Disembodied voices are never a good sign, Jane decided. Neither was finding herself standing on a snowy street alone in the middle of the night with no idea where she was or how she got there. The whispers swam through her hair like a breeze, speaking nonsense and words too quiet to understand.
Her awareness came back to her in pieces, like she was just waking up. She was clutching a wooden box, reflexively holding it against her chest. Whatever was inside evaded her memory.
Jane was shivering. She reached to tuck her arms against her chest and found that her clothes were soaked. Her body felt numb— she was probably dying of hypothermia.
She started walking, crunching snow underfoot as she tried to work out the stiffness that had taken root in her joints. Fatigue was there for every step; the weight of her own body nearly too much to handle.
The streets were quiet, illuminated by the warm glow of the streetlights. Jane didn’t see another soul walking them with her. It wasn’t like home at all. This was quieter and bigger, but there was something about it she preferred.
Jane’s lips tugged upward. Even half-dead and plagued by phantom voices, this was better than the Compound. Her memories of the past day were a blur. She couldn’t believe that she had just walked out of her life and appeared on this street, but she couldn’t remember one part of her escape. It was as if someone had neatly snipped a day’s worth of memories from her head.
That was almost as concerning as the voices. Almost.
She couldn’t do anything about either problem like this. The cold was unbearable. It tightened her vision and muddled her thoughts into putty. The point where the hypothermia would drag her to the ground was not far. She needed help.
This town didn’t have any to give her. Beyond the closed storefronts and post-New-Years-slash-Christmas decorations was only more snow and more lonely streetlights. Jane was used to finding faces on every block at every hour. Why couldn’t she have landed somewhere a little more crowded?
Her legs carried her on, even when her steps became more like stumbles. She trudged away from the empty town square and into the side streets. There had to be one bar or fast food chain that didn’t close at midnight. But she mostly saw more of the same. Brick shops with dark apartments above.
After a couple blocks, she lost her footing to drowsiness and flung out her arms to catch herself. A street sign was there for her, the corrugated metal digging into her skin enough to keep her eyes open a little longer.
The whispers had quieted like a crowd waiting for the music to start before a show. They were waiting for something. Like they were alive.
Jane looked up at the street sign. Encrusted with frost, it read “Eleventh Street”. The simplicity of it sounded inexplicably promising to her. It tugged at her center and pulled her upright. She would try one more street. One more street then she could close her eyes.
There was light. One of the stores halfway down the block leaked light out of its windows like a secret. She blocked out the voices and the cold, clutched onto her box tighter, and marched on.
It was another two-story brick shop, completely unremarkable save for the fact that it was her only hope. The shop sign announced in curling print that it was called Alexandria. If she hadn’t been a dozen breaths from death, her eyes would’ve slid over it like it wasn’t there.
She reached for the door, then stumbled and crashed into it. A twist of the knob sent her sprawling to the thin carpet inside. The box in her hands slipped from her grasp, sliding out of reach. The warm air engulfed her, all paper and mildew. A bell above the door announced her arrival with an off-tune chime, but there was no one in the room to hear it.
Alexandria was a bookstore pushed to the extreme. Shelves filled every free space, and each was completely stuffed with books. They were packed into every space— vertically, horizontally, diagonally. It was both claustrophobic and mystical.
Jane nudged the door shut behind her. Every movement she made sent a flurry of black spots across her vision. She was still so cold, but she didn’t think she could get any worse.
Just as she began to force her body to sit up, a voice emerged from the back of the bookstore, getting closer. “I’m sorry,” the woman’s voice called, “I know the lights are on, but we’re actually closed.”
Jane tried to reply in a voice louder than a whisper, but her throat was too raw from the cold.
A woman came out of the backroom, took one look at Jane, and immediately rushed to help her upright. “Oh god, are you alright? You’re freezing. Let me call you an ambulance.”
“No,” Jane murmured. “Not safe.” Not for her or these people. Not if they were looking for her, which they would be.
The other woman took this better than Jane expected. “Alright,” she agreed. “No ambulance. There’s a fireplace upstairs. Can you walk?”
Jane shook her head. It felt like a thousand needles were swimming through her legs. She could barely even move them.
The woman lifted her effortlessly. She was six feet of muscle. Her fair hair and pale skin made her seem like a snow goddess plucked from a storybook. She smiled encouragingly at Jane. “What’s your name, honey?” She couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her.
“Jane.” Every word hurt more to speak than it was worth.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jane,” the woman said, “I’m Diana. Let’s get you warmed up.”
The apartment above the bookstore was trying and succeeding at being a log cabin. Wood paneling, hardwood— even the fireplace in the living room looked real until Diana sat her down in front of it and Jane realized it was electric. She immediately thrust her bluish hands out toward it so the heat could begin seeping in place of the chill.
“Thank God the door was unlocked,” Diana said, handing her a half-empty cup of hot cocoa. “The one time being careless ever saved someone, hm?”
Jane, with no clue what to say, drank the hot cocoa, chewing the little marshmallows half-heartedly. The whispers were slowly creeping back to the surface. A dozen invisible mouths releasing words that were more noise than meaning. If they had teeth, they would’ve been close enough to sink their jaws into her skin
Another voice— a real voice— entered the room loud enough to make Jane start.
“Dee, who the hell is this and why is she in our house?” The new woman was Diana’s opposite in more ways than not— she was short, dark-skinned, and dark-haired. Nobody would need a microscope to tell she was angrier, too.
Diana didn’t seem at all put off by the outburst. She was in the tiny kitchen nook, putting something together absently. “Maya, this is Jane. Jane, meet Maya.”
Maya huffed. “Is that my favorite mug that she’s holding?”
Jane glanced down. The mug was covered in a dozen dog breeds. “Sorry,” she said, having trouble matching the cartoon puppies with this woman. “Nice to meet you.”
The woman ignored her for the moment. “There isn’t enough room here to help every homeless person you find on the street. We have enough trouble as it is.”
“Maya,” Diana said, “She was half-dead from hypothermia. And I’m sure she has a place to go in the morning.”
“Do you?” Maya snapped, acknowledging Jane for the first time.
Jane averted her eyes. “No,” she said, “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
The weight of her own words slumped her shoulders. It was the first time she realized that her freedom left her in limbo. No Palisade meant no friends and no connections.
Diana rested a slender hand on her shoulder. “Is there anyone you can call? Do you know anyone in town?”
She willed something inside of herself to surface. Anger or frustration or confidence or anything at all that would make her look and feel like less of a helpless little kid. But all Jane could do was shake her head. “I don’t even know where I am right now.”
It didn’t even occur to Jane that it had been a strange thing to say until Diana gave a bemused “what do you mean?”
Jane dug her nails into her palm for the misstep. “The last couple hours are just a little fuzzy,” she lied. “I’m sure it’s just the cold messing with my head.”
Maya crossed her arms. “We should just take her to the hospital.”
“I can’t,” Jane repeated, frustrated at her inability to come up with any valid excuse. A hospital would want ID, they would take her picture, document her. She couldn’t leave that kind of footprint without this sudden freedom coming to a quick and violent end.
Diana laid a blanket over her shoulders. “You don’t have to. We’ll wait for morning to see if you remember someone or something so that we can figure what to do next.”
Jane pulled the blanket around her. “Thank you. I… I’ll try to find a way to make it up to you.”
“Welcome to Septmouth,” Diana said while patting her hair. “I’ll go get you some clothes.”
There was a quick exchange where Maya shot Diana a pointed look that she pointedly ignored as she left. A smile tugged at Jane’s lips while she watched them. She suspected it wasn’t rare for them to disagree.
Once Diana left, Maya pinned her with an icy stare. “What’s your game?”
She inched toward the fire, even though she could barely feel it through her wet clothes. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re paranoid?”
“I am when I have good reason to be.” Maya walked over to her and snatched the mug from her hands.
Annoyance flashed through her. “I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”
“We didn’t either.”
Diana returned at that moment, and, reading the room, gave Maya a soft but firm smack on the back of the head. “Be nice,” she said, “or at least wait until she’s not freezing to death to be an asshole.”
Maya glared at Jane like it was her fault, shook her head, and left the room.
“I’m sorry about her,” Diana said, twisting a golden ring on her finger absently. “I love her, but…”
Jane hadn’t noticed the ring until that moment. “You two are married?” she interrupted with wide eyes.
The blonde laughed. It was a reserved, polite sound that rang with sincerity. “Yes, we are. Sometimes I’m as surprised as you are right now.”
It was hard for Jane to rationalize this gentle woman with the fire she felt from Maya. “How did that happen?”
Diana tried to hide the shadowed look that flashed over her face, but Jane caught it before she could. She knew the look of a sour memory too well. “A story for another time,” she said, pressing a bundle of pastel clothes into Jane’s arms. “Let’s get you a warm shower first.”
“Don’t lock the door, just in case,” Diana said, “if you warm up too quickly, I’ll need to get to you if you collapse.” She shepherded her into a bathroom so pink that Jane was worried the walls would dissolve like cotton candy. “Just start by getting out of those clothes and starting the shower. The steam should warm you up safely.”
Jane thanked her, shut the door, and, when she could hear the woman’s footsteps moving away from the door, locked it. Sorry, she thought, leaning against the door and feeling a genuine regret for betraying her savior already. But she couldn’t let anyone see this.
She twisted her way out of her coat, noticing for the first time that it was soaked through with saltwater, not just snowfall. It only gave her more questions, but she filed the fact away. The mystery had to wait.
The tanktop beneath her coat was just as wet as the rest of her, but she left it be and stood in front of the mirror. Her heart sank to her feet. Her skin was fine— paper pale, freckled, but uninjured. Her tattoos, on the other hand, were destroyed.
The precise, black line work had been torn apart. Ink was smudged and splattered across her skin. The scattered remnants of circles, triangles, and spirals ran up her arms and to her collarbone. She had worn these fractal glyphs for a decade since she was twelve, and they were gone. Her power was gone. It was a murder scene with lines for bones and ink for blood.
A sob rose in the back of her throat until she saw the unharmed, blood-red Celtic knot tattooed over her heart. Her Blood Mark. The tie to the power that ran through her veins. Treacherous hope exploded in her chest. She could fix this.
Jane rested a shaking hand over her heart. Please work, she begged.
She pushed her Will outward. Jane Braith was not helpless. She pressed Purpose into her tattoos. They were not just ink, they were potential. She told them her Intent, to make them whole. Finally, she gave them a taste of the Power in her blood.
The black ink peeled away from her body, drop by drop. It formed a shiny, spinning globe of liquid that floated just above her outstretched palm. For the first time since she was a child, Jane looked at her body free from the tattoos. The years had left her with white scars, black bags under her eyes, and several graying hairs. But to be able to do this? She would have done it again in a heartbeat.
“Warlock,” she murmured, remembering the runaway happiness she felt the first time she had been told what she was. How important she had felt.
One at a time, Jane began to pull ink from the orb and shape it into runes in the air. Each shifted from black to eerie glowing white as they embodied the power they held before they had been broken. Drawing them made her skin crawl. They were unnatural in how they twisted and layered unlike any other language— magic or not. These were the Stellar Runes, and even though she had known them well enough to draw them blindfolded since she was a kid, they still made her feel uneasy.
The minutes stretched out as she painstakingly fixed each and every glyph of the alphabet and arranged it in the air in front of her. The only break she took was to start the shower so Diana wouldn’t come asking questions. Jane couldn’t bear to leave the Runes broken.
By the time she finished remaking the runes, the mirror of the bathroom was fogged with steam and the fading cold had left her drowsy. Hundreds of Stellar Runes glowed in the air before her, charged with her own Power and waiting for direction.
Jane hesitated. This wasn’t the sheltered walls of Palisade. However she wore her tattoos, it was a facade she would have to hold on to in public. She couldn’t have the pattern be different every time someone saw them. That meant locking herself away from quick access to other forms of magic. Offense, she decided. She couldn’t know for sure how far behind her Palisade was.
The Runes read her Intent and spun down out of the air. On her left arm, the runes were curling tendrils that reached toward her wrist. On her right, they formed long, vicious spikes that pointed down her arm. Each form was made of the small glyphs; each had a different Purpose. She released the energy she gave them, returning them to matte black ink.
The cost of magic like that should have been trivial. It hit her like a ton of bricks. Breathing was impossible as her lungs were abruptly drained of air, and her muscles felt like they had just run a marathon. The surface of her skin stung with a cold burning sensation. All of those feelings were normal for her, even if they shouldn’t have been happening from such a small exertion.
What wasn’t normal was the voices. They became a stadium crowd, a hundred thousand different mouths screaming a language she didn’t know. The shock of it made her take a step back, but there was no escape from the sound. The slight needling of the magic over her skin became a twisting dagger. The pain seized her lungs in a vise, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
Jane reared back from the sink and clawed at her throat, willing it to open. Panic and slippery tile made her lose her footing, and she crashed to the ground. The tattoos on her arms seemed to strain away from her skin, unable to withstand the cacophony anymore than her. Stop, she wanted to beg. What do you want? But her lungs were burning, filled with drowning agony too deep to speak through.
The voices pressed her to the ground, their volume almost physical. There was no strength left in her to resist them. She realized for the first time that they hated her. They wanted her to feel this pain, to die choking on their anger.
Then, with the same lack of warning that they started with, the voices ebbed away back into a murmur. Precious air flooded her lungs, making her dizzy with relief. The pain and pressure were gone without even an ache to tell her that they existed in the first place.
There was a knock on the door. Jane dug her nails into her palms, forcing her voice to be steady. “I’m alright, just give me a minute.”
If the person on the other side of the door gave a response, she didn’t hear it through the blood pounding in her ears. Panic built in her like a wave. The steam in the room felt suffocating, the walls too close. Could she even use her tattoos anymore? Never mind losing her only defense, magic was all she had left.
Jane didn’t realize she was hyperventilating until the room started to spin. She bit her tongue. Hard.
The sharp pain and coppery taste of blood centered her, and she brought herself back under control. A panicking warlock is a worthless warlock; a Palisade adage that she needed to remember right now. No time to feel.
She washed up and slipped into the clothes. They were two sizes too big on her, but soft enough to drown in. Just another thing she owed Diana, right after her life. She wanted to repay her, but if Palisade was on her tail, maybe the best thing to do would be to keep going.
The living room was empty when she came out of the bathroom. Some food and water had been left out for her, warming in front of the fireplace. The box she had left downstairs sat on the coffee table, carrying a few new nicks on the woodwork from where someone had tried to pry it open. Maya, Jane guessed easily. That woman wouldn’t have passed up a chance to find dirt on her.
She still couldn’t remember why she had it. In the light, she could recognize the symbol of Palisade carved on its lid— a rook chess piece with an eye in place of a window. There was no visible latch or mechanism to open it, but she knew the trick. The real mystery was what was inside.
Before Jane had a chance to take a peek, Diana returned with an armload of blankets. She appraised Jane, nodding at the color returning to her cheeks and lingering on the tattoos for a moment too long. “You look better,” she said, finally.
“I feel better.” And she did, especially when she didn’t let herself think about the voices. “Thank you.”
“I wasn’t going to just push you back outside,” Diana said, “besides, I know what it’s like to not have a place to go.”
Jane waited for her to elaborate, but Diana just stared into the fireplace, knee-deep in her own thoughts, before asking, “is there someone after you?”
It took Jane a moment to register what she said. “What?”
Diana set a cool hand on her arm. She was trying to be reassuring, but Jane had to resist the urge to smack her hand away. Touch had stopped being comforting a long time ago.
“I’m sorry,” Diana said, taking a step away, “I just want to help—“
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Jane said quickly, really not wanting to offend the person who saved her life, “It’s okay. I’m just a little jumpy, that’s all.”
The look on Diana’s face said that she didn’t believe a word of it. Her eyes were a cornflower blue, gentle and worried.
The truth, then, Jane decided. Or at least something close.
“Yeah,” she relented, “I’m… I’m trying to get away from some people. I’ve lived with them a long time, so it’s hard.”
“Are they dangerous?”
Jane hesitated. “Yes. But don’t worry, I’ll leave before they find me here.” Palisade usually didn’t touch the people outside their little world, but they wouldn’t care if someone in the way got hurt.
“No,” Diana said, stoic. The determination on her face buried any impression Jane had that she was passive. “You can stay here. You can sleep in our back room downstairs.”
“But, I don’t want to just—“
“You’ll be safer here than you would be out in the cold,” Diana continued. “And you can work in the shop during the day, it’ll pay close to nothing, but nobody will find you here.”
She didn’t know what to say. When she’d washed up on Alexandria’s front door, she’d just been looking for a chance to survive, not to be given a bed, job, and measure of safety. “Why?” she asked. “Why are you helping me?”
Diana set the blankets on the couch. Without looking at Jane, she said, “Because Eleventh Street is supposed to be a safe place for anyone, no matter where they’re from or what they’re caught up in.”
It would be a long time before she realized what exactly that meant. For now, she was just grateful.