Welcome to Emberly

What do you do when you find out that you can do things other people can't do? Simple- you wait. Eventually, someone will show up on your doorstep, tell you that you're the Chosen One, and send you off on some mildly perilous quest to save the world.
At least, that's what the plot of every fantasy novel ever written tells you will happen. Sometimes, though, real life isn't as neat and tidy as the books you read, and when you've been waiting full years for your destiny to come knocking, the idea of being patient for a moment longer can make you mad. The question, then, is this: when fate leaves you on your own with the power to change the world, what do you do? Believe it or not, the answer to that one is just as simple.
You take matters into your own hands.

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2. Nothing Wrong With Being A Little Strange

 

Her dreams had been wonderful things, filled with magic and adventure and… lots of other really nice things. Probably. All she knew was that they had been fun while they had lasted, because as she opened her eyes and watched reality fade into existence all around her, those dreams were already forgotten.

Evelyn didn’t want to get up, but she knew that adult life was full of annoying little responsibilities like that. Like it or not, if she ever wanted to be taken seriously in the world, she would have to learn to live with them. Was she late? She turned her head to look at the clock that sat on her bedside table, but her vision was still blurred. She decided that whatever the time was, she probably still had time for a quick, five-minute nap before getting up. She pulled the duvet up over her head and was just about to lose herself again when she heard someone yelling her name.

“Evelyn? You’re going to be late, sweetie. Are you up?”

“Yes, mum,” Evelyn mumbled into her pillow, “I’m up and dressed and stuff.” Her voice was thick in her throat as she forced herself to sit up, gouging the last dregs of sleep from her eyes with numb fingers. She heard impatient knocking on her bedroom door and her mother’s voice, “Get yourself downstairs right now, Evelyn! It’s ten past eight, for goodness’ sake!”

Evelyn dragged herself out of bed and glanced at the clock again. “Mum, it’s not even close to ten past eight. It’s, like, seven minutes past at the latest. That’s three minutes earlier than what you said,” she informed her mother, flinging open her wardrobe and beginning to search for her school uniform.

“Don’t be childish, Evelyn.” She could hear her mother walking back along the landing and down the stairs as she finally located her missing sock and began to dress as quickly as she could, making sure that her shirt was tucked in and her blazer was buttoned straight. When she had finished wrestling with her tie, she walked down the landing to the bathroom and spent two minutes carelessly smearing her face with makeup. Then she returned to her bedroom to grab her bag. She brushed her hair into its usual ponytail and was just about to leave  her room when she caught sight of her reflection in the full-length mirror inside her open wardrobe door. Instead of closing it, she stood in front of the mirror for a while, staring into her own dark eyes and wondering why she was always so disappointed by what she saw there.

Evelyn Taylor was, and had always been, completely unremarkable in almost every way. She was tall, but she wasn't intimidating. She was slim, but she wasn’t striking. She was pretty enough, she supposed, with her inevitable imperfections hidden under her makeup and her long brown hair tied back to keep it out of her face, but she, unlike a depressing majority of girls her age, had never really seen the point in obsessing over her appearance. She was one of the lucky ones; not because she was pretty, but because she didn’t care whether she was pretty or not. As long as she looked presentable for school and didn’t draw attention to herself, she was good to go. So why was she still standing there, staring at herself in the mirror like she had all the time in the world?

Who was she looking at?

Nobody. That’s who.

“Evelyn! For God’s sake, what are you doing?”

I’m just having a crippling existential crisis, Mum. I’ll be down as soon as I’ve figured out my place in the vast infinity of the Universe.

“Nothing! I’ll be down in a sec,”

Evelyn swung her schoolbag over one shoulder and allowed herself one final glance towards her unremarkable reflection. She didn’t have time to stand around in her bedroom, staring at herself in the mirror and trying to figure out who she was deep down inside, like she was the pampered protagonist of some dreary young adult novel. She had a life to plan for. She flashed herself a quick smile in the mirror before pushing the wardrobe door shut and leaving the room.

*        *        *        *        *

“There’s no toast left.” Laura smirked as she helped herself to the last slice. Same old smile, same old sister who was better than Evelyn in every way. Evelyn made a face at her and retorted, “Well then, I guess I’ll just have use the damn toaster to make some more, won’t I, genius?” Evelyn wasn’t using the word “genius” sarcastically; her sister really was a genius, and, undeniably, their mother’s pride and joy. “I mean, I’m not a prodigy like you, but I’m pretty sure I know how to work the damn toaster.”

“Girls, stop arguing. You’re doing my head in.” Evelyn’s mum sipped her coffee, barely glancing at her youngest daughter and instead staring determinedly into her drink. She didn’t have any food in front of her; she never did.

“Mum, you should eat.” Evelyn put two slices of bread from the packet into the toaster and pushed the lever down. “Do you want some of this? I’ve put two in.” Her mother sighed and said, “You barely have time to make your own breakfast, Evelyn. You always do this. Laura’s been up for an hour.”

“Finishing homework?” asked Evelyn, raising one eyebrow ever so slightly. Laura turned to her mother, who replied, “Yes, she was, Evelyn. Did you finish yours?”

Evelyn’s toast catapulted itself out of the toaster and she caught it in mid-air, smiling at her mother. “Probably not.”

“Well, it can’t be helped now. You’re late enough already. You’d better go and meet your friends.” Evelyn’s mother spat out the last word with such comical distaste that Evelyn almost choked on the toast she was shovelling into her mouth. Her mother observed her with disapproval. “Evelyn, eat properly, for goodness’ sake.”

Evelyn swallowed her food. “Why do you hate my friends so much, Mum?”

“Well,” her mother said, “I’ve always thought that they were a little… strange.”

“Nothing wrong with being a little strange,” Evelyn mumbled as she took another bite, “Right?”

“Well, maybe not. But the things you talk about with them- all that paranormal rubbish, you know. It’s just a little unnerving.”

“It’s totally not rubbish, Mum. Also, at least we don’t hang around all day gossiping about boys. Or doing drugs.”

“Well, I believe you when you say that you don’t do drugs, Evelyn. But that little blonde one, the one who dresses funny?”

Evelyn swallowed hastily and asked, “You mean Valerie?”

“Yes, her. She’s from a very rough background- I’d bet my bottom dollar she does drugs of some kind, where she comes from. The way she acts, all twitchy, I’m sure she’s on something, God knows what.”

“No, Mum. She’s just a bit weird.”

“And the big one with the red hair-”

Raegan, Mum. She has a name.”

“So do most people, Evelyn. But most people manage not to get expelled from their first high school- for physical violence, no less- within ten days. Ten days, Evelyn.”

Evelyn thought for a second. “Actually, it was more like seven.”

“However long it took her, she’s not right in the head. She’s clearly got some serious violent tendencies, not to mention…”

Evelyn had sat through her mum’s innumerable complaints about her friends hundreds of times before, and she couldn’t bear to listen to them again. Instead, just for fun, she composed an elaborate comeback inside her head, listing all the reasons why her mother should learn to accept people for who they were. In reality, she hated arguing with anyone, preferring to stay neutral however personal things got. She liked to think of herself as a pacifist, though this was just her way of admitting to herself that she was a coward.

“Evelyn, are you even listening to me?”

Evelyn also hated lying, so instead of telling her mother the truth, she smiled and said, “I should be getting to school.”

“Yes. I suppose your friends will be waiting.” Her mother picked up her coffee cup, but instead of taking a sip, she simply stared at it. Evelyn began to leave the room, but paused by the door and turned around to say, “Love you, mum.”

Her mother didn’t reply, still staring into her coffee mug as though gazing into some awe-inspiring abyss, as though her daily dose of caffeine was more important to her than her youngest daughter. Evelyn wasn’t the melodramatic type, but sometimes, she found herself believing that it was.

Then, “I love you too, sweetie. Have a nice day.”

*        *        *        *        *

Evelyn pushed the front door open and set off down the frostbitten street, immediately glad that she had remembered to wear a coat. The city around her was as tall and cold and dark as it always was, casting its towering shadow onto the sky as it always did, and the sunrise, she supposed, was pretty enough- a marbled silver sky sprinkled with gold-dipped clouds- but she didn’t stop to stare. She’d seen that same September sunrise from where she stood a thousand times before. Besides, Emberly wasn’t the kind of city that welcomed idiots who liked to stop and admire the view. For one, there wasn’t much of a view to admire. The skyscrapers were soot-blackened grey, the river ran black in its grey concrete channel; even the people who lived here seemed grey and lifeless, going about their commutes with their hoods up and their heads down, checking over their shoulders at every turn, knowing that those who stopped to have a look around were just begging to be targeted by the criminals who watched from the backstreets. Muggings, stabbings, shootings; violent crime was so common in Emberly that it was barely considered news, with each individual tragedy rarely receiving more than a five-live mention in the local paper. Evelyn liked to think of herself as an optimist, but here in Emberly, the bright side of life was often hard to find.

It had been the same route every morning ever since she had started high school: first, she would go to Mara’s house just outside the city centre, then the two of them would go to Raegan’s house in the suburbs, and then the three of them would go to the bus stop near the school to wait for Valerie. When they were all together, they would head towards the high school, which sat on the very edge of the city. It wasn’t the most convenient way for the four of them to get to school in the mornings, but Evelyn had always liked having those few minutes to catch up with her friends before school started, and she knew that they did too. Leaving the impatient rumble of the traffic in the city centre behind her, Evelyn headed for the quieter districts that sat further out. The families who lived here tended to be just a tad richer than hers, and it showed; the street beneath her was wider and cleaner than her own, and the houses that lined it were significantly larger, lacking the lazy, squashed in, copy-pasted feel of the terrace that lined hers.

She walked up the driveway of her friend’s house and reached for the doorbell, but her finger hadn’t even touched the button when the door was flung open so abruptly that she had to jump backwards to avoid being knocked over. “Sorry!” called a cheerful voice from inside. Mara was standing in the doorway with a smile on her face, holding her schoolbag in one hand and her baby brother in the other. He was playing with a long strand of her newly dyed black hair, twirling it around and around his tiny hands until Mara gently prized it away from him and said softly, “Ken, I’ve just got my hair the way I want it, and I would really appreciate it if you didn’t yank it all out.” Kenny giggled, and Mara set him carefully on the floor and turned to Evelyn, still grinning. Evelyn grinned back and said, “Looks good.”

Mara smiled wider. “Thanks! I just dyed it on Sunday. Mum helped me,” she said, before looking suddenly worried and adding, “Do you really like it?”

“Yeah. It really suits you.” Mara looked relieved as she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

Like Evelyn, Mara Dunn was fifteen years old, but she had always looked much younger than she was, and as she stepped down into the street, Evelyn could have sworn that her friend had somehow gotten smaller. Maybe it was just the way she was walking- shoulders stooped, head down so that her heavy, waist-length hair fell forwards, shading the left side of her face. Only her deep brown, almost black right eye was visible beneath the inky curtain, hiding the fact that her left was pale blue, almost white. She dipped her head lower when she saw Evelyn looking at her, but Evelyn didn’t look away. Yes- Mara definitely looked thinner. Paler, too, but she supposed that this could be chalked up to the contrast created by her darker hair. But why did she look so much thinner? Evelyn told herself that she was just remembering her friend wrong- after all, it had been six weeks. But she was sure that she would have remembered the way her uniform hung off her and the black rings under her mismatched eyes, shadows that her thick makeup failed to brighten. What was going on?

I'm interfering in other peoples’ personal business. That’s what’s going on.

Evelyn wanted to ask her friend if she was okay, but she knew what would happen if she did, so she just smiled and said, “So, how was your holiday?”

Mara beamed. “It was great! The best part was Holly’s birthday- Dad just decided, like, the day before, that we were going to surprise her with a spontaneous trip to Disneyland. She was so excited that she just kind of started screaming, and that was pretty annoying, because she kept on doing it for, like, the whole journey, but I guess it was nice that she was so happy.”

“Paris or California?” Evelyn asked.

“Paris.”

“Ah, I bet Holly loved it. What was her favourite ride?”

“Space Mountain, I think. Ken couldn’t go on much, but I think he liked all the music and pretty colours and stuff.” Mara smiled and looked up for a second, and Evelyn was comforted by how honestly happy she looked.

She’s faking.

“Did you do anything?” Mara asked.

Evelyn strained to think of something interesting to continue the conversation with, but she drew a blank. “Literally all I did was revision. Laura went away with her boyfriend for, like, three weeks, so we couldn’t do any family stuff.”

“Wait- Laura has a boyfriend?”

Evelyn grinned. “Unbelievably, yes.”

“Bet she pays him with the money she won in that gymnastics thingy last year. How much did she get?”

“Like, a thousand pounds. I’m pretty sure it went straight into her university fund, though. She’s got offers from all the top universities. How am I supposed to compete with that?”

Mara looked at Evelyn with a serious expression and slowly said, “By being a way better, cooler person than she has ever been and can ever hope to be. And seeing as you totally are, I’d say you’re already a pretty considerable threat to her. Wouldn’t you?”

Evelyn didn’t know what to say. Eventually, she just smiled and said, “I guess.”

“Seriously, Evelyn. You have to stop comparing yourself to her.”

“I swear, I try so hard not to,” Evelyn said. “It’s just so frustrating that everyone else does.”

Mara smiled and said, “I don’t.”

They chatted about unimportant things for the next fifteen minutes as they neared the limits of the city. Here, the houses sat apart from one another, three-storey monstrosities nestled in stretches of grass that seemed impossibly green against the grey backdrop of the city. Even the sky seemed brighter here. Evelyn and Mara trekked up the long driveway of their friend’s house and knocked on the door.

“Just a minute!” yelled a voice from inside. There was a moment of quiet before heavy footsteps approached the porch. Evelyn and Mara stepped back as the door flew open and Raegan burst out, shoving the door shut behind her with just a bit too much enthusiasm. It crashed back into the frame so hard that the knocker rattled, and Evelyn could hear somebody inside the house yelling, “Raegan, for God’s sake!”

“Sorry, Mum!” Raegan shouted, anger flashing in her cold grey eyes as she stepped into the light.

Although they had been good friends for almost four years, Evelyn had to admit that Raegan McKenna was a pretty intimidating person. She towered over all of the other girls in their year group as well as most of the boys, and though she wasn’t exactly overweight, she was thickset and ungainly. Her face was startlingly white beneath her frizzy tangle of red hair, with a vivid splatter of freckles and features that seemed to have settled into a permanently sullen expression. With her shirt untucked and her hands shoved into her pockets, she radiated a fierce kind of indifference that warned the few kids at their school who didn’t know her by reputation to stay away.

“Hey.” She spoke with a slight Irish accent.

Evelyn smiled. “Hi, Raegan. How was your break?”

“Meh.”

They started walking. “Do anything cool?” Evelyn asked.

“Uh…” Raegan thought for a few seconds, her eyes swivelling upwards as she tried to think of something to say. Then she brightened slightly and said, “I beat Psycho Mantis.”

“Cool,” Evelyn said. “I mean, it sounds cool. I actually have no idea what it is.”

“Oh. He’s a boss in Metal Gear Solid,” Raegan explained.

Evelyn was suddenly excited. “That’s a video game, right? The one with the snake guy?”

“Yep.” Raegan looked pleased.

“Yay, I remembered!” Evelyn punched the air in triumph. She had never played a video game in her life, but four years of being Raegan’s friend had turned her into a cautious expert.

Raegan smiled slightly. “Congrats.”

“Wait- didn’t you start that one, like, last Easter?”

“Yeah. Long campaign. It’s, like…” Raegan pretended to think for a moment before saying, “A hundred and sixty-two hours. You know- if you’re the completionist type.”

“I still don’t get how you gamers can spend so much time on one game. Don’t you get bored?”

Raegan’s smile faded a little. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I have anything better to do with my time. I mean, seeing as I’m gonna fail my GCSEs anyway, I may as well have some fun while I sit in my bedroom and wait for my entire fucking life to fall apart." There was a long silence. Eventually, Raegan turned to Mara and said, “Nice hair, by the way.”

“Thanks!” Mara smiled.

“How was your holiday?” Raegan asked Mara.

“We went to Disneyland for my sister’s birthday.”

“Sounds cool. My parents just kind of fucked off to some fancy island on the other side of the world. Left me alone with Connor, and I swear, that little fucking arsehole tried to kill himself at least six times just to spite me. This one time, I went downstairs to get a Coke and he was literally three seconds away from swallowing, like, thirteen fucking thousand Prozac pills at once. I mean, who the fuck even does that?”

Evelyn smiled gently and said, “Sounds pretty awful.”

“Yeah.”

Evelyn couldn’t think of anything else to say, so they walked on in silence.

They were now approaching the main road that led up to the school. There, the pavements were crowded with kids in black and grey uniforms, clumping together in groups of five or six, the grimy air buzzing with hundreds of voices as they chatted and shouted their way to school. The bus stop was down a bystreet to the right. Evelyn, Mara and Raegan turned the corner. There was nobody there.

“Huh,” Raegan said, smiling ever so slightly, “Looks like Val’s late. How fucking original of her.”

Evelyn grinned back. “I reckon we should start taking bets on what her excuse is going to be. Like, make it into a game.”

“Okay,” Raegan said, “What do you reckon she lost this time?”

“Homework,” said Mara.

Raegan laughed. “You think Val’s gonna be freaking out over some lost homework? Hell no.”

“Okay- her pencil case, then.”

Evelyn said, “Tie.”

Raegan thought for a second, before asking, “What’s that eye thingy she uses?”

“What, you mean eyeliner?” Evelyn said.

“Yeah, that. She wouldn’t leave the house without it,” said Raegan. “Have you ever seen her without it?”

“Nope.”

“No.”

“That’s my guess. We putting money on it, or something?”

“I didn’t bring any,” said Mara.

“Oh. Okay.” Raegan walked over to the bus shelter and leaned back against the wall. Evelyn and Mara sat together on the broken bench while Raegan pulled out her phone and started to play a game. For at least five minutes, the only sound was the manic music from Raegan’s phone, along with the occasional cry of “Fuck!” whenever she lost. They waited.

Then, so loudly and suddenly that it made them all jump, a familiar voice yelled, “Hey, guys!”

Evelyn turned around. Yep- there was Valerie, strolling casually towards the bus stop as though she had all the time in the world. Although she was already late, she didn’t show any signs of speeding up, possibly because she was devoting all of her energy to waving madly at her friends as she approached. Evelyn waved back, and the three of them walked to meet her. Valerie, as always, was grinning so wide that it made Evelyn’s face hurt just to look at her, though this didn’t stop her from returning the smile.

Valerie Hunter was a cocky, brash, loud-mouthed egomaniac with a crude sense of humor and far too much to say, and yet, somehow, she was one of the most immediately likeable people Evelyn had ever met. Right up until the age of eleven, Evelyn had believed that friendships were built on years’ worth of conversations and kind words, shared moments and memories, tears and smiles and little things like that; Valerie, however, had given the finger to these convictions at her earliest opportunity, needing to do little more than introduce herself to earn herself a place among Evelyn’s closest friends. She carried herself with such confidence that Evelyn often forgot that she was even shorter than Mara and almost as thin, with sharp features and luminous green eyes that were just a bit too big for her face, giving her a look of perpetual, manic excitement. As always, they were rimmed with her trademark chalky black eyeliner. Her chin-length, white-blonde hair was meticulously messy, the ends ragged as though she had cut it herself. Evelyn had always suspected that she did, though she had never even considered asking why. Somehow, Valerie made it work. Still grinning that cocky grin, she stopped walking and said, "Sorry I'm late!"

“Did you lose your tie again?” Evelyn asked.

Valerie narrowed her eyes slightly and said, "Dude, you read my mind."

They started walking, and Valerie continued. "Yeah- I shit you not, I found it under a floorboard. I swear to God, my house must be haunted or something. Shit keeps moving around on its own.”

“Speaking of shit moving on its own,” Raegan said, “Did you get my e-mail?”

Valerie’s eyes widened again. “Hell, YES! It’s the best one yet! He was just, like…” She waved her arms around wildly.

Evelyn was confused, but Raegan nodded. “Yep. Also, I’m pretty sure that it’s a girl.”

Valerie frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but Evelyn interrupted her. “I’m sorry- what are you guys talking about?”

“Ember,” Valerie and Raegan said together.

“Cool! Can I see?”

“No Internet,” said Raegan, “I’ll show you at break.”

“We can bribe Hazel to give us the Wi-Fi password.” Valerie added. Her gaze landed on Mara and she practically yelled, “Oh my God, dude, your hair looks epic!"

“Thanks.”

“It looks kind of gothic. Are you going Goth? Because that’s cool,” Valerie said, “So long as you don’t start dragging us around graveyards. Or writing poetry. I don’t mean to be rude, but I honestly don’t think I could deal with that. Though I guess the graveyard thing could be cool. I’ve always wanted to play with one of those Ouija board things. Come to think of it, I think my dad has one under his bed. I’ll ask him about it later. But the poetry thing? Hell to the no. I think I would probably die, or something. I’m utter shitballs at writing.”

Mara smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m crap at poetry too.”

“Really? I always thought you’d be good at it. You’re kind of a deep thinker.”

“Me? Seriously?” Mara laughed. “No, I suck.”

"Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mara,” Evelyn said.

“Yeah, dude. You’re awesome,” Valerie added as they rounded the corner and joined the sluggish swarm heading for the school. A few members of the horde turned to look at them, sneering and whispering inaudibly to their friends. Apparently aware of this, Valerie grinned wider and raised her voice. “We’re ALL awesome! Don’t you guys think so? And don't you just feel like this year is going to be our best ever?"

“Nope,” muttered Raegan with the barest hint of a smile.

A few of the kids walking near them were staring at Valerie, some silently bemused, others openly laughing at her. As usual, Valerie didn't care. She flung out her arms, threw back her head and shouted, “C'mon, guys! Can’t you feel the thrill of all the learning you’re going to do, warming your heart and soul? Can't you see all of the A-stars you're going to walk away with? Can't you hear those top-end universities calling your name? Can't you see the next year laid out before you, like a wondrous tapestry of success and happiness and...." She tailed off, looking slightly disgruntled. "Shit," she mumbled, "I told you I was fucking crap at poetry."

Evelyn was about to suggest a word to finish Valerie’s sentence when some guy yelled from across the road, “Hey, blondie- I never knew you were crazy, too! Thought it was just the ginger!”

Evelyn glanced nervously at Raegan. Her face was beginning to flush red, her hand darting instinctively to the front pocket of her bag. Immediately, Valerie put her hand on Raegan’s shoulder, locking eyes with her for a second before nodding her head in a silent question: ​You okay? After a few more seconds, Raegan nodded back. Valerie shot a smile across the road and yelled back,

“Hey- we’re all crazy over here! And do you know what? We fucking LOVE it!"

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