Inbetween: Chapter Nineteen


Even without knowing how long they had been out there, Willow knew she could not keep going for much longer. Her body ached even through the numb of the cold. Her winter coat was more than sufficient for keeping warm most of the time, but it could not hold up to hours out in the cold.

Sometime during the night the snow stopped, but they were still carefully picking their way through a couple inches of the slippery white stuff on the sidewalks. The roads were mostly just wet which made it almost preferable to stick to the back alleys and side streets.

All Willow wanted to do was find some place safe and rest for a short while, but Yuri pushed to keep them moving. She wished she could believe he was being overly dramatic and paranoid, and she might have thought so if he had done this before the incident at her apartment. Now, she knew better. They were on the run from something reminiscent of a nightmare.

“Yuri, it’s gotta be almost sunrise. Don’t you think we can stop already?”

In the dim light of the street, she saw him shake his head. “Can’t you feel it? She’s still following us.”

Willow was not about to admit that she was too tired to notice much of anything. Exhaustion also brought out the argumentative side of her personality. She deferred to Yuri’s judgment all night long. He dragged her from one place to the next for the sake of their safety and so far it seemed he had been successful in keeping them safe and alive, but she also knew that she could not keep this up for much longer.

“I can’t do this anymore, Yuri. She hasn’t done anything yet. I don’t think anything bad will happen if we sit down for a little while somewhere.”

“Maybe,” Yuri said with a shake of his head.

Willow had watched as the look in Yuri’s eyes grew increasingly panicked. She might not see it, but he thought they were still in danger. If her body could keep up the pace, she would try to keep going just to give him some peace of mind. She knew she was on the verge of collapsing though.

“I just need a little break. Let me sit down and rest a bit and then we can come up with a new plan.”

After a bit more pleading, he seemed to reluctantly agree to her request. She expected to rest her feet at a bus stop bench for a few minutes before he forced her to get up and keep moving. Instead, he took her to a place she knew well.

Aspen’s shop seemed like a sensible place for them to hide. Now she could stop wishing for her own depleted and abandoned store of exorcism supplies. Willow fumbled with frozen fingers to pull her keys out of her pocket and squinted in the dark to figure out which one belonged to the shop. She unlocked the door and quickly disarmed the alarm system.

Once the door was locked behind them, she led Yuri through the storefront to the backroom. She turned on the space heater and dropped with exhausted relief into the chair at Aspen’s desk.

Yuri perched himself on the stool at the table along the wall. He remained alert. She did not know how he could still have enough energy to keep his senses in top form. He had gone just as long as her without rest and if it was at all possible, he seemed to be more stressed out by their current circumstances than her.

As she warmed up and her eyes adjusted to the light, she found her mind starting to wake up again. Now that she was thinking clearly and saw the time she realized they still had some time before the sun would rise.

Even though they were alone and no one would hear them, she leaned forward in her seat so she could speak in a more hushed tone. “Yuri, what is going on? This has been insane.”

Yuri matched her hushed tone. “Isn’t it obvious? That woman wants to kill me, or maybe us. I’m not too clear on that part.”

“But why?”

He shrugged. “It probably has something to do with my family. It’s complicated. I just wish I could say for sure she won’t come after you. Maybe if she hadn’t seen us together.”

“I’m not leaving you even if you were sure that she would leave me alone. She ruined my apartment or made me ruin my apartment. Either way, she’s not getting away with that.”

“She’s dangerous. We’re best off just hoping we can get away from her, not trying to get revenge.”

Even through her exhaustion, she started to feel impatience build in her again. She wanted something to happen so they could be done with it once and for all. If she had the energy, her foot would be tapping.

“We can’t just keep running.”

Yuri sighed. “You’re right. We can’t. There’s only so far we can run.”

“How can we fight? What’s the strategy?”

Finally, it seemed they were getting somewhere. She felt a bit of hope light up in her heart. Whether if was the conversation, or her body starting to warm, her mind started to perk up again. If they needed more supplies for her spells they were in the right place. Aspen kept just about everything Willow knew how to use in stock. Panic and fear seemed to melt away and she knew they could formulate a plan with an actual end goal.

She watched as a cloud passed over Yuri’s face. She had grown familiar with that look over the past few weeks. Tonight she saw a lot of doubt and all she wanted now was a sign of some confidence.

The more she thawed out, the more her mind started racing with questions and she knew she had no time to find the answers. She needed time to process this and to research everything she had learned, but time was one ingredient the shop did not carry. She tried to organize her thoughts and ask questions that were likely to have an answer.

“Is it even safe for us to be sitting here right now? How close is she?”

Yuri frowned with concentration. “She’s not that close. Whatever you did to her, it’s made her hang back.”

Willow shrugged. She wished she knew exactly what she had done. It seemed like something she could adapt into a more permanent solution.

Their conversation died off. She did not know how to continue it beyond what had already been said. Instead, she decided to rest while she had the chance. They had a few hours before Aspen would come into work. Willow wanted to be gone before then. Involving her family in this seemed like a bad idea. She just wanted to soak up as much warmth as she could before grabbing some supplies and finding a way out of this situation.

Yuri tried to be content to sit and wait for a while. He knew their situation was dire, but they needed a break from constantly moving so they could stay sharp. He hoped they would be sharper than the one that was after them.

He stayed quiet for much of the night to keep himself from bringing up any of his more distressing theories. Willow was worried and she had every right to be. He did not want to add to that worry by running his mouth about all the notions his mind came up with that had no basis in reality. As long as he had no proof, he thought it was better to keep Willow from worrying more.

Resolving to stay silent did nothing to quiet the thoughts in his mind. This woman was surely from his world. Her magic was familiar and dangerous. Songstresses often lived sequestered from the rest of society because of the fear the power of their voices evoked in others. This one seemed to have honed her voice into a weapon. Someone who would do that surely did it for professional purposes.

Her appearance brought back memories he must have suppressed to maintain his own sanity. That night when he accidentally came to this world, he knew something had been wrong when he returned to the palace. Worrying about trying to get home again made it easy to put that thought aside. He only ended up here because he sensed something strange and decided to run until he knew what he was up against. For him, it was not much of a leap to guess that tonight had something to do with that night.

Now he was not just worried about Willow and himself, but hoping that no disaster had befallen his home while he was gone. While it was possible that someone might be after him for reasons separate from his position and title, he found it impossible not to fear the worst.

He had to make it out of this alive. He needed to make sure Willow was safe, but now his need to return home was even more urgent. His family might be in danger and there was no way for him to be sure from here.

He tried to keep those thoughts from running roughshod through his mind. A part of his focus needed to remain on paying attention to the location of the one who wanted to cause them harm. She continued to hang back for now, probably terrified of Willow, if Yuri was honest with himself. They might be able to slip away with her at such a distance. Doing so would mean always looking back over his shoulder, wondering if she would ever catch up with him.

Making a stand seemed like a lot more of a risk, even when he was giving serious thought to his alternative options. There was no way for him to counter her magic. His minor summoning and combat abilities would not stand a chance against a songstress’s ability to alter the fabric of reality around them both.

He wondered if he could coordinate with Willow to form a diversion so he could sneak up behind her to attack. Even if he thought that it could work, he wanted to avoid putting Willow in that sort of danger.

His mental acrobatics were interrupted when Willow came over and squeezed his hand. He looked up and met her gaze. Her eyes sparkled with excitement.

A grin spread across her face. “It’s back, Yuri.”

He frowned, unsure of what she was talking about at the moment. His thoughts were reluctant to abandon their frenzied, panicked mission to find a way to get them out of this situation alive and make sure that they would not have to look back over their shoulders and shrink away from dark alleys and strangers for the rest of their lives.

The gleeful look on Willow’s face tugged at his mind until he had to pay attention. Thoughts seemed to buzz around inside his brain as he struggled to change the course of his thoughts. He grasped on to one thought and managed to speak.

“What’s back?”

She continued to tug at his hand to get him onto his feet. He stood up, still wondering what brought about this sudden burst of activity. All of the energy that seemed to have drained out of her came back all at once and he was the one left with next to no energy.

Willow pulled him out the door without any real explanation. He had no choice but to follow her. Even if this might lead to them both being in much greater danger, they needed to stick together.

The determined look on Willow’s face made him more curious than concerned. Something made her willing to go out into the cold again, but she was not sharing that information with him. Even with his curiosity piqued, he continued checking to see if they were being followed.

Of course, their movement did not go unnoticed. And to make matters worse, the songstress seemed to be coming closer. After keeping her distance all night, it seemed she had grown tired of waiting. Maybe she thought they were weak now. Maybe they were.

He was closing in on a full day without sleep, which would not be so bad if he had a chance to rest in that time and had something in his stomach other than stress and worry. As things were, he knew he was not in prime fighting condition. His reaction time was slowed, he was easily distracted and lacking focus. Getting into a fight right now would lead to dangerous mistakes on his part.

Willow paused briefly at an intersection and looked frantically back and forth. Yuri watched her breath puff into crystallized vapor in the air as she caught her breath. He took the chance to ask again.

“Willow, what’s back? Where are we going?”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “The portal is back.”

His heart rate picked up. He missed it again. He was so distracted by his other concerns that he failed to notice another portal. He could not help getting a little excited at the prospect of having another chance to go home.

Willow figured out which way she needed to go. She grabbed Yuri’s hand again and pulled him along. Now that he knew where they were going, he was much more willing to go along with her.

They skidded to a halt at the entrance to a particularly pothole-riddled alley. He spotted a shimmer of something magical further into the alley. Without any need for confirmation, he knew this had to be the portal back home.

Seeing it, knowing he was so close to going home was surreal. He had a way to get out of here. He could go back to his own world and finally know he had the backup he would need if his problems decided to follow him home.

That brought him to the one thing capable of making him hesitate. There was an incredibly dangerous person in this world and he was not sure that he could leave Willow alone with such a person at large. After all the time spent searching, he realized leaving might not be possible.

He looked at Willow. Her eyes glittered with excitement, as though the notion of being left alone in this situation had never crossed her mind.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked.

“Are you going to be okay when I leave?”

The light behind her eyes dimmed. He knew it. She allowed herself to forget the danger of their present situation in light of reaching their long-term goal.

“I’ll be fine,” she assured him with too much confidence to be anything other than a false assurance.

He was ready to argue, to insist that they could find another way after he knew for sure she would be safe when he felt a presence looming over them. Finally seeing the way home took his attention away from monitoring the position of a serious threat to their lives.

He knew living here had made him soft, but he had not suspected his instincts were dulled this badly. With danger behind them, they had no choice but to head down the alley toward the portal.

Yuri had no idea what Willow would do. They could both go through the portal and hope to escape the danger that way. The songstress could follow them through the portal and continue the chase, though.

His fingers twitched. He knew they would need to fight. So far they had an advantage. Their enemy was silent. She needed her voice to be a threat so if he cut her throat before she could speak, they would be safe. Magic thrummed at his fingertips and he summoned one of his knives.

His knives were meant to be used stealthily and unfortunately summoning them in a space with people focused on and attuned to sensing magic removed the element of surprise. The songstress smiled at him as though she wanted him to try.

She stepped forward. Willow and Yuri took a step back at the same time.

Words in an ancient tongue shot out at them. When he tried to step back again, his legs refused to respond. He tried again, putting actual conscious thought behind the action, but his legs would not move.

A dark sadistic smile spread across her face as she crossed the distance between them. She took her time, seeming to relish the panic she caused.

“I really should kill you quickly so I can focus on leaving this awful world.” She spoke with an unnerving lilt even when using a language he could understand. “Then again, after all the trouble you’ve put me through it would give me immense satisfaction to make you suffer.”

She paused about two paces in front of him to weigh her options. His eyes were trained on her. He wished he could move just a bit so he could throw his knife and wipe that smug expression off her face.

“I have a few hours to kill before my way home shows up. I might as well make the most of them.”

She moved closer and reached out to stroke Yuri’s cheek.

“Don’t touch him,” Willow hissed.

Yuri felt the intensity of Willow’s glare even without turning to see it. The songstress’s hand jerked back as a shocked gasp escaped from her throat. Her eyes lost the twinkle of sadistic glee. She hesitated.

As confidence drained from the songstress it seemed to be building up within Willow. She stepped forward and Yuri felt a reverberation in the air like a branch snapping. He regained control of his limbs in the same instant.

Willow broke through the spells as though they were nothing more than an annoyance. Yuri tightened his grip on the knife in his hand, unsure of what would happen now.

The songstress started up her ominous chanting again. Yuri felt a tightness in his chest. His heart started pounding in his ears, but over the chanting and his own straining heartbeat, he heard Willow shout.

“No.” Her expression was unreadable, but the tone of her voice was one he had heard before. This was Willow at her most stubborn. “Leave us alone. Get out of here.”

She swung her arm in front of her as she shouted for emphasis. The songstress flew backward and hit the ground hard.

The vice grip on Yuri’s chest disappeared. He was able to breathe, hear and think normally again. He stood, staring at the songstress, waiting for her to get up and move. She remained still. He dared not check to see if she was incapacitated or faking it.

Willow grabbed his hand and they walked down the alley together. They stopped just short of where the portal caused a slight, visible ripple in the world.

She squeezed his hand. “Are you ready?”

He nodded. Willow could take care of herself. No matter what now he knew she could face whatever threat the songstress might have posed.

“Let’s go then,” she said before stepping into the portal.

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