As they walked, the forest seemed to fade away around them. The world shifted slowly from green and brown to black and grey. Tatiana shivered, drew her cloak closer and wished for once that she had worn something on her feet. Glancing down she saw that no flowers grew in her footsteps – it was odd how something so small could feel so significant.
"Where are we?" Vespera asked.
"Somewhere between. The path was to take people where they were needed – who knows where we might end up."
"Or how long it could take for us to get there," Vespera grumbled, just quiet enough that Tatiana didn't hear. However, barely moments after she had said the words the blacks started to shift, becoming more and more like a painting and forming a road that finally solidified underfoot. Flowers sprouted under Tatiana's feet once more only to be squashed moments later under Vespera's heel.
"What is that?" Vespera was looking at a tall building of dark stone that stretched at least five floors high. It loomed up from the ground barely ten feet in front of where they had emerged. Windows lined every floor and the track they were stood on joined a tarmac road.
"It's a hospital," Tatiana replied as an ambulance sped past.
"I assume we're still in the book?"
"It would probably be wise to think that. I don't think there are many hospitals in the middle of deserts, do you?" Vespera glanced around at the great, sandy expanse that surrounded them and shrugged.
"Do we go inside, or do we stay here?"
"The path sent us here for a reason, we're clearly needed for something... Shh," Tatiana held up a hand. "Someone's coming."
"Don't you tell me when to shu-" Vespera began waspishly only to break off as she realised Tatiana was right. There were footsteps coming up the path behind them. Looking back they could see no one, although the land was flat and unobscured for miles. Then, as if out of nowhere, a woman emerged. She glanced around, eyes narrowed, and didn't seem to notice the two fairies stood mere feet in front of her. Sighing, she brushed a hand down the long coat she wore and moved to stand between them without even so much as acknowledging their presence.
"She has no potential," Vespera sniffed.
"But she came from the path. She's almost certainly here for the same reason that we are." Tatiana bit her lip slightly as she thought, her toes fidgeting slightly in the sandy ground. The woman brushed a strand of auburn hair behind her ear and knelt down, plucking the head off a flower and frowning.
"Impressive that she noticed the flowers so quickly – maybe this one's sharper than she looks." Vespera grinned impishly and Tatiana knew what she was going to do before it happened. "Got any explanation for those?" Vespera asked, crouching beside the woman whose head jerked up.
"No more than I've got for you being where you weren't just a second ago." She stood slowly, her eyes scanning up and down Vespera's body as though analysing her. "You've lasted this long, you might be of some help." She strode off.
"I think she likes me." Vespera winked at Tatiana and followed the stranger, giving her companion no real choice other than to go with them.
"What do you know of the book?" the woman asked as they walked. Vespera considered the question before she answered.
"That it's old."
"Older than you?" The woman stopped and turned to face Vespera, her hair blowing very slightly in the sticky wind.
"I'm not all that old."
"Really? I'd have said a few hundred years at the very least." Vespera stopped, more than a little surprised. "How could I possibly know?" she asked before Vespera even had the chance to speak. "Your eyes are old, even if the rest of you isn't. You walk without even the slightest slouch – although that could just be the wings you wear, which look more than a little painful. You aren't human, and you're hiding something from me."
"I like this one," Tatiana whispered quietly into Vespera's ear.
"You claim to know so much about me, yet I know nothing about you. At least tell me your name."
"My name? Paige."
"So tell me, Paige," Vespera asked. "What do you know about the book?"
"Enough. I know that it is ending, and that this is something we should probably avoid. I also know that there are more flowers than there were before and that, any second now, you're going to explain them to me." Vespera very suddenly found herself looking down the barrel of a gun.
"A slight overreaction?" she asked, slowly moving her hands so that Paige could see them.
"Give me your name and then start talking, then I'll decide whether it was an overreaction or not."
"My name is Vespera."
"And the title that goes with that is?"
"Very good." Vespera usually reserved her praise, but she was more than a little impressed by this human. "I am the Queen of Light."
"And the flowers?" Paige still hadn't moved the gun. Vespera reached around her, feeling a slight warmth in the air. She tried not to show it, but she felt a brief flash of relief and surprise. Perhaps the magic of the page lingered even now. "Stop whatever the hell it is you're doing and answer my question."
"I'm not doing anything."
"Bullshit." Vespera stopped reaching for the energy and concentrated on the gun, trying to decide the best course of action. She could always stop showing herself to Paige, but then if the girl shot the bullet would still hit her... unless she could use the remnants of the light from the page to move herself in time.
Could she be faster than a bullet? "I doubt it," Tatiana said, as though she knew exactly what Vespera was thinking. A flash of anger shot through Vespera at that – Tatiana presumed far too much. Why shouldn't she tell Paige? She had no obligation to conceal Tatiana, no duty to keep her from harm.
"The flowers are not my doing, but that of my companion," she said at last.
"Yes, please do tell her about your invisible friend, that's a conversation I can't wait to see." Tatiana's voice dripped with sarcasm as she moved forward to stand next to Paige, the flowers following her as she moved.
"It's quite irritating really, and a rather useless power," Vespera continued, deciding that ignoring Tatiana was probably the easiest, and by far the most satisfying, way to go about the situation.
"I could stop them if I really wanted to, but I'd have to be concentrating on it." Tatiana shrugged. "Watching you suffer is just more fun."
"This companion of yours, she is a fairy too?"
"Another fairy queen at that – Tatiana, Fairy Queen of Life."
"Show yourself!" Paige declared, swinging the gun around to point it exactly where Tatiana was standing.
"This one's good," Tatiana said appreciatively before moving three steps to the right. This time the flowers did not follow her. Paige hesitated for a moment as though thinking and then, very slowly, reached into one of the pockets of her coat, drawing out a pair of glasses. With one hand she opened them and slid them on. Her eyes darted immediately to where Tatiana was stood, shortly followed by the gun, held once more in two hands.
"Interesting." Tatiana laughed and allowed herself to be seen. Flowers blossomed between her toes once more and for a split second she seemed genuinely amused. Vespera marvelled at a sight she had not seen in thousands of years before it was gone, as swiftly as it had come. "Now lower that weapon before I teach you a lesson you won't forget."
"Really Tatiana, you used to be so fond of humans, what changed?" Vespera took a step forward, stopping as the gun was once more aimed at her chest. "Please stop that. If you were going to shoot us you'd have done it by now." Paige holstered the gun very slowly, her eyes darting between the two Queens.
"Those glasses," Vespera began, "They were a gift from Mudd?"
"Yes. You've met him?"
"No, but I'm acquainted with his sister. Lovely lady – reminds me of Latanya." This last comment was directed at Tatiana, who did not speak, but clenched her fists and took a deep breath.
"Let's get inside anyway," Paige said into the silence.
"And see what this book has to offer," Vespera added.
The hospital lobby was gloriously cool after the desert, the walls painted light blue and the large windows providing more than enough light despite the thin blinds drawn across them.
"There's no one here," Tatiana said after a moment.
"Your powers of observation never fail to amaze," Vespera replied.
"There will be patients," said Paige before Tatiana could retaliate. "There were cars parked outside."
"And ambulances," Vespera added.
"Well then let's go onto the ward." There was, rather unusually, only a single door leading off from the reception area. There were no windows and the switch that might have kept the door locked was blackened, the only sign of damage any of them could see.
The corridor of the ward was quiet, but just a quick glance through the nearest bay window showed that the place was packed. Beds were shoved against walls and windows, drip stands knocked to the floor as they were rammed out of place. Every single bed was occupied, most of them by two or even three people. The person nearest to them had no face. Tatiana recoiled, but neither Paige nor Vespera even blinked. "What happened to her?" Tatiana asked, looking to Paige. "You know, don't you?"
"The book stopped writing her story. She's just a shell now."
"They're all shells." The three women turned at the voice, Paige reaching instinctively for a weapon but stopping when she saw only a bone weary doctor. He wore blue scrubs as though ready for surgery, but they were torn and burnt in places. What looked to be dried blood stained one side and there was something black spread down the entirety of his right trouser leg. "It's just ink," he explained as he saw them looking. "One of them – them in there I mean – was a writer, tried to bring them all back even after her face had gone. Nothing works though."
"The book has already won here?" Vespera asked.
"Yeah, long ago." His voice was tired, his eyes even more so. Hair that might once have been brown was black with ink and dirt, slicked back in a way that suggested he had run his hand through it more than once.
"So what do you do here? Are you the only one with a face?" Paige did not look at him as he spoke, but instead glanced around. The glasses were proving more helpful than she could have imagined. Even through the walls, she could somehow see the people in the bays, crammed together. There were three bays and four private rooms, each of which was crammed to capacity. There were even people sharing bathtubs.
"I keep them comfortable."
"Maybe if the book gets sorted, they'll be alright again, maybe even able to go home," Tatiana pondered aloud.
"If the book leaves them a home to go to," Paige replied.
"It'd be kinder to kill them all, save the trouble when they wake," Vespera added, looking around. Tatiana was horrified.
"That would just help the book! If it's trying to end things we should find a way to fix them."
"And then what?" Vespera snapped back. "Will you create another magical path? How many of them do you think'll end up exactly where they started? Perhaps even your own power is trying to tell you something, sending us here. Give up now." Tatiana took a step forward and slapped her, hard across the face.
"The only reason I am here is because of you. The only reason we even know about any of this is because of you. Because of you our entire world is collapsing. Because of you my daughter is dead. If you want to give up, then fine, but know if you do and I ever see you again then I'll take far more from you than just your wings." Paige's head snapped back round to look at the pair. Vespera, slightly stunned, had a hand pressed to her cheek which was already bright red. Tatiana had her own hands clenched into fists and rage flickered in her eyes. Then, without another word, she stormed away down the ward. The Doctor dithered a second and then shrugged, running after her.
"The Queen of Light, living in shadow," Paige remarked. "That's what it always was right? Two Queens can't really be expected to get along can they? And if I'm right in thinking there's probably at least four of you. That's got to be at least a little shitty."
"What do you know," Vespera spat. "You're just a human."
"Just a human? You've not had much contact with people who are 'just human' have you? Your sister was far more cautious around me than you were, and she was right to be."
"She's not my sister."
"Really?" Paige scowled – the way those two acted she had been fairly positive they were related and she hated being wrong. "But still," she recovered, "She's always been more powerful than you, hasn't she? Is that something she ever let you forget? I don't imagine you forgot it all those years you were locked away?" Paige almost held her breath. This was a gamble, more guess work than logic and not something she relished.
"No," Vespera began haltingly. "No, I didn't." So far the educated guesswork was paying off, it would seem.
"So why not make sure she never forgets. Now's the perfect chance surely. There's no one else here even close to you two in terms of power. Remind her that you're a Queen too and maybe she'll start treating you like one." Vespera did not react, did not even look at Paige. "Why are you fighting so hard to save your world? It seems to me like there's nothing left there worth the effort. Least, not for you anyway."
Now Vespera looked at her, with dark fury in her eyes. Paige knew she was safe – Vespera's rage was not aimed at her, after all. The Queen drew herself straight and nodded, spinning on her heel and heading through into the first bay. Something uneasy flittered in Paige's stomach. She felt she knew what Vespera was about to do and it wasn't an idea that filled her with joy. Still, she didn't trust either of these so called Queens and had nothing even approaching the ability to best them by herself. She comforted herself by thinking of the lives these creatures would live out in the book. Wash, rinse, repeat. They had been mindless drones, continuing with the task set out for them without any variation. Presented with the two choices, Paige was fairly certain she knew which she herself would go for. She looked up the corridor, seeking out Tatiana through the walls, spotting her just inside the entrance of the furthest bay.
When she reached them, Tatiana was knelt on the floor beside one of the faceless creatures, a hand pressed against the side of its head. The doctor stood nervously to one side, watching her. "They're completely aware in there," Tatiana said, eyes closed. "They know everything that's happening to them, but they can't stop it." Paige eyed the creatures and felt a tiny bit of bile rise at the back of her throat.
"Is there nothing you can do for them?" she asked instead, kneeling beside her. "A way you could heal them maybe?"
"I doubt it. The book is far stronger than I am and that's what's done this to them. I'd imagine this is the next stage of those we saw earlier..." her voice trailed away and she bit her bottom lip. Looking at it, Paige could tell this was probably something she did often, although perhaps not usually when people were looking, yet even despite this small sign of her distress, Tatiana still managed to come across as far more regal than Vespera. The way she carried herself, the way she spoke and even the way she almost seemed to hold herself back spoke volumes about the person behind that mask.
"You think maybe the people you saw earlier are here somewhere?" Paige asked hesitantly.
"I haven't seen any of them, but it's not impossible." Tatiana stood and looked around. From where she still crouched Paige could see a toe tapping at the edge of her skirt.
"What's that smell?" the doctor asked, his voice shaking a little. Tatiana took a single sniff and then took off down the corridor, her cloak flapping as she went. Paige caught a glimpse of something silver fluttering beneath it.
Wings, of course. She smiled slightly. Now she had a real plan. She stood and strode through the bay doors, completely ignoring the doctor. Smoke was already pouring out of the distant bay and Paige could see Tatiana, something cupped in her hand. As she got nearer the glasses allowed her to see what it was. Tatiana held a small phial of water. Nothing more or less and for a moment Paige could have laughed.
Of course, then she remembered just who Tatiana was. As she watched, the Queen uncorked the phial and threw it into the orange flame, shouting something in a tongue Paige did not recognise but could feel the power in. The glasses meant that she could see it too, great waves of energy emanating from both Tatiana herself and from the phial she had just thrown. The energy from the phial was accompanied by a great torrent of water as high as the ceiling. It washed over Paige but did not push her back; in fact it seemed to exert no force at all. Still it put the fire out. The doctor finally joined them as the last of the water drained away (Paige was not quite sure how). Everyone was soaking wet and Vespera turned to Tatiana, her usually golden eyes almost red.
She didn't speak, but instead snapped her fingers. The flame burst into life far quicker this time than it had the last, but something about it was a little off, Paige thought peering at it. Perhaps the glasses were letting her see it, but she thought the flame was a little cooler. Vespera snarled and hurled the fire at Tatiana. As it travelled it swelled in size and Tatiana was forced to dive for cover behind the twisted remains of a hospital bed covered in nothing but ash and a few charred bones. She reached into a pouch on her belt as though searching for something and swore, clearly not finding it. Paige hovered by the door watching. Tatiana was clearly wracking her brains, trying to think of something – anything – she could do. Vespera strode around the bed and grabbed the cloak, pulling her to her feet.
"You really shouldn't have done that with the page," she hissed. "It's still here, lingering between the pages of the book. Light energy. I'm stronger than you are now." She tore the cloak and flung Tatiana bodily across the room. Great silver wings expanded and Tatiana just managed to stop herself from hitting the charred wall.
"Two of us can use the power of the book Vespera. You know as well as I do that my power will be far stronger than yours when I do."
"But you won't," Vespera laughed, almost hysterical. "You won't because you were always the cautious queen, never the first to act. For thousands of years you only ever reacted to me or to Morena. You wouldn't have dared go against my court if I hadn't attacked Latanya."
"This isn't about me and you," Tatiana was shouting too. "This is about the entire world, all the worlds even. We'll fix the book and join the courts and then we can fight."
"I don't care anymore," Vespera shouted back. "What is there on Earth for me? A sister who lies and a court that hates the sight of me?" She laughed again, her fingers beginning to smoulder with fire hotter than anything she had conjured so far. Her eyes were shining bright gold and light seemed to emanate from every part of her body. "I don't know why I even came in the first place. Tell me, Tatiana. Why shouldn't I kill you now? I'm not in our world, I don't need your magic to survive in the book. Why shouldn't I kill you and stay here?"
"Because you're better than that." Of all the things Vespera might have been expecting, that was clearly not one of them. She opened her mouth, shut it and then opened it again. She looked, Paige thought, remarkably like a goldfish.
"Better?" Vespera finally managed to say. "Better? What the hell do you mean, 'better?'"
"I mean that you won't do that to the world. To your sister. To your court."
"Don't you presume..."
"I will presume," Tatiana interrupted her. "I know you, Vespera. Far more, I think, than either of us ever wanted to admit in the past. I. Know. You. And the Vespera I knew, before she started listening to the Queen of Shadow, would never have burnt these people alive. Never. They can feel everything, they know exactly what it is you're doing to them, and they can't say or do anything to defend themselves. If you kill people like that, what does that make you?" Paige gritted her teeth. This was not going at all the way she had planned. Sometimes, she thought wearily, you just have to take things into your own hands. She drew a gun, aimed and took a single shot. The bullet was not lethal – just a rubber pellet – but it was fast – fast enough to pierce the thin membrane of Tatiana's wing at any rate. Tatiana screamed and fell, the injured wing collapsing in, the other folding close to her, perhaps from some form of protective instinct.
"This is your chance," Paige looked at Vespera. "She's weak, injured and ready for you. She took your wings, why not take hers?" Vespera looked at Tatiana, uncertainty in her eyes. "You've waited for this moment," Paige urged her. "You've wanted this for years, why stop now." Tatiana's eyes were wide with fear. The injured wing fluttered slightly and Paige saw a drop of blood fall to the floor, swiftly followed by another and then another. Vespera strode forwards towards her prey who shrank back against the wall. With ease Vespera overpowered her fellow Queen and grasped the edge of her wing. Tatiana was now crying silently but her eyes were open, beseeching.
Vespera hesitated. "Please," Tatiana moaned. "Please." Vespera clenched her fingers, preparing to rip the frail membrane away as she had with so many of her own fairies over the years, but Paige knew she wasn't going to do it.
"I'm sorry." Vespera's shoulders slumped and she moved away. "I'm sorry." Her voice cracked. "I'm sorry." She kept repeating the words as if the more she heard them the more likely Tatiana was to accept them. "I'm sorry," she said again as she turned to Paige, only now the words were steel tipped and her eyes were dark. Fire smouldered at her fingertips once more and Paige ran as her survival instinct kicked in. The fire hit the wall as she dived out of the bay, but no one seemed to be following as she ran through to the empty reception.
Only it wasn't empty anymore. The place was packed with nurses, doctors – even a few students in baggy blue polo shirts. Looking down, Paige was only very slightly surprised to see that her own coat had changed; now resembling a white lab coat. This could only be for the good – for now at least, the book was on her side. She turned, pushing the glasses she still wore a little further up her nose. Thankfully, it seemed as though she could still see the two Queens. They were talking and now it was Vespera who cried, Tatiana whose eyes were dry. Paige frowned, wishing she could hear what they were saying and then, very suddenly, it was as if she was in the room with them.
"I'm sorry," Vespera was still saying, rocking back and forth in Tatiana's arms. "I'm sorry."
"The time for sorry will come," Tatiana said, stroking her hair in an oddly motherly fashion. "Right now we have to act. Paige was manipulating you, and she's still here somewhere."
"She wanted me to kill you," Vespera moved back, tears in her eyes once again as she looked at the charred bones that littered the room. "I listened to her, but I went too far. I... I killed them all..."
"But you'll save more people," Tatiana said firmly. "You'll save more people when we repair the book and then we can unite the courts."
"Will that... will that bring them back?" Tatiana hesitated before she spoke, a clear sign that she didn't think it would, or at least it seemed that way to Paige.
"Maybe. We'll wait and see." Tatiana winced as she moved her arm and jostled her injured wing.
"Your cloak," Vespera said, looking around.
"In a moment," Tatiana was rooting in the pouches in her belt once more. "I don't have many more ingredients with me," she said, "But I do have this." She drew out a small bottle, corked and sealed with wax. "I worked on it for nearly five hundred years before I got it right and I always carry it with me."
"What is it?" Vespera asked, squinting at the liquid in the bottle. Paige was sure that, if it were not for her glasses, the liquid would seem completely unremarkable. With them, however, it was nothing of the sort. The bottle seemed to exude power, a huge amount concentrated in the tiny space.
"It's not quite finished yet. I need your pendant."
"What are you going to do with it?" Vespera reached behind her neck and brought the leather cord over her head."
"Close your eyes and see." Tatiana said gently. She complied immediately and Paige sniffed with distaste. Vespera had changed too quickly – her entire temperament seemed to have been altered. Surely Tatiana had to be responsible. Tatiana reached forward and one by one undid the straps that bound the metal wings to Vespera's back. Once the final strap had gone she ripped the cloth of the red tunic beneath, revealing the bruises left behind. They were black, edged with yellow, green and purple, all three bleeding together, an ugly band that stretched from ribs to hips. Vespera flinched as Tatiana touched them but made no move to stop her. Tatiana leant back and uncorked the bottle.
A sweet smell filled Paige's nostrils, as though the bottle was right in front of her, rather than behind her in the ward through a set of closed doors. It smelt of fresh flowers and evening rain but under the pleasant aroma was something dark and rotten. Vespera swallowed as the smell reached her, sickly sweet and overpowering. "Breath it in," Tatiana encouraged her. She herself closed her eyes and began to murmur in the same strange tongue that she had used when putting out Vespera's flames, one hand clenched around the glass pendant Vespera had worn. The glass began to glow, glittering gold light spilling from it and dripping into the bottle as though it were liquid. The smell grew stronger and Paige felt revitalised – there was something else to it now, a smell of burning candles. As she watched, the hole in Tatiana's wing repaired itself, the membranes knitting together as though they had never been broken. The bruises on Vespera's ribs and stomach faded and disappeared. She took a deep shuddering breath of air, perhaps the first truly pain free movement she had made in months.
Then she screamed, curling into a ball, her hands clutched about her knees. The scream penetrated the entire ward and the reception beyond. Some part of Paige was aware of people turning to look at the closed door, glancing nervously at each other before hurrying about their business. Vespera was now clawing at the tunic, tearing it apart with her nails, ripping it apart as she continued to scream. Finally, when nothing remained but scraps of red, Tatiana took her hands and held them. "Stop," she said quietly. "It won't hurt much longer." There was a blinding flash of light that lit the bay and Paige closed her eyes only to find it made no difference the light was so bright. When it faded she blinked once, twice, three times to try and erase the spots from her vision. When finally they were gone she was presented with something that was most certainly not good.
"Shit." Vespera pushed herself up from the ground, covered only by her shorts and the few scraps that remained of her tunic. For the first time since Paige had met her, she truly looked a queen. Great wings of golden energy hung in the air behind her, sparkling in the light from the nearby window. Vespera was crying again, her entire body shaking until Tatiana moved forward and took her in her arms.
Paige had seen enough. She wrenched the glasses off and was returned abruptly to the reception area. Her efforts to drive the wedge between the two queens had served only repair not only some, but seemingly all of the animosity between them. She had never got anything so wrong before, there had to be an explanation. The ward door opened and she tensed, but it was only the doctor.
Except that this was the book of stories, and nothing was as it seemed. Paige growled and leapt at him, seizing him by the back of his burnt scrubs and hauling him across the room to a door that had not been there when she first entered the building. "Out," she ordered the nurses inside. They scurried out of what appeared to be a staff room of some sort and Paige threw the doctor down onto one of the chairs. "What did you do?"
"I healed them," he said calmly.
"They weren't injured."
"Yes they were. Every inch of them was screaming for relief, every single muscle in their body crying out for the peace they now have. This has been eating away at them for centuries, now their story can come to an end."
"Their story..." Paige stopped and looked at the man before her. "You weren't helping the people in there, were you?"
"I was helping them," he said defensively. "The best thing for any of us now is that our story should end. There's no point in fighting the inevitable, it's kinder to lie down and accept the inevitable. You don't cry out the way they did, but you want your story to end too. Everyone does on some level and people are just reaching that end slightly prematurely now."
"Why would people want to die?"
"Not die. End. The end of a story doesn't necessarily mean death, it just means a completion. Those people out there in the reception, their stories have ended, it just might take them a while to realise it. All of them move through the hospital, repeating the same mundane tasks every hour of every day, repeating the same phrases to people who can't even remember they've already heard them. I'm here to care for them, to make sure that their ending does come."
"The people in that ward are dead," Paige said firmly, reaching for her weapon. "And you're working to make more of them?"
"Not working, aiding. For people like those two, all that's needed is a push, not even a touch. They want their story to end, even if they don't say it."
"Why would anyone want to die?"
"The end of a story doesn't necessarily mean death, just an end. Those two are old, one of the first stories the book ever wrote and with the resolution of this conflict there is only one more obstacle before the end of their story."
"What about my story? What would it take to end that?"
"For a resolution?" The doctor shrugged. "I can't say I know. Cases like yours are the sort we end prematurely. All the stories of the world have been written and no new stories will ever be written again. Your story has too much left to be allowed to play out."
"And how do you end a story prematurely."
"Simple." He leant forward and rested his hand upon hers. "With a single touch."
Paige jerked back and drew a gun, firing a single shot into the doctor's head. This time the bullet wasn't made of rubber. She slid the gun back into its holster and sat down, thinking. What had started as just trying to get the fairies out of the way had now turned, effectively, into war and they wouldn't rest until she was dead or gone Paige was quite sure. The only problem was she didn't see a way to beat them, and she had no intention of leaving the hospital until she'd found a way to fix what was going on here. Sighing, she glanced at the body on the chair across the room. At least he wouldn't be meddling anymore, but the worst of the damage was certainly already done; there was no way she could convince Vespera to fight Tatiana now that her wings had been returned to her. Paige needed to get this place sorted and get out as soon as humanly possible. The faster she did that, the faster the book would be fixed and then the faster... no, perhaps better not to think of that until the time came.
All stories end eventually, she reminded herself. She stood and headed into the reception. It was still full, people bustling about, talking about something or nothing. As she listened she heard the same conversation coming from three different directions – a pair of nurses talking about a patient who was probably long dead. The inflection on the words, the gestures and the posture of both pairs of speakers were identical and it was more than a little creepy. The more she looked, the more of it she saw. There was one group of students sitting on the ledge by the window on one side of the door and another mirroring them on the other side. The only difference in the groups was the actual appearance of the students, but they spoke and moved in total unison.
Curious, Paige moved over to the nearest group. "Excuse me," she asked breathlessly, "I'm new here – where are the toilets?"
"They're through the corridor behind the desk," one of the students, a girl with short blond hair, said. "Third door on the left I think." She glanced at the others for confirmation and a couple of her friends nodded. Paige thanked them and moved back, turning to watch. The group she had spoken to were now behind the other group, but there was no mistaking the fact that it was still the exact same conversation. Another thought occurred to her and she moved back to the same group.
"Excuse me, I'm new here – where are the toilets?"
"They're through the corridor behind the desk." It was the same student that had answered the question before. "Third door on the left I think." Again she glanced at the others and the same people nodded in agreement.
"Thanks," Paige muttered as she turned away. Perhaps this place was already doomed, she thought. Maybe there was no way to save the people living here. If that was the case then the best thing she could do would be to get out before anything happened... or before her own story began to end as well.
"I can't help but wonder if maybe this place is already doomed," Tatiana sighed, pulling the cloak tighter around her shoulders. They were on the second floor, having found a staircase that may or may not have been there earlier at the far end of the ward. "No one even seems to care that a fairy is quite obviously walking down the corridor, they're too busy with their own conversations."
"And those aren't exactly riveting," Vespera agreed. Her new wings lit the corridor with bright, golden light. They were different to those she had had once, many years ago. Those wings were in tatters, spread across the desert back on Earth, but these wings were of pure energy, caressing the scars across her back with a warm, gentle touch. They moved through a door and into the corridor. One side of this overlooked the reception, now bustling with life, the sound of chatter and footsteps echoing off the walls.
"Come on," Tatiana said, moving her cloak and leaping over the edge. Vespera followed, the pair of them landing gracefully by the doors. A group of students stood to the left of them, talking with a doctor. Vespera spared them a glance and was about to leave when she stopped and looked again.
"Excuse me," the doctor asked breathlessly, "I'm new here – where are the toilets?"
"They're through the corridor behind the desk. Third door on the left I think." The student who had answered looked at those she was sat with and a couple nodded.
"Thanks," the doctor turned and moved to the middle of the reception before looking back and returning, posing the same question again.
"Tatiana," Vespera said, swallowing. "It's Paige."
"Where?" Tatiana was instantly on edge, eyes narrowed. She caught sight of Paige and stopped. They watched for a while as Paige asked the students the same question, again and again.
"The book ended her story," Vespera said. She couldn't find it in herself to be sad, in fact the only thing she did feel was a spike of vindictive pleasure. "Let's go. There's nothing we can do here. Maybe the book'll sort it when it's fixed, maybe it won't, but I don't want to end up like that." They headed back out onto the road, retracing the steps they had made earlier until the hospital began to fade from sight.
Another page in the book of stories was written, telling of the hospital and many stories which found a conclusion within its walls. As the days went by and the end of all stories drew nearer even the hospital itself fell into disrepair, for all stories must come to an end. Tatiana and Vespera moved onwards, each step on their journey writing a new word, each word adding to the next page and then the one after that, bringing the inevitable nearer one letter at a time.