The sun was shining brightly, hanging high in the sky. Puffy white clouds drifted along, covering up only about half of the vibrant blue sky. It was a picturesque view, a nice day's sky. It was a little chilly and carrying a brisk breeze, but a jacket was enough. All around, it was a surprisingly pleasant autumn day. Except that it was hailing.
Little round balls of ice, suddenly bouncing off of everything without any warning. Harmony wasn't sure how that was even possible. She wanted to look up to see that there was actually a cloud directly above her, except her head was one of the things hailstones were suddenly bouncing off of. They weren't dangerous, not even close, but getting one in the eye still seemed like a bad idea. She knew Ohio had unpredictable weather, or more accurately, she knew everybody there joked that it did. This was the first time it felt true. Right as she was going to leave, too.
She laughed, and held out her hands for the little ice balls to plonk off. If she had ever been hailed on before, it was too long ago to remember. The hailstorms she could remember, in some distant sense, had been pretty bad, stuff to stay inside and wait out. And were always during winter, when that weather belonged. Well, it wasn't that weird to get some early snow, so hail was likely the same story, but—with a sky like that?
Harmony was jarred out of her thoughts by the sound of a crack behind her. She spun around, and of course, there was an awful crack in her car's windshield. The hail bouncing off of her didn't seem any larger or less pathetic, but... She hurried back into her parents' house, not waiting for that to change.
It took maybe fifteen minutes for the sounds of hail pelting the roof to stop, and she couldn't see any more falling from the window. She stepped outside, feeling a little overly nervous. If the hail suddenly picked back up, she would be ready to bolt again. She felt silly about that, but it was already freak weather. You could never be too careful, right?
Her parents' car was fine. No dents or scratches, at least not obvious ones, although there were plenty of little hailstones on it. And it was almost the same for her car; no scratches, no dents. But the windshield was covered with a haphazard spiderweb trace of cracks, centered on the first spot and... another one, where a hole had been punched clean through the glass. Cracking the glass was weird enough, how had hail possibly done that? Harmony looked up at the sky directly above her, and it was blue enough to sting her eyes.
Well. She couldn't imagine she should drive home with an actual hole in her windshield. She was going to be stuck in Skerry-on-the-Lake.
Of course it hadn't gone over well. That wasn't surprising. She would be annoyed, too. And, yes, that was frustrating for her, but not something she could blame her girlfriend for. So she'd be the bigger person. She frowned. The biggest person wouldn't be silently counting all her grievances, either. Better to focus on the empathy. Because she got it.
"Hey, come visit my podunk hometown I've basically only ever talked about in complaints, meet my parents, bail me out because unpredictable freak weather assassinated my car but maybe stay a while! I'll show you the lake!" Not the best pitch. Also not actually a pitch, obviously, but the point was not coming on up to Skerry-on-the-Lake and being miffed that she couldn't come back down made sense. And was fine. They were still cool.
It would be nice to show her the lake, though. And that rocky island that gave them their fantastic little name. There's a skerry in Lake Skerry, right by Skerry-on-the-Lake! It wasn't really a skerry, though. You couldn't make it through Skerry Elementary without somebody trying to smart-aleck you with that fun fact. Skerries are a sea feature, for one, and the island didn't even really look like one. Though, if you looked at older photos, it used to be taller. Maybe it was a dead ringer to whoever first misnamed it. Harmony wondered if maybe seeing the lake would be worth doing, with the extra time she was going to have.
Motion in the corner of her vision stole her attention and she barely stopped as some jackass blitzed a left turn through the crosswalk she was already halfway through at what had to be above the speed limit of the actual street. And she had the walk light! It had her just dumbfounded for a few moments, and then she checked that wasn't coming again and got to the other side. What the hell? Who was in a murderous rush in Skerry? That was not the brand of assholery that she remembered.
All she had wanted was to get something nostalgic to eat as a little treat for not-getting-randomly-obliterated-by-the-weather and... "What the hell?" She'd have to ask her parents if this was a trend, or... She wished she had seen who that actually was. She didn't know everyone in town, especially not anymore, but she was guessing the reckless driver was her age. Why hadn't the weather god struck down that guy's windshield instead? Well, because they'd probably still drive it, really.
At least the diner was still nice, once she got there. And still there when she got there, couldn't take that for granted. It was homey, and she could appreciate the atmosphere. Even if "homey" in Skerry was generally accompanied by pretending to be from a lot further south for some reason. But most importantly, the food was good, and what more could she ask?
"Hey. You guys hear that?"
Harmony didn't answer. It was probably nothing, and she didn't want to kill the mood. They had been right, the trees were gorgeous back in the little woods of the park. Glancing from the road hadn't done them justice. And she had almost missed it. It was a silver lining, only much more colorful.
But the woods were also giving her the fucking heebie-jeebies. Had city life just, like, instantly ruined her? She always loved the park as a kid, even the times she'd been there in the dark. But now every little sound she couldn't place was just... And she remembered what felt like all the sounds. Bird calls, frogs chirping, slight rustling... Not faint, eerie somethings apparently out of her parents' hearing range already. But they weren't that old, and it was hardly dog whistle range so it was just not loud enough. Maybe once they got closer she'd hear it properly and feel like an idiot for jumping at the call of the shrill-throated cockamamie, or whatever. Or at least her dad would know, bird guy that he was.
But it didn't seem to be getting any closer, or further away. But nothing to worry about. The resident predators were coyotes, and even that was only for a loose sense of "resident". Bears were around, somewhere, but not in the park. Not nearly enough picnics to lure them over. Plus, these were not bear noises, or coyotes, or wolves. Why was she even thinking about that?
She knew the answer. The god damn mountain lion. Somebody saw one in the county once, several years ago, and was never found. So clearly it was laying in wait to grab someone when they least expected it, surviving just outside their town (and, she was sure, every other population center anywhere nearby) without leaving a trace, instead of just going back to its actual habitat. Obviously that wasn't it either, but it was why strange noises had her on edge. Embarrassing. She knew it wasn't a mountain lion, because if you heard one, you would know. Well, okay, no, she knew because in the event she wouldn't know because they apparently sounded like human women shrieking bloody murder. This, whatever it was, was not that.
She felt better knowing why she was just so jumpy, at least, even if she couldn't tell what she was jumping at. She tried to tamp it down and turn her attention back to the trees, and hanging out with her parents. And, really, just how much she had missed these little places from her childhood. She didn't think about them enough. The noises let up, or maybe they finally got too far away, which was more of a relief. A little disappointing it would remain a mystery until she forgot about it, but...
They were nearing the end of their little woods walk, looping through the forest, when she heard someone wail. She looked around, eyes wide, but didn't see anyone. She couldn't even tell what direction it was coming from. And... Her parents weren't reacting at all.
"Hey, uh—" She faltered when the wailing got louder. "Don't you hear that!? What's going on?"
"What? Oh." Her dad laughed at her. "You can hear it from here? Right now is the tornado test siren. What, don't get those down there in the big city?"
Harmony swallowed. That wasn't the siren. But... She looked at her mom, who was smiling weakly, and then she put her hands on her ears. She screwed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and... Could just barely make out the normal siren. Nothing else.
Her parents were looking at her with obvious concern, but not sure what to say. Harmony shifted in place, and swallowed. "Sorry, I had to pop my ears. It was sounding really weird until it did. Not sure how that happened, ah..."
It was a plausible explanation, apparently. But what the hell was it she was explaining away?
Harmony woke up to the sound of shattering glass. She blinked a blurry, dark view of her room into focus, seeing by moonlight, and—her window was broken. Her window had just broken. At least they had rearranged the room after she moved out, she used to sleep under the window, but what happened? She tiptoed through her room, taking a wider birth from the window than was needed just to be sure, and hit the light.
There was a rock on the carpet, under the curtains. Someone had thrown a rock through her window. What? What the fuck? Was she being targeted, was this a hate thing? No, nobody here knew, even if gossip was announcing she was back. Did some idiot little kids get a great idea for a prank, smash up guest room windows? It was... She realized she was tearing up. Why was everything out to get her? It didn't make sense. It was absurd. There was something going on, and...
Still in her pajamas, she went outside to see what it was. This was not okay and if someone was harassing her parents she was... Well she didn't know what she was going to do, especially when she saw what they had done to the yard. It was garbage day. Somebody had cut up the bags and strewn it all over the lawn. Not very well, most was still in the bag, and they frankly didn't have much trash to strew about, but really? Who did that? Oh and they even smashed up the little milk saucer. Harmony had never seen the cat it was for, but it was always gone in the morning. And—
"HEY!" She could see the little shit responsible, apparently not done with the trash bag. She hurried over, trying to look menacing, which apparently worked because they got up and bolted away, too fast for her to really see in the dark. She had the chance to make out that it was some kid, not a raccoon or anything. But they scampered away on all fours.
"What the fuck?" She looked around. There wasn't anybody there to explain, or share in her confusion. And from what she could see, it was apparently only their yard that got vandalized. She really had no idea why. It didn't make sense. She pinched herself, and nothing happened. So she sighed and went to get another bag and pick up the yard before the garbage truck got there. It wasn't that difficult.
Apparently none of it had woken either of her parents up. That was kind of annoying, but it was probably better they could get some sleep. She wasn't sure how she going to explain it, but that wouldn't be any easier to do in the middle of the night, so whatever. She wasn't going to wake them up and get everyone worried. But she had to talk to somebody after that. It was too late, a dick move, but... She called her girlfriend.
Skerry is a nice town, at least if you ask most of the people who call it home. It's small and quiet, but not dead. There are enough businesses in town, cheap places to stay, and you don't have to go too far away to find either a big-box store or a farmer's market. Maybe it's not the place to start a career, but does it need to be? It's a nice place to live. The people are friendly and generous, usually, and the nature is gorgeous. Not that the forest parks with walking paths nearby the town are that much wilder than the farmlands they're dotted between. And, of course, to the north there's the namesake lake. Lake Skerry, with its refreshing water, awfully rocky beaches, and of course that deserted island in the middle. Not even an island, a big mossy rock rising out of the water, like a sea-stack that got lost. The lake is hardly a tourist destination, but all the locals know to love it. So, why would you ever want to leave?
You can't, anyways. Whether you grew up here or only just came by, you're stuck. Try to leave, and something comes up. You forgot something important you can't leave without, you're out of gas and the pump won't work until the station opens in the morning, the road you need is closed, a fog you can't see five feet in has rolled in, a deer just jumped into your car... You might want to quit while you're ahead. People are still coming and going, just not you. Something knows you know too much, so you may as well get comfortable.
Things aren't quite right in Skerry. Maybe they aren't right anywhere, but Skerry is where you're noticing the wrong. Maybe it was a trickle; seeing dark figures moving at the edges of your vision that don't vanish quite fast enough, hearing unintelligible whispers from your window each night, catching a glimpse of a different town reflected in a rainwater puddle, until you can't ignore it all anymore. Or maybe it was a flood, and some massive thing chased you out of the woods all the way to your car door, howling, baying, and screaming in English for your head. One way or another, the dam broke, or you wouldn't be reading this. Don't ask where the pamphlet came from, by the way. You find things sometimes, which you know can't have been there. It's a perk.
Hopefully, reading this, you're nodding your head. It's a dangerous time to still be in denial. It's a dangerous time. I can't give safety, I can't even give help, but I can give some info. Some prep.
Let's be blunt. You're magic. You can see it, you can touch it, and if the pattern holds you're gonna be able to do it. It's different for everyone, I think, but you should find something for it. A book or something like it, with some incantations, geometric inscriptions, recipes. You might have to look for it, but there will be one, meant for you. Spells, rituals, magic in one form or another. Use it carefully, but use it.
Those things out there are real. They can hurt you, but they can help, too. They shy away from normal people, but that's not a rule. I can't tell if they're belief made real, magic personified, the natural denizens of a mirror town, people that got twisted, or what. Out in the woods there's mostly the Fair Folk. I'd write a warning, but just read some stories. And watch your tongue. The ones in and around town are a hodgepodge. Some want assistance, some want to eat you. Play it by ear. Some seem to come and go from somewhere Else, shadows or reflections; I wouldn't follow. If you watch the lake at night, when there's no clouds and no waves, you can see a couple things crawl out of it without disturbing the surface. They're spindly and geometric and don't fit in normal space, with how they shift and move through themselves. Last I did, I think one noticed me watching. I didn't stick around.
Oh, there's room for a few more tips.
Don't neglect real life too bad. Don't make a promise you can't keep. Be careful who you tell; you can expose magic to normal people, but that might rope them in. You're going to want to find others already in the know. Share knowledge, share spells, share tricks. If you have any clue how or why we're stuck, for the love of whatever it is, share that. There's no safety net, so we have to make our own. There wasn't even a letter of introduction before—but it looks like I managed that much. I'm no expert, genius, or savior, just lucky. I hope this helps you. I hope you help me. We can figure things out and get out of here, together. Let's not all die alone in Skerry, right?
And okay, one actual last thing. It's maybe a stupid idea to put it here... But if you're completely lost on finding another person, you can come find me. I'm working on a little coven. Try 93 Clay Street.
Harmony stared down at the pamphlet. It was glossy, laminated paper, but it was just black text on a plain white background. No images or anything. It was a prank, it had to be, there must have been a laminator at the library, but... Her gut was curled up in a tight knot. It made her very nervous. It should have made her nervous because she found it on the dresser in her bedroom, and she hadn't left it there. But it had her feeling uneasy because she knew, with a deep emotional certainty nothing could rationalize away, that it wasn't a prank. Not some avant-garde harassment, either. If people in Skerry were going to send her an unwelcome letter, it would have been a lot more blunt, and attached to that rock.
It was what it said it was. Everything was going off the rails and conspiring against her because... Everything was going off the rails and conspiring against her. Great.
That couldn't be real. She wasn't living in some shitty young adult novel. She wasn't finding out she was a witch. Her mind wasn't convinced, because she wasn't delusional or an idiot. But it struck a chord, and it was very clear it had her heart fooled. She couldn't explain things any other way, so... She could just go by and see what 93 Clay looked like. That couldn't hurt, right? She needed to get some air and exercise anyways, so she could just take her walk that way. It didn't mean she was actually going to drop by, say hi, and ask about this magic business and if she could join the coven.
With a litany of excuses in her pocket, she went to go see about this magic business and if she could join the coven.
It was not what she expected. Nestled between 95 and 91 Clay Street, going by mailboxes, there was an overgrown lawn. And nestled in the tall grass and weeds was a big rectangle of scorched concrete. That was it. Harmony hadn't memorized Skerry or anything, but she knew that was new. It only burnt down after she left. So if this was a prank... It was especially tasteless. If it wasn't...
She wasn't going to bother the neighbors about whatever disaster happened next door, because she had tact. She just looked it up on her phone, instead.
It had burnt down just over a year ago. With its owner inside. She winced. That was... She balled her fists together. Either someone was a major asshole, or something very bad was going to happen to her, too. And she couldn't shake the feeling that she knew exactly which one it would be.
But she really wasn't expecting to immediately find out.
Everything was a blur and a rush. She didn't really understand. She couldn't catch her breath, catch her thoughts, she just had to run. She couldn't remember how it happened or where she was or what was after her but she had to run and keep running as all the while this thing shrieked and sobbed and snarled just behind her. She didn't know how she was still running, she felt like she could barely breathe, but she wasn't slowing down. She didn't know how long it had been, but it was getting dark, the last daylight fading away in bright colors as the sun set. She didn't know where she was going, or what she was going to do when she got there, but...
Harmony almost ran straight into the lake. She managed to skid to a stop just before she went tumbling in, pebbles skittering as she did. She turned around, and there was nothing behind her anymore. She breathed a sigh of relief, and then turned back around.
There wasn't a cloud in the sky or a ripple in the lake, and she almost couldn't tell them apart. Just one single expanse of deep black, set with bright stars and awash with the Milky Way and then, as if suspended right in the center was the island. The skerry, only it looked too long, too tall, more than just what was above the water doubled by reflection. It loomed, cragged and marked by craters, as if it really belonged in outer space. She felt like she was staring into a void, teetering on the edge, but the island was cresting out.
And something was on it. Several somethings. Small, but in motion, crawling, slithering around on the side of the island. And then she could see other things moving, and the whole reflection was teeming with them, even in that vast black emptiness. Dark things, writhing, barely glittering with reflected light. She couldn't make out where one ended and the others began.
She wrenched her eyes away, up, up towards what she was sure was the actual sky, and it was empty, normal. Her eyes dipped back down, and at the edge she saw things crawling out of the water, not breaking the surface or casting ripples. Some swiftly clambered onto the island, others made towards the shore. Towards her.
She turned, and already something was behind her, vast and looming. It was twisted and bent in impossible ways, and covered in what looked like scales or plates except they shifted across its form. She looked back, and there were more, suddenly everywhere, surrounding her. She didn't know what to do.
She closed her eyes, and wished she was back home.