The Life and Times of Angel Evans by Meredith Debonnaire
Published 09/13/2016 | 9,845 Words
Doctor Who meets Good Omens in this new short story from Book Smugglers Publishing.
When Angel Evans was born into her world, the event was beset with a troubling number of prophecies. Her magical future was so portentous that all of the prophets couldn’t cope with the knowledge of what was to come, and either died or were never heard from again.
Decades later, magical prodigy Angel Evans has traversed (and saved) several worlds. She has lived, loved, and seen more devastation than one person should be able to handle.
The Life and Times of Angel Evans is a story of prophetic burden, destiny fulfilled, and the choices that one young woman has to make in order to survive.
You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us.
When Angel Evans was born, five prophets had heart attacks and died. A sixth suffered a stroke, lost all use of his limbs and passed away three weeks later. A seventh and final prophet woke up at the moment of Angel’s birth, screamed for ten minutes, babbled something about saviours and the end of the world, and then ran off, changed her name and was never heard from again.
It was an auspicious birth to say the least, and Angel’s parents had very high hopes for their only child. Angel herself was, for a long time, completely unaware of these bizarre circumstances. The general wisdom in her world was that one should never tell prophecies to the person they were about, especially birth prophecies, and that prophecies would sort themselves out.
Still, throughout her childhood a lot of people took undue interest in Angel, a fact that the somewhat precocious child always struggled to understand. By the age of eight Angel knew the Nine Words of Banishment, could recite both her Law and her Lore books by heart, and had a skill at summoning Elementals that her tutors referred to as uncanny. She had also barely been allowed beyond the confines of her family’s holdings, and was becoming increasingly curious.
Three weeks after her eighth birthday, Angel Evans vanished. Eighteen years later, that entire dimension collapsed in on itself, and for the people living there that was the end. For Angel Evans, it was a good reason to move somewhere else and try to forget.
Two years later, a lanky ginger woman with an unfortunate amount of freckles exits the scuzzy chain pub that she had been cleaning for the last four hours, and lights a cigarette. She inhales deeply, enjoying the grimy taste of tobacco, and exhales in a tired sigh. The smoke dances, twists, and forms into a writhing face.
The voice is sonorous, the kind of growling voice that one expects from a Hammer-Horror werewolf.
“Nope, wrong number.”
The redhead takes another drag from the scrofulous fag, apparently unphased by the floating, disembodied face.
“I was assured that this was the correct place.”
“Nope. This happens a lot. You must be looking for a different Angel Evans.”
A scowl lingers on the ethereal face.
“I don’t suppose you know where the other Angel Evans is?”
“Never met her. Never heard of her before you lot started showing up.”
“Well it is very important.”
The lanky woman shrugs.
“Nothing I can do,” she says.
Smoke-face shifts a little, then sighs. “You’d think finding the saviour would be a little easier.”
Another shrug from the redhead. The deep-voiced apparition goes quiet, appearing to contemplate its options. The redhead finishes her cigarette and stubs it on the wall. She yanks her jacket a little closer before turning to the floating face.
“I’ve got to head home now. Nice meeting you.”
“Ah, yes. A pleasure.”
The woman stomps off into a dingy alley. After a few seconds, the face shivers and dissipates back into normal smoke.
It takes twenty minutes for Angel to walk home, which is long enough for the light drizzle to permeate her hair and drip down her neck. She mutters quietly all the way, strange words that don’t quite form and leave traces on the air. She has to kick the door to her flat to force it open, and then wrestles it closed again.
The insides of the flat could be called squalid, if one were feeling generous; it looks as though a furious rhinoceros trampled through it, stopped to order a tremendous amount of takeaway, dumped all its rubbish, and then charged back out. Angel breathes a sigh of relief, and folds into the end of the sofa that’s not buried under detritus.
This voice is sympathetic, musical and a little airy.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Angel says, not moving from her place on the sofa. Her eyes are shut, and in the dark the contours of her face are soft.
“They’re going to keep coming.”
“Yumiko, not now.”
A waft of air crosses the room, bringing the scent of rain. Something cool strokes Angel’s face, and she resolutely keeps her eyes shut. She knows what she will see if she opens them.
“Have a shower and change. I’ll put a film on.”
“Thanks,” she whispers. When she opens her eyes, no one is there.
After her shower, Angel ventures back into the living room. It seems marginally tidier, and a film has been loaded on a laptop. A steaming mug of noodles perches on the sofa’s armrest.
Angel Evans, prodigy, saviour, pub cleaner, flops onto the sofa and starts the film. She stuffs noodles into her mouth, and occasionally laughs at the commentary emanating from the air beside her.
When she was thirteen, Angel fell in love. It was completely unrequited and lasted for a torturous three months. At the time, she had been living with a raggedy travelling magician who actually made most of her money through larceny. Very clever larceny mind you, but larceny.
The object of Angel’s affections had been an apprentice magistrate, agendered as all officiates were. The town they were staying in was a small one, but not so small that they couldn’t stay for a while. Whenever she wasn’t performing magic tricks or aiding her companion with thefts, Angel took to loitering outside the imposing public buildings, waiting to catch a glimpse of nir grey apprentice’s robe. Whenever she saw it, swishing around the apprentice magistrate’s legs, her throat would heat up and she would blush until her freckles were invisible.
Ne never said a word to her, but ne did smile occasionally—a slow, warm smile that made Angel want to scream. But Angel’s unrequited love affair ended horrifically when her travelling companion was caught stealing from the magistrate. Angel left the town as fast as her magic could carry her.
Sometimes, when Angel is half-asleep, she remembers this first love of hers to whom she never spoke and with whom she was never alone. She imagines that, maybe, ne became a full magistrate. She imagines that ne used that position of power for self-preservation. She imagines that ne escaped before everything broke.
Then Angel wakes up, and remembers that no one escaped.
The magic in this world is… well, stubborn is not quite the right word, and neither is contrary. Unpredictable covers it for the most part. Angel always thought of magic as alive, but she had never experienced quite this amount of personality before.
After two months of commands backfiring in her face, Angel sat down, spread out her awareness and sweet-talked the magic. She told it that it was lively, stunning, gorgeous. She said that in all the worlds she had travelled she had never seen magic quite like it; that its architecture was constantly surprising, that she enjoyed its urban wilderness.
Angel had spoken for hours, and by the end of it she could feel this world’s bizarre magic purring. Yumiko had found it hilarious.
Since then, Angel Evans has kept in magic’s good graces. She’s careful to give compliments and praise, to leave offerings in places of power, and when she commands magic she makes it clear that she understands this is a privilege. So far, it’s worked very well. The fact that there simply aren’t all that many commanders of magic in this dimension helps; she has a feeling that the world is as fascinated by her as she is by it. Right now, that’s not very useful.
Angel looks at her chart, glares. An expired cigarette hangs from her mouth unnoticed. Incidents have been increasing, there’s no two ways about it. Since smoke-face, there has been a scuttling, furred fairy; a flotilla of water nymphs who attempted to move into her shower; and a demonic fire storm that possessed her neighbour’s bicycle and attempted to offer tribute to “the Saviour of the Multiverse.” Angel had to use a Word of Banishment for that one. It left a sour taste in her mouth.
She thumps her head onto the table, and all the sigils on the chart wiggle like excited puppies. A rain-scented zephyr plucks at Angel’s hair and wraps around her neck like a scarf. Angel groans and sits up.
“There’s no pattern! There has to be one, somewhere, I just can’t see it. Ugh, this is like playing Katrok with invisible pieces, or… Hey!”
The redhead stops talking as the chart floats away from the table and rolls itself up. She snatches at the crackled paper.
“Yumiko! I need that.”
“You’ve been working on this for hours, Angel. Go outside, walk around, take a break.”
“It’s important.” The chart continues to drift away from Angel, and the small window in the living room clatters open. Noise filters in from outside.
“You’ll only make mistakes if you work on it now.” Yumiko’s voice is soft. Angel glowers, then sighs in defeat.
“Fine, fine, I’ll go outside.”
Angel rummages for tobacco and rizzlas, turning out her extensive pockets. A sheath of perfectly hand-rolled cigarettes drifts over from the counter, along with a lighter and the housekeys. Angel plucks them from the air with a smile.
“Thank you,” she says. Air brushes her cheek like a kiss.
“Love you,” the ghost murmurs. Angel strides to the door.
The air is bursting with moisture, not solid enough to be rain and not thin enough to be mist. Angel cuts along the street; a rake of a woman with a halo of cigarette smoke, face obscured by her jacket collar. Yumiko was right; she does feel better. People scurry along or saunter beneath umbrellas. Angel snorts, endlessly amused by the behaviour of others.
She pauses before the door of an empty shop, inhabited by a genderless, muttering person swathed in rags and ripe with alcohol. If Angel looks closely, she can see the swirls and sparkles of light dancing in their head. She sighs, yanks a crumpled fiver from her pocket and shoves it into quaking hands before leaving.
This world hides its prophets in the strangest places, and no one ever pays them any heed. It was one of the hardest adjustments to make upon arriving here. Not that Angel seeks them out; prophets never do too well around her, whatever the world.
A breeze whistles through her fingers and sighs, making Angel snort again. She’s supposed to be taking a break, and here she is moping about prophets. There’s an internet café not far from here, and no work until tomorrow. The grin on her face is almost feral.
At the tender age of 21, Angel Evans was sentenced to seven years of hard labour for the use of prohibited magics. She was using the name Jessamina then, because she was 21 and experimenting. “Jessamina” had sounded alluring and mysterious in a way that “Angel” didn’t. She had no idea that anyone was still looking for her, that she could have said the name “Angel Evans” and the magistrate would have fallen over nemself fighting to return her to her family.
As it was, she was left attempting to explain that really, honestly, she had not been trying to raise the dead; it just happened. One moment, totally normal fake séance; next moment, creepily affectionate animated corpses. Corpses who wanted to chat, and drink tea, and cuddle. Clearly, it was someone’s idea of a prank.
The magistrate was not impressed. Ne gazed imperiously down at her, quite possibly bored out of nir skull, and told her that ne, quite frankly, did not see the joke. As a result, Angel refused to help get rid of the cuddly corpses and eventually the town became known as “The Town of the Friendly Skulls.”
She spent three years doing tasks so menial and repetitive that, before she managed to escape, Angel invented five more Words of Banishment and began work on a Theory of Transdimensional Travel just to stop herself from losing her mind entirely.
She’s not completely sure if her other spells worked, but the Theory of Transdimensional Travel turned out to be useful.
The only disappointing thing about the internet café is that she’s not allowed to smoke inside. However, she can rent a laptop and use the internet, and the tea isn’t half bad. The first thing Angel does is to discreetly draw a protective circle around the laptop with her finger. There’s a slight whoosh, and then a chat window opens on the screen. Angel smiles, and starts to type.
All good there cranberry?
Angel’s wall of fire is holding.
Don’t want you getting lost.
On other worlds, they have communication networks built of magic that are purified at regular intervals. They use sails against the sky, or resonant stonework that can be drummed on. They twist their minds together so that they can experience each other directly.
On Yumiko’s world, everyone and everything exists simultaneously on two levels, and they built vast information highways on one level so that one could talk and travel on the “up” level without moving on the “down” one. Unsurprisingly, Yumiko likes the internet.
Unfortunately, so do a host of other ghosts and spirits. There’s something attractive about its ethereality, and it is more thickly haunted than any battleground. Cyberspace is full of wandering, hungry souls; hence Angel’s insistence on protective circles.
I’m not an amateur.
Put your headphones in.
The redhead complies, sipping at her now scummy tea. A new window pops up, holding a video of people dancing to blaring music.
And this is…?
Just watch it, speckle-face.
When they met, Angel was a mess and Yumiko was hiding from a group of exorcists. Angel was spending every waking moment seeking out substances that would make her stop thinking, stop feeling, or spin out of herself in some way. She was 26 and-a-half, and her world was gone. She was squatting in one of the molten stone conglomerations that people lived in here, struggling to manage the simultaneous level existence that was the norm and trading magical favours for anything she could snort, smoke, inject, inhale, or absorb through her aura.
The exorcists in that world were very efficient, but Yumiko had managed to evade them for six months by repeatedly changing her down-level anchor and staying very quiet on the up-level. It was chance that caused her current anchor, a fetching piece of twisted glass, to wind up in Angel’s unsteady hands.
Angel had been so lost in her personal hell that she hadn’t even noticed she was being haunted; what was one more ghost when there was a world to mourn? The fact that Yumiko spent her time tidying, providing food and indexing what few books Angel hadn’t sold for drugs certainly contributed to the slowness of this revelation.
When a group of officious exorcists turned up to politely inform Angel that she was being haunted, the gaunt young woman had stared at them. At their white shirts and breeches, their bald heads, their clearly male bodies. (Which was wrong, so wrong. Officiates with genders? It made Angel dizzy.) She then informed them that any and all ghosts living here were hers, and only hers, and that they could take their shiny equipment and level-transcending spirit guides and get the hell out of her conglomeration, thank you.
They had been shocked, and a little patronising, as they explained that being haunted was bad for your health; that if she only allowed them to perform their exorcism she would feel much better. Angel had laughed outright, clinging to the smooth stone-wall as hysterics racked her slender body.
Then she went still and stared at them with dark eyes, and slowly expanded onto the up-level. She unfolded, and kept unfolding. Here, the exorcists were glowing white orbs, steady and purposeful. Angel was rickety, all sharp edges and feathers in a mixture of soft grey and red. The further she unfolded, the larger she became, until what the exorcists saw resembled a cross between a bird and a building; shimmering and shadowy.
“Go away,” Angel said.
The exorcists bowed and fled, and Angel collapsed back down. She sat on the warm stone floor, hugging her knees. A carved mug full of rainwater had drifted over to her, and Angel took it and drained it, her throat dry.
“So,” Angel asked, “What’s your name?”
“Yumiko.” The voice was a mellifluent whisper, coming from everywhere at once.
“Nice to meet you.” Angel had said. Yumiko made no reply, but the mug had refilled itself and several heat-stones rolled across the ground to surround her.
Angel cried for the first time since everything broke.
Angel Evans wakes up in someone else’s bedroom. It smells of nag champa, fabric softener and sex. Pressed up against her front is the unmistakeable heat of another body, moving slightly as the other person breathes. Cold air plays against her back.
For a few moments Angel just lies there, her lanky limbs heavy and tangled, her eyes shut. Yumiko is in the room; Angel can sense her. She is also resting, worn out from being so present last night.
Last night… Angel recalls desperate kisses and precise fingers, heated flesh and rutting hips. One voice, an alive one, had grunted and muttered and fallen into incoherence as Angel bit at skin. Another voice, heard only by her, had continuously murmured suggestions and endearments and filthy compliments while icy gasps of air drifted across her flushed flesh.
She supposes that this is one of those things that she should feel guilty about; bringing a ghost into someone’s bed. Angel instead relishes the lazy warmth subsuming her, the comfort of her body spreading to her mind.
It can’t last; there’s work today and pubs don’t clean themselves. Angel slithers expertly from the bed, her temporary lover undisturbed. She gathers up clothes and jewellery, dressing in the false twilight created by curtains before tiptoeing from the flat.
Once outside, she rolls a cigarette and strides home.
Someone has done a shit in the middle of the floor in the men’s toilets. Angel Evans pinches her nose, and her face tightens. The pub has been open for two hours, and she wonders if any of the managers have even been in here, or if they just purposefully leave these things up to her. She slaps an “out of order” sign on the door, and goes in search of a more heavy duty sterilisation solution while listing in her mind all of the reasons why chain businesses are evil.
It’s going to be a long day.
Being an escaped magical prodigy on the run was, in some ways, easy. Angel was fiercely intelligent, had travelled for most of her life, and had enough self-interest and talent to back herself up. Unfortunately, those qualities that were keeping her alive were also quite memorable; every so often someone would have enough smarts to realise that the name she had given them was false, and that she did awfully resemble that escapee that everyone was talking about…
However being on the run beat solitary confinement with no contest, and Angel just kept running. She was 25 then, with a mien of carefree abandon that could melt into merciless iron efficiency at the first sign of trouble and a weathered body that proved attractive to a wide variety of peoples. Life was good.
Except that it wasn’t. Something was wrong, and Angel could smell it. Magic. Magic that smelt like rot. It was everywhere, insidious and perceived only by those for whom magic came second to breathing.
She was curious, and more than a little worried. However, Angel Evans was never still long enough to investigate; if she wasn’t selling remedies for arthritis and finrot, then she was mucking out stables, hitching rides on dragonboats, or flirting with dangerous people and selling her services as an elemental mediator and negotiator.
Now, Angel rarely thinks about that period of her life. When she does, a small, pained part of her wishes that she had paid more attention to all those warnings.
Today is a bad day. Yumiko calls them black fog days, and Angel finds the name fitting. Nothing in particular set it off; Angel just woke up filled with a gasping desire to be anywhere except inside her own body. The desire drives everything else from her, and Angel clings to ratty sheets and tries not to scream.
She has given in before; there are drugs in this world, leaves to smoke, pills to swallow, powder to inhale. If she wanted, Angel could catapult her soul out of her body to walk among the stars or sink into the ground. She could slash her wrists and drip out of herself. She thinks that maybe if she did that, all the noise in her head would stop and the people would stop screaming and begging and it would finally, finally be quiet and she could rest.
Angel does none of those things. She grips her bedding like a lifeline and breathes in deep, controlled intervals. She buries her face into her pillow and shouts, and thinks of nothing.
Silent as only a ghost can be, Yumiko locks the door of the flat and hides the keys. Angel feels cool air settle around her like a cocoon. She does not move from the bed and her sharp shoulders shake like loose razorwire in a gale.
In Angel’s world, Dwarf cities somewhat resembled icebergs. This was because only 10% of them ever breached the surface. It was a noisy enough 10%; between the growls and clicks of the language, the sounds that made up a countenance and the low-level hum of echolocation, any group of Dwarfs could rival a thunder of Dragons for volume.
To the outsider, Dwarf society appeared a) strictly striated and b) baffling. Gender roles were particularly confusing. The accepted theory was that there were men (he, his, him), women (she, her/s, her), kleed (ta, ta, ta’en) and grafs (ku, kuot, kasht). Broadly speaking, men seemed to build, women to gather and prepare raw material, kleed trade, and grafs perform magic. No outsiders have ever tried to explain Dwarf families.
For their part, Dwarfs could not understand why other species insisted on attaching gender to an individual rather than a station or job. If one works magic, one is graf. If one works the mines, one is female. It is, they claimed, exceedingly simple. Officiates, at least, were able to grasp this concept. However with all these peculiarities it is unsurprising that there have been multifarious misunderstandings over the centuries, accompanied by varying levels of weaponry.
Aged fourteen, Angel Evans had successfully moved into a Dwarf city, learned the language (which was 50% infrasound) and become graf. After six months, ku was more comfortable being a graf than being a woman. There was a great deal that Angel cherished about kuot time with the Dwarfs; ku learned types of magic that no-one with sight would have dreamed of, was encouraged (as a graf) to take as many lovers as ku liked, and made a firm friend in Gud.
Gud was a stout three foot ten with skin the colour of burnished earth. His laugh roared like a furnace and he brewed exceptionally good beer, a fact that Angel told him often.
“I’m serious!” Ku insisted, cheeks flushed. “This is the best beer that I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking. It’s like… It’s like if you melted gold and made it into a drink, it would be this drink. Stop laughing. Hey, stop laughing!”
Angel slapped Gud on the shoulder, and he swatted back easily, his wide chest rocked by chuckles.
“Your head is in the bellows tonight, my friend. Best beware, or your thoughts will be blown out across the flame.”
“Yes, and without a bellows you would be out of a job, my friend.”
“A serious matter. I would have to become a graf like you, and spend all my days speaking with earth spirits.”
“You couldn’t handle being graf,” Angel said, mock sniffy. Gud rumble-grinned, and continued with his teasing.
“You’re right. The multiple carnal entanglements would do me in.”
Angel nodded seriously, clicking kuot tongue in agreement before drawing on the vast wisdom of kuot fourteen years.
“You don’t have the delicacy to negotiate the social side of being graf,” ku said.
“That, at least, is true. I prefer my relationships to be straightforward.”
“And with kleed.”
“And there is no shame in that,” Gud said. Angel raised kuot finely wrought pewter tankard and clunked it against Gud’s before downing the rest of kuot beer. Light from the forges flickered across their skin.
“Will you never tell me what brought you here?” Gud asked.
“It’s not that much of a story.”
“No, there is a tale there. But keep your secrets: we must all have them.”
“If I told you I’m meant to have a destiny, would you believe me?” Angel ran kuot finger around the lip of kuot tankard as ku asked.
“We all have destinies.” Gud said.
Angel lapsed into silence, thoughtful, and Gud refilled their tankards from a gurgling jug. Eventually Angel rumbled loudly; the Dwarf equivalent of a smile.
“This is depressing,” ku said. “Tell me about Hrad. Did you get into ta bed yet?”
“I couldn’t possibly say.”
“Well, that sounds like a challenge to me—drink up!”
“You always attempt this, and it is always you who ends up drunk and singing about gold.” Gud clicked his tongue softly while he spoke, indicating amusement.
“Lies!” Angel declared.
The two friends continued their bantering long into the day. Angel Evans was later found in the crook of a beam, singing softly about the many properties of gold while Gud snored on the floor below. This being a semi-regular occurrence, the other Dwarfs simply pushed Gud out of the way before starting their work.
Angel’s mouth is a grim line as she surveys the chaos outside her flat. She seriously considers lighting up then and there, because it’s vastly unlikely that the landlord will let her stay if he sees any of this. It’s at times like this that Angel Evans wishes she wasn’t opposed to e-cigarettes on principle (smoking barely counts as a vice unless it’s doing some harm, and e-cigarettes have a tendency to make their owners appear like pretentious tosspots). Still, one is at least allowed to vape indoors.
Offerings. Bloody offerings. Hundreds of tiny votivary figures made with love and care and a specific eye to detail. Slender and crystalline and beautiful, they cover the floor outside Angel’s door; a glittering snowdrift of stone women.
The redhead takes a deep breath, her face pinching around her nose. None of these sycophants seem to understand that she just wants to be left alone, that she can’t even begin to pick up the pieces of her life when people keep butting in to tell her how thankful they are. It makes Angel sick.
She steps over the offerings, trampling several, and turns the key in her lock. The lanky woman kicks the stubborn door open, and vanishes into her flat while muttering darkly. She re-emerges with a broom and a binbag.
It takes Angel a quarter of an hour to sweep all of the carvings into the binbag, and she growls out a lonely litany of swearwords and mild curses the whole time. Then she drags the binbag down the dingy stairs, across the road, and dumps it in a skip already half-filled with rubble.
Angel Evans glares tiredly, long arms hugging herself as she stares at the innocuous black bag. She turns slowly, like a dancer in a broken music box, and slinks back home.
Yumiko has already put a film on, something garish and ridiculous. Angel folds herself into the available space on the sofa with a startling resemblance to a clothes-horse contracting. She stares at the battered laptop blankly, awash with anger and fear and loss. There’s a sigh of cold air, and it almost feels as though someone is sitting there, pressed up against her. Angel shuts her eyes, and exhales slowly.
“I don’t know what to do, cranberry.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“They just keep finding me. Everywhere I go. They want me to be some kind of hero and I can’t… I’m not… I just… I did the only thing I could do.”
“We could move on. You know I don’t mind travelling, speckle-face.”
“I know… I like it here.”
“Really? Here? With the awful job, the backwards magic, the anonymous prophets, the pollution, the electricity, not to mention the prejudice.”
Angel snorts, almost grinning as Yumiko teasingly lists the dimension’s failings.
“They’ve got the internet. Also noodles, strip poker, tea… Besides, everything here is so skewed that it doesn’t remind me of… It doesn’t remind me.”
Rain-scented air ruffles Angel’s hair affectionately.
“I know sweetheart, I know.”
When she was 26 years old, Angel Evans stood on the edge of a precipice greater than any she had ever imagined existed. She stood at what should have been the pulsing heart of her world, the nexus where it touched upon every other world. Nobody had told her what her choices were, and nobody had to; Angel had always been precocious, and she knew exactly what was happening.
Beneath her unfortunate freckles, her face was pale as morning sun. Her hands had not trembled, and she had allowed herself no moment of weakness, no screams against the unfairness of it all. No demands as to why this fell to her. Angel Evans had clenched her fists, and made the only choice that she could make, knowing exactly what it would mean for the billions in her world who got no voice in this. Knowing exactly what it meant for the countless others in the multitudes of worlds beyond.
There are days when she can almost live with that.
“You lose,” Angel said, her whorl-piece becoming visible as she placed it at the centre of the board. Her opponent, a Grem bandit-woman named Kayla, had bared sharp teeth and battered blue eyelids in agitation. The Katrok game had been the centre of attention for just over an hour; seeing as the ownership of the dragonboat that they were on had been gambled on it and they were playing with half the pieces enchanted to be invisible, this was not entirely surprising.
The gang of bandits had Phased onto the boat at a slow point in the mariver, and had taken over quickly and effectively. Angel Evans, who had been stowed away among the cargo, was rudely awakened by a tall Grem wearing clothes that he probably thought were bandit-chic; Angel had thought that they belonged in the private rooms of a rather specialist prostitute, but each to their own.
From there the situation had snowballed, culminating in Angel unpacking her Katrok set (the one that Gud had made her) and formally challenging the leader. Nobody except Angel herself had expected her to win.
“Where in the world did you learnt to play like that?” Demanded Kayla.
“Dwarf caverns. And I think you’ll be leaving now.” Angel’s voice was deceptively light. Kayla stood, the dome of her head gleaming.
“We will honour the terms of the challenge. To the letter.” She snapped.
Angel rumbled; a Dwarf would have recognised a threatening smile, though most of those present probably thought that the rumble came from her stomach.
“I want you off the dragonboat.” Angel said.
Kayla bowed mockingly, and the crew shuffled as the would-be-pirates flung out ropeladders and lowered themselves to the forest floor.
“What’s to stop them just Phasing back on?” One of the crew muttered as they hauled the ropeladders back up.
“I hexed them. They won’t be able to Phase again before sundown. I imagine they’re figuring that out about now.” Angel smirked a little as she spoke.
From below, there was a loud bang followed by a string of cursing. Some of the crew laughed.
“How nasty is that hex?” the second-in-command asked.
“Medium nasty?” Replied Angel. The second-in-command nodded, and turned away to organise the crew.
Angel Evans leaned over the side of the dragonboat and waved brightly as they gathered speed. She thought Kayla yelled something about necromancers and revenge, but Angel was barely listening. Besides, necromancers were common as rats, and more of a nuisance than anything else.
What Angel really wanted, at that moment, was to sleep. Comfortably and without dreams. For some time now her dreams have been filled with bones and shadows and the sensation of falling, her own voice ringing out across them warning her that a terrible choice is approaching, a choice that will reverberate over all the worlds, and that she must prepare herself. Angel would have gone to a prophet for advice, except that she had recently discovered that prophets seem to have an allergic reaction to her. Watching someone go into a full-on seizure after barely touching her aura had rather put her off. Angel shuddered at the memory.
She had no idea how to prepare, nor how to get a clearer warning, and mostly ignored this very obvious portent in the hopes that dream-Angel would, at some point, start providing an itinerary. Besides, surely fate was not so cruel as to place the wellbeing of multiple worlds in the hands of a seventeen-year-old?
Behind Angel, someone cleared their throat. It was the kind of throat-clearing that indicates the person’s throat is fine, but they’re not entirely sure that the person whose attention they’re trying to garner won’t just rip them limb-from-limb. Angel snapped out of her reverie and looked toward the throat-clearer, who haltingly began talking.
“We’ll be, er, docking soon. Considering, um, considering the circumstances, we’ve altered the log-book so you’re registered as a pre-paid passenger.”
“That’s nice of you.”
Throat-clearer shifted, heavy braids swinging and obscuring a fascinatingly androgynous face.
“Erm, I, that is, the crew were wondering if, um, we could maybe take you for a drink? Once the, uhm, the unloading’s done.”
Angel Evans smiled slowly, warmth unfurling in her chest.
“You can definitely take me for a drink,” she said.
Angel can tramp for hours; it’s something she does when she needs to clear her head. Right now she is stamping a line along the beach below the city, leaving a trail of smoke in the air as if she were a cantankerous steam engine. Yumiko is at home, rearranging her room and playing some kind of MMORPG that Angel can’t quite get her head around. Being a ghost, so far as Angel can tell, is not actually awful.
She drags on the cigarette, spitefully imagining the tar colonising her lungs, and turns out to face the ocean. Not all the worlds that she’s visited have had oceans; Angel Evans always sticks around longer if they do. She shuts her eyes, and the salt air rakes her face like a blessing. Rills ripple in and are eaten by the next wave.
“What am I going to do?” She wonders out loud. The sea does not reply.
There is a part of Angel that admires the total evil that is corporate franchise. The sheer audacity of openly telling people what they should want over and over again, and then selling it to them at extortionate rates in the full knowledge that of course having the perfect sofa isn’t going to fulfil them because it was an empty desire anyway and that they will keep coming back until they a) run out of money b) die or c) cotton onto the plot, is strangely worthy of a twisted esteem. The closest thing to corporate franchise on Angel’s world were the officiates, but mostly they had just told people that they did not want to go to prison, which was usually true.
And then Angel freezes, midway through mopping the floor, because she just thought of her world and for one glorious moment it didn’t hurt. The redhead blinks, disorientated, as the pain crashes back over her. She feels as if she has been drowning, and until this moment she had forgotten the existence of air. A fierce grin blooms on her face as she resumes mopping. She keeps grinning as she empties the bins and drags the full bags out back; as she wipes down windows and skirting boards, and hoovers the hopeless carpet.
Angel Evans grins all the way home. It’s the kind of grin that might be seen on the muzzle of a starving wolf that has just sighted a fat, shambling pig.
Much, much later, Angel hurls herself into the shower while singing an epic ballad about a Dwarf, a whore and a treasure chest. It contains all the jokes that one might expect, and a few that Angel added herself. She continues singing as she wraps herself in a towel and leaps onto the sofa.
The flat is noticeably cleaner—it looks less like the remains of a rhinoceros’ takeaway spree and more like a place where an actual human lives, if the human in question had a dog-sized hamster as a pet. Angel grins, practically bouncing on the protesting seat of the sofa. She calls out, singing:
“Cranberry, cranberry, cranberry. Where oh where is my cranberry?”
“Someone’s in a good mood.”
“Shiny. Like dust forming on a nebula, or the sparks on the banks of the Nameless Rivers.”
“Anything in particular bring this on?”
“I had a good day.”
Cool air twines through Angel’s drying hair and settles on her shoulders.
“We should celebrate.”
“Mmm hmmm. Let’s go out, somewhere big. There’s that barrow nearby—I bet the ghosts there would be up for a party.”
“You want to party with barrow-wights?”
“Barrow-wights are fantastic partiers. We can leave your anchor here with protections, and I’ll bring whiskey. I want to do something. Stand on a hill and scream. Light fires. Dance.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea? With the alcohol?”
“The drinks aren’t for me, Yumiko. Come on, let’s rock this place.”
Angel is almost glowing with excitement, her eyes glittering like flames. A good-natured sigh reverberates through the room.
“At least put some clothes on.”
Angel whoops, kissing the air around her before stumbling to her bedroom, the towel left like a discarded skin on the floor.
If anyone asked a young Angel Evans how to do magic, she would not have been able to answer. Likely she would have laughed it off, perhaps performed some flippant piece of illusion before winking as if it was some great secret that maybe she would share if she wanted to. A slightly older Angel Evans of, say, eighteen or so would have smiled mysteriously and invited the questioner to explore magic with her at their leisure. Later on of course, and in a private setting.
The truth was, a person might as well ask Angel Evans how to breathe. Angel studied magic, its lores and symbols and history, not to learn it but to learn how not to do it. Angel could go anywhere, settle herself into the local magic and start moving it about almost immediately: whether it moved in the direction she intended was a separate matter.
What this means, effectively, is that Angel tends to think about magic in an opposing perspective to most magic users. Whereas most of them had had to study years and years in order to build up reserves before they could even perform spells, Angel had cudgelled her mind with esoteric knowledge and secrets because she was the magical equivalent of a volcano resting on a major faultline in tectonic plates that also happened to house a dragon. If she didn’t vent, she was liable to explode.
This also means that all of her best parties take place with those who have already passed away, as she is less likely to accidentally kill them with excess magic.
“So,” Angel lectures, pouring whiskey across the soil of the largest barrow she can find, “magic is simultaneously an external and an internal force. All worlds are built on it and generate it in some way, but you have to have magic in order to affect it. It’s like… It’s like being in a room full of cellos, humming, and listening to the strings vibrate.”
The barrow-wights are only partly there, nightmarish beings that slice in and out of minds like Viking longships through water. These are mere ghouls, with little purpose and no notion of who Angel Evans is, although they are watching her with something approaching uncertainty. Yumiko is a shimmer on the air, floating in the corona of Angel’s copper hair.
“Which basically means that I can do… this.”
She upends the whiskey with a flourish and shoves her power into the surrounding leylines and webworks, making the area blaze momentarily in the vision of anyone who can see that kind of thing. The barrow-wights start gaining corporeality at an alarming rate, and Yumiko settles onto the ground beside her; a pleasantly plump and almost solid being.
“Bring on the Party of the Dead.”
“Come one, come all to the Mysterious Travelling Mirror Promenade! Meet the incredible winged cockatrice! Converse with our loquacious bear! See your soul reflected in the eyes of Zer Rathmona, our delicious prophet! Walk the hall of mirrors if you dare… Small donation required for each activity, but, Gentlepersons, surely no more than you can afford for this vivid experience. We have fire-eaters! We have gymnasts! We have Grem dancers and a troupe of fabulous flying Pictsies! This will be the show of a lifetime!”
Tarabbaht was always good at drawing a crowd; dressed in an outrageous selection of feathers and handkerchiefs with a mock-officiate’s hat perched atop her thickly curled hair, she was a walking spectacle that outshone their gaudy signs. Angel had lurked behind her, dressed in the full-body coverings typical of the Northern Undina to avoid any awkward recognition; apparently officiates took escaped prisoners far too seriously.
While Tarabbaht strutted and squawked like a phoenix in season, Angel Evans just watched. Her job was to subtly dissuade troublemakers from gaining access to their little show, and to keep an eye out for authorities that might create a fuss. It was easy but grating work; Angel sets up wards whenever they land and maintains them throughout their stay.
The Mysterious Travelling Mirror Promenade was then camped outside a completely unremarkable dragontown; high up and hard to get to, dragontowns were settlements that sprung up along dragonboat routes, and they tended to be bustling places populated by a flinty type that nonetheless liked a good drink and some entertainment. They had floated up in a convoy of featherboats, which were similarly built to dragonboats but significantly cheaper and more likely to explode.
They made good trade all day and well into the night, and it was near morning when Angel walked a final circuit and crawled into the tent that she shared with Tarabbaht and Finbar. Despite her exhaustion she had slept badly, plagued by dreams that were growing ever stronger. She had woken up to the sound of Finbar relaying gossip in his gentle, deep voice while Tarabbaht tried to decide whether it was worth staying another two nights. It went some way to soothing Angel Evans’ frayed nerves.
Finbar was still naked, and Angel remembers that she had stroked her fingers across the belt he wore at all times. He had always claimed that it was cursed; that he had once been a beautiful woman troubled by suitors, and that after refusing a warlock one too many times the man had tricked Finbar into putting on the magical belt which had instantly changed him from woman to man. Finbar had told his family that an epic quest was needed to remove the curse, ran off to join the circus and never looked back.
She had pressed slender fingers to the belt, listening to the magic running through it while Tarabbaht’s voice took on a more serious tone behind her.
“…spreading outwards. No-one’s sure what it means in the long run, but the dead just don’t stay dead there anymore. They’re not exactly aggressive, but whatever the conjuration was it should have worn off by now.”
“I don’t like it. I heard stories from some of the dragonboat crews yesterday and this goes beyond necromancy. I don’t think there are any living left in the Town of the Friendly Skulls.”
“And the officiates just keep ignoring it.”
“They say it’ll pass like any other plague. I reckon we should be ready to scramble—the Dwarfs are worried, which worries me.”
“One more night here maybe, then let’s move up.”
Only half-awake, Angel’s mind had mixed the conversation with the leftover fragments of her dream, twisting the pieces this way and that as if they were jewels. Something there was screaming at her to put the pieces together and make sense of them, but the puzzle had remained out of her grasp. She had burrowed backward into Tarabbaht while pulling Finbar closer, making him chuckle.
Angel Evans hadn’t known then, she had imagined that whatever storm was coming would simply wash over them. She had slept for another few hours, held between her friends like something precious. And even if she had known that Finbar and Tarabahht were going to die, she wouldn’t have known what to say to them.
The hangover clenches Angel’s head like a furious dog, growling whenever she moves. She had woken up alone among the barrows, shivering and drenched in mud. Staggering home had taken an age, and she had propped herself in the shower before rolling around on her previously abandoned towel and retreating to her bed.
Yumiko is somewhere, but she is forebodingly silent. It’s not that Angel did anything wrong, exactly; or that’s what she is telling herself. She never promised not to summon the Wild Hunt and riddle her way home. It is not as if there was an agreement in place stating that Angel Evans, struggling ex-addict, was going to avoid shadowmancers if one just happened to turn up. And maybe duelling was a little addictive, and maybe it had been a while and Angel wasn’t as sharp as usual, but damn it! It wasn’t Angel’s fault that these things had happened.
Even hungover from magic use, the ginger doesn’t exactly believe herself. She whimpers into her pillow, feeling as if the party has left her scooped out and empty, meaning that now there is nothing left to shield her from perpetual guilt. Among the crushing weight of several billion lives abruptly severed, the pain of upsetting Yumiko stings like lemon juice dripped on an open wound.
To say that work is hellish would be an understatement of the greatest kind. Angel wants to scream with every step. Each squirt of her spray bottle, swab of the mop, swipe of the cloth is a painful drag that is achieved only by habit. Yumiko’s silence haunts her.
She exits the pub still filled with a muted horror and steps into persistent drizzle. Angel stands for a moment before fumbling with her lighter, swearing when someone intones her name. She lights her roll up, breathing out smoke, and demands:
“Lillian. This is my associate Garth. Ignore anything he says.”
Angel Evans narrows her eyes at the strange pair. On the surface, Lillian is a severe and scarred woman in a wheelchair, and Garth is a dark and sensually shambolic man glinting with jewellery. Both burn with latent power. Both remind her of people she knew before.
“Not interested,” says Angel as she strides away, nicotine hitting her throat like a scrumptious freight train. Lillian’s precise voice stalls her.
“Do you think you’re the only one who’s ever had to end a world? Or save one?”
“Are you going to tell me you know what I’m going through?” Angel’s voice is flat.
“Nah. That would be lies. But mebbe we knows someone as knows someone, feel me?” Says Garth.
“What do you want from me?” Angel asks.
“Let us help you. Let us take you to someone who can help,” says Lillian.
Angel Evans exhales. She thinks of prophets, dying as she was born and recoiling from her in life. She thinks of Gud and his beer, his necessarily secret lovers. Of magicians and officiates and circuses. She thinks of all the time she spent running, and she thinks of Yumiko; quiet and constant, cleaning up after Angel’s breakdowns.
“It… It isn’t a good time. I was stupid and I’ve upset my girlfriend,” says Angel.
“When is it ever going t’be a good time?”
Garth’s voice carries no judgement, which is probably why Angel folds. She turns back and walks to them.
“Fine. But if this is a set up, I will crush you both.”
“That seems a little extreme,” says Lillian, wheeling smoothly down the alley.
“It’s been a trying day,” retorts Angel.
“Was’t the wights or the shadowmancer duel that got the best of you?” asks Garth.
“I’m going to ignore that,” mutters Angel
“Got a spare rollie?” Garth asks
“Seriously?” Snaps Angel
“Garth. Shut up,” says Lillian
“Ya love me really,” he replies, smiling.
The three of them vanish into enfolding darkness, witnessed only by a wild-eyed tramp.
Angel Evans has been to hidden places before; to circles, orbs, caves that only the lost can find. To standing stones. None of them have ever been this comfortable. It is as if she has walked into someone’s kitchen, and the kitchen just happens to be inside a dolmen.
A dark woman wearing a cardigan and green wellies has given Angel a steaming mug of tea, and now sits across a table from her holding a mug of her own. The two of them watch each other, and neither has yet made a move to drink any of the beverage.
“So how does this work then?”Asks Angel.
“Tea before magic,” the woman says.
Angel raises her chipped mug and slugs the tea back in one go; the trick is swallowing before it has time to burn. She replaces the mug on the table and cocks an eyebrow.
The cardiganed woman sighs, and sips her tea delicately before wrapping earthy hands around the mug.
“Dear, I can’t help you unless you let me.”
“You haven’t offered anything yet.”
“And I heard you were sharp! Young woman, who do you think has been looking out for you while you’ve been here? Surely you realise that that noisy magic you do garners attention? Now, you say you don’t want to be found, but lately you’ve not put much effort into hiding. We’ve had all kinds trying to break in looking for you dear; who do you think has been keeping them out?”
“I never asked you to do that.”
“No, you didn’t. You don’t ask for a lot do you?”
“What do you want?”
“That’s not the question here. What do you want? Do you want to heal?”
“You talk like I’m wounded.”
Angel opens her mouth to retort, then shuts it. The headache growls behind her eyes, and she regrets drinking her tea so fast: there is now no escape from the sharp gaze being levelled at her.
“It’s been two years,” Angel whispers.
“And you lived there for twenty-six.”
Angel Evans leans forward and cups her forehead with stained fingers. The other woman sips at her tea.
“I killed an entire world. I killed my world. How am I meant to live with that?”
“Most people don’t.”
“Every other world alive is alive because of what you did.”
“But my world is gone.”
“Yes dear, it is. And in the scheme of things it was just a world. Do you know how many worlds die every day? How many are born?”
“In the scheme of things, you’re just a lass. One lass. Existence doesn’t care much for any single person once they’ve fulfilled their purpose.”
“‘Fulfilled their purpose’?”
“You had to make a choice.”
“It was hardly a choice.”
“Everything is a choice. You are one of the most powerful people around, easily strong enough to topple some of those so-called gods. You could have kept your world alive.”
“No! I couldn’t. The magic, the necromancy, I… It was everywhere, it would have spread everywhere.”
“Yes, it would have. And the other worlds would have crumbled away until only one reality was left; yours.”
Angel Evans is white as stone, her eyes hard.
“That wasn’t a choice.”
Angel’s form trembles, wavers. There’s a flash of grey and scarlet. The suggestion of building and bird bleeds through.
“I didn’t come here to listen to this shit.”
“Oh pipe down, you’re as bad as Garth. Always flashing his feathers that boy.”
“I’ve fought. I’ve travelled. I’ve ended worlds. What can you possibly teach me?”
Aged eight, Angel Evans ran through a garden full of plants taller than she was. Her shoes were abandoned and there were stains on her fine tunic. Near the wall stood a young oak, vibrant and inviting. She scrambled up it as if she had done so thousands of times before, although this was the first time.
Outside the wall is a world that looked, to Angel, enormous. In her mind the child shrank down to the size of a raindrop. She hesitated, there at the top of the wall, before scrambling down the outside and into the world. She landed on hands and feet, poised like a cat, then scampered away. Hours passed before she was missed and the panicking began.
Afterwards, Angel stands by the sea thinking. It’s uncomfortable. When she looks back at her life, she realises that she has spent most of it running. Angel Evans barely remembers the people who named her. Some days she thinks that her life started when her feet hit the ground outside her family’s holding, and that before that she didn’t exist. She’s moved place to place, job to job, person to person, and whenever anything became tricky she left.
Mostly, she thinks this was fine. Knowing when to run is a valuable trait. She’ll always regret not saying goodbye to Gud, not being able to explain that she had not purposefully caused the death of their prophet. Otherwise… Well, she can’t change the past, but maybe she can learn. And as far as she can tell, Angel Evans has never stood and fought for something that she wants. She’s never built.
She wonders if she can change that.
This is a space that breathes. It looks like a spherical room, apart from the times when it looks like something else entirely. It is utterly striking, and yet almost impossible to describe. There is a sound here, as if something were steadily growing and also dying away. Sometimes it seems as if vast beings are swimming in and out of this place, beings hundreds of times greater than a blue whale.
Angel knows that this space appears differently to everyone. It is so far beyond what most beings can comprehend that they simply see whatever makes sense to them. Angel Evans sees roots, reaching in from all directions and tangling together in a great ball. They are world-roots, connecting all of existence together. Below and between and around them is the mulch of dead matter, and the occasional stark space where one has disappeared.
Angel Evans reaches toward one of these gaps, placing something there, then turns and leaves. A white rose gleams in among the roots.
When she arrives home, the flat is immaculate. Angel hesitates in the doorway before striding in.
There is no reply. Angel sighs, and collapses onto the sofa before speaking to the seemingly empty room.
“I fucked up. I fucked up and I’m sorry. You’re always looking out for me and I just… I take it for granted. I take you for granted and I shouldn’t. I just assume that however badly I mess shit up you’ll be there and that isn’t fair of me.
“I’m so lucky to have you. You’re all I’ve got. Sometimes I’m scared by how much I love you and you… You make me feel not guilty about being happy when everything’s gone.”
“I quit the cleaning job. It’s shit. Like, I’m literally picking up other people’s shit and I’m not doing that anymore. There’s a practical mechanics course that I want to apply for—I figure it’d be good to do something with my hands again. I used to be pretty decent with them.”
“What happened, speckle-face?”
“I met someone. And I actually listened. And I’m trying this thing where I’m honest about how I feel and I stop punishing myself and think about what I actually want to do, not what I did before.”
“How long will that last?”
Yumiko laughs, and warm air brushes against Angel’s face. The redhead relaxes.
“I was worried about you,” Yumiko murmurs.
“I don’t mind you partying with barrow-wights and the Wild Hunt and so on. I just worry that someday you’ll see something shiny and go off without me.”
“Never. I just. No. I can’t begin to imagine living without you.”
“I can’t imagine being dead without you.”
Angel Evans snorts. Yumiko giggles. Angel laughs, and then both are bursting with laughter, loud and raucous. It is some minutes before they calm down. Angel wipes water from her eyes.
“What a pair of saps.”
“Come on, let’s look up college applications before I lose my nerve.”
The laptop floats over and flips up. Angel starts typing, and Yumiko settles around her like an invisible hug.
Throughout many worlds, the nexus-spaces slowly became known as Rose-Rooms, though not many could say why.
On a wet, wild day, Angel Evans stamps toward home from her first ever college interview. The damp air is clinging to her hair and her face, dripping along her neck. She stops outside a closed shop, peering into the doorway. She recognises the person huddled there, can smell their power beneath the reek of alcohol and filth.
The young woman digs in her pocket and shoves some notes toward the person, who squints at her.
“You’re not crazy,” Angel says firmly, “Don’t ever let them tell you that. You’ve just got vision, and most everyone here is blind.”
“I know that.” The tramp says, tucking the money away firmly.
Angel laughs, a short bark of surprise, before walking on. The tramp shakes their head, and settles back into their tatty sleeping bag.
When Angel Evans was born, she was beset by a troubling number of prophecies. It was twenty-nine years before she realised that they were now totally meaningless. What she would do next is anyone’s guess.
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