Chapter 1, where we meet everyone.
“Enough already,” sounded behind the door.
Err kept banging until it swung open. “Uh,” he said, startled, “hello?”
A tall woman wearing a pink fluffy turtleneck pullover stood before him. It was difficult to tell anything else about her—the bright garment took all his attention.
“My name is Err,” he said, collecting himself. “And I’m looking for Aster.”
“Okay,” the woman said, making no attempt at sustaining this conversation.
“I was told I can find Aster here.” He tried to see past the woman into the room.
“We need to talk.”
Long pink sleeves knitted together across a broad chest. “I don’t know you.”
“A friend gave me this address.” Explaining it to a random person seemed like a waste of his time. “Look, all I need is a moment alone with Aster.”
Her eyes dropped to his shoes and rose back to his face; she appeared unimpressed.
Err considered the seriousness of the situation and added, “It’s a matter of life or death.”
“Aster is not in that business anymore,” she said, reaching for the doorknob.
“I just need some information.” Err pushed his shoulder forward to block the door. “It will only take a few minutes. Aster?” He raised his voice to reach the far corner of the room where he thought he saw a figure. “It’s about someone from Exurb.”
The woman raised her eyebrows and stepped to the side. “Stop shouting and come in.”
Err let a triumphant smile slip and walked into the room.
It was a small furnished—rented by the looks of it—studio, filled with way too many fluffy things. There was a plush throw on the rack in the corner. About a dozen terry cloth pillows littered the sofa, and an assortment of cuddly toys was presented on the floor. That woman had some unresolved childhood issues, Err concluded. And—oh damn it!—no one else was in the room.
He faced the pink blob. “Now, can I see Aster?”
“I am Aster.”
Err grimaced. “No, you’re not.”
“You’re… human.” He looked at her from head to toe. Were there tentacles or scales under that jumper?
“Of course I’m human, I’m on Earth.” The woman frowned. “Who are you, again?”
“I’m Err, I told you already.”
“How do you know about Exurb?”
“It’s a long story. You can’t be Aster. Seth didn’t say Aster was a woman.”
“Does it matter?” She squinted. “What do you want?”
Err gave the flat another thorough look. Something wasn’t right. Perhaps it was a funny coincidence. The address Seth had given him was wrong, and its resident—a fluffy toys lady—happened to have the same name. Yet she recognized the keyword; she reacted to it. Could this woman be that Aster from that Exurb?
“I’m looking for someone,” Err said, deciding not to dismiss the possibility. “Someone from your world. Evil kind of someone.”
“We were told his name was Hollister.” He pronounced the name slowly, monitoring her face for the faintest of reactions. It showed none.
“Why do you need him?”
“He kidnapped a child.”
She smirked. “Did he?”
It began to get to him: every phrase was a battle with this one. “I’m telling you, he took a little girl from her own bed, and she’s been missing for five days already.”
“And why would he need a little girl?”
“How would I know? I’m not evil like you guys.” He looked around the room again, wondering what he could find here if he searched through all that stuff. Bones? Canned heads of newborns somewhere behind a furry cushion? “Do you know him or what?”
“I know a Hollister.”
A sudden chill rose from his guts. What if she was Aster? Or worse: what if she was working with Hollister? How stupid he was to come here alone, a tiny defenceless human against an evil, bloodthirsty demon. How crazy he was to believe Aster was harmless. Seth could have heard it wrong.
“I only need information.” His confidence was failing him. Was there a way out now?
“I’ve told you, I’m not in the business anymore.” The woman turned her back on him. “I’m on sabbatical.”
That was it. He was done. She would take a weapon—if she even needed a weapon to crush his sorry skull—and that would be the end of him. He held his breath as she walked past the coffee table. Her pink figure dropped to the sofa, and she clung to a big blue stuffed blob of a toy elephant. When her fingers drowned in its soft material, she released an uncontrollable sigh. She wasn’t killing him yet.
Maybe she was harmless.
“Look, the mother of that little girl is going insane,” Err said, trying a different way. Could she understand emotions, or should he just bribe her? “I would be grateful for any tip. Please.”
She sighed, massaging the toy. “Why do you think it’s Hollister?”
“For one, someone in Cabana heard others say it was him—”
“A bar.” Err eyed the woman. “You’ve never been to Cabana? I thought every one of your demon folks goes there? Anyway, it fits. The house was locked, her mum was next door. There was no way someone could go in unnoticed. Nobody saw or heard anything. One moment she was there, and five minutes later—puff! She was gone.”
“Yes, the girl—Alice.”
“Have you considered the possibility that she went to Wonderland?” She sounded dead serious.
“Very funny.” He didn’t expect her to have a sense of humour. “That girl might be in danger. If Hollister took her through a portal, God knows what happened to her.”
Aster took a deep breath. “Tell me about the girl.”
“She’s my niece. I want to find her. Well and alive.”
“Okay,”—she nodded slowly—“then tell me everything you know about her.”
“She’s a missing kid. What is there to know?”
“Do you want me to help you or not?” She threw the blue toy back in a pile.
“I do.” He watched her every movement with dread. “But I can’t see how this is relevant.”
“You came to me. These are my rules.” There was something deadly in her words.
“Fine.” He went too far to abandon this over pointless stubbornness. He gestured at the sofa. “May I?”
“Sorry, where are my manners? Please, have a seat.”
Her mocking tone made him regret asking. Err pushed a few cushions to clear a spot as far from the woman as the furniture let him.
“Her name is Alice, and she is six.” It was difficult to describe a six-year-old he hardly knew. “She loves unicorns and swings. I don’t know what else to tell you. She is a normal kid.”
“Was she sick?” Aster asked as if annoyed at his incompetence.
“Was she abused?”
“No. God, no! Why?”
“Was she particularly happy? Like, too many unicorns and swings all the time?”
Now Err was completely lost. “Where is this going?”
“Just answer. Was there something that made her”—she hesitated before settling on a word—“different?”
“No.” Harmless or not, the woman made little sense.
“Then it’s not Hollister.”
“Why? He’s not into normal kids?”
“He just doesn’t have a reason to get one.”
Err squinted. “But you admit he has a thing for little kids?”
“No, kids are not his thing. Even if it was, your girl doesn’t fit the profile. You need to look at other possibilities.”
“How can you be sure?”
She threw him a challenging glance. “What do you know about us?”
“About Exurb demons? You are killers. You travel between dimensions and kill, kidnap and knock people permanently unconscious.”
She considered his answer. “In a short and condensed version, that’s almost correct. But we have reasons. And as I said, I’m on sabbatical now.”
Did that sound like an excuse?
“I don’t care about your reasons.” Err felt a surge of disgust, which surprised him. “You are evil.”
There was a time when Err thought of himself as a modern, unbiased and tolerant man, embracing diversity. He grew up on the X-files and Babylon-5, and he never dismissed the idea of an entire alternative world with different creatures and even magic when he thought of how this universe worked. He, in fact, became fascinated, obsessed with it when he met Andrea and her boyfriend, and they introduced him to a whole new world of the supernatural. The first demon Err met was Rick, a short guy with broad shoulders and a little growth on his forehead, who called himself a lutin. It was Rick who showed him Cabana. Demons, monsters, witches—who knew what else was there? Seth and Andrea kept him in the loop on what was going on in that realm ever since.
Sometimes, Err allowed himself an occasional doubt: had he gone crazy believing in demons? He feared it might be an act, some collective performance everybody supported but didn’t hold real. But—oh be damned!—it was real. He saw what a demon could do to a human. Evil was evil; there were no illusions there anymore.
And now evil got to his family. He had to save Alice from it.
“Look,” Aster said with a sudden change of heart, “I’m sure unless Hollister went nuts, he had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance. But I can ask around.”
“Would you? Or would you warn him we’re after him?”
“I’m a professional,” she cut him off, yet didn’t seem offended. “I know how to be discreet.”
She paused for a moment, some passing thought taking her full attention. Err watched the soft pink collar quiver with the steady beat of her heart.
“But in return,” she said, and Err held his breath. Of course, there would be in return. What did he expect? “You will show me how to, you know, be what you call good.”
“Ready?” Err said, hovering his hand over a handle of a heavy door on the top floor.
Aster nodded, and he pushed it open, revealing a spacious room filled with bright sunlight. There was a glow about this space, a warm and slightly tingling golden colour that originated on the left where the window was. It bounced off the ceiling and splashed all over the floor, leaving a creamy pastel aftertaste.
People bathed in that light—a man and a woman. They sat at a bar table, facing the door, and a big black dog rested at their feet. The dog did not move.
“Everyone,” Err announced, “please meet Aster.”
The woman jumped down from her chair. Her short, boyish haircut echoed her expressive black eyebrows above the inquisitive dark eyes. She stared at Aster for a long moment, saying nothing.
“Aster,” Err went on with the introductions, “this is Andrea. She is a dear friend, and this is her place.”
Aster nodded and switched her attention to the other man in the room, a slim guy with a choppy haircut. He remained seated, his hands laced in front of him.
“And this is Seth,” Err introduced the man. “He is the one who gave me your address. Ah, and Stormy, the dog.” That dog still didn’t even move a whisker.
“Hello,” Aster said, looking around. A high ceiling, light wooden floors, bright ivory walls with modern art, hanging in frames here and there, and awkward silence, filling the gaps between sleek, minimal furniture.
“So you are Aster,” Seth started, breaking the pause, “a demon who doesn’t want to be evil anymore?”
“I guess you could say that,” she said with a tired sigh.
He leaned closer, as if trying to see her better. “What made you change your mind?”
Aster took a few steps along the wall and casually inspected the place. “Let’s say it didn’t give me enough excitement to continue. I wanted to try something new.” She turned to Andrea. “Your home is impressive. Is the rent high?”
Andrea stared at her without answering.
“How long have you been staying in our dimension?” Seth continued his interrogation, smugly tilting his head.
“About six months,” Aster said, exploring a painting. “Had a few back-and-forths. Went back last night at Err’s request.”
“To find out about Alice,” Err said, nodding.
“Nobody knows anything about the girl. But Hollister is also missing. Strange.”
“As strange as an Exurb demon expressing a wish to turn good?” Seth ignored the missing girl topic.
“Evil, good,” Aster repeated, stopping by the window and letting its magical sunlight caress her skin, “it’s too confusing.” She turned to Andrea again. “How did you find this place? I couldn’t rent anything decent when I came here.” She brushed her hand against the soft fabric of curtains with some kind of awe.
“It was my grandmother’s flat,” Andrea finally said.
“Now that we’re through personal history,” Err interrupted, “can we focus on what actually matters?”
“Not so fast,” Seth said and stepped from his chair. “There are things we need to clear first.”
He came close to Aster, too close even—another step and their noses would touch—and looked right into her face. His energetic eyes sparkled with cautious distrust.
“I heard rumours about you, Aster.”
“What rumours?” The reduced space between them did not intimidate her.
“That you are on probation. Stripped of your powers for disobeying orders. Completely cut from your world. Banned even.” Seth paused after each statement.
Aster remained at ease. “Absolutely wrong. I’m on sabbatical. It was my decision.” She presented her facts at the same speed as he listed his accusations. “Still with all my powers.” She glanced back at Err. “Can go back whenever I want. Just taking a break.”
“Why should we trust you?” Seth muttered through his teeth.
“Perhaps because you’re desperate?” She didn’t bother making her smile believable.
Err put a hand between the two. “Seth, she’s right. We have no other options at the moment. She’s our best shot at finding Alice. Why sudden distrust? Weren’t you sure she was harmless?”
“Harmless?” Aster smirked, looking down at Err. “Who told you that?” She glanced at Seth. “Who is the source of your petty lies?”
“My source is well-protected,” Seth said, his eyes flickering with insolence.
“Fine.” She turned to Err. “I’m confused. Is this a demonstration of how to be good?”
“Calm down.” Err ran his fingers through the tangle of his hair in a nervous move. “It’s a demonstration of a massive misunderstanding. Can we skip it and go find my niece instead?”
Seth stepped away and turned to Andrea. “What do you think, sweetie?”
She shook her head. “I can’t read her. She’s too different.”
“Are you a psychic?” Aster asked, grinning.
“I’m no such thing!” Andrea crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m just sensitive to what people try to hide.”
“Isn’t that what you people call psychic?”
Andrea threw an angry look at Aster, and Seth hurried to put himself between them.
“What did you get from her?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Andrea let him cradle her. “I felt like looking into something with no future.”
Speaking from the comfort of her man’s protective embrace, this petite woman only appeared fragile and vulnerable. There was a fire in her, even if this fire was now smothered by uncertainty. Aster gave her a curt nod. “You might have caught more than you think. It did feel like no future. Perhaps that’s why I needed a change.”
It was hard to explain. Aster was, above all, a professional. She did her job well and was valued and celebrated by her peers. She was methodical, attentive to detail, and never allowed herself any sloppy mistakes. Being a perfectionist, she had years and years to build the experience and master the techniques. Yet the passion wasn’t there anymore. She didn’t notice when it dissipated. Before, she could feel the rush of excitement when she was about to take a new assignment. How would she solve this? Could she do it more elegantly? How to optimize that? This was art, and Aster was brilliant at it. Now? Now it was just a job. The fire was gone not because the tasks were boring—every case was still unique. She simply wasn’t excited anymore. Her performance was there, but her heart wasn’t. The results or peer approval didn’t motivate her at all. She spent a few years like this before it was clear she wasn’t happy, and it wouldn’t just go away. It was beyond repair. Staying with the Agency felt like no future indeed.
Seth bent over to whisper in Andrea’s ear, “Are you sure there’s no crazy helplessness, growing into a mad rage anywhere deep in that head?”
Andrea shrugged. “I can’t read her. We can’t be sure.”
“I guess we’ll have to take a risk here,” Aster said.
“And what risk are you taking?”
“Oh, you people are so inconsistent.” Aster explored their cold, wary faces. “And unpredictable, to others and to yourselves.”
At first, living among humans was a welcome novelty, especially the touch. But now she was convinced something was amiss. Some crucial part of humanity passed her undetected, ununderstood. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find an answer to a question she couldn’t form yet. Was one even there?
She abandoned the thought and turned to Err to address him with forced cheer. “Can we go now? I want to see the place the girl disappeared from. If portals were opened there recently, I could feel it.”