A Tip

The alarm’s piercing shrill cut through the darkness, as it did on so many mornings before. The sun wasn’t yet out, but that had become normal. Megan slapped the snooze button, bleary eyes struggling to make out the digits on the clock face. Goddamnit, she’d already turned it off twice more than she should. She struggled out of the blankets and towards the bath; she’d have to cut her morning shower short, but at least there was still just enough time for one.

She was still covered in suds when the snooze timer ran out, the incessant screech reminding her that she was running behind already. She hurried out to turn off the screaming devil-box and reprimanded herself for, once again, ignoring her well-documented need to be in bed earlier. Maybe tonight, she told herself. She knew it was a lie, but it still made her feel better to pretend she’d get her shit together somehow in the next 12 hours.

Bare-bones makeup and a hastily chosen outfit later, she was out the door. She muttered thanks to some unknown god that the car didn’t take its time starting up despite the cold. Megan hated the winter; it wasn’t just the chill in the air, but the whole package. The wet weather, the nuclear-family holidays, the obligatory postcard pleasanties. Not everything needed to be pumpkin-spice flavored, but even less people needed to be shamed for liking things that were. Winter was bullshit.

She pulled into the mostly empty lot, her dashboard whining about low fuel. That was a problem to deal with later, like most problems. For now, it was time to set to work preparing the tables and getting the coffee pots going. A small perk to working in an ass-backward’s town’s biggest breakfast joint was the coffee. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly premium brew, but it was better than instant and they made it plenty strong. It did its job, like everyone here.

Mick and Jerry were already outside, smoking cigarettes by the dumpster. At least, they were probably cigarettes, not that it mattered. Washing dishes and stocking the kitchen didn’t really rely on having your wits about you, anyway. Megan waved a distant hello as she made her way inside, ready for another day of mostly familiar faces; taking orders here was mostly done for show, the few road-weary travelers on their way to someplace interesting aside.

She got the coffee pots going, setting aside her morning cup to be used as soon as they were ready. Cammie didn’t mind her using the diner’s cups, and all the ones she’d bought had been broken or lost within a matter of weeks, so she’d given up trying. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, realizing she’d forgotten to do so before leaving for the morning. Rushing out the door has ways of playing havoc with the details, no matter how automatic. At least she hadn’t forgotten pants.

The sign near the door flickered to life, and the daily routine started. Cops on their way to the station, nurses grabbing a bite after a long night, truckers on their routes that carried them back and forth across the interstate; Megan knew most of them by name, and almost as many knew hers. Coffee helped keep the smile on her face, however forced it felt at times, and the morning went by well enough. She tucked a few bills from the first tables’ tips into her bra, remembering that she’d need it to fuel up after work.

The morning passed without much event. There was a bit of a buzz in the kitchen over some strangely-dressed visitors, decked out in wild colors and beads, like some kids that got lost on their way home from a rave in 1995 and somehow landed here and now. Besides looking out of place, though, they were nice enough, if a bit indecisive about their orders. The group caught more than a couple of stares from the locals on their way out the door, but Megan was caught up in the tip they left behind — a solid 30% in cash, and a small plastic baggie with a curious-looking orange pill stamped with what looked like a corporate logo of some kind.

She tucked the pill away in a pocket without much of a thought. It was an interesting gesture. Megan hadn’t ever fallen into drugs; around here, all you’d find was low-grade weed and amphetamines of dubious origin. Still, she had the weekend coming up, and the kids sure seemed like good folks. Maybe it’d be a way to kill some time, forget the crappy weather, and otherwise distract her from winter’s overall awfulness.

The rest of the day passed without much of note. The tips were good, the jokes were bad, and the coffee was a bit of both. For all the negatives in the worst season’s offerings, people tended to be a little more generous with their cash, and Megan’s struggling bank account was thankful for it. She grabbed up her things and headed off, letting her hair down as she made her way to the car.

Damnit. Gas. The dashboard offered a friendly reminder as she turned the key, so that was her first stop. She pulled the wad of cash from its hiding place while driving, knowing that whichever greasy-faced high schooler happened to be running the register today would surely have some color commentary to accompany the action. Still, foresight can’t account for a teen boy’s dedication to degrading bullshit; she did her best to brush it off and considered buying herself a medal for avoiding an assault or arson charge.

She headed home, stewing about the terrible people and the terrible season and the terrible town; she wondered why she didn’t up and leave, but she knew she wouldn’t act on anything so impulsive. As she pulled in to her cramped parking lot — where the hell had all these cars come from? — her mind turned the small pill stuffed into her pocket. Once she was inside, she extracted the baggie and looked more closely at the bizarre customer’s gift.

The pill itself was unremarkable. A dull orange color flecked with darker spots, and the stamped-on logo. The design reminded her of some faceless corporation’s emblem, the product of old white men in suits arguing over proposed icons put together by design-school “interns” desperate to make some meager stipend off of their student loan debts. Turned one way, it resembled the front of an old European castle; another, it reminded her of a jagged-edged bird of some kind. It felt vaguely familiar, but not enough so to stir any direct connections.

“Fuck it,” Megan said aloud to nobody. With the help of a glass of cheap wine, she swallowed the pill and sat back to see what awaited.

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Foreign Shores

She sat in the dim light of her old TV’s glow. Nearly an hour had passed since Megan had, probably foolishly, decided to take the proverbial plunge into whatever the odd passers-by had left for her. The bottle of wine in her hand was mostly empty; she’d given up on the glass after leaving it in the kitchen. Outside, the wind was playing havoc with half-frozen rain. At least she hadn’t had to pay anyone for the pill. How long does it take for … oh, hell, she didn’t know what it was, so even scouring the internet would help.

Giving up on the idea of some grand, drug-fueled bender entertaining her for the night, Megan drained the last of the wine and let the bottle roll from her hand onto the floor. She gave a moment’s consideration to her bed, but its unbending dedication to remaining a full room’s length away won out. She pulled her faded patchwork quilt tightly around her and curled onto the couch, the flickering screen across the way shifting colors across her closed eyelids as she waited for sleep.

The illumination dancing across her vision became a blur, and Megan found herself wondering if she was already dreaming. The echoes of whatever inspid inspirational Christmas-miracle dreck played at this hour bounced off the walls, creating a nauseating din of saccharine pseudo-morality. Between the noise and the shifting hues of light, it became an unbearable whirl of excruciating activity; she grasped blindly for the remote, hoping to end the cacophany.

Absolute pandemonium. Where there should have been the soft folds of her quilt and the threadbare cushions of her couch that too often substituted for a bed, there was — sand? Megan’s fingers sank into it; it was warm and wet, and she was suddenly aware of the scent of saltwater. Maybe that stuff the kids had left on the table wasn’t entirely useless, after all.

Her mind struggled against itself. She knew, of course, that she was still resting lazily on her own couch; the smells and sensations might betray something else, but it was illusory. It had to be, and Megan knew that. She might be high as a kite on god knows what, but she hadn’t entirely lost her senses. It was time to take full stock of just how distant from herself she’d become. Hesitantly, dreading the dissipation of her fantasy, she opened her eyes.

It took her breath away. Nothing was as it should be. Her dim apartment, the damnable winter, the stagnant streets of her backwoods town — everything was gone, replaced by a bright, warm, sun-drenched beach. The broad strip of sand extended as far as she could see along the edge of the gently-rolling waves. The cold, gray sky of her home was gone, as well, and a brilliant blue expanse glimmering with an almost supernatural quality spread out above.

Megan stood up and glanced downward; she was still in the same jeans and faded band t-shirt she’d been wearing when she passed out on the couch. On the ground near her feet, the wine bottle she’d finished earlier lay empty in the sand. Where the hell — none of this made any sense. Megan knew she couldn’t very well leave the bottle where it was, she grabbed it from the sand and turned inland.

The beach stretched upwards, where it gave way to a dull, bluish grass and rocky terrain. There was someone walking in her direction; a small-statured figure in a dark green hooded cloak that obscured their features. They were moving quickly, in rapid short strides that soon had them stepping onto the sand. As they neared, they lifted their head. From behind wisps of black hair, a pair of steel-blue eyes met Megan’s gaze. She was pretty, with sharp features and a stern look of concentration.

Megan shifted the bottle in her hand. She tried to remember how it had come to this; she remembered the pill. She told herself this was some strange half-dream, half-hallucination. That in reality, she was probably standing atop her old, sagging furniture, brandishing a wine bottle at her thick-draped window. Maybe she was about to shatter the glass, flinging her inebriated body out onto the concrete and hedges outside. It was hard to say, really, but she was doing her best to remain grounded.

“You must be Megan,” the approaching stranger said. Her voice was clear and bright, confident yet kind. “I’m Delfine. We’ve been waiting.”

Megan took a step back; this made no goddamn sense, and wasn’t anything at all like what she’d heard from Julie or David about their “experimental” phases. This was something else entirely, and she had no idea what to make of it.

“I’m sure you’re confused,” the newcomer added. “We’ve all been there. Come with me, and we’ll explain everything. You’re going to be alright.” There was a definite sincerity behind her words, but Megan was still reeling. She tried to reply, or to prepare for a fight, or to scream — her brain couldn’t choose just one, and she flung the bottle uselessly towards Delfine, stammering out a “what the fuck?”

Delfine’s hand moved swiftly, snatching the bottle from the air; it wouldn’t have struck her, but it was clear that even a well-aimed, harder throw would have been no more effective at this. She smirked. “Come on, serving girl. This isn’t the time or the place for any of that,” she said. She turned, twirling Megan’s wine bottle in her hand as she started back up towards solid ground.

At least Megan wasn’t swinging it wildly at her window anymore, and the throw shouldn’t have been hard enough to go through it. She’d find out soon enough, she figured, and there wasn’t a whole lot of other options; with nobody and nothing else of note across the sandy expanse, she was bound to follow this Delfine one way or the other. She fell in behind her cloak-wrapped guide and tried to gather her senses.

“You’re probably terrified that you got a bad dose, or that all those horror stories about weird pills handed out by strangers were telling you the truth, huh?” Delfine was speaking without turning her head, but Megan could hear the smile on her lips in the light tone of her words. She was right, too, so maybe it was worth hearing her out.

“Don’t worry. You’re still safe, assuming you were safe when you got here. By and large, people tend to make sure they’re in a good spot before they swallow shit they’re not sure of, so hopefully you’ve got that going for you. Time doesn’t quite work the same here, so I wouldn’t fret. Like I said, you’ll be alright — long as you stick with me, anyway.”

Megan was trying to form a reply. Every time words came to her, though, they slipped back away like the tide sliding back behind her and out into the boundless ocean. The part of her that was clinging desperately to her unkempt apartment was losing hold of her thoughts as she was swept into — well, wherever it was that Delfine was leading her. They were following a worn-looking cobblestone road, passing by small shrubs and squattish trees that barely reached over her head.

She felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole, or Lucy Pevensie crawling out of the other end of the wardrobe. This wasn’t some melting-clock trip that toyed with her senses, but a fully formed world with no recognizable parallels to her home. Up ahead, a tall building made of some kind of smooth, almost silvery stone stood in the distance.

“Come on,” Delfine called out to Megan behind her. “I’ll introduce you to the others, and we’ll getcha all sorted out.”

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The Five

The structure was much larger than it had appeared at a distance. Megan tried to take it all in, but doing so while keeping pace with Delfine was no easy task; it seemed as though her impromptu guide was moving faster the closer they got. A million questions swirled in Megan’s head, still too frantic to be articulated. Up close, she could make out intricate patterns etched across the edifice of the towering building as they approached.

“Welcome home,” Delfine said with a knowing grin as they came to the entrance. Up close, Megan could see intricate patterns etched into the silvery exterior, swirls and waves that curled around the entirety of it in fine lines that were invisible from a distance. The door, carved or crafted from the same shimmering material, was decorated with its own unique patterns that seemed to glow with a soft blue light at Delfine’s touch.

The door swung inward; for all its outward simplicity, the interior of this place was lavishly ornate. Everything within was lit by the warm glow of what appeared to be gas lamps, wrought in shades of copper and gold with intricate filligrees coursing throughout. The red-orange light spilled out into a pool of thick maroon carpets shot with bands of gold, with delicately-carved wooden chairs placed near the edges. From the moment she stepped inside, Megan was staggered by its scale.

Above her, the room seemed to encompass the height of the building; she could see levels above, but just inside the door, there was only the full length of the wall running upward and into the blackness. It seemed, somehow, to defy basic structural norms, yet the warmth and rich colors of the chamber itself were very inviting.

“Sit,” Delfine instructed her. Still searching for words or desperate for an explanation, Megan simply placed herself in the nearest chair. “I’ll be right back.”

And then, she was alone. Delfine strode across the foyer and into a hallway, soon vanishing around a corner. Studying the lines sewn into the carpets was somehow soothing, and she felt her eyes tracing the tangled patterns across the floor. Around her, the light of the gas lamps danced across everything. She noticed, as if half aware, that her fingers were following the grooves carved into the arm of the chair. Everything around her was a shifting, winding pathway. Every pathway wove into one.

Her vision blurred momentarily, and the wavering shadows seemed to dissipate into a dark mist. Her eyes closed in reflex, and when they opened again the darkness ebbed. She still sat in the chair that she’d been in, but the room was entirely new. Now, the decor had shifted to dark blues and greens complimented by silver metalwork. The cushion of her chair, too, had shifted to meet the new requirements. Seated in chairs surrounding her in a semcircle were Delfine and three others, each in a cloak of a different color.

Sitting closest, to her left, Delfine’s green cloak had taken on a peculiar ripple, like leaves swaying in the wind. Next, an older woman with a kind, dark-skinned face and deep brown eyes looked at her from under a flame-red cloth that seemed to radiate heat in the already-warm chamber. Directly across from her,  a deep purple hood completely engulfed its wearer in shadow, their stillness almost palpable from across the room. To her right, a young, bright-looking girl of about twelve or thirteen was wrapped in a bright blue that nearly melted into the similarly-adorned trappings of this place.

“Welcome.” It was Delfine’s voice, but it seemed to drift into being, coming from all sides. Her lips did not move. “Megan. The waitress. Servant, and one who takes pride in her work. That’s you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Megan heard herself say; she did not think she’d spoken.

“You are safe here, Megan,” a new voice added. Though she had not heard it before, Megan knew it to be Celia, the woman in red. “We have done enough that you — that we — are safe here.” Her tone was as warm and kind as the rest of her, carrying a soothing quality that put Megan’s mind at ease despite the whirlwinds of confusion.

Johanna, the child, spoke next, a sing-song lilt to her words. “You’ve come a long way, but you’ll be back home in no time. We wanted to meet you, and we’re really glad you showed up!” Her youthful exuberance shone through in every fiber of her being.

Silence came over the room; at first, Megan wondered if she should speak. She waited three seconds, four, five — why weren’t they saying anyting? Her thoughts turned again to finding words, anything to dispel the stillness hanging over the room. Her mind raced, struggling to remind itself of how she knew these people, of how she’d come to be here. Just when she couldn’t stand the quiet any longer, Lilian spoke. Her voice roared like thunder inside Megan’s head.

“You are here because you are one of us. There are many lessons before you now, many paths. The one you choose to walk is yours, but those paths walked by we five will always intersect. It is not fate, it is not design; it is fact.  From this day forward, your life will change in ways that you had never believed to be possible. This, too, is fact. If you are strong, if you are wise, if you are ready — these things will be wondrous, and you will know such joy as you have only read about. If you are not, then this will ruin you. We believe — I believe — that you are ready.”

The echoes of her deep, resonant timbre filled the room like liquid; while Megan could still see nothing of Lilian with her eyes, she knew every detail of her face, every line that formed her body. The authority with which she spoke left no quarter for doubt or question. As the last lingering reverberation faded, Megan felt the air shifting, saw the shadows resuming their dance and soon, she was back in the reds and golds of the first chamber again, as though she’d never left. Delfine was happily making her way back down the hallway towards her.

“Well,” she said as she drew nearer, “you’ve met the others, just like I promised. It’s probably about time we give you a rest from this, so you go ahead on home for now. We’ll catch up when it’s time. In the meantime, I thought you might want this.”

Delfine held out the wine bottle that had accompanied Megan on her journey. It was filled with a honey-gold liquid, and had been sealed with a cork. As Megan reached to take it, she felt a twitch; her fingers missed, and the bottle slipped from her hand before she could grasp it.

Jolting, she reached for the bottle, afraid that the fall would break it. Both it and its contents, still sealed safely inside, landed softly on the carpet just before she fell from the couch and joined them.

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The Cloak

Megan’s head throbbed. Daylight streamed through the window, its harsh light mocking the absurdity of her situation. She was splayed out on the floor, tangled in a pile of blanket and half-formed memories, trying to convince herself that the entirety of her experience was some drug-induced dream. It was the only thing that made sense; obviously, pills didn’t whisk people off to magical worlds full of telepathic women.

If it had been a dream, though, then what the hell was in the bottle laying inches away from her outstretched fingers? She remembered drinking the wine. It had been a red, so there was no explaining the viscous golden liquid that now filled the glass. Megan rubbed her eyes, trying to shake off the confusion. Maybe a shower would help clear the fog that swirled around her thoughts. She double-checked the locks and blinds, wanting to keep out any prying eyes.

She left the bottle, the blankets, and clothes in a heap on the floor and stepped into a steady stream of not-quite-scalding water. She’d always preferred her showers to be just on the edge of too hot; something about the way it filled the poorly-ventilated room with steam and left her skin a rosy pink had become a part of how she knew she was properly clean. This morning especially, she felt a need to push it a little higher, scrub a little harder, and hope for the thick confusion to wash away with the grime and sweat of the last twenty-four hours.

As she stood there beneath the steady and skin-pruning stream, her thoughts only seemed to become more entwined with the absurdity of it all. She ran through it all, retracing each step over and over, her mind turning and trying to put it together like a puzzle that had too many pieces. Replaying each scene only made the whole affair seem more surreal, more divorced from any sense of reality; kids didn’t leave drugs on restaurant tables for strangers, and hooded women didn’t hand out bottles of god-knows-what to sleeping junkies. Yet here she was, scouring away a night’s delusion and unsure of what to do.

As the water started to cool, Megan realized she’d been standing in the shower for far longer than was normal. She turned the valve and stepped out into the steam-filled room, wrapping herself in a towel as she braced for the cooler air that waited on the other side of the door. Though her apartment was relatively good at keeping out winter’s bitter chill, the dramatic difference still raised goosebumps across her skin. She hurried to the bedroom and slid open the closet door.

Megan let out an audible gasp. There, between her old mainstays of thinning sweatshirts, rarely-worn dresses, and other contents of her outdated wardrobe, hung a brilliant white cloak, hemmed in shimmering pearlescence. The sight of it came so unexpectedly that she dropped her towel; she was only aware of this by the way that it heaped at her feet. As she stood in awe of this new addition, she felt a comfortably warm air swirl around her, as if she’d already donned the cloak to protect her exposed skin from the bite that had been in the air just moments before.

Though she knew it would fit perfectly just from looking, Megan couldn’t resist an urge to wrap herself in the cloak. She pulled it from the closet and, in a single motion, threw it over her shoulders. The soft fabric seemed to cling to her damp skin — no, that wasn’t it. Something else had happened. The moment that she settled the flowing cape over her shoulders, it changed; the sweeping cape grabbed on to her, shifting as it fell into place. Where the pearled hems had been, now shimmering sleeves and leggings formed along her limbs; a loose fit tunic hung from her shoulders, and a knee-length white skirt embroidered in swirling rainbows draped from her hips. Even the hood, loose and wide, took on new life as shining pearled clips, clasping the strands of her dust-blonde hair.

Megan strode back into the steam-filled bathroom, wiping fog from the mirror with a damp washcloth. Dressed as she was, she barely recognized herself; it was a far cry from her usual jeans and t-shirt aesthetic, and her hair done up was something she hadn’t seen since a regrettable night wasted on a high school dance that she’d not felt comfortable at even at the time. She was shocked to see how well it all seemed to fit, the delicate way that every stitch seemed made just for her.

The most striking thing about her new outfit was its lightness; not just the glimmer of white and pearl, but the ethereal sensation of it. It felt as though she was draped in the thinnest silk, though with the warmth of a thick winter jacket. Her skirt shifted gently in an imperceptible breeze that seemed to fill the space around her, the irridescent colors woven through it dancing in a playful display. She felt as though she’d donned a cloud draped in the beauty of rainbows and kissed by the brilliance of the sun.

Megan admired the outfit for entirely too long; her pondering was broken only by the sudden sharp sound of a knock at the door. It was very unlike any of her friends to drop by unannounced, and she couldn’t remember having made any plans. She didn’t even know what time it was, the day having melted away in the midst of her showering, discovering the cloak, and becoming lost in its transformation. Still, to ignore the summons seemed somehow rude. Smoothing her skirt, she made her way to the front door and pressed an eye to the peephole.

Delfine. Without the draping of her green cloak, she was almost a stranger, but there was no mistaking the tight angles of that face, the piercing blue eyes, the flighty strands of jet-black hair. How could she possibly be here, so far from the strange dream in which they’d met, standing on Megan’s doorstep in the deepening orange of the late-day sun? Everything seemed to make less sense the more she thought about it.

Another knock; Delfine was still outside, waiting for the door to open. Megan hesitated, unsure of what she could even say; there was no logical explanation, no way that this could even be real. Taking in a sharp breath, she unlocked the door and opened it. From behind the strands of hair that tried to hide her face, Delfine broke into a wide grin and abruptly pushed past her to get inside.

“About time,” Delfine said with a chuckle. She scanned Megan’s outfit, an approving glint in her eye. “Glad to see you’ve found the cloak. I suspect you’ll get used to it, but it was wise to put it on now.” Something in the way she moved, with a light gracefulness, made it clear that despite the radically different look of her own attire, the clothing was a manifestation of the same green she’d been wearing before.

“What the hell are you doing here, Delfine?” Megan’s words seemed to fall out on their own, and she was surprised at her own rudeness; Delfine laughed.

“Nice to see you, too, Megan,” she replied. “I’m here to help you get your bearings. I know it’s all a lot, but just like Lilian said — you’re one of us. One of the five. And if we’re gonna make it, we’ll need you in top form. Sorry for barging in, though, but I need to be sure I wasn’t followed. Where’s your bathroom?”

“Its, um, right around the corner, there,” Megan said. She felt like she was stumbling over words, still, but somehow they spilled out in the right order.”

“Okay, great. Lock your door. I’ll need about fifteen minutes, then we can get started,” Delfine’s voice drifted through the hallway before she slipped away and closed the door behind her; Megan heard the lock click, and bolted the front door, her mind racing. Whatever path lay before her now, she could feel that something huge was building, and that her life would never again resemble the normal life she’d eked out until now.

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The thick, honey-gold liquid flowed slowly from one end of the bottle to the other. Megan was fidgeting; turning the bottle end over end, waiting for the contents to settle, turning it over again. Through the bathroom door, the muffled murmurs of Delfine’s voice were indistinct and droning, like a repeating pattern in some alien tongue. Once or twice, Megan thought she saw a flash of greenish light peek out from under the door, only to vanish as soon as she snapped her attention to it. She wondered if her mind was merely playing tricks on her, the effects of whatever had been in the pill confounding her senses even still.

Hours seemed to pass as she watched whatever was in the bottle make its journey from one end to the other, and she grew restless. Finally certain it had been long enough, she moved toward the bathroom; maybe this was all a dream, and there’d be nobody inside. She reached to turn the knob, and the door creaked open from the other side. Delfine stood in the doorway.

The thick-looking wintery jacket that had hidden her figure when Megan let her in was gone. In its stead, a flattering emerald dress that reminded Megan of a fairy-tale garden; thin, vine-like strips traced her arms, and the bodice resembled broad leaves that clung tightly to her skin, moving as she moved. The skirt hung loose, reminiscent of ivy covering the facade of an old castle, its naturally-uneven hem hanging inches from the floor. Delfine’s bare feet peeked out from below, her nails painted in a deep brown that accentuated the greens above. Her hair was tied back in a thick braid run through with a deep green ribbon. Megan found that words, once again, failed her. Delfine broke the growing silence.

“Alright, we’re all good. You, uh, doing okay?” Her voice had been kind before, but now seemed somehow softer. The steel-blue of her eyes seemed gentler, as well.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m – I’m fine. It’s, you know, a lot to – how are you even here?”

“I know, sweetie. It’s a lot. Don’t worry, we’re here now, together.” There was something in Delfine’s words that sparked a vague memory, like something Megan had dreamed a lifetime ago. “For now, well – if you’d like to go sit down, maybe? I need rest.”

The two made their way back to the living room, Megan still absently cradling the bottle. Delfine all but collapsed onto the couch; Megan wondered just what she’d been doing that had taken so much out of her. Despite the obvious weariness, Megan found herself thinking how beautiful this strange woman was. Was it normal to feel this way about bizarre intruders who’d stepped out of a hallucination and into your living room?

And so, they sat, relaxing and talking. Delfine’s words were a blur, and Megan struggled to stay focused as the conversation wound through the day like a mountain path. They spoke of the little orange pill, a catalyst to help guide those with a gift to those who could help them. They spoke of the Five, an important council of women who worked in concert to maintain a certain kind of order. They spoke of magic, of powers that defied scientific scrutiny, and of the role that it had played in human history. They spoke of its role in the future of humanity, and the dangers that those who knew of this faced. They spoke, as dusk began to take hold outside, of Olivia.

The very way that Delfine spoke the name dripped with venom. Olivia, the betrayer. Olivia, the deceiver. Olivia, the great shame of the Five. Olivia, the last to bear the white cloak that now hung on Megan’s own shoulders; she had turned her back on the Five and their mission to maintain an order to the world. She had not only left a hole in this mysterious cabal, but had nearly thrown the entire world into ruin. This, of course, was where Megan entered the equation.

Though it had seemed it, her selection — such as it was — was not by chance or circumstance. No, it had been Lillian’s considerable work that had helped them reach this decision. While all of them had within them the capacity for great and potent abilities, Lillian was unsurpassed when it came to matters of things to come. She was not an oracle, in the traditional sense of the word, but from under the cowl of her purple garb she could sense and trace the lines of fate; not a true forecast of some certain future, but an insight into potential paths that were laid out before them. It was along one of these roads that Lillian had come to know Megan.

It was through this connection that Megan’s destiny had begun to unfold. Of course, the choice was always hers; the others could no more force her into this than they could stop Olivia from breaking ranks. Even Lillian could not force someone to act against their nature, or remove their freedom to choose which path they took. She could light the way or suggest a course, but ultimately the decisions always rested with the individual. This was not a limit to her power, but the very core of the delicate balance that the Five held dear.

It had still been the choice of the acolytes to leave the pill on a dirty diner table, hoping that the right hand would find it. It had still been Megan who chose to wash it down with cheap wine, opening her mind to whatever would come. It had still been Delfine’s choice to meet her on the beach, and guide her to the others. All of it, every step that led her here, curled on the faded cushions of her couch with a new friend — for she no longer seemed a stranger — had been a conscious, deliberate act.

Outside, the streetlights flickered to life, and a swelling wind brought with it a freezing rain. Megan found herself wondering when, or where, Delfine would go from here; she quickly brushed the thought aside. She did not want to be alone. Moreover, she — for all the confusing twists of the last twenty-four hours — wanted no other company to keep. An entire day was gone, and somehow felt as though it had been an eternity and an instant. She wanted it to last forever.

Maybe it was this thought, this desire for Delfine to stay, that spurred her impossible garb into shifting again. Maybe it was — well, something else. Whatever prompted it, Megan felt the fabric sliding, twisting, becoming something new; it was almost imperceptible, yet she felt keenly aware of each stitch and thread as they rewrote themselves across her skin. In a split-second, the rainbow-hemmed skirt, the leggings, and the tunic melted into silken-smooth, loose-fitting pajamas that seemed still as though they had been sewn only for her. Her face reddened as she shied away, fighting an impulse to hide herself.

She felt Delfine gently place a hand on her shoulder, and her embarassment deepened. “Look,” the visitor’s voice whispered. Megan glanced meekly over her shoulder, and found that she was not the only one whose attire had taken new life. Delfine was draped in a delicate nightgown of deep, foresty green. “If you’re asking me to stay…” her words trailed off as Megan leaned into her arms.

“Please,” Megan spoke softly. “Please stay with me.” She felt a warmth and comfort in her companion’s embrace, and together they drifted into peaceful sleep.

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