impulse to start giggling hysterically.

She stood there, staring, helpless. Wildly she glanced around herself, terrified that someone should see this, the final proof that she had gone irrevocably insane. The basic irrationality of this thought did not dawn on her in that moment.

The book on the floor seemed to be trying to wriggle its way toward her; several of the few remaining books began rattling on the cart beside her; and then on the shelf behind her. Robin jerked away from them in horror –

And there was that woman, standing there at the end of the aisle.

“You!” Robin squeaked.

The woman’s mouth quirked. “You are having a problem, possibly?” she asked, her voice as deep and velvety as her skin.

“You – I – not supposed to be here – closed,” Robin finished lamely, her eyes near ready to pop out of her head.

The woman chuckled softly, her hips rolling in their usual slow and unconcerned manner as she strolled down the aisle. She knelt down next to the wiggling book and picked it up. “Silly girl,” she said. “You have to soothe it.”

It was quite possibly the most ridiculous thing Robin had ever heard, but there was a book wiggling of its own accord in the woman’s hands and nothing she could say could possibly be stranger than that.

“Shh,” the woman murmured, running her fingertips down its spine. “Idiot thing. You’re damaging yourself. You’ll be read soon enough. Hush.” The book stilled in her hands. She reached out and brushed her knuckles along the books on the cart, and then on the shelf, shushing them softly in turn. They all fell still at her touch.

After they had all quieted, the woman held Orlando out; Robin took it from her gingerly, bewildered. “What,” she stammered. “How…”

“It’s only natural,” said the woman, “to be anxious upon awakening, knowing only the desire to be told. Isn’t it?” She looked at Robin like she expected her to understand.

Robin stared back. The woman wasn’t wearing those glasses, now; her eyes were startlingly green. She had an odd accent Robin couldn’t place – lilting, sharply rhythmic, with a dry hissing quality like sheaves of parchment rubbing against one another.

Robin’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment. “Who are you?” she finally managed; it was the one question that had won over out of thousands.

“One could say,” the woman said, “that you already know.”

Robin shook her head. “What? I. Who are you? Did you do this?” She gestured weakly at the books.

The woman let out a surprised little laugh. “Me? Why would I do such a thing? How?”

“Then who?”

The woman’s brows knitted slightly. “Haven’t you realized, sri’osri? Of course, it’s you.”

When Robin only gaped at her like a fish, she sighed and said, “You know nothing at all. This will be difficult.”

“Well – well, tell me now!” Robin demanded. “What’s happening to me? Who are you?!”

“No time,” said the woman, and just as Robin opened her mouth to ask what she meant, a voice shouted out from near the back of the building.

“Hey! You done over there yet?”

Robin gave a violent start. It was Matt, one of the other assistants. “Um, just, just a minute!” she called back, looking around herself frantically to make sure no one was nearby. No one was.

Robin turned back to the woman – but somehow, she had disappeared without a sound.

~*~

To say that she was distracted when she boarded the bus home that night would have been a gross understatement. This was, perhaps, why it happened; conceivably it was a trap – set by the bus, set by the things which moved at the corner of her vision, by something, simply waiting for her attention to waver long enough that it could lead her astray.

The bus breathed around her, her bones rattling with its vibrations as it inhaled, exhaled. It slowed to a stop. Her stop. She thought it was her stop.

She asked someone what time it was as she got up; Ten oh five, the old lady said in a surly tone. Running a little late.

She exited the bus and stepped out onto a completely unfamiliar street. The doors snapped shut behind her as she spun around, as she opened her mouth. The metal beast roared away from her. She could only stand there, her arm outstretched stupidly.

At length she let it fall back to her side. Her bag hung awkwardly at her hip as she turned in a slow circle. It was a shabby, run down little street. She stood on the corner of a block housing old three-story apartment complexes; on the block across from her there were small office buildings, most of them boarded up and abandoned.

There was not a single human being in sight.

It was not the rural road from her nightmare, and there was no swamp forest, but there was a stench of sulfur on the air.

What could she do, she wondered? Should she just sit on the bench and wait for another bus? But it was late, and she didn’t know the schedule for this stop, and there was none posted. That might have been the last bus for the night.

The air was thick and sticky, heavy with moisture, and felt electric. Probably it would storm, soon.

A soft echo of chittering, high-pitched laughter; Robin started, looking around, but she saw nothing. It was gone.

There was no sound but for the buzz of the street lights, and the scraping of dead leaves along the pavement, blown by the breeze; here a paper cup toppled end over end as clouds of dust whipped up around it. She watched it, hypnotized.

Wisps of the dust swirled, eddying off in different directions, almost as though alive. The wisps condensed, formed shapes in the air over the grey concrete, looking now canine, now feline as they twisted through the air.

Robin tilted her head a little, wondering if she was imagining it. The shapes wavered in front of her, dissolving, then reforming.

There were legs, the front ones longer than the back, and strange, elongated heads with blunt noses and rounded ears. Spots wavered through the dusty fur. They chased each other through the air, more forming as she watched, at least a dozen now, each about half the size of a house cat. One by one they came to a stop, translucent paws hovering about an inch over the pavement; and one by one they turned their heads to look at her.

Their tongues lolled, their mouths stretched in grotesque grins. There was that chittering, hair raising laughter, echoing all around her.

Robin did not breathe. She took a step backward; the dust creature nearest her took two steps forward.

Robin ran.

She ran across the street, toward the office buildings. The laughter grew louder, higher – the things were at her heels, still circling each other in the air as they chased her. Her bag banged against her hip painfully. She let out a sharp cry, drawing up short as more of the things formed directly in front of her, leaping into her path.

From before and behind they surged over her, cackling, and she swatted at them frantically. Dust got in her eyes. Blindly, she backed away, her arms flailing at the things in desperation. Her back hit a wall.

Abruptly the chittering stopped.

Blinking furiously, she opened her streaming eyes, made out the melting figures of the dust creatures. There was a wall in front of her, and a wall behind her. She’d backed in between two buildings. The dust creatures were all melting into a little stream of sand, rushing toward the mouth of the alley; the sand surged up, formed a humanoid outline; the outline solidified.

There stood before her the strangest looking – man? woman? – that she had ever seen. It was impossible to determine its sex from the face, and it wore a long, loose robe that completely disguised the contours of its body. The face was elongated, the features all sharp and angular, though the nose was blunt and rounded at the end – and the mouth was wide and grinning. It had skin of a dusty yellow-brown. Hair stood out in wild tufts on its head, all different shades of straw-blond and gold and dirt-brown.

He spoke – he, she decided, for his voice was too deep for a woman’s, though there was an odd timbre to it, an indefinable softness, that left her still doubting. “I have been waiting for you, sri’osri,” he said. That word again. That word the strange woman had used. “You will come with me.”

He took a step toward her.

“Stay away from me!” she shrieked. She clutched her bag, thinking to swing it at him if he got too close. Her knees wobbled beneath her. She glanced down toward the other end of the alley – it was drowned in darkness. She couldn’t see what was down there.

He laughed softly – it was that chittering sound, that goblin-laughter. Robin’s legs almost gave way. “That is not an option,” he said, still coming toward her.

And then a shadow flickered behind him, and a dark shape hurled into the man, sending both sailing past Robin and deep into the shadows.

Robin had to squint to make anything out in the darkness. At first she could have sworn she saw a giant black cat, snarling fiercely; but no, it was a person in a black cloak, and the only sound was the scuffling of feet on concrete, and the man’s grunt as the cloaked figure landed a blow with – something. The shapes writhed around each other, and Robin struggled to see what was happening, when suddenly the man lashed out, sent the cloaked figure reeling back toward her.

Then the figure righted itself and pulled off its hood.

“You!” cried Robin; it was an involuntary exclamation. There before her stood the woman from the library.

The woman didn’t acknowledge her. She only laughed, deep and rich, as the man emerged from the shadows. She held a bizarre knife in her hand, a knife that looked to be made of iron, with a spiraled blade.

“Oh, Hyena, Hyena,” she called out sing-song, like it was a chant, and Robin thought, Oh, that’s what those things were. “What will it be next, then, Hyena?” Robin noticed then the blood running down the man’s hand, dripping thickly onto the ground. “Your eyes? Or maybe your cock. It isn’t as though you’ll need it.”

Hyena bared his teeth and growled. It was not a human sound.

The woman was unperturbed. “Has your queen forced you to bend over for her lately?” she jeered. “Give her my regards, next you see her. Tell her I hope she still makes good use of my gift.” The woman’s eyes were shining fiercely. Robin thought she seemed almost joyful.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t have time for games,” he said softly, almost sullen.

“Oh? But dear Hyena, you are the one who started this game!” the woman chided. “It would be discourteous if I didn’t answer in kind, no?”

The hyena man muttered angrily, a series of sharp, cutting sounds Robin couldn’t recognize as any tongue she had ever heard of. “Damn you,” he said to the woman, and started for the mouth of the alley. As he passed her, the woman reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Isn’t it unkind to leave the game unfinished?” she said. “You made the first move. Why should I let you back out now?”

“None of us are as we were,” he answered. “You don’t have a choice.” And with that he simply dissolved right there in a whisper of sand.

The woman backed up sharply, standing in front of Robin with her arm outstretched, as if to guard her from the sand as it blew away on a breeze that was, there in that small alley, intangible. When it was gone, she turned around. A wry grin curled her lips.

“If you go biting at every hook dangled before you,” she said to Robin, “you will make my task much harder, sri’osri.

Robin’s mouth worked, searching for language. “What is this?” she said finally, in a very small voice that sounded like a plea. “Am I crazy?”

The woman rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “You might be, but the one thing has nothing to do with the other.” She reached inside her cloak. She produced a small card, which she held out to Robin. Robin took it with shaking fingers.

“You want to know?” the woman said. “Come to that address tomorrow. Around eleven in the evening.”

Robin glanced down at the card in her hand. “Barcode,” it read, underneath patterned lines like the barcodes on merchandise in stores. In each corner was a generic looking little martini glass. Below the name was an address.

“A… a nightclub?” Robin asked dubiously.

The woman gave a short nod. “Wait in the courtyard out back. There is a bar, and on the back wall a small waterfall. I’ll meet you there.”

At length, Robin said, “What’s your name?”

The woman’s brows arched. “What do you need a name for?”

“What do I…” Robin echoed incredulously, taken aback. “I – because!”

The woman shrugged one shoulder. “Names are unnecessary things. Call me Shango, if you want.”

Robin stared at her. “‘Shango’ is the name of a god,” she said flatly.

“So?”

“So. So, ‘Shango’ isn’t your name.”

“How can you know?” the woman asked. “Perhaps I was named after him. Or perhaps I am that god. If you don’t like it, give me a new one yourself. Call me what you like. Here.”

And then Robin started as the woman abruptly leaned forward, reaching up to Robin’s face – for one moment, she had felt sure the woman was about to kiss her. But there was a necklace in the woman’s hand, and she was pulling it over Robin’s head. She gathered Robin’s yellow hair up and pulled it out from under the chain; an inappropriately familiar gesture that made Robin want to cringe away. But she held herself still.

“That will help to keep you safe, for now,” the woman said. “But it isn’t perfect. Mind you don’t go biting any more hooks.”

Robin glanced down at it; it was a small amulet made of iron, with nothing but a counter-clockwise spiral etched onto the surface.

“Tomorrow,” said the woman, and turned away.

“Wait!”

The woman paused, turned back around.

“But,” said Robin miserably, “But I still don’t know what your name is.”

“I gave you a name.”

“‘Shango’ is not your real name!” It came out a near-shriek; Robin swallowed, and struggled to calm herself.

A trace of impatience crossed the woman’s face for the first time, her eyes tightening. “Then give me whatever name you wish, girl,” she said. “I just told you.” She turned away again. “‘Naunet,'” she offered. “Take that one, then.”

As the woman walked away, Robin tried to place where she’d heard that name before. She watched as the woman passed into the light of the streetlamp flooding the sidewalk, and then into the shadow cast by the overhang of the old office building, whereupon she melted.

Robin stared, sure she had misinterpreted something; but the strange woman was gone, just disintegrated into shadow, as the hyena man had into dust.

Suddenly she remembered – the program she saw a few nights ago, about Greek and Egyptian mythology. Naunet was an Egyptian goddess. “That’s not your name, either!” Robin called after the woman, but of course there was no answer. Thunder sounded faintly in the distance, and a few fat drops of rain splatted onto the concrete.

“That isn’t it either,” Robin said again, under her breath. She swallowed, her throat tight. It wasn’t right. She just wanted to know the woman’s name. Why was that so much to ask? Things needed names. How could something exist if it didn’t have a name?

Abruptly she burst into tears.

She stifled it as quickly as she could, furiously rubbing at her eyes and cheeks, but it took a few minutes. She felt ridiculous even though no one was nearby to see her. Hiccupping, she staggered away from the support of the wall. She didn’t even know where she was. How was she supposed to get home?

But as soon as she stepped out of the alley and looked back the way she had come, Robin saw a bus sitting there, right at the stop she’d gotten off at, a block away. Now that she saw it, she could hear its idling diesel growl, even though she was sure just a moment before there’d been no hint of it. But that couldn’t be right, could it? It hadn’t been more than fifteen minutes since she got off, she thought. Another bus shouldn’t be here so soon.

It dawned on her that while she stood here thinking about it, it might leave, and then she might never get home.

She took off at a flat run; she was nearly there, and had only to cross the street when it closed its doors and began to move. She yelled incoherently, waving at it, and miraculously it stopped, the doors clattering back open right in front of her.

“Thank – you – ” she gasped, struggling to catch her breath, and hauled herself onto the bus.

She asked someone what the time was as she sat down. Ten oh five, the old man said, in a surly tone. Running a little late.

Her stomach performed a nasty little twist-and-drop, and she felt the blood drain out of her face.

She reached for the amulet at her breast, fingers trembling, just to make sure it hadn’t all been her imagination. It was still there, though, an ominous weight around her neck. She wasn’t completely crazy, then.

The bus lurched on its way.

It turned out that somehow she had ended up on the far side of town. It took the bus nearly an hour to make the circuit to her stop; but when she got off, everything was in its rightful place, her apartment building just a little ways down the street.

That was the last bus for the night.

To her own surprise, once she got home, she collapsed into bed and fell asleep almost the instant her head hit the pillow. She did not dream.

~*~

She had the next day off. By midday she was lamenting that fact; she would have been worse than useless at work, but at least there would have been a distraction from waiting. She couldn’t read, couldn’t concentrate on the television, couldn’t eat, couldn’t settle herself to nap. But eventually night fell.

She called a taxi. The driver gave her an odd look when she showed him the card, but said nothing. He quoted her a ridiculous fee when they arrived; she paid it and stepped out into the parking lot.

If the rainbow colors on the sign had not tipped her off, then the two men by the door ramming their tongues down each other’s throat would have been enough; or the two women arm in arm sharing a cigarette by the street lamp; or the drag queen cursing over his broken high heel at the curb.

It was a gay club. And a very seedy looking one, at that.

Feeling more awkward than she could ever remember having felt in her entire life, she carefully did not look at the way the men were grabbing at each other’s asses and went in.

The lobby was dimly lit by a few bare yellow bulbs, and smelled of liquor and urine and bug spray. Music throbbed through the walls. The boy who took her money didn’t look more than sixteen.

After she paid she went through the little swinging door by the desk and into the club; the wall of sound and smell and motion slammed into her so hard it nearly knocked her down.

It was a morass of clustered, spasming bodies, manic and fevered, all rubbing against each other within a miasma of cigarette smoke and noise. God, the noise! Like nothing she’d ever heard before, the music pounding so loud it reverberated through her guts and deep in her bones, everyone around her gleefully shrieking and shouting over the din, their laughter swallowed up by the dark. A shower of little colored lights darted over the dance floor, strobing in time with the beat.

Robin stood shell-shocked, struggling not to choke on the smell of smoke and sweat. She thought was going to spit up her heart. Her nerves screeched. Too much. Too much. She had to get away. She couldn’t stand it.

And she would have, she would’ve just turned back around and given up on the whole damn thing – but a clump of people moved from in front of her, and then she saw the big double doors standing open across the room, a current of humid air wafting through. The courtyard with the waterfall, she thought. That was probably it.

She darted toward the doors as fast as she could.

It was much more bearable outside. There was no ceiling here to trap the stench of smoke, so the air was fresh. The music wasn’t so loud, and there weren’t so many people. She saw the waterfall the woman had told her about on the back wall, lit up with bright lights, crashing into a large granite basin. It seemed out of place with the otherwise seedy surroundings.

Nobody really looked at her as she found a table near the water and sat down. She waited. Time passed like sludge. Around a quarter of an hour after, she was beginning to think she shouldn’t have come; but then she saw her.

Robin tried hard not to gape. The woman looked like she’d poured herself into those black jeans. And were those steel-toed boots? As usual, her arms were bare – but so, essentially, was everything else; she wore a muscle-cut mesh top with nothing beneath it but for a bra.

A small knife was strapped to her thigh, and another knife, the strange iron thing Robin had seen the previous night, hung from a chain slung low on her hips. She found it hard to imagine how the woman had gotten in here with those weapons in plain sight – unless, of course, now that she thought of it, the woman worked here.

Robin had to look away as the woman approached and leaned over the table.

“We meet again, little pale one,” she said in her lilting voice, smiling her slightly sinister smile. “A drink?”

“What?”

“A drink,” the woman repeated. “Would you like one.”

“Oh,” said Robin. “No. Thank you.” She suddenly and without warning felt quite angry. “Why did you bring me here?” she asked, gripping the edge of the table.

“You don’t like it here?”

“I don’t belong here.”

“You mean to say, ‘I am not a dyke’?” The woman’s voice was gently teasing; but Robin jerked back from the bluntness of what she had said as though it were a blow.

“No,” said Robin. “No. That’s got nothing to do with it at all. I just don’t belong in a place like this.”

The woman made a thoughtful sound. “Well, this was the best place. Come then.” She held out her hand.

Robin stared at it, confused.

“You don’t wish to linger, correct?” said the woman. “Then come with me, and I will show you what you wish to know.”

Robin lifted her own hand, then hesitated. “What’s your name?” she asked.

The woman’s eyes widened, and she laughed in surprise. “You are most persistent, sri’osri.”

“I just – everything needs a name.”

The woman sighed. “If you won’t name me, then, take ‘Niat’.”

Robin eyed her suspiciously. “Is that your real name?”

The woman shrugged. “‘Real’? It is a name by which a great many people call me. Is that ‘real’ enough?”

Robin diverted her eyes. “It… It suits you,” she said.

Niat made a noncommittal grunt. “That can’t be helped. Now come.”

Robin took her hand. It was strange mixture of hard and soft; of rough calluses and strength and smooth skin. The woman pulled her up from her chair, and they slipped out of the world.

That was, at least, how it seemed to Robin; everything went strange and distant and pale; the sound of the music trickling from the other room slowed and warped to a drunken reeling; and then motion and sound stopped all together, all of the people in the room freezing in place where they stood.

“This is a place of connection,” said the woman next to her, making her jump. “It is very easy to step in-between here. Look.” She pointed off near the bar, where stood a cluster of people. Robin looked, and recoiled.

There was a bubble in the air dipping down toward the men and women, filmy and grey, like some sort of membrane; and on the other side of this membrane were giant writhing… worms, they were worms, made of pure, undulating darkness.

Robin swayed. “Oh god,” she said. “Oh god.” She reached for the table beside her, but despite all appearances it was not really there. The woman caught her without a word. She had not let go of Robin’s hand, and did not seem to intend to do so.

“What are those?” Robin asked weakly.

“Time worms,” the woman answered. “Imagine time, history, consciousness, reality – all these are like dirt. The worms devour it, and then excrete it, leaving behind only a fertile chaos.”

“What – What does that mean?”

“It means that where ever they go, nothing remains of it when they leave it behind.”

Robin took a moment to re-teach herself how to breathe. “So. So. Then you’re saying they’re going to eat… this place?” She gestured helplessly.

“No, not yet, at least. This side is like bedrock, solid and unmoving. It isn’t easy for the worms to infest. The other side is like loam, nebulous and changeable; holes are riddled all through it already.”

“The ‘other side’?” Robin shook her head. “What does this have to do with me?”

“Wait,” said the woman. “It isn’t safe to stay here for long.” Niat pulled them back, and the world lurched into motion again. It was a vaguely nauseating sensation. She relinquished Robin’s hand, and Robin sank weakly back into her chair.

“You can think of the other side as Faerie, if you wish for a name,” Niat smirked. “Many men have called it that, here. But that isn’t important.” She waved her hand. “Our side is infested with the worms, and we needed a way to preserve ourselves until we could exterminate them. We sealed our time into archives, so that our existence could be retold, the missing history restored. That would be you.”

“What – archive? Me? What are you saying, that I’m like, like a book?”

“That,” Niat grinned wolfishly, “is exactly what I am saying. Put simply, you are a changeling. You were switched for a human child on this side, where the worms could not go. Of course, you aren’t the only one. There are others.”

“Why are you here for me, then?” Robin asked. “If there are others.”

“Because you, the sri’osri, are the only one that contains me. Call it a personal interest.”

“So that’s why you’ve been following me around?”

“Yes.”

“Why now?”

“There are those that have been keeping a watch on you for your entire life,” the woman answered. “But I am here, talking to you now, because the worms are breaking through.”

Robin jumped as if bitten, looking back toward where she had seen the strange gray membrane. The woman chuckled at her expression. “Yes,” she said, “it’s weakening. There are places where they have already broken through, but mostly only very small ones.”

“What… What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman with a roll of her shoulder. “Probably they won’t do much damage to this side, but it’s impossible to say. What they’re drawn to here is you. You, and the other archives.” She paused. “There are also others after you. People who want you for political gain. Those that want to possess you, but aren’t fit for the task. And those that would like nothing better than to see the particular history you contain wiped from existence.”

“The – the hyena man,” Robin guessed.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Of the former sort, not the latter, as you contain him as well.”

Robin fell silent, staring impassively at her hands on the table. She felt like this should all sound stranger to her than it did. It was much too easy to believe these things. It shouldn’t be so easy. This should all sound impossibly mad.

“Am – Am I crazy?” she asked at length.

Niat let out a short laugh. “I told you already. You might be, but it has nothing to do with this.”

“So,” said Robin. “If I’m… a book. If I’m a book, why can’t I tell stories?”

“Because you are sealed,” said the woman, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. And it was. That was the problem. “To tell yourself too early could be dangerous, could attract the worms, or others.”

“It’s too easy,” Robin muttered.

“‘Too easy?'”

Robin shook her head. There was no way she could explain it to the woman. Everything about her life had been so neatly clarified. Her incomprehensible existence was made comprehensible, just like that. She couldn’t believe it could be that easy.

Robin rubbed her face, suddenly very tired. She didn’t want to think about it anymore. “So. So why are you telling me all this now?” she asked. “Obviously no one thought I should know all this before. Why didn’t you just keep following me around without telling me anything?”

“Would you rather I had done so?”

“No! It’s just. You must have a reason.”

“I do,” the woman conceded. “I can’t keep you safe like this anymore. What happened last night was only the beginning. That amulet will not keep you safe forever. There is too much at risk. I need your power, and I can’t get it without your consent.”

“Wha -”

“It’s like a wish. You have a desire, a desire to be kept safe. You pay me a tithe to fulfill that desire.”

“But, but aren’t you the one who wants to keep me alive?”

The woman smirked. “You don’t want to stay alive?”

“Of course I do!” Robin exclaimed. “But you – why should I need to pay you anything? If you need me to save yourself?”

The woman shook her head. “You don’t understand. There is only so much I can do without the power of a wish. I may desire to protect you, but my own strength isn’t enough. Do you see?”

“I – I guess,” Robin mumbled, holding her head in her hands. “Not really. I – what kind of ‘tithe’?”

“A blood tithe.”

Robin’s head shot up. “Blood? What, you’re going to drink my blood, like you’re some kind of, some kind of vampire or something?”

The woman’s face lit up with mirth, but she didn’t laugh outright. “If you like. ‘Like some kind of vampire or something’ is close enough.”

“No,” Robin said. “No, this is crazy. This is – I want to go home.” It sounded like a small child’s whine, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. “I want to go home, now. I’m going to go call a cab.”

She started to stand; but Niat reached out and gently pushed her back down. Robin found a cell phone being pressed into her hand.

“Here,” said the woman. “Use this.” Robin blinked at her, taken aback. “I can’t force you,” the woman explained. “Whether or not I wished to, it doesn’t work the same way if it isn’t freely given. Go home. Go home, and think about it. And whatever you do, don’t take off that amulet. Not under any circumstances. Do you understand?”

In the end, Niat had to make the call for her, because her fingers had started to shake so badly she couldn’t dial the number.

~*~

A week went by. Then another. Robin went to work, came home, pressed flowers, wrote and slept. She did not see the woman Niat even once. It disturbed her, faintly. Always there was the nagging suspicion that none of it had really happened; but the iron amulet hung heavily about her neck at all times, a burden and a relief.

Robin wondered when she would see the woman again. If she would see her again.

Something could have happened to her. That hyena man might have done something awful. Niat might have changed her mind.

Or… Or maybe it had all been a joke. Maybe Robin was crazy after all, and that woman had given her this necklace because it amused her. Told her it would protect her, just to see what Robin would do.

Robin stood in front of her bathroom mirror one night, wondering these things as she toweled off from her shower and dressed for bed. She pulled on a button-up shirt and loose sweatpants, moving slowly, distractedly, unable to let go of the last possibility. It had been too easy to accept before, but now it didn’t seem real at all. Robin knew the woman was real, because she had given Robin the necklace – but had any of the rest of it been?

It was still all too easy of an explanation for everything. Maybe Robin was crazy, and this was her way of coping with it, of explaining it all away.

Because half the mirror was fogged up anyway from the steam, it took her a few minutes to notice that her own reflection was oddly cloudy, wavering as though on a pool of water rather than a sheet of silvered glass. She blinked and rubbed at her eyes. The cloudiness remained. Suddenly remembering, she grabbed reflexively for the amulet.

It was gone.

She gasped. But she’d never removed it. Had the chain broken somewhere? There was a buzzing in her ears. She glanced over the tiled floor but did not see it; picked up her towel where she’d thrown it in a heap and shook it out, but it wasn’t there either. Had she been wearing it when she had entered her apartment that evening? She couldn’t remember. The buzzing was growing louder. She couldn’t…

A sound high pitched enough to shatter glass.

Her reflection fractured.

The mirror was cracking. No, her eyes were cracking. Stabbed through with shards of perception. What was that sound? The pitch was so high. And the light, a white-yellow screeching. So bright.

No.

There was no sound. There was no light.

It was pain.

Her skull split open, and she fell to her knees, clutching at her head. She flailed around for the door frame; found it; stumbled out of the bathroom and into a void where her living area should be. Her heart fluttered like hummingbird wings as she fell into blackness.

In an instant she lost all sense of direction, all sense of motion. Where was she? Was she dead? Was this death, this fall into nothing? She couldn’t tell.

She heard breaking glass – another trick of her own mind? But then she felt a violent jerk, found herself back in her apartment, spinning wildly around in the air.

Spinning?

With a great effort of will she slowed the motion, brought herself to a stop. Then she realized she was looking down on herself, looking at her own body sprawled in the floor, and the woman Niat was there too, kneeling over her.

Am I dead? she wondered again. Am I a ghost?

The iron amulet was in Niat’s hand. How had she gotten it? Where had she come from, for that matter?

“I told you not to take it off!” she was saying, her voice a bark of fury, but the sound was muted and slightly distorted, as if heard from the end of a long pipe. Robin answered indignantly that she hadn’t, that the chain must have broken, that it obviously wasn’t her fault; but she had no voice at all.

Then Niat ripped open Robin’s shirt, sending buttons flying and clattering against the walls. Robin wondered what the woman thought she was doing. She tried to feel embarrassed, but couldn’t seem to feel very much of anything at all. Maybe this was what being dead was like.

But then she lost even the pretense of concern over her own bared breasts. A tracery of strange lines was crawling up her body, emerging from the waistband of her flannel pants and spreading rapidly over her torso.

Cracks. They looked like cracks. They were irregularly shaped, black, with an orange light glowing through them, for all the world as though Robin were made of volcanic rock and filled with lava, and now the rock was breaking up and the lava was about to burst through. She wondered if Niat would be burned. She tried to warn her to be careful, but of course, she still had no voice.

Niat placed one dark hand squarely between Robin’s pale breasts. The cracks had already spread up to Robin’s chin. The woman slipped her other hand beneath Robin’s neck, tilting her head back, and then bent down sealed her mouth over Robin’s own.

At that moment Robin felt, not the contours of the woman’s mouth against her, but the queer sensation of all the air being sucked out of her lungs. A disturbing wriggling slid up in her throat, hot and cold all at once. Niat lifted her lips off of Robin’s, slowly, by increments, and a pale yellow light began to issue forth from Robin’s mouth.

Robin felt herself choking. She felt it, but she was not there. She reached up to grab at a throat that was not there, with hands that were not there either. Something tasted intensely bitter.

Up through the yellow light a dark thread emerged, squirming and worm-like. Niat’s mouth still hovered a few inches from Robin’s; it was as though she were trying to breathe the thing into herself.

She was.

Robin felt a queer pop as the woman sucked the thing out of her and into her own mouth, swallowing it.

And then Robin’s body was her own again, in a most abrupt and violent manner. She slammed into herself at a sickening velocity, found herself still choking, and when she got her breath back her whole body ached deep down to her bones. Belatedly she thought to pull her shirt up to cover her chest.

But then she noticed the state of the woman above her. Niat was shuddering, her breath coming in wheezing gasps, her eyes screwed tightly shut.

“Are,” Robin said, and her voice broke. She tried again. “Are you all right?”

The woman actually laughed, a horrible, scraping sound. “No, you stupid girl,” she spat. “I told you – not to -”

“I didn’t!” Robin cried. For two weeks she had not taken that thing off, not even in the shower, not even when the chain tangled in her long hair and yanked out hanks of it and brought tears to her eyes. “Not even once!”

“I told you to be careful!” Niat convulsed, fingers tearing at the carpet to either side of Robin’s head. Robin glanced at the woman’s hands and suppressed a scream. They were growing claws. “It returned to me,” Niat said, and gulped at the air. “It returns when removed. Either you took it off… Or something tricked you… into letting it be removed.”

“I can’t pay attention every moment of the day!” Robin protested.

That’s why I told you to give me a tithe!

It came out a near-roar. Robin jumped at the sound of the woman’s voice. “I,” Robin said. “You. But. But I haven’t even seen you in two weeks.” Her throat tightened, and she blinked back tears.

“You knew where to find me!”

It was true. Robin had known where she could find her; but it wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years to go back to that place. There was no way to explain this to the woman. “What’s happening to you?” Robin asked miserably.

Niat’s eyes opened. They were glowing, an eerie green luminescence. “It is trying to devour me. I am fighting it.” She jerked, half collapsing against Robin as her lips pulled back in a snarl. Her teeth were the daintily sharp fangs of a cat.

“Will you – die?”

The woman cackled, her mouth twisting wryly. “I don’t think… ‘die’ is quite the word you want,” she said. “But possibly.”

“How can it be stopped?”

The answer was one word, bitten out, and already half-expected: “Tithe.”

Robin swallowed. “All right.”

The woman looked up at her sharply. “‘All right’?”

“Yes,” said Robin. “Yes, yes, just make it stop!”

Another convulsion shook the woman; her arms gave out completely, and her weight hit Robin and knocked her breath away. “Say it,” Niat rasped hoarsely.

“What?”

“Say, ‘I offer my blood to you freely.'”

“Um. I offer my blood to you freely,” Robin echoed, feeling stupid.

And for a moment it was like being mauled by an animal.

Niat yanked open Robin’s shirt and sank her teeth deep into the side of Robin’s breast. Robin let out a short scream. She hadn’t expected this, hadn’t expected her to just, to just –

But the pain melted away in seconds, leaving something much stranger and more unexpected in its place.

Once, as a child, she had been having a fit over some imagined thing she’d seen; no matter what they’d tried, they could not calm her down. She was taken to the hospital, where a nurse injected her with valium. Liquid warmth had filled her limbs, made them too heavy to move, and a sticky, murky fog had descended over her brain, gummed up her thoughts, and try as she might to recall the profundity of what she had seen, she could not hold on to her fear.

This was similar, but different: there was no murkiness, only a clear, molten gold, heavy and scalding all through her veins, surging up through her spine and into the marrow of her bones, filling her eyes until all she could see was light. Her extremities tingled, her fingers clenching in the carpet, her toes curling. She gasped for air – there wasn’t enough of it. The sound rasped in her ears. She was burning alive. She knew nothing but ecstasy.

Her back arched. Feeling the press of Niat’s body against her, she wished for it to press harder, wanted to be pinned down so she wouldn’t just burn up and disintegrate into ashes. She clutched at the woman with arms that were too weak and heavy to control.

Niat lifted her head, finally, and it was like a shock of cold water. A sting as the woman’s teeth relinquished her flesh; and then the gold drained out of her like syrup, leaving behind a film of longing and a sweet taste in her mouth. Robin found her eyes unexpectedly full of tears, her vision blurring – and it was a beast hovering over her now, its mouth smeared with her blood, its eyes glittering like poisonous green stars.

Robin thought: It will devour me. I must do something, or it will devour me.

She tilted her head up and pressed her lips to the beast’s mouth.

Niat stiffened momentarily in surprise – and then she answered hungrily, with lips and teeth and tongue.

The tide of wild force was staggering; it was too much to contain. The weight of the woman’s body bore down on her, and her hands were all over Robin’s body, on her breasts, her waist, her hips, the woman’s tongue delving deep into Robin’s mouth. She had to drink it, this wildness, to drink it so that it was a part of her. Robin could taste her own blood, and she tried to drink that down too, to drink everything.

Niat’s thigh slid up hard between Robin’s legs, and Robin gasped, shocked by the surge of sensation, the echoing pressure low in her belly. She arched up, rubbing against the woman, then let out a startled moan as Niat roughly ground her into the floor. The woman’s breasts, so full and soft, pressed against her own, such a contrast to this harsh onslaught of craving.

A sudden fear took Robin, that she was going to fall, and she clawed at Niat’s shoulders for purchase; she didn’t get so far as to wonder where she could possibly fall to.

The woman’s hand slipped beneath Robin’s waistband, sliding down, down, to brush light and teasing against her. Robin jerked up sharply into the touch with a cry. Everything was so unexpected, every touch like electricity, too much to absorb, to contain.

“Please,” she whimpered, not really knowing for what she was asking. Niat growled with approval. Her fingers spread Robin open, still teasing; and then they slid inside, slow and deep. Robin’s chest heaved, her breath turning to fire. Her hips bucked uncontrollably as the woman’s fingers worked within her.

Niat’s teeth were scraping over her collarbone, tongue trailing over her breasts, then up over her neck – no, no, this wasn’t right, thought Robin, she had to – had to –

She found the woman’s mouth again and devoured her in turn.

“Come,” Niat hissed against her lips. The woman’s thumb pushed up against Robin’s clitoris, beckoning. “Come,” Niat hissed again.

And she shattered.

The world shattered.

She is standing on a ball of green felt. No – it is a planet, covered in lush grass and moss and clover.

It is night, and a beast made of shadow prowls the sky, a beast with poisonous green stars for eyes. Its tail lashes, the stars flickering in and out of existence as the shadow passes over them.

This creature could devour this whole planet, Robin thinks – but she is not afraid.

She can see its outlines in the stream beside her, where the shadow blots out the light. She kneels next to the stream. She will drink this not-reflection, this shadow, and contain it within herself. If she contains the beast, it cannot devour her.

She bends down her head and drinks the sky.

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