In the moonlight, even the flowers looked like bone.
He avoided them, stumbling round on bare feet that felt heavier than they ever had in boots. The flowers' long, pale petals moved as he did, following him. A halting, mistimed chord sounded through the ringing in his ears – G minor, he thought, and would have winced at the discordance, if he could have made himself care.
There's something wrong with that, he mused to himself. I should be terrified. The path he followed, lined with the skeletal flowers, was darkened in patches with what he suspected was blood, soaked into the dirt and black under the silvered light.
The moon, he noticed, was far too large. It hung in a sky empty of stars, hung too close and too heavy over him. He could feel its tidal forces pulling at his blood. He swayed with them, weaving side to side along the path.
Where are my boots? The thought came, strangely clear in his head. He paused, one foot in the air, and almost toppled as the tide turned. Where the hell is this?
* * *
"What do you mean, 'where's Eric?' Don't I rate a hello?" Beth asked, dropping a bag of groceries on the counter with a thunk. Dry wall dust puffed up around it like a breath in cold air, and she waved it away, still looking at Kory.
Who looked rather deeply confused. He looked around the half-finished room as if he'd find Eric napping on the tarps that lined the floor. It wasn't like there was any furniture in here that he could be hidden behind.
"He was here while I was in the other room," he said, "I could hear him humming. And then I saw you coming up the walkway, and the humming stopped . . . You didn't meet him going out?"
"No," she answered. Something cold wrapped around her heart, instincts still a little raw. They'd felt almost safe here, there had been no sign of trouble . . . Restoring the house was exhausting, but it was a good sort of tiredness. It felt clean. But she found it didn't take much to set off her alarms, and where once she would have waved off Eric not being where she thought he was, now the idea tightened her spine with dread.
"You didn't . . . feel anything?" They all three had such a tight bond. Surely if something had happened, one of them would have noticed. She hadn't felt anything out of the ordinary, but Kory's magic, and Eric's, was so different than her own – but Kory was shaking his head, looking grimmer by the moment.
"I'll look upstairs," he said, "just in case." And he bounded back out of the room quicker than a cat, leaving her in the empty kitchen, listening as he took the steps two at a time.
* * *
The path didn't go anywhere. The patches of blood were never fresher than the patches he'd already walked through. Never dried, either. The beds of flowers (the bones, his mind insisted) neither thinned out nor grew thicker. And the moon, the impossible moon, never rose higher. Never set. He stared up at it, bracing himself against its pull.
It was hard to think. He couldn't tell how long he'd been walking, or how far. But I'm tired of this he thought, a tiny flicker of heat at the frustration beginning to clear the fog in his mind. This is creepy. It sounds like. . . Danse Macabre. Only slowed down, and twisted somehow.
He shivered as his mind cleared. He could feel the cold now – his bare feet ached with it. I was at the house. Waiting for Beth to come back with lunch. Kory was just in the other room . . . oh god, is he here too?
He tried to look around, tried to turn and look behind him, but the world spun wildly, the tide that tugged at his blood unbalancing him. And when he opened his mouth to call for Kory, he couldn't hear himself at all.
He stumbled, trying to wrench himself around, and fell to his knees. The ground was punishingly cold beneath him, and he could feel the blood that spattered the path soaking through his jeans. He shuddered – the blood was obscenely warm, against the chill that pervaded the rest of the world.
In a growing panic, he fought his way back to his feet, and started running down the unchanging path, still shouting, futilely, silently, for Kory, for Beth.
All he could hear was that halting, malformed melody.
* * *
Beth sat cross legged on the kitchen floor, in a circle cleared of dust and tools. She held Eric's flute in her lap. Finding that, in its case on the bed . . . Eric never would have gone somewhere willingly without it. She closed her eyes.
Kory paced the room behind her, carefully out of her way. She tied the steady rhythm of his footsteps, the echo of them in the empty room, into the song she sang.
Where 'ere my path lies, be it gloomy or bright,
My soul, happy friends, shall be with you that night.
Shall join in your revels, your sports, and your wiles,
And return to me beaming, all o'er with your smiles.
Too, blest if it tells me that 'mid the gay cheer,
Some kind voice had murmer'd, "I wish he were here!"
An old song, of friendship and the longing to be near loved ones – she could only hope it would help.
* * *
He fell to his hands and knees, panting. The pale flowers all turned toward him, glowing under the omnipresent moon like the eyes of beasts in the dark. He dug his fingers into the dirt, and flung a handful at them.
The movement overbalanced him, and he dropped, curled into himself on the ground. He could feel the moon like a weight pressing over him, feel his heart laboring under the push and pull of it. What is this? he asked again, bewildered. Frightened. Beth? Kory? It was so terribly lonely here.
At first, when he felt the warm touch on his back, he flinched violently and scrambled to his feet. There was no one. No one at all, on the empty path.
And again, he felt it – like a hand on his shoulder, gentle, warm in a way entirely unlike the warmth of the blood spilled on the path.
He stood still beneath it, quivering as he fought the urge to run away. Slowly, a sense of familiarity seeped through his panic. Hesitantly, he reached for it, as if to cover that phantom hand with his own.
"Beth?" he asked, and he could hear her name, hanging in the air, as the creeping waltz that surrounded him ground to a halt.
* * *
"Beth!" Kory's voice broke her out of her spell, and she blinked. She was exhausted. Her hands ached from gripping Eric's flute.
"Beth! He's here," Kory called again, and she forced herself to look around. The room wavered around her. When it steadied, she saw Kory kneeling over – over Eric.
Somehow – she didn't remember getting up, didn't remember moving – she was at his side. He was so still, in Kory's arms. Pale, and cold to the touch. Was that . . . "Is this blood?" she asked, tentatively reaching for the dark stains on Eric's jeans. His hands and feet, too, were stained with reddened dirt. His fingernails were black with it.
Kory caught her hand, squeezed. "It's not his," he said, looking her right in the eye. "We need to get him warm."
He lifted Eric like a child, and she followed them to their bedroom. Eric looked so young. Vulnerable.
They stipped him of his ruined clothes, and washed the stains from his skin. They wrapped him their patchwork quilt, and lay down on either side of him, unwilling to let him out of their sight.
Eventually, the color came back to his face. His eyes opened, hazed with exhaustion, haunted, and met hers.
"Bethie . . . " the words were hardly more than air, released on his breath. She pulled his hand out of the quilt, and brought it to her lips, fighting back tears.
Eric's eyes cleared slowly, and she smiled at him. Kory's arm tightened around his waist, and Eric relaxed. "Both of you," he murmured. "You're both here."
"Idiot," she whispered. "You're the one who was missing."
* * *
He slept for hours, warm and safe. When he woke they were asleep beside him. The room was dark, though, and the moon shone through the curtains. For a moment, he couldn't breathe. He slid off the bed, careful not to disturb his friends, and peered out the window, afraid of what he would see.
But the moon was not the hideously overwhelming thing it had been there. Just a normal moon, a fat crescent surrounded by stars – his pulse was his own, there were no tides threatening to drown him.
"Eric," he heard, Kory's voice behind him. "Are you well?"
He turned and smiled. "Yes." he said. "I'm fine now."
"What happened?" the elf asked, simply.
Eric shivered. "I don't know," he said. "There was no one there but me."
"I don't know," he said again. The shivering was turning into shakes, and Kory was there, hugging him tight.
He sagged against him. "It was so lonely, there," he started. Slowly, as Kory rubbed a hand up and down his spine, and as he described the nightmare he'd been trapped in, Eric felt the tension ebb away.
* * *
In the morning, they examined the kitchen where Eric had vanished. Beth insisted that he stay outside the room. She could see him, peering in through the doorway, but he stayed obediently on the other side. Just that alone told her how unsettled he had been by the whole thing.
"Here," Kory said, motioning her over.
He pulled out the electrical socket Eric had installed yesterday, and there, in the wall, trapped against the stud, was a lock of hair.
She held her breadth, and gripped at Kory's shoulder.
But there was no body, lying lost and forgotten in the wall. And Kory gave no sign of vanishing.
"Eric," he called back, "that song you were humming yesterday – what was it?"
"It wasn't anything," he answered, startled. Beth turned to see him craning his neck further into the room, trying to see. "I was just . . . humming."
"I think . . ." Kory paused. "I think something responded to the magic in your voice. Something that's been alone, and forgotten, for a very long time."
Beth shivered. She had heard Eric's account, though she had stayed on the bed, pretending to sleep. He'd sounded so fragile. And that place, that dream, whatever it had been, had seemed so bleak.
"Is there anything we can do?" she heard herself asking. Kory looked up at her. The warmth in his eyes brought a blush to her face.
"We'll think of something," he said. "Something to keep us all safe, and lay this one to rest, as well."
She smiled at him, but flung a hand out behind her. She didn't need to look to know that Eric had taken a step closer.
"If you're going to come in here, then you'd better hold on to me. If you vanish again, we're going with you."
He crossed the room in three long steps, and took her hand.