Chapter Twenty-Seven: A second telling, and one where the medium-sized girl paid a little more attention to Calle’s monologuing and a little less attention to the Cabal’s attempts to conduct major deconstructive surgery on her person.
The children are still in the garden, still staring at the strange flowers. The formerly medium-sized girl just asked Rain what he thought they were. He, however, was less curious about the flowers than he was about the relatively destroyed cottage and mostly abandoned front lawn.
“I think these are the flowers the color of may,” Rain said. “Please, tell me. What happened?”
Asina frowned, thinking. She wasn’t quite sure she was able to answer the question. As he wanted it answered, anyway. But no, it was there. It was all there, somewhere. She just needed to look a little more. That, and she was so very, very tired of not knowing what was going on. Yes, she just needed to look a little harder. That was it.
Asina turned around, walked back to the front of the destroyed cottage. She watched the shadows, sifted through their pasts. And this is the story she cobbled together for Rain.
It was dark, again, and loud, and bright, and—
“Yes, we know, the world is an uncomfortable place. You don’t need to set the scene, I was there, too.”
“Fine. It was what it was, and then they tossed you into the cottage.”
Asina closed her eyes and cast back with her own mind, using what she’d seen in the shadows as a map to her own memories. She let herself go back, back to the “there” of those pre-dawn moments. Marie and Visao were holding her, again. Her arm had just been cut. Calle was still standing. And she could see none of it, busy as she was trying to keep her eyes shut as tight as possible.
“Locked the boy in the cottage, Calle,” the words, sharp and small, cut through the air. The medium-sized girl tried to plug her ears, but her arms were being held too tight.
“Very good. Is the ol’ missus still stuck under the tree?”
“Yes, and it’s still weird as ever. You ever seen anything like that?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Calle murmured. “Though, she is a witch. I’m sure all sorts of things have happened in that house that I’ve never seen. Just hope it’s not contagious.” There was grating laughter. It was interrupted by an impatient “harumph.”
“We found her, Calle,” the harumph-er interjected, “and brought her here, like you said. Now, send us back.” It was the low, tinkling voice of one of the ex-stars.
“We will, Chaska,” Calle said. The medium-sized girl decided she hated this voice the very most. “But not yet. And you knew that already, so don’t bother with any melodrama. Yes, we made a deal, yes, I know you want me to deliver on my end now but no, I can’t yet, and yes, I will. Do you believe me?” There was a beat, then a sigh.
“Good. I’m no liar and I’m no cheat. But mostly, I have no time for people who believe otherwise. The Cabal will send you back to the heavens when we are able.”
“Which is when?”
“You know when.”
“In the abstract, yes. But I would like something a little more particular. Let’s call it a timeline.” There was another sigh. It was the slimiest, most horrid thing the medium-sized girl had ever heard.
“We can send you back once we get into that cave.”
“And when will you be doing that? Specifically?” Another horrid sigh.
“As soon as we can walk there, impatient star. Let’s say one day, more or less.” There was a surprised silence, then whispers. The medium-sized girl forgot she was supposed to be squeezing her eyes shut, for a moment, and accidentally let some of the silvery light of the ex-stars seep through her distracted lashes. She huffed, irritated, and quickly closed her eyelids as tight as she possibly could. And then she huffed some more. Because, apparently, even her completely closed eyes let in a little light. Red light, of all things, which she thought was exceedingly strange.
“But,” Chaska began, “but then, you’ve already found the second half of time?”
“Yes. The second half didn’t come out with legs. Much easier to find.”
The medium-sized girl opened her eyes, very much wanting to see the second half of time. A muted darkness surrounded her, backlit by the glow of the volcano and a waking sun, yawning and stretching just below the horizon. The people stood as silhouettes in front of her, as did several twinkling ex-stars. The medium-sized girl couldn’t see the obsidian cottage—it must have been at her back—and she could feel more than see the people holding her arms. She noticed that her arm was no longer leaking smoke, which was probably a good thing. It hadn’t hurt, she didn’t think. Hadn’t hurt like when her mother had sung the necklace into her chest, anyway. No, what Calle had done hadn’t felt like that. It had felt like everything, all at once. When he had cut her, what felt like a world’s worth of memories had shuttered through her mind. Faces, places, sounds, all screaming, all demanding her attention, all clinging to her, begging. For what, she did not know. So, no, not pain, necessarily. Just as involved, though.
“What cave?” The medium-sized girl asked, trying to focus on Calle. She mostly succeeded. A few of his faces swam in and out of her vision, and she was pretty sure at least one of them was his present visage.
“Oh? It speaks?” Calle asked, his silhouette expanding as he took a step towards her. “I really couldn’t be sure, if I’m being totally honest. I don’t suppose you could tell me what you are? Or how you came to possess half of dear old Peter’s heart?”
The medium-sized girl stared at him, studying his life’s line. It ran through him, bright and sharp, and overlapped with the lines of the lives surrounding him. The further the line got from his body, the more entangled it became with the lives surrounding him. She wondered how difficult it would be to push him along his line. She’d done it several times with rocks and trees, but only once with another person. The woman in the water, floating and still. Pushing her backwards had been simple enough.
“I’m my mother’s daughter,” the medium-sized girl said. “I’m myself, of course. I am Rain’s friend. Hadal said I could be her little sister, if I wanted.” The medium-sized girl strained, trying to make sense of Calle’s future selves. Some of them looked very stabby.
“What?” Calle asked, his brow knitting over his scarred eyes. The medium-sized girl frowned as well, confused by his confusion.
“You said ‘I don’t suppose you could tell me what you are?’” The medium-sized girl replied. “But I can, so I did. Is that not what you wanted?”
“I—okay,” he said, running a finger along the blade he’d used to cut her arm with. It wasn’t much longer than his hand, and no wider than two or three of his fingers. “Can’t tell if you’re trying to be funny or if you’re just ‘funny.’ Either way. I’m going to need that heart.” He took a step closer. “I’d say you could keep it, but last time we left it on legs you ran around the world for a few months.”
“What cave?” The medium-sized girl asked again, squinting, watching as Calle’s shadows lengthened, as they twisted along his line and grew into versions of himself. One broke off from the rest, solid as smoke, and rushed towards her. She flinched as this Calle stabbed her, again and again. But this Calle was not the current Calle, and lacked a certain something. That something being structural integrity. None of the blows landed. And then, current Calle’s words registered.
“Last time? Who is ‘we?’” She asked, “But… is OTC with you? Are you Chemie?” But she was shaking her head. He’d already introduced himself as Calle, after all. She flinched again as another shadow rushed her.
“No, thank goodness,” Calle said, laughing, twirling the knife through his fingers, “though I am eternally grateful to the poor boy. Who is OTC?”
“The creature who disappeared my mother.” She didn’t flinch this time. She looked the shadow in the face, wanting to see past it. The shadow faltered, for just a moment. And then some more stabbing. She tried to keep her eyes open, tried to see what came after. There was something there.
“What? Oh, do you mean Tristan?” Calle laughed even harder. “No, he’s not with us, either. As far as he knows, anyway. We did use him a little, once we figured out that that witch had given them the silly journal. Well, not silly. Infuriating, more like.” He sighed. “I would’ve been more wrathful. But, considering her present circumstances, I didn’t see the point. Can’t think up a worse fate than the one she’s already got.”
“The hag? The one with the flowers the children were looking for?” Chaska asked. The medium-sized girl slipped into the Butterfly’s Song, just for a moment. The lines were here, too, if a bit muted. They were less busy, in the Butterfly’s Song, and weren’t crawling with the shadows of peoples’ pasts and futures. She stood there, in the grey, quiet world, thinking, resting. Glad for the momentary break from shadow stabbing. It was nice. But then, she let herself fall back into the noise. Calle looked around, brow raised.
“Not very stable, are you, little heart?”
“Why was the journal infuriating?” One of the ex-stars asked, curious as well. The medium-sized girl nodded along, going a little cross-eyed in her attempts to keep track of all of Calle’s faces.
“Because, Chaska,” Calle said, his sightless eyes staring the ex-star up and down, “up until six months ago, there was only one known way to detect Tears in creation. The cost was high, and the price was blood.” Calle traced a finger along the knotted scars covering his eyes. The medium-sized girl did not put two and two together, distracted as she was by her getting-violently-knifed loop.
“None of us were terribly thrilled to learn that there’d been another way, all along.” Marie, Visao, and Saul all made sounds in their throats, deep and dark. The medium-sized girl decided that Calle was right—they didn’t sound terribly thrilled. Not at all.
“What other way?” Another of the ex-stars asked. The medium-sized girl was beginning to develop a love-hate relationship with their curiosity. Their voices were grating, but they were giving her more time. And Calle’s line was doing something very strange, the closer it got to her, and she wanted to know why. Knowing could be useful, after all, and she was beginning to think that Calle taking “that heart”—whatever that was—was a less than optimal outcome.
“Damned if I know, Tilla. Not everybody can see Tears, and even fewer can journey through them. But Chemie could, and did. Who knows what that witch told him, what he read,” Calle paused, took a slow breath. He pinched the bridge of his nose. He returned to his tale.
“We had him followed. One of our people returned to the city with him. Rode the same train. Rifled through his stuff during one of his many bathroom breaks—the man stays well hydrated, I’ll give him that—found the journal, made some copies. I recognized the book almost immediately from its photos.” Calle glanced over the medium-sized girl, his eyes resting on the obsidian cottage behind her. “She’d just begun her initiation, when I first met her. I’ve been watching her scribble in that notebook for ten years. Never bothered to ask what she was scribbling, though. I thought she was a poet. Thought it was her book of poems. I still have no idea how she knows what she knows, or why she played the double agent. If that’s what she was even doing. She’s a little batty, if I’m being honest, and there’s really no telling what conspiracies she may have thought up.” Years later, the medium-sized girl would remember this as the first time she’d encountered “irony.”
“What did she think up? What’s in the book, Calle?” So many ex-stars spoke at once, and over one another, that the medium-sized girl couldn’t be sure if that was exactly what they said. Regardless, she thought it was a fair enough composite.
Calle tossed the knife from hand to hand before returning his attention to the ex-stars. “Chemie had learned from the journal where Peter had torn through creation. Had discovered the locations to the pieces of Peter’s heart, though I still have no idea how he or Tristan managed to actually travel through them. The Cabal already knew where the last one was, and was close to finding the first. But we hadn’t quite managed it.” Calle shrugged. “It didn’t end up mattering. Chemie had found another way and meant to take it. Based off of our limited experience outside of time, we knew it would be much easier to let them do the leg work and simply rob them once they returned to the here and now. If you’ll excuse the candor.”
“Of course,” Chaska said.
“Thank you,” Calle replied, inclining his head towards the ex-star. “When we lost track of Chemie, we approached Tristan. Suggested that the world might not make it, if he didn’t carry on. That Chemie would be fine, after all—he’d apparently gone into some sort of trance—and that he had wanted Tristan to go on with the mission. There’s a really good chance I was impersonating a Leaguer, at the time. Gave the boy one of these daggers, told him of the violence of atemporal constructs. Warned him not to let himself get distracted by what he saw, once he stepped through the Tear. Told him that none of it was real. Nothing except the half of all of time he had been tasked with retrieving.”
Calle stalked forward. The medium-sized girl backed as far away as the creatures holding her in place would allow. Rainwater streamed down her brow and into her eyes, blurring an already blurry world. She tried to blink it all away. It didn’t work.
“I thought Tristan would be easier to ambush, on the way out. But then, he didn’t come out where he’d gone in. Who’d have thought? But, no bother. I knew where he was going, and I knew a constellation of fallen stars who’d be more than up to the task of scouring a mountain for a little girl. Thank you for that, by the way.”
“Of course,” chorused the ex-stars, loud and sharp. The medium-sized girl tried to cover her ears, but the creatures wouldn’t let go of her arms. She told herself to calm down. To focus. That’s what Hadal had told her, when she’d complained about the colors under the sea. Calm down, and focus. For the umpteenth time, she turned her attention to the lines. They were more stable than the creatures attached to them, and didn’t waver or fuzz. They wove around each other in tight, neat patterns, heavily entangled in some places, sharply parallel, in others.
Calle towered over the medium-sized girl, blocking out the dawn’s watery light.
“And now, I really will be needing that heart. Look away, Chaska, if you don’t want to see.”
“What—oh, right. Oh, no, no, Calle, no—“
“Right. Right. Okay.” The ex-stars all shuffled about until their gleaming backs faced Calle and the medium-sized girl. She wasn’t paying them much attention, though, busy as she was studying Calle’s many faces. Some of them were distressingly close and more than demanded her attention. And—
He stabbed her in the chest. And she had been wrong. This definitely hurt.
Screams ripped through her bones. They weren’t hers. They shrieked and writhed, gripped her entire body, begged, plead with her. Protect, they screeched, protect us. Memories flooded her vision. Memories of lives past, of lives to come, of pain, of love, of loss, of everyday living. All of everything grasped at her every shred of awareness and split her into a thousand different places.
But no. She was only there. Her, and Calle. She blinked, relegated the sensory overload to some other version of herself. It was only her, and Calle. She focused on the man, and everything else fell away.
“Wait… you mean… you did that?” Rain asked, staring at the heap that was a much dehydrated version of Calle.
“…Yes?” Asina replied, feeling a little uncomfortable. She peeked under her shirt, curious. There was no knife mark, though. Only the scars from the necklace.
“Children? Are you coming? Your siblings are still out there.” They wheeled around, both equally surprised to see that the woman had come back. She had changed into a brown smock and white gloves. She carried a large, obsidian basket, full of the flowers from her garden. She didn’t wait for them to respond. She turned on her heel and set a quick pace down the mountain.
Rain took Asina’s hand and they both stepped forward, quickly, neither really wanting to lose another mother figure.