I’m so glad to finally be posting this chapter! I had computer problems today and I was fighting with that for far too long. I almost gave up and dragged this chapter out of the cloud with my old laptop, but I decided to keep trying because a broken machine would just keep bothering me.
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Her apartment was dark and quiet when Willow returned home, just the way she liked it. She was still new enough to living on her own to savor every moment of it. She loved that she knew no one had touched her things or moved anything around while she was gone. It was not as though her parents had gone through her stuff all the time while she was living at home, at least not as far as she knew and she would like to keep on not knowing if it turned out that she was wrong. Knowing that she did not have to hide was enough to make her feel freer.
For now, she just wanted to relax at home. With her obligations for the day fulfilled, she could take it easy until tomorrow. She needed to unwind while she could because she had a feeling tomorrow would be less than fun at her part-time job after she missed her shift today. She could not do anything about it now so she tried to push it to the side until later.
She was glad that the calls for field work were relatively infrequent these days. At most her family might get one call a week. Some of those were still handled by her parents, but she suspected they were taking less and less of the calls themselves these days in a bid to keep her involved in the business.
Overall it was not too much of an inconvenience. Most of the time she could fit these exorcism gigs in around her other obligations and even since she started working fewer and fewer people required their services.
She considered it a product of the changing times. To her, it seemed like a positive change. Superstition held people in their area back and they would need to leave it behind if they were going to move into the modern era along with the rest of the world. At the rate the calls were decreasing, she hoped that they would stop altogether before her parents were ready to retire.
She read the old log books from her grandparents’ time and even earlier. There had been a time when her ancestors had spent every day traveling door to door cleansing homes and businesses of evil. Back then their services were sometimes required for barns and even storehouses. It seemed ridiculous to Willow now, expelling evil from places occupied by livestock and food, but it seemed like people back then were very, very afraid and needed all the help they could get. Now most of the people that were left that called on their services were older. A lot of them had been around when her grandparents were still on the job, maybe not as the ones calling them in, but at least as children on the farms and in the small towns where they traveled. The younger generations either lacked the beliefs of their elders or were not from around here and did not have any knowledge of this sort of thing at all. Most of the rest of the world did not believe in this sort of thing anyway which only made it seem that much more backward to Willow.
Even the shop was suffering a bit from the lack of belief in the area. Aspen had saved that aspect of their business from going under. Tourists just loved to visit the shop and soak in the old, folksy atmosphere. As long as Aspen kept everything as old-timey as possible she would be just fine for years to come.
Willow just wanted to be separated from it all. She did not want the exorcisms. She did not want the shop. She wanted to be indistinguishable from masses. She wanted to blend in along with the crowds of young people that were leaving the cities and slowly turning the countryside into an extension of the suburbs. She hated that she stood out. She hated that she still lived in a small town where everyone knew who she was and what she did. She wanted to save up and move far, far away. Then she would not have to face people every day that knew that she was struggling to make ends meet because her greatest academic accomplishment was half a degree from a community college that she would never complete unless she got out of this town.
She realized that she was stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. Exorcism excursions always seemed to bring out the darkest thoughts in her. She just needed to do her best to break the cycle. For that, she needed bright, happy thoughts to replace the annoying unhappy ones.
She jumped up and turned on every light in the apartment. It was harder to be grumpy while everything was so bright. Her electric bill would not be hit too hard by a couple extra lights for just one night and doing something her parents would never allow her to do lifted her spirits a bit. Then she made herself a cup of tea and sat down to watch some mindless television. She did not care what it was, as long as it stopped her from thinking.
Her choice in programming might have left something to be desired. Not thinking made it way too easy to fall asleep. She was out before she finished her tea.
The nothingness around him seemed black, but Yuri soon realized it was simultaneously more and less than black. Without light and without air he was not sure how he even existed in such a place.
He remembered running and being chased. He had sensed grave danger. It was worse than anything he had experienced since he moved into the palace. Something terrible must have happened for his instincts to pick up on something that awful in a place that should have been so well guarded.
His current predicament only backed up his initial assessment. He had been in a hallway he had traversed a thousand times before. Now he felt sure he was nowhere at all. It should be impossible, but the fact remained that he was no longer in the hallway or anywhere in the palace as far as he could tell.
“At least nothing is chasing me now,” he tried to say, but sound did not want to exist in such a place.
Being optimistic did not make the situation any better. Not being chased had to be a mark in the positive column, but being lost somewhere without any idea how he left familiar territory behind did not bode well for him. It might have saved his life, but unless he got out of here he would not have much of a life to live.
He tried going back the way he came, but behind him the void stretched on and on. There was no opening, no way to indicate where he came through to this place. He frowned.
Yuri liked to think that he was better educated than most of the people that were now considered his peers. He had the advantage of not being born into this station in life and learning other things before he was taught how to run a city and rule over its people. Now he knew everything they knew and a fair few other things from the time before he had any reason to learn how to be a nobleman. None of what he had learned had prepared him for something like this. He had a feeling this was some deeply philosophical metaphysical stuff. Not exactly the sort of thing he thought he would ever need to know.
Going back seemed impossible so he decided to give moving forward a try. Since there was no way for him to mark the starting point and no way for him to even know if he was in the same place he actually started from, he had to leave behind the hope of ever being able to find this exact place again.
He started walking. Nothing changed around him. There was just the uniform, void non-light all around him. There was no sensation of a solid surface below his feet or walls around him or ceilings above. For being in a wide expanse of open emptiness he felt oddly claustrophobic. The near dark tried to cling to him. He shrugged it off and tried to keep moving forward.
Yuri wanted to believe he was making progress. He had to believe he was making progress, but he did not know what he was progressing toward. He had to keep hope alive. He had to hope that there was something out there and that he would find it. No matter what he had to believe that he would not miss the way out of here.
He heard whispers in his mind suggesting that he should turn. He might be able to find what he was looking for if he just turned to the right or left. He fought against those thoughts. If he started taking turns now he would eventually end up doubling back the way he came and there was good chance he would not even know he did it with no landmarks to track at all.
The more time he spent here the harder it was to ignore that voice. He continued to fight it even as the rest of him started to go numb. It was the void around him. He knew that much just by instinct. The void was not cold. It was not that sort of numb he was experiencing. The nothingness was just starting to seep into him. As everything else faded away, his will to ignore the voice also eroded away.
Finally, the voice grew loud enough to be irresistible. He heard the shout within his mind telling him to turn now and he did. He turned and saw the white-hot bright light. It blinded him briefly. He turned away, blinking to regain his vision before turning back to the light, prepared to shield his eyes this time.
He finally found something that was not the same bland emptiness. It had to signify something. Whether it signified something good or bad he would soon find out. He did not want to stay in this void a moment longer. Even if it led him somewhere even worse, he had to take the chance.
He suppressed his apprehensions and stepped forward into the blazing brightness.
Willow fell asleep watching trashy television. She woke up groggy and slightly disoriented as she usually did when she woke up anywhere that was not her own bed. Once she realized she was in a familiar place her second thought was to feel relieved that she had her own place so no one saw her watching trashy reality shows. The programming had gone even trashier while she was asleep so she scrambled to find her remote and shut off the offensive sound before she got sucked in. She looked around the room. The light was still on out here, adding a level of shame that she fell asleep in a well-lit room far too early in the evening.
She now needed to decide if she was ready to go to bed or if her unintended nap had given her enough of a burst of energy to keep her up half the night. She hated this sort of problem and it was the main reason she tried her best to avoid naps. Most of the time she had work until late enough to stop her from even considering naps since she was busy for the hour or two before it would be a sensible time to go to bed.
Maybe going to bed would be for the best. Obviously, her unexpected nap had not been enough to properly clear her mind of her earlier bad mood. She really did not want to think about it anymore so being asleep rather than awake seemed to be for the best.
She was ready to get up from the warm blanket nest she had made on the couch when she heard a loud bang. She jumped up and flinched at the sound. At first, she was sure that the sound had come from outside, but her survival instinct almost immediately corrected her. That sound came from inside her apartment. It was from further inside, which was downright terrifying because whatever made that sound would have had to walk right past her to get there. Her blood turned to ice and she forgot to breathe for a second.
She grabbed her phone off the coffee table with shaking hands. A part of her wanted to call someone to come save her right now, but another part of her knew that she would be humiliated if she stayed out here hiding from a bogeyman that probably only existed in her imagination. She needed to know if there really was danger before she made a call for help. Whoever or whatever it was had no hurt her on its way further into her house or disturbed her while she was sleeping so it might not even want to bother her. She just needed to keep on hoping everything would turn out okay.
With her phone still gripped tightly in her hand she followed the hallway back to her bedroom. The door was mostly closed and she did not have a clear view of more than a tiny sliver of the floor. The tiny bit she could see looked perfectly normal, if entirely too dark for her liking. That gave her a tiny bit of courage.
That courage was not quite enough to let her push the door open and peer into the dark room. She knew she had left the light on in this room too so the darkness within gave her pause. She retreated a few steps and turned on the light in the hall. That bright light settled her nerves just a bit.
She held her breath while she pushed the door open. The light was enough to illuminate a larger swathe of her room. Her eyes immediately rested on her bed, which was not set neatly in its usual place. The frame was busted and the mattress was slanted toward the floor on one side.
Something must have caused that to happen, though. Once she was able to pull her eyes around from her damaged bed and moved on from the rather selfish realization that she would not be able to comfortably crawl into bed tonight, she became cautious once again. It only made sense that whatever had done this was still in the room. Nothing left the room since she heard the sound and as far as she knew there was no other way out. Her bedroom did not even have a window.
She took a deep breath to keep her thoughts from rushing out of control. She needed to think clearly and to see. Someone was in the room. Even without seeing anyone she knew someone was in there.
Her hands would not stop shaking, but she flipped on the light, which she noted she was already in the on position and scanned the room very, very quickly. She almost did not want to see what she knew had to be in the room.
The last thing she expected to see what someone unconscious and half falling off of her bed. She almost couldn’t believe that she missed him on her first glance around the room. He must have knocked himself out falling on her bed, but she would not imagine a way for him to fall so hard that he would knock himself out.
It all seemed very strange to her. He seemed rather odd. It was nothing that she could put her finger on exactly, but her every nerve told her that he was not human. As soon as she saw him, she felt as though she entered a cloud of static electricity.
She knew this was insane, but she could not help listening to her instincts. There was an unconscious man in her bedroom and she was absolutely certain he was not, strictly speaking, a man.
To add to the ridiculous thoughts that were already taking place within her mind, she realized that she felt more confident now that she understood that she was dealing with something other than a human being. As long as they were not playing by the rules of reason she felt as though she could throw in some rules that turned things in her favor. Not to mention, at least for now, she had the advantage of being the only one conscious.
She entered the room and knelt down next to the unconscious intruder. He was pretty. Thinking a mysterious intruder in her home as pretty rather than dangerous, intrusive or annoying surely had to be a sign of insanity. His hair was a deep shade of crimson that probably did not occur in nature and his skin had a flawless tan which seemed to contradict the shade of his hair. Her fingers desperately wanted to touch his hair to see if it was soft, but she resisted and shook his shoulder instead.
“Hey,” she whispered. She did not know why she whispered because it would only serve to work against her efforts to wake him up. She tried again. “Hey. Wake up.”
The intruder did not wake up immediately, but eventually his eyes did open. His red eyes met hers almost immediately.
Her belief that she was dealing with something other than a human being only grew more cemented in her mind now that she saw his eyes. He still did not frighten her and that was puzzling. She could not believe how calm she was in the face of some very strange circumstances.
She hesitated for a moment before pushing forward with her brave new attitude. “Where did you come from?”
He sat up and looked around the room. From the lost look on his face, she could already tell that he was not going to be able to answer her question.
Giving him a chance to get his bearings before bombarding him with more questions was probably a sensible plan, but she could not resist the temptation to ask every question that came to her mind.
“Are you hurt? Can you even understand me?”
“I can understand you,” he assured her.
She understood him too. That would not be so unusual or surprising, except she could tell he was not speaking English. She understood him perfectly even though the words coming out of his mouth were not any language she understood. That would be a mystery for another time. She had enough to figure out without trying to pick apart the reason why she was able to understand the person she needed answers from.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
“I wish I could tell you. I wish I could say it was the first time I ended up in a strange place with no explanation tonight.”
She sighed and sat down with her legs tucked underneath her. She decided she would try to relax since she was sure she would not need to run away anytime soon.
“Okay then,” she said softly, mostly to attempt to collect her thoughts. “What’s your name? I’m Willow.”
“Okay. Yuri. Are you planning to leave my room anytime soon?”
“I could, but I’m not sure where I would go.”
“Maybe back to where you came from?”
“I’m not sure I can. All I remember was a bright light in the darkness. Before that, there was darkness all around me.”
Willow paused. There were so many things about this that did not quite add up, yet she knew that he was not lying. Her mind tried to manipulate the facts so the world would still make sense.
“Okay. Let’s pretend this all makes sense and I believe what you’re telling me. What do we do now?”
“I need to find my way back home,” Yuri insisted. “I’ve heard stories about people that disappeared out of thin air and they usually don’t make it back unless they went straight back home.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This is the other world. I can feel it. Nothing is quite the way it should be.”
“Other world? No. You’ve got it wrong. This is the world. This is it.”
He had to be insane. That had to be it. She knew there was only one world. Even so, part of her wanted to think that it was an easy explanation for why he seemed almost supernaturally perfect. She knew she was probably dealing with someone not in his right mind. She must have just been too deeply asleep to notice him enter her apartment. It had to be what happened, even if she knew her door and windows were locked.
Yuri was not impressed by her convictions. “Just because you’re ignorant of the facts does not mean that other worlds do not exist.”
“I’m not ignorant,” Willow insisted, too shocked to speak with much confidence or anger.
“Well, I don’t know what else to say. I know what I know.”
Willow sighed. She racked her brain trying to figure out what she should do with this strange man in her apartment and even now she was drawing a blank.