“That’s the last of them,” Crystal said. “We should be safe, for now.”
The dire bat’s headless body lay on the floor of the cave like an accusation, blackish blood still seeping from its neck. Crystal looked at it and shuddered, disgusted, before giving it a sharp kick. It rolled over the edge of the chasm and fell into darkness, vanishing without a trace. They’d have to find the head eventually. But that could wait.
“Are you sure?” Chester asked. Her companion peered anxiously down into the dark, his nose twitching. Crystal knew that his ears—which would have been better suited to a jackrabbit than a boy, as she’d teased him so many times over the years—would have been doing the same, if they hadn’t been tucked up under his hat. He’d done that to protect them from the shrieking of the dire bats. She briefly considered snatching the hat from his head, but set the thought aside. Nervous as he still was, he wouldn’t take the prank as innocently as it was meant.
“I’m sure.” She slid her dagger back into its sheath before wiping the sweat-matted hair away from her forehead. “Listen. You can hear the wind again.”
Not just the wind: There was also the gentle tapping of inhuman legs making contact with stone. The pair turned to see a great black spider easily the size of a small car come walking down the cavern wall. It reached the floor and continued walking toward them on its bristle-haired legs, stopping just a few short feet away. With an air of deep solemnity, the spider bowed.
“The land of Otherways is in your debt once again, young Crystal,” said the spider, in a deep voice that was softer than its appearance suggested. “We thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, Naamen. It was my pleasure. It’s always my pleasure.” Crystal leaned forward to rest a hand on the spider’s back, digging her fingers into the coarse black hair that grew there. “This is my home just as much as it’s yours.”
“Even so. Your service here is all the more heroic because it is freely offered. You could return to your world of origin at any time, leaving us to our fate, and yet you choose time and again to stay and fight for our survival.” The spider straightened until the largest of its eyes were on a level with Crystal’s own. “You are not the first to come from your world to Otherways, but you are far and away the bravest.”
“Yeah. Brave me,” said Crystal softly, and pulled her hand away. Talk of others coming to Otherways before her always made her uncomfortable, although she could never put her finger on exactly why that was. Maybe it was the fact that her friends in Otherways, who were otherwise forthright in all ways, would never describe the others as anything more than “the ones who came before you.” They had no names; they had no faces; they had no stories to explain what could possibly have caused them to abandon a world as wonderful and magical as Otherways. They were just gone.
“Oh, bush and bother, Crystal, look!” Chester—who could always be counted on to panic over nothing, and to show surprising bravery in the face of actual danger—pointed toward the sky.
Not already. Not so soon. A sick knot of dread formed in her stomach as she followed the direction of his finger. There was nothing there but darkness. She relaxed a little, saying, “I don’t understand. What are we looking at?”
“The Passage Star is shining again.” Chester let his hand fall, looking at her sorrowfully. He was always the first to see the Passage Star’s light, even as Crystal herself was always the last. “You can go home now.”
The dread returned, clenched tighter than ever. “Oh.”
“You can go if you wish,” said Naamen, almost as if he could see what she was feeling. “The choice to stay or go is always yours. You know you would be welcome if you chose to remain.”
“The Passage Star will only burn for three hours,” said Crystal slowly, arguing a side she wasn’t sure that she believed in. “After that …”
“After that, it will go out, but it will light again once a fortnight until a year has gone without someone passing from our world to yours. You would still have the opportunity to change your mind.”
Crystal took a shaky breath, forcing her first answer aside. Naamen always asked if she would stay, and every time, it got a little bit harder to tell him no. How was she supposed to focus on school and chores and picking the right colleges to apply to when she was the champion of Otherways, the hero of the Endless Fields, and the savior of the Caverns of Time? The world she’d been born in seemed more like a dream every time she came to the Otherways, and this world—this strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses—seemed more like the reality.
Naamen and Chester looked at her hopefully. They’d been her best friends and sworn companions since she was just a little girl. Chester was barely more than a bunny when they first met. Now she was almost a woman, and Chester was … Chester. Naamen had been slightly smaller in those days, but no less ancient, and no less wise. Just the thought of leaving them made her heart break a little.
Hearts can heal, she thought, remembering something Naamen once told her, after they saved the Princess of Thorns from her mother, the wicked Rose Queen. Crystal took another, steadier breath, and gave the answer she’d been giving since her twelfth birthday, when the great spider first asked if she would stay: “Not yet. My parents would miss me too much. Let me turn eighteen. That’s when they expect to lose me to college anyway. They can lose me to Otherways instead.”
Naamen shifted his pedipalps in the gesture she had come to recognize as his equivalent of a nod. “If that is your wish, Crystal Halloway, it will be honored. We will count the hours until you return to us.”
“Don’t stay gone too long, okay, Crystal?” asked Chester.
“I never do, do I?” Crystal leaned over and hugged him hard. He was her best friend and her first love; he’d been her first kiss, the year she turned fourteen and saved the Meadows of Mourning from the machinations of the Timeless Child. “I miss you too much when I’m gone.”
“Please, then. Take this, to remember us by.” Naamen reached out one long black leg. A dreamcatcher dangled from his foot, the strands woven from silk so fine that it seemed almost like light held captive in a circle of willow wood and twine. “Hang it above your bed, and only good dreams will come to visit you.”
Crystal knew the dreamcatcher would do nothing against her nightmares; Naamen had been giving her the same tokens since the first time he asked her to stay, and they hadn’t stopped a single bad dream. Still, making the dreamcatchers seemed to soothe him in some way she couldn’t quite understand, and so she reached out and took it, feeling the weight of it settle in her palm, simultaneously feather-light and heavy as a stone. Naamen returned his foot to the cavern floor.
“Thank you, my friend,” she said, as she tucked the dreamcatcher into her pocket. “I’ll hang it in a place of honor.”
“See that you do.” Naamen waved his pedipalps again, this time in the motion that denoted concern. “I wish you would reconsider, Crystal. I wish that you would stay.”
Crystal paused, frowning. Naamen always asked her not to go. He’d never tried to change her mind before. “Naamen? What’s wrong?”
“It’s just that you are growing up, Crystal, and I worry for your safety.” The great spider stilled, looking at her gravely. “The choice, as always, is yours.”
“Oh, my friend.” Crystal moved almost without thinking, stepping forward and wrapping her arms around the body of the spider, just behind the smallest of his eyes. Naamen leaned into her embrace, but only enough to show that he welcomed it; not enough for his greater size to knock her off her feet, as had happened so often in her younger days. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll always make it back to you. Always.”
Naamen stroked her back with the tip of one foreleg, faceted eyes focused on the endless black in front of him, and said nothing. There was nothing left that he could say.
Crystal approached the Welcome Stone slowly, alone, as she always did. The dread was still there in the pit of her stomach, tangled with warring desires. She wanted to go home, to sleep in her own bed and hug her parents in the morning. She wanted to stay—always—to sleep in the cobweb-decked bedroom Naamen had spun for her in the brambles that ringed the Endless Fields. She wanted to graduate from high school. She wanted to kiss Chester again and again, forever. Most of all, she wanted to be there when the next child stumbled into the light of the Passage Star. She never wanted to be one of the children Naamen refused to name.
She wanted to stay.
But she couldn’t.
The passage back to her own world only took a few seconds. She stepped into the light of the Passage Star—which always shone in a perfect circle, right at the center of the Welcome Stone—blinked, and was back in the world in which she’d been born, standing in the tiny room housing the magic telescope that let her travel into Otherways. She closed the telescope lens quickly, before something unpleasant could find a way to follow her, and turned to head down the narrow stone passageway that connected to the secret door at the back of her closet.
She’d found the secret door and the room beyond by accident when she was six, playing at seeking Narnia. Now she couldn’t imagine a world where she didn’t have the route to Otherways etched deep into her heart, like an ache that never quite went away.
The passage was tighter than it used to be. She had to stoop a little to keep her head from knocking against the ceiling, and there were places where she had to turn and scoot along sideways in order to avoid getting stuck. One more growth spurt and she’d wind up staying in Otherways because she couldn’t make it back to her bedroom … or she’d wind up trapped in the world where she was born without ever once choosing to stay.
She couldn’t keep going back and forth forever. She knew that; she’d known for a long time. Somehow, the feel of the walls pressing against her back and chest as she inched through the tighter spaces just made that fact more real. Soon, she would have to decide.
The passage widened as it came to an end, letting her into an antechamber almost as large as the telescope room. She walked the last few steps to the door with her head high, and placed her hand upon the doorknob. “My name is Crystal Halloway,” she said, “and I am coming back from the most incredible adventure …”
The doorknob turned under her hand of its own accord, and the door of her closet swung open. Crystal pushed her way through the hanging coats—which were more window-dressing than anything else; she would never dream of using her closet to store clothing when she might need to rush to Otherways at a moment’s notice—and she was back in the familiar bedroom that had been hers practically since she was born.
Moving more on auto-pilot than anything else, she walked to the bed, where she removed her dagger and shoved it under her pillow. It was unlikely to be seen by prying parental eyes while it was there, and she slept better knowing it was close at hand. She yawned vastly, suddenly aware of how tired she was, and how hungry she was, and how much her battle with the dire bats had left her in need of a shower.
The dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she shucked off her clothes and put on her nightshirt, which was so old and faded that she was probably the only one in the world who still saw Mickey Mouse in the shapeless blurs on the front; the dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she kicked them to one side and went to take her shower, shampooing her hair three times to get the smell of dire bat blood out; the dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she went to the kitchen for a midnight snack, as she checked the locks, as she came back into the room and climbed into her bed.
The stuffed tarantula she slept with every night—bought for her when she was eight, two years after she first entered Otherways—was waiting for her on her nightstand. She picked it up and hugged it tightly. “Good night, Little Naamen,” she said, with the gravity of a teenage girl who knows she’s doing something silly, but does it anyway, because it’s what she’s always done. “Spin me good dreams tonight, okay?”
On some other night, maybe that silly ritual phrase would have reminded her of the dreamcatcher; maybe she would have pulled it out of her pocket, dusted the lint from its strands, and hung it above her bed where it belonged. It had happened before. But she was tired and sore from fighting the dire bats, and sick at heart from the knowledge that soon, she would have to choose one world over the other, and all she wanted was to stop thinking for a little while. The dreamcatcher stayed in the pocket of her jeans as she reached over to her bedside table, and turned off the light.
Crystal Halloway, savior of the Otherways, closed her eyes, and slept.
There was no one single thing that woke her. One moment, Crystal was asleep, and the next, she was awake, staring into the darkness and trying to figure out why every nerve was screaming. Something was wrong. As always, when something she couldn’t name was wrong, Crystal’s thoughts leapt to Otherways. The Passage Star was shining—it had to be shining—and something was stopping her from seeing its light properly. But the Star never rose this soon after a visit.
Filled with an unnamed dread, Crystal tried to jump out of the bed and run for the closet. The sheets that had been snarled so carelessly around her while she slept drew instantly tight, becoming a net as effective as one of Naamen’s webs. Crystal’s dread suddenly solidified into concrete fear. She struggled harder, and the sheets drew even tighter, tying her down. Opening her mouth, she prepared to scream …
… and stopped herself before the sound could escape. Sheets didn’t move on their own, not in this world; whatever was happening, it was tied to the Otherways. If she screamed, her parents would come, and whatever was attacking her would take them, too. She was trapped, alone in the dark, and there was no one who could save her.
Crystal’s mind raced, trying to figure out which of her many enemies from Otherways could be behind this invasion. The Rose Queen? The Old Man of the Frozen North? Even the Timeless Child? All of them were somewhere in Otherways, and all of them hated her, but none of them had ever demonstrated that they had the ability to travel through the light of the Passage Star before—
“Oh, good. You’re awake. It’s easier when they’re awake.” The voice was sweet, female, and unfamiliar. Crystal turned toward it, squinting to make out anything through the gloom. “Don’t try to move. You’ll only hurt yourself.”
The idea that she could hurt herself caused Crystal to strain even harder against the sheets. Hurting herself implied movement, and movement could imply breaking loose. The woman sighed.
“You’re going to be a troublesome one, aren’t you? Ah, well, it can’t be helped. You should never have been left so long. Whatever they were using to hide you worked very, very well. I knew there was one of you little runaways still in this town, but I couldn’t seem to find you before tonight.” The sweet-voiced woman flew languidly out of the shadows and hovered above Crystal, smiling serenely down at her. “Whatever you did wrong, my dear, thank you. I appreciate it.”
The dreamcatcher, thought Crystal wildly, thinking of it for the first time since returning to her room. She took a short, sharp breath and stopped struggling. All her guesses as to her attacker’s identity had been wrong. This wasn’t one of the enemies she knew.
This was a stranger.
The woman in the air above her was round-faced and ruddy-cheeked, with soft brown curls and twinkling blue eyes. She looked like she would have been perfectly at home baking cookies or reading stories in a preschool—except for her rapidly fluttering mayfly wings. Those, and the large knife in her hand, established her as clearly supernatural, and just as clearly hostile.
“Who are you?” Crystal hissed, barely raising her voice above a whisper.
“Oh, there’s no need to whisper. You can scream yourself hoarse and no one will hear you. But I recommend against it. Laryngitis is no fun for anyone.” The woman continued to smile. “Still, if it will make you feel better, go right ahead.”
“Get out of my room,” snarled Crystal. The sheets were still tangled tight around her, but that gave her an idea. Naamen’s webs worked by turning each captive’s strength against them, letting the strong batter themselves into weakness. The sheets had tightened every time she struggled. Glaring at the woman, she forced herself to go limp.
“Now, now, dear, has no one taught you how to greet a guest? Your manners are sorely lacking.”
The sheets were no looser than they had been, but they were getting no tighter. “I don’t think manners apply to the uninvited.”
“Manners apply to the uninvited most of all.” The woman dipped lower in the air, reaching down to tap the fingers of her right hand against Crystal’s cheek. “Remember that, if you can.”
Crystal took a breath—and then she moved, calling on everything she’d learned from her games of catch-and-keep with Chester, who was faster than anyone else she’d ever known. The sheets reacted to the motion, but they were too slow, if only by a fraction of a second, missing her wrists as she yanked them free. Then her dagger was in her hand, and she was slashing wildly at the sheets still holding her down, preparing to lunge for the woman who had dared to invade her home, who had dared—
The binding spell crashed down on her with enough force to slam her against the mattress, knocking the air out of her lungs. Her dagger fell to the floor, slipping out of her nerveless fingers as she stared, unmoving, into the dark above her bed.
“Oh, you naughty thing. I see why they worked so hard to hide you. You were quite the catch for them, weren’t you? I’m sorry to have to bind you, but you left me no choice. Try to breathe. This will all be over soon, and this silliness will fade away.” The woman fluttered out of Crystal’s view. The mattress creaked as a weight settled on it. Then a gentle hand grasped Crystal’s chin, turning her head until she was facing the little woman who sat beside her.
Crystal glared with all the force that she could find. The woman smiled.
“You’re sixteen, aren’t you? Don’t try to answer, I already know. Don’t you think it’s past time you stopped running off to some childish fantasy land, leaving this world—this good world, that you were born a part of—wanting? It’s time to grow up, my dear.” She tapped Crystal’s cheek again. This time, she bore down enough that the sharp tips of her nails bit into Crystal’s skin. “I’m here to help you. I’m the Truth Fairy, you see, and that means I can do what you haven’t been able to do on your own.”
Crystal tried to struggle.
“Haven’t you ever noticed how fairies only come when there are things to be taken away? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Birthday Pig, they come to leave things behind them. Presents and chocolates and things like that. But the Tooth Fairy comes when you lose a tooth, and she takes that tooth away, and you never see it again. What she leaves is a hole. Something that your new tooth can fill. Do you understand yet, my dear?”
Crystal’s eyes screamed hate at her—hate, and terror, because something of what the Truth Fairy was saying made perfect, terrible sense. All the children she’d known in elementary school, the ones who had traveled to worlds of their own, worlds like her own Otherways, but different … they’d all forgotten their adventures, hadn’t they? She’d wondered why, with increasing confusion, as friend after friend suddenly swore their quests and their trials had been nothing but fantasies. She’d been to some of their worlds, traveling through mechanisms as strange and wondrous as her own Passage Star. And then one day, those children just forgot.
And there had been other children in Otherways before her.
“You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.” The Truth Fairy leaned close, voice almost a whisper as she said, “Haven’t you ever noticed how so many people seem to walk around empty inside, like there’s a hole cut out of the middle of them, a space where something used to be, and isn’t anymore? Someone has to dig the holes, Crystal. When your baby teeth don’t fall out, someone has to pull them.”
Hearts can heal, that was what Naamen had told her. But there’d been more to it, hadn’t there? Hearts can heal, as long as they remember the way home.
Hearts could forget the way home.
The Truth Fairy rose on buzzing wings. Crystal’s eyes widened, the reality of the moment sinking into her bones. There was no rescue. There was no salvation. Her name was going to be added to the quiet ranks of the forgotten, and never spoken again, not now, not tomorrow, not to the next child to stumble through the light of the Passage Star.
She was never going home again.
The knife went up. The knife came down. And somewhere deep inside her, in the place that the Truth Fairy’s knife sought with such unerring skill, Crystal Halloway screamed.
Morning dawned, as mornings always do. Paul and Maryanne Halloway were in the kitchen when their daughter came down the stairs, still yawning and wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Morning, Mom and Dad,” she said, voice muffled by the hand she pressed against her mouth. “Breakfast?”
“Scrambled eggs and toast,” said Maryanne. “How did you sleep?”
“Really well.” Crystal smiled a little blearily, as she dropped herself into a seat at the kitchen table. “I had the weirdest dreams.”
Her father looked up from his laptop, leaving his half-composed email unsent. “What about?”
“You know, I don’t remember now?” Crystal’s smile became a puzzled frown. “Something about a rabbit, I think. I don’t know.” For a moment, her frown deepened, taking on an almost panicked edge. “It seemed so important …”
“Don’t worry yourself, dear.” Maryanne put a plate of eggs and toast down in front of her daughter. “Eat up. You don’t want to be late for school.”
“Yeah.” The frown faded, replaced by calm. “We’re talking about college applications today. I should probably be on time for that.”
Crystal ate quickly and mechanically, and after she left, her parents marveled at how focused and collected she’d seemed, like she was finally ready to face the challenges of growing up.
Neither of them saw the empty space behind her eyes, in the place where a lifetime of adventures used to be. Neither of them saw the hole cut through her heart, waiting to be filled by a world that would never satisfy her, although she would never, until she died, be able to articulate why.
Neither of them really saw her at all, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. Done was done, and a heart, once truly broken, could never remember the way home. Crystal’s father had grown up in that same house; had known adventures and excitement in a world whose name he no longer knew. He would love his daughter all the more for having lost the same things he had lost. And her mother … she didn’t remember the talking horses or the magical wars or the young prince with webs between his fingers, not consciously, even if sometimes in the night she cried. Both of them knew that empty space more intimately than they could understand.
And none of them, not Crystal, not her parents, could hear the distant, thready sound of a giant spider—the Guardian of the Passage to the Beyond, the one who had guided and guarded a hundred generations of human children, nurtured them, loved them, and lost them all—weeping.