My mother is sitting in the high-backed armchair, holding a steaming cup of tea and looking nervous. Her blonde hair is pulled back from her face into a messy bun, one arm pulling her blue cardigan tightly around her waist. I want to run away and find somewhere to sit and mope about Eli but my father has all but frog-marched me downstairs; ignoring my insistence that I need to get to Daisy's house.
'Will you sit down, Al? Your Dad and I have something we want to talk to you about.' She smiles but her eyes are full of tears.
Oh, help! I think desperately: they've finally decided that I'm crazy and decided I need sectioning. But then again... Maybe I do! Who's to say that I haven't been delusional this whole time; that might actually be a lot easier to handle that the idea that everything Eli's told me has been a lie and that, by my own stupid impulsivity, I might had lost him again. Because, suddenly, I'm seven years old again and Eli is telling me that he doesn't want to be my friend anymore and I'm about to die at the bloodthirsty teeth of an ancient, child-like, vampire.
I chew my lip and try to focus on my parents- if I'm about to be given an 'intervention' then I need to be ready to defend myself. My fingers instinctively stroke my phone as though there's some possible way to fight my way out of this situation with a sword's blade.
'Alice,' Dad speaks this time, his voice sounding oddly buoyant for somebody who is about to have their daughter committed, 'we've got some really great news: you're going to be a big sister!'
'I'm four months pregnant, sweetheart,' and now it seems Mum can't help herself; big tears are rolling down her cheeks but her nervousness has turned into radiant joy, 'we wanted to tell you sooner but there were some...concerns about the baby. Don't worry, it's all fine now, me and the bump are both in perfect health.'
And I just stand there, like an idiot, wishing I'd taken the chance to take a seat when I was given the opportunity because this is huge news. I can't even process it properly; I mean, I know Mum's still young enough to have more kids but I just thought that by the time I was nearly sixteen she would be ready to hang up her 'mum apron' and finally have a break. But then it dawns on me: this is because of what I wished for; this is my 'dream come true' moment.
After the disaster of my eleventh birthday party, I haven't used my cake-wish to ask for Eli to become visible, instead I'd returned to an old, pre-Eli, wish for a baby brother or sister. Of course, by last year it was more of a semi-religious gesture to make a wish rather than actually believing anything would come of it. Clearly though, for no apparent reason, the wishing poxies have chosen this year to be the time they get their act together and actually fulfil their job description.
'Well?' Dad asks, a little impatiently, 'aren't you going to say anything?'
Possibly not, I think, possibly the amount of shocking revelations I've had in the last few hours are enough to have stripped me of the power to speak forever. Instead I totter forward, on slightly unstable legs, and reach down and wrap my arms around Mum tightly. This action gives me a few seconds longer to figure out what emotion I'm meant to be presenting. Happiness: that's what I need to show them! I seize on this scrap of logical information like a starving person snatches bread out of someone's hand.
'Congratulations.' My voice sounds like a dead person's.
'We've lost her again.' Alfie's stage whisper winds it's way through the near nervous breakdown that I seem to be experiencing.
I'm at his Aunt's house, waiting for her to come back from taking an important phone call, sitting in a high-backed pink chair and trying (unsuccessfully) to be a part of the conversation going on around me.
He flicks me lightly in the ear; 'What's going on in that incredibly busy head of yours, Miss Tipton? You thinking how much you'll miss me when I'm at uni next year?'
'Shockingly no, Alfie.' I mutter, swatting his hand away, 'Isn't it odd how my life doesn't revolve around you?' My sarcasm rings so heavily that even Daisy- who's surprisingly interested in Miss Albans' photo albums- looks up sharply from a black and white portrait of a child in South America to glare at me.
'Oh, come on, Alice! Can't we have one interaction with you these days without you zoning out and then getting moody? I mean, you said you wanted to come here, no one made you, so why are you freaking out?'
'I wasn't freaking out,' I protest (this is a complete lie: of course I'm freaking out!), 'I was just thinking stuff through. I haven't told you guys yet but, turns out, my Mum's going to have a baby, so it's just a big...life adjustment to get my head around, that's all.
'Sorry for getting worked up, Alfie, that wasn't fair. And of course you know I'm going to miss you tons next year.' I reach behind me to squeeze his arm affectionately.
'Not gonna lie, Al, that's pretty exciting news,' Daisy's already dropped the photo album in order to rush over and hug me.
She's been at work today; a Saturday job at a department store and she's still in her uniform: a black pencil skirt and a pale pink blouse. The scent of fabric softener and floral perfume wafts gently from her clothes and skin and her hair is freshly washed and smells like conditioner and the sea-salt spray she uses for her curls. I can hear her heart beating steadily and the rise and fall of her breathing. Behind this, I hear the uneven, slightly laboured breaths of Alfie and smell his shower gel and the faint tang of sweat that comes from running all the way here from half a mile away where he was photographing passers-by in the market.
It's unusual for me to be so observant of the 'real world' and I am initially a little proud of myself for paying such close attention to my friends. But then I realise something is wrong; my head starts to really ache as I am suddenly aware of every sound, every scent, every colour in the house. I can hear the tick of the clock that I know is in the study, three rooms away, but as loud as though it were coming through a bass speaker, I can smell dry tea bags and milk on-the-turn in the kitchen and the pattern on my skirt is far too vivid and bright not to hurt my eyes.
I force myself to focus: I need to think like Eli. I don't even want to think about him at the moment, let alone like him. But Eli would tell me to use what I know, to make a logical guess and then to prepare myself. It's a struggle to riffle through my memory stores when I'm experiencing complete sensory overload but I feel like in noticing everything; I'm missing something important. I close my eyes and try to visualise the index pages of the 'Book of Mythical Beasts'. Even if this has nothing to do with monsters or fantastical creatures, at least it helps to tune out some of the noises and textures that are bombarding me.
Is the creature visible?
I don't know so I trace 'no' because it's a shorter list.
Is the creature capable of camouflage?
Maybe? This is so much harder than I thought it would be!
Is the creature capable of environmental manipulation?
Well, yeah, it would have to be. If that's what's causing my senses to get so messed up.
Does the creature produce an obvious sound?
Does the creature induce a feeling of dread in the encounterer?
Please see entries 600, 3009 and 12.
Now I have to try and dredge up the memory of those pages through a headache that feels like my brain is on fire. Although Eli's obsession with me reading that book cover to cover means that my whittling down process has taken only moments, I'm still worried that I'm taking too long and I'll be knocked on my arse at any second by my (as of yet) un-identified assailant. Damn it.
Entry thirteen is my favourite in the whole book.... It's the entry about Athorians. If I can picture entry thirteen then maybe I can see twelve too. I can see the listing so clearly in my mind: the tall, green, man and woman, standing back-to-back and dressed in smart, grey, uniforms; their hands resting on the shoulders of a chubby, human, child with it's thumb in it's mouth. Underneath the picture was the inscription:
Athorians- The Athorian race is amongst the highest in skill and intelligence of all of Sielo's creatures. They are recognisable by their skin and hair which is almost always in shades of green and their tall stature. Athorians are cool blooded and this blood flows deep green. They are characterised by a calm, logical and somewhat emotionally detached approach to life and it's challenges. Athorians live at the centre of Sielo; in close proximity to the palace of the Great Soul King himself. They do not require sustenance or sleep and can adapt their physical form for any environment, including under water.
The primary role of the Athorian is to protect Little Souls (see entry 5) from harm and death. In recent centuries, this has largely involved the killing of sleetches (see entry 234) as they have been harnessed by Nashi (see entry 666) to harvest the spirit of Little Souls and feed his great appetite for their energy.
Within Human mythology, the Athorian is known as the 'Bogey Man', an imaginary monster believed to hide under the beds and in the wardrobes of...
Leave it, Alice! I shake my head; it's no good reading the whole entry if I can't remember what the one next to it was. I need to clear my head a little and so I open my eyes. I almost scream in surprise when I find myself nose-to-nose with Espiri. She simply holds a finger to her lips, with a half-smile on her face, winks at me and disappears.
And all I can assume is that I've lost my mind with everything that my brain has just had to register, because what seems to be in front of me is Justice's office; the one I saw in Eli's memories. Gone is the well-furnished living room and in its place is a room of wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor opalescent glass. When I'd 'been Eli', I'd known that this stuff was called ever-glass, but to my human eyes, it's almost hypnotising. In the centre of the office is the long, oval, table that I remember with in-built, glowing, rectangles that I can only assume are some kind of computers and a tall jug of water in the middle. Out of the walls to my left, I see what looks like the kind of stock footage used in films to show time passing; you know, like when you see the skyline of a great city and it fast-forwards through several days and nights in a few moments? Well it looks just like that... Except that I know that it must be real. I'm in Sielo. Somehow I'm in Sielo.
I don't realise that I'm leaning froward in my chair until Eli steps into the room, through the solid wall, and I jerk backwards in shock. He glares directly at me and then walks straight past me to talk to Justice, who sits at the head of the table, who is looking serious and pressing buttons of her communicator.
This is weird.
'Hello?' I try to shout out but nothing comes out.
'Hello? Can you hear me?' Once again, my voice is non-existent and neither of the Athorians look up from their conversation.
This is weirder. Maybe I can see them but they can't see me? That would make sense. As much sense as any of this could possibly make, that is. I test out this theory by standing up from the armchair and walking over to Eli and then...then I summon up all my confusion, frustration and hurt and slap him hard across the face. My hand goes straight through and I totter forward, almost loosing my balance before stabilising myself.
If they can't see me then maybe the reason Espiri is letting me see this is because something important is happening. I sink back into the chair and realise that I need to pay more attention to what they're talking about and so I give my head a little shake and tune back in to the scene playing out in front of me.
'...really sure this is what you want, Eli? You know there are other options, well, one other option.' Justice seems faintly concerned (which I guess, in Athorian terms, means she's incredibly distressed.)
'Enough! It's my decision!' Once again I am floored by my friend's capacity for rage- he's actually shaking with anger.
He takes a big, shuddery breath and looks down, through the moving rainbows on the floor and into what seems to be my bedroom, directly below him. When he looks up again, Eli seems calmer and more at ease than before.
'I beg your forgiveness, that was uncalled for: it's been a long day,' He mutters by way of an apology, 'maybe we should return to the business at hand.'
'Quite.' Justice smiles at Eli but the mild worry hasn't left her eyes.
As she speaks two more green men and a woman with a dumpy teal face, step through the walls and greet one another in a formal kind of way.
'Please be seated,' Justice addresses the room in general and the other four Athorians pull out chairs, which squeak loudly on the ever-glass, 'now, as you know, the King has requested that we meet here today to discuss the situation in Sielo and, of course, within the Human Realm. Yes, General Awl?'
The older looking of the men lowers his hand in response to Justice's acknowledgement and clears his throat, 'Ma'am, might I enquire as to the unprecedented presence of a civilian in a strategy meeting?'
Everyone turns to look at Eli, who, in turn, shuffles uncomfortably in his seat and blushes.
'This is Eli Undertoe; he currently works alongside an adolescent Little Soul named Alice Tipton. She is...unusual... In that she can see things of our world and thus she is always at a high level of risk. The King asked specifically that Eli attend this meeting and although I can only speculate as to why, it is certainly not my place, or indeed yours, to question the King's wisdom.' The look that Justice fixes everyone in the room with suggests it is in their best interests never to question anything again.
I glance at Eli's face, which is as revealing as crawling into his brain to read his thoughts. He looks flushed with mixed pride and embarrassment but his eyes are still hurt and angry. How it must infuriate him: to know that the person he is most angry with in the world is the one reason that he is in a meeting of such importance. The thought pleases me more than it should do.
'Sargent Fluttersby? Would you kindly give us your report on the Southern counties?' Only now does Justice take a seat herself and turn, expectantly, to the dumpy lady on her left.
Why does everyone in Sielo have such ridiculous surnames?
'Thank you, Ma'am. I'm afraid the update I have is not a positive one, Nashi's forces are rising faster than expected. We are already at breaking point in Tengoku and Haneul and the borders of Himinn are practically indefensible. To speak frankly, I feel it is only a matter of months before his armies claim those regions of the Human Realm as their own. Naturally, we are doing everything within our power to-'
The walls are melting. I'm not sure how I missed it before, but now it is painfully obvious that ever-glass around the group is slumping downwards and rolling thickly like tar onto the floor-panels. No-one else in the party seems to have noticed, or maybe the have realised and it's simply that this kind of thing is normal in Sielo. Why isn't the floor or table melting though?
As if in answer to my question, there is an odd, clattery, sound and several creatures appear in the now-empty window frames. The 'things' could, almost, be called dogs, except that they are well over 3 meters tall and formed entirely of dirty, yellowing, bones. Large, unwieldy wings support their mockery of flight and each one wears a heavy leather collar. There are five of them in total, each one capable of ripping apart a human body in a matter of seconds. They have no eyes, only empty, gaping, sockets that seem too large for their skull. My blood runs cold in my veins as I recognise their species. Kakasbal. I remember vividly reading their entry in the book, the description had scared me so badly as a child that I'd slept clutching onto my doll in readiness to fight the demonic hounds if I had to. I also remember another fact that, if possible, makes the dread in my stomach even greater- the fact that they have collars can mean only one thing: someone is controlling them.
In the time it's taken me to process the situation the Kakasbal have drawn even closer to the huddle of Athorians and still no one seems to have seen or heard them. Even though I know it's pointless, I still try to scream a warning to Eli. I'm out of my chair again and hurling myself, sword in hand, at the beasts but, of course, I only succeed in crashing through the vision and hitting to floor with a violent 'crack' as my head bounces off the wall. Bile rises in my throat as I struggle to pull myself back into a standing position, my left temple feels like it's on fire and I gingerly run my fingers over the already present lump. My hands come back warm and wet and red. Damn it. I know how easily head wounds bleed and this is going to gush a lot more before I'm able to get to something as practical as a plaster. Giving myself a shake, I resign myself to letting the terrible scene play out before me and, still half-sitting on the wooden floor, I brace myself for the worst.
The hounds attack like lightning; sharp, fast and without apparent discrimination. General Awl is first to register the uninvited guests but he is far too late to pull out his gun and in less than a minute, two Kakasbal have torn his head from his shoulders and severed his spine once more at his waist. The thick, green blood is everywhere; spilling out over the table and even sliding out of the room, through the non- existent walls and down into King-only-knows where. I fight the urge to vomit and force myself to pay attention. The other Athorians have leapt into action now: Fluttersby discharges a pretty serious looking fire-arm into the rib-cage of the creature nearest her and Justice slams the panic button on her communicator and backs helplessly away from the largest monster who has slowed its manic run to a crawling prowl- a hunter with its prey cornered. Why doesn't she fight? Then I see her weapon, slung across her back: a crossbow; far too large to use effectively in such an enclosed space.
'Sargent Parker?' Justice's voice is still calm and clear as she addresses the previously unnamed officer.
Parker turns swiftly from the Kakasbal that he is doing battle with and fires his own gun-shaped weapon at his senior's assailant. What looks like a stream of water hits the skeleton squarely in the back of the skull. As the water makes contact, it suddenly becomes black and smoulders a hole directly through the bone to whatever lies within. The hound collapses into a heap of useless parts with an unnerving clatter.
'Thanks, Gabriel.' She mutters, more informal now that the immediate threat is diminished, 'Throw me something I can actually use?'
The young Sargent fires another shot at the legs of the beast that had been waiting, bizarrely patiently, for him to finish off that other member of its pack and then tosses the weapon to Justice who catches it effortlessly. The Kakasbal, however, seems unaffected by the loss of its right knee-cap and its earlier calm appears to have vanished. With a half bark- half scream, it launches itself at Gabriel Parker's throat. This time it is Justice who fires the deadly 'water' pistol but her aim is slightly off, the liquid skims the side of the dog's ribcage, irradiating the bone in its path and continues on into Parker's arm.
The sound that erupts from him is something akin to a wild animal's roar; it is so ear-splitting that I instinctively drop my head into my lap for a moment and attempt to smother it by wrapping my arms around my head. In the brief darkness I remember Eli and my head jerks up of its own accord; my eyes desperately seeking him out in the chaos. He's not there. Panic forces me to my feet and I run into the vision searching for the other half of me. I still can't find him but them something prompts me to look down. And there, through the ever-glass floor, I see him.
He's not in the office any more, instead Eli stands in my bedroom, talking animatedly to a young, female Athorian. It's impossible for me to tell from my bird's eye view whether or not the interaction is a positive one but I see something in the hand of the stranger that makes my pulse quicken once more. She has my soul-chain.