Kelsie was waiting beneath an overhang across from Karessa’s home.
“You look like a drowned kitten,” Karessa said.
“I lent you my umbrella.”
“I assumed. So where do we go?”
“I thought you were the mastermind here.” Kelsie crossed her arms. “Teasing. The spell is amplified by music, so where do you go around here if you want to make some noise?”
“Well shit,” Kelsie said. “We’d better get going.”
The Searchlight, located at the northern end of the Mish Mash, was an old guard outpost that had been repurposed into a dance club. It derived its name from two turrets on either end of the building, equipped with large lenses that focused torchlight into a large beam. Back then, the lights illuminated criminals in the dead of night. Today, they mostly pointed up, forming a color-changing beacon piercing the sky and saying “hey, we’re having a party, come hang!”
The magically-enhanced music thumping and bouncing from within The Searchlight meant nothing, because the music was always like that in there, but the trio of dead-eyed youths walking out into the rain without reacting told them they were in the right place. Karessa’s heart pounded in her chest. She reached for Kelsie’s hand, but she pulled away. Karessa’s heart sank.
“Come on,” Kelsie said. “Let’s go save the city.”
“City’s that way,” one of the brain-dead people said, pointing out into the Mish Mash. “‘T’hall the buildings.”
“Wait, you’re not under the spell?” Karessa asked.
“What’reyou talkin’bout?” asked another one. “Jusleft cuz that lady is freaking everyone out. Where’reyou goin’? City’s that way!”
Inside, the two found themselves in what was once a short tunnel where visitors were vetted before being let through the gate into the courtyard. Now, it had been repurposed into a bar, though with a gate on the other end to preserve that retro aesthetic. Multicolored lights strobed gently from beyond the gate as a sleepy song began. At the bar, an underpaid employee was intently filling out a crossword.
“What’s a nine-letter word for a popular thing magicians do?” they asked.
“Can you just lift the gate?” Karessa asked. “We’re in a hurry.”
“Must be if you traveled through the storm,” they said. “What’s the password?”
“There’s no password,” Karessa said. “I’ve been here before.”
“There is now,” the bartender said. “I’ll give you a hint. It’s a nine-letter word for a popular thing magicians do.”
“I don’t know, magic? Uh, rabbit magic?”
“That’s not enough letters and too many letters, respectively.”
“You’re going to way cooler magic shows than me, dude.”
Kelsie cleared her throat and glared at the bartender.
“Oh, The Claw! Ma’am, sir, I didn’t see you there. Ah. Yes, of course. Right away.” They flipped a switch from beneath the counter, and the gate opened with a rattling creak.
“If you tell anyone you saw me drenched like this, they’ll never find you, got it? I will make you disappear.”
The bartender nodded mutely as they waved the pair through. Then, when the bartender was alone once more, a thought struck them. “D-i-s-s…disappear! Nailed it.”
Inside the courtyard, which was protected from the elements via a magic barrier raised some centuries ago, it appeared they were too late. The hundred – maybe more – people in The Searchlight all stared blankly up at something Karessa could not see over the much taller crowd. They swayed in rhythm to the gentle music. It was all very dreamlike.
Then, the air itself to explode with sound, and everyone was dancing, with all their functions very much intact. Karessa was nearly knocked off her feet by the sudden surge of motion.
“Let’s split up,” she shouted, shielding herself from someone’s elbow. Kelsie complied wordlessly.
Karessa’s first thought was to get up on the scaffolding on the upper section of the courtyard, but any attempts to move too far into the club was blocked by a wall of people. Any attempts to get someone’s attention was mistaken for one of the many accidental touches of dancing, or a very purposeful, very unwanted interaction. Quickly she felt helpless, and she was getting a headache. Loud music was only fun when you weren’t trying to stop a crazy witch from sending everyone you know into a portal.
Soon, Karessa was slumped against a wall in the corner of the courtyard, sweaty and frustrated and nearly without hope. What if Teyla wasn’t even here? What if her spell was growing elsewhere, and it was too late for the rest of the Mish Mash? What if, what if, what if-
Something shifted in shadows of the corner. A humanoid figure. Karessa didn’t notice her at first because of the darkness of her dress but there was no doubting her now.
“Tillen,” Karessa breathed. Her breath was hot. Angry hot. “What are you doing here?”
“I was around when the rain started. I was at a graveyard performing Atemporal Meditation with the spirits…you probably wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I mean, what are you doing in this corner, anywhere near me? Don’t I have like, an aura of hate? An anti-Tillen field in all directions? Didn’t you feel me enter and feel the weight of all the guilt and shame and – do you feel anything? How are you looking at me like that? How are you so calm? Can’t you at least be happy? Smugly satisfied, you – you-“ For just a moment, Teyla was forgotten. For just a moment, Karessa was in Lawrence’s bedroom again. Tillen was half dressed. The club was spinning. Karessa almost collapsed. “Get away from me!”
Tillen looked almost surprised, the most expressive Karessa had ever seen her. It passed quickly, though, and the elf folded her arms. “Why do you care?” she asked. “About him?”
“What…what do you mean? He was my boyfriend.”
“And now? He’s nothing. He’s dirt. He’s less than dirt. Dirt at least houses the dead.”
“I know he is, but…but…” Karessa felt a welling within her. She tried to fight it. “But I love him,” she squeaked. She closed her watery eyes tightly. “Please just…leave me alone.”
“What about me?” Tillen asked.
Now Karessa was angry again. The tears scalded her cheeks as they ran down her face. “What about you? What about you? You did this. He did this, but you, you also did this.”
“So did you!” Tillen yelled. She actually yelled. Karessa didn’t know she could do that. “He only started dating you after we started…and, I know it was just a casual thing, but, he told me you were just a fling, too. It was only that day, that day that you found us, that I suspected he was lying. He told you he was running away with you? He told me we were going to save Skymoore from itself. He’s nothing, Karessa.
Both girls let their eyes drift to the floor. Despite the music, a silence hung between them.
“Sorry,” Karessa mumbled loudly.
“Sorry,” Tillen agreed.
Karessa jumped as a hand grasped her shoulder. “Therapy session all done?” Kelsie asked.
“Sorry, Kelsie, I-”
“Don’t care. Hey creepy elfie, you seen an avayla around here that gives you a run for your money?”
Tillen, having returned to her stoic self, pointed wordlessly up at the scaffolding above. Across the courtyard, a hooded figure was tinkering with two black rectangles embedded with glowing crystals.
“Karessa?” Kelsie asked. “Why do you look like you’ve seen something especially scary on this night that has been exclusively horrifying?”
“Those box things. Nestor made them. They make sound louder. Like, a lot louder. We have to stop her. But how do we get up there?”
“Same way we got in,” Kelsie said. “Stay close.”
The wall of bodies that had blocked Karessa’s way parted immediately for Kelsie. For just a moment, she looked at Karessa and grinned like someone who was one-hundred-percent, definitely showing off. But then it was back to business. On either side of the wooden platform where Teyla was preparing was a ramp. Kelsie pointed each of these out to Karessa, who nodded.
The crowds were much thinner on this upper level, and it was easy to weave her way to the center of the stage, where Teyla had put the finishing touch on her sound amplifiers. She was in the middle of drawing her rune on the stone ramparts when Karessa made herself known.
Teyla stopped her drawing to address the halfling. “Glad to see you’re alive, Plunderton, truly,” she said. “But you’re too late. My spell is already expanding through most of the Mish Mash as we speak. This is merely the finishing touch.”
Behind Teyla, Kelsie was making her way through the crowd cautiously. Karessa met her gaze for a moment, but did not acknowledge her.
“Let me be,” Teyla went on, “let us all be. They’re safer where they’re heading.”
“And where are they heading, Teyla?”
“You’re just spouting nonsense! Where is mother?”
“Where it’s safe.”
“Skymoore is safe!”
Teyla shook her head and went back to her drawing. “I don’t have time to debate, Karessa. Leave, before I hurt you.” Then she cried out as Kelsie tackled her into the wall, sending her chalk rolling off the scaffolding. Kelsie tossed Teyla to the ground and pinned her there.
“Everyone!” Karessa shouted so loudly it hurt. Only a few people looked her way. “You have to-” A tendril of darkness wrapped around Karessa’s leg, and Teyla yanked her onto the ground.
Kelsie pinned her other arm. Teyla kneed Kelsie in the stomach and wriggled free, but only or a moment. As the two wrestled for dominance, Karessa rose to her feet.
“Please, everyone, listen!” Karessa said.
Teyla closed a fist. “Quiet, fool.”
“It’s not safe here,” Karessa continued. Or, tried to. She made the movements. She strained her voice. But no sound emerged. In desperation, Karessa did the only thing she could think of and threw herself against the record player from which the music was projected. It inched closer to the edge. Those closest to the stage staggered back and pointed, urging everyone else to do the same. Teyla thrashed around in frustration as Karessa threw herself at it again. The machine splintered and shattered against the fortress floor. Silence fell.
Teyla screamed, and Kelsie put a hand over her mouth. “Quiet, fool.”
Karessa grabbed the avayla’s hands and held them tight as Kelsie patted her down. “Where is it?” she asked.
Teyla glared furiously.
“The solution to undo the spell,” Karessa said, or tried to. She was still silenced.
“The solution to undo the spell,” Kelsie said.
She let Teyla speak. “There isn’t one,” she said triumphantly. “I had no intention of stopping this spell, so there wasn’t any need.”
Kelsie clamped her hand over Teyla’s mouth again. “Fine by me.” With a quick swipe of her claw, Kelsie found herself in possession of a few drops of Teyla’s blood. The cut on Teyla’s arm quickly blackened, and blood lifted off her arm like wisps of mist. Then the rest of Teyla followed suit, and she reformed a few feet away from her attackers, and ran.
“I stole some chemicals from her place, so I can make a solution,” Kelsie said. “And I know where one of those runes is. I’ll take care of the spell, you just make sure she doesn’t get away with this.”
Teyla was already gliding above the confused crowd, wings outstretched. but Karessa was faster, and she didn’t get very far outside The Searchlight before Karessa was upon her. She wrapped her arms around Teyla.
“You got what you wanted, you ignorant pest. Leave me alone!”
“Bring them back,” Karessa said. “Bring everyone back.”
“Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Mother wouldn’t like that very much.”
“Your mom’s dead, Teyla, what are you-”
Tendrils sprouted from the ground behind Karessa and yanked her off of Teyla. The ground split just then, a side effect of the storm, and the rest of the street was pulled several feet away from them. Karessa yanked the tendrils out of the ground like shallow weeds, and grabbed Teyla’s legs just as she began to fly across.
Teyla grunted and waved her hand at Karessa’s arms, causing them to go limp and numb for just a moment, long enough for the avayla to make it to the other side of the street. With a running start, Karessa made a daring leap to pursue, but a jet of purple energy slammed into her stomach, knocking her onto her back.
When Karessa got to her feet, larger, thicker tendrils reached out and held her spread-eagle where she stood.
The storm subsided.
“Why are you trying to stop me?” Teyla asked. “Mother…she’ll take your pain away. She’ll take everyone’s pain away.”
“That sounds a lot like she’s going to kill us,” Karessa said.
“No, it’s…you haven’t been near her. Haven’t felt her presence. That’s what this song is is…if only you could hear it. Everyone is feeling mother’s warmth. You could feel it, too, if you just give in. Isn’t that what you wanted? Don’t you want the pain to go away?”
Karessa avoided Teyla’s pointed gaze. “Not like this. Not with…portals and magic and mind control. I just want to feel better.”
“And you will! Like I do. What are you fighting for, anyway? What’s keeping you in Skymoore? A boring job? A cheating boyfriend? An absent father? An unwell mother? Name one thing this city has that makes life worth living.”
Karessa’s head fell. She slumped in her restraints. “I can’t.”
“No,” Teyla said. “I didn’t think so.” The street they were on snapped back into place, positioning the two of them face-to-face. From here, Karessa could see what she wanted to see. Teyla’s eyes were heavy. She was fatigued. “Now then, are you ready to stop all this pointless fighting? Are you ready to meet mother?”
Karessa nodded hopelessly.
“Come along then.” The tendrils released Karessa as she and Teyla were consumed by inky purple darkness. Karessa’s stomach churned, the darkness cleared, and they were standing in Premonition Park, just before the portal.
It was raining again. There must’ve been a hundred people at the park now, marching in time with the symphony toward who-knows-where. Beside Karessa, Teyla stood staring into the void, her breathing heavy, shoulders slumped.
“Ready to go?” she asked.
“Not in a thousand years,” Karessa said, taking Teyla by the robes and shoving her toward the portal with all her might. Sure enough, Teyla lost her footing entirely and toppled into the endless dark, but she quickly righted herself and began to flap her wings in a steady rhythm.
“Not eager to see mommy, huh?” Karessa asked. “Why? Not all you’ve talked it up to be?”
“Mother said it isn’t time yet. And I’m an obedient daughter. Not a deceptive, petulant rat.”
The final venomous syllable was punctuated with the sudden absence of one of the many purple streams leading into the void. Just flickered out without a sound. Gone. One by one, the rest of them followed suit. The orchestra’s music returned to normal, and then stopped.
Karessa exhaled in relief. Kelsie had done it.
And then, another townsfolk fell into the portal.
“What?” Karessa asked. “No, stop! Everyone stop! Why aren’t they stopping?”
Teyla chuckled. “Congratulations, Karessa. You’ve stopped the spell from spreading and saved everyone not currently under its effects. Those fortunate enough to have heard its song, however…” She made a sweeping gesture indicating the scores of people marching toward them “…they’ll be out of it for at least another couple hours.”
Karessa grit her teeth. “You – you! I’ll-”
“I’d control my temper if I were you. Looks like you’ve got more pressing issues than vengeance.”
Hard, forceful hands shoved Karessa suddenly aside, knocking her off her feet. They belonged to Dingleob Boelgind, who walked directly passed Karessa, right into the portal. “Mr. Boelgind! No! No. No no no.”
Karessa knew it before she saw it. Wandering mindlessly through Premonition Park toward the portal was Alice Plunderton.
“Mom, no!” Karessa cried uselessly as she shoved against her. “Please. Mom, please you have to snap out of this.” She pulled, she blocked, she even knocked her mother over, but nothing stopped Alice’s determined journey toward the portal.
Karessa wanted to slump against a tree and cry. To give up. To follow Teyla’s advice and find out what lay beyond the darkness. The day had been so relentlessly unfair, and it only seemed to get worse every second. She wanted to be the child she should have been. To give up. To let an adult handle it. To let her mother comfort her.
She couldn’t do any of that. She had to act.
But act how?