The thunder of a thousand concussive rounds impacting stone rattled the bones of the Earth, and still the screaming metal sound of the cannons wouldn’t cease.

“Fuck!” screamed Lesedi. She was trying to run, trying to get out from under the baleful onslaught of the airships, but the shaking of the world made her lurch around like a drunkard. The weight in her backpack didn’t help; shifting dramatically to whatever side she leaned towards, pulling her further off her center of gravity. Chunks of asphalt with twisted rebar skeletons stood askew, like a mountain range in miniature, with the valleys winding between full of rivers of broken glass or pieces of what was once a whole person. A greasy fog of smoke hung over the land, blotting out vision and burning Lesedi’s lungs.

Mounting another heap of rubble, Lesedi dashed to the steel frame of a rotting building, jumping over moaning figures and sliding successfully under a protective overhang. She sidled up against the red I-beam, and tore the handkerchief from her face, gasping for breath.

A moment later, another figure—a scrawny teen dressed in oversized clothes and sporting a haggard gas mask—broke through the fog and came to rest next to her.

“Who the hell thought this would make a good story?” Lesedi yelled. A fresh barrage of purple lasers blasted into the corpse of the city, birthing rippling green fires in their wake.

“You keep saying that,” gasped the teen. He removed his gas mask and leaned his head against the short wall of brick he was resting against. His breathing was labored, and his eyes scanned the skies in a nervous vigil. “Why?”

“It’s cause it’s…” Lesedi screwed her lips shut, then buried her face in her hands. “Nevermind.”

“Keep goin on like that and I’ll believe you’re just as loony as the others.” The teen boy dug around in his jacket, and from an inner pocket pulled out a canteen. After wetting his tongue, he poured some water in his hand and rubbed it on his face, then offered it to her. “Here. This will help.”

“I’m fine.”

“Yeah, for now. The ash from all of this will mix with your sweat and turn acidic, and in no time, you’ll end up feeling like your face is burning off.” He smiled gently and shook the canteen. “Go on.”

Lesedi took the canteen and emulated the teen. A mouthful of water, and a splash on the face, and she handed the water back to the boy.

“Thanks,” she conceded. He nodded, but said nothing while he tucked his canteen back into his pocket. The bombardment was slowing, at least in the area near them. It seemed that the airships were growing tired of laying to waste ruins and rubble.

“They’ll be back,” the teen said, seeming to read her mind. “They go away near dark, but they’ll be back with the Sun.” He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. “Speaking of which, we should follow suit.” He got to his feet with a grunt and patted away the dust that covered his pants. Then he turned and held a hand out to Lesedi.

“Why should we hide?” She ignored his hand and got to her feet on her own, groaning and stretching and relishing the feel of blood rushing back to her fatigued limbs.

He nodded to the obliterated earth. “If the things that do this are afraid of the dark, seems wise to assume we should be too.” He turned and walked out from under the overhang, his eyes darting from the ruined ground to the hidden heavens. A fluid motion saw his gas mask reattached. A few dozen feet out, he turned to Lesedi. “Come on. I’ll show you where we hide.”

“We?”

“The fighters, the farmers, the people. The ones trying to get away from this.”

Lesedi pulled her jacket tighter around her, and tied the handkerchief around her face.

“Thanks, but I can’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t go with you. I’ve… I’ve got somewhere else I need to be.” Without thinking she shifted to hide her backpack from the teen’s view. The boy turned to face her, and looked about to protest, but his hands fell limp at his side and he only shook his head.

“Alright. I guess I should say, ‘Good luck’, but-“

“You wouldn’t mean it.”

The teen nodded. “Yeah. I guess that’s right.” A wind blew over the face of the world, thinning the fog and bringing the destruction and green fires into unpleasant clarity. “Well…” He looked like he was trying to think of something to say, but ended up giving her a wave, before turning away and walking to whatever sanctuary awaited him amidst the ruins.

Lesedi watched after him until the acrid fog swallowed him up. And then it was her turn to walk away into the ruins.

The smoke burned her eyes, and the thin covering of the handkerchief did little to keep her lungs from experiencing the same. There were still explosions off in the distance, and the rumble of the sky ship’s engines continued to vibrate the air, but the silence that was settling over the world was snuffing them out, little by little. Up and down, up and down, up and down heaps of rubble and stepping over the desecrated remains of men and women and children, Lesedi wandered through the battlefield, straight into the coming darkness.

As night settled, and it became harder and harder for her to see, the voices resurfaced and the figures on the edges of her vision—her escorts from Gespar, she supposed—blinked in and out of view.

“You… have it?” whispered one of the shapes. Lesedi shivered, and pulled her jacket tighter around her. She nodded. “You’re sure it’s the right one?” The shadows giggled, flickering in hellish lights and fiendish shapes. “It would be a shame if it were the wrong one.”

“Like last time, remember? Like last time?”, “How could she forget?”, “We won’t let her forget.”, “Remember, remember.”, “She’s lost.”

“Yes!” she shouted pressing her hands to her ears. She looked into the dark around her, trying to focus on one of the beings, one of the shapes, but they all moved to avoid her line of sight. “Yes, I’m sure it’s the right one. Hell, do you know what I did to get it? Yes, I’m sure!”

“Show us, show us, show us!”

The shadows were tightening, giggling, prodding her with their pleading. She could feel their slick auras passing over her, around her, and somewhere in the far back of her mind, she heard glass cracking.

“Fine!” She tugged off her backpack and ripped it open. Plunging her hand inside, she grabbed a handful of hair and pulled it free, dropping the backpack to the ground. “Here! Here it is! See it? Are you happy? Huh? Are you fucking happy?” The woman’s head still oozed blood, and the loose jaw flapped around with every jerking motion she made. The voices hissed one last time, and then disappeared, leaving her alone in the darkened ruins holding the head of the woman she’d decapitated.

Lesedi sniffed and sank back to the ground, replacing the head inside her backpack, and muttering irritated nothings to herself. A sigh—an escaping bubble of trapped air, she reminded herself—issued from the mouth of the woman’s head, sounding almost as exasperated as Lesedi was with the whole affair.

“Don’t I know it,” she grumbled, and zipped the backpack shut. From one of the side pockets, she pulled out a small wristwatch with a cracking plastic band. It was the watch she’d won in the Spring Read-athon that the library held. The face plate showed a small stack of colourful books, with the words “Time to Read” in bright yellow surrounding the tiny digital display. The word “ALMOST” flashed on the display.

“Finally,” she sighed and tucked the watch back into the pocket. The door would open soon, and she could get out of this nightmare of a story. “Out of this nightmare and into…” She laughed. “And into a worse one.”

It was true. Gespar was waiting back in the library, back in the stacks where he’d sent her; sent her to find this story, sent her to enter into it, to crack the spine and riffle through the pages until it surrounded her and pulled her into its world.

“Is this necessary?” she remembered asking. After getting free of the aisles, she wasn’t keen on returning so soon. Gespar had laughed and insisted.

“It is the only way. I need these three things, these… items, if I am to even begin to shield your feeble sanity from the transportation to the exit. So go to the aisles, go to these books and retrieve what I’ve instructed. Once they are in your possession, I will open a portal, a… doorway for you to return here, to me.”

“And then, it’s off to the next one, right?”

He laughed, and the world shuddered, and she felt something in her curdle. Gespar seemed to sense her doubt, and reminded her of why she was doing this, of why she’d sought his help in the first place.

As she turned to walk into the stacks, she turned back to him, the lens still pressed against her eye.

“And how will you know when I’ve gotten what you’ve asked for? How do I know you won’t just abandon me?”

“Because I desire the world you’re from, tiny one. And don’t fret… I have my ways of keeping an eye on you…” With that he was gone, and Lesedi walked to the aisles to seek out the first book, and with it, the head of the heroine of the book.

Lesedi patted the backpack, and sniffed. The girl had put up a good fight, and certainly there would have been no way Lesedi would have survived that encounter, except for that she entered the story at the beginning. Lesedi avoided all of the character building, all of the training and the trials that would have eventually made the short haired girl formidable. She’d gone back before all of that and killed the girl in her home, while she was reading in her room; her mother had been downstairs baking cookies.

Escaping was a different challenge entirely, but telling enough lies and understanding the limits of these character’s arcs helped ensure that she made it out of the city and into the wilds of this dangerous land. And now, sitting alone on a heap of rubble, surrounded by acrid smoke and an encroaching darkness that seemed to possess a mass and intellect, Lesedi waited for the door to open.

“Any minute now,” she hummed, and slipped on the backpack. She got to her feet and flexed her fingers. “Any freaking minute.” Pieces of rubble and hunks of debris, far to the side of her, shifted in the shadows, trickling gravel down the slopes of the obliterated roads, like apocalyptic wind chimes. She edged away from the noise, her eyes wide and her breath quickening.

“C’mon,” she hissed. She scrambled to snatch the watch from her backpack, and pressed the tiny button on the top right side to illuminate the display.

ALMOST

“Fuck.”

The shifting of debris was soon accompanied by the moans of things—people, or demons, or some mix of the two, she didn’t know—shambling about.

“I have monsters enough of my own,” she muttered and looked at the dial again. It was still ALMOST time. “Yerrrrrr. Hurry up, moeki!” Behind her a large piece of asphalt crumbled and cracked like thunder, and Lesedi let out a squeal. The moans around her were getting louder now; their numbers increasing and the volume rising and rising.

“Gespar!” Lesedi yelled. “Get me the fuck out of here!”

Something slimy and strong grabbed her arm. She screamed and twisted away, losing her footing as she did. Arms pinwheeling in the air, she fell back, led on by the weight in her backpack, and she braced for the harsh impact with the rubble.

But a loud roaring trumpet sounded suddenly, and she continued to fall, and fall and fall and fall. The moans were replaced with screaming and manic laughter, and the world began to throb in a putrid purple.

Lesedi opened her mouth to scream, but the sudden impact with the floor winded her instead. The head in her backpack squelched, and something popped.

As Lesedi writhed on the floor, trying to catch her breath, the voice of the invisible Gespar burbled out of the shadows.

“You called?”

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