You dance in shimmering water as you meander down the street. Feeling lighter than you have in a while, you decide to take a longer way home through a park. It’s approaching twilight, the sky that strange shade of blue that makes silhouettes seem darker than they are. A fine drizzle hangs in the air, the aftermath of a downpour that happened whilst you were in the library, and as you continue along, splashing to your hearts content, you come across a split in the path. The left way is completely flooded from the run off of the football park, but the right seems to be clear apart from a puddle a bit further down. The rain starts to pick up again, so you decide to take your chances with the puddle, which as you approach, is not as small as you first thought.
A giant puddle splits the path in two, almost too big to jump but you think you can make it. Taking a second to back up so you can take a running jump, you glance at the puddle again but realise it looks… strange. The park is well lit, lights every 7 or 8 paces, yet there are no reflections, no light, no ripples. Curiosity overcomes you and you crouch next to the puddle. You push your fingers through the surface. It feels… warm? Is that a breeze or a current?
You blink and do a double take. Are you imagining things? Your reflection is the only thing in the puddle but there are two things horrifically wrong. Two yellow eyes are staring back at you, and before you can pull back, the ‘reflection’ leaps towards you, grabs your wrist, and drags you down into the puddle.
Into the dark.
You find yourself in an upside-down world, stood in a mirror image of the world you know yet different. It’s like there is a grey filter over the world, and there are intermittent fires scattered between dilapidated buildings and husks of vehicles. Something flaps overhead and you duck as the creature screeches and flies into the distance. The creature that pulled you through is nowhere to be seen. You glance down at the puddle by your feet and see yourself looking back with bright, yellow eyes, standing where you once did in the park – your world, your reality.
What do you do next?
My hand shakes as I reach out to the puddle. Whatever is going on, I want out of this place right now. But my fingertips skate over the surface, which is firm, as if the puddle has turned to ice. If ice were warm that is.
The person on the other side blinks back at me with yellow, cat-like eyes. Apart from the eyes, it looks like me. Same black skin, the colour of earth wet by the summer rain. Same corkscrew hair haloing my round face. Same tiny scar at the corner of my mouth from the time my brother, Aiden, pushed me off my bike when we were kids.
And yet, as I raise my hand to my face, I feel the same scar, the same corkscrew hair.
“What are you?” I whisper.
The face in the puddle grins and that’s when I know for sure that whatever has taken the shape of my body in the real world is most definitely not me. Then it gives me a nonchalant wave, stands and walks away.
I run my hand over the puddle-that’s-not-a-puddle again, but there is no crack or weakness in the surface. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem that I’ll be able to get back through it anytime soon.
A screech makes me look up. Something is wheeling overhead. If it is a bird, it is larger than any I have seen. An eagle perhaps. I have only seen pictures of them in books, but surely even eagles aren’t that big…
I stand and look around, feeling as if I’ve been transported to the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. All that’s left of the park is barren earth and blackened tree stumps. Fires flare from the ground, seemingly at random, and in the centre of what should have been the football park, is a pile of burnt-out vehicles. A fine layer of grey dust blankets everything and hangs in the air. It tastes of cheap cigarettes and burnt metal.
Beyond the boundaries of the park, familiar buildings rise up. They too look grey, as if someone has dumped paint on them from on high, then set fire to it to create a smudged, charcoal effect.
Somewhat to my surprise, I still have my bag. Checking inside, everything seems to still be there. A half-empty bottle of water, granola bar, my purse, phone and the two library books I’d checked out barely half an hour ago.
Hope surges through me as my phone screen lights up, but it quickly dies when I register the “out of signal” icon. Still, I dial the emergency services just on the off chance. I don’t even get a dial tone. Just static.
“What is this place?”
The creature circling above screeches as if to answer. Then, without warning, it dives.
I’m running before I can really register what’s happening. I’m fast – one of the fastest in my class at school – but I can sense the bird swooping down behind me, claws outstretched.
Five paces away, a large trash stands against a wall. It is not much protection, but I don’t think I have time to make it to the doorway further along.
A sudden wind rushes past me and instinctively, I throw myself forward.
Claws screech against metal. A tornado of dust rises around me, and I cover my mouth with my arm, coughing as each breath tickles at my throat. Through the dust storm, I catch the outline of massive wings flapping, then the wind eases as the bird pulls back and flies away, screeching its annoyance.
I sit there, cowed against the stinking trash can, for a full ten minutes as the grey dust settles on and around me. Absentmindedly, I brush it off my leather satchel – a gift from my absent father on my sixteenth birthday.
When my breathing has slowed to its normal rate, I slowly stand and look around. The winged creature has gone – for now. There is still no sign of any other life in this place and it’s rapidly getting too dark to see.
Sticking as close to buildings as I can, I weave through the streets until I reach a mid-rise tower block. I didn’t think anything could make Heavenly Towers look worse than it has for the five years we’ve lived here, but staring up at it, I am proved wrong. Even the graffiti and stained, peeling paintwork was better than this devastation.
The front door hangs ajar and half off its hinges. I push it open gingerly with my foot and step inside.
“Hello?” My voice echoes around the lobby. From somewhere in the distance, there’s a skittering sound. I swallow, tasting the bitter dust. Rats? Or something worse?
I make my way up five flights of stairs until I reach my floor. The doors of the other apartments gape open, but the door to mine is closed. My heart thumps against my ribcage as I reach out and push it open.
Inside, the air is still. The first thing I see is a framed photograph on the wall— the same photograph I pass by every day. My mother, my three brothers and me smiling into the camera on a rare day out.
The apartment is just as it was when I left it a few hours ago, right down to the discarded sneakers that Aiden always leaves behind the front door. I search each room in turn for a sign that’s someone has been here but find nothing until I step inside my mother’s bedroom.
From the smell, someone—or something—has been living here. A string of rats are hung up by their tails above the window and the mattress on the bed looks as if a hole has been dug out of it, almost through to the floor. It’s lined with what looks to be newspaper.
There’s a dull thud from behind me. I whirl around. I’ve been here too long. I was hoping this would be a place of sanctuary—a place to hide from the monsters outside and wait from daylight. But I was wrong. It’s a trap.
A second thud, then a third. I’m halfway to the front door when it swings open. In the doorway stands the strangest creature I have ever seen.
It’s perhaps five foot tall and covered with dark, matted fur. It’s like someone has cut the creature in half. It has one of everything. One bulbous eye blinking lazily out from the middle of its head, one long arm protruding from its chest and one muscular leg ending in a large, hairy foot.
I reach into my bag and pull out my water bottle, brandishing it in what I hope is a threatening manner. “Get out of my way.”
The creature wrinkles its nose. “You smell.” A forked tongue flicks out from between pointed teeth and it jumps two paces toward me, letting the door swing shut behind it.
I back away until I’m pressed against the wall. I’m not sure that hitting the creature is a good idea—it might just make it angry—but I hold the water bottle out in front of my anyway.
Its tongue lashes out and I recoil instinctively as it lashes my arm. “Ow!” I stare down at the burn mark seared into my skin.
The creatures voice is low and rough. The solitary eye rolls in its socket, focusing on a point just above my head. It blinks twice. I jump as an arm snakes around me, propelling me forcefully back into my mother’s room. “Come in, human.”
I know I need to run, to fight this monstrous creature, but terror has turned my limbs weak. A cold fog seeps into my brain. I open my mouth but can’t seem to find any words.
The creature makes a low huffing noise. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” It grins, revealing a double row of sharp teeth. “Don’t worry, I’m not hungry enough to eat you—yet.”
I swallow, wondering if it can read my mind. “What are you? Where is this?”
“My name is Ghlinn. I am a fachan. A male fachan. I suspect you humans can’t tell the difference.” The creature leans back against the door. “As for where you are, well, you’re in faerie. Did you slip in through a portal or did one of the changelings get you?”
“Changeling?” I repeat weakly.
“It’s a fae that takes different forms. A changeling could take your shape and swap places with you to take your place in the human realm. Only if you were stupid enough to let it, of course. It would look just like you, apart from the eyes. No fae can change their eyes.”
“Yellow eyes.” I try to process what Ghlinn is saying.
“Ah, a changeling then. Bad luck, human.”
“But faerie…” My voice trails off as I realise I don’t know what to say. Faerie doesn’t exist. It’s a place from storybooks.
“You were expecting forests and flowers and pretty icing-sugar castles, weren’t you?” Ghlinn hops over to my mother’s dressing table, which is now covered in what seems to be an assortment of trash, and rummages around. “Sorry to disappoint, but you’ve come in the wrong entrance for that. This is the wastelands. Unseelie territory.”
I swallow, wondering if it is coincidence that I have an encyclopaedia of fae creature in my satchel. I’d got it out of the library for an assignment on mythical creatures. I haven’t read up much yet, but I got as far as the basics. Seelie good. Unseelie bad.
“How do I get home?”
Ghlinn pulls out a cracked photo frame and holds his up, his gaze travelling from me to the picture of me and my brothers. “This is your home, isn’t it?”
“No, I mean, how do I get back there. To the real world.”
“Sorry, human. You can’t.” He doesn’t sound particularly sorry. If anything, he sounds cheerful. “Not unless you make a bargain with one of the high fae. I’m afraid you’re stuck here for as long as you live. But don’t look so glum. Most humans don’t last more than a day or two. You’re so fragile.”
The photo frame slips from his fingers and smashes on the floor. Ghlinn’s eye burns into me. “As fragile as glass.”