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Come Tumbling Down

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Come Tumbling Down

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Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Publishing, 2020
Series: Wayward Children: Book 5
Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
Fairytale Fantasy
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(36 reads / 23 ratings)


When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister -- whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice -- back to their home on the Moors. But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.





IT WAS OBVIOUS to anyone with a discerning eye that the school had started out as the country home of a family with more money than sense. The shape of the original architecture was still there, buried under newer construction. It had been a modest three-story home, once upon a renovation, but it had been embellished over the course of generations by widows and widowers who had handled their grief and their inheritance in the same manner: by picking up a hammer and setting to work.

The house had grown like a garden, sprouting wings and tower rooms and greenhouses as if they were nothing more consequential than mushrooms after a rain. What it had been was gone, reduced to nothing but a faint echo in the shape of a door or the structure of an awning. Its replacement was a delightfully rambling sprawl of porches and doors, dormer windows and inexplicable chimneys. Some of the tower rooms stood higher than the attic; some of the lower windows had been painted shut to keep them from flooding the halls every time it rained.

Still, lights could be seen at all levels of the school, both day and night, and the rooms were often filled with laughter. There were worse things for a house to hold.

The school stood alone in the middle of a vast, rolling field, which was dotted with copses of trees; there were no neighbors for miles in any direction. Eleanor had inherited the property upon the deaths of her parents, and had immediately tasked the family accountant with managing the bulk of her assets, giving him strict instructions to watch the land around hers for any signs of a sale. When he found those signs, he was to step in whenever possible to keep that land from going to market. No price was too dear to pay for privacy. Sometimes even she wasn't sure how much of the surrounding countryside she owned.

That still wasn't enough for some of her students. They sought deeper shadows, darker spaces, more privacy and freedom from the outside world. For those children, the basement was the most coveted real estate in the house, and its occupants defended it fiercely from suggestion of roommates or relocation.

On the hot summer night where we begin, the basement's occupant was a boy named Christopher. He was in his late teens and knew that, one way or another, his tenure at the school was nearing its natural end. Either he'd graduate and go home to parents who expected him to be interested in college, a career, what they called "the real world," or he'd find a door of latticed bone and butterfly wings, interlaced with marigold petals, and he'd disappear for a second, and final, time. He knew which ending he wanted.

He knew he didn't get to choose.

Maybe that's why he was stretched out on his bed like a corpse prepared for autopsy, with his hands folded across his chest and his fingers wrapped loosely around a flute carved from a single bone. There were no holes, only indentations etched into its surface, but something about its shape made its purpose perfectly clear.

The single small basement window was open, letting a breeze whisper through. The glass was dark and leaded, letting little light inside. Christopher didn't mind. He could always go outside when he wanted to feel the sun on his face. Most of his free time was spent in the grove behind the school, perched in the high branches and playing silent songs on his flute.

Sometimes the skeletal bodies of local wildlife--squirrels and rats and, on one surprising occasion, a deer--would rise from their unmarked graves and dance for him. When that happened, Christopher would lead them away from the school and pipe them to their final rest in a place no one would stumble across by mistake. It was weird how much some of his fellow students disliked bones, but whatever. He wouldn't have liked their worlds either, and it wasn't like they went out of their way to cover his clothes with glitter or rainbows or other reminders of their lost fairytale dreams. Keeping the grounds free of skeletal surprises seemed like the least he could do.

Sometimes being the last person on campus whose door had led to a world most of the student body dismissed as "creepy" really sucked. It hadn't been like that when he'd first arrived. Back then he'd shared the "creepy" designation with the Wolcott twins, who'd traveled together to the Moors--a world arguably even creepier than his own Mariposa--and had gone back to their heart's chosen home the same way.

Jack would have appreciated his skeleton dancers. Jack had appreciated his skeleton dancers, on the rare occasions when she'd been able to take her eyes off Jill long enough to see what he was doing. Jill had always been the more dangerous, less predictable Wolcott, for all that she was the one who dressed in pastel colors and lace and sometimes remembered that people liked it when you smiled. Something about the way she'd wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn't been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.

Jack had been a monster, too: she'd just been more honest about it. She'd never tried to hide what she was, from anyone. The world they'd found on the other side of their door had made monsters of them both.

Jill had always talked about the Moors like a treasured toy, something she could polish and plunder as she saw fit. Jack had always talked about them with a wistful wildness in her eyes, like they were the most beautiful place she could imagine, so incredible she didn't know quite how to put it into words. Jill had been terrifying. Jack had been ... familiar.

Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he'd had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like "skin" and "muscle tissue" and "a pulse" had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scissors through her sister's horrible heart. He could have loved her in that moment, had loved her when she'd pulled the scissors free and used them to cut a hole in the wall of the world. She'd called her door out of nothingness, out of sororicide and hope, and she'd carried her sister's body through it, into the bleeding light of a crimson moon.

He'd seen the Moors spreading out around her like a mother's arms, welcoming their wayward daughter home. Sometimes he still saw them when he closed his eyes at night. And then the door had slammed, and the Wolcott sisters had been gone, and he'd been left behind. He'd hated her for having the chance to go home, and he'd loved her for taking it without looking back or hesitating, and his fate, such as it was, had been sealed. If Jack could go home, so could he. All he had to do was figure out how.

He ran his fingers along the surface of his flute, caressing it. When he closed his eyes, he could almost see the Skeleton Girl sitting next to him, clapping her opaline hands, delighted by his artistry. He could almost touch her.

The overhead light flickered as he was raising the flute to his mouth. He paused, looking at it quizzically. It flickered again before spitting a great, uneven bolt of lightning that struck the concrete floor with a crack so loud it was like the whole world was being broken.

Christopher had survived quite a few things in his seventeen years, from public school to cancer to a stint in a world peopled entirely by sentient, animate skeletons. He rolled to the side before the echoes of the crack had faded, pressing himself against the wall and hopefully out of the path of any further impossible lightning strikes. Not that "impossible" meant much around here. One of his closest friends was a temporarily bipedal mermaid; another was the crown prince of a goblin kingdom, and yet another was technically a candy construct brought back to life by a sort of demigoddess with a really large oven. Judging things based on their possibility wasn't a good way to stay alive.

It certainly wouldn't have worked in this case. Wide-eyed, Christopher watched another bolt of lightning lance down from the ceiling. It was followed by another, and another, until the air crackled with ozone and his hair stood on end and the floor was blackened and charred from successive impacts.

The door to the basement slammed open. A girl with blue and green hair rushed inside and started down the stairs, stopping halfway. Her eyes went terribly round as she stared at the lightning. It ignored her, continuing to draw a hot white line down the center of the room.

"Cora!" shouted Christopher. "Stay exactly where you are!" Lightning was attracted to tall things, right? As long as she wasn't the tallest thing in the room, she'd be safe.

It was also supposed to be attracted to metal, but it was hitting the floor, not the metal shelves against the wall or Jack's old autopsy table. Christopher had draped a tablecloth over the table, making it a little less obviously morbid, but was that enough to discourage lightning? And lightning usually came out of the sky, not out of the ceiling. Why should he assume anything about this lightning was going to behave normally?

"What's going on?" Cora had to yell to be heard. The air was so charged with static that her hair was frizzing and rising up from her shoulders. Under other circumstances, it might have been funny. At the moment, it was sort of terrifying. "We heard the noise all the way upstairs!"

The word "we" was worrisome. It could mean more people rushing into the basement, and hence into the striking radius of the lightning.

Of course, most of the students thought Christopher was a creepy freak, since he carried one of his bones around outside of his body, and had gone to a world populated by living, laughing, dancing skeletons, and voluntarily lived in the basement. So maybe Cora was the only one in hearing range who cared enough to check on him. He wasn't sure he liked that idea any more than he liked the thought of half the school getting electrocuted on his stairs, but hey, what was life without a few contradictions?

"I don't know!" he yelled. "It just started happening!"

"Maybe you blew a fuse?"

Despite the gravity of the situation, Christopher paused to stare at Cora. She looked blankly back, her technicolor hair continuing to rise farther and farther into the electrically charged air.

"That's not how fuses work!" he shouted.

"Do you have a better idea?"

He didn't. Which was a problem, given the circumstances. Another bolt of lightning struck the floor, followed by another, and another, until the afterimages swimming behind his eyes were so heavy and bright that he could barely see the room.

Then it stopped.

Cora and Christopher stared at the blackened spot. The light fixture seemed undamaged, which was probably impossible, but was also less important than getting out of the basement before the lightning started again. Christopher sat up, cautiously stretching one foot toward the floor.

The lightning resumed. Cora squeaked, not quite a gasp and not quite a scream, but something small and shrill and laughable. Christopher wasn't laughing. He was watching as the lightning came down faster and faster, forming crackling chains of light. There was something behind that light, something buried in the brightness, something clean and old and unfamiliar, something--

With a final great sheet of blue-white brilliance, the lightning stopped again. The air, still heavy with ozone, pulsed under the weight of what it had just birthed.

And there, in the center of the room, atop the blackened concrete, was a door.

It would have been an ordinary door if it hadn't been standing where no door was normally found, where no wall was present to support it. Christopher slid shakily off the bed and stood, keeping his eyes on the door the whole time.

"Cora?" he called. "You see this?"

"It's a door." She finished making her way down the stairs, clutching the bannister, hair still bushed-out and frizzy. "There isn't usually a door there."

"I think I would have noticed, yeah."

"Is it...?" The question died on her lips, like she was afraid speaking her suspicions out loud would stop them from being true.

Christopher shook his head. "No. My door didn't--I mean, Mariposa isn't big on lightning. The Country of Bones runs on a different kind of power. This isn't my door. Is it yours?"

"I didn't have a door." Cora moved toward him with exquisite care, skirting the char marks on the floor. Sometimes it surprised him how delicately she could move. She was a large, round glory of a girl, and between her size and her hair, it seemed like she should take up more space than she actually did. "I had a patch of waterweeds and a pattern of light on the water. Miss Eleanor says that's pretty common for submerged worlds. Wood rots, steel rusts, but abstract concepts remain."

"Sometimes all this gives me a headache," said Christopher. He took a cautious step toward the door. It stayed where it was, apparently solid, and didn't burst into flames, or strike him with a bolt of electricity, or anything else unfriendly.

"Do you want me to get Kade?"

Christopher hesitated. Kade was Eleanor's nephew and recognized second-in-command: when something didn't necessarily need the attention of the headmistress, it was Kade who made everything work. But classes had ended hours ago, and he was probably upstairs in the attic, working on his own projects. He didn't get much time to himself, what with the little problems that cropped up during the day and managing the school's shared wardrobe.

"No," said Christopher slowly. "I don't want to bother him just yet."

Cora eyed him. "It's a door."

"I can see that."

"Most of this school is waiting for a door."

"I am aware."

"So don't you think--"

"I don't know, okay? I've never had a door appear in the middle of my bedroom before! And it's all lightning and old oak, and that sounds like Jack and Jill, but they left before you got here and they're not coming back, so I don't know whose door this could possibly be. It doesn't make sense. I need a second to think. Let me think!"

Cora blinked before she said, in a stiff tone, "I'm just trying to make sure we stay safe."

Christopher took a deep breath. "I'm sor--"

That was as far as he got before the rusted doorknob began shaking, like something was fighting it. Christopher and Cora exchanged a glance. Then, in unison, they took a single long step back, away from whatever was about to come through. Neither of them ran.

The doorknob twisted.

The door shuddered in its frame, which seemed to shift and sigh, like it was letting go of some unspoken expectation.

The door swung inward.

The girl standing on the other side looked to be in her late teens, broad-shouldered and heavy, dressed in an old-fashioned homespun dress. There was a stained apron tied around her waist. A twisted scar crawled up one side of her neck and crossed her cheek in a flat white line, vanishing behind the honeyed waves of her hair. She probably thought of that hair as her best feature: it was thick and glossy and beautiful in a way her pallid skin wasn't.

Lightning crashed behind her, both illuminating her and throwing the bundle in her arms into sudden, terrible relief.

It was another girl, slighter, smaller, long and lithe of limb. She was as pale as her companion, although not as gray around the edges, and she hung in the first girl's arms like a body prepared for burial. She wore a gown of white, frothing lace, and her pale hair dangled, long and unbound, like the flag of some dead nation.

Christopher gasped. For a moment, he couldn't breathe. He grasped for something to hold him upright and found Cora, who stood solidly under his clutching fingers and didn't make a sound.

"Jack?" he asked. "Jill?"

The stranger, her arms laden with the unnamed Wolcott twin, didn't say a word as she stepped across the threshold. The door slammed shut behind her. There was another blue-white flash as it vanished, leaving the four teens alone at the bottom of the school, standing in the afterimage, unsure of what was meant to happen next.

Copyright © 2020 by Seanan McGuire


Come Tumbling Down

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Come Tumbling Down

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