1. An intense feeling of deep affection; may be romantic, filial, or platonic.
1. A strong or barely controllable emotion.
2. Enthusiasm, interest, desire.
3. See also “obsession.”
It’s been fifty years since the crossroads caused the disappearance of Thomas Price, and his wife, Alice, has been trying to find him and bring him home ever since, despite the increasing probability that he’s no longer alive for her to find. Now that the crossroads have been destroyed, she’s redoubling her efforts. It’s time to bring him home, dead or alive.
Preferably alive, of course, but she’s tired, and at this point, she’s not that picky. It’s a pan-dimensional crash course in chaos, as Alice tries to find the rabbit hole she’s been missing for all these decades—the one that will take her to the man she loves.
Who are her allies? Who are her enemies? And if she manages to find him, will he even remember her at this point?
It’s a lot for one cryptozoologist to handle.
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"I only ever made one choice that wasn't for the sake of my family, and I'll pay for it until the day I die. Doesn't mean it was the wrong choice. Just means that sometimes the right thing can hurt like hell."
The Red Angel, a bar of somewhat disreputable character
just outside Buckley Township, Michigan
Now . . . and Then
Normal people aren't supposed to rip holes in the membrane that separates dimensions. That petty pleasure is reserved for sorcerers and umbramancers and the various forms of cryptid who have managed to evolve a more symbiotic relationship with the stuff. For a human like me, it's a violation of the laws that supposedly govern the natural world, and it comes with a price.
I fell through the doorway I had opened on Helos-Helos sucks, don't go there if you have any choice in the matter, it's never a good vacation destination, no matter what your travel agent says-severely injured and hoping for nothing more than a quick, easy crossing. Instead, I found myself hanging by one hand from a very familiar tree branch.
I grimaced. I remembered this. Of course, I remembered this; what was the point of tormenting me with intensely vivid flashbacks from my own life if I didn't remember them? This was the summer of 1950, about four years before Thomas Price arrived in Buckley. I was twelve years old. I had returned home from summering with the Campbell Family Carnival less than a week before, and my father was already making me regret coming back. So I had done what I always did when home felt too confining for me to live with. I had fled to the Galway Woods. Like my family, they loved me. Unlike my family, they didn't want me to be someone else. They liked me exactly the way I was.
Unfortunately, loving me didn't mean they wouldn't hurt me. I had startled a peryton nesting in the higher branches of one of my favorite climbing trees, and it had lashed out with its hooves, knocking me from my perch and leaving me dangling.
As soon as I let go, I was going to break my right leg. I'd spend the next six hours alone in the Galway Woods, trying not to cry so the sound of a wounded animal wouldn't attract any predators too big for me to deal with, trying not to move so I wouldn't pass out from the pain. I'd be half-delirious by the time my grandmother found me and carried me home. Like I said, flashbacks. But being here before didn't mean I could do anything differently, and no matter how tightly I tried to hang on, I was going to fall.
My fingers were already slipping. I bit my lip, tensing in anticipation of the pain to come, and let go.
How long the flashbacks last is shaped by how thick the membrane I've pushed through was. The wall between Helos and Earth is pretty thin, which meant I wouldn't be here long. It was still long enough to feel the impact with the ground, and the sickening snap of my tibia breaking.
I blacked out briefly, and then I was crashing through a window. Great. Welcome back to the present day.
The location hadn't changed much. I was still in the Galway Woods, or close enough for zoning laws: the Red Angel is technically outside the tree line, but only barely. Cynthia was behind the bar pulling a drink for a river hag with algae in her hair when I smashed into the bar and rolled across the floor, a tangle of cut skin, broken glass, and bruises. I couldn't see myself, but I know my body well enough to be pretty confident in saying that I didn't look good. If anything, I probably looked like somebody's grandmother's meatloaf right before it went into the oven.
A few drinkers flinched at the sound of breaking glass, their attention flicking more to the damage to their favorite-and in many cases, only available-watering hole than to the woman now lying on the floor, but once they'd confirmed nothing else was coming through the window, no assailants or human police or anything else that might bring down the mood, they turned their attention to me.
I was pretty sure Cynthia was shouting my name and rushing toward me, but my head was ringing like a bronze church bell, ears filled with distorted static, and I couldn't hear a goddamn thing. I also couldn't move. I wasn't in the flashback anymore, but my right leg still felt broken, and judging by the shooting pains in my calf, it was some kind of spiral fracture, one that had split the skin in multiple places. That meant I was probably also bleeding even more than I'd realized. Dammit.
Cynthia had reached me, seeming to move in jumps, like a bad stop-motion animation. That wasn't a good sign. Her voice was starting to become audible, intermittently, mostly drowned out by the ringing.
"-pened to-can you-bleed-okay?"
"Sure, Cyn," I said, as cheerfully as I could manage through waves of pain and shrieking sound. Consciousness seemed like too much to ask of me in that moment, and so I closed my eyes and let myself pass out, slipping into the soft, welcoming dark.
I woke up on something soft. Not a bed. There's a distinct feeling to a bed, a sort of flattened-out smoothness that's at least semi universal. This was lumpier, formed of multiple layers piled up on top of one another. I opened my eyes, looking up at a ceiling choked with dusty cobwebs, and pushed myself upright, confirming the nature of the surface beneath me in the process.
Furs and sheets of birch bark, all piled up in a heap about as high as my waist, occupied fully half the room. Looking around, I guessed we were probably in one of the storerooms at the Red Angel. The place seems to have a virtually unlimited number of them, most unused. Either Cynthia's mom was wildly optimistic about how many humans would want to drink at a cryptid bar when she built the place, or the nonhuman population of Michigan used to be a hell of a lot bigger.
I was honestly willing to bet on a combination of the two. Even when humanity isn't actively hunting down and killing the competition, we have a nasty tendency to push them out and eliminate them through attrition, if nothing else. We're kind of assholes that way.
And I, an asshole, had done enough woolgathering for one . . . day? Evening? Afternoon? There were no windows, and massive blood loss always throws off my sense of time. I groaned and flopped back down in the furs. I could have lost days. I didn't have days to lose.
My name is Alice Enid Price-Healy, and despite what my family will try to tell you, I am not a widow.
Sixty-five years ago, my husband, who wasn't my husband at the time, just the man I was ridiculously in love with, sold his future to the crossroads in order to save my life after I'd been attacked by a rare kind of venomous serpent called a Bidi-taurabo-haza. Their venom is always fatal, and their victims literally rot alive before sloughing off of their own skeletons. There wasn't time to come up with a miracle cure for something that no one's been able to defeat in centuries, and so he did the only thing he could, and traded himself to keep me from dying.
Four years after that, we were married, and we got almost five years together, time to create two beautiful children and pass our genes to a whole new generation of cryptozoologists who've done an astonishing job of carrying on my family's mission to protect the cryptids of the world. Our time ended when the crossroads came to collect, pulling Thomas through a rip in the fabric of the world as we knew it, leaving me alone with our babies and what few allies I had managed to make and maintain as the only daughter of a man who'd done his level best to burn every bridge his parents ever built.
The worst part is that I don't regret a single one of the choices that brought us to that point. Thomas paid too much to save me, but the crossroads wouldn't accept anything less. I'm just self-centered enough to think the world is a better place with me in it, and that if someone was willing to pay to keep me, they had the right to do so. Marrying him was probably the second smartest thing I ever did, after convincing my grandfather to teach me how to shoot, and I love my kids, even if my own daughter can barely look at me. We had good times together. We were happy.
The memory of those five years has carried me through the last fifty, because I've been looking for him almost since the night he disappeared. Mary had been able to convince me not to follow him through the rip while I was pregnant, but that state had only lasted for another month, and once the baby was outside me and breathing on her own-breathing and screaming, which was Jane's favorite pastime for the weeks we spent together-I'd handed our children off to my best friend, Laura, my sister in all but blood, and I'd run.
I'd run for every door I could think of that might take me to the world where he was lost and looking for me. I'd run for sorcerers and rumors of sorcerers, for routewitches in their tatty campers and for trainspotters in their boxcars, and I'd come uncomfortably close to my own crossroads bargain, only to be pulled back from the edge again and again by the ghost of my babysitter, Mary Dunlavy, who knew her employers wouldn't treat me as kindly as they'd treated Thomas.
And then I'd found my answer. The stupid snake cults hadn't been so stupid after all. They-
The sound of a door opening snapped me out of my woolgathering, and Cynthia came into the room, carrying a plastic tray that looked like it had been stolen from the Buckley High School cafeteria while I was still a student there. She smiled thinly at the sight of me.
"I wondered if you were going to wake up any time soon, or whether this was the time I got the dubious pleasure of calling your family and asking them to come collect your corpse from my stockroom," she said, walking over to me and putting the tray down.
We were alone, and she wasn't taking any measures to hide how intensely inhuman she really was. She had a fairly ordinary face, pale and lovely, with sharp Nordic features that would have made her a hit in any singles bar in the country, if not for the long cow's tail that extended from the base of her spine and swished idly near her ankles, and the fact that she had virtually no internal organs. Her back looked like it had been scooped out, revealing an empty, flesh-lined shell where most of her body should have been, and it was a sign of how comfortable she was with me that she was wearing a low-backed top that allowed that cavity to air out.
Her hair was a shockingly vibrant shade of red, and that should, I suppose, have been a hint of what her species eats, but it still took a surprisingly long time for us to convince her to trust us enough to answer some basic questions about huldrafolk biology. They're plants, essentially, specifically an extremely sophisticated and advanced form of pitcher plant, and like most meat-eating plants, they absorb their prey. Anything Cynthia can stuff into the cavity of her back, she can consume. Blood for the bloodthirsty usually works out in the end.
"How long was I out?" I asked. My leg didn't hurt; it hadn't since I'd woken up. I glanced down. And there was no break. The skin was perfectly smooth and unblemished. That either meant I'd been unconscious for six months, or I'd been awake enough at some point to activate one of my tattoos. Please, please, let it be the latter.
"About six hours," she said. I sagged in relief. Cynthia either didn't notice or didn't care. She continued, "After you broke my window-and don't think you're not paying for that-you bled all over the damn floor and passed out cold. What the fuck happened, Alice? You're not usually that easy to get the drop on."
"You know I got confirmation that Thomas isn't dead?"
Cynthia nodded, a wary look in her eyes. She's known me since I was way too young to be drinking in her place; she's been running the Angel long enough that she knew my grandparents and still talked about them fondly when she got a few drinks in her. Wariness made sense. I've known for a long time that most of the people I love think I'm crazy, chasing a dead man across dimensions like it might actually change things, and I don't hold it against them. Maybe I am a little crazy.
You don't spend more than fifty years doing the same thing even when it doesn't work if you're not at least a little crazy. And given the alternative, which is a world where the crossroads killed my husband and I ruined my relationship with my children for nothing, I don't mind being slightly off my rocker. It's the best option I have left.
"Well, I know he's out there, but I don't know where he is, and the universe is pretty big, even if I'm just talking about the parts of it I can get to. I'm sure there are layers of reality I can't access." The ones occupied by the dead, for example, are pretty solidly closed off to the living. I've been trying to find a way into the twilight that Mary and Rose sometimes refer to for more than thirty years, and I've come to the conclusion that the only way it's possible is to die-something I have no interest in doing.
"Okay," said Cynthia, in a "get the fuck on with it" tone.
"This means revisiting a lot of dimensions I've tried before without any luck and using them to springboard into less friendly realities. And some of those people know me at this point. I was passing through a world where my rep is . . . let's call it 'colorful,' and I got jumped by a gang of assholes who wanted to prove themselves by taking out a pan-dimensional bounty hunter."