Somehow, knowing where the portal led made it a lot harder to follow my classmates through it, than when it was a total mystery and could have led to places beyond my wildest imagination.
“It’s going to close if we don’t hurry,” Betty said, pulling me away from the car that we’d materialized beside.
“That’s not sounding like such a bad thing all of a sudden,” I said as I ran along beside her.
“I thought we were going to go with my plan!” Betty said.
“We are,” I said. “It’s a brilliant idea.”
“So what are you unhappy about?” she asked as we crossed the road where mirror ghosts of the cars that were picking kids up from school rolled slowly by.
“The portal is crafted from the Lord of the Bleak Harvest’s power,” I said.
“The who?” Betty asked. “Wait, that sounds like something a Defiler would call himself.”
“Are those bad?” I asked, knowing as I did how stupid of a question that was. I didn’t know what “a Defiler” was precisely, but nothing good ever gets stuck with a description like that.
“The worst,” Betty said.
“Then you might want to start working on another brilliant idea to get us out of wherever a portal in his name brings us,” I said.
“It’s not too late to bail on this,” Betty said. “I won’t be offended at all, I promise.”
There was a real undercurrent of fear in her voice. Penny would have felt that resonating in herself and backed off from pursuing a course of action that would make that fear grow further in Betty. I don’t know if I’m not as nice as my witch, or if I trusted that Betty could handle what we were getting into. Probably it was a little bit of both. In any event I charged forward, determined to at least be the first one through the portal in case we just exploded on contact with it.
At the end of the trip, some indeterminate amount of time later, I was left gasping for breath and dearly wishing that “exploding the moment I touched the portal” had been an option.
“Wow, that was worst brilliant idea I’ve ever had,” Betty said.
“I’ll still take it,” I said, getting up off the ground and surveying our surroundings.
We were still in the mirror world, but the reflections in the domain the portal lead us to were cast from polished basalt lit by the red-orange glow of molten rock. Where the light was too diffuse to render a proper reflection the mirror world drifted off into shadows rather than the amorphous, reflective quicksilver that I was used to seeing. It was unnerving to look at and seeing a figure step out of those shadows made me yelp and jump back behind Betty.
As defensive moves went, that was a laughably bad one. Betty was barely over half my height and was far more vulnerable in the mirror world than I was.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Akemi said as the shadows fell away, revealing her in an aspect closer to her true form.
Her long black hair hung down to her mid-calf and her fangs and claws were visible where she normally showed only teeth and fingers as a schoolgirl. Despite the red brilliance that filled her eyes though, there was something very familiar in them.
For having met her less than a handful of times, I had the sense that I knew Akemi Maki. She appeared quiet and mysterious in school but she was as easy to read as an open book when it came right down to it. However monstrous the girl in front of me appeared, I knew she was the same person I’d met in the library.
“None of us should be,” I said. “Especially not the kids that got dragged here by the giant frogs.”
“I know, that’s why I’m here,” Akemi said. “So that none of you have to be.”
“Sorry, I know I’m new at this, but that is definitely not how things should work,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Akemi said, tipping her head to one side a raising one eyebrow at me.
“I mean you’re as important as the rest of us and there’s no way it should be on your shoulders to save everyone.”
“I can’t leave everyone else here,” Akemi said.
“Right, that’s why we’re going to work together,” I said. “That gives us the best chance of getting out of here in one piece right?”
“You’d have better odds if you left right now,” Akemi said.
“And yours would be worse,” Betty said. “The witch here is right, we’re stronger together.”
“Even three of us may not be strong enough,” Akemi said. “I smell an ancient power here.”
“We’re not going to take on Mr. Nasty Pants,” I said, sensing that using the Lord of the Bleak Harvest’s title in a domain claimed by his servants might not be the best idea in the world. “All we need to do is steal the prisoners from his minions and we’re good to go.”
“Steal them?” Akemi asked. “I think they’ll be prepared for that. It’s kind of the point of a prison to keep people from getting out. The moment we go in there, the guards are going to want to have some rather violent words with us.”
“And your plan was to speak louder than them when it came to the violence?” Betty asked.
“My plan was to strike before they had a chance to say anything about it,” Akemi said.
“Can you do that?” I asked. “Will it work?”
“No,” Betty said. “Not long enough at least. She’d probably take a few of them out, but against a whole prison? They’d catch her eventually.”
“They’d pay a high price for taking me, if they could,” Akemi said.
“And you’d pay a higher one,” I said. “Ok, I hate that plan. Betty, tell me that you’ve got a better one?”
“You’re asking a goblin for a plan?” Akemi asked.
“She hasn’t steered me wrong so far,” I said.
“You wound up here,” Akemi said. “I’m not sure there’s much farther wrong that you could have gone.”
I saw Betty’s expression shift to the crestfallen look of someone hearing something they didn’t want to believe about themselves confirmed as truth.
“That place may be terrible, but it’s where I wanted to be, and you both are who I wanted to be with, so her plans are flawless so far in my book,” I said.
“I don’t know if I can live up to flawless,” Betty said, the ghost of a smile returning to her face.
“I’ll settle for anything that gets us out of her with our limbs intact,” I said.
Betty rubbed her chin for a few seconds and then I saw her eyes brighten.
“You know, I just might have an idea that could manage that!” she said.
From the mad gleam in her eye, I guessed that I would find her plan terrifying, Akemi would dislike it immensely, and the Lord of the Bleak Harvest would hate it most of all.