Jane Constance Huang of Waltham, Massachusetts had never been so sure she was going to die.
The Thing in front of her was humanoid, with eyes like a cat’s and irises of savage crimson. Its mouth was fanged, disproportionately wide, with dark purple lips that stretched across its face in a streak like the Joker’s smile. It was so tall its head almost scraped the ceiling of her uncle’s study, and ridged black scales sheathed its body.
Behind the monster, the portal through which it had just emerged glinted like liquid mercury. It was a small hole, about the height and width of Jane’s closet mirror, and the image beyond shifted constantly—one moment clouds and sky—the next, a dark forest.
Thirty seconds ago, Jane had been staring at said portal, puzzling over its sudden appearance in her uncle’s workroom, her algorithms textbook forgotten in her lap. Barely ten seconds later, the portal had turned dark and this alien Thing had emerged, unfolding its limbs like some sort of demonic flower.
Now, the creature scanned the room with crimson eyes, turning its head with a predator’s grace. Jane had never seen anything like it in her life, but she knew without doubt that she didn’t want it to see her. She sat very still, hugging her textbook, hardly daring to breathe. The creature smelled rank, like sewage overflowing from a backed-up drain.
Please, she thought desperately, please let this Thing have bad eyesight—
As though sensing her thoughts, the creature’s molten eyes swiveled toward her. Jane gulped.
It started toward her, slowly, deliberately. A mouth opened, revealing hideous canines in that far-too-wide mouth, and a tongue that was black and rotting. The smell was worse than ever.
“UNCLE BAUER!” Jane screamed. “SANDRA!”
She sprinted for the study door.
The Thing moved at the same time as she did. She heard its scales rasp across the floor of the study. Sharp claws like razors closed on her wrist, drawing blood. The skin felt horrible, chalky, like soap left to dry. It dragged her by the wrist, backward, toward the portal through which it had come.
Blind panic consumed her. She yelled and screamed—swatted at the monster with her textbook—tried to dent its horrible, scale-crusted skin—
The monster gave a final yank toward the portal—
—and things got very hazy…
She had a sense of falling, of tumbling through vast quantities of time and space in the blink of an instant. Everything was blurry, out-of-focus; there were no sounds, no sights, no smells. Her senses screamed with confusion. I’m too young to die, she thought, frantic—I haven’t accomplished nearly enough in my life yet, unless you count getting good grades, and a few Habitat for Humanity trips that mostly involved not trying to smash in my hand with a hammer—
This thought fragmented and was replaced with thoughts of all she still wanted to do with her life—Become a doctor! Start a company! Save the penguins!—which cycled on repeat before being replaced by a final, more pressing thought: I wonder what that flat, gray thing coming toward me could be…
She slammed into the ground. Breath exploded from her lungs. Her senses returned in a ruthless deluge of pain that immediately made her wish for the void again.
When at last she was able to move without wanting to scream, she dragged herself to her feet.
Stone met her eyes—high arches, stained glass windows, a small altar with a row of stone effigies. The air smelled musty and old. Beams of sunlight trickled through the windows, casting kaleidoscopes of color on the floor.
A whimper nearby made her turn.
The monster crouched nearby, crumpled low to the ground. Low, keening noises emerged from its mouth. As Jane watched, it screamed—an inhuman, earth-rattling, bloodcurdling shriek like the cry of a wounded animal. The screams reverberated against her eardrums, vibrated off the walls, rattled her bones. The creature’s mouth opened impossibly wide. Its crimson eyes closed, and its face contorted in what Jane could only assume to be agony—
Without warning, the creature crumbled to ash.
Scrambling backward, Jane tried to avoid the worst of the sooty cloud. Coughing, heart still pounding, she spun on her heel.
There was no sign of her uncle’s study.
No sign of the portal through which she had come.
She pressed a hand to her mouth. Every inch of her shook. Dimly, she realized she still clutched her algorithms textbook. It had somehow survived the fall to—here. Wherever here was…
Okay, Jane thought. It will all be okay—there’s got to be a rational explanation for this—
The nearest window looked out onto a narrow, walled alley. Jane pushed the glass open. Stray cats met her eyes, and wheelbarrows and cobbled rock. A curtain of unfamiliar plants draped down the wall, some in full bloom. Beyond the alley, an old woman with a funny headscarf clattered down the street, pushing a wooden cart.
The smell assaulted Jane’s nostrils. Something nearby smelled of manure, and not in a wholesome, farmy way. It was a rank, pungent odor that made Jane wish for bleach, or a bottle of air freshener. Jane covered her nose with her sleeve and squinted again toward the road beyond the alley.
There were no cars to be seen.
No power lines.
No street lights.
“I don’t think we’re in Massachusetts anymore,” Jane told her textbook. Her hands shook worse than ever.
There was a game she often played in times of panic. She called it the ‘What would Phillip do in this situation?’ game. Never mind that her older brother was dead—his presence still remained a silent specter at their house, one that Jane and her younger sister Sandra could not quite live up to.
Jane decided Phillip would probably first review what just happened.
Okay, so—I went to my uncle’s workroom to escape Sandra. A weird metaphysical phenomenon popped into existence between the dead spider plants and Uncle Baeur’s desk. A monster grabbed me and pulled me through the—portal, let’s call it a portal. And now, said monster is an ashy heap on the floor, which makes no sense at all…
Jane thought back to the portal, to the place where it had appeared. Her uncle’s study was a mess, a cluttered collection of prehistoric computers from the era of floppy disks, decades-old papers, and gadgets which were remnants of bygone experiments from her uncle’s physicist days. Jane closed her eyes, trying to visualize the space where the portal had appeared. There had been a collection of boxy black machines on the floor near the portal nearby. Jane thought they must have come from her uncle’s lab when it closed down.
Could those boxes have been responsible for the portal’s appearance? Could her uncle have been conducting some kind of experiment in there? And that’s how she was now… here?
Wherever ‘here’ is…
Jane’s hands shook worse than ever. Silently, she stared at the alley. This wasn’t a dream. She knew that for sure. Her dreams were never this inventive; they were always nightmares about missing tests, or handing in assignments a day late, or being caught cheating and getting expelled…
A hand touched her shoulder.
Nerves wound to breaking point, Jane screamed and spun, lashing out at her assailant. Her textbook collided with something soft. She heard a sound like a muffled curse—and then her body lurched backward, as if repelled by an invisible wall. Jane stumbled, overbalanced, and sat down hard on the stone temple floor.
The man she had hit was tall, with black hair that almost reached his chin, and long, green robes that looked like something straight out of a Renaissance Faire. He could not have been much older than Jane, but his eyes held a sharp, haunted look, like one who has lived on too little sleep for too long. At the moment, he was regarding her with annoyance.
“S-sorry,” she said. “I thought you were… something else.” She glanced at the pile of ash on the floor, which was still reassuringly… ashy… and then her eyes darted back toward the newcomer. She tried to smile.
He did not smile back.
“Avtorka,” he said. “You are the avtorka, yes?”
Jane stared at him.
“I hope I did not keep you waiting long. The soothsayers predicted your arrival in Lanskoye, but they misjudged your appearance by a good ten verstas.”
His eyes were odd, with irises of iridescent copper, just a shade away from gold, like a cat’s. They ought to have been a warm color. But there was very little warmth in the way he studied her. His tone was civil, his expression pleasant, but there was an undercurrent of impatience to his voice that left Jane unsettled.
“I am Sorcerer Nikolay Vetrov of the House Tarmita,” he said. He cleared his throat. “May I know your name?”
The question jolted Jane from her daze. “I’m Jane.” She held out a hand. The man stared at it, puzzled. Jane lowered her hand hurriedly.
Sorcerer, she thought. The hairs on her arms prickled.
“I would say it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, except I am not yet certain that is the case, and I do not believe in half-truths.” The sorcerer waved a hand. “We should prepare you for your journey to the palace. The King’s Riders will be along in several hours to help escort you there safely. They would have greeted you here, had not the soothsayers predicted your arrival in the wrong place.”
Jane sucked in a breath. She turned the man’s words over and over in her mind, trying to understand. It did not help. Nothing he’d said made sense to her.
“Sorry,” said Jane. “Can-can we back up a moment? I think you may be confusing me with someone else. I’m only here by accident-I got pulled through some sort of portal in my uncle’s study just now. Where am I?”
The sorcerer—Nikolay, he’d said his name was Nikolay—sighed. “We are in the world of Mir, in the stronghold of Dalnushka in the Northernmost province of the country of Somita. Currently, we are in a temple devoted to Her Holiness, the Goddess Divna.”
It was almost as incomprehensible as the other things he’d said, but at least it confirmed Jane’s suspicion that she was not on Earth.
“And the person you’re looking for is an… av…?”
“Avtorka. The gods’ chosen, from another world, brought to Mir to save our glorious country from destruction.” His lip twisted, bitter. “Or so they say.”
Jane stared at him. That’s ridiculous, she wanted to say. People don’t get brought in from other worlds to save random countries! Another thought followed close on the heels of the first, and a bubble of hysterical laughter rose to her lips.
He thinks I’m ‘The Chosen One—whatever this world’s equivalent of ‘The Chosen One’ is! ‘Avtorka’, apparently. What is this place?
Nikolay still watched her with an expression of mild annoyance.
“Sorry,” said Jane, tamping down on the urge to laugh. “But I wasn’t chosen by the gods. I’ve never even met a god. I just came here as a result of… some weird physics experiment of my uncle’s. You definitely have the wrong person.”
“I do not.” The sorcerer speared Jane with a look. Jane had the unnerving feeling that he was assessing her and finding her wanting. Before she could react, he took her hand in his. “Come,” he said. “The women of the temple will bathe you and change you into clothing more suitable for this country before we escort you to the palace.”
Jane looked at the place where his hand held hers.
Slowly, she withdrew her hand.
“If you don’t mind,” she said firmly, “I think I should stay right here. My uncle has some kind of portal thing set up between our worlds. I’m sure he’s very worried about me, and he’ll come for me soon. I don’t want him to be confused when he gets here.”
The sorcerer’s amber eyes darkened to a hard, unyielding brown. Jane tried to smile at him again, but he still looked annoyed, like this was not the way he had expected their meeting to go.
Jane took a deep, steadying breath. Her uncle would find her. It would all be okay, she’d be back on Earth soon, she’d get her Uncle Baeur to explain everything, and she’d look back and laugh at this incident later.
Jane sat down on the ground, opened her textbook, and determinedly began to read. When Nikolay showed no signs of moving, she pushed her face as close to the page as she dared, trying her best to block out all else—
It was really, really hard to read with a tall, dark stranger glaring daggers at her head.
“I shall wait here with you,” said the sorcerer at last, and to Jane’s dismay, he summoned a book out of thin air and sat down beside her. “Soon, you will realize how misplaced your expectations are.”