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A Comet Pulled From Orbit

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Being alone never felt right. Sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.

—Charles Bukowski



Alice Quinn woke up.

This was an unexpected development, considering the events of mere moments ago. Specifically the agonizing thirty seconds she’d spent bleeding out on the carpet, wondering in an abstract sort of way how long it would be before someone thought to look for her and found her mangled corpse tucked into the corner of a Brakebills Library study room, surrounded by the shredded remains of several large magical tomes, and her carefully collated notes.

Her notes.

Fuck.

Setting aside the disturbing fact that she really ought to be dead, Alice sat up, turning her head slowly around the room and beholding the confetti that had once been her dissertation research. The room looked exactly as it should; i.e., like a magical bomb had just exploded inside of it. Melted highlighters were stuck to the tacky carpet, scraps of singed paper still hung from the colorful binder clips she’d spent several thoughtful minutes selecting at Staples, and the finer, powdery remains of old library books rained down on her like snowflakes. The walls were covered in a sparse spray of red and black and blue from a brand new set of pens, and a single survivor of the carnage, a half-used yellow Post-it stack, had somehow wound up wedged in the corner near the door.

And to think, she’d always kind of liked the Brakebills technology ban, the way working long-hand had forced her to think carefully about how to use her time. Who needed a computer? Who needed a backup hard drive when one had magic and the true scholarly experience of clicking open a fresh ball-point and pressing the tip to a clean white sheet of paper?

She was fucked. She hadn’t brought all of her notes with her today, of course, but she’d brought enough, and she hadn’t gotten around to making copies of most of it.

She was fucked.

She was also breathing, and that… didn’t make any sense at all, did it? Carefully, sure she was about to feel a delayed pain reaction strong enough to knock her out, Alice brought herself to her feet. She felt completely normal. But her hands were sticky from pressing to whatever tacky substance had melted into the fibers of the carpet, and when she brought them up to eye level, she nearly screamed aloud at the sight of the blood.

Swallowing, she looked back down and saw that the carpet under her was drenched in the stuff. In her own life’s blood. In the blood that needed to be pumping through her body at this exact moment, if one wanted to explain the being-alive part of this whole bizarre experience. Closing her eyes and willing herself to keep calm, she mentally retraced her steps.

She’d arrived at her favorite study room, tucked into the back corner of the library’s second story. She’d warded the room for privacy and quiet, hoping to keep her students at bay, set out her notes in neat stacks perpendicular to the edge of the table, opened her thermos of coffee and poured out a cup. Then a few standard phrases muttered in Latin, her fingers twirling over the library text in front of her. A basic spell, one she’d done dozens if not hundreds of times, designed to catch any potential traps waiting for her within the old leather binding. And then, she’d opened Never Truste the Abyss: An Beginners Guide to Light Magicke and The Horrifieing Manner of Deathe that Awaites Those Who Seeke the Darkeness.

And it had exploded in her face.

Time had behaved very strangely, at that point. For what felt like several long seconds but what must have been no real time at all, Alice couldn’t feel a thing. She couldn’t react, couldn’t move, couldn’t process. And then something kicked in, previously unused receptors in her brain lighting up in order to contain the enormity of the experience. The pain had been blinding, a gasping, unbelievable sensation of torn flesh and stinging lacerations. She’d felt as if a hole had been punched straight through her chest.

Because… a hole had been punched straight through her chest. She was almost sure of it, and if the bloody, torn remains of her cardigan had anything to say about it, she was right. There was no way she could have survived it. And even if by some miracle she had, there was no way she’d be standing right now, feeling thoroughly shaken and horrified and nauseated, but otherwise unharmed.

“Oh my god,” Alice said, because it felt like she should say something, if only to make sure she remembered how. She was going to throw up, probably. Another thing for someone to clean. Blood and vomit and blood and pen ink and blood and her fucking notes— “Oh my god—”

Alice was a magician. She was a damn good magician, and the first thing a damn good magician did when she was in a terrifying, blood-covered, potentially-still-dangerous situation, was run some tests.

Shaking out her bloodstained hands and glaring at them until they stopped trembling, Alice lifted them and traced her fingers in a simple revelation spell, jerking her pinky just so, to bring the blurry room into magical focus. Her glasses hadn’t survived the explosion, no surprise, but she didn’t need them for something as obvious as this. It was a matter of seconds to confirm what she already knew: the book had been rigged to kill, and she, Master-Magician-in-Training, promising young inheritor of the Quinn family legacy, had somehow failed to notice.

Dean Fogg was not going to be pleased. How was she going to explain this to her colleagues? To the board? They’d have questions, they’d want to run tests: the complex, time-consuming, painful kinds of tests for which you had to consent in writing, even though it was obvious they were compulsory, that you’d be ejected from magical society entirely if you didn’t comply, like a Brakebills student who couldn’t hack it getting thrown out on their ass after only a couple of weeks of magic, and—

Alice sat on the floor. Abruptly. Her legs were wobbling, the room was fizzing and shaking and blurring around her, and there was a strange tearing sound coming from somewhere in the room, like paper ripping, or wind rushing out of a hole in the wall. It took her a disturbing amount of time to realize it was coming out of her own mouth. Wet, gasping breaths of disbelief and terror, as her body processed the undeniable reality that Alice’s mind was only now starting to believe.

She had been dead.

She had died.

And now she was alive.

But maybe it wasn’t so bad—these things happened, didn’t they? Magicians had meddled with the boundaries of life and death before. There were flesh golems and spirit transfers and body possession… all dark, menacing, unnatural: the kinds of things a person couldn’t do without getting all the wrong kinds of attention. But it was possible. The veil of death was malleable for those in tune with the magical arts. At least she wasn’t a Niffin, right?

…But what if she was? How would she know? What would being a Niffin feel like? And if she was one, what did she do next? She couldn’t leave this room, that was clear. If she did, and she was nothing more than the being of Pure Shade-less Magic formerly known as Alice Quinn, she’d be sure to murder her annoying students on sight, the moment they approached her with their inane, distracting chatter.

She could see it playing out in front of her like a movie: first year David Helberson would approach her, and he’d ogle her tits while he was asking her some pointless question about transliterating the old Latin use-case spellwork for basic transmutation spells into modern Farsi so as to incorporate the technique developed in the 1780’s by the famed coalition of magicians known as—well, it didn’t matter, he’d be asking her some idiotic follow-up question that Alice would definitely have already covered in great detail during the lecture, and his eyes would keep drifting south, and Alice would fight the urge to cross her arms, which her mother told her she should do more often because it actually pushed her breasts up and made her look even more like a stern librarian and if you’re going to dress like that, dear, you might as well let it work for you, and then she’d snap David’s scrawny little neck with her superpowers, just to get him to shut up.

And. She didn’t want to do that. Right? She didn’t. And that meant something. A Niffin probably wouldn’t care about curbing homicidal impulses. A Niffin probably wouldn’t be having a panic attack, a Niffin would be… well, she didn’t know what a Niffin would do, which meant she probably wasn’t one.

Alice didn’t know who she was or who she wanted to be, most of the time, but that was a pre-existing condition, definitely not related to the current catastrophe. Maybe there was a perfectly rational explanation for spontaneous resurrection after death via book-explosion. Maybe once she’d gotten cleaned up, and gotten some rest, she could be reasonable about this, and decide on her next move.

In a trance, Alice waved her hands over herself, chanting a series of basic couplets in Hebrew, then switching to Italian for a final flourish. Her clothing repaired itself, holes sewn up in her tights over the bloody places on her legs where wounds should have been, her grey sweater regrowing, the blood siphoning out of the coarse fabric and misting into the air. It was a matter of minutes to make herself look presentable, a few extra wrist-flicks to pop new lenses into the formerly mangled frames of her glasses, a quick hand petting down her hair to smooth the disordered strands.

The room itself would need a lot more work. Wincing at the shortcut, Alice shook out her rusty illusion magic, unpracticed since taking a few Brakebills electives back in her second year. As she worked, the blood vanished from the carpet and walls; the destroyed remains of months and months of laborious study and neatly organized office supplies disappeared without a trace. The result was definitely shoddy. If anyone came into this study room and did the simplest Mann Reveal, they’d see the carnage instantly. It would have been better to use her own specialty, but phosphoromancy was time-consuming when you wanted to hold it in stasis, given the changing conditions of the ambient light, and if she had to stay in this room for another five minutes she’d… Well. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. This would have to be good enough. Someone walking by, glancing through the tiny window in the door at an unused study room, would see nothing amiss. It should hold through the night, at least, until Alice decided what to do next.

She should really tell someone, consequences be damned. It was irresponsible to keep such a dangerous secret. She had no idea what she was capable of. No idea what had happened to her, if she was a ticking time bomb in some manner she hadn’t yet considered.

But Alice didn’t tell anyone.

She didn’t run to the dean, or to Professor Lipson, who might at least have checked her over for signs of internal bleeding. Instead, Alice walked out the door of the library, ignoring the student working the front desk, and marched to a building perpendicularly situated across the Sea. The faculty building, and Alice’s tiny quarters within them, were severe and unwelcoming, sparse and always too chilly, no matter how many warming charms she wove into the floor. Alice hadn’t even bothered to decorate, beyond a single framed picture of herself and her older brother Charlie, sitting on the mantle. She passed it on the way to her room, gave it a tired smile, and then kicked off her ballet flats, collapsing face-first onto her comforter.

In the morning, she’d panic again. In the morning, she’d come up with a plan.

For now, she’d sleep. She had to. She’d never been more bone-deep exhausted in her entire life, and that was saying something. Evidently, coming back from the dead could really take it out of a person.

***

Alice dreamed.

She dreamed of a penthouse with high ceilings and crystal chandeliers and the types of couches that look more like art than furniture. It had an open floor plan with large smooth pillars, and floor-to-ceiling windows along one side with a sprawling view of the Hudson River in the near distance. The earliest hints of dawn had turned the sky outside pearl-grey. The interior looked show-room ready, with stark white and minimalist bookshelves lining one wall, shiny hardcover books displayed to their best advantage, expensive crystal vases and paperweights filling in the gaps in artful arrangement.

And yet… there were signs, too, of habitation, a pair of worn tennis shoes by the door, a few spine-cracked paperbacks tossed onto the shelves next to the pristine classics, a jacket slung over the back of a barstool.

The most obvious sign of habitation was, of course, the inhabitants: sprawled in front of an uncomfortable looking white couch with an uneven curved back, were two exhausted-looking men, hair mussed and fully dressed except for their shoes. There was an unzipped duffel sitting on the couch behind their heads. One of the men, tall, lean, with dark curly hair, was lying out full-length on a shag rug, his head resting in the lap of the other, a man with nearly shoulder-length light brown hair and serious eyes. They were in the middle of an animated conversation. The man sitting up was waving his hands in the air as he talked, while his partner looked up at him from his position of repose.

Alice couldn’t hear what they were saying; the dream was soundless. But she got the sense of it somehow, anyway.

The shorter man was in full-swing as he gesticulated, his eyes wide and his expression animated as he tried to convince his companion of something important. Something exciting. He didn’t look angry, precisely, but definitely determined, and maybe slightly on edge. You can’t be just a little bit excited about this, can you? You’re determined to suspect the worst

Well, forgive me for my caution, sweetheart, but you can’t exactly ignore the precedent

And yet you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world, would you? Imagine if we’d stayed away back when

The man lying down swung an arm up and caught one of his companion’s wrists, bringing his hand to his lips and pressing a kiss to his palm. I’m here, aren’t I?

Be more than here. Be here-here, and don’t be a dick.

The curly-haired man sighed and rolled his cheek into the denim-clad leg under him. Okay.

Okay?

Yes, okay, you’ve convinced me. An affectionate eye-roll took over the man’s handsome, classical features. You could convince me of anything when you look at me like that.

Like what? Don’t be cute right now, this is my serious face.

And it’s a fearsome sight to behold, as always.

The other man frowned, clearly suspicious of his victory, but then he tilted forward, curving his torso over his partner’s face and pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose.

They were both smiling as their lips connected into a proper kiss, a slow, simmering thing that made Alice uneasy, like she’d accidentally witnessed something sacred, turning it profane by her very presence. They were beautiful together, contorting themselves to make the kiss work instead of bothering to untangle so the taller man could sit up.

And then the scene shifted to a bedroom, where a gorgeous woman in a satin nightie was stretching out in golden sheets, a tangled mass of bronze-brown hair spilling out onto the pillows behind her. Another woman walked in from an adjoining bathroom, naked, fresh from a shower and toweling off her own dark tresses, then leaned to briefly kiss the woman in bed, straightening up before the late riser’s hands could grasp her and pull her back down.

I don’t want to work today, said the woman in bed, and the other huffed at her over her shoulder.

You don’t want to work any day, unless you get to kick someone’s ass.

I’ve had less than two hours of sleep, which I find unacceptable. Shouldn’t I be practicing my delegation skills? Aren’t you always telling me to share the load?

As if you’d miss this for anything in the world.

Alice watched, a ghost trapped in restless sleep, as each of them got dressed with the practiced comfort of two humans who have long since memorized the routines of each other’s lives, dancing around the shared space with ease.

First impressions? the slightly shorter of the two women asked, as she pulled a light green blouse over her head, the sheer fabric clinging to her curves.

She’s a baby.

Of course she is. We all were, once.

Blasphemy! the woman who hadn’t wanted to get out of bed turned a pouting expression on the other. I was never so young, it isn’t possible.

Her companion laughed at her. If I agree with you, you’ll only be insulted. You are an ageless goddess, as you always have been. I say so under protest, howeveryou know I abhor being bullied into paying compliments.

Maybe you should volunteer them more often, then, hm? After a companionable pause, she spoke again: I’m serious, she’s so young. It’s positively tragic. What will we do with her?

A shrug. What we always do, I suppose.

And what’s that?

A thoughtful beat. A sigh.

I don’t know. What we can.

Alice was not aware of her body, here in the dream that wasn’t a dream, but she felt the psychic equivalent of a shiver dart up her spine. They were talking about her, and somehow she knew it. She wanted to reach out to them, demand answers, but the scene was shifting again.

She was back in the living room. The two men were up on the couch now, the taller of them with his arm wrapped around the shorter, their bodies folded into each other, heads resting together. The curly-haired man had his fingers tangled in the other’s hair, pulling gently through the strands. They looked like they could fall asleep that way, and Alice wondered if they had a room here too, like the women—if this was their home.

The front door slammed, and another woman came striding in from the entryway, her hair in wild curls, combat boots clomping inelegantly against the hardwood floors.

The men broke apart and turned to face her, as she waved a manila folder in the air, a vague greeting, and then walked past them, throwing herself onto a barstool and slapping the folder onto the granite countertop of the kitchen island.

Well? one of the men asked.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened one of them and grimaced over at the couch. Brakebills.

Great. An excellent, auspicious, totally unproblematic sign.

The shorter man furrowed his brow as he looked between the two of them. That doesn’t mean anything, you can’t judge someone you’ve never met.

Sure I can, the other man said, wrapping his arm back around his partner and pulling him in tight. I’m very good at it, in fact.

No, your better half’s right, it might be a good thing, the woman said. At least she’s got to be trained. She has an affinity for blowing shit up. Could be an asset.

I wouldn’t say an affinity, the curly-haired man said with a twitching frown. By definition, she messed it up about as badly as a person can, unless she was intending to shuffle off this mortal coil, in which case

I’ll get the others, the woman interrupted, and we can decide who’s going to go. She walked past them, down the hall, to fetch—

Alice woke up.

***

She stayed in bed for an hour, sitting up with her arms wrapped around her knees. She tried to convince herself that yesterday had been nothing more than a dramatic close call, the dream nothing more than a dream.

It didn’t work. A muggle might have been able to walk themselves back from the truth. People who lived in ignorance of magic often found ways to contort their minds around things they couldn’t explain. It was a defense mechanism against the unknown, one Alice had always pitied. Right about now, it sounded pretty good. Maybe if she stayed here and pretended hard enough, she’d find the strength to get up, take a shower, put on some fresh clothes and a fresh face, and lead the scheduled 9 o’clock Phosphoromancy Lab as planned. Then she’d get lunch. She’d do her office hours. And she’d go back to the library, maybe finish outlining the second section of her dissertation. She could even take an hour in the evening and visit the workspace set aside for her in the Applied Science Building, run a couple refracted portals, add some practical data to her developing theorem.

But this was nonsense, of course. Alice was a scholar. Alice was the proud owner of a rational mind. It was the only thing about herself she genuinely liked most of the time. Last night, she’d inadvertently killed herself in an explosion, and then she’d come back to life. Last night, she’d dreamed of people who had answers. And there was no path forward from that, other than finding those people, and asking for their help.

And before she could do any of that, she had to clean up her mess. So, after a long shower and a helpful Hangover Charm to combat the pounding tension headache at the base of her skull, she sent a note to her TA that she’d have to miss the morning lab, and started out for the library.

The fucked up thing was—one of the many many fucked up things was—Alice was pretty sure she had recognized one of the women in the dream. The curly-haired one, the one who had said Brakebills with an open look of revulsion. It was out of context, it made no sense, but Alice knew her somehow.

She was almost positive the woman hadn’t ever been a Brakebills student, but she had definitely known about the place. All of the people in the dream must have been magicians, but that was about the only datapoint she had to work with.

Alice wished she knew more about psychic magic. She’d have to ask Professor Purchas to tell her more about dream manipulation, about the kind of power needed to link strangers through their minds. Her own mental wards were solid enough, but clearly she was dealing with magic beyond anything she’d ever studied at Brakebills.

The library was startling in its sameness. It felt inconceivable somehow, that the quiet, drafty, poorly lit building could be the same as it was when Alice had left it the night before, like the world really hadn’t shifted on its axis for anyone but her.

Returning here was a risk, but a necessary one. Alice felt like a criminal, walking up the stairs to the second floor in the light of early morning, her head held high and her jaw clenched tight, going to hide the evidence of her own self-murder and self-miraculous resurrection.

And all because she’d fudged the pronunciation of a single syllable, before opening that damn book. All because she hadn’t taken a pause to double-check her own work.

Alice hadn’t been her best self lately. She’d been… better, but not her best self. She wasn’t even that surprised to discover she’d made a stupid mistake checking for traps. She’d been running on no sleep, shitty coffee, and manufactured, fraying interest in her dissertation topic. In other words, she’d been overdue for a mistake. Maybe not this big of a mistake, but still. She was lucky, in more ways than one, to be alive.

She didn’t feel lucky.

She felt—

There were people in the study room.

“Shit.”

Shit shit shit.

There were people in the study room, with her shoddy illusion magic probably already crumbling around the edges; they were trodding in her congealed blood, they were walking around on the hidden remains of her research, they were—

“Alice Quinn?” a woman’s voice hissed from behind the door. “Get in here.”

Alice was too tired, too scared, too legitimately freaked out to even think about resisting, and the next thing she knew, she was in the study room, at the scene of her own death, staring at two disturbingly familiar women as the door swung shut behind her.

“You—” she said, gaping. “You were—”

“Hi!” one of the women said, way too loud. Alice hoped they had thought to put up fresh privacy wards. “Hi, oh my god. Hi. I’m Julia Wicker.” And she held out her hand for Alice to shake.

Alice stared at her, and felt her face grow hot. The last time she’d seen this woman, it had been in her dream, and she’d been stark naked. “Um.”

“And this is Kady,” Julia said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, other hand still held out for Alice. The curly-haired woman from the dream was also there, her fingers forming a square, viewing the room through the magical spectrum.

“Um,” Alice repeated. She was at a loss. Belatedly, blinking in stupefaction, she took a step forward and grasped Julia’s hand. “Hi. I’m Alice Quinn. What the fuck is going on?” There. That was a good start.

The woman—Julia—grinned at her, clearly delighted. “Cutting straight to the chase. I love that.”

“Damn,” the other woman said, squinting through the window of her fingers. “You really did a number on this place.”

“I didn’t…” Alice began, but what was the point of denying it? They’d found her here, they knew her name. She was at a steep disadvantage. “...mean to,” she finished, lamely.

“Hmm, yeah, we figured,” Julia said. “Okay, well, we should get this cleaned up real quick, and then we’ll be on our way?”

“What—I was going to go find you,” Alice said stupidly. “I need your help. I need answers.”

“And we’re here to provide,” Julia said with a bright smile. “But not here, okay? This place tends to put people like us on edge.”

“People like—” Alice blinked and cleared her throat. She didn’t like feeling off guard. She didn’t like being the least informed person in the room. “How did you guys even find me here? How did you get past the campus wards?”

Julia scoffed audibly, a look of sparkling amusement in her eyes. “Please. I invented the damn wards. Not that I was eager to visit, but there’s nothing any of the current crop of master magicians could do to stop me.”

Julia put air-quotes around master magicians, which Alice did not care for at all.

Alice bit the inside of her cheek hard, to avoid stuttering out another incomplete, inane question. Her blood was boiling. It was probably fear, but it felt like anger, and somehow that was easier to deal with.

“What is happening, right now?” she hissed out. “Did you do this to me? What’s going on, why did I dream about you? And what do you mean you invented—”

A hand landed on her shoulder. Alice jerked away from it, but Kady held firm, curling her fingers and ducking her head so she could meet Alice’s eyes. “You’re okay. We’re here to help.”

“I have no reason to believe you,” Alice said. The words had been kindly enough, the look in Kady’s eyes calming and sincere, but there was condescension there too. These women held all the power. Alice had nothing.

Hands shaking, she took a backwards step towards the door, flickering her gaze between the two women. Alice didn’t know any real battle magic, of course—Brakebills didn’t allow it. But she could put up a damn good shield if needed, and maybe that would give her time to run, in the event these people revealed themselves to be psychic criminals who had implanted false experiences in her brain for some nefarious, heretofore undiscovered purpose.

Not the most substantiated, as far as theories went, but Alice was, as previously mentioned, not at her best.

“We should clean up,” Julia said, contemplative, and she waved a hand, wordlessly dispelling the remains of Alice’s illusion, revealing the sickening remains of last night’s carnage. “And then we can go somewhere more comfortable and explain your new life. I promise we’ll answer all your questions, Alice.”

“My new life,” Alice repeated, blank. “Who the fuck says I’m going anywhere with you?”

Julia, who had been raising her hands into the familiar first formation for Lucier’s Cleaning Charm, dropped them and looked over her shoulder at Alice, an amused, excited glint in her eye. “Didn’t you just say you were coming to find us, looking for answers? We saved you a step.”

“Jules,” Kady said, and she looked over at Alice with an eye-roll, like they were sharing a joke at Jules’ expense. “You’re moving too fast.”

Julia looked at Kady for a moment and sighed, smile fading away as she turned to Alice. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry about that, Alice. I’m quite excitable, it’s one of my many flaws.”

Alice didn’t know what to say. She had planned on looking for these people. But somehow, despite the conversations she’d heard in her dream, she’d pictured herself tracking them down, doing this on her own terms. They’d put her on edge by showing up like this. She’d lost her composure, and that made it even harder to make a rational decision about next steps.

She needed them to help her. She had no desire to stay here in this room, or really, on this campus. But going with them to a secondary location seemed like a risk, too.

“First thing,” Kady said, with a friendly nod to Alice, “let’s get this cleaned up, yeah?”

Alice winced as she looked around the room, eyes drawn inexorably to the large dark stain on the carpet. She looked up at Kady and nodded, ready to help, but instead Kady turned away from her, facing Julia.

In what looked like choreographed movement, the two women lifted their hands and waved them in complicated, intricate patterns. Kady said something clipped and measured in German, and Alice thought she recognized the familiar basic cleaning charm she’d learned well before first year. But Julia’s hands deviated from the expected pattern after a couple of tuts, and Kady was mirroring her in an odd way. The words were off, too, the dialect strange and oddly accented.

Whatever it was they were doing, it was working. Before her very eyes, the room was putting itself back in order. A splintered chair-leg healed itself, the blood uncoagulated, misted up out of the carpet, and vanished, in a larger version of what Alice had done to her sweater the night before. Within a minute, she was standing in the study room, and it looked exactly the way it had yesterday, as she’d entered it and swung her heavy messenger bag over her shoulder, unpacking books and stacks of notes from its depths.

It helped. Alice was still rattled, her throat tight, her eyes stinging. But without the visual reminder of what had happened, she could grasp the faintest wisp of composure. Leaning with her back against the door, she looked closely at the two women. They were studying her too, a wariness to them that made Alice feel like a skittish doe in the woods. They weren’t afraid of her: they were afraid of scaring her.

And knowing that… what did it tell her?

“Who are you?” she finally said, letting the fear and exhaustion bleed out in the words. “And… and who am I?”

Julia smiled, and it was a sad thing. Alice clenched her fists at her sides to stop them from trembling. “You’re Alice Quinn,” Julia said, soft and sure. “And you’re one of us.”

“What does that mean?”

Kady and Julia looked at each other, clearly hesitant, and Alice’s throat closed tight, hair standing up on the back of her neck. It was so rare to anticipate a life-changing moment before it actually happened. To be in the crystal clear surety of it, weightless on the edge of a cliff. She wasn’t sure she was a fan.

“Maybe just say it,” Alice said, swallowing and pinning them both with as even-keeled a look as she could manage. “Tell me what’s happening to me.”

And Julia said it.

“Well, Alice, you’re an immortal. Welcome to the club.”

***

Predictably, Alice had had some questions.

There had been some rather incredulous and incoherent demands for the real truth. There had been a pocket knife, and a line drawn along Kady’s forearm, and the instantaneous stitching together of skin. There had been a sepia-toned, remarkably convincing photograph of Julia Wicker, hair styled into a bob, with a faded June 1926 penciled on the back, produced from the back pocket of present-day-Julia-Wicker’s jeans.

There had been the quiet words—you can’t die, you won’t age—and Alice’s immediate, visceral reaction to it—but I don’t want that.

There had been some sympathetic looks.

There had been some crying.

And now, Alice was walking through the woods surrounding Brakebills University, taking in big swallows of the sharp October air, following two complete strangers towards a portal location she had never heard of, trying to let the truth sink in.

“How old are you?” she asked, reduced to saying the questions out loud as fast as she could think of them.

She’d asked a lot of why and how questions back in the study room, and on the walk to her quarters, and while she was packing up a bag for her impromptu (and insanely ill-advised) trip into the city. Why me? Why the rest of you? What does it mean? Why would magic do this? How does it work? And she’d gotten a lot of noncommittal responses. Alice didn’t think the vagueness was intentional, it was more that Julia, much like herself, really despised having to say the words “I don’t know.”

So now Alice was changing tack, asking concrete questions with definitive answers. How many of us are there? Only six, apparently, including Alice. Where are you taking me? To the place she’d seen in her dreams, the lavish lap of panoramic luxury in the Upper West Side. And now—

Julia glanced over her shoulder, leading the way through the trees. “Moi? Why, I’m older than the wind, darling.”

“She’s being an ass,” Kady said, before Alice could press harder. “She likes to drag it out. I, personally, like telling it like it is.”

“So how old are you, then?” Alice asked, turning to Kady. She had another flash of recognition, like she’d had in the dream, but her mind was so awash with other things that the nagging familiarity hardly seemed worth any attention.

“I was born in seventeen ninety-nine,” Kady replied promptly, and Alice choked on nothing, stumbling over a root on the uneven path. Kady’s hand reached out and wrapped around her elbow, steadying her, and Alice coughed, keeping pace and trying not to burst into hysterical giggles.

“And when did you stop aging? How did you first—” she paused, considering. “Sorry, is that like, a personal thing to ask?” She was working without a rulebook, here. Another thing she hated.

“Very,” Julia said from in front of them. “I like you, Alice Quinn. You ask good questions.”

“And you’re older than Kady?” she asked, more terrified than curious at this point.

“Oh yes,” Julia said, and Alice could see that Kady was right—Julia was enjoying this. “Kady’s the baby. The rest of us are all older, by a significant margin.”

“The ones I saw in my dreams, they’re all like us too, then? How—when were they born? How did you all find—the dream—”

“What you need to understand,” Julia interrupted, “is that it’s been a long, long time since we’ve gotten to share our lives with anyone new. Trust me, Alice, we’ll tell you everything in time, but I won’t deprive the others of the opportunity to tell their own backstories.”

Alice thought about asking why they’d opted for secrecy in the first place, but even in the mad scramble of her mind, she already knew the answer to that one. After all, her own instincts upon waking up after death hadn’t been to run to the authorities. People mistrusted what they didn’t understand. And there were magicians out there who would stop at nothing to solve this particular mystery.

The real question, the one running in her head on a loop and crowding out thousands of more objective, academic lines of inquiry, was: how do I fix this? How do I stop this? How do I go back?

She’d dared to be dissatisfied with her lot in life, and this was what it got her.

“I get the part about not aging,” Alice said. She didn’t get it, of course, but that wasn’t the point. “I get the idea, I mean, you never grow old, you’re just stuck in time. But we’re not invincible. We’re not—vampires or—or inhuman in any tangible way? We just… get hurt like anyone else, and then heal from it later?”

“Yeah, the pain’s a bitch,” Kady said. “You never really get used to it, which I think is an unfair addendum to the whole living forever gambit.”

“If someone cut my head off—”

“Wow, jumping right to that one, are we?” Julia said with an exaggerated shudder. “Margo’s gonna love you.”

“We haven’t felt like experimenting with decapitation,” Kady said. “Maybe we’d be able to come back from it, but there’s not exactly a safe way to check. Same goes for…” she trailed off, swallowing. “Well. Point is, we haven’t felt the need to push the limits. We don’t fully understand how it works, or why.”

“I have several theories,” Julia said, and Alice felt a surprising and welcome hint of amusement at the note of defensive, wounded pride in Julia’s voice. “We might not have the answers yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“So then…” Alice said, focusing on the dirt under her feet as she struggled in vain for some measure of unified understanding. “So then it just keeps going. Life, I mean. It just keeps happening.”

What a horrible thought.

“Pretty much,” Julia said, chipper and unconcerned. She seemed to know exactly where she was going, gliding through the forest with ease. Alice had never spent much time out here, in her years as a Brakebills student or now as a fresh-faced member of the faculty. The campus was well-situated, out of the way enough that people didn’t often find it by accident. It made for a good place to discreetly portal in potential students for their entrance exams. It also made it hard to leave without anyone noticing, but Julia seemed blithely unconcerned about being seen, like she was entitled to go wherever she pleased.

Apparently, the world was now Alice’s oyster too, and she had all the time she could ever want to explore every corner of it. The thought was petrifying. She felt like she was playing out her role in a script, accepting a quest, waiting for someone to tell her the steps she had to take to return from Wonderland with a new appreciation for what she’d had all along.

“But what do you do?” she asked Kady desperately, the question less precise, less actionable, but no less urgently important. “With yourselves, I mean. With your time?”

“Here we are!” Julia said with a flourish, taking a few big, confident steps off the footpath and into a patch of dense flora. Kady followed at once, leaving Alice to clamber through the undergrowth after them. She never would have found this place without someone leading her right to it. Mostly because it didn’t look any different from any other patch of forest she’d seen in her life. The leaves were turning orange; a twig bent and snapped under her foot. She was tucked behind the cover of plants, and couldn’t even see the path they had just abandoned.

“I don’t see a portal.”

“It would hardly be a secret, private portal if anyone could stumble across it,” Julia said primly, and she nodded her head at Kady, a silent question in the tilt of her head.

“Got it,” Kady replied, and she raised her hands, folding her fingers in and then spinning them out, elbows extending and then bending with a practiced pop. Alice recognized it as something close to the portal activation spell she knew, but something about it was different. She added it to the comically large list of mental notes growing in the back of her head, meaning to ask about their magical techniques later, when they were somewhere she could relax.

If she were ever able to relax again, of course. Jury was still very much out.

The portal appeared, glowing an odd blue-ish purple, and Julia looked back at Alice with an encouraging smile on her face. “Ready?”

Alice took a brief moment to reconsider her earlier panicked theory: that these two women were actually lunatics who had enchanted her to believe in something impossible, had invaded her dreamscape, and had now taken her hostage to use her in some sort of ritual sacrifice spell.

At this point, what was she supposed to do about it? Ever since she’d woke up covered in blood and yet unharmed, she’d worried and wondered and despaired, and she’d never once considered running to her parents. To her friends, such as they were. She had no one she could trust. No one to hold her and tell her they’d figure it out, that it would all be okay.

She didn’t know Julia and Kady. They’d promised to be there for her, though, and as pathetic as it made her feel, this was the only offer Alice was likely to get.

“No,” Alice said, in answer to Julia’s question. Then she swallowed, pursing her lips and straightening her spine. “But what the hell. In for a penny.”

And she stepped through the portal.