Sweat slid from her face as she woke, the heat sticking the covers to her body and making them hard to kick off. Even without them it was thick and humid, airless, making it difficult to breathe. Little mental alarms had begun filtering their way through sleep, forcing her up, kicking the covers to the floor. The space next to her was unslept in. What the hell was he doing out there?
She rolled over off her own sweat-soggy patch of bed and closed her eyes again. Why is the heating up so high…? Sometimes, in the summer, the room took on this kind of humidity and they would both lay there through the night as the fan pushed blocks of air around the room. But it was mid-February. If he’s melting stuff again at this time of night, I’m gonna kill him…
She pushed herself upright and let her eyes adjust to the dark. A yawn wrestled its way out as she stood up. If he keeps doing this so late I’m going back to mum’s. At least I could sleep there, even with her mystic bullshit. She stumbled over bottles, piles of clothes, and take-away food detritus towards the door.
“Jake? Jake turn the damn heating down, I can’t sleep with it this hot!”
He couldn’t hear her, but she couldn’t hear his music. Headphones. Well at least he’s remembered something she’s said. Music, smoke alarms, and now heating, didn’t he understand some people needed to get up for work? Not that she did, but maybe she could if he actually came to bed before two. She coughed as she neared the door, frowning in confusion as she reached for the handle.
“Jacob? What’s going— Agh!”
As she pushed the handle down, she felt her skin blister at the heat of it, instinctively pushing it away from her even with the downward push. The door jarred open only a crack, but she felt the hot air turn hotter as it rushed past her face and out of the room. The door was torn open further, sucked out to reveal a split second of bright, rolling flames scorching towards her, black tipped as it preceded the thick, pluming smoke that tipped over the doorframe and into the ceiling above her. The wall of heat that hit her made her gasp, an empty squeak deafened by the roar around her. Flames embraced her as the ground disappeared, her body thrown back by the force.
The tangle of clothes and boxes hugged her even as they set alight, eager to be fuel, to be consumed by the hungry beast of flame that engulfed the room. Panic took her and she beat at the flames that burned her body, mindless in her pain and desperation. Oh god don’t let me die please I don’t want to die I don’t want to die cycled through her mind over and over, a thoughtless chant almost drowned out by her own screams. She could hardly feel anymore, even think anymore, the pain drowned everything out. And as her lungs tried desperately to drag in enough oxygen to fight further, her body gave in, and she fell limp, her final thought droning on as if echoing in her husk.
I don’t want to die, please don’t let me die, I don’t want to die, please
The pain washed away, replaced by a coolness that was more comforting than the stark, contrasting shock she might have expected. There was clarity in her mind, a freeing sense of peace that overwhelmed her. Was this death? Was this the end? She could feel her heart thumping in her chest, and underneath her tiny, freezing points pressed into her skin, and the heat in the room was dissipating gradually. She forced her eyes open, and found herself staring at a giant frozen wave. She lay there for a moment, staring at the icy sculpture, the jagged crystalline structures billowing up around her, filled with motion yet motionless at once. Her heart began to slow down. She found the strength in her body to push herself upright, onto her knees, and gasped as she saw the rest of the room.
The ice wasn’t a wave. The rest of the room was covered in it too, all frozen in motion as it had rushed through the room, licking at the blackened walls and helpless sheets. The sense of movement in it made it clear now that the fire had been frozen while still moving, still rampaging just seconds before. The ice was fire. Perfectly frozen in an instant, as if it had all been replaced entirely with ice sculptures perfectly resembling each flame.
Her head span, the impossibility of it all making her feel faint, her mind refusing to compute the scene before her. Ice was frozen water, how could you freeze fire? Yet drops slid down the already melting forms. Nothing made sense. She was alive, and that didn’t make sense either. She gripped the bed to pull herself up, and found herself fully capable. Her muscles didn’t ache and her skin felt unburnt. Her body began to shake, more than just with the shivering of the rapidly cooling room. So much of this was wrong. She had to get out. She needed to get out of here, somewhere normal. She wanted to go home. Suddenly, for the first time in years, she was desperate to see her parents again.
The flames had burst through the door, greedy for the oxygen inside, and the door was blocked now by the frozen spikes of fire. She tried breaking it, but the ice was too thick, and even one of the bottles smashed against it. The window was jammed shut by ice too, but they were tiny crystals that she snapped off by hand. She pulled her knees up to push herself through the window and stopped. Her knees were covered by a dress. She was wearing a dress, she hadn’t worn a dress in years! The material flowed around her, never impeding her, as if it wasn’t there. She hadn’t even noticed it. And yet, it was beautiful. A darkened emerald green with various designs stitched across it in silver.
More things that made no sense, but it wasn’t getting in the way, so it wouldn’t matter now. Pushing herself through the gap, she looked down at the roof below. It was two floors down, the drop would hurt. She could wait for the firemen, but the questions that’d follow… the ice, how she survived, and, and Jacob… She glanced back at the ice blocked doorway. Had he survived too? She went back to the doorway, craning to get a better look over the ice.
“Jacob? Jake!? Can you hear me?”
She stepped up onto one of the licks of fire to get a better look, and dropped back down with a gasp. Jacob’s body was on the sofa, face down, covered in ice. She’d heard no screams, not that’d woken her, but he was… she could see he was blackened under the icy flames stuck to his body. The shock drove its own icy spike into her chest. Why had he died, and not her? Why? She felt her strength start to wane. It couldn’t be true, this couldn’t be happening. She felt her mind drive him from her thoughts, forcing her to concentrate. She needed to get out, there was nothing she could do for Jacob. She had to keep going. She definitely couldn’t wait for the firemen. What if she was blamed? She’d impossibly lived, and he hadn’t. Would they blame her? She didn’t want to wait to find out. She sucked in a shaking breath and turned her back on him.
Squeezing into the window, gripping the frame tightly, she tried to ignore the vertigo. The roofs of London serrated the skyline, her view obscured by taller blocks of flats backlit by the light of the inner city. She lowered herself down, turning and grabbing the inner frame, looking for another hand hold. The whitewashed brick walls were sheer, the few pipes too far to reach. She closed her eyes and let go.
Feeling herself fall for a second, then two, three, she thought she’d misjudged the distance. Panic welled back up, forcing her eyes open to find something to grab onto, but the brick wall she was falling down inched along as if in slow motion. She looked down, and the roof below gently rose up to meet her.
“It’s alright, I’ve got you, don’t flail about, you’re fine!”
The voice came from above, and as her body turned in the air she caught sight of another girl, a little older than she was, standing on the roof across from her building. The other girl jumped, floating through the air towards her, and landed on the roof next to her.
“You alright? I felt you transform, but it took me a few minutes to get here.”
The girl smiled at her, reaching out to take her hand.
“You should come with me, it’s not safe here.”
“Who the hell are you?”
She took a step back. This other girl had a flashy dress too, though hers a dark purple that shone through the darkness, with small swooping plates adorning her shoulders and hips. So much had ceased to make sense, everything had gone wrong in such a short amount of time. Now some other fancy magic dress girl wanted to drag her off?
“I’m not going anywhere! Everything’s… everything’s gone insane…”
The other girl raised her hands, backing off,
“Relax, I’m here to help. My name’s Kia, and I know a lot’s happened but you need to trust me.”
She paused and they eyed each other,
“We need to go before things get any worse…”
“Get any worse!? My boyfriend is dead! His apartment is covered in flames made of ice that just minutes ago were burning me to, to death!”
A sob escaped her lips, but she grit her teeth, sucking it back down with a sharp breath.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on!”
“I… Look, we don’t have time right now!”
Kia’s smile faltered,
“You don’t understand, I know none of this makes any sense, but something much worse is coming and we can’t stay any longer! I will answer your questions, but not here, and not now! We need to leave!”
A pressure began to build in the back of her head, tugging her back towards the apartment. Or, at least, in that direction. And yet, it felt like it came from there specifically. She grimaced through it, shaking her head,
“No I, I don’t trust you. I can’t do this… I just…” She started backing away towards the building, “I just want to be left alone!”
Kia shook her head.
She said, starting to walk towards her. There was a confidence in Kia’s steps, a certainty that made her feel weak by comparison.
“We don’t have time for this.”
Kia reached her, grabbed her shoulder and in an instant she felt all strength fade from her body. She gasped at her sudden helplessness, her legs giving way only for Kia to catch her.
“I’ll explain everything, right now you just need to trust me.”
Kia bent her knees and launched herself into the air, and as she jumped gravity seemed to turn a blind eye, letting them sail unimpeded through the air towards the far rooftop. The sudden weightlessness made her feel sick, but she didn’t dare try to struggle, the thought of falling being far worse than the nauseous whirling. As they flew, the tugging at her mind increased, deeper somehow, the tether filling her head with a need to turn back. She looked back at the flats, her third floor window agape at her as she floated further up, and saw the entire building shudder.
“Damn it! I knew it, we took too long!”
She felt Kia moving ahead, but couldn’t tear her eyes from the building. Something was happening, and she needed to go back. It was a deep, internal knowing. Whatever it was, it was hers. The building seemed to be bubbling up from inside, reaching some kind of boiling point. The walls began to crack, tears in concrete chasing each other towards the ground. Was it going to collapse? Would it explode? Questions like how and why didn’t matter anymore, replaced by an instinctive survival-based need to know what was coming next.
“We’re not going to–”
The building exploded, but stopped mid-way, the parts of the building cracking apart and floating into a sphere, a shockwave washing out of the centre of the blast. She could see it coming the second before it hit them, the pure energy crackling and fizzing out like an expanding ring around the concrete planet that’d just formed. Kia turned and pulled her close, gripping her tightly,
“Don’t let go!”
The shockwave made time stand still for a moment, everything freezing in place but her mind, her body flooded with energy, sharp and cool. Reality snapped back, and the floating was gone. It took a second to register the wind against her face, the world racing by, before she finally looked up to see the concrete sphere hurtling towards her. Kia’s arm shot out ahead of them, and as her palm hit the closest chunk it cracked into tiny fragments and dispersed.
Breaking through the shell, all sense of reality was gone. Entire disembodied rooms floated out from the gradually splitting tower block, through an asteroid field of concrete and brick, the skeletal shafts of pipes and wiring spilling from their edges in random places. As Kia landed on one of the shards and put her down, perception seemed to right itself, and she saw how the dissected rooms, each its own little diorama, were like an expanding cross-section of the entire building.
“We don’t have long,”
Kia watched the apartment rooms lazily fragment,
“As they start to shift form this place will expand, so we need to act fast to save as much as possible.”
“I don’t… what’s going on?”
“This building’s collapsing out of reality. We call it a Schism. You just need to trust me, okay?”
Kia pointed up at one of the rooms,
“We’ll start there, it looks like it has a door. Mostly they tend to still be connected. We need to find a way back to where you blossomed, since that’s where it started. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“Great, then let’s go.”
Kia launched them both up towards the room, floating to the open side. Chunks of brickwork rushed through the air all around them, terracotta meteorites that shot past her face as they flew. As they rose up she could see into the room, the carved remains of the flat slowly spinning into its descent. Inside was mangled, the furnishings melting into themselves like a soaked painting. She flinched as she saw its inhabitant, a thickset man who must’ve been reaching into his fridge, now pulled into it, the door merging with his back as he leaned forward, hands braced against the edge as if he’d tried to stop himself before he melted inside.
“Try not to look,”
Kia’s voice was impassionate, removed from the situation,
“Normal people don’t standard a chance in here. They’re reality like everything else. When it collapses, so do they. Just…” They landed, the whole room listing off to the side from the weight change inside, “Just hope it was quick.”
“But, what about us? We’re not, not melting or anything…”
Kia paused, glanced to her, and shook her head,
“You’re not like them anymore. You’re not part of… all this.”
She waved her hand out at the brick storm outside the room and turned back inside, stalking towards the door,
“But it’s still dangerous. We need to be quick. We’re lucky, you know the way to the centre, so we should be able to finish this before it gets too bad.”
She pulled the door open, and instead of the whirling brickwork there was an ordinary hallway, the hallway she’d walked down so many times, as if everything were normal. The door to flat seven was across from them, so this had to be flat ten. Kia stepped through the door and gestured for her to follow. As she stepped carefully around the melting sofa, the fridge moved, the hand braced against the fridge door beginning to thrash, slapping at everything around it, legs stamping and kicking. She stopped, aghast, not knowing what to do. Kia glanced around the doorframe, and shook her head.
“It’s too late, leave him.”
“We can’t just leave him!”
She took a step towards the thrashing man, his face still buried in the half closed fridge,
“If we can help him, we could get him out of here!”
“No, you don’t understand, don’t open the–”
But her hand was already on the handle, and pulling it open, she stumbled backwards, pushing away from the machine in horror. A hand grabbed her arm and she cried out, turning to get away, but it was Kia pulling her towards the door.
“I told you, it’s too late! You can’t… untangle a person. There’s too much gone. Okay? Let’s go, please, we’re wasting time.”
She nodded, letting herself be dragged out of the door. She felt sick. His face, spread across the back of the fridge like it had been painted on, had still been moving. The shelves twitched as his face changed expressions, spitting rage, the fury etched across his features made all the worse by the madness in his eyes. Eyes that were plastered across the light at the back of the fridge, shining through the bloodshot whites and lighting them up, phantom shadows of his pupils twitching across the insides.
She clung to Kia’s arm, now. As they entered the hallway, she looked down it and, instead of the doors to flats ten and twelve along from them the hall was broken apart, the chaos of the storm outside flying past. Flat eleven’s door was smashed in half, the bits of brick spilling over it and bouncing off the walls inside, but next to it, flat eight’s door was ajar. Inside, she could see a sliver of the room, even while she could see behind the door itself was nothingness, brick shards bouncing off it in the void. Too much was wrong. She couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t take it anymore. She choked back the bile that rose in her throat.
“Hey, stay with me,”
Kia took hold of her, turning her face up to look her in the eye,
“It’s a lot right now, I know. But I need you to tell me where to go, right? I don’t know what flat you were in, or how to get there. If you want this to end, you need to keep it together, right?”
She looked up into Kia’s eyes, really looking at her for the first time. She seemed good, genuinely caring, but there was a hardness there with it. A cold concentration that kept her on track. Kept her alive, maybe. She needed Kia, she realised. It wasn’t just that this place didn’t make sense, but what she was, what she’d become, or what she needed to do to survive, none of it was what she was used to. Without Kia, she knew nothing.
“R-right. Okay. I’ll keep it together.”
She swallowed again, taking a deep breath,
“We were in number sixteen, that’s upstairs. There’s meant to be a stairwell at the end there but…”
“But it’s gone.”
Kia bit her lip,
“Are you going to be alright if you stay here? I’m going to be a minute at most, maybe, I can go faster without you. I’ll find a flat on the same floor as you and come back and get you, okay?”
She nodded, letting go of her guardian,
“I’ll be fine. I won’t move. Just… just be quick.”
Kia stepped to the edge,
“I will be.”
She said, and leapt out into the abyss. Kia floated up only to reach one of the whirling shards of brick, which slowed until she stepped on it. It exploded, sending her with intense force through the air and towards another torn flat.
Alone with her thoughts, she tried to keep the fear from her mind. She thought of Jacob, had he been the cause of all this? What had he done that might cause all this chaos? What, what had she become? These strange dresses that Kia had and that she’d found herself in, did they mean something? Could she do what Kia could? She didn’t feel like her, she still felt normal. No different from yesterday when everything was fine and everything made sense. When people weren’t melting into fridges and Jacob’s apartment wasn’t a sphere of whirling magical concrete. Kia acted like she’d done all of this before, but there’d never been anything, not on the news or internet or anything at all, about places bursting into giant balls of red brick hell…
Down the corridor behind her, the door to number seven creaked. She turned to see fingers gripping the lower edge pulling it back, other hands gripping the doorframe and flexing as they dragged whatever form was behind the door. She scrambled to the edge, looking out into the whirling void for a sign of Kia, but the flat dioramas she could see looked bare. She shouted her name but the only movement she could see were the shards of wall and slowly floating flats.
She turned back to see the thing dragging itself through the door, silent and methodical. As it got further through the door, more hands gripped the frame. Four, five, six of them strained as they dragged whatever they were attached to. Finally a black square was pulled through the opening, and as it turned itself to face her, she saw it had once been a TV. Now though, from inside the static filled screen came arms, twisted and deformed and probing for something to grab. Severed cables twisted around each other at the back, writhing and snapping at the ground, and as the arms lowered the TV to face the floor, the cables rose, sparking with electrical menace. The arms took on the role of legs, walking spider-like towards her with surprising speed, the light from the screen below casting an eerie shadow across the ground beneath it.
Panicked, she screamed for Kia again, but there was no sign of the girl. The creature advanced down the hall, the wires whipping against the walls, blocking her path back again. She was trapped. Terror clawed at her stomach, her body shaking as she stood frozen, unable to move even if there had been anywhere to go. She could jump and hope she landed on something big enough that she didn’t fall all the way, but if she didn’t… the way Kia had spoken about it, anything that got sucked in didn’t come out. She stood on the very edge of the severed hallway, gripping the jagged edge of the wall as it slowly advanced. It paused suddenly, before rearing up, four arms on the floor, the other two raised above the screen, and images flashed across the static too fast to see.
It rushed forward without warning, the lower arms scuttling along as the upper arms reached out to grab onto her. The screen pulsed with hundreds of overlaid images of teeth, from animals, from people, they all merged into a red, toothy, gaping maw within the emerging arms. She screamed, pushing herself off from the edge, grabbing onto part of the wall, trying to swing herself onto the other side of it. Being hit by a brick storm would be better than being eaten by the horror grabbing at her. She felt a hand grab her ankle as she cleared the gap, her fingers gripping the wall. More hands grabbed her legs and she screamed again, the strength of them combined too much for her to resist, and she was pulled back, her stomach hitting the edge of the floor and winding her. Even breathless, she turned over and tried to kick the monster away, or pull her leg free of their grasp, which ever came first. The flickering, static-covered jaws became clearer, the image slowly becoming crisper as the images flashed over each other. She needed to get away, she couldn’t let this happen, not now, not after all she’d been through tonight, she had to break free, she had to escape, she couldn’t die now, not like this, not like this…
Some small part of her mind ignited, instinct kicking into gear a process she’d never felt before, images and understanding of unreality, of how anything can become anything, of the potential locked within everything to become something else. Terror kept it out of her consciousness, but she felt it in her gut, and as she pulled herself up to try to slap away the hands that dragged her into the television mouth, and as her hands connected with the flesh that held her, she felt through them. Every muscle and sinew, every bone and bit of skin, she felt them and felt their potential. They were flesh now, they were strong and powerful, but if any part of them changed to something else, something weaker…
One of the arms holding her ankle grew weaker, and she kicked out, trying to shake it free. A loud snap resonated through both of them, and the arm fell lifeless, the fingers squirming in pain and surprise. Another grabbed her leg before she could pull away, but the now off-balance television tilted to one side. Her panic subsided slightly, the flight response turning slightly more to fight as she realised that somehow it had been her that had done that. She struggled, thinking of breakable materials, of brittle wood, paper, fabric, even biscuits, anything that could snap or tear or crumble. Nothing happened, and the creature dragged her closer, its strength taking advantage of her distracted concentration to pull her closer, its mouth becoming completely clear and, all of a sudden, she could feel its breath on her leg. Terror sank in once more, and she turned to grab onto the edge of the hallway floor, but she’d been dragged too far.
What had she done? What had made that other arm snap? She hadn’t done anything consciously, but she needed to do it again, now, right now. She turned back and grabbed at the arms holding her ankles, focussing on them, that they were wood, dry, brittle wood, hollow from rot and riddled with knot holes. She could see it in her mind, feel it against her skin, and imagine the weight of it as she pulled away. A sharp pain shot down her leg, boiling in intensity and making her cry out. As she looked up her foot had entered the screen, the now very real maw gripping her flesh with one of the layers of teeth that receded into its mouth. She pulled back in panic, slapping at the arms that held her, and fought to pull herself out of its grasp. Another loud snapping rang out as she broke a finger of brittle wood, then a thumb. Only bits of it had transformed, but it gave her more freedom and she wriggled further out of its grasp. Her foot burned in agony, sapping her strength and she fought to concentrate, to try to use these powers and free herself, tears stinging her eyes.
A light thump hit the carpet next to her, and she looked up to see the purple swish of Kia’s dress flash past her. She scrambled over to see as Kia reached the monster, its electrical wires rising up in defence to lash out at her, only to sputter and fall limp as they hit her. Ignoring them, the older girl slammed the heel of her palm into the plastic rim of the TV, the picture spluttering out with a start and the arms hitting the floor, severed with the reception. It fell backwards, the wires still thrashing uselessly until it hit the floor, trapping them beneath it. She plunged her fist into the screen, which didn’t break, instead rippling as she entered it, and the entire machine shuddered violently for a moment before falling still, the screen going blank. Kia pulled her hand from the screen, the black blankness coming away on her arm like pixelated mud, dripping down onto the floor as she shook it off.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I got held up, this wasn’t the only thing in here…”
Kia looked down at her, blood pooling around her bitten leg as she clutched it, shaking with pain and adrenaline, and crouched down next to her,
“I… I didn’t think there was anything in this area. I couldn’t feel anything living and normally, well, they’re the first things to start moving.”
“My foot, I, it hurts… please, can you fix it?”
She stared up at Kia,
“I just want to get out of here, I just want to go home, please…”
“I can’t fix it.”
“But you can.”
She picked up one of the severed arms on the floor next to her, holding up the semi-wooden appendages,
“You worked out some of it by yourself, which, you know, is pretty impressive.”
She gave a smile, but the mood didn’t lighten,
“If you can change flesh into wood, then you can change wood into flesh. Here, I’ll break off this finger, if you put it against the wound then you can turn it into your leg. Just concentrate, really focus, really believe that you can transform it into flesh. If you believe it enough then your power will do the rest.”
“And, if it helps, there’s no way you’re getting out of here with a gouged leg, so you don’t have much of a choice but to succeed.”
Taking the wooden finger from Kia, she grit her teeth and pushed it into the torn wound. Pain flooded her and a small sob escaped her lips, but she forced her mind through it. She needed to get out of here. She’d survived a fire, a two story drop and a monster thanks to this… this magic. She was going to get out of this. If all of this could happen, if it could really happen and this wasn’t some nightmare, then there was no reason she couldn’t heal herself. She changed the arm into wood, she could change wood into flesh. It was so simple, yet her mind rebelled. Even after all of this some part of her couldn’t accept it. And it hurt so, so much.
“It’s alright, relax.”
Kia put her hand on her shoulder,
“Come on, I’ll help. I’m going to put some of my own power into you, and it’ll make it easier.”
She took a deep breath. It did feel easier, somehow. Kia knew what she was doing. She wasn’t alone here, and when she concentrated she really could feel that power coursing through her. Was that Kia’s? It didn’t matter, she just wanted the pain to end. She imagined her ankle, good as new, good as it’s always been, how she was able to move it, how it didn’t hurt at all… it felt better, and as she watched, the picture of it in her mind overlaid with reality and she… she felt it. She could feel it somehow melting into her. The wood became soft until she could barely feel it, like it was a part of her, like it was her. The pain had faded. The wound was gone, a tiny lump showing the place the stick finger had been. She’d done it. She didn’t quite know how but she’d done it.
Kia said, looking it over,
“With practice you’ll be able to smooth that out, easy. Soon enough transforming stuff’ll be second nature, you’ll see.”
“I didn’t do it on my own, I needed your help.”
“Nah. I can’t really transmit power. That was all you.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to believe in someone else than yourself, though, right?”
She stood up and offered her hand,
“Come on. You can practice once we’re out, and we’ll have time for all the questions in the world. But I found your flat, so let’s get this over with, shall we?”
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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