Inbetween: Chapter Thirty Five

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Going home was a risk. Ciel accepted that as a fact.

She failed in her mission. Yuri still lived, and she completely lost track of him after he got away from her. Erramun made it clear that failure would result in his extreme displeasure. No. Displeasure did not even begin to cover how he would react. Her life would be forfeit if she failed. Returning with her mission incomplete and Yuri back in the world where he belonged would surely get her killed.

Knowing what awaited her did not make it any easier to stay away. For all of the difficulty and prejudice she dealt with, the world she was born in was still her home. The thought of staying in this strange world was intolerable. Returning home again became her top priority almost as soon as she accepted that returning to Erramun as a failure would be a death sentence.

She accepted his threat as a fact, but she also knew returning to Erramun was not her only option. Skipping town before anyone could make good on their death threats was just a fact of life in her line of work. She might not be perfectly safe no matter how she returned, but if she did so carefully she could mitigate most of the danger and live to see another day.

This other world was not somewhere she could stay. That fact became apparent within minutes. This place was bitterly cold for one, and for another, she knew she stood out like a sore thumb.

She stayed in the shadows and avoided being seen whenever possible. For the most part, her years of experience living unseen by the masses served her well, but it did not change the fact that she acutely felt how much she did not belong in this frozen world.

Everything here felt more dangerous. She learned almost immediately to stay far away from the fast moving metal wagons. The hustle and bustle of this place was a shock after spending time in the more laid back city of Detreya, but once she figured out how to stay safe, she became even better at moving around undetected here than she was in her native world. People here, she discovered, were too busy and moving too quickly to notice anything they did not expect. The lack of notice emboldened her and she decided to try using her skills for survival rather than merely as a weapon for others.

No one in this world seemed familiar with the abilities of her people so she was free to use them discretely without anyone suspecting anything. As long as she was alone with the unsuspecting victim, she knew there was no reason for them to think they did any of it against their will. Here she mostly used her voice for its powers of persuasion. After being in this world for more than a few hours she was in desperate need of equipment and supplies. Her clothing from Detreya was far from suitable for this climate and she needed food and water. After a bit of exploring she found the places that could give her those things. By biding her time and waiting for the right opportunity to use her powers of persuasion, she improved her odds of survival with minimal effort.

Shelter was a much bigger problem. With such harsh, cold weather, not having a safe, warm place to rest was a serious problem.

Without the connections or funds to make arrangements for shelter, she needed to stay on the move. Her abilities might get her a room somewhere, but the chance of someone realizing she did not pay increased if she remained at the scene of the crime. Not having a bed did not seem like the end of the world to Ciel. This was not the first time she had been transient. With the kind of work she did, going without a safe place to sleep happened more times in her life than she cared to count. She considered it an occupational hazard.

Before this time she made a point of not allowing herself to enter an area with a harsher climate without some sort of safety net in place. Erramun’s overwhelming personality continued to push her to act rashly and in ways she never dared to act before. Before Erramun she never entertained staying in the city after a kill, but she did it for him. This time, she allowed herself to rush in and the weather caught her off guard.

The skills she acquired by living rough in the past still applied here. She tried to remain inconspicuous and did her best to find places where she could stay out of the cold for a while without drawing too much attention to herself.

This proved to be both easier and more difficult than she first expected. There were plenty of places that allowed her to stay out of the cold for a time, but it was not a permanent solution and she did not sleep in these places. She could stay for quite a few hours, usually, because the people in this world were very self-absorbed. They rarely looked beyond their own personal bubble so someone trying to remain inconspicuous went completely unnoticed.

Once she got the hang of it, she could survive in this world without difficulty, but she was not happy. She despised being constantly cold and sleep deprived, but survival was the important part. As long as she stayed alive she had the chance to find an alternate way home.

Yuri disappeared through a portal that appeared by sheer luck. At first, she thought it might have been the one that Erramun sent for her to return, but once she caught her breath she realized it appeared too early and not in exactly the right place. She hung back and observed for a few hours, and while she was waiting and watching she was able to confirm that she had not been mistaken. The portal intended to bring her home appeared at the precise time and location specified. She watched and waited for the portal to disappear. She could not go through. Her failure meant certain death awaited her on the other side.

Since at least two random portals had appeared—the one that brought Yuri here and the one that took him back home—she believed another would appear eventually and she would be able to return as well while flying under Erramun’s radar. She at least stood a chance of surviving if Erramun was not right there waiting for her.

Ciel needed to keep moving, to never stop looking. It was not pleasant, each day seemed colder and darker than the last, but she did not have much of a choice in the matter. Staying in one place for too long drew unwanted attention. That was a familiar experience, at least.

In Detreya she had found a place to stay while she snuck around the city, waiting for further orders. Before that, going around to a new place every night was often the norm for her. She had merely grown soft over the last few weeks.

This place did not allow for softness, she realized. The people here were far from threatening, but that did not mean that she could ignore the inherent risks in being around them. In addition to the monstrous wagons they rode around in at breakneck speeds, the people in this world seemed incapable of observing anything outside of their personal comfort zone.

She knew she was safe as long as she remained inconspicuous and did nothing suspicious in front of groups. She was fine with enchanting someone all alone. Those people would be under her control and suggestion before they were able to register her as anything out of the ordinary. The risk solely came from being noticed behaving strangely in front of more than one person. She put the utmost care into keeping her power from being observed in this place. She might need to use her ability to get the supplies she needed to survive, but she did her best to use it as sparingly as possible. She also took care not to take more than she absolutely needed in the moment. Taking more at once might ensure that she did not need to use her abilities as often, but she did not want to attract attention by carrying too many extra supplies on her person.

She lived this way for days and those days stretched to a week and then somewhere along the way the days began to blur together. Between the cold and the lack of sleep, Ciel lost count of the days, but she did not stop searching for signs of another portal appearing.

Her belief that another portal would appear never wavered. She saw one appear at random once before, and she just barely missed seeing the same a few weeks before that. Evidence indicated that this area and Detreya were hotbeds for these portals.

These observations and her belief that more portals were bound to appear kept her moving forward. As long as the weather permitted it and Ciel had light to work by, whether it was sunlight or artificial light, she was on the move and hunting for another portal. With no one but herself to trust, she had to do all the hunting herself.

Even if she thought any of the people in this world would understand what she was looking for, her habitual silence kept her from asking. Her voice was her only weapon and as long as she felt that these people posed a potential threat to her well-being if provoked, she dared not use her voice unless absolutely necessary.

As her search dragged on, she knew she was eating and sleeping less than she should. Most of the food she found here was overly sweet and she seemed incapable of escaping an infinite variety of cakes. After a short while, she started to lose her appetite and with nothing but more strange, sweet foods to try eating it was hard to recover her will to eat.

The lack of sleep was a bit easier to deal with. She had plenty of experience in that department and as long as she got some quantity of sleep every day she was able to get through the night without falling apart.

She was nearing a full day since her last nap and the cloying sweetness of the cake she just ate to stave off her growling hunger made her jittery when she felt a portal finally opening nearby. She doubted her own instincts at first. It seemed all too likely that her body and mind were playing tricks on her.

The small hairs on the back of her neck were what finally convinced her to listen to her instincts. The sensation was one she remembered, and its appearance could only mean one thing: she had her way back.

Now it just became a matter of finding this portal before it closed. Random paths between the two world would not have stable, set opening and closing times like the ones orchestrated by ritual. She might risk her life running to the portal only to see it close up before she could dart through.

She knew that it was possible for this to end in failure, but she still pushed herself to get there like she knew there would be time for her to get through. It was better to hurry and hope that she made it than to take her time only to wonder later if she might have made it if she only tried a bit harder.

Safety ceased to be a concern. She needed to move quickly and for the most part, that required ignoring risks and dangers that she had become acutely aware of during her time here.

She knew that the wagons drove recklessly fast, but she still darted out in front of them to get to the other side of the street. She wasted too much time in the past shivering in the cold while waiting for a break in the constant rush of wagons to stop. Right now she did not have that kind of time.

The sound of a horn behind her told Ciel that she had only narrowly missed the danger that she had feared quite a few times during her overly long stay in this world. The wagon failed to hit her, though so that was a bit of a blessing. She just hoped that this risk taking would not end up being in vain.

The feeling of the hairs on the back of her neck standing up only intensified. She was close. The portal had not yet closed. As long as she could feel it, she knew there was still time.

She hurried down the sidewalk, her feet losing traction on the snow that had been packed into ice by the feet of people that had passed this way before.

Ciel caught herself mid-fall with her hand. She felt her skin break and the warmth of her blood as it flowed, stinging from her hand.

There was no time to let something so minor bother her. She balled her hand into a fist as she kept running forward. No time could be wasted on such a small pain and it was not vital that she tend to it immediately. It was small enough to wait until after she passed through the portal.

The prickling of the skin on the back of her neck had not stopped. She still had time. It was enough to keep her running, even though she knew she was drawing all sorts of unwanted attention to herself. Running like this in full sight of so many potential strangers was more of a risk than she had taken in more than a week.

Nothing would stop her now. She had to believe that she would succeed. It was the only way she could keep pushing herself to move forward.

The paved path ran out. Now there was only the road used by the fearsome wagons and the half-frozen grass-covered sod. The change in terrain nearly caused her to turn her ankle, but Ciel ignored the danger.

Her eyes frantically scanned the area around her. She felt she was close now, but in the dark, it was even harder than usual to see the rippling shimmer of the portal.

Finally, she spotted it. The portal was not far off and it was still there, waiting for her.

She rushed forward and without even a fraction of a second’s hesitation, Ciel crossed into the place between worlds.

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