The fights always started the same way; a sudden chill, a soft rumbling and then an explosion like a late-summer thunderstorm. They were at it again.
Twelve-year-old Ria tried to ignore them as well as she could, as she always tried to, concentrating instead on the book in front of her and the music coming through her earphones. The little joys and good memories that Ria’s happiness were built on wavered, relegated to the remnants of a dream in the face of such incomprehensible anger. Ria knew there was something terribly wrong, but she had no idea what to do about it.
Deep, deep down in the place Ria only visited in dreams, she knew that if she could only find some way to pull everything together and put it back where it belonged, things would be right again. Maybe they would stop fighting about what they always ended up fighting about, even if it wasn’t what they’d started fighting about. Namely, Ria.
Through the chorus of Picking Up the Pieces by City of Light, Ria could hear them.
“…that’s twice she’s refused to go to the session this week, Richard. It isn’t healthy to be so alone all the time…”
That wasn’t true. She had friends at school, Billy Friedman and Miranda Orlo. She ate lunch with them every day, did science projects and art assignments with them. There was the elderly Italian gentleman in 182 she visited every Saturday - he would make foods he called spaghettini alla puttanesca and fettuccine verde con mascarpone and she would read the newspaper to him. And there was always her dad. Ria knew he tried so hard.
It wasn’t that she was being difficult on purpose, it was just that sometimes it was hard to manage her two skins. One was the person they wanted her to be and the other was who she really was. The first was just too tight a fit. Ria hoped that one day they would all believe her when she told them that she wasn’t lonely, it was just better for her to be alone. Yes, she missed her mother; no, she didn’t dwell on death. Her father believed her, Ria knew, but there was always someone else, the step-mother, the school counselor, even the well-meaning lady with the shrill voice in number 196.
One day they’ll believe me.
Ria sat on her bed with her headphones on, a book filled with the tales of wizards and valiant warriors lying on her lap, and she squinted at the paragraph blurring in front of her. She swiped the back of her hand across her eyes and focused on the page. The Queen’s handmaiden was about to reveal the truth to the young prince and the secret to her powers.
Something thudded against the wall behind Ria and despite her resolve she jumped. She closed the book with a snap and tossed it on her pillow. The fate of the prince was going to have to wait. Turning up the volume had proved to be just as futile as trying to read. Ria sighed. The air in the apartment was stale and charged with negative energy. It was time for her to leave. Some fresh air would do her good.
She pulled on the pair of shoes that sat under her bed for easy grabbing and stuffed her iPod into the pocket of her jeans. Walking to the bedroom door, Ria held her breath as she grabbed the handle as though it might bite her and turned it. She pulled the door open a crack and peered through with one eye.
Through the dying notes of the song she could hear shouting. She wished the band would hurry up with the outro and get on with the next song. She crept down the short hall, pointedly turning her head from the light pouring out of the kitchen. Still, Ria couldn’t help but see her father and step-mother out of the corner of her eye, anger twisting their faces into people she did not recognize, their words punctuated with sweeping gestures and curses.
Ria grabbed her purple jacket from the hook behind the door and let herself out of the apartment. She dismissed the idea of leaving a note before it had fully formed. It wasn’t as if they would even notice. The thought was bitter, and it left a similar taste in the back of her throat as she closed the door behind her. The tarnished 192 on the door glared down at her, seeming to admonish her for the uncharitable thought.
Smelling of litter box and cigarette smoke, with water spots adorning the ceiling like old bruises and the too-narrow carpet worn through, the hallway was in no better shape than the apartment. She tapped her fingers along the pitted wall in time to the music as she walked. At the top of the dark stairway in the middle of the hall Ria paused and decided she didn’t really feel like going outside after all. Nothing out there is going to help me any more than it did before.
She continued down the passage to the very end, which was dim and stuffy. Passing the last door, she took several more steps and settled down in the corner under a window that had not been cleaned in some time. The layer of grime blocked most of the light and gave what little managed to slip through a thick, sticky quality that blunted the corners of everything it touched, making the world soft and distant.
Ria liked that. It was quiet and no one would come down there to disturb her. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she closed her eyes and let her head fall back. The wall was hard and unyielding, comfortably solid behind her back. As she sang along under her breath, her troubles melted away into the music. It made her feel better when she sang and her head moved a little in time to the song, one of the Silver Knockers originals called Trapped Between Worlds. In the safe space marked by the boundaries of sound, Ria let her thoughts wander.
They wandered down a familiar path, well worn by their little thought feet. What would life be like if her mother hadn’t died, would it be different now, more like it was then, not lacking some basic necessity that had no name yet was as vital as oxygen to a beating heart? It was always at this point that Ria reached the constant impasse, her thoughts faltering and freezing up as she tried to puzzle out what it was that was missing, her mental feet stuck in a sucking morass that she couldn’t move beyond. Tears welled up behind her eyelids as she fought to get free of the consuming thought.
Little by little, Ria became aware of something else, something that pulled her thoughts out and into the real world again. Holy Fire by Demons in Disguise syncopated through her earphones, but it was only in the silence after the song ended that she heard the foreign melody that vibrated through her.
Ria listened hard as she unconsciously cocked her head. When the next song started with a crash of drums and power-chords Ria almost had a heart attack. She ripped the earphones from her ears and sat in the dimness, her heart pounding, the song a faint buzz coming from her lap. She slowly turned the volume down and listened again. In the emptiness, Ria realized she had heard nothing. Instead, the melody was there, flowing around and through her soundlessly.
Ria stood and clutched her headphones tightly as she looked around. The thin walls of the apartment building made it painfully easy to hear anything and everything, and to know exactly where it was coming from. The sounds of yelling and fists being slammed on tables coming from the direction of number 192 intruded in a rude manner and Ria felt her concentration slip.
The music seemed to come from directly around or maybe a little above Ria’s own head, which did not help her pinpoint the source of the ethereal strains. What appeared to be a door floated in front of her eyes, but disappeared the instant she focused on it.
Only after squinting for several moments at the spot where it had been did Ria see a shape in front of her where there certainly was not supposed to be a door. The door moved back and forth, moving closer and then further away. It looked old. No, it felt old, as though countless thousands had come through to what awaited on the other side. Ria’s skin tingled.
The door was as difficult to place as the music. It looked to be in the wall, but not part of it, or it could have been behind the wall and visible through it. When Ria reached out to touch it, all she came into contact with was the rough, pitted and slightly greasy wall of the apartment building, but at the exact moment that her fingers brushed the wall, the door gave an excited little jump.
For the briefest second, the door came into focus; a pattern of gilded leaves ran down the left side that shone against the warm wood, the grain making mysterious shapes and faces, the ornate golden handle pleading to be turned.
The instant Ria withdrew her hand, however, the door fell back to its semi-there state, floating somewhere it could be seen but not touched. Ria bit her lip. This was precisely the type of thing that got people into trouble and mixed up with things that they should never be involved with, she thought. At least in books.
But, Ria reasoned, Everything turns out all right for them.
Things like that don’t happen here anymore, a prudent voice said meanly. Nothing turns out all right here.
Ria ignored the advice and put her hand against the wall. The door leapt forward. Ria willed it closer and, like a shape rising from the depths of the ocean, it began to appear out of the wall.
Most of those shapes have teeth, prudence warned and the door sank back a little into the shadows.
Shut up, Ria thought. “You don’t have to be so negative all the time,” she said aloud.
The door responded immediately to the sound of her voice and leapt forward. Whatever had been holding it back falling away like a blanket being flung off but it refused to come all the way. Ria got the impression that it could sense her fear.
“Come on come on come on come-on-come-on, a little bit more,” Ria coaxed the door. She used the same voice that she used on the shy rabbits that hid in the bushes along the path outside, and just like one of the creatures, the door crept forward.
Pulling it out felt like dragging a wagon with no wheels uphill and Ria stood tense, every muscle in her body trembling, sweat beading on her temple, oblivious to all else but the door. A last heave sent Ria falling back to crash against the wall behind her. In the wall the door now stood, firmly there and beckoning her to open it. At last, Ria could pinpoint the source of the music. Haunting notes slipped from behind the door, flowing like fresh water, painting the world in silver and diamond.
Her chest heaving, Ria gazed at it wide-eyed and slowly righted herself. The door looked as though it had come out of a fairytale. The wood of the door was polished to a golden gleam. It did not belong with the other chipped, pale green doors in the apartment hall. She touched it lightly, delighting in the soft warmth under her hand. She thought that her hand should leave an imprint, but when she pulled away, there was nothing.
Ria hesitated for a long moment and debated with herself as the music tugged at her. One part of her said that she should walk away and leave it, another part knew that it was right to surrender to that beautiful melody. Ria swayed to the music, her fingers tapping the rhythm on her thigh. She looked down the corridor once, and the song made up her mind.
Biting her lip, the melody resonating pleasantly in her chest, Ria knocked, a sharp rap with her knuckles that sounded too loud in the empty corridor. Immediately the melody ceased, the silence shattering the fragile veneer the melody had given the world into a thousand crystal shards. It made Ria feel strangely lost. From behind the door came sounds of scurrying, a series of bumps, and then silence.
Ria waited and as the silence grew, she grew impatient. She knocked again, then reached out and turned the handle. The door swung outward. Ria took an automatic step back. She looked up to find a man staring down at her with a quizzical expression in his startling eyes.
A slim man of slightly greater than average height, he leaned with one hand against the frame as he looked down at her without moving. A strange blue light from the room behind him bent around his frame in soft rays. Midnight hair stood haphazardly in oiled spikes atop his head and gold eyes gazed at her with unveiled curiosity. He wore a black shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, along with dark-grey slacks and a black leather belt with a gold buckle. Shiny Italian-looking shoes adorned his feet. His full lips twitched in a half-smile as he regarded her for a long moment before speaking.
“May I help you?” he asked with a courtesy practiced only by storybook knights and well-bred young men in English romances.
Ria didn’t have any sort of plan in mind after knocking; she had not really been expecting anyone to answer.
“I…I…” she stammered as she groped for a place to begin an explanation.
Her eyes darted to the room behind him, through the odd blue light and to something in the corner. An ornate acoustic guitar leaned against the arm of a reddish sofa that sat against the wall.
“You were the one playing!” Ria exclaimed, her eyes lighting up as they devoured the curves of the instrument.
The man’s extraordinary eyes flicked over his shoulder to the guitar, and his smile widened.
“So you did feel me playing?” he asked, straightening with a jerk. “I wondered. Did you bring the door?”
“I’m not sure,” she said.
Something was strange about what he’d said, but Ria couldn’t put her finger on it. The guitar was beautiful, gleaming chocolate, bronze and silver. Ria fancied she could still hear crystal notes dancing through the air, but that was impossible because no one was playing it.
“So you didn’t open it?”
“No,” Ria said. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I see.” The look he gave her pierced deep into layers Ria kept hidden from sight. “Won’t you come in then?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said again, all training about strangers making her cautious.
“Of course,” he said, looking disappointed. He put his hand in his pocket and nodded at the wires in her hand. Very faint strains of a rock song came from the tiny earphones. “What are you listening to?”
She looked down. The white wire was almost invisible against her clenched hand. “Um…this is Supernatural Eyes by Castaway.”
He looked nonplussed.
“They’re an Indie band,” she said and shrugged a little self-consciously.
There was something about him that made Ria need to perform her best and be of use. Why she wanted his approval, Ria couldn’t say. He nodded, but Ria had the feeling it was only because he had no idea what else to do. Her shoulders sagged.
“You like music?” he asked.
She nodded, perking up. Music helped her to forget her troubles and sometimes, at least in her mind, it seemed as though it could do more, if only she knew how to use it. Ria had never voiced this thought to anyone and she certainly was not going to tell a stranger she’d just met, but something in the man’s eyes made her think perhaps he knew nonetheless. Ria couldn’t help smiling at him and he smiled back, his eyes thoughtful and far away. Then he looked straight at her, his gaze as piercing as a sunbeam.
He must have seen something in her eyes, because he gave a sharp nod of his head and asked, “Would you tell me please, if there is anyone else about?”
Ria looked up the hall. It was deserted. Looking back at him, she shook her head.
“I really think you’d better come in. It’s quite important,” he smiled as he spoke.
She looked down the hall again and her eyes gravitated to the door of her apartment. Shadows moved in the square of light under the door and she could still hear them faintly. A sort of helpless sadness infused her. In its wake rose a reckless desire to leave her horribly topsy-turvy life all behind.
“All right,” she said, steeling her twelve-year-old nerves and gathering all the courage she could muster.
He stood aside as she walked in. He smelled good, fresh, like soap.
“Won’t you close the door behind you?” he asked.
She did. The door closed with a soft click, and the blue light flickered and disappeared.
Gesturing for her to take a seat with a wave of his hand, the man disappeared through another doorway adjacent to the first. Looking around, Ria saw only the couch and a small coffee table in the room.
She sat down, knees pressed tightly together, as far from the guitar as she could, though she was acutely aware of it sitting at the other end of the sofa. She played with her earphones as she waited and tried to rationalize what she was doing there.
Ria didn’t consider herself stupid or impulsive, and even her curiosity didn’t usually cause her to do something this obviously senseless.
Even as she thought about it, Ria realized she might be dreaming. The room itself, and everything in it, felt unreal. The couch seemed to give way under her as if it were not really there and looking down she could almost see the floor through it. The strange idea that it was made of musical notes occurred to Ria. She shook the thought away and the sofa became more solid.
Just as Ria was beginning to jiggle her feet with apprehension, the man strolled back in and handed her a little box of chocolate milk with a candy-cane-striped straw.
“I found this in what I assume is the kitchen,” he said. “I’ve tasted it and it doesn’t appear to be poisoned. I apologize for the lack of hospitality. It’s the only thing there is. I haven’t felt the need to eat since I arrived here so it didn’t occur to me to look.”
The statement was made even stranger by the way he said it - he put the emphasis on odd parts of words and his inflection wasn’t a hundred percent correct. Ria made no effort to make sense of it and simply nodded and took a sip of the chocolate milk. He was a little unusual in an unsettling sort of way, but there was a warm aura around him and something in his eyes and his smile that made him quite likable.
Still, Ria started and pulled away when he pulled the coffee table over so he could sit down on it. Face-to-face and eye-to-eye, she noticed that his gold eyes were quite captivating. The colored light had returned and was lurking in the corners of the room and she tried not to pay attention to it as he looked at her intently.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Ria,” she said.
“Ria,” he repeated, tasting the word as he drew it out, rolling the ‘r’ slightly.
“Short for Maria,” she told him. “What’s your name?”
“I am called Cedar Jal.” He held out his hand and she shook it. His grip was firm and he held her gaze. “Would you please tell me what you felt?”
She sat bolt upright and pulled her hand from his, an electric tingle running from her head to her feet. That’s it! “You keep saying ‘felt’,” she said.
“And that’s exactly what it was! I thought I was hearing something, but that didn’t really seem right, and I couldn’t think of what it was!”
Cedar sat back, and smiled. “That is exactly what I wanted to hear. Can you see any other doors here in this place, other than that one?” He pointed to the door she had just walked through.
Ria looked about the room and wondered if that was a trick question, but there was only the one door. She shook her head, not knowing what reaction to expect. He sighed and rubbed his chin.
“That presents a bit of a problem I’d hoped to circumvent, but no matter,” he smiled again. “I’m very glad you appeared.”
Ria gave him a tentative smile in return, unsure if that required a response. Standing abruptly, Cedar retrieved the guitar from the other side of the sofa, then sat back down and set it on his knee. He fiddled with the pegs for a moment, his fingers settling over the strings as lightly as a breeze. His right hand caressed the neck as his fingers danced over the frets, and he started to play.
The song was beautiful, but it was the melody that lay under the sound that held Ria enthralled. It resonated in her very soul and she was carried away as the intangible fibers of her being were strummed in time to the notes. A distant crash and a faint yell made Cedar pause and turn his head. Ria came back to the room around her with a jolt when the music stopped and she closed her eyes.
“They’re at it again,” she said, her face growing warm as the sounds continued. “Sorry.” The need to explain overcame her reticence to speak. “I know they argue about me, but I don’t mean for them to. I just don’t know how to explain to them that I’m fine. Even if I did, they probably wouldn’t listen. I just wish they weren’t so loud.”
As she finished, there was a screech and a door slammed. Ria winced.
“It’s not your fault. The walls are so thin here,” Cedar said, patting her knee. He smiled crookedly. “You’d think that would make it easier.”
“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?”
She stared at him, knowing very well he meant something more than what he was saying, but it escaped her. “What do you mean?”
“Easier to get out.”
“Get out?” Ria asked. “You mean you can’t get out?”
“I’m afraid not,” Cedar said. “If I could, I would have, believe me.”
“Why can’t you get out?” she asked, already assuming the worst. He’d probably been locked up here for something terrible.
Her thoughts must have been apparent in her expression, because Cedar gave her another one of his disarming smiles. “It’s not that bad. I actually don’t fully understand why I can’t get out, and that’s most of the problem.” His teeth gleamed and his eyes looked at her hungrily. “I need your help, Ria.”
She eyed him, a trace of suspicion flaring in her chest, but with it came the other feeling, the one she couldn’t name but could only describe as familiarity. It was the same feeling Ria had when she pressed against her mother’s chest, the warm smell of wood and spices and other things filling her nose and the warm beat of another heart lulling her into a blissful comfort without thought or care in the world. “Help with what?”
Cedar stood and tossed the guitar carelessly onto the sofa beside her. It bounced and started to slide. Ria gave a squeal and quickly grabbed it, expecting her fingers to burn. They didn’t and the silver strings glittered in the oddly shifting light as she placed it reverently on the coffee table. Her eyes slid to the man in front of her, who was moving through the purple and blue light-shapes as if he didn’t see them.
“I have been trapped here for far too long. It was a mistake that I even arrived here. But I did, and unfortunately, I am stuck here. Was stuck here,” Cedar said as he paced restlessly, one hand in his pocket, the other punctuating his speech.
She watched him with her eyes wide, her mouth hanging open slightly. Ria sensed a story behind the words, a long and complex adventure that she longed to ask about, but she wasn’t sure she should know the answer. It smelled of the things she read in her books and it pulled her, enticing her forward where otherwise she might not go.
Cedar turned to her with a sharp click of a black boot. “I want to go home. I need to get home. It is quite imperative.” He gazed at her, his expression frank and earnest was more than slightly compelling.
“Where do you live?” she asked, to keep from saying, “of course I’ll help you”, which was what she wanted to do.
“I live in a place called Demona.”
“Sounds like a fancy name for hell,” Ria said before her mind could sensor her tongue.
Cedar threw his head back and laughed out loud, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his lips pulling back to show all of his very neat, white teeth. “You know, that is not totally incorrect.”
Ria’s eyes flickered around the tiny room and counted the shapes in the light then returned to his face. “Then why do you want to go back?”
He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Because Demona needs me.” He pulled his hands away and looked down at his lap. “And possibly every other world as well. Like the one out there.” Cedar jerked his head at the door.
“Sounds serious,” Ria said. A tense current ran under the man’s cordial demeanor, something that would eventually snap, and Ria saw in the shadowy depths of his gold eyes that this was not a man that it would be smart to make angry.
“It is,” Cedar nodded. “Though it helps if you don’t think about it too hard.”
She studied him, trying to judge how much she could press him. “Demona is not very close, is it?” she asked at last.
“Well, not really. It depends on how you look at it,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But it won’t take long to get there, I’m fairly sure.”
“And you need me because…?”
“Because I can’t get out of here by myself. I’ve tried. If my intuition is correct, you can help me.”
“Okay. Let’s go then.”
Ria stood up and marched across the room. She stopped at the front door and looked back at him expectantly. Cedar had not moved.
“Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I wish it were - I would have been gone long before now, and without troubling you. I can’t just walk out. You see, that door was not made for me,” he said. “Watch.”
He went over and opened the door, turning the handle and pulling. His fingers slipped over the handle and the door didn’t move, even when he tried it a second and a third time.
“You may need to help me,” he said, his smiled forced over a clenched jaw.
Ria looked at him, her eyes narrow. He didn’t look like he was faking it. She reached out and opened the door with no difficulty. Cedar took a deep breath and threw his arm out. It disappeared up to the elbow. Ria screamed in shock and threw her hands in front of her face.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Cedar said. He pulled her hands away from her face and knelt down so he was looking up at her. He showed her his own hand and flexed his fingers. “Look. It’s fine.”
“What is going on? Why did that happen? How…?” she said, her voice breathy. Her eyes darted wildly between his arm and the corridor beyond the door. The conviction that she was now trapped there with him made her throat constrict. Suddenly the dilapidated corridor was beautiful in the same way as something desirable utterly beyond reach.
His eyes followed her gaze. “Don’t worry. You can leave anytime you want.”
Ria looked at him and tried to determine the intent behind his words. She didn’t think he was lying, but he also said he needed her in order to get out. Why would he just let her go like that?
Cedar stood up and gestured at the door with a wan expression. Ria took three quick steps and was in the safety of the corridor. She touched the wall and found it solid and reassuring. She looked back inside the little apartment at Cedar, who stood just beyond the threshold with his hand in his pocket, edged in blue light again. He gave her a small, sad smile.
“Simple, isn’t it?” he said. “No harm done at all.”
The way he said it made small tugs at her heart. Cedar shrugged at her and it was this helpless gesture that made up Ria’s mind. “If I don’t come back, what will you do?” she asked him, stalling.
He tilted his head to the side and smiled. His smile was very charming. “I’ll keep playing. I’ve been waiting for someone like you for as long as I’ve been here.”
“Like me?” Ria found that hard to believe.
Cedar nodded. Ria stood in the middle of the corridor. She could hear water running in one apartment, a T.V. and radio in another, and somewhere else two girls were giggling. She listened hard, but she couldn’t hear any yelling or objects being thrown and shattered. Stepping closer to the doorway, she pointed at him.
“Do the thing with your arm again,” she demanded.
Cedar obliged. Ria stepped even closer and examined the air where his arm should have been from half a dozen different angles. He stood patiently. She couldn’t see his arm in the corridor at all. When she waved her hand, she didn’t feel anything either. She frowned. “Is this what you meant when you said the walls are so thin?”
“Yes, a little,” he said, pulling his arm back inside the room. He rubbed it gingerly, grimacing slightly. “The physical walls,” he rapped the wall inside the flat with his knuckles, “and the metaphysical walls.” He wagged his fingers out the door and they promptly disappeared.
“I don’t know that word,” Ria said and frowned. “I’m only twelve.”
“It means the walls you can’t see or feel with your body.”
“So then why can’t you get out?”
“I’m trapped here,” he gestured to the room, “half-way between, I think. I am here, but not quite. I didn’t exactly have all my attention on what I was doing at the time, and things didn’t turn out how I had intended to say the least.”
“That is a long story Ria, longer than I really have time for,” Cedar said and looked at her impatiently. Ria caught a glimpse of the ice just below the surface and it made the room suddenly cold. “It would really help me if you would come back inside now.”
Despite the chill, Ria nodded. As she stepped inside, the light changed from blue to purple. Cedar took her arm and led her across the room.
“Come. We have a few preparations to make.”
“What do you need me to do?” Ria stood with her hands clasped, too curious to be afraid, but imaginative enough to be a little nervous.
“Actually, I just need some of your blood Ria.” Cedar took her to the sofa and sat her down, then knelt in front of her.
She considered this for a moment. Blood was important, but she’d had cuts and scrapes before. None had been that bad. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Well, I’m going to use it to get out. Magyc doesn’t work in all worlds, you see, except First Magyc, and that requires a little of the right kind of blood.” He took a knife from his boot. “This may hurt just a little. Close your eyes for me, won’t you Ria?”
She did as he asked, electrified by the mention of magyc. He bared her arm, firmly but very gently, and made a small cut halfway between her wrist and elbow. With a shriek of surprise, Ria’s eyes flew open. She watched in fascination as bright red blood welled up and spilled over.
Cedar caught it in a glass vial the size of his thumb. When it was full, he sealed the vial and put it in the pocket of a white jacket lying over the back corner of the sofa. Pulling a narrow strip of cloth out of another pocket, he wrapped her arm and showed her how to put pressure on the wound.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she told him, hoping to ease the worried frown from his face.
He smiled, but his eyes were still haunted by a faint shadow of something, doubt, hesitation, maybe regret, Ria couldn’t tell.
“That’s good,” he said. “Now, I want you to come with me.”
“To Demona?” she asked.
She frowned and glanced over her shoulder, toward her apartment. That had not been expressly mentioned, but Ria liked the idea. Something about it made sense, on a level below thinking or computing.
“Just for a little while. What do you think?” Cedar prompted, his voice soft.
Ria felt a curious sensation of warmth envelope her. It made her feel safe. She glanced up at him and saw him looking at her, his eyes now a darker, molten gold, and she knew that he was somehow doing it. Ria didn’t really mind. She had a feeling that if she really didn’t want to go with him, he would not be able to force her and would have to let her go. Ria suspected if he wanted to hurt her, he would have done so already.
“Okay,” she said, and smiled at him.
No one would miss her if she was gone for just a little while, and if she went with him she would be able to find out about the feeling of familiarity she had whenever she looked into his eyes or heard his guitar.
Cedar smiled back, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He leaned over and took the white jacket and slid his arms into it, then grabbed his guitar with one hand and reached under the sofa with the other. He pulled out a red case, into which he placed the guitar. Slinging the case across his back, Cedar scooted closer to her.
“Now this is going to hurt, but I promise that everything will be all right.” His gold eyes were cool and his hands were warm, matching the words.
He was right. It hurt a lot when he slid the knife across her throat.
All thought fled from Ria’s mind and her breath hissed out. She couldn’t remember how to take another one as she fell into his arms. The front of her white shirt and his white jacket were suddenly red. He said something, but she didn’t understand him. Her arms and legs were cold and she tried to press closer to his warmth.
The world became a kaleidoscope not so much of color but of shades, blending and blurring in geometric patterns of fantastic design. With a kind of fascinated detachment, Ria noticed there was now a second man standing there, a tall thin figure that had not been there before. All sorts of things were just appearing out of thin air today was the only cohesive thought she could manage as her attention drifted without direction or cause.
Cedar spoke with the second man. Ria could feel the vibrations of Cedar’s deep voice with her head pressed against his chest, but she couldn’t hear the words. Cedar was adamant, the other man calm and sure.
An argument ensued, which Ria was sure she was the subject of and she felt a distant twinge of annoyance. The man made a gesture with his hand and Cedar fell silent. The man remained calm while taking smooth strides forward. Cedar shoved the man in the shoulder with one hand and sent him backwards. Even the man’s stumble had grace in it.
Cedar was breathing heavily, his heart thudding on the other side of his ribs. As the man righted himself Cedar said something that made the man pause. Cedar spoke faster and somewhere in his words, something came out that made the man fall still.
After a brief pause, the man gave a slow nod and stood back. Cedar edged around him, clutching Ria tight. Ria’s eyes looked straight into the man’s for the briefest instant. She almost saw him, but he faded into the swirls of shadow and light. He lifted his hand in a grave salute and then disappeared. Ria knew something important happened.
“Okay, we’re good,” Cedar whispered into her ear, his voice surprisingly clear as he shifted her gently and turned to the door. “We’re going to be all right.”
The corridor was grey and drab and as they moved closer to the door the colors flowed together and the corridor disappeared, draining into the emerald green of a forest clothed in springtime.
Ria became hyper-aware of everything around her. The color of the leaves, vibrant against a sapphire sky; the gold of his eyes; the twittering of startled birds as they took flight; the smell of dirt and wild roses; the softness of the ground when he lay her down; and the discordant ‘clang’ when he chucked the empty guitar case to the side.
“Okay, Okay, Okay,” Cedar whispered as he brushed her hair back. His fingers came away red.
He pulled her head into his lap, against the hard soundboard of his guitar. His words had no meaning for her as his voice breathed into her ear, but his breath smelled sweet and the notes from the guitar enveloped her, consuming her body in a fire that burned for a split second before freezing.
When Cedar gently touched three fingers to her throat the fire leapt to the point where his fingers touched and escaped her mouth in a tortured scream. Her voice cut off as though someone clicked a mute switch, her scream echoing away into the trees. Ria sat up, gasping. She pushed his hands away and clutched her neck.
It was as soft as a baby’s cheek, with neither scratch nor scar. Her shirt was perfectly clean as was his immaculate jacket. She looked at Cedar, her eyes accusing. He smiled at her, his skin pallid and the sunlight seemed to go straight through him, illuminating his bones. Dark shadows had swallowed his lovely golden eyes, turning them a dull umber. He fell weakly beside her, eyes closing. His fingers fluttered and then he was still.
The whole world went still with him. All Ria heard was her own breathing and her steadily beating heart. She looked at him, lying with his legs bent under him and his arms by his side. She scooted slowly closer and got to her knees next to him. When she pressed her head to his chest, she could hear faint pattering. She shook him gently, but he didn’t move. Suddenly the silence was sinister and she was very alone.
He mumbled, rolled over and curled into a ball. His breathing evened out, but he did not rouse. Ria sat next to him, pulled her knees to her chest and hugged herself tightly. She would watch over him, she decided. That was the only sensible thing to do.
The sun moved across the sky and disappeared behind the trees. The sky filled with fire, and soon after with diamonds. Presently Ria’s eyelids began to droop and she fought sleep.
As the night deepened it grew cold and Ria huddled closer to Cedar, her teeth chattering softly. The trees became lost in shadows, and the shadows were not empty. Music would help keep those things at bay. She felt for her iPod, but it was no longer in her pocket. She must have lost it in the transition.
Squeezing her eyes shut, determined not to see anything that might be lurking in the trees, Ria curled up next to Cedar, and despite the sounds in the night, fell asleep to the reassuring thought that perhaps this could be just a dream.
Ria woke the next morning when a spear of sunlight darted down and pried her eyes open. She saw green leaves waving gently above her, edged in shining light that illuminated motes in the air. Cedar’s jacket lay over both of them. She stirred and wriggled from his embrace.
At some point during the night he must have gotten up and made a fire, for coals were still smoking in a small pit nearby. The chill of night had not worn off, but the sun played pleasantly over her skin, and she shrugged out of her purple jacket to enjoy the sun to the fullest. Ria looked closer at the place she found herself in.
Something in the air or the sky, something that was too small to be seen, too subtle to be touched or heard told Ria in no uncertain terms that this was not the same world she had lived in all her life. The air was unfamiliar to her lungs, thick and viscous, the sunlight brighter and even the ground felt as though if she put her ear to it and concentrated, she would hear somewhere deep within it a beating heart of stone.
The small clearing was something out of a fairy story, small, bright and perfect. Straight, slim saplings grew just in front of giant, gnarled trees that ate the sunlight. Ria bit her lip, looked around to make sure no one was watching and then pinched herself on the arm. It hurt more than she intended and she grunted. So I wasn’t dreaming. I could be dead, but I don’t think that dead people get hungry.
Breathing in a deep breath of fresh, tart air, Ria was a little surprised to find she would be perfectly content to stay in this place forever. The lack of any worry or desire to return home put a buoyancy in her chest that bubbled up into a delighted giggle. She clapped her hand over her mouth and looked back at Cedar, hoping she hadn’t woken him. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t even stirred and if she hadn’t been able to see his ribs moving up and down, he could have been dead for all she would be able to tell.
Retrieving the guitar from where it had fallen when he’d collapsed, Ria lay it at his head and sat down cross-leg next to him. He looked quite peaceful when he slept, the light shadow of stubble on his smooth face made him look strangely youthful. His eyelashes were thick and dark and gave his angular face a masculine beauty that was easy to miss when he was awake. Ria tried to guess how old he was, but her gut and her eyes kept giving her different answers.
She was lost in watching him when without warning he sat bolt upright, eyes open, hands out. Ria screamed and leapt backwards. Cedar looked at her with a bemused expression, and stretched. His hair was mussed and a leaf stuck out from behind his ear. His eyes gleamed warmly, nearly returned to their usual bright hue.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully. “By the Path, I’m starving!”
Her stomach grumbled an agreement, but she said nothing. Instead, she watched him warily as he got to his feet and cracked his spine with a satisfied grunt. She wondered how they would get food in the middle of a forest. Cedar walked over to the fire and within moments, he had woken it and the orange flames were dancing merrily. Then he went over and slung the guitar over his back.
“I’m going to get something for breakfast. I’ll be back momentarily. Stay here.”
“Are you going to leave me here?” Ria blurted out as he began to turn away, the fear jumping to her mind and coming out her mouth when he took his first step away.
Realizing that he could do just that made the security she had felt minutes before disappear. The thought of being left alone in this world that she found both new and familiar terrified her beyond imagination. He paused and turned his head back to look at her, his eyes veiled by an impenetrable shadow.
Cedar opened his mouth to speak when a crude spear buried itself in the ground just in front of him, spraying his trousers with dirt. Before Ria could react he leaped over to her in one fluid motion, the guitar sliding off his shoulder and down his arm, and pulled her to him as another spear struck the ground where she’d been sitting. She looked around, her mouth frozen in an ‘o’ of surprise. Out of the trees stepped a handful of people, all of them carrying rough spears and leering.
Ria counted six and some of them looked very strange. Two looked almost human, one very skinny with dark skin and white hair, the other slouched, chubby and bald, but their features were gross and uneven. The shortest was hairy, with little eyes that glinted from underneath an overhanging brow. The tallest one had pointed ears and his leer revealed his teeth were pointed as well. Two ordinary men stood with the first four.
Cedar had his guitar in hand as he surveyed the newcomers. “I really wasn’t expecting company.”
The small dark-skinned one with a large nose and even larger ears grinned. He was missing several teeth, the rest were slightly pointed. “May the Path keep you,” he said, straight-faced, though his eyes were mocking. “Will you invite us to share your fire?”
“No, I think not,” Cedar said, his voice quiet.
Cedar had gone cold and rigid and his eyes burned with an icy fire. Ria saw fully for the first time the hard interior break through the mild exterior. She fought the urge to shrink away from him when her eyes fell upon the guitar. It was humming slightly, an eager sound that ignited the air around them. Cedar’s fingers were white as they gripped the neck tight enough to warp the strings and Ria’s eyes widened as she watched the guitar shimmer away into a longbow of mahogany and gold.
In a second Cedar had it up and drawn, his left hand next to his ear, the knuckles of his right pointed at the closest of the intruders though no arrow was notched. The intruders shuffled and hefted their spears. Some of them chuckled softly, their dark little eyes glittering with something less than warmth, but Ria saw two, the tall one and the dark one, take a step back and glance at each other with uneasy expressions.
Cedar nodded at the line of scraggly figures. “I wasn’t able to get much of a look at your world. Some things here may be not be familiar to you. Do you know what each of those is?” he asked Ria.
She knew what he meant, but she looked at each again to make sure then shook her head.
“Pay attention.” Cedar’s fingers did a little dance on the taught bowstring and Ria shivered. An arrow appeared in his hand, fletched with golden light.
“Elf.” The tall one went down with an arrow in his neck, his pointed teeth bared in a grimace of pain.
“Goblin.” The stunted one with large ears and dark skin looked down in surprise as an arrow sprouted from his chest. Dark purple blood stained his ragged shirt.
“Troll.” The chubby one’s whole body jiggled when the arrow struck him, his tiny eyes rolling up in his bald head as he dropped to the ground.
“Dwarf.” The stout, ruddy man with mounds of tangled hair on his head and face glared and snapped the shaft of the arrow that went into his shoulder. The arrow was quickly joined by two more, and the dwarf managed to stagger forward one step before he fell face-first to the ground.
“And of course, your average man.” There were two of them, brothers by the look of them, blond and bearded, gaunt of face and too thin. Neither of them had a chance to lift a spear.
The bow slid down through Cedar’s grip. It shimmered as his fingers ran over its length and it was the guitar that landed on the ground. He gazed down at the fallen bodies. They did not move when Cedar walked up and nudged them with the toe of his shoe. He looked so sad that Ria stepped closer and took his hand. He squeezed hers.
“What did they want?” she asked.
“Food, most likely,” Cedar said. “Money. Our clothes.” He looked tired again. “I wasn’t going to wait around to find out, not since…” he stopped suddenly and shook his head.
“Why did I shoot them?” Cedar looked down at her. “Because they would have killed us.”
“What are we going to do with them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shouldn’t we bury them or something?” Ria looked down at the crumpled bodies.
“Bury them?” Cedar looked amused. “I was thinking of burning them actually. The dwarfs believe that fire consumes the spirit and sends the body back to Mother Earth where it belongs. The elves believe that the sparks carry their souls to an afterlife among the stars where they are watched over by the Moon.” He began dragging the bodies together, piling them on top of one another, his words punctuated with grunts of exertion. “The goblins are rumored to eat their dead after roasting them over a fire for three days and nights, in order to benefit from the wisdom and experience of the deceased. And I don’t really know what the trolls think.”
Ria stared at him, fascinated horror written over her face. “How do you know all that?”
“Part of the job description,” Cedar said with a shrug. He gave her a lopsided smile. “I’ve been around a while. We should finish our business here quickly and leave. There may be more of them around.”
“More of them?” Ria looked at the pile of bodies. “Who…what are they?”
“Vagabonds, thieves, cutthroats,” Cedar said with a grunt, as he heaved the last one onto the pile.
“Are there lots of bad people here?”
“Not bad,” he contradicted gently. “Just misguided. Everyone follows the Path in his or her own way, but some ways lead to more unhappiness than others do. Tell me Ria, do these look like happy men?”
His laughter startled several birds from their roosts. “I suppose that puts it more clearly than anything else.”
The bodies were piled like logs. Ria helped Cedar clear an area of ground and build a ring of stones to provide a firebreak, then watched Cedar set them alight with no more than a wave of his hand. Flames licked hungrily at their clothes and then their flesh. The smell reminded her she was hungry and her stomach rolled in protest at the thought of eating something that could talk. Cedar would not leave until the bodies were ashes, which did not take long for the less-than-natural fire to accomplish. He extinguished the last embers with another wave of his hand and then nudged her away.
“Let’s go,” Cedar said, rubbing a hand across his eyes.
She followed behind him as he made his way through the forest. She had so many questions she felt like they were leaking out of her nose and ears. Who is he? What was that guitar? What is this place? How did he do that with the fire? Lost in her thoughts she didn’t see him stop and ran into his back. She peeked around him.
Through the trees, a few meters away, she saw a road.
With slow deliberate steps, Cedar walked on with Ria trailing behind him until he stood in the middle of the road. He stood, his hand in his pocket, and surveyed the road. It was only visible for a short distance in both directions before the trees swallowed it. He looked at the sky, counted something silently on his fingers and was lost in thought for a time before glancing up the road a final time. He nodded sharply to himself and then knelt down in front of her.
“Now, I would like to send you home right now, but I’m afraid I might need a little more rest, not to mention some food. So, you will have to stick with me for just a little bit longer.”
His gold eyes looked at her earnestly. Ria didn’t mind staying with him, but didn’t say anything. Cedar put his hands on her shoulders, mistaking her silence for something else.
“I’m going to send you back,” he tried to reassure her. “I’m not going to leave you.”
He took Ria back into the trees, in sight of the road but hidden from view. “Now, I’m going to get something for us to eat. Stay here. There’s no one about.”
Ria nodded and settled herself under a tree, keeping half an eye on the road; she thought he would want to know if anyone went by. As she waited, thoughts of the burning bodies they had left in the forest, Cedar’s guitar-bow, and First Magyc ran through her head. She looked upwards at the sliver of pale moon, bleached by the past-noon sun hanging overhead, and wondered if it was watching over the Elf.
Cedar was soon back, stepping out of the trees on silent feet, a brace of pigeon in one hand. His other arm cradled half a dozen small apples against his side. His guitar hung on his back.
Ria watched him make a fire, this one with wood and tinder and flint, clean and skewer the birds and not too long after, the tantalizing scent of roast pigeon drifted through the trees. He handed her one of the crisp, browned birds and sat down next to her. Sitting beside him, in complete silence, Ria found her hunger had been replaced by a knot in her stomach made of questions and mysteries. She picked at the tender meat and avoided his eyes.
The further Ria went the less she understood and the more obvious it was to her how dependent on him she was. It irked her how helpless she was. Back home, at the very least, she could go to her corner or disappear into her music. Here, she had nothing.
Cedar sighed and she looked up at him. “We can’t go on with you being afraid to speak to me. That’s not going to work,” he said, a little crease between his eyes.
“I’m not afraid,” she said.
It was mostly true, yet her hand automatically went to her throat. The same expression that had been lurking in Cedar’s eyes before flashed across his face, and this time Ria recognized it as consternation.
“Right. That. Perhaps I should try to explain,” he said.
“Demona is a world of the Path and that means magyc will work here, but in other worlds not touched by the Path, a person can only make First Magyc, or Blood Magyc as some call it, work. I needed the blood to get out of that place. There was nothing else I could think of.”
“Why didn’t you use your own blood?” Ria asked accusingly.
He was silent for a long time before he looked unflinchingly at her. “At times I thought about it. I even tried it once and it took only the one time for me to realize the amount of blood required would kill me.”
“How did you know it wouldn’t kill me?” Ria asked.
The flashback was so vivid it held Ria motionless, the cold knife drawing a line of fire across her throat. His eyes were cold and his hands were warm. He had known exactly what he was about to do and Ria had mixed feelings about that. The sense of betrayal against a profound knowledge that he had done what was right twisted in her stomach as her hands twisted in her lap.
“Then why did you do it?” she asked at last.
“Ria, I know that I took a chance with your life, and some would say that I had no right to do that, but,” he sighed. “I had a feeling. It’s difficult to explain.”
“Try,” Ria demanded, desperate to reconcile the tumult of emotions his actions evoked. If she had actually trapped herself with a sadistic psycho…she wouldn’t let that thought run its course.
“I…” he stopped. “Why did you agree to help me and come to Demona?”
Ria had to think that one over for a little while. She felt a warm glow settle in her stomach and she gave him a little smile. “I guess I had a feeling.”
He returned her smile. “You see? Besides, I did bring you back.”
She could not argue with that. “Did you use your blood to do that?”
Cedar shook his head. “No. Magyc is complicated. There are rules, just as physics or mathematics, such as only specific blood will work. The right type of blood is quite valuable here. Or it was when I left. Who knows what it’s like now.” A pensive frown flitted across his face.
Ria stared at him in confusion. He caught her look, and shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Nobody will be wanting your blood.”
“What do you mean?” she demanded.
“I used it all.”
She frowned. The memory of her shirt, wet and sticking to her skin flashed past her eyes, and she suddenly felt pale and sick. She looked down at her hand. It was trembling, even though it looked perfectly normal.
“What are you saying?” she said slowly, pressure stinging behind her eyes. “Am I empty?”
His eyes widened. “No! No, no. It…I…”
He pulled the knife out, the same knife that he’d used before, reached over and grabbed her right hand. She tried to pull it away, but he held it firmly as he nicked the tip of her finger. A drop of red welled up.
“See?” He smiled.
Two tears slid down the sides of her face and she gave a trembling sigh of relief.
“I thought you were going to tell me I was dead,” she confessed, holding her wrist with one hand, carefully balancing the blood on the tip of her finger, watching the drop grow bigger.
“You’re not dead,” Cedar said firmly. “I promise. Death is a very blunt character. You would know with complete certainty if you were dead.”
He sighed again, a weary sound that made Ria feel old just listening to it, and sat back pulling his guitar to his lap and starting to play. Reverberating through her, the notes carried the strange melody that was felt and not heard. The melody illuminated the whole world, but in a different manner than it had illuminated the other world that was Ria’s.
That had been silver and glass, this was all gold and fire. Ria gazed all around, drinking in the vivid sights, until she caught sight of the blood on her finger. She raised her injured finger and blinked, staring at the drop of blood.
“There’s something wrong with it,” she whispered.
That brought him up short and the music died away. Cedar cocked his head to one side.
“What do you mean?” he asked staring at her hard.
“It’s glowing. It was glowing. I think.”
He sat back, shock plain on his face. "How do you mean glowing?” he asked carefully.
“It looks,” she looked up at him, “Gold.”
“Impossible,” Cedar breathed.
“What?” she asked, admiring the vibrant light within her blood that turned the drop into a glittering ruby.
“Nothing,” he muttered and looked down at his guitar with a little frown. He strummed gently as he stared into space. Ria could tell he was mulling and she sat quietly so as not to disturb his thoughts. She gently rubbed the drop of blood away and watched Cedar’s long fingers flow over the strings.
“Would you like to play?” he asked suddenly.
“I don’t know how,” Ria said and looked at the guitar wistfully.
“I’ll show you. Here, put this finger here, this one here and that one there. Now, strum like so,” he instructed.
She brought her hand down. The chord rang out, clear as crystal, yet empty. Ria frowned. “It doesn’t sound like when you play.”
“First you learn to play, then maybe I’ll teach you to play like I do.”
“Do you really think I can?” Ria’s eyes shone.
“Yes, I believe you may be able to,” he said carefully. “If you can see the Path that way.”
She smiled and strummed again. Cedar’s gold eyes were molten as he watched her, his expression a mix of confused hope and doubt, but Ria was too enthralled with the guitar to care.
He showed her a few more chords and then looked up at the sun. “We should go.”
She put the guitar over her arm as he wrapped the rest of their meal in large leaves he found on a vine and put them in his jacket. He covered the fire with dirt and dusted off his hands. Ria took the hand he offered and they walked to the road.
Walking at a leisurely pace down the middle of the road, Ria tried to take in everything all at once, the small yellow and white flowers that grew between the huge trees that stretched up above them, the blue sky patchy between many shades of green. Everything seemed so real that it made the other world, her world, feel like a grainy, two-dimensional picture. Ria didn’t want to think about that world when the one here was so fascinating. Deciding it was a good time to probe just a little, she looked up at Cedar.
“So, what did you need to get back here for?” she asked.
“How is your history?” he asked.
Ria gave him a look. “I know my history. But I don’t think your history and mine are the same.”
“Good point. I’ll have to keep that in mind. Well then, things were in a bit of a mess when I inadvertently left. I have to fix that by collecting the pieces of a magycal artifact called the Amber Torch and return it to its place at the Crescent Temple.”
“That’s quite a tale.”
“I’d like to hear it,” she said, shifting the strap on her shoulder and looking up at him. “And we’re not doing anything else.”
He smiled widely. “No we’re not, are we? Very well. Several years ago,” he paused to collect his thoughts, “the Amber Torch was broken and the other Guardians and I were forced to go into hiding. Events transpired and I was cast away to a void between Demona and your world, where I was delayed for a time. I’m not sure for how long.” He looked around. “It was the end of winter when I was last here, and now it is the middle of spring, which means it could have been several weeks or it could have been almost a whole year. Time is strange sometimes. Now that I’m back I must find the other Guardians in order to figure out what happened and set everything straight, put everything back the way it’s supposed to be.”
Ria felt his last words physically hit her, they matched so closely to her sentiments, and she decided she might believe in fate after all. “So we’re going to find the Torch?”
“Not exactly. I have a hunch that my friends have gone to a place called D’Ohera.”
At the exact instant they both stopped. Ria choked on the bitter air and Cedar pulled a face like he had just bitten into a lemon. The air was cold though the midday sun was shining above them, and Ria felt malignant forces at work on her body, pushing and pulling at it, trying to crush it into a dense lump.
“What happened?” she said in a small voice as she stepped closer to him.
“This is Demons’ work,” Cedar said slowly. “Why don’t you give me my guitar?”
She handed it over to him immediately, clutching the red case to her chest as if it could protect her. He took the guitar and held it at his side by the neck.
The bow shimmered into being.