Chapter One: I am Dead
I was dead. That was the first thought that came to mind. One second I was walking and then, I was falling. Down and down. My mouth fell open. Was I screaming? I could never tell. I looked around frantically for a hint of something, anything to tell me what was going on.
Colors flashed past me, fast-moving rivers against an impossibly dark backdrop. Oranges, yellows, and pinks. All twisting and turning together, like long, thin, wispy snakes, engaged in an impossible dance. I stared at them, mesmerized, almost forgetting that I was falling. It was such a beautiful sight. I'd never seen that many colors before.
Needles shot through my skin like the temperature was dropping somehow. I twisted, trying to shake it off, but that only seemed to make it worse. A thousand tiny pinpricks of pain. I could feel the beginnings of tears forming in my eyes.
It was all just a little too much. The pain, the colors that now seemed mocking almost, and this endless fall. If this was death, it wasn't the grand escape I had been promised.
Then without warning, I felt solid ground underneath my feet. The darkness faded. The colors dissolved, revealing more darkness. I was looking up at what resembled a night sky. Only it couldn't possibly be. The stars were missing. I frowned.
Before I could begin to make sense of that, something powerful hit my nostrils in a way it never had before. My eyes, already on the verge of tears, weren't helped in the slightest. The smell was... impossible to describe. It was sharp, somehow hot and cold at the same time. It was enticing and repulsive all at once. I didn't know which way to turn or what to do.
I closed my eyes, trying to ground myself. It seemed like whatever had started earlier was finally over. I could breathe again. My skin was no longer crawling. A bone-numbing chill had taken over instead, descending in a much more familiar way. And I was no longer falling.
Except something wasn't quite right. The familiar darkness that came with closing my eyes wasn't as dark as it once was. There was a light, almost knocking on my eyelids as if demanding they be open. And then there was that horrid smell that twisted my thoughts, scattering them every time they attempted to solidify.
I tightened my eyes, hoping that would do something but no. My head just started to spin, the pressure of holding my eyes tighter only sending little shockwaves through it. Giving up, my eyes snapped open.
Regret washed over me almost instantly. Unfamiliar shapes jutted out at me from an unnatural brightness. Frantically looking at the sky, I confirmed that it was, in fact, nighttime. The moon didn't shine at any other time I knew of. And yet. The area around was bathed in light. It wasn't the soft glow of moonlight. No, this was harsher, more violent, and the colors. This wasn't natural. Light didn't work that way.
Was I really dead? Maybe this was what the underworld was like. Where else would such colors come from if it wasn't hell? That was the only explanation. I'd fallen down. And the pain. And the assault on every sense I possessed. This was surely the beginning of some eternal damnation. I belonged here. I shook my head.
Where had that idea come from? It felt familiar, and yet somehow, when I tried to chase after it, I found nothing. Odd. I shook my head again, deciding that maybe I could deal with that later. It didn't seem like it would exactly help my situation anyway.
I turned with some trepidation toward the harsh light. It was the only option that would take me somewhere new instead of being trapped between suffocating dark walls. Those were familiar. I'd been. My mind drew a blank yet again. I quashed that line of thought before it went any further. The light. I had to reach it.
I took a step towards it and recoiled immediately. Why was this ground so wet and sticky and somehow hot at the same time? The ground wasn't meant to feel that way, was it? I placed my foot down with a little more care. I could feel my skin crawl like it did when I... I didn't know.
The light. The light. Sticky. Wet. Hot. It didn't matter. I had to reach that light. It was the one constant in this whirlpool that threatened to engulf me. I stumbled, my foot making contact with something sharp. I ignored it, gritting my teeth and continuing to walk.
The light got brighter as I approached it, the light starting to burn my eyes. I didn't stop. It was the only thing that hadn't vanished the moment I thought about it for too long. It was the one thing I could trust.
Another step. Another sharp pain.
A soothing cold. And then I was suddenly bathed in this light I'd chased. It was clearer now. The light came from a glowing orb suspended on... something. What was this? Sorcery? A soul of the damned? My soul?
I tried to follow the line of what it was attached to, looking up and up. And up. The greying walls that threatened to engulf me rose impossibly high, glittering gaps of what appeared to be some form of glass intermingled with it. I could feel my mouth fall open.
Was this some form of abode? A wall with windows of some kind? I squeezed my eyes shut again. I'd seen too much. I could look at that again in a moment. The unnatural brightness continued to claw at my eyes, and I squeezed them shut as tight as they'd go. The throbbing in my head was refusing to go away. As much as it seemed foolish to hope for guidance in a pit for the damned, I couldn't help but wish there was something.
Then, as if decreed by the angels themselves, footsteps vibrated across the ground. The person, at least, that's what I prayed it was, moved with a quickness that only came with a task at hand. And they were heading right towards me.
My eyes snapped open. I couldn't afford to miss my only chance at some form of help, even if it meant giving in to this harsh light. At this point, I knew I no longer really had a say in the matter.
It was a woman, a very short one at that, with... green hair? Have I ever seen that before? I tried to piece together a time when I could've met anyone of that sort, but there was nothing. Just a yawning void where my memory was.
But the woman. All of her hair wasn't green, just the front bit. And her lips were black, which was strange. I think. She smiled, showing off pearly white, straight teeth. She began to speak, but everything she said was entirely muffled, utterly meaningless. I was used to that. I blinked why was I used to that?
All I could do was look at her, mouth open. My prayers had been answered. Or so I thought but I. It. It wasn't making sense. Why wasn't it making sense? Why did it make sense that it didn't make sense? I could feel my thoughts dissolving into that whirlpool again.
In a last-ditch effort, I shook my head rapidly, wishing for this being, angelic or demonic, to somehow understand. Something told me that I was being foolish, but I couldn't bring myself to care at that moment. What else could I have done?
The woman stopped talking, seemingly midsentence. She raised her eyebrows, looking me up and down before shaking her hands. She pointed at me, then placed her pointing finger by her ear before moving it to her lips. My brain supplied me with a single question: Are you deaf?
I didn't stop to question that revelation. Something seemed to make sense somehow. Angelic, I decided. This being was angelic. I nodded.
She nodded too. Okay. I'm using ASL. You wouldn't recognize it, but you'll find that you can understand it and use it fluently. Don't fight it. Just do what feels natural.
I nodded again. Maybe it was some feature of this afterlife. It was far better to just accept things instead of fighting them.
The woman smiled. Well, my name is Cassia. She finger-spelled her name slowly, giving me enough time to memorize each letter. And welcome to New York City in 2020! She waved her hands meaninglessly as if she could express excitement in just the wiggle of her palms.
I just stared at her, repeating the one pattern I'd managed to actually understand. Cassia.
She nodded. Yes. Cassia. She took a deep breath. You, my mysterious friend, have just- She paused. -time traveled! She gasped, putting a hand to her mouth as if she just surprised herself.
I blinked. Time. Travel. Those words made sense to me. And yet. Time Travel. They didn't seem like words that should go together. And why was this angel somehow surprised? Was this an uncommon occurrence? Was I breaking some sort of rule? Somehow it felt like I'd done this before. Me being wrong sounded right.
When Cassia pulled her hand away, she was grinning. Not familiar? That's fine! Let's see... She tapped her chin. So, let's say you live in Castle A, yeah? And then you travel to Castle B. That's just regular travel. Makes sense?
Castle. Castle. That sounded familiar. I nodded.
Cassia nodded. Good! So, time travel is the same except with time. She paused. What time are you from? Like, what year is it back in your home?
That made sense. Or so I thought. Traveling from time to time. As easy as changing castles. Right? Something didn't feel right. But I didn't question it, focusing instead on the question I'd just been asked. The year I came from. I should know that. Except. No. I drew a blank. Could I really not even answer such a simple question? I shook my head sadly, resigned to whatever fate it brought upon me.
Cassia furrowed her eyebrows. Oh. Okay. Odd. She walked in a little circle around me. Well, my guess is sometime during the 1700s. The Robe Valente started in 1716, so no earlier than then. But, it didn't fall out of fashion until the 1770s. Can I touch your dress?
I frowned. The numbers made sense but. What was this angel trying to get at? Was this some sort of worthiness test? Could you not enter even the land of the damned if your dress wasn't good enough? I nodded. That seemed like the only way to proceed here.
Cassia gently pinched one of my sleeves, rubbing the fabric between her fingers before letting go. Oh! Silk. So, higher class then. Possibly royalty with the jewelry. She stood in place for a second before her eyes widened. Oh my! I'm so sorry. I forgot to ask your name! What is it?
I felt a little shiver run down my back. Before I could even attempt to investigate the cause of that, something finally popped into my head. Finally. Something. Something I knew. I knew the answer to that. Before I knew what I was doing, I was spelling out a name. Sophia. It gave me a sense of completeness. It felt right.
Sophia. The angel's smile grew impossibly wider. Pretty name. She frowned. But there wasn't a Princess Sophia during that time period. She tapped her forehead with her wrist. I knew I should've studied duchesses more! You absolutely could be one. Or the daughter of one. Or maybe a countess? She sighed. So, you could be anywhere from 1716 to the 1770s, and you're some sort of high-class woman. Okay. That's fine. That should be enough for my boss. The return portal doesn't care what we know. She nodded, smiling again. Yes. This is fine.
I found myself smiling. I had barely understood a quarter of what Cassia had just spouted, but that smile was hard not to smile back to. There was something in there that made me believe that, yes, maybe this was fine. Or perhaps this place was finally breaking down the last of my mental barriers? I found that I didn't care.
Cassia blinked. For what? I'm just spitballing here. I have to do paperwork that states your name and when you came from. You know, for trends or whatever. I've never followed that part. I've always been a 'man on the street' kind of gal. I barely survive my tiny fraction of paperwork. My secretary Janice ends up doing most of it.
It was my turn to blink. I looked at her, confused. Sorry. It was all I could think of.
Cassia paused. Sorry? For what? You didn't do anything. Unless thank you is now some sort of insult in the 1700s.
I just shook my head. Having to understand this many words didn't seem normal.
Cassia froze. Oh. Okay. She tucked her hands against her chest, looking around. She seemed content with not adding anything else for all of thirty seconds before her hands went flying again. Okay. I can answer any questions you have, but we really have to get you to the District House. It's like... She narrowed her eyes again. The town square of time travel. It's how we'll get you home.
Home. That was recognizable. Except the word filled me with something my brain identified as dread. That didn't seem right, either. Question?
Cassia leaned slightly forward. Her skirt was so short that it stuck out straight in the back. It barely reached the middle of her thigh. Something in my mind wanted to wrinkle my nose at that. Answer.
Where is what?
Cassia nodded. Right, right. It's called New York City. It's in this country called the United States, which was founded in 1776. They decided to have a revolution and break away from Great Britain, and just not with the whole king and queen thing. She shook her head fondly. Wild times, really. They hosted a whole protest by throwing crates of tea into the ocean. Great Britain was very unhappy.
I just nodded again, my mouth falling open yet again. As much as Cassia spoke a language I could somehow understand, it still felt like a whole other language. But something about the way she spoke made it impossible to look away, even if I understood so little. I was mesmerized by the sheer energy of her movement. New York. I nodded. That seemed like what this place was called. That much I thought I understood.
Cassia poised her hands like she was about to start signing again before she shook her head. Yes. New York.
I nodded. Okay. One more thing made sense. Sophia. Cassia. Angel. New York. I had something to work with. I asked the one burning question that I just couldn't resist. Am I dead?
Cassia shook her head. Very common question, actually. Answer? No. You are not dead. Just... Displaced. She sighed. Sometimes, the universe gets so messy that it just loses people and they end up in a time they don't belong, like you.
I. Don't Belong. Somehow, I felt connected to that. It fell into place just as much as Sophia had.
Cassia waved her hand. Well, yes and no. In a cosmic sense? You are in the right universe. Congrats. She clapped her hands. In a temporal sense? That's when things get wobbly. You were born around three hundred years ago. Which means that you were supposed to die around two hundred forty years ago. And yet- She gestured to me. Here you are.
I just nodded again. Things were once again drifting into words that just seemed a little bit too far away. I was on the edge of understanding them on this cliff, looking down at a vast sea of information I just needed to be brave enough to jump into.
Cassia sighed. Don't worry, though. You aren't the first to time travel. You won't be the last. The universe is imperfect, and sometimes things just happen. She put her hands on her hips, grinning. It's my job to help the universe fix its mistakes and get you home safely! Or my name isn't Agent Cassia Campbell. She paused. Which it is. I am Agent Cassia Campbell.
Fix me? They sounded foreign put together. It didn't feel like those words ever made sense together, not in their current context.
Cassia reared back a bit, obviously surprised. Concern crossed her face. Fix you? She shook her head. You've done nothing to suggest you need to be fixed. I'm sure you're just another imperfect person in an imperfect universe. She shrugged. It's how you're supposed to be. Imperfect.
My eyes were wide. I understood that. Properly. Completely. Imperfect. Another fitting word. Okay. I Trust. You. I had no idea exactly what possessed me to say that, but, at that moment, it felt right, or perhaps that's when the grip this place had on me solidified. It wasn't like I'd be able to tell if it was the latter.
Cassia paused. Her cheeks turned a light shade of pink, which was all too noticeable against the contrast of the heavy black powder on her eyes. Oh. Okay. She nodded. Good idea. I've been doing my job for like a thousand years by now. I'm great.
I could feel my mouth fall open that time. A thousand years. It was a number I didn't quite know how to imagine. Something told me even if everything else made sense, that was a number I'd still have trouble imagining. All I know was that it was a long time. There was no chance someone could do something for that long and not be great. I nodded. Great. You are. Great.
Cassia's cheeks only turned pinker. Okay. That isn't exactly true. I've only been doing this job for like ten years. I think. Time is hard. Too much to remember. She shook her head. But I am still great!
Time is hard. I could definitely agree with that. The past few minutes were a very good example of that. I smiled at her final statement. The confidence she had in saying that meant there was no way you couldn't agree with her, so I nodded. You must be.
Cassia grinned. Yes! So, your trust is in good hands. I will not let you down!
I couldn't help grinning back. Despite every single thing I didn't understand, I trusted that smile. It was a lot less painful than the light from earlier. It would work well enough for my new constant, at least until I understood what was going on a little bit better.
Cassia hummed, looking at a strange band on her wrist. Okay. We should head to the District House now. Have you eaten recently?
I vaguely remembered this District House coming up earlier. I liked the sound of house. It seemed like it'd be safe. Maybe safer than the horrors surrounding me at the moment. Ok. I tried to think about food. I had no idea when I'd last eaten or when. I was about to shake my head when my stomach made its presence known. I. I think no.
Cassia seemed to chuckle at that, putting her hand over her mouth again. Okay. Well, dinner should still be on the stove, so I'll get you a plate. Janice's cooking is the best, trust me.
Cassia nodded. My secretary. Which is someone who takes notes and keeps track of paperwork. She paused, a sappy smile taking over her feature. But Janice is... a lot more to me than that.
I nodded. Somehow I understood that look. It was another puzzle piece that seemed like it belonged in the empty space of my mind. I had no idea where it connected or how. But I knew it belonged.
Cassia shook her head. You'll love her, trust me. And if you don't- She narrowed her eyes, pointing an accusatory finger at me. -you have no soul.
I hope I do. Have. Have a soul.
Cassia's eyes stayed narrowed. I have a hunch you do, but just in case. She grinned, letting her eyes return to normal. Okay. We should really go, though.
I returned her smile. My mouth felt unnaturally stretched like it wasn't used to holding this position so often. I had a feeling it would be getting used to it pretty soon, though. Okay.
Cassia jumped in excitement, which brought my attention to her... boots? They reached her knees and were covered in very elaborate tangled string. Huh. Okay.
She waved her hand, asking me to follow her. Right this way, my mysterious friend Sophia. We have to get you fed and rested to get you home!