Excerpt from 'The Slaughter of the Butterfly Nine' WIP
THE PLACE BETWEEN PLACES AND OUTSIDE TIME.
A combined dimension of fear and awe gripped her, paralyzing her, and for moments uncounted Vogel simply stood and stared at it.
The Black Wall. A massive, rising bastion of stone that stretched out infinitely, east to west. More impressive and terrifying than anything she could have possibly imagined, it was like staring at a painting of some augmented reality, where the boundaries were skewed enough to send shivers down her spine.
The wall looked to be made of stone, or crystal, but the woman knew it was something impossible to identify, something pretending to be physical because she expected it to be physical. She looked down at her hands, turning them over and over, examining her pale skin in the strange light of this strange place. She stood on a small island of the same black stone the massive wall was made from. The woman knelt down and scratched at the stone with one fingernail. It came away easily, flaking like hardened salt. The fragments of stone that had come away beneath her fingernail glittered like stars.
The woman glanced back over her shoulder, as if expecting to see the magicked hallway she had stepped through, but of course it was no longer there. Like she had done so many times before—and still those times felt few and new—she attempted to orient herself to her surroundings.
I’m standing on a black island, she thought. The water around me is a pale orange, or perhaps a faint ochre color. Almost gold. The farther it is from me, the more golden it appears. An endless golden sea.
She paused, once again considering the might of the Black Wall. From where she stood, she couldn’t tell if the wall was keeping something in or out. The golden sea seemed to be on both sides of the wall, though behind her and away from the wall it appeared to be much darker.
The black sea, she thought. It’s connected to the gold, but far away. No, it’s not a thing of distance. It’s…
The woman took a deep breath and attempted to bring herself back to a focused meditation.
I’m standing on an island of black stone. I have my hands, my feet, and my face. I have all of me and I am whole.
She raised one arm, extending it palm out, and focused. Things learned in places far away tumbled through her mind, mental gears rotating as memories fixed together like lengths of electrical cord, galvanizing ideas and lessons learned. In the space before her hand she ignited a small, bluish-white flame. She turned her palm toward her face to find a black smudge across her skin.
Magicks work here, she thought. The few I have learned, anyway.
The woman stepped into the center of the island and focused again, looking beyond the island, beyond the wall, beyond the water. A tear opened before her, almost like a door appearing in the empty space, and she smiled.
I can leave. I am safe. The woman looked down at herself.
I’m wearing a dress. I’m wearing boots. My dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail. My name is…
My name is Vogel.
There is a sound behind her, and Vogel’s thoughts are scattered.
Six people stood where, moments ago, there had been nothing and no one. Three men and three women. The first man whose eyes she met wore striking, flamboyant clothing, his snow-white hair pulled back in strange braids. The two men behind him were giants with dark, unreadable eyes and firm expressions. The women looked as though they could all be sisters, each with a different color of hair—crimson, sky blue, mossy green.
“Well met,” said the first man. The six of them stepped forward in unison, crossing the islands.
The first man stopped, as if suddenly noticing the Black Wall.
“I thought I felt something from here,” he said. “So, it truly is a breach. Fascinating.”
A breach? The woman fixed her eyes on what had caught this group’s attention. It was so obvious that she mentally kicked herself for missing it. A fracture in the Black Wall, where golden liquid dribbled out like blood. A crack in the mighty bastion.
So, she thought. That’s why I ended up here. Is it really that interesting? There’s nothing here…unless what they want is on the other side.
“Easy, Madsgrace,” says the sister with red hair. The woman noticed then that the three bright-haired women all shared the same face.
The group looked at Vogel—no, past her—and she turned to see what they saw. There was another island not far away with two other figures sitting upon it. Vogel frowned. Why am I suddenly so daft to my surroundings?
The girl on the other island stood and cupped her hands around her mouth. “We have no hold over this place! Just passing through.”
There’s something surreal about her, thought the woman. Something wrong.
“Indeed,” answered one of the giants, and although he didn’t shout the words back, they rang out clearly. His hand wavered over a fearsome sheathed blade at his side.
The group of six made their way across the small, fragmented islands until they stood before the face of the Black Wall. As she followed, the woman noticed that only the giants carried weapons. While their leader moved with a pompous grace, the girls stepped behind him almost lackadaisically, preening off his confidence. A chill overcame the woman as she became certain that whatever power they held was beyond the physical world.
One of the giants touched the wall, fingers softly grazing the black stone. At his touch the black faded and was replaced by a swirl of color. He stepped back as if rebuffed.
“What is it?” asked the other giant.
The man shook his head. “I thought I heard something. Voices,” he said.
Madsgrace, the smaller man in the bright clothing, clapped his hands together and laughed. Vogel blushed in surprise as he turned toward her and winked.
“This is it! We’re actually here. A portion of the In-Between untouched by them. No Valent, no travelers. It’s pristine and perfect,” says Madsgrace.
Except I’m here, Vogel thought. And so are those two. And there’s already a crack in the wall. This side of it is filling with that strange golden fluid.
“Madsgrace, there are others here,” one of the sisters whispered. “Two.”
Madsgrace looked at them and shrugged.
“They’re here by accident. We can kill them if they get in our way”. He pressed his hand against the wall, color streaking out of his fingertips and swirling up and down the stone.
“We can be gods here,” he whispered. “Finally. No more running.”
The two giants pulled their weapons from their strange, ensorcelled sheathes. One sword looked like a piece of daylight ripped from the sky. The other smoked darkly in the shade of night. With a shout, one of the giants heaved his blade against the crack in the wall, splitting it more effortlessly than the woman expected, shredding chunks of stone and shards of sparkling color out into the golden water with a thunderous splash.
“We can’t just break the wall down,” said the green-haired sister. “There has to be a way around it.”
“No, this is what we’ve been looking for. See this crack here? Someone else found this place and started breaking in, but gave up. The six of us though? We can push through. This pocket void can be ours,” said the giant with the sword made of daylight.
Madsgrace smirked. “You’re right. How could I have missed that? Someone else began tearing this wall down. We’re just helping it along. Come on.”
Vogel frowned as she watched them. Something felt painfully, horribly wrong. Someone else attempted to breach the wall? No, she was certain she was the first one there. She had to be.
They began to hack violently into the breach, the three women stepping back to focus undulating, colorful magicks on the crystallized stone. While the giants’ swords loosed dust and shrapnel from the Black Wall, they didn’t seem to be seriously damaging it, and the magick alone wasn’t peeling away the enchantments. The woman wondered if mortals could even affect the workings of a place between worlds.
Vogel watched more intently as the giants ceased their dramatic attacks. Madsgrace turned to them and said something under his breath. The giants glanced at one another, each of them raising their blades. The sword bearing the light of day and the sword smoking with the dark of night met in a flash of streaming color, a bright and shadowed transposition that forced the woman to shield her eyes. When she looked again there was only one sword, massive, but as it passed from the hands of the giants to the grip of Madsgrace, its size altered to fit him. It looked like glass, but without defined edges, as if Madsgrace carried a shard of physical space plucked from the aether.
Madsgrace stared at the weapon with shining eyes, his mouth quirking into violent amusement. He turned to the stone wall and swung. Something sank in the woman’s chest as she realized that was the real weapon, an artefact of planar design with the power to break locks and make doors.
The sound of breaking stone grew louder and louder as it began to change dramatically. It no longer sounded like shards of stone breaking away, but like hands ripping paper, fists each grabbing the end of a ream and pulling it in great, wide rips. Then the sound changed again—a sickening, wet sound, like a knife hacking into meat. As Madsgrace continued to swing at the Black Wall with the pretty, terrible sword, the giants on either side of him ripped away the loose stone with their massive hands. Behind them, the three women continued to manipulate the breach with magicks the woman could barely understand and hardly see.
“He wants to help us.”
The six stopped. They looked down to see the two others, the ones who had been sitting on the far away island. The woman started, shocked. She hadn’t even seen them move.
“Good, Seph. Eight of us then,” said Madsgrace. As she watched him, the woman grew less certain that she was right to call him a man after all. He felt more like a shadow wearing the veil of a man, a roiling current of emotions that had learned how to emulate the living and hold a blade.
Madsgrace handed the strange sword off to one of the giants, who took it and continued hacking at the wall. As the weapon passed between them, it enlarged to match the giant’s size.
“What’s your name, boy?” Madsgrace asked.
The boy stayed silent, his eyes downcast. The girl who was with him on the island held his hand. She looked almost exactly like the three witches, the spellweavers.
The boy sniffed. “I don’t…I don’t remember,” he said. “I started walking, and I became lost. Now I’m here. I want to go home.”
Madsgrace pointed to the wall. “Home is on the other side of this wall, kid,” he said. The boy nodded, not quite understanding but too afraid to say anything else.
“You, woman,” he called. “Are you joining us? There should be plenty of space on the other side of this wall for each of us. Haven’t you desired the ascension to godhood? Surely you must have, otherwise you would not be here.”
Vogel stared at him. She repeated her own name over and over, suddenly terrified that she would forget herself entirely.
I should kill them. They are the antithesis of what I am. I’m here for knowledge; they are here for power. I want to be a scholar, a traveler, a storyteller. They wish to be warriors. Gods.
As Vogel thought it, she knew that she couldn’t possibly wound them, let alone kill them. She hadn’t seen enough of existence, hadn’t traveled to enough corners of planar space, hadn’t committed enough magick to memory. And, unlike them, she carried no weapon. She promised herself long ago that she would never wield one unless the moment came when there was no longer any choice. Any weapon, any answer, would have to be contained within her, supplanted in her mind.
Kill them. The voice inside her head said, louder this time, and Vogel began to wonder if it was her voice at all. Slaughter them all.
No. Looking at them, she had no doubt that they would rip her apart. Madsgrace, the man who was not a man, fixed his gaze on her, his eyes echoing her conclusion. Join us. Don’t do anything foolish.
She wondered how far they must have traveled to find a place like the one they were in now, a place that didn’t know of the places beyond, ignorant and innocent, simply existing. A place so much like where she was born.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Madsgrace said conversationally. “Don’t try it. Everything that happens here, in this place of places, is like the beating of a butterfly’s wing. The smallest breeze can become a storm.”
“You say that,” said the woman. “You say that as you’re breaking into another reality.”
Madsgrace shrugged and smiled. “Well, things happen within the realm of reason. I always get what I want,” he replied. “Besides, weren’t you here first? It must’ve been your strange resonance that brought us here. What a beacon you must be.”
The woman shook her head. “No, I—I was just…”
Madsgrace laughed and turned away from her. “I know you want to see what’s on the other side of this wall just as much as I do. That curiosity festering within you is monstrous,” he said.
The woman turned from the strangers gathered before her and touched the empty space. A tear opened before her, as if the realm of the In-Between could sense her panic. She didn’t know where it led; she had no control over that. But at least it would get her away from there.
For the briefest of moments Vogel considered staying. She considered waiting to see what lay beyond the wall. And then, hand clutching her dress near her heart, she stepped into the tear without another thought, leaving them all behind.
“Strange,” said one of the sisters, pulling down pieces of the wall without touching them. “She looked as determined as the rest of us. I almost thought she would join us. Our ninth.”
“She’ll be back,” said Madsgrace. He watched as the young boy, their newest recruit, began pulling pieces from the wall. “She’s just like us after all.”