Sunlight was supposed to darken skin tones and brighten the sand it shone on. That it seemed to be doing the reverse left Tam with a snarl of irritation wrinkling her nose.
“Should the sun be doing that?” Cynthia said, slowly taking her sunglasses off.
“Not on this planet it shouldn’t,” Tam said, sketching a quick circle in the sand around their towels and umbrella.
It had been Cynthia’s idea to spend a day at the beach. The weather was perfect for it and neither of them had anywhere to be, with Cynthia enjoying a day off from her fire department, and Tam in-between shows and back in town while she began to prep the next one.
The Crystal Sands beach wasn’t exactly a quiet hideaway where they could enjoy the beauty and peace of nature in each others company. There were far too many other people present for that to be true. It was a beautiful spot even with the crowds though, and up until she’d noticed the peculiar inversion of the sunlight, Tam had been focused quite intently on enjoying her girlfriend’s company.
Being apart as much as they were wasn’t ideal, but it had been working out for them in the months since they’d met aboard a doomed ocean liner. Video calls made things easier than they would have been in the ancient days before civilization and cell phones existed, but it was the sweetness of the days they got to spend together which made the night’s alone worth it.
Since the sun probably hadn’t decided to change its normal mode of operation, there was in all likelihood someone responsible for its current state. Someone Tam would need to deal with, from the strange itch she felt clawing away at her.
That put “Operation: Make Them Regret Ruining a Perfectly Good Date” as “Go for Liftoff” in Tam’s mind. All she needed to do was find the person who needed to be launched to the Moon, and then strap them to a rocket or other suitably explosive device.
“A magic circle?” Cynthia asked, looking at the design in the sand Tam had etched around them.
“Yeah, wait, you know about those?” Tam asked.
“You have seen my library, haven’t you?” Cynthia’s laugh was a bit forced but also a sign of how well she was holding things together.
“Ah, right, fantasy books for days,” Tam said. “Just a heads up, things are always weirder than any book version of magic will show.”
“Weirder than the sun casting shadows?” Cynthia asked. “Because that’s kind of weird.”
“What you don’t enjoy long walks on the beach under the moonlight?” Tam asked as she scribbled Etruscan script in large sloppy glyphs around the outside of the circle.
“Aww, did you do this for me?” Cynthia asked, gathering together the picnic lunch that she’d brought for them to share.
“I kind of wish I had,” Tam said. “I don’t have any idea how you pull off an effect this big though.”
“That’s a little frightening,” Cynthia said. “I thought you said figuring out how other magicians did their effects was a speciality of yours?”
“That’s stage magic,” Tam said. “This kind of thing is more than just an illusion, or, hmm, maybe it’s not.”
“I’ll admit, I’m pretty much completely fooled by it,” Cynthia said.
“Look at the people around us though,” Tam said, gesturing to the horde of beach goers who were still busy enjoying both sun and surf.
“They’re not seeing any of this, are they?” Cynthia asked.
“I don’t think they are,” Tam said. “Which means, whatever the effect is, it’s centered on us.”
“But we’re safe inside your circle right?”
“Safer,” Tam said. “I won’t say ‘safe’ until I know what exactly this effect is.”
“How do you find that out?” Cynthia asked, putting her t-shirt back on.
“We find the person who’s causing this,” Tam said.
“That means leaving the protection of the circle though doesn’t it?”
“Like I said, things are often weirder than what you read in books,” Tam said. “Try stepping across the circle.”
Cynthia paused and waited for some sign that Tam had been kidding. When she saw that Tam was serious, she shrugged and stepped past the line in the sand.
Except when she put her foot down, it was still within the circle.
“Did the circle get bigger when I tried to leave?” Cynthia asked.
“And smaller when we’re closer together,” Tam said. “I had to set it up so that we could move within it, otherwise we could be trapped on this beach for the rest of our lives.”
“That’s not the worst fate I can imagine,” Cynthia said, running a finger tip up along the outside of Tam’s arm.
“Sadly the rest of our lives wouldn’t be particularly long in that case,” Tam said. She felt a stab of temptation abandon the current crisis in favor of running away to safety with Cynthia but she knew she’d been right when she said they wouldn’t be safe at all until the problem was dealt with. If they ran, the best cases scenario would be that whoever was behind corrupting the sun would continue to track them down, endlessly.
“I wouldn’t object if you wanted to make the circle very very small,” Tam said, a gleam of mischief in her eye which she shook her head to dispel. “But we do need to go,” she added with a sigh.
The sun-darkened sea was rolling onto the black shore, its waves crashing with less force each subsequent time they met the land, as though the shadowed sun was stealing not just the illumination from the environment but all forms of energy as well.
In the sea, shapes swam, alien and unfathomable but with each time they joined the surge of the tide, Tam got a closer glimpse of the creatures and to her eyes they appeared as confused and disturbed as she felt.
She shivered and Cynthia stepped close, shrinking the circle to its smallest radius around them. Cynthia pulled Tam into a one armed hug and, facing the water with her asked, “Where do we look first?”
Tam took a moment to marvel at the woman beside her. As they walked forward, the vista around them grew increasingly strange with each pace they took, their world shimmering away and being replaced by somewhere humans may never have walked before. Despite that, Cynthia was reacting to it all as calmly as though it was the typical day at the beach they’d intended to spend together.
“The sun, or whatever that is, is shining over the ocean, so that’s probably where we’ll find whoever’s doing this,” Tam said.
“Do we need a boat?” Cynthia asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tam said. “If I’m wrong though we’ll know in a hurry.”
Taking Cynthia’s hand she stepped forward again, expanding the circle around them, and marched straight into the oncoming waves, chanting in a low voice as she did.
The farther she lead them though, the farther away the ocean became until at last they were standing on a barren shoreline which looked nothing like the Crystal Sands beach where their picnic and umbrella had been left behind.
“I feel like we went through a portal to Narnia or something, but there’s no magic wardrobes here or looking glasses to fall through,” Cynthia said.
“The circle is our looking glass,” Tam said. “It’s not so much designed to keep things out, I didn’t have the time or materials to manage that. Plus I think the geometries of the beach would mess up any attempt to make a new boundary for the sea.”
“So if it’s not a shield to keep bad stuff away from us, what is it?” Cynthia asked.
“Well, you and I could see what was going on but no one else could,” Tam said. “Since the sun didn’t look like our earthly sun, it seemed more likely that what we were seeing wasn’t a change to Earth but a glimpse into one of the worlds which overlaps with ours.”
“So, wait, Narnia, or things like it, are real?”
“More or less?” Tam said. “Think of it like fairy gold, if you can remember any stories that use it. When you get the stuff, it looks like gold, smells like gold, weighs as much as gold, and so on, but the next morning it’s just a pile of dry leaves. There are whole worlds that have that same relation with ours. While they’re aligned both sides are real to the other, but when they drift apart any bits that are left in the wrong world fizzle out and become something else.”
“Oh neat,” Cynthia said, her eyes bright and smiling.
“Neat?” Tam asked.
“I always thought of Harry Potter as existing in a parallel world, but with the magic they have it bothered me that there was no proof that a wizard from their world had ever made it to ours,” Cynthia said. “If their wands would just turn into sticks and their potions into energy drinks then it could still work out.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Tam said, “Although I should warn you that I haven’t found anything about a real Hogwarts out there. Some things are just fiction, and other worlds are usually stranger than that.”
“Like here?” Cynthia asked, looking around.
The distant shore they stood on lay under a purple sky, broken only by electric blue clouds and a black disk ten times the diameter of the sun they were familiar with.
In the air, dozens of great wyrm-like creatures flew with a buoyancy that suggested they were floating in an aetheric water rather than the open, and empty sky.
Beyond them, down an ever descending hill which mirrored the ocean floor of the beach they’d been on, there were plants of light blue growing in abundance. In the distance, soaring up from a deeper spot on the hill, a tower of multi-hued coral rose to touch the sky. From it’s summit, waves of black rippled into the sky and where gathered into a swirling mass around the sun as it moved.
“I think it’s pretty obvious where our culprit is,” Cynthia said.
“Yep,” Tam said, “Which is why we are going nowhere near there.”
“Don’t we need to stop whatever is happening?” Cynthia said.
“Unfortunately, I think what was happening already has,” Tam said. “If I’m right, that’s a tower of Atlantean High Sorcery. This wasn’t an attack, it was a trap, and I walked us right into it.”
“So our next move is to walk right out of it, except we can’t because?” Cynthia asked.
“Because if we leave, the trap will reach out and bring some other sensitives in instead,” Tam said.
“Sensitives? But I’m not sensitive,” Cynthia said.
“I refer back to your library,” Tam said, offering a smile. “Being sensitive isn’t some genetic thing that you have or don’t have. It’s a state of mind that you cultivate. Just reading fantasy novel doesn’t let you start casting spells, but it helps keep your mind receptive to new ideas and new realities. That way when you run into someone working with mystical energies you stand a better chance of accepting the magic and incorporating it into how you view the world.”
“So once you see a real magician in action, there’s no going back?” Cynthia asked.
“Not exactly. People are surprisingly good at ignoring the parts of the world that don’t apply to them. A lot of actual magic gets chalked up under ‘I didn’t see that right’ or ‘Yeah, that’s weird, so?’ It’s strange to sweep that kind of stuff under the rug but it’s what works for some folks.”
“Doesn’t sound fun to me,” Cynthia said. “I’d rather know what was out there, especially awesome stuff like the things you do.”
“You literally save people from being burned alive,” Tam said. “Believe me you’re work is way more awesome than mine is.”
“Well, since I don’t see any burning buildings around here, I just need to know how I can help,” Cynthia said.
“We can’t go forward, because that Tower is going to call to me too much. If we go inside, I’m going to be lost in an endless library of imaginary books. That’s the trap part of this,” Tam said.
“Why would someone make a trap like that?” Cynthia asked.
“To get rid of someone like me,” Tam said. “I’m not that far into my studies of the arcane and I’ve already run through most of the available books, even with as good as library as the Club has. The prospect of what that Tower could contain is putting an itch in the back of my head that’s kind of hard to ignore.”
“I thought you said the books were illusions though?” Cynthia said.
“They are, but even an illusion can hold real secrets.”
“So what do we do?” Cynthia asked.
“We can’t walk back to where we came without first disarming the trap that’s pulling sensitives into this world, but there is another option, if you trust me?”
In answer, Cynthia turned to Tam and kissed her, pulling her into surprisingly soft embrace.
“We survived a sinking ship, where you go, I’m going too,” she said.
“Then we take the long way round,” Tam said, her breath still a little quickened.
“Towards the tower?” Cynthia asked.
“Around and past the tower, down into the lands that would correspond with the bottom of the ocean in our world” Tam said. “There are real things in the deeps, below the illusions. If we can go far enough away from our home, they might be able to help us make it back.”