Bruce lowered the shotgun when he saw Esther and Alice standing in the stairwell beyond the doorway. He looked like was earlier than he’d like. His left eye bore a nasty shiner, and his right was bloodshot. He stepped back, putting one hand on the door, and gave a sort of half-wave with the barrel of the shotgun that seemed to say “come in.”
As Alice limped in supporting Esther, Bruce set the shotgun down on the dirt floor and pushed the door shut behind them. At first, it seemed like he was shutting the door against a strong wind blowing against it, until it reached the last few inches and the door slammed closed as though the wind had suddenly shifted and pulled it shut with finality.
Alice was helping Esther to lean against the fieldstone wall, but as the door slammed closed, she felt all of the aches, cuts, and bruises of last night come flooding back into her. One moment, she was helping Esther to brace against the wall, and the next the room seemed to turn sideways and then she was staring at the lantern on the floor. She saw Bruce’s feet step between her and the light. She felt a slight pressure on her shoulder and the light wobbled in front of her and then everything went dark.
* * * * *
When she woke up, Alice was lying on her back, staring up at the wooden beams that were presumably holding up the first floor of the building. She grimaced and sat up, slowly, her body protesting, and took stock of her injuries.
The cuts from her fight in the street seemed to have reappeared, and she was wearing the BU sweatpants again, and was bandaged underneath where she’d been slashed. Her head felt somewhat better, which was a minor blessing on its own, but miraculously, the wounds she had taken in the Dreamlands didn’t seem to have lasted. Alice pulled the neck of her shirt away to look at her shoulder and arm where she had been stabbed by the storm’s spider.
Where she had been stabbed there was no injury, but the flesh had turned a bleached white where the razor sharp leg had pierced her skin. Radiating from it were fractal spreading branches of the same bleached white skin. The entire area was tender to the touch. She leaned down to pull up her pant leg where she had been cut on the leg, but stopped when she heard Bruce’s voice.
“She’s up.” He was sitting on the steps upstairs out of the dirt floor basement they were in.
Alice turned slowly toward him, dirt crumbling out of her hair. “You couldn’t have brought me up to a bed?”
Bruce shrugged, his black eyes opaque in the dim light. “Let say I believe in equal treatment.”
Alice brushed more of the soil off of her shoulders. “I didn’t leave you in the dirt.”
Esther’s voice pierced the argument from above, up the stairs behind Bruce. “Enough. You weren’t out five minutes, Alice, or I wouldn’t still be here. We need to get moving or we’re going to miss our opportunity.” She paused. “Besides, we couldn’t get you up the stairs.”
Alice tried to peer up the stairs to see Esther, but could only make out the shadow cast by her standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs. “What’s going on? Why are we in a hurry?”
Bruce turned and looked up at Esther, who came down a few steps until Alice could just see her legs and the long shadow she cast. “There’s been another murder. The police can’t get to it to seal off the area, and if we’re quick we can get there before they do.”
“We’re going back in there.” Alice said it without believing it. “We just barely got out and you want us to go back in.”
Esther took another two steps down. “No. Bruce and I are going back in there. You’re staying here.”
Alice stood on shaky legs, not sure if she should be relieved or insulted. Either way, she felt the anger rising inside her. “What? You dragged me through that, got both of us nearly killed, so what? So I could house sit for you?”
Esther came a few steps more until she was standing directly behind Bruce. Bruce hadn’t moved during this entire discussion, but now he spoke, his voice soft, barely a whisper, but it snagged her attention like ice down the back of her shirt. “Alice. Your bandages.”
Alice looked down at her leg and saw that she was bleeding. Bruce kept talking. “You’re in no condition to go. And someone needs to stay with the house.”
Esther nodded. “Yes. I have spent years perfecting the protections on this house. There are things out there that you have no understanding of, Alice. Dark things, much much worse than the storm. The wards on this house keep them out. But someone needs to stay here. Warding magic can’t be used to just protect a place. It needs a person to guard.”
Alice limped over to the stairs. “So you and Bruce can’t leave the house at the same time unless I’m here? That’s stupid. You should just hire someone-” and she realized what she was saying as the words came out of her mouth. “Oh. You’re shitting me.”
Bruce smirked, but kept his mouth shut.
Esther spoke. “I would apologize, but we need someone to stay here and keep the house protected. After the trip we just had, I know I can trust you. And when it comes to it, I don’t really need any more muscle.” She looked down at Bruce. “I know you think of this as a task beneath your skills, but you are if anything happens here, I know you’re capable. And… I can’t hide you. In the Dreamlands, you smell like prey.”
Alice blinked. That struck a note with her. There was nothing about Alice that was weak. She had spent the last fifteen years training so she would never be anyone or anything’s victim. She had turned the tables on the thing that had killed her mother. She and Ed had hunted that fucker down and it hadn’t looked a minute older than when she was eight.
She did not want to think about this right now. “Fine. Go. I’ll be here.” Alice tried started to push past them. “Get out of my way, Bruce.”
He grunted and stood up. Esther gave Alice a look of concern. “Alice. Stay here for a minute. I need you to shut the door behind us. I’ll call if I need you. And don’t… don’t open any of the other doors down here. Don’t open any of the doors. Just go eat something and get some sleep.”
Alice took a slow deep breath and nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Hey wait. I uh, I lost my phone.”
Esther looked at her. Her eyes unreadable. Without a hint of what she was thinking, she said, “Bruce, give her your phone.”
Bruce glowered, but he dug into his pocket and produced a smartphone. “Here. The passcode’s 1-2-3-4.” Alice raised an eyebrow at him, and Bruce shrugged. “Don’t go reading my emails or anything.”
Esther and Bruce walked over to the door, and Bruce pulled it open, straining to pull it even a few inches open until suddenly it gave the rest of the way. Alice could again feel that strange sucking flow of the ether around her drawing everything toward the doorway into the Dreamlands. This time, there was no shimmering veil. She could clearly see them step across the threshold into the stairwell. Esther looked back at Alice and said something, but the sound seemed to be sucked away by the wind.
Alice stepped forward and grasping the door firmly in both hands, started laboriously pushing it closed until it suddenly slammed shut of its own accord.