Sunshine, p.25
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       Sunshine, p.25

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 25

 

  I nodded, probably too vigorously, because his smile faded. "Something wrong?"

  Nothing that wasn't wrong the last time you asked me that question, I thought, only it's got wronger faster than maybe I was expecting. I shook my head, trying to be less vigorous. "No. Thanks. "

  He swallowed the last of his coffee, put the mug down on the ground, and came over to me. "Sure?"

  "Sure. Yeah. " I put my arms around him, leaned my face against his shoulder (my forehead against the oak tree that was visible beneath the torn-off sleeve of his T-shirt), and sighed. He smelled of food and daylight. I could feel his heart beating. He put his arms around me. "Probably just lingering indigestion from eleven-twelfths of a Bitter Chocolate Death yesterday," I said. I felt the small kick of his diaphragm as he laughed - he had a sort of furry-chuckle laugh - but he knew me too well. "Try again, Sunshine," he said. "Do blue whales OD guzzling all that sea water? Your veins run chocolate - finest dark semisweet - not blood. "

  Pity it looked red, then. It gave vampires ideas. I didn't say anything.

  "You can tell me about it on Friday, okay?" he said.

  I nodded. "Okay. " If I said any more I would probably burst into tears.

  I drove home slowly. I thought of going by the library, but decided Aimil came into the "too difficult" category, and she might conceivably make some kind of guess what I was feeling so gloomy about and I didn't want to take the risk. What a really awful reason not to see someone for the last time. But I was so tired.

  I sat in the car again at home and watched the leaves turning. It seemed to me a lot of autumn had happened in the last two days. I thought of the two days out of time I'd had after Con had diagnosed me and before he was supposed to come back and cure me. I'd known I was dying, but it kind of hadn't mattered. It wasn't only that I believed Con would find a way to heal me. It was that there wasn't anything I could do. I didn't have that luxury this time. I was going to have to go through with it, whatever it was. I'd always scorned the stories where the princesses hung around waiting to be rescued: Sleeping Beauty, spare me. Tell the stupid little wuss to wake up and sort out the wicked fairy herself. I found myself thinking that sleeping through it sounded pretty good after all.

  Yolande was looking out for me, and her door was open before I'd climbed out of the Wreck. I walked draggingly up to her. I didn't even know that it was going to be tonight. I remembered those extra nights I'd waited for Con, with death lying on my breast like a lover. What a long time ago that seemed. I tried to make this a hopeful thought, but it refused to work. It was like trying to blow up a popped balloon. Hello, Death, you again. Just can't keep away, can you?

  Saints and damnation. Mostly damnation.

  Yolande drew me into her workroom. There was a little heap of. . . sunlight on her desk. What? I blinked. It looked like. . . as if there was a chink in the blind, letting a single ray in to make a pool there: except it wasn't a pool, it was a heap, and there was no ray of sun. I could feel my eyes fizzing back and forth like a camera's automatic lens, trying to find the right setting and failing. The heap cast no shadows. It was a small domed hummock of pure golden light.

  I had stopped to stare, and Yolande went to her desk and picked it up. It seemed to flow over her hands, slowly, like rivulets of warm honey, or small friendly sleepy snakes. It was, I thought, as it separated itself over her fingers, a latticework of some variety. The filaments met and parted in some kind of pattern, and the filaments themselves seemed to carry a pattern, like scales on a snake's back. It moved slowly, but it moved; it curled round Yolande's wrists. My strange sense of it - them - being friendly but half asleep remained. "It will wake up when it touches you," she said, as if reading my mind. "We had to put it together in great haste, and it's not yet used to being - manifest. "

  She came toward me, stretching the light-net gently between her hands like a cat's cradle, and - threw it over me.

  For a moment I was surrounded by twinkling lights; and then I felt it - them - settling gently against my skin, delicate as snow-flakes, but warm. Bemusedly I held one arm out to watch the process. You know how if you watch, if you concentrate, you can feel when snowflakes land on you, feel the chill of them, almost individually at first, till your face or hand or arm begins to numb with the cold, and then they melt against your skin and disappear. So it was with these tiny lightflakes: I saw them as they floated down, shimmering down, felt them when they touched me, lighter than feathers or gossamer, and over all of me, for clothes were insubstantial to them. But they were not merely warm, a few of them were uncomfortably hot, and left tiny pinprick red marks; and while they dissolved on contact like snowflakes, they appeared to sink through the surface of my skin, leaving nothing behind, no dampness, no stickiness, no shed scales. . . After they'd all vanished, if I turned my arm sharply back and forth I could just see the webwork of light, like veins, only golden, not blue. I itched faintly, especially where belt and bra straps rubbed.

  Yolande let out a long slow breath. I looked at her inquiringly. "I wasn't sure it was going to work. I told you we had to put this together very quickly. "

  "What - is it?"

  Yolande paused. "I'm not sure how to explain it to you. It is not a ward, or only indirectly so. It is a form of comehither, but generally only sorcerers ever use anything like it. It - it gathers your strength to you. It taps into the source of your strength, more strongly than you can unaided.

  "Most magic handlers have a talent for one thing or another, and it is drawn from one area of this world or another. A foreseer with a principal rapport with trees may see visions in a burl of her favorite wood, for example, rather than in the traditional crystal ball. A sorcerer whose strongest relationship is with water will be much likelier to drown his or her enemy than to meet them in battle, although one with an affinity for metal would forge a sword. "

  "Affinity," I said bitterly. "My affinity is for vampires. "

  "No," said Yolande. "Why do you say that?"

  "Pat. SOF. That's why they want me. Because I'm a m-magic handler" - I could hardly get the phrase out; handling seemed far from the correct term in my case - "with an affinity for vampires. "

  Yolande shook her head. "The hierarchies of magic handling are no particular study of mine. But your principal affinity is for sunlight: your element, as it were. It is usually one of the standard four: earth, air, water, fire. Sometimes it is metal, sometimes wood. I have never heard of one for sunlight before, but there are - are tests for these things. Yours is neither fire nor air, but a bit of both, and something else. While I was doing the tests and coming up nowhere, I thought of sunlight because of all the days I have seen you lying in the sun like a cat or a dog - I have only ever seen you truly relaxed like that, lying motionless in sunlight. And you told me once about the year you were ill, when you lived in a basement flat, and how you cured yourself by lying in front or the sunny windows when you moved upstairs. I thought of your nickname - how I myself had relied on your nickname to tell me the real truth about you, after the vampire visited you. . .

  "As for your - let us call it counteraffinity: your counteraffinity may be for vampires. I have never heard of this either, but I do know it is often a magic handler with a principal affinity for water who can cross a desert most easily; a handler with a principal affinity for air who can hold her breath the longest, someone with an affinity for earth who flies most easily. It is the strength of the element in you that makes you more able to resist - and simultaneously embrace - its opposite. You are not consumed by the dark because you are full of light. "

  I didn't feel full of light. I felt full of stomach acid and cold phlegm. I knew about the four elements, of course; I even knew a little about this counteraffinity thing. Magic handlers with a principal fire element never get hired by the fire service; fires tend to be harder to put out with them around. But an Air or a Water is a shoo-in for the Fire Corps because Airs never seem
to suffer smoke inhalation and water seems to go farther with a Water. A lot of lives have been saved by the Airs and the Waters in the Fire Corps. I'd never thought of it as having to do with counteraffinities though.

  But then I had never thought a lot about magic handling. I had always been too busy being fascinated by stories of the Others.

  "I can see in the dark - er - now," I said, not wanting to get into how it happened, "but it makes me kind of nuts. In the dark it's okay. But I see in - through - the shadows in daylight too. But I see through them - strangely. I mostly can't make sense of what I'm seeing. " Or if I can I don't know if I'm imagining it, to make it make sense. "And most of them wiggle. "

  Yolande looked interested. "Perhaps you will tell me more about that some time. I may be able to help. "

  Some time, I thought. Yeah. "The shadows on you don't wiggle though. They just lie there, like all shadows used to. "

  "Ah. That will perhaps be the purification process of wardskeeping. If you become a master, as I eventually did, you go through a series of trials that are to make you what you are as intensely as possible. You would not be able to do what a master does without this. I imagine you will see other masters of their craft as you see me. "

  I still hadn't decided if the shadows that fell on Con moved around or not. Dark shadows were different from light shadows. So to speak. If they didn't, did that make him a master vampire? What is a master vampire? SOF used the term for someone who ran a gang.

  I held both arms out and admired the faint twinkly gold, felt the faint prickly itch. I pulled a handful of my hair forward where I could look at it and it too was laced and daubed with gold. Maybe Yolande could sell the process to a hairdresser: bet you didn't have to touch it up every few weeks.

  Pity I wouldn't be around to demonstrate.

  The sun was near setting.

  I dropped my arms. "Thank you," I said. "That is so feeble. But - thank you very much. "

  "You're very welcome, my dear," said Yolande.

  "I must go now, I think. "

  "Yes. But I hope you will come back and tell me about it. "

  I met her eyes and saw with a shock that she did know. I tried to smile. "I hope I will too. "

  I sat just inside the open doors of the balcony, cross-legged, hands on knees. I didn't bother to try to align, to ask him anything, to tell him anything. He would be here soon enough. He would be here. This time what was doomed to happen wasn't going to be put off. It would begin tonight. And, probably, end there too.

  The sun reddened the autumn colors on the trees. The shadows darkened and lengthened.

  PART FOUR

  Perhaps the flakes of light had settled in my eyes too when Yolande's web had fallen around me. Sitting still and waiting, watching the sun set, I hadn't thought much about the way the shadows fell and moved; it was always easier when I was motionless myself. But I saw him clearly, this time. I saw him, and not merely by a process of elimination, one wiggly shadow moving in a specific direction. He was a dark figure, human-shaped. Vampire-shaped. He was Con.

  A dark figure: dark with glints of gold, as if lightflakes fell on him, sparked like struck matches, and fell away.

  Did I hear him or not? I don't know. I had a feeling like sound of him, as I had a feeling like sight. I saw him disappear around the corner of the house. He would be coming up the stairs now; I felt his presence there. He would be opening my door - hmm, did he open doors to walk through them? No, wait. Vampires couldn't disintegrate themselves - I didn't think. A few sorcerers could, but they were the really crazy ones. If you've invited a vampire across your threshold, maybe the door simply didn't exist for him any more? Or anyway why did the front door always whoosh gently when I opened it but not when he did?

  And I knew when he was standing behind me. It wasn't that I heard him breathing. But the vampire-in-the-room thing was unmistakable.

  I stood up and turned around.

  He looked different. It might have been the lightflakes but I don't think so. I probably looked different too. If you're going into what you know is your final battle maybe the preliminary loin-girding always is visible. My experience is limited. I don't know that I would necessarily have identified the way Con looked as a vampire prepared for his last battle, but as a thumbnail description it would do.

  I was always surprised at how big he was. That's probably something about the way vampires move - the boneless gliding, that human-spine-unhinging creepy grace. You didn't believe it, so you made the vampire smaller in your memory to make it a little more plausible. (Uh. I don't know about the generic you in this case. So far as I knew I was the only human, so far, who'd had the opportunity. Or the need. ) It's funny, vampires have been a fact of human existence since before history began, and yet in our heart of hearts I don't think we really believe in them. Every time one of us meets up with one of them we don't believe in them all over again. Of course in most cases a human meeting up with a vampire is looking at their immediate death and so not believing it is the last forlorn hope - but I'm here to say that being acquainted with one doesn't lessen the feeling much. I didn't believe in Con.

  Tricky.

  I believed in my own death more.

  I stretched my hand out and put it on his chest, where no heart beat. He was wearing another one of his long black shirts. It might have been the one I had worn a few nights ago, except that that one was hanging in the back of my closet with the cranberry-red dress. My vampire wardrobe.

  I let my hand drop.

  But he reached out and picked it up. There was a fizz, a shock, as his skin met mine. I felt him twitch - ever so slightly - but he didn't loose my hand. He turned it over instead, and then laid it gently, as if it had no volition of its own, in the palm of his other hand. The invisible spark happened again, but he didn't startle this time. My back was to the fading twilight, but in the shadow of my body the occasional gold glints of the web were just visible.

  "What is this?" he said.

  "Yolande gave it to me. She said it would help me draw on the source of my strength. "

  "Daylight," he said.

  "Yes. Does it hurt you?"

  "No. "

  I thought about that no. It sounded a little like the "no" of the kid playing so-called touch football who has just had the three biggest kids in the neighborhood tag her by knocking her down and sitting on her. They asked me after they let me up if I was hurt. I said no. I was lying. "Let me rephrase that. "

  A small shiver in his breath. Really quite a human noise: audible breath with a catch in it, like a muted laugh. "When you are a little too hot, a little too cold, does it hurt?"

  Old Mr. Temperature Control, I thought. What do you know about too hot and too cold? No, I still wasn't thinking about any of that. Delete that thought.

  "Or if you pick up something a little too heavy for you, does it hurt? It is only a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself. "

  I liked that: a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself. Sounded like something out of a self-awareness class, probably with yoga. See what kind of a pretzel you can tie yourself into and press on the understood. . .

  I was raving, if only to myself. I took a deep breath. Okay. My new light-web was to Con no worse than hauling an overfull sheet of cinnamon rolls out of the oven and making a run for the countertop before I dropped them was to me.

  I looked into his face, dully lit by the last of the twilight, and realized, with a shock, that I had no doubt: the shadows there lay quietly too.

  "Ready?" he said.

  I smiled involuntarily. Are you joking? "Yes," I said.

  "I have taken what you showed me and. . . measured it, by the ways I know. I believe that between us we shall. . . attain our goal. "

  Our goal, I thought. I didn't translate this into practical terms.

  "We do not travel in your nowheresville, but I fear the way we are going is
nonetheless. . . unpleasant. I will need your assistance. It will not be easy both to travel that way and to guard our presence from too-early detection. "

  I closed my eyes - hurling myself into this, to stop myself from thinking about it - took a firmer grip on his hand, and began to search for the alignment. This was very different from the fuzzy non-telephone line I had used to talk to Con; for that I could just go to the edge of whatever it was that was out there, and grope. This was more like walking through a snake pit with a forked stick, hoping you could sneak up behind the snake you wanted and nail it with the stick before it nailed you. Meanwhile hoping that none of the other snakes saw you first.

  I glanced apologetically at the ever-so-slightly-like-the-back-of-a-snake pattern glinting faint gold against - in - my skin. I said one of my gran's words: it was only a little word, a little word of thanks and of settling, settling down, settling in, but I thought the light-web might like it. Then I closed my eyes again.

  There.

  This may have been the light-web too, or it may have been that I'd now done my compass needle maneuver several times and was getting the hang of it, or it may have been Con. Some of it was Con; I could feel the faint scritchy buzz of connection through our palms. There seemed to be a variety of paths laid out before us: there was the totally evisceratingly worst, the slightly less worst but worst enough, the still really bad, the only basic deadly dire, and probably a few others. I was looking at the Catherine-wheel glitter of the way that had blown out SOF HQ and at the looming thing that was our destination as Con arranged us on the boundary of one of the other, the quite-awful-enough-thanks ways. The looming thing and its guardians didn't look so much like an aquarium this time - or if it did, those fish were sick - more like the special effects in one of those postholocaust movies. Any moment now the ghastly mutants would come lurching on screen and wave their deviant limbs at us.

  I wished it was a movie.

  "Come," said Con, and we stepped forward together.

  By the time we'd walked off the edge of the balcony we were firmly - if that's quite the word I want - into Other-space. Vampires probably can bound lightly down from third stories, but I didn't want to try it. As it was I was immediately having a precarious time keeping my feet; there didn't seem to be any up or down - although this is a good thing when you've just walked off a balcony - or sideways or backward or forward for that matter, other than the fact that we had backs and fronts and our faces were on one side of us rather than another. This path, whatever it was, was a lot worse than Con's short way home the other night. At least I had feet, which was an improvement on nowheresville.

  Hey, not only did I have feet, I got to keep my clothes on.

  I could still see the looming thing that was what we were aiming for, and since I didn't know anything about the protective detail I assumed that my function was to keep watching it. Con propelled us. Presumably forward. He seemed to know up from down and sideways from sideways. I felt things whiz past me occasionally, and while I couldn't've told you what they were, I could guess they weren't friendly. Every time I set my foot down it seemed to resolve the place I was in a little more, as if my invading three-dimensionality was making my surroundings coagulate, and little by little there seemed to be another sort of stepping-stone system after all, although rather than the ordinary world sluicing by between the stones it seemed to boil up, and become part of the no-up-no-down-no-anything-else. I felt as if I would like to be sick, but fortunately my stomach couldn't figure out which was up either, so it stayed where it was.

  After some kind of time there began to be half-recognizable ordinary things in the careening entropy: a street lamp. A corner of a dilapidated building with a revolving door, one of whose panes was broken. A stop sign.

  A road sign: Garrison Street.

  We were in No Town.

  As we went on ("on" still used advisedly), we flickered more clearly into No Town. Sometimes we took a step or two on broken pavement as if we were actually there. Maybe we were.

  There were now other people sporadically present also. I didn't like the look of any of them. We passed several nightclubs with people wandering in and out. There were bouncers at the doors of some of them, but that mostly wasn't the style in No Town. If you could walk, you could walk where you wanted to. Even the seriously flash spartan clubs, the places where people who lived in downtown high-rises went when they wanted to feel like they were slumming but were still willing to pay thirty blinks for a short glass of wine to prove they were slumming only because they wanted to, had more subtle ways of getting rid of you.

  Meanwhile, outdoors, if you fell down, you lay there, and people still ambulatory stepped over you: horizontal bodies were part of the ambience. Maybe you got rolled, while you were lying there being ambient. Maybe you got taken home for dinner. To be dinner. It wasn't a good place to linger in for anyone - anyone alive, that is - but there was another myth, that if you were high enough, the suckers would leave you alone, because your blood would screw them up. I don't think this is something I'd want to rely on myself. There are ne'er-do-wells among the Others like there are among us humans, and my guess is there are suckers who have developed a taste for screwed-up blood. Also, if you're hungry enough, you'll eat anything, right? And a still-breathing body facedown in a gutter is real easy to, you know, catch.

  I was having trouble staying upright as we winked back and forth between worlds. If when visible I was staggering a little, I would fit right in.

  I was a little afraid I might see someone I knew. Gods and angels, never underestimate the power of social conditioning; even under the circumstances, when I was fully expecting never having to face or explain anything to anyone again after the next few minutes or hours or time-fragments splintered by chaos-space, I was worried about this, that I might see Kenny, or his friends, or some of the younger, dumber regulars at Charlie's; or even what remained of a few of the guys my age I knew who hadn't got back out of drugs again. What was I afraid of? That they might see me too - holding hands with a vampire? That I would look as if I was merely under the dark and going to the usual fate of a human seen in the company of a vampire? I was supposed to care?

  I didn't know what any humans might be making of us. But I began to see vampires looking back at us. I didn't have any trouble recognizing them. I didn't know if this was because they weren't bothering to try to pass, or if I just knew a vampire when I saw one these days.

  I didn't notice when the first one did more than look, when the first one came at us. I didn't notice till Con had. . . never mind. He did it with his other hand, and with the hand that held mine, jerked us back into chaos-space. He wiped the splatter of blood off his face with his forearm, except there was blood on his arm too. I was afraid I'd see him lick his lips. I didn't. Maybe I didn't watch long enough. Maybe, you know, used blood isn't of much interest. My hand trembled in his: in the hand of my lethal vampire companion.

  I was alive, human, with a beating heart. I was all alone.

  The next time there were several of them. This time Con jerked us out of chaos-space, because he then had to let go of my hand. I was glad I didn't have to find out what would happen if I got left there alone without him. I wasn't glad for very long.

  I didn't know what I was supposed to do: note to myself, in my next life, get some martial arts training - get a lot of martial arts training - just in case. Again, as with the first vampire who attacked us, something happened - quicker than I could follow - quicker than I wanted to follow, and I yanked my gaze away, afraid of what my dark vision might make out for me. There was blood, again, but there was also at least one vampire left over while Con was otherwise engaged, and he was looking at me. I looked at him, not thinking about anything but my own terror, my eyes wide open, open so wide that they hurt. He met that gaze - hey, he knew a human when he saw one, and he knew he was a vampire - and I saw him falter, and then Con had turned from whatever he was doing and. .
. took care of that one too, too fast for me to look away. I think I probably cried out. Jesse wasn't going to rescue me, this time. I wasn't going to come to myself with human arms around me and a human voice shouting in my ear, It's all over. You're all right.

 
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