Thursday, 14 January 2021

Everyday Battles

 

by Will Jolliff

black tea, lemon, no sugar

Everley covered the distance to the door in five brisk steps as always, despite the lengthening shadow at her back. Late, tired, it made no difference when there was a job to finish – and otherwise she would regret the state of the gallery in the morning. The world could spare her a few hours before the next cry for help arrived.

She had been afraid that someone would take her parking space again, stealing time when it most mattered. The last time her clients had been forgiving, able to wait a little longer to see their work in the public eye, but it was different now. The long days of her task required concentration, to say nothing of the bills which swamped her inbox daily. Tickets here and there, letters of mark and licences stamped with the colours of a hundred countries, all for her eyes only. Where is Bryan when you need him?

Everley reached inside her lapel and pulled out her key card, in time for a familiar face to appear behind the massive plate-glass door. The automatic mechanism was long deactivated, as it had been for months beforehand; she would not compromise security for the sake of a quicker entry. When the door swung outwards, she gave the doorman her usual smile. “Thank you, Bryan. I was delayed again, they wanted me at the Castle.” Warm air rolled over her as she crossed the threshold.

Familiar with the habits of his boss, Bryan had long since given up waiting to take her coat. He locked the door after her and folded his lanky frame behind the main desk. “How was it today? I hope you remembered to pack your chains for those roads.” He reached absentmindedly for a steaming foam cup, then paused in midair. “I almost forgot; someone came in earlier asking for you. She looked like – like one of us, but different. I thought I had seen her on the news, but she corrected me… Anyway, she said she would wait. She’s in the Pine Gallery.”

“I see.” Everley adjusted the strap of her bag before changing her mind and placing it on the desk. “I’ll probably have to go again. Will you take this to the office for me at closing time?” Almost as an afterthought she took off her wide-brimmed white hat and laid it beside the bag. “Our guest left no card or anything?”

Bryan shook his head. “Though she did take a submission form. I guess there was a reason to print a few, which means I’ve finally won our bet.” He tipped his head toward the far end of the desk, where their antique writing stand spent its days – normally in vain. “You owe me a coffee.”

“As I have said before, all you will get out of me is tea,” Everley said, tapping her heel on the polished concrete floor. “Then you will become civilised and I will gain customers.” She made to go, but turned back with another thought. “Last favour; could you bring down my other shoes and leave them under the desk when you go? When I’m done, I don’t wish to spend another minute in these.”

“Sure,” Bryan nodded. “I’ll do a final sweep of the cameras then leave. If you’re coming back here, I’ll lock up out back and save you a walk. Being as you’ve secured your favourite space.” He looked through the front windows, where the outline of her Jag was covered in a light dusting of snow. “I don’t blame you for keeping your coat.”

Everley adjusted her fur-lined collar, her fingertips brushing the outlines of her key card and chain. “Wrap up warm when you go, Bryan. Stay safe and – please – don’t let me catch you waiting for me again. See you tomorrow morning.” When he waved, she set off through the double-height doors into the hall. Back to work.

Without the weight of her bag she set a better pace, her footfalls echoing along the corridor like gunshots. To both sides her reflection matched her stride, rippling against the smoked glass windows and breaking up when the dim orange glow from the streetlamps outside became too much. The London skyline glittered beyond her walls, distorted enough by the clouds that her eyes struggled to pick up the detail hiding there. How fitting. Another night falls, whilst beyond our enemies move further from our sight. Abruptly she stopped and faced the first reflection, searching its pale gaze. What am I pretending to do here?

Whispering back to her, the chain of her pendant lay cold against the bare skin of her throat. I am here to fix the course of history. I must accept my past. The pendant had no voice to speak, but Artelia had said that its message lived within her. Artelia is always right.

At first glance the Pine Gallery was empty, the torn cardboard boxes that had held the exhibition’s contents still marring the corner of the room near the card stand. The lights were on half strength, a diffuse golden glow at odds with the chill temperature; evidently the heating had gone off some hours ago. Everley made a mental note to check the thermostat with Bryan, then continued. Where is this guest? She must have heard me, unless she is in the lavatory. The security screen to the left of the door showed a live view of the gallery from above, revealing the path visitors were supposed to take between the tall dividers that had been installed for the exhibition, but nobody could be seen in any part of the room.

She stopped in front of the first painting, the statement piece, and tried to equate it with her memories. It’s no good, I have nothing. This war… burning light, the cold kiss of water then darkness. Shock doesn’t even come into it… and yet I cannot deny I remember this day. The grey waters filled her mind, a restless ocean that continually waited for her return. My past. My future. My time on this world is limited, my energy finite. I must give what I can to save

Footsteps broke into her mind, bursting the dream as suddenly as it had come upon her, and she turned away from the painting to face the screen. Good, she’s here. I’ll listen to whatever she has to say and then head home. If I’m lucky, I should get four to five hours… She swung around and headed purposefully for the entrance of the exhibition. Outside the huge gallery windows, several passing figures caught her eye – a family, from their appearance, moving hurriedly to spend as little time outside as possible, and for a moment her thoughts lingered on them – their journey, their worries, the mistruths they had been fed. She thought, if only you would listen to me. To us.

The family was already gone. She walked down the last divided corridor and turned the corner, expecting – well, anyone. The gallery had grown popular in the last ten years, and she had gathered from Bryan that it was no-one he knew. No-one that he had a picture of, anyway, taped to the third broken monitor that nobody on the visitors’ side could see. She had made sure none of their enemies would get in without recognition, so how had it happened?

“Elenna,” Everley heard herself saying, her voice curiously detached from reality. Yes, Elenna, whose picture has never been held up for Bryan because I never expected she would come here. That the ASD have been sent to deal with me… I never saw this coming. I bet it was her idea. They’ve allowed me to play myself.

“Yes, it is.” Elenna stood from the stone bench she had waited the last few seconds on. She had changed; her new appearance was no match with her character. Their last meeting, the surprise at the palace, had seemed to confirm everything Everley knew about Elenna – that she was a blank ink-stained sheet still smarting from the humiliations of bitter lessons cruelly repeated by her betters, aspiring to beat them only out of jealousy.

Watching her now, Everley saw that she had been wrong. And not for the first time. The leader of the ASD had exchanged the severe suits she had favoured in the past for a glossy lipstick-coloured parka and black spray-on jeans, topping the change of image with a pair of white trainers. The disguise – if Everley could call it so – had been flawless, and now she would pay the price for being fooled. Elenna had the floor.

She doesn’t know everything, Everley reminded herself. And she doesn’t know me. Best to start at the beginning. “Why are you here? Bad – bad time to talk. We’re just about to close.” There was a chance someone would walk past the windows and see them when the fight invariably began. It was slight, but it could give her an advantage.

Elenna shrugged, then stepped closer. “Aren’t you going to offer me refreshments first? I thought that was how you people did things.” Closer still. “My mistake. How you used to do things.” She wore a waspish smile.

“They don’t come for free,” Everley said quietly, checking off her options. She has that end of the corridor, but I have mine. She wouldn’t have been able to get weapons past the scanner, so on that front I’m clear. And if she tries to jump me, I’m ready. She never went without a shield, and it had never failed her.

“Nice theme you have going on here,” Elenna examined the nearest sculpture, a large rising wave cast in aged bronze that weighed close to a metric tonne. “Though I don’t see the point in expensive paperweights. In anything on these walls, in fact. You must feel mighty proud of yourself, clacking around this place to look at pretty pictures whilst half the world is starving to death in terror of our kind.”

“All my artists get paid,” Everley said, trying to find the opening. “Better record than starting a company for the sole purpose of killing. That’s what the ASD does, correct? You find people who refuse to play by the rules, people like me, and you kill them. All in the name of keeping the citizens safe. All in the pursuit of power… Tell me, what did Whitehall say when they decided to employ you? Who do they have in the wings waiting to step forward when you sell them down the river?”

In the long moment of silence that followed, she reached down, unbuckled her heels and stepped out of them. This floor… it will be like running on an ice rink. But at least I’ll be able to run. Elenna watched her, a condescending smile forming on her sharp lips.

“I see you’ve thought this through,” she said, folding her arms. Everley watched her hands in case she should open her palms, but she made no effort to adopt any position at all. “Let me explain to you the purpose of my organisation, Everley – but that isn’t what they call you, is it? Where is your shining sun now, hmm?”

She knows, Everley thought. Damn. On repeat again

It took her a split second to realise that Elenna was not rushing her for a reason, the same amount of time for a sudden series of staccato thumps – footsteps – to build to a crescendo and release. Why would she come alone? The ASD, Everley. The purpose of her organisation. Killing people like me. Her thoughts ran out as the dividing wall to her left, a solid plywood box frame mounted on wheels and plastered in approximation of a real wall, overbalanced and toppled towards her.

Throwing up her hands, she almost caught hold of the wall, but some immense weight was on its far side; there was nothing more that could be done. Everley jerked back from the falling ruin, trying not to let it drive her into Elenna’s range, and too late she saw Deron’s massive bulk still clinging to the top. She managed to half turn away, before the wall landed with a dull boom and Deron’s huge bowling ball of a fist swung out to collide with the side of her head.

The impact flung a whirlpool of shooting stars across her vision, turning the room inside out as it lifted her wholly off her feet; fortunately, the far wall broke her fall. She slid down to the hard pine floor amidst a cloud of plaster dust, her skin where the blow had landed feeling as if it had been doused with fire. At first glance his fist had managed to turn the world through ninety degrees, but after opening her eyes she found herself lying on her side. She blinked painfully, her eyelashes scraping over each other, and brought a hand to the side of her face. I’m missing… what am I missing… Some seconds passed before the tiny white dot in front of her resolved into a blurry tooth, and she searched for the hole where it had been with her finger. It came away dappled with blood.

“Good job, Deron.” Elenna made no move to intervene, even as Everley struggled to raise herself to a sitting position. Dust and flakes of plaster were everywhere, trapped in her hair and speckled across her ocean-blue coat, but her assailant showed no sign of pressing the advantage – for now. Waiting for orders? I didn’t – didn’t think they worked like that. Her head was still on fire, but she had to move. The polished floor was as slippery as it had ever been, and she wished she had swapped over to her driving shoes before leaving the car. Have I let myself down so much… She wiped her eyes, and pressed her cold palm against the side of her face, and tried to understand the method of their attack. Why… why didn’t she start by throwing fireballs… Ah. She knew I would expect magic.

Eventually – though it must have been mere seconds to the others – Elenna went to sit back down. “All right, Deron, you go ahead. I think we can say we’re done for the day. Everyone has a plan until…” She made a fist and drove it into her hand, and Deron laughed. He took a step forwards, toppled off wall, and his heavy leather shoe sent an echo rippling through the floorboards.

Everley rolled over, blinking away hot tears in favour of the ageless power that all of them had trained for – she more so than her opponents, because of the promise. The promise that one day people would come looking for her, and she would have to be ready to join them. Artelia said this is no longer a time for building armies. This is a time for using them.

In the second before Deron’s hand closed around her ankle, Everley pressed herself to the cold floor, her hands cupping her lips as she spoke the silent words. O Lady Tyburn, hear me. Accept my offering. There had always been the alternative, but her earlier self could not bear the idea of combat. This was the safer, no, the cleaner option. Hear me! She repeated the spell, with a long, painful breath.

“Oh no you don’t!” Elenna snarled, finally getting the picture. Everley smiled in relief; she was far too late to do anything at all. Any second now…

A round hole appeared in the floor beneath Elenna’s spotless white trainers, perfectly mirroring her expression of surprise as she took the first step toward Everley. Surprise gave way to fear, and motion gave way to weightlessness; she let out a shrill, terrified scream before vanishing into the darkness below. Everley counted three full seconds before the splash, but she wasn’t in the clear. Deron still held her ankle, his massive shoulders almost enough to keep him wedged in his own version of the trap – but his luck was about to change. As his nails cut through the material of her tights and into her skin, this time Everley was smiling through the pain.

“Lady of the Shining Sun,” Deron snarled, his red mouth working viciously at the words. “Know this. There is nothing you will manage to change.”

She laid her hand flat on the floor, the pine warning beneath her fingers, and the second hole began to shrink. The big man was forced to release her to cling to the edge until Everley pushed herself around and stared into his eyes. “This has become my fight, Deron, and I will save them. A fitting end to your final report for the Anti-Sorcery Defence Group.” The sides of the shaft were churning, the hungry earth ready for its prey, so a second later she let him go.

When she managed to climb to her feet, taking in the damage they had done, something caught her eye. Several figures – no, people – were standing at the windows, their faces only centimetres from the glass. Moments later, a fist beat against the window, confirming they had seen what she had done. Muffled voices rose, first one, then five or ten angry shouts. “Magician! Witch!” Spittle streaked the glass, freezing near instantly. How long were they watching? Who can say. The state of this world

Everley crossed to the windows, and brushed the dust from her ochre hair. She had no doubt her injuries showed, but they were immaterial. She reached inside her coat and, using the moment to breathe, touched the reassuringly cold chain of the pendant they had recovered from her wreck. The small crowd showed little sign of breaking up, but that in itself – she was sure – would change.

She let go of the chain, studied her hand, then placed it flat against the window. When we all fight our own wars, what we must do… is reach out to one another.

 

About the author  

Will Jolliff, is a second-year university student experimenting with building different worlds intended to draw the reader fully into a scene. He is working on finishing his first manuscript.


 

 

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