Chapter 1 - Truth, or something like it
Right. I'm running.
Mellie’s boots slithered across the slick cobblestones and sent the contents of her backpack lurching to one side. Her toes clenched and jitters ricocheted up her legs, but the worn brown boots found purchase and propelled her forward.
She tried to shake the murk from her mind, but it felt like her head was submerged in pea soup—congealed pea soup that had been left too long at the table. She waded in for answers, but there was only the During and the disconcerting Now. She remembered the tug then the horrible upside-down, inside-out sensation. Before that? Mellie didn’t yet know. She told herself none of that mattered. Not yet, at least.
Mellie pumped her legs and sprinted down a narrow alley squeezed between two buildings—London buildings, she thought. But which London was it? She pulled up short at a doorway and collapsed against it, sucking air. It was sweet with decay and sour with the muck of too many centuries. It burned Mellie’s nose, but she pulled it in all the same. Better bad air than no air at all.
Why am I running? Mellie shoved up the sleeve of her jacket and tugged at the brown leather watch clamping her forearm. It was a complicated thing, with dials marching up the side and tiny nodes circling around the big blue button in the center. But it was the numbers at the top that Mellie squinted at in the alley gloom. They flipped over like calendar pages being torn away: 23.14, flip; 23.13, flip. Twenty-three minutes. She had another twenty-three minutes until her memories fully caught up to her body in this new reality. Yet the question remained: Why was she running?
Mellie took two breaths and pressed her palms against the swollen wood door. Her fingertips sunk into the rot, cold and wet. She swallowed down another gulp of thick air and inched her head out from the shadows.
Down the alley, three figures skid into view, their arms reaching wildly as they forced their momentum into the tight turn.
She took one more breath and shot out from the doorway.
I'm being chased.
The alley turned then turned again, narrow and skittering, like the warren of some beady-eyed rodent. She vaulted a wooden crate and darted down another passage. Behind her, the sound of splintering wood and a string of spectacular curses echoed off the greasy stone walls and up into the gray smoke that curled and curdled in the sky. A smirk pulled at Mellie’s lips. She might have been the cheese, but it seemed the rats giving chase weren’t the brightest creatures at the zoo.
The bellow of a horn volleyed over her head, and Mellie’s smirk bloomed into a smile. A horn—a boat horn. It didn’t matter what London she had jumped into, she was near the docks. And docks, in Mellie’s opinion, were the perfect hiding spot. Let the rats try to find her there.
A weak sun winnowed through the smog and glinted off the smokestack of an ocean steamer. It was just a glimpse above the sagging roof of a building, but it caught Mellie’s eyes and wheeled her around. This was it—the way in. If she could find it. Footfalls pounded down the alley behind her, growing closer with each second, but Mellie tuned them out and cast her eyes around. Wooden crates were piled against the alley walls outside another half-rotten door. She jiggled the door’s iron handle, but it held tight. She frowned and turned back to the crates, following their jumbled line as they teetered up to the roof like a drunk man trying to stand.
Mellie tightened down the straps of her backpack, hooked one hand around the recessed doorway and wedged the fingers of her other between the building’s stone walls, and climbed. The crates groaned under her, shifting and complaining with each step, but they held. She scrambled up the crates until the eave was within reach. The building’s roof tiles bit into her palms, but she gritted her teeth and pulled herself onto the last crate.
“Hey!” A man’s voice cut through the alley and crashed against Mellie. Something about it was familiar—like she’d heard this man shout before—but she shook her head against the memory trying to bob to the surface. Now was most definitely not the time.
With a grunt, Mellie kicked out, sending the stacked crates tumbling back to the ground, and swung a leg up onto the roof. Another man was shouting below her, bellowing for the others to help him up, but Mellie concentrated on the roof before her. The ragged tiles snagged at her nails and skin, but she scrabbled for a hold and swung her other leg up. The roof pitched, a precarious slant that tried to pull her down to the dark crevasse between buildings, but she leaned sideways and ran.
The roof came up short and tumbled down to a flat-topped building. Mellie sucked in a breath and tried to ignore the tightness clamping her chest and constricting her throat. A clammy finger of wind pulled at her ponytail then went limp. Around her, this London spread out in grays and blacks and browns. It was too quiet and too still, like it was somewhere between sleep and death. Mellie shivered in the chill and looked back down to the flat roof below. There was no time to think, just act. She jumped, and the weightless, gut-turning moment was every bit as horrible as the During, the time between worlds and wheres.
Then it was over, and she wasn’t in a new reality, just a new roof. There was something concrete and absolute about her body and mind being exactly in sync—if only for a moment—that pulled a bubble of laughter from her throat. Energy tingled down her arms and legs and pooled in her fingers and toes. She could do this. She could hide and wait for her memories to catch up to this London. Then maybe she could stop running. She had an inkling it’d been a while since that had happened.
The building dumped onto gray docks, a grubby yard crowded with warehouses that sagged against the water like old men with missing teeth. They were forlorn and half-forgotten and coated with the grime of shipworks. The musk of the brackish river lapped against Mellie’s skin and churned in her stomach. Whatever this London was, it was in decay.
Mellie weaved between empty pallets stacked ten high before spotting what she wanted: an open door. She slipped through it and blinked in the twilight. The warehouse was dim and disused, just a few neglected pallets of goods shoved into the corners.
Okay. She paced back and forth, hands on hips. Okay, Mellie. Think.
She struggled out the ratty pack strapped to her back and opened it: a mealy apple, twine, matches and a velvet pouch cinched tight by a drawstring. Not exactly worth a Girl Scout badge. She pursed her lips together and screwed them over to one side. She didn’t yet know if she had even been a Girl Scout.
But that pouch; it tickled something in her brain.
Like the man’s voice had reached into the murk of her mind, so did this velvet bag. Whenever she jumped—and she was too new to this reality to know exactly how many times that was—there was fogginess from the disruption. Right now, all she knew was that there were three probably-bad guys who wanted her, and it was because of the velvet bag.
The trickling back of identity and memories, of purpose beyond survival, that took some time. Not that she had much. She leaned close over her watch, but she couldn’t read any of the numbers. The hiss-click of time flipping over whispered in her ears. How much longer before the rats found her?
Tiny taps caught her attention. She sighed and ducked her head through the drawstring loop attached to the pouch. Its weight settled around her neck and hung at her chest.
“Is that supposed to be sneaky?” She called out, strapping on the pack. No need to try for stealth anymore. It was either fight or run, whichever came easiest.
“You don’t need to keep doing this,” a woman’s voice answered. It echoed through the dark warehouse and settled in the corners.
“Do what, exactly?”
The woman stepped from the shadows and into the dim light filtering through the grime-crusted windows. She held her hands out like Mellie was a lion she was trying to tame. “Just give it to us.”
Mellie held the bag up from around her neck, making whatever was inside clink together with a metallic sound. “This? Why?” She squinted at the woman in the close gloom, but she was nothing but a silhouette and a voice.
The crunch of gravel echoed into her ear, and Mellie tensed. Behind her. The man was behind. A strong hand grabbed her forearm, swiveling her around to face a hulk of a man. Mellie’s leg kicked out of its own accord. It slammed into the man’s gut with such force he grunted, jerking her hand as he stumbled backward.
Whoa, she thought in the second it happened. What sort of girl can do that?
She shook her cloudy head and wrenched herself away. Mellie whipped toward the woman. “Tell me why you want this?”
“The worlds are ours to protect,” the woman answered. She took a tiny step forward, her eyes flicking from Mellie to the velvet bag. “That belongs to us. You’re a thief.”
“Somehow, I don’t believe you.” Mellie cocked her head, regarding the woman’s cautious steps, staring at the tiny movements.
The woman froze, tensed, then pounced. Mellie was ready. She sprang as the woman swiped, darting out of her reach and running toward the patch of light at the building’s end.
She had to get out. Her thoughts were finally clearing as memories slotted back into place, and one word stuck out: thief.
The woman was right. These weren’t the bad guys. She was.
She burst out the door and bolted to the river’s edge, ready to jump. But something held her back.
The third man—the one she should have been looking for—had a hand wound up in her pack. Mellie shrugged out of it and ducked away, the velvet bag still hanging secure around her neck.
“We’ll find you,” he promised. That voice. There was something about it that tugged at her just like that first moment During.
Mellie shook away the thought and jiggled the watch down her arm. It hung at her wrist, heavy and a bit loose. “Yeah, well,” she said, pushing her sleeve up to expose the device. The readout at the top flipped over: fifteen seconds. “Maybe not.”
As her foggy brain shook off the last disruptions, she punched a sequence of nodes studding the watch that sent the dials on the side turning and clicking into place—a new place. But where?
“Don’t go,” he whispered. Desperation laced his voice. Almost pleading.
“Sorry,” Mellie mumbled. There were reasons he didn’t want her to go that had nothing to do with the bag. Mellie didn’t want to stick around long enough to remember what they were.
Her hand hovered over the big blue button, her finger just inches from the trigger that would twist and tug and turn her inside-out. She glanced back up at the man, and in that instant her memories flooded back. Painful and terrifying and a thousand more feelings that skittered around her mind like moths attacking a light. They burned up inside of her. A lifetime of memories.
She jammed her finger down and jumped. But she wasn’t alone.