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A Novel by
This is a work of fiction. It’s all made up. Please don’t kill yourself trying to reach Eternal.
First part of the Boundless trilogy
Copyright © 2013 by Eduardo Israel Perez-Barbuzano.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. I will be very upset and frown a lot.
Editor: Linda Allen.
If you find anything wrong in this novel it’s probably because I was too stubborn to change it despite her advice. It’s still hard to believe a professional editor would work on an entire 500-page manuscript free of charge, but there you have it. You can be certain that the Suck would be strong in this one without her.
Thank you, Linda.
First Edition: August 2014
Produced in the United States of America
Earth, Solar System, Milky Way galaxy
Local Group cluster
To learn more about the author, visit
To my wife,
without whom Eternal
would have never existed.
They saw death coming.
The mid-summer twilight erupted in a flare of white.
The horizon vanished, clouds broke into mist,
tremors rumbled up their feet and into their chests.
Colors bled away, leaving behind a world of light and shadow.
Her muscles tensed. His hand clutched at her side,
instinctively pulling her close.
Their eyes met.
A wall of sound crashed upon them,
the ear-splitting death throes of a rupturing sky.
Airborne fire swallowed their breath,
consumed their thoughts.
∞Awareness came back in a rush, and then Aaron was falling.
The ground met his feet before he could brace himself for impact. He landed with a thump and tumbled down the gentle slope as if he’d jumped out of a moving car, seeing only a glimpse of the oncoming wall before his shoulder slammed against it.
The collision left him groaning on his side, gasping for air through bared teeth. After long moments he labored to sit up against the wall. The floor under his fingertips felt hard and smooth, like polished marble.
Aaron finally opened his eyes, and a thousand shades of red and magenta crowded his field of vision.
A tangle of ramps, bridges, tunnels and platforms sprawled in every direction, each one of them colored in the reds and purples of raw flesh. Dozens of contorting paths of every size twisted and turned all around him, ascending, descending, burrowing into each other. They formed a labyrinth of pathways that stretched as far as he could see.
Aaron gawked as he got to his feet, the pain from his collection of scrapes and bruises temporarily forgotten. He stood on one platform of many. A number of paths of varied widths and viabilities led away from it. A towering wall rose to his left, while the right side ended abruptly and plummeted into the unknown. The floor tilted at a slight incline toward the cliff.
Every surface seemed to shift subtly, like pulsing to the rhythm of a capricious heartbeat. The lighting, eerily homogeneous, had no obvious point of origin.
He blinked and stared. A deep sense of unease stirred in his gut.
“What the hell just happened?”
He spun in place, looking everywhere. There was no-one around to answer his question.
Alright, he thought. Alright, don’t panic. Let’s figure this out.
His last clear memory was of standing in the back yard. He’d had dinner in the oven. Alex had just finished her workout, called him outside and pointed at the horizon.
I smile, walk over and pull her close.
“Ew, let go, I’m all sticky.”
“You’ll have to make me.”
She doesn’t make me and watches the setting sun. My arm is around her waist. Her hand is in my back pocket.
It’s a beautiful sunset.
And then . . . .
The flash of light. The tremors. The vacuum and horrible heat from the blast. The look in her eyes.
They had died.
“No. No, that’s impossible.”
Aaron looked at himself, eyes wide, breath shallow. His hands and arms seemed fine. His wedding band was still there, as were his clothes and glasses. His disheveled mat of blond hair remained firmly attached to his scalp, and his cheeks were rough with a three-day stubble. Veins still stood out under the pale skin of his wrist.
He felt for a pulse and found it. His heart was merrily pounding away, as if nothing had happened.
He wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be.
This is impossible. It’s a hallucination, all of it.
The thought repeated as his eyes wandered through the grotesque landscape. It was a logical explanation that he would have loved to believe. He’d have been convinced of it, had his senses not told him differently.
The sensation reminded him of waking from lucid dreaming. His oneiric self would always doubt and wonder, is this still a dream? Am I awake now? He’d worry and fuss and not have a great time at all. Eventually, Aaron would wake up and feel foolish to have missed the obvious difference between dream and reality. The certainty of no longer being asleep would be self-evident.
The same certainty nagged at him now, which was an impossibility. He should have been a charred husk, unable to feel, ask questions, panic. He wasn’t supposed to be anymore.
He puzzled at it while watching his hands open and close tentatively. This new sensation, this vibe . . . it felt as if reality itself was different. More authentic and tangible, more crisp and immediate. Aaron felt like he’d been dreaming all along and was finally awake.
As he allowed the feeling to wash over him, he simply knew, and the knowledge was enough to keep fear at bay.
He’d landed in the afterlife.
No freaking way.
Sudden stabs of pain flared behind his temples. Evidence that death was not the end of his journey through existence jarred everything he believed in. A completely new reality sprawled before his eyes, yet these concerns were but quiet footnotes under the sudden realization that seized him.
He looked all around again, a knot tightening the pit of his stomach.
No answer came.
No echo wrapped around her name. It was as if the walls had swallowed up the sound waves instead of letting them bounce off and resonate through space.
He put his hands around his mouth and inhaled deep.
His voice got lost in the labyrinth.
Aaron paced the perimeter of the ledge, ignoring awful headache and aching knee. He peered down the cliff, craned his neck around corners and yelled her name repeatedly, eyes frantically searching for a hint of dark skin or short curls. He held motionless and strained to hear a possible call for help, but only ear-ringing silence answered his voice.
He stood in the middle of his ledge, a haze clouding his sight.
Alex was gone.
She’s in Heaven. She went to Heaven and I’m in Hell, just like she feared.
He knew that such a thought should have brought a bout of panic with it, but his safety didn’t seem all that important at the moment. What if Alexandra’s fears had been well-founded, and they’d been separated forever because he didn’t believe? The concept of eternal punishment for the faithless had seemed absurd to him just ten minutes ago, but he could no longer dismiss it out-of-hand. Aaron forced himself to focus and search the area for telling signs of his fate.
He wouldn’t have expected Hell to be so empty. He strained to hear approaching footsteps or perhaps a cackling laugh, but the absolute silence that engulfed him remained undisturbed. No demons showed up to stuff him in a boiling pool of lava or stab him with barbed pitchforks.
Aaron frowned while surveying the area once more. Wasn’t a welcoming party in order here? Some form of guidance? There wasn’t even a lousy sign to tell him where to get his punishment.
Maybe Hell is eternal waiting.
Then again, why should anything conform to a certain religious mythology? The afterlife could be something else entirely. He could be in a purgatorial waiting room, a shroud between existences, a dream bubble in the furthest ring, for all he knew. Their separation might have been purely accidental. Best not to make any assumptions.
“The afterlife . . . .”
Aaron shook his head at the words. Questions kept piling up in his head, from the most basic “How did I get here?” to a primal “Am I in danger?” and everything in-between. They got soundly trumped by a far more pressing concern.
Where did Alex go?
Six different routes would lead him away from his ledge: two clear dead ends, one misshapen bridge, a too-steep tunnel, a path to another platform below, and a gnarled trail up and around the curved wall. He eyed each one, fretful, anxious. None of the paths looked promising.
Should I even leave this place? What if I take off and she shows up here shortly after?
Aaron was trying to decide what to do when he noticed the monster flying toward him.
The word came from all around her, angry shouts from alien voices. Sound and meaning felt like two separate entities that her brain had arduously linked together.
Alexandra hadn’t yet opened her eyes when something blunt and heavy struck her shoulders and sent her tumbling forward. She hit the floor with a startled yelp and plunged through a mantle of gravel, sharp edges scoring shallow gashes on her hands, her arms, her brow, jaw and cheek.
She came to a painful stop shortly after, and by then the single word had become an unintelligible roar. Alexandra had time to gasp for air once, twice—something grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her halfway to her feet, dragging her further across the floor. She cried out, the shock and pain finally jolting her addled mind into action.
Her vision blurred by blood and tears, her legs struggling to gain footing, Alexandra desperately flailed her arms at the unseen assailant. After a few fruitless swings her fist connected with flesh, barely encountering friction as it punched through.
Her eyes focused.
A nightmarish creature ruptured in an explosion of gore as her arm tore through its body like a sledgehammer through gelatin. Its yellowish innards splattered in all directions, splashing onto her face and blinding her momentarily.
Alexandra quickly crawled away, eyes squeezed shut, face twisted in horror. Whatever that thing had been, there was nothing on Earth like it.
She tried to wipe her eyes clean but only smeared the viscous fluids further, making the sting worse. The stench burned the inside of her nose like sulfur fumes. Her high-pitched sobs drowned in the screams closing in around her.
All at once they grabbed her, tough and leathery limbs tightening around her ankle, her elbow, her thigh. They held down her wrists and braced her abdomen. Something slid around her neck and threatened to crush her windpipe.
Then everything started pulling.
She thrashed and contorted as hard as she could, but they held fast. She fought to breathe, but her throat was clamped shut. Panic seized Alexandra as their grip tightened and their pull built to an unbearable degree. They were trying to tear her apart.
The need to get away overwhelmed her. The sense of powerlessness roused a memory, and with the memory everything came crashing back—the anguish, the loathing, the shame and humiliation. Long-healed scars tore wide open, and a voice cried inside her mind, instinctive, outraged, desperate.
Anger blazed in her chest. Once more she could see their faces, twisted with hatred, shrouded in the despair of the hopeless. Their hands, holding her down, stifling her screams. And the stink, that rancid mixture of mud and dank sweat, lust, human filth. She’d been frail, back then. Scrawny, malnourished, far too young.
The anger fed on the memory of their touch, their eyes, their stench, and it all went up in flames, consumed by Alexandra’s unbound rage. A feral scream made its way through her constricted throat as her arm broke free through sheer brute force. Unable to open her eyes, she saw everything unfold in her mind.
Her hand grabbed at whatever was around her neck, and pulled, and tore the appendage off its owner. Her legs kicked savagely, her foot smashing into another of the creatures and sending it flying away in a gooey mess. She writhed in their grasp, flailing limbs fighting desperately against the monsters’ pull.
They let go. Immediately she sprung to her feet and swung her arm backwards at another of her captors. It sliced effortlessly through its midsection like a well-honed scythe, splitting the beast in two. Her arm continued its unwavering arc, inertia spinning her around to face the next creature.
She screamed as she threw her whole body into a wide hook. Her clenched fist made contact, broke through body tissue and tore a gaping hole in the thing’s side. The monster uttered a gut-wrenching gargle, staggered, and hit the ground with a spattering thud.
The rest of them fled in terror. Their incoherent shrieks faded in the distance.
Her eyes remained squeezed shut, the burn from the blinding grime slowly subsiding. She’d felt a sense of detachment in her frenzy, as though watching herself in an out-of-body experience. Now Alexandra saw herself standing there, dark skin covered in muck, muscles tense, chest heaving. Her clothes were drenched in the same disgusting substance, small bits of whatever these things were still clinging to the fabric. She was terribly disappointed to see her favorite sweatpants ruined beyond repair.
At that moment she still nurtured a small glimmer of hope. Maybe she would open her eyes to find herself in her moonlit bedroom, sheets damp with sweat and the air filled with Aaron’s snoring. She would nudge him gently, he’d turn onto his side, and she’d go back to sleep, never to remember this awful nightmare.
Alexandra clung to this hope, even as she felt the creatures’ vile juices dripping from her hands, the sting of the gravel under her naked feet, the ache of blooming welts on her limbs.
Her eyelids could finally part to a squint. After a moment of painful blinking, her vision came into focus.
She stared at the mangled corpses and yellowish sludge scattered all over the large hallway in which she stood. The unnatural color of their fluids looked more like vomit than blood. Lumps of body parts, innards and unidentifiable chunks of flesh added to the image, all mixing in unsightly mounds. Rather than the result of her desperate battle for survival, the area looked more like the aftermath of some massive monster’s sickly hangover.
Alexandra stared, struggling to make sense of what had just happened. She glanced at her hands, at the bodies, at the hallway and her own blood, unable to stop looking from one horror to the next.
You know what these things are, Alex.
She took a step back. Her eyes surveyed the alien environment with new-found dread. The nascent realization sent a chill through her skin.
You know what happened to you, what this means.
“No . . . .”
She shook her head, lips trembling. The ground spun beneath her feet as the inescapable truth sunk in.
“No no no no no no . . . .”
She staggered back a few more steps, shaky hands seeking purchase. Without even noticing she bumped against one of the pillars that lined the hall.
You know where you are.
Alexandra fell to her knees and hugged her arms to her abdomen, breath short and ragged. Deep, mournful sobs seized her throat. Her chest felt as if gripped by unseen fists.
She squeezed her eyes shut and wept for as long as tears would flow.
∞The monster was a leg-less torso with broad shoulders and a multitude of tentacles for arms. It effortlessly swam through the air.
Long, thick and leathery, the tentacles sprouted from shoulders to waist without much regard for symmetry. More of them lazily rotated and twisted beneath the monster’s generous girth, partially concealing its most alien feature: a bulbous spherical gland that pulsed with faint bursts of light.
Its face was close to non-existent. The head bulged out in a mound at the top of the torso, with a series of vertical slits at the bottom that looked like gills and a wobbly row of translucent protrusions where a hairline would be expected. They might have been eyes, although there were about fifteen of them, arranged loosely across its forehead.
The creature halted its slow advance shortly after being sighted. Before Aaron could decide whether to say something or run for dear life, the monster spoke in a deeply apprehensive tone.
“The Unbound honor and guard you, my lord. I travel to the Downpour to record recent shifts. Please allow me passage and I shall trouble you no more.”
The fleshy knobs on its head changed in luminescence and color as it spoke, while a subtle hum wrapped around the words, as if carrying them where they needed to go. Light and sound somehow translated into Aaron’s language.
The monster’s manifest deference did not escape him.
Don’t show how ignorant and helpless you are, a voice came through the fog in his mind. Be Dominant. Make it count.
“Uhh,” Aaron said.
The creature took a moment to evaluate the situation. It floated a bit closer, and the shiny gland beneath the tangle of shifting appendages brightened faintly as it moved, yet cast no shadows in the process. The alien raised some of its tentacles in what Aaron interpreted as a placating gesture.
“Have I offended, sir? If so, it was not my intent. I shall use an alternative route, with your leave.” The colors were more subdued, unambiguously timid. The ever-shifting hum conveyed bashfulness. Aaron had no idea how he inferred these things.
He realized that the creature was about to turn around and leave.
The alien stopped turning at once, giving Aaron its full attention. It appeared wary of what the human might say.
“Um . . . have you seen another of my kind around here? Female, a bit shorter than me, very dark skin, short curly hair?”
The creature simply stared back at him for a few moments, visibly confused. Its lack of actual eyes made the experience particularly unnerving.
“How about a fifty-something lady, blond hair, skinny?”
More eyeless staring.
“A, uh . . . a guy that looks just like me but older? Possibly intoxicated?”
This is ridiculous. He wouldn’t have stayed drunk in the afterlife.
Or maybe he would, what the heck do I know anymore?
The monster’s confusion gradually bloomed into understanding. It approached Aaron swiftly, tentacles fluttering.
“You are a newborn, aren’t you?”
For a moment Aaron thought he was about to be smothered by this octopus-monster-thing. He retreated a few steps, his back getting uncomfortably close to the wall.
“You just integrated,” it said. “You perished, yes? In the Beyond? And then suddenly arrived nearby?”
“I . . . y-yeah, I guess. How do you—”
“Boundless luck, I knew I’d sensed a Human integration, I knew it!” The monster-thing laughed with its weird lights and hums, then displayed a combination of colors that Aaron recognized as an affable grin. It became the default background after every prismatic shift.
“I know you have many questions, sir. To answer one of them, my name is Queg. You are a Human newborn, and I must ask patience of you now, as there is a certain protocol in place to handle one such as you. If I follow procedure carefully and bring you to the safety of your people without causing you harm, the reward will be quite handsome. If I fail to do so, however, I can smother my gravity gland goodbye.
“I must be careful, you understand. There are certain things that I must let you know, and certain things that I must leave for you to discuss with the nearest Human link. I urge you not to be afraid of me. I’ve been made aware that you may perceive me as grotesque, but my intentions are far from hostile. I am a friend, you can trust me. In truth, it is in my best interest to keep you safe from all harm. There are those misguided enough to antagonize your kind, but I am not one of them.
“Our priority is to reach human domains as soon as possible. It is fortunate that you integrated in this region of the Pathways. The journey to Thousand Rivers should be relatively short, though I must update my knowledge of the neighboring ground routes to account for any recent shifts. Ask for directions before you are lost, my people say . . . .”
The creature continued its speech for a good while, unaware or uncaring of Aaron’s blank stare.
“This is freakin’ nuts,” he finally said in a dismayed mutter.
The alien interrupted its chatter mid-sentence. Aaron could have sworn that he saw the thing blink, lack of eyelids notwithstanding. Feeling self-conscious, he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips to soothe an incipient headache.
“So, uh,” he said, “there’s a . . . a ‘protocol’ to deal with people like me, I guess?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“Right. And . . . doesn’t this protocol thing say to take it easy on the newbies? I’m a bit overwhelmed, here.”
The creature twitched uncomfortably. “Why, yes, yes it does. I apologize, sir. I’m a bit eager. I have never encountered a Human newborn before. You are a rare and prized find, sir.”
“Okay, alright. Prized by whom?”
“Why, your kin, of course. Humans have many agendas, and all of them benefit from new recruits, for which they compensate generously. Those that help your kind will earn the Unbound’s favor, while any denizen of the realms caught attacking Human newborns will be hunted down and slaughtered. Hatred for your species runs deep in some places, deep enough to defy the Unbound’s will. As you can see, it is fortunate for us to have encountered one another.”
“Um, sure, yes. Sorry if I don’t seem all that grateful, it’s just . . . I have no idea what’s going on right now. What’s an Unbound again?”
“The Unbound leads the Human nation, sir.”
“Okay. And . . . humans are hated, you said?”
The alien brought up a tentacle and curled it into an elongated letter S. Aaron effortlessly understood it as a placating gesture, a polite refusal.
“Please, sir,” it said, “I fear I’m explaining too much. I must follow the protocol that’s been instated. Doing so should not only get you where you need to be in the quickest way possible, but also ensure you remain in good health.”
“Yeah, good health in death. Makes sense. I just . . . I kinda need a moment? This is a little too much.”
Aaron cradled his head in his hand and rubbed his brow. He gave the weird creature a sidelong glance and suddenly it dawned on him how rude he was acting to the helpful stranger. He tried to tuck the headache away.
“My name is Aaron Gretchen, by the way.”
He thrust his hand forward out of reflex, which the creature regarded with mild curiosity. He awkwardly withdrew it after a while.
“Just call me Aaron, um . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Queg.” It came out as a peculiar sound, almost a beep, and a very specific sequence of colors throughout the fleshy knobs on its head.
“Queg?” Aaron asked. “As in Q-U-E-G?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. My name is a certain unique configuration of my prismatic glands. You perceive it as a combination of colors and a characteristic hum. Then you hear it in your mind. Queg.”
Aaron grimaced. “Wow, you aren’t even kidding. I could ask you twenty questions about that sentence alone.”
Queg sighed (it was definitely a sigh, Aaron told himself.) “I keep volunteering information that does you no good. I do want to be candid and answer all your questions, but as you can see it only creates more problems. Allow me to take you to Human domains, sir. You will then be able to learn everything you want to know.” It paused for a beat. “Or so I’ve been told.”
Frowning, Aaron kept silent for a moment. The pain did seem to get worse the more questions he asked.
“Can you at least tell me what might have happened to my wife? Shouldn’t she have come with me? How does it all work?”
“I cannot answer any of those questions, sir. My knowledge is limited, and they are sensitive topics best left to be explained by your peers.”
“There’s nothing you can tell me about where she might be? Anything at all.”
Queg swayed subtly from side to side. “I apologize. The protocol is inflexible in these matters. I am required to tell you that it would do more harm than good, and that the knowledge you seek will be provided by other Humans, once you reach them. Please allow me to escort you to them, sir.”
Aaron pursed his lips. “What if she’s just late or something? Maybe I should wait around for a while and see if she turns up.”
“That is unlikely, sir.”
“So you do know something?”
The alien was all but biting its lip. “Please, sir. I have already said too much. The journey to Thousand Rivers will be short. Your questions should be answered there.”
Aaron heaved an exasperated sigh. “Alright, well, guess we’ll go with that, then. It’s just frustrating. It’d be nice to at least know how I ended up here.” He cast a quick glance at the crazy labyrinth all around him. “Wherever ‘here’ is.”
“I understand, sir,” Queg said. “I am at liberty to tell you about your surroundings. Perhaps we could converse as we travel?” The alien motioned for Aaron to follow and flew ahead of him. It seemed hopeful.
He took a good look at the creature that was Queg. After carefully considering the fluttering appendages, shiny gravity gland and shifting prismatic knobs, Aaron entertained the thought of turning tail and running far, far away.
The urge almost made him chuckle. And where in the world would you go, genius?
He let out another sigh, hoping Alexandra was better off wherever she might be. Maybe her situation was even weirder than his, but he doubted it.
Aaron started towards the alien-looking thing that, for all he knew, was leading him straight into its tribe’s cook pot.
∞Alexandra could only ask why, over and over and over.
Had her faith not been strong enough? Had she not been generous enough? Kind enough? What had she done to deserve this? What hadn’t she done?
She had thought herself to be a genuinely good person, though she made no pretense of having led a virtuous life. She cursed often and spoke the name of the Lord in vain, but a whole generation of teenagers had done that alongside her. She certainly strove not to get any work done on the Sabbath, but this didn’t have nearly as much to do with keeping it holy as it did with being lazy over the weekend. She’d stolen when she was a child, but it was either that or starve to death. She’d coveted plenty too, back then. Who in the world could blame her?
I don’t deserve this.
And the Deadly Sins? What were they, but human nature? Who hadn’t ever been angry, or wanted more than what they had? Who could resist indulging in a big meal now and then, after counting calories day after day? Her pride was an adequate fit to her accomplishments. Sloth was sanctioned over the weekend, and even then she’d remain active more often than not. Envy was a thing of the past. And lust . . . well, husband and wife are entitled to certain things, are they not? Lust was backed by love. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
All you do is make excuses. Did you feel entitled to Heaven? Perhaps pride is your folly.
She had hated a few times. She’d imagined doing certain less-than-friendly things to a few people, but she’d never acted on it. Had she been judged on her every single thought and desire? Even if that were the case, the good would surely outweigh the bad. Wouldn’t it?
The Lord works in mysterious ways. Maybe this is the way it must be. Who are you to say?
Hadn’t there been enough suffering already? Her childhood had been nothing but misery. Even after all the years of normal life, after the promotions, the diplomas, the hard work, the hours and hours of therapy; after learning to trust, to love, to be loved . . . still she cringed at the thought of Kibera. She had wanted to see it all burn, back then: the slums, its people, and all of Nairobi with it. The hatred had persisted long after becoming part of the Sanders family.
She’d never been able to truly forgive, but she had honestly tried.
Is this the Justice I deserve? Eternal torment? It isn’t a month, or a year. It isn’t a thousand years. It’s eternity. Eternity. Am I a monster beyond redemption?
Was it not going to church? She prayed every night at the quiet of her bedside and meant every word. She used to go, but service had grown so tainted by rote, so mired in politics and posturing. Worship was a personal thing for her. A quiet, peaceful thing. How much deeper could faith go?
I didn’t just pretend my way through life so I could get into Heaven. I was truthful, and honest, and I always tried to do the right thing, even when it hurt.
I am a good person.
Was this a test? Yes, the final trial that would reveal what truly lay at the bottom of her soul, that would stir every doubt and question every conviction.
Her lips curled in distaste at the thought. Was her soul not laid bare at the moment of her death? Was she to be judged not by her deeds in life, but by her resilience after it? Life was the test. Apparently, she had flunked.
I have done nothing to deserve this. I don’t belong here.
Her fist clenched, a fistful of gravel digging into her skin. Her shoulders trembled, her jaws tightened.
It isn’t fair.
A whole life. A whole life pouring her faith on an entity she thought benevolent, fair and loving. Was there love to be found in this judgment? Was there righteousness in this punishment? Alexandra sneered bitterly. What would Aaron say now?
It was like a bolt of lightning piercing through her mind. Her adoring husband; her beloved husband; her charming, goofy, annoying atheist of a husband.
Oh, Aaron . . . .
A wave of anxiety overtook the storm gathering within her. If she had ended up in this place for no good reason that she could imagine, what sort of torment was in store for Aaron, an adamant non-believer?
She’d dreaded the thought in life, though he would always dismiss it with an infuriating chuckle. A just and benevolent god wouldn’t punish a nice guy like me, he’d say with an exaggerated smile. She’d tell him that it wasn’t so simple, and get frustrated with his nonchalance, and drop the issue before it went into off-limits territory. She’d tell herself that there was no sense in worrying about things she couldn’t change, even when it was hard to resist the urge to try.
But that was then, when the din of everyday life drowned out distant concerns, and death was something that happened to other people. The image of her sweet, harmless Aaron being tortured until the end of time had become every bit as real as the slime covering her hands and staining her clothes. It was as nauseating as the pungent stench of death surrounding her.
He wound up in Hell too.
Her eyes flew open.
Aaron is here.
She stumbled to her feet. If she could find him, if there was the slightest chance . . . .
Then what? What could you possibly do if you find him, other than watch him suffer? Do you think you can come and go as you please? Do you really think that you have any choice at all? There is no hope. You might as well lie down and wait for the demons to take you.
She shook her head violently, irritated at her own bleak thoughts. They would have to work for it, damn it all. What was left for her to lose? Everything that mattered to her had been taken away in an instant, without so much as an explanation, a justification that would at least tell her why.
The tempest swarmed once more, turbulent, ominous.
“I refuse to go quietly,” she whispered to whoever might be listening.
She cast a quick glance at her surroundings. She was vaguely aware that Hell would be infinitely vast. There would probably be different levels, or dimensions, or circles, or whichever bizarre structure it happened to have. So far she’d only suffered hideous monsters and a splitting headache, but there was no telling what she would find around the corner, the horrors that would surely find her wherever she tried to hide.
The notion was enough to make her defiance waver. What hope could a lone wandering soul possibly harbor?
Noises emerged somewhere behind her just then. She became deathly still, trying to listen over the deafening thumps of her heart.
Feet dragging on gravel. Muffled alien voices.
They were getting closer.
Panic-struck, Alexandra looked in the opposite direction, into the unknown. She took off running as fast as her legs could take her.
Countless pillars flashed past her as she ran, hues of blue overlapping one another in a blur. Alexandra’s bare feet painfully pounded on the gravel in a maddened sprint.
She’d been running for several minutes. The perfectly straight hallway seemed to go on forever. What would happen once she reached the end? Did she intend to wander aimlessly, hoping for the best?
She slowed slightly.
You need a plan. Doesn’t even need to be a good one.
The questions lining up in her head became harder and harder to fathom. Where in Hell would Aaron be? How could she get there, when she didn’t know where she was or where she was going? Was it possible to travel where she needed to go? What could she do once she got there?
What if all this was but a cosmic blunder? What if she wasn’t supposed to be there at all?
An incompetent afterlife. That’s even more depressing.
The full-speed run had become a mere trot. What was the point, really? Aaron might not even be there at all. If she hadn’t ended up where she’d expected to go, why would he be any different?
Her jaw set in an almost painful clench. It didn’t matter. She would find him anyway, wherever he was, however long it took. She would give anything, do anything, just to see his face once more, to find comfort in his embrace.
And that’s all it is, right? Steadfast devotion and undying love. One hour and already you miss him so.
Such a righteous cause that drives you.
Her scowl deepened. No, of course that wasn’t all. She could hardly ignore the swelling storm at the pit of her stomach, twisting and surging in unison with her heartbeat, washing her insides with the bile of resentment. She couldn’t take a single step without feeling its poisonous influence.
She came to a halt at last, and winced in pain as the sharp rock fragments dug mercilessly into the soles of her feet. Panting, she leaned against a pillar and gingerly lifted her right foot to take a look at it.
She was not surprised at the mess of cuts and scrapes. She would have used her fingertips to carefully feel around them and try to soothe them somehow, but her hands were still covered in filth. They didn’t look like serious wounds, but that didn’t stop them from being terribly painful.
Eyeing her feet with worry, Alexandra wished she hadn’t spent all those hours scrubbing at them, trying to get rid of the layers upon layers of calluses and rough edges she’d earned over her less fortunate years. There was a time when she’d been able to walk on glass shards as if they were feathers.
She gritted her teeth as she put the foot down. Stop being a baby. Bloody feet are the least of your worries right now.
Her feet were bleeding. She looked at the ground she was standing on.
She turned around and saw a trail of bloody smudges leading directly to her position. They were patently noticeable for as far as her eyes could see.
I can’t even hide my sorry ass without having an arrow pointing at me the whole time!
She had to dig her nails into the flesh of her palms to push down the frustrated scream in her throat. She wanted to throw a fit, hiss and scream and flail her arms until all her energy was spent.
Can’t run forever.
Can’t hide at all.
I have to find out where I need to go.
There was only one source of information that she could think of.
Alexandra took off running again, her jaw clenched with grim resolve. She did her best to ignore the sharp stabs of pain that came with every stride, and tried to find comfort in the fact that at least this time she knew where she was going.
All she had to do was follow the trail of blood that her own feet had left behind.
November 26th, 2011
Alexandra’s dorm, Seattle State University
“There’s that guy again!”
I can barely stop myself from yelling. How does he even find me? Does he jump from server to server ‘til my name comes up?
Audrey looks up from her reader, eyes drooping. “What?”
A small pause. “What?”
“That’s his username! C’mon, I’ve told you about it before. The dude that keeps showing up on the opposite team?”
“Ooh, yeah, yeah. Again, huh?”
My roommate doesn’t sound terribly interested. She doesn’t care much for the games I play. That’s alright, I don’t care much for the smut she reads.
“Third server in a row now. I swear, this guy’s stalking me. What kind of screen name is ‘Mouthwash,’ anyway?”
“Don’t you kill this guy, like, every chance you get?” There’s a smile in her voice. “Maybe you should stop doing that. You’re just egging him on.”
“It’s not my fault he’s so terrible! This is starting to creep me out. It’s gonna ruin this game for me.”
“You’re so dramatic. Just tell him to back off.”
“Yeah, sure, that’ll work. I’d just fuel his sick fantasies. Bet he’s getting off on this.”
“You don’t even know if it’s a guy!”
“It’s always a guy.”
“Yeah, obviously. Look, either send him a message telling him to piss off or stop being such a baby. It’s just a game.”
She puts down the e-reader, her mouth open in a huge yawn. I stubbornly suppress my own. “I’m turning in. You should too, it’s really late.”
“See ya tomorrow. Don’t yell at the computer too much, okay?”
Fine. I’ll just keep glaring at it.
User [Saudanaishi] has initiated chat with [MoutHwasH] at [01:46:03AM(PDT)]
[Saudanaishi][01:46:03AM]> hey man, will you stop stalking me already? i'll open a ticket if you don't stop.
[Saudanaishi][01:47:32AM]> what you don't think im serious? the mods will have you banned in no time, you creep. bet i'm not the first to have you reported either.
[MoutHwasH][01:48:11AM]> I'm sorry. You're the best player I've ever seen, was just trying to beat you. I'm usually much better than this... when you're not around to kill me all the time. I was hoping you hadn't noticed I was actively looking for you
[Saudanaishi][01:48:35AM]> dude, how could i NOT notice? you dont even change your screen name!
[MoutHwasH][01:48:36AM]> really sorry to bother you, I'll leave you alone
[Saudanaishi][01:49:20AM]> ... it's ok. it was just getting a bit unsettling, is all.
[Saudanaishi][01:49:25AM]> I might have overreacted a bit.
[MoutHwasH][01:49:41AM]> no, no, I can see how you'd be totally creeped out. It was really dumb to think you wouldn't notice
[MoutHwasH][01:51:12AM]> In my defense, it was out of respect for your mad skillz. And, uh... a bit of jealousy. And wanting to kill you at least *once*, jeez!
[Saudanaishi][01:51:28AM]> haha, you should really stop trying to get the jump on me. wiping the floor with you is getting ol
[Saudanaishi][01:51:29AM]> old* =P
[MoutHwasH][01:51:42AM]> rub salt in the wound, will ya. Well, gloat while you can! I'll beat you one of these days.
[MoutHwasH][01:51:50AM]> Possibly with a cheap shot.
[MoutHwasH][01:51:59AM]> You know, when I just so happen to join the same server you're in, completely at random. Yup.
[Saudanaishi][01:52:02AM]> uh-huh. good luck with that, chum. have fun eating dirt over and over again.
>> (01:54:51AM) Saudanaishi has obliterated MoutHwasH with a Grenade Launcher <<
[Saudanaishi][01:55:04AM]> you're soooooo slow, Mr. Dumb Stalker.
[MoutHwasH][01:55:12AM]> Great, now on top of getting my ass kicked I get hearty rations of sass to go with it
[Saudanaishi][01:55:20AM]> you brought it on yourself, shoulda picked an easier target.
>> (01:57:50AM) Saudanaishi has gunned down MoutHwasH with a Desert Eagle <<
[Saudanaishi][01:58:04AM]> somehow shooting you to death is so much more satisfying now, who coulda thunk it?
[MoutHwasH][01:58:25AM]> I'm so happy for you.
∞Queg traveled at arm’s length, leading the way. After countless twists, turns, ups and downs, Aaron finally gave up on memorizing their path.
There’s no point anyway, I was lost to begin with. Let’s just trust the friendly Lovecraftian monstrosity.
He looked over at Queg as they went up the umpteenth slope. The guy seemed to know exactly where they were going. Not once had he stopped to consider the next turn.
Was Queg a “he,” even?
“So, um,” Aaron said. “What exactly are you?”
Queg gave a start and slowed down for a moment. Finding the one particular path they were supposed to follow seemed to take up a large chunk of his concentration.
“A fair thing to ask,” he said in lights and hums. “You would answer such a question with ‘a human being,’ yes?”
The pause was just long enough for Aaron to interject a non-committal grunt.
“In my home realm, my species is called—” Queg pronounced it as a deep, rather grandiose sound accompanied by an equally impressive display of colors. It didn’t translate as a specific word in Aaron’s mind, but as a conglomerate of concepts instead: pathway seeker, servant of the gods, fourteenth generation. He let it linger for a little while, then continued. “We are mostly known as scouts and navigators among the Sapients, and we will carry information swiftly and reliably across great distances. Some of us actually broker this information, but it is too risky an enterprise, in my opinion. I belong to the mapping guild, as a matter of fact.
“Humans will usually refer to my kind as ‘Remoran,’ after the name they have given my home realm, ‘Remora.’ I have also been called ‘squid,’ ‘floater,’ ‘strobe,’ ‘bleeper’ and similar descriptive terms like ‘tentacled abomination.’ Dealing with your kind is challenging—no offense intended, of course. It depends on faction and region, mostly.
“Other Sapients, such as the Fermi, are far more diplomatic toward us, in general. They rely on denizens for long-range navigation, you understand. On the other extreme, the Petrichor will kill us on a proximity basis. My people remind them of a hated, monstrous species from Beyond, unfortunately.”
Questions kept popping up in Aaron’s head after Queg’s every other word, so many that he could hardly keep track of them. He settled on the one thing that had been nagging at him the whole time.
“How come I understand everything you say? I mean, I can even tell which words are capitalized. Somehow I don’t think you’re actually speaking English right now.”
“English.” Queg mulled over the word for a few seconds, as if trying to figure out what it was supposed to stand for. “Ah, yes, language. Another common question, I understand. I have been fortunate enough to be in good standing with a few human contacts, and one such was gracious enough to explain—”
Queg paused abruptly. The trail had taken them under a sinuous tunnel that had gradually narrowed to nearly all of Queg’s considerable girth. Aaron had been so engrossed in the conversation that he had barely noticed they’d gone underground.
The passage became so short that he had to bend down slightly in order to avoid hitting his head; Queg floated low enough to be almost crawling on his appendages. After a few claustrophobic bends, the tunnel gradually expanded towards an opening big enough to fit a small airliner.
Queg continued as if there had been no interruption, unfazed by the capricious nature of their path.
“The mechanics of it are unknown to me, but you are understanding me because you wish to do so, and I can understand you because you want me to.”
Aaron stopped walking. “Um, what?”
“I suppose it is a difficult concept. It is unique to Sapients, obviously.”
“I presume your Human peers will explain in more detail, in due time. You could test it, if you wish. Say something that you do not want me to understand.”
Aaron caught up to the alien, still wondering whether to take the explanation seriously. He would have been more willing to believe that a babelfish had been surreptitiously implanted in his ear.
Then again, Queg hadn’t made any attempts at humor so far, and Aaron doubted that the creature had suddenly decided to start playing pranks. It didn’t take him long to find something suitable to say.
“I am scared shitless.”
Queg’s laughter made him reconsider: maybe it was a prank after all. He still found it unnerving, the way he could tell that the alien was indeed laughing.
“You understood that, didn’t you.”
“Why, yes, and I cannot say I blame you. You misunderstood me, I think, or perhaps I misspoke. You must make a conscious effort for me not to understand what you are saying. It’s not enough to confess an embarrassing detail that you wouldn’t want me to know. Do try again.”
“Ah. Well, alright then.”
Aaron tried to do as he was told and fix in his head the notion of not being understood.
“I do not want you to understand this sentence,” he said, and raised a hopeful eyebrow at Queg. The alien was already shaking his head, which is to say uttering a quavering rumble while three of his light nodes lit up in different shades of blue.
“I’m afraid I understood that as well.”
“Well, it’s not so easy! When I talk to somebody in my own language it’s because I want to be understood. It’s like going against instinct.”
He’d actually felt it, somehow—the tug between the inertia of subconscious instinct and his will trying to go against it. It was as if he’d become more aware of the inner workings of his psyche.
Queg nodded, thoughtful. “You are a newborn. Although I can’t claim previous experience in dealing with one such as you, I would not be surprised if it takes a certain amount of practice to learn all the abilities that a Human would normally command. It would explain why the protocol urges that I escort you to safety as soon as possible. Newborns are known to be utterly defenseless when they first appear.”
To be described as “utterly defenseless” did nothing to improve Aaron’s outlook.
“Alright,” he said, “just so we’re clear, now. You aren’t dead, are you? That’s just me, right?”
A low-contrast shift let Aaron know that Queg nodded. “You are a Sapient, sir. You exist here after having lived, as do all Sapients. I am a denizen, and very much alive.”
That’s an answer, I guess.
They had cleared the cave to continue down a wide path that sunk in a long downward spiral. Tall walls at both sides of the path prevented Aaron from seeing much else.
He made a vague gesture at the scenery before them. “So what is this place, anyway?”
“We are in the Pathways, an ever-changing labyrinth that connects to most other realms. Its sheer size belies the amount of traffic it moves at any given time. You can go your entire trip sometimes without encountering any other travelers. Yet some routes are heavily traversed, while they last: Gorgers to Veal, for instance, or the way from the Spire to the Nexus.”
Of course the answer would contain some twenty things to ask about. Aaron picked one almost at random. “While they last?”
“The ways are alive, after a fashion. They shift constantly, slowly or abruptly. Sometimes in front of you. Sometimes all around you, unfortunately.”
Aaron eyed the way ahead with renewed apprehension. Could everything cave in at any moment? He tried not to think about it and moved on to the next question.
“When you say realms,” he said, “does that mean, like, kingdoms, other countries, or . . . .”
“Realms are . . . realms.”
Noticing Aaron’s befuddled expression, the Remoran made a rueful gesture with some of his appendages. “Forgive me. It is easy to forget that the things I take for granted are—ah! There it is.”
Queg propelled himself toward what had caught his attention, veering closer to the left side of the path. With all the fluttering tentacles and the fleshy orb brightening beneath them, the bustling alien was a sight that Aaron continually struggled to get used to.
He trotted to catch up to his guide and peered at the section of the wall with which Queg was interacting. Protruding out of the inner wall of the descending spiral was a tight cluster of glossy black stalks, just about the length of his arm and half as thick. They had flat tips at the end of flexible stems, and swayed lazily back and forth, side to side as if stroked by a gentle breeze that couldn’t decide which way to blow. They made a faint sound as they swayed, brief bleeps and hums ranging from rumbling to high-pitched. They rang atop one another and combined in a subdued tune of unpredictable patterns, and Aaron had to strain to hear them at all.
Queg leaned closer and wrapped one of his tentacles around a stalk with the sort of confidence that comes from extensive repetition. The previously supple stalk jolted straight to its full length, rigid under Queg’s unconcerned touch. He didn’t seem to be pulling on it; the thing had straightened by itself.
Aaron’s face was a list of unspoken questions, and Queg must have noticed, because he made a polite quieting gesture with two of his many free appendages. The Remoran went on to concentrate intently on the writhing mass of stalks in front of him.
Nothing moved for a good while, and soon Aaron was unable to keep still. He shifted his weight from foot to foot for a moment, then walked over to the slanted wall and slowly leaned against it, half expecting to sink into the strange material even if he knew it to be as hard as granite.
He looked at Queg from time to time through the corner of his eye. He felt awkward and out of place, burdened so with such overwhelming ignorance. Was it like this for every person that died back on Earth? Was everyone destined to stumble blindly through this place, hoping for some stranger to show up and lend a helping hand? A part of him wanted to deny what he was seeing, chalk it up to a hallucination and patiently wait to get done dying already.
It was hard not to feel humbled by the experience. The Universe had decided to toss all the known laws out the window and throw him into some bizarre after-death adventure.
It’s either that or I’m in Sunnydale’s mental asylum.
He thought about it for a while. Half the people he knew would be going crazy in this situation. Shouldn’t he have been reduced to gibbering madness as well? Would a normal person be moderately cool with having a tentacle monster guide them through a labyrinth of flesh? Why wasn’t he losing his sanity?
He’d have loved to believe that it was due to an open mind, steadfast wits, courage and adaptability. It only took him a moment of consideration to know the truth of it: he was just glad to be alive.
Or being, at the very least. He’d never been as aware of his will to exist as in those last moments, when the truth of what he was about to lose became clear. Alexandra’s charcoal eyes and everything he’d read in them were forever seared into his memory.
He leaned his head back so that it rested against the cool surface of the wall. His eyes idly scanned the myriad bridges and platforms that crowded above him. He did not see a single soul wandering those paths.
Aaron sighed. Alex had to be somewhere. If she’d been right all along, she would be in Heaven, sipping wine while lounging on a cloud, or whatever Heaven was like. He chuckled at the image of muscle-bound angels in tight shorts, cooling her with long feathery fans while waiting on her every command.
His amusement didn’t last long. Alexandra had dreaded the possibility of separation. She would be devastated.
And I made fun of it like a dumb-ass. I’m in for one hell of an “I told you so” when I find her.
Perhaps she would forget all about life on Earth upon entering Heaven. Or maybe she was given a duplicate version of everything she loved. Possibly she would be held in drug-addled contentment for eternity. Who could tell anymore? None of it sounded any more outlandish than his current situation.
Most likely, however, she had simply shown up somewhere in this place, just as lost as he was. It was the logical assumption to make.
Is it really? Or is it just what I’d like to believe?
Aaron shook his head. It was the only thing he could believe.
Hopefully she would get her very own guiding alien to take her to other humans. It stood to reason that his best chance for a reunion would be to comply with Queg and seek out his peers.
Queg’s weird voice brought him out of his reverie. “The realm interface hasn’t moved. It’s rare that they do, but it’s always best to make sure.”
He had released the stalk and looked pleased. I guess I don’t need to see the light patterns to understand him, Aaron mused as Queg floated closer. I didn’t think the humming was complex enough to carry so many words, but there you have it.
“I do apologize for the wait, sir. It is necessary to attune with the terminal.”
“You know, you can call me Aaron if you like.”
“As you wish, sir.” A small pause. “Aaron.”
“Well, you don’t have to. Whichever you’re comfortable with, I mean.”
“I understand. Thank you, sir.”
“No problem.” Aaron hooked a thumb at the strange tendrils Queg had been consulting. “I guess you were asking directions?”
“After a fashion, yes. It will be a short trip. If you please?” The guide gestured to continue their journey down the path.
Aaron pushed himself away from the wall and obliged. He stared at the sway of the stalks as he strode past them. Their whimsical beeping noises were almost a melody, like the random toll of a dozen wind chimes.
“The tendrils run through the entirety of the Pathways,” Queg explained. “Some say they are the Pathways, but I beg to differ. You might glimpse them beneath the surface, if you look carefully. The terminal I just used is one of many thousands. You can locate them if you listen closely to the ripples.”
Aaron internalized a sigh. Was he ever going to get an answer that didn’t contain ten new concepts to puzzle out? “So you were actually talking to those things? To this place?”
“Not quite talking. We tap into the Pathways’ extensive network, and find what we are looking for much the same way you would find the tip of your thirteenth tentacle. You know it’s there, you see. The communion with the tendril that runs your desired path lingers for a time, allowing for continued navigation.”
“That’s . . . wow. That’s something, alright.”
“It’s the current theory, in any case.”
Aaron arched an eyebrow. “Current theory? What do you mean, current theory?”
It was Queg’s turn to sound puzzled. “Well, it is the best explanation available. It could be proven wrong, the way others have. And there are other plausible explanations that have not yet been discredited, such as the feedback theory. I can’t say I ascribe any merit to that one, however.”
He blinked a few times. “But don’t you just know? Like, the truth?”
Queg frowned thoughtfully with a combination of high-contrast light nodes. He spoke in a tentative manner, not quite understanding. “How could anyone simply know, sir? Aaron.”
“Well, you tell me! This is the afterlife, isn’t it? I just thought . . . .”
I thought the truth would no longer be a matter of speculation.
Aaron gave his guide a side-long look. “Are you really saying there’s scientific discourse here? What, there’s this committee that peer-reviews submissions and makes pronouncements? Do arguments break out between crazy tentacled nerds about data gathering guidelines?” He had transitioned from flippant to strident by the end of the sentence.
Queg answered without a trace of levity. “Oh, nothing like that. These are Remoran theories. The Pathways are central to our existence, and so we strive to understand them as best we can. There is no pronounced consensus between the different Sapient communities, fractured and independent as they are.”
“Okay, sure. Awesome.”
“I understand Humans have an extensive body of research on these matters, however. Access is restricted, of course.”
There’s theories now. And scientists, and research. What’s next? Money? A job? A friggin’ mortgage?
The conversation lulled into thoughtful silence as Aaron readjusted his vision of the afterlife yet again. The path down the spiral had narrowed steadily while they talked, but was still wide enough to accommodate an entire football team. The walls on either side were shorter by then, and the view beyond revealed only more paths, platforms, amorphous structures without rhyme or reason. Queg had said that the trip would be short, but for Aaron there was no end in sight.
“If I may ask,” Queg suddenly spoke up, hesitant. “You asked about realms earlier, as though they do not exist in the Beyond. Is it true that Sapients live on balls of soil floating in empty space?”
Aaron barked a short laugh and then felt ashamed of it. Probably his every question had sounded just as silly to Queg. His guide didn’t seem to mind his lack of finesse.
“I’m . . . not sure what you mean with ‘Sapients,’” he responded. That would definitely be his next question. “But I can tell you that humans inhabit a planet called Earth in, um, life.”
It felt odd, talking as if he was no longer alive.
“I guess you could say Earth is a ‘ball of soil,’” he continued, “but it’s a gross oversimplification. A planet is a spherical body of matter in orbit around a star. A really huge sphere. Enormous. There’s tons of them in the Universe, but relatively few can support life. Earth is one of them.”
He went on to explain as best as he could water and land, rock and magma. It segued into oxygen, orbits, seasons, tides and the moon; the heat of the sun and the relative position of Earth in the solar system. Queg listened intently, openly disbelieving at times, asking brief questions wherever he needed further explanations. Aaron was only happy to oblige, admittedly feeling quite smug about it. It felt nice to be the one imparting knowledge after being stuck with the role of clueless simpleton for so long.
It was while explaining the sheer size of the Universe that he realized what all these questions meant. Queg found it all quite far-fetched, and some things outright preposterous. He wanted to know all about planets, moons, stars, seasons, day and night. Aaron had a hard time going into detail because the very concepts were completely alien to the creature. He had been so wrapped up explaining everything that the obvious implications hadn’t dawned on him until then.
He interrupted the lecture and eyed Queg warily. “Are you telling me that there is no such thing as day and night anywhere here?”
“I’m afraid I did not even know what to make of those words until you explained. Entirely new concepts sound like a jumble, like when a Sapient obfuscates their speech. It is still hard to grasp, but you have been a great help.”
Aaron took Queg’s response quietly, fully intending to file it in the growing list of incongruities. Don’t think about it too much, he told himself. It isn’t even the strangest thing so far. Move on to the next question.
But he couldn’t. The new knowledge dug a hole through his composure and burrowed deep into his psyche, and in its wake came a barrage of brand new, far more disturbing questions. If there were no day and night, no planets, no galaxies . . . what else was missing? Was there weather? An atmosphere? What exactly was he breathing, if not molecules made up of atoms made in stars? What medium carried words from his face to Queg’s?
The questions carried on, challenging everything from the existence of gravity to the composition of his clothes. They hammered a simple truth into his head: all things, all things were different—not just perception, architecture, customs or species, but the very structure of the Universe, of reality. The fact that he might no longer be made of atoms carved a lair into his thoughts, and this time the resulting migraine was entirely too painful to ignore.
He couldn’t expect anything to follow real-world logic anymore. Every facet of causality was suspect. Every rule needed to be re-examined. It was time to throw away preconceptions, stop wasting time with disbelief and simply take what came at face value.
If nothing else, it would save him a great deal of frustration.
It seemed to help with the crippling pain in his temples, at least. That’s what he needed to do: take things in stride. The talking tentacle monster wanted him to meet the Human Overlords? Super. The ground beneath his feet could shift and swallow him up at any moment? Fun times. He was actually breathing sublimated chocolate pudding? Awesome.
Aaron looked around, realizing he’d completely lost track of his surroundings. He stood in the middle of the path, looking into nothingness, Queg patiently hovering in front of him. There was concern in its alien features.
“Uh, sorry about that,” Aaron said. “I was . . . adjusting.”
“I apologize, Aaron. I did not intend to cause you discomfort. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, man, it’s fine, it’s alright. I’m glad you did. I’m good now, we can keep going.”
“Of course. We are almost there.”
They resumed their way down the clockwise spiral, which had narrowed considerably since Aaron had last bothered to check. The path they’d already traveled sprawled above him by then. He hadn’t realized they’d gone so far down.
Queg motioned him toward a break in the outer wall. Aaron approached it, and had to do a double-take the moment he saw what lay beyond.
The exit turned out to be little more than a gnarled trail, barely wide enough for a sane man to walk on. It dove down in a dangerously steep incline mitigated only by irregularly spaced steps. There wasn’t even a rail to hold on to. It twisted and turned whimsically, supported by a whole lot of nothing all the way to the next platform, which was a long, long way down. The platform it led to was a plateau that sprouted out of a larger formation reminiscent of a mountain range, with many more paths leading to it or its immediate vicinity.
The sense of depth was mind-boggling. He’d never had problems with heights before, but the view underneath the trail was enough to make his head spin. He could see dozens, hundreds more platforms farther below, and a tangle of paths and bridges interconnecting them in labyrinthine ways. There was no bottom to it. Every feature kept on intertwining until it fell out of sight behind one shape or another.
Queg started on his way down without a hint of hesitation, easily banking this way and that. Aaron watched him for a time, then threw another wary look down the path ahead. Finally he squatted, planted his butt on the uneven surface, and used hands and feet to drag his ass down the slope.
Queg made his version of shaking his head and muttered something about newborns that Aaron didn’t quite make out. He could tell the alien was chuckling.
Freakin’ hilarious! Wait ‘til I fall a hundred stories and splat on the ground, we’ll all laugh then!
Grumbling under his breath about floating comedians and how it’d be easier if he were a flying octopus himself, he slowly dragged his behind down the treacherous path.
There’s people down there?
He’d happened to peer over the edge of the trail at one of the numerous sharp turns halfway down the path. Aaron would have noticed them much earlier if he hadn’t been so concentrated on not falling off a cliff.
The Remoran turned to face him. “Do you require assistance?”
“I’m alright. Did you notice there are people down there?”
He wasn’t certain that they were actual people. They stood in pairs at opposite sides of the platform—dark, bulky, motionless. They looked more like statues than guards.
“Why, they are sentries,” Queg said. “Humans are selective about travelers going into most of their realms.” Queg paused, lifting appendages in a placating gesture. “Most of the Sapients are, for good reasons. There should—oh.”
Aaron looked down again to see what had captured Queg’s attention. His breath caught. “What the shit is that!”
“I don’t know,” Queg answered. “I have not come across them before.”
“Is it a dinosaur?”
“I do not know what that is.”
“It’s got too many legs to be a dinosaur.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
It was a giant lizard, more or less, as big as two buses side-by-side. Trudging on three sets of legs up the widest path leading to the plateau, it had an enormous head, a stocky neck and a long tail that lazily lashed from side to side when it moved. Its body kept low to the ground as it lumbered laboriously up the slope.
“Oh man, there’s more than one?”
Another one had just made it around the bend. Its hide was a colorful gradient that went from dark brown at the tail, red and orange through their midsection, to bright yellow at the top of the head. Black stripes wrapped around the upper half of their back, while a mane of spine-like white hair covered their necks and patched the back of their legs.
“The standard sample size to bring in is five,” Queg helpfully contributed.
Third and fourth came into view. Stripes and colors varied subtly, as did the shape of their heads. Their unconcerned stare gave the creatures the dim-witted look of mindless cattle.
Five creatures in all were guided by a number of short figures equipped with long prodding sticks. They moved in quick, stop-start bursts of activity, like startled rodents.
This is cool, man. I’m cool with this. There’s no need to panic, just take it in stride.
“What are those things?” Aaron asked again, one hundred percent calm and collected and not intimidated in the slightest. “What’s their deal, I mean. Is this normal, or . . . .”
“As I mentioned, I haven’t encountered these denizens before, but the Caretakers are always looking for new exotic pets for their zoos—reservations, I mean. They could also be bound for research. One doesn’t exclude the other.”
“Are the Caretakers those little fellows poking sticks at the things?”
It took a moment for Queg to realize what Aaron was referring to. “Oh, no. Those are just herders, likely hunters looking for favor, if it’s a good find.” He paused, wary. “I’m not supposed to talk to you about Human factions. They would not be pleased, and in any case everything I say would be inaccurate. Please forget I mentioned the Caretakers. You would do me a great kindness if you said that I did not give you any information about Humans, beyond how necessary it is for you to join them.”
Aaron swallowed the questions at the tip of his tongue. “Uh, sure. Don’t worry about it, I won’t say a word.”
These people I’m going to meet sound so very nice. Can’t friggin’ wait.
He kept watching as the herd reached the plateau and advanced toward the space between the sentries. The group stopped, and one of the little herders went up to the bulky humanoid shapes. A minute or two went by without anything happening.
Abruptly the whole procession started moving again, past the sentries and toward the large mound of fleshy stone that connected to the platform. They kept going until they all disappeared under it. There must have been a large tunnel or passage that he wasn’t able to see from above.
Queg patiently hovered by his side.
“Shall we go, sir?”
Aaron pursed his lips and wearily eyed the precarious way down. He sighed, nodded halfheartedly, and got ready to resume dragging his butt down the slope.
The sentries were not human at all.
Oh, they had two arms, and two legs, and a head. That’s as far as similarities went. Aaron kept on staring at the things that stood some twenty meters away, unwilling to move despite Queg’s reassurances that there should be no trouble whatsoever.
“They’re supposed to be intimidating by design,” Queg was saying. “They remind visitors of the consequences of hostility toward Humans. These are definitely not the worst I’ve encountered.”
Aaron eyed the pitch-black, three-meter-tall armor sets; the jagged spikes and malevolent horns; the wicked hand weapons and the tower shields shaped in the image of contorted visages silently wailing in a perpetual snarl.
He turned to face his guide.
“Queg. I know you’re not supposed to tell me certain things, but these people have Chaos Warriors for doormen. I’m not taking another step until you tell me what kind of people these humans are.”
Queg wobbled uneasily. “You need not fear. Nothing will harm you here. You must let me take you to them, sir.”
The Remoran was almost squirming. The more Aaron learned, the less he wanted to go through with this whole plan.
“There are no real options for you, sir,” Queg went on. “Fending for yourself would be all but impossible. Should you encounter other Sapients, they would know right away how defenseless you are, and the Truce of the Pathways is circumvented whenever it can be done quietly. Even denizens will not be as friendly as I have been. Far from it, if they can get away with it. Other friendly denizens like myself will only behave the same way I have, urging you to accompany them to Human realms. Even if you managed to avoid hostile encounters, in isolation you would be likely to lose yourself, or scatter by your own hand.”
Queg hovered just a bit closer, and his appendages reached out in a pleading gesture. “Please, Aaron. I cannot say I understand your apprehension. Humans are respected, feared or worshiped throughout the realms, it has always been so. Other lesser species resent their power, and the sentries are necessary to deter would-be attackers. I assure you that no harm will come to you, and I will be greatly rewarded for my service. Do allow me to take you to them.”
Aaron just stared, indecision plain on his face.
It’s impossible to make choices when I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.
Nothing has really changed, though. No matter how bad they are, other humans are still my best chance to find her.
Don’t chicken out now.
“Alright, Queg,” he said at the end of a sigh. “Lead the way.”
He had expected such fearsome guards to stand before some sort of grand display, like the massive iron doors of an ancient castle, or a shimmering portal into the unknown, magical and mysterious. A Stargate, perhaps. The plain downward tunnel beyond the sentries, while tall and spacious, was a sound disappointment.
Queg drifted forth without a hint of concern. Aaron followed at a distance. The emerging details considerably slowed his advance.
Two curved blades, a barbed flail and a massive mace came into view, each one of them full of sharp edges and elaborate engravings glowing red on black steel. They were poised low and ready to swing. The sentries had faces that might have been skulls or helmets, with rows of sharp teeth for mouths and smoldering blue fire for eyes. The eerie flames flickered and danced unnaturally, more like smoke than fire.
Those eyes followed Aaron’s every move. He got the distinct impression that they disapproved of what they saw.
Always respectful, Queg turned as he moved and made a reassuring gesture, urging him to keep going. The guide stopped in front of the pair of sentries on the left hand side.
“This is Queg Remora of the Fourteenth,” he intoned. “I request audience with the exalted Ming Xiu Thousand Rivers, may the Unbound honor and guard her.” He waited for a heartbeat. “I bring a newborn.”
Queg’s tone was such that Aaron expected to hear a gasp coming from the statues, or a flurry of activity at the announcement, or a trap door suddenly opening under his feet to whisk him away.
There was only silence as those burning eyes continued to bore into his skull.
A minute passed. Queg waited anxiously while Aaron kept a respectful distance, his imagination full of vivid images in which the sentries came to life, spilled his guts all over the floor and played a fine game of baseball with his head.
He was starting to wonder whether they would have to stand there forever when every one of the nightmarish statues bowed their head in unison. Then they arched their shields outwards in a motion that unequivocally granted passage into the tunnel ahead. No words, no other signs of acknowledgment.
Queg bounded ahead without hesitation. Aaron followed, skirting away from the immobile monsters like a kid hurrying out of a dark hallway and into the safe brightness of his bedroom.
“Excellent!” Queg said, visibly pleased with the exchange. “We are almost at the end of our short journey. Such fortunate happenstance, to have come upon one another so close to Thousand Rivers. I did say there would be no difficulties at this gate. Thousand Rivers is a haven for denizens. The Caretakers are just and generous, and I am sure you will find them quite pleasant. Ah, again I mention things I shouldn’t. Please forget I said that last part. Mistress Ming Xiu will be most pleased to meet you, of that I am sure. Why, I would wager—”
Catching up, Aaron cut into the alien’s chatter. “What happens when they refuse entry, Queg?”
“Ah, I wouldn’t know from experience.” He shifted around uncomfortably. “They wouldn’t invite you in the way they did, I suppose, and you would be expected to leave. If it is decided that you have brought harmful intentions, I have it in good authority that you will be hacked to pieces quite expediently. Of course, you would have to be mad to bring harmful intentions to a Human doorstep. It does happen, now and then. They all become cautionary tales.”
More wonderful hints at how very friendly humans were in this place. Aaron tried not to dwell on it.
“What will be your reward for helping me? Please don’t say something like ‘five million gold pieces.’ I don’t know if I could handle that.”
“Why, I’ll—ah! We are about to enter Thousand Rivers. It will feel peculiar, but do not be alarmed.”
Aaron looked around the tunnel for any signs that there was indeed a transition into somewhere else. The previously plain walls were giving way to increasingly frequent green streaks, populating random sections of the tunnel like open gashes in the flesh of the stone. There was a certain texture to them, like dense moss, and some had bits of dark brown, possibly the soil underneath. As they traveled farther, the floor of the cave gradually gave way to softer ground, earthy colors at times covered with short grass. Stepping on it was a definite improvement over the rock-solid path they’d tread so far.
By the time they reached a point where there was an even distribution of greens and reds, Aaron became aware of the peculiar transition Queg had mentioned. It was as if they’d gone through an invisible barrier beyond which everything felt lighter, colors grew brighter, the air became more fragrant. The most curious feeling was the new spring to his step, as if his feet were ready to leave the ground and send him gliding right next to his guide. Queg floated higher than usual, looking content.
A surge of jitters whirled in Aaron’s belly. At last he would meet some fellow human beings. Hopefully they’d have real answers to his one hundred questions—starting with the one thing he couldn’t stop thinking about.
What in the nine hells had happened to Alexandra?
∞Peering around one of the intricately engraved pillars, Alex watched as a group of gnarled creatures surveyed the area where she had fought for survival. Now that she could take a good look at them, she was certain that these things could be nothing but demons.
Giant slug monsters would have been grotesque enough. These creatures took it even further, with four sets of claw-clad arms sprouting from their torsos at asymmetrical intervals; a wide snout that came out of their underbelly and constantly snorted at the ground, like that of a hog searching for truffles; a cluster of antennae that probed and twitched in all directions atop their headless, faceless bodies. They stood just shy of shoulder-height, walking on four stout legs with right-angled toes that dug firmly into the gravel. Their hide, thick and coarse, was a blend of tan and deep blue.
Alexandra grimly watched the sway of their tail. Long and flexible, it looked like just the thing to wrap around somebody’s neck.
She squatted with her back against the column, leaning her head against the cool stone as she listened to the crunch of their steps. There had been worse on the Nature channel, she told herself. Fleas were terrifying bugs when looked at under the microscope. Most insects were nightmarish beasts up-close. Countless creatures under the ocean could pass for horrendous aliens far scarier than these.
You can do this. Come on, you can do this, Alex. You did it before, you know how to fight, it’s gonna work. They’re just dummies at the gym. You can do it.
She glanced around the pillar again, noting their position. The closest one by the slime spatter on the floor. Three by the far side of the hall, next to the mangled corpse, their backs turned away from her. Two more, farther down the hallway, almost out of sight. And another in the middle, the big one, the one with dark chitinous plates and a tangible aura of menace. It seemed to be the one issuing orders.
Her breath quickened.
They’ll kill you if they get the chance. Are you going to let them hunt you? Best to attack when they’re distracted. Best to get the jump on them right now. You can do it, Alex, come on. If they’re just as squishy as the others, they’ll drop fast.
Coming up with this plan had been easy. Gathering the guts to carry it out, not so much. She felt ridiculous at that moment, hunched behind a pillar, goading herself to attack a group of Hellspawn monsters that surely had infinite numbers with which to hunt her. Maybe this was all part of her punishment: to struggle, to fight for survival, to build up her hopes just so they could be crushed later on. Any information she obtained would be specifically designed to get her nowhere.
Once more she forced herself to rein in self-doubt. Even if there truly was no hope, it made no difference. Everything came down to a simple choice: to remain idle, or to take action.
It was an easy choice.
Nothing to lose, Alex. Nothing to lose.
She kept her attention on the scene in front of her. The trio by the corpse went separate ways from the rest, a bit farther away. The lone creature by the pool of slime edged closer, seeming only interested in what lay in front of it, while the rest had gone out of her immediate sight and would not see her coming.
It was time. She took a few more quick breaths through gritted teeth.
Go now! Now, damn you, NOW!
Her toes scratched in the gravel to gain a firm footing, her every muscle tensed, her hands clenched against the pillar. With her insides tied up in knots, Alexandra sprang out of cover and dashed forward.
The thumping of her feet against the ground didn’t go unnoticed. By the third stride the thing that was closest had turned to face her. The fourth stride had it backing away slightly, its appendages spread in what she could only interpret as shock. The fifth stride became a jump that contained every ounce of strength she could muster. She extended her leg at the apex, let out a howl that she couldn’t have contained even if she had tried, and aimed her foot at the midsection of the wretched monster. All her anger and frustration were focused on that foot.
Her kick connected, and it was as if the creature wasn’t even there. She plowed through it in an explosion of slime that surely would have blinded her, had she not looked away and shielded her eyes at the right moment. She landed at such speed that she skidded through the soiled gravel on foot and knee a full two yards before regaining control of her movement, her features twisted in a pained snarl. The grind against the sharp shards only added fuel to the fire.
She propelled herself at a full run towards the pair of creatures to her left, leaving the other four farther behind. Every one of them looked stunned by her sudden appearance.
Alexandra closed the distance to the two monsters before they were done turning. They screamed incoherently at her, and . . . were they trying to run away? The thought fleeted at the brink of awareness and was quickly banished. There were only the demons and the sequence of movements necessary to survive them. Nothing else could matter.
Fear rippled through her as she lunged between them without slowing down. She crouched under and past flailing claws and threw her entire body behind a wide swing of her right arm. The limb sliced messily through the creature’s mid-section.
Alexandra’s cry was half growl and half scream as she felt the alien flesh rip and tear against her skin. She wanted to recoil in disgust, curl into a ball and throw up; she wanted to escape from their voices, run away and keep running until she could no longer hear their agonizing wails.
She forced herself to dig hands and feet on the gravel, skidding as she spun around to face the other one. It had no face to decipher, no body language that she could understand, but in the split second that it took for her to throw herself at it, somehow she knew that the thing was terrified.
Her hand seized one of the gnarly arms clawing at her, and she pulled. She had only wanted to add momentum to the knee-thrust that should have caved in the thing’s torso, but she fumbled as her hand crushed the appendage as if it was made of wet clay. Half the arm was severed from the beast with a gut-wrenching sound, the other half of it twisted into an oozing stump.
Her balance upset, she plunged without control shoulder-first into the bellowing beast. While the impact didn’t carry enough force to maim the thing outright, it was enough to send it sprawling backwards and away at a disproportionate speed. It hit one of the pillars nearby with a wet crunch and collapsed, silent and motionless.
Alexandra didn’t understand why her blows seemed to carry such incredible strength, but she was not about to start questioning it. There were four more to go.
She turned around to face the rest, expecting them to have spread out to surround her. She was surprised to find the trio of so-called demons cowering behind the large one, hardly twenty feet away. The big one regarded her with a mix of indignation, apprehension and hatred.
Attack while they are weak.
She held back against the impulse. She could feel its hatred at a physical level, somehow, like waves emanating from it. This thing wanted her bound and tortured, and it looked capable of doing just that all by itself.
She bared her teeth in what she hoped was an intimidating snarl. Her fists, sickly juices dripping from them onto the ground, were clenched so hard that they were shaking.
“You will tell me what I want to know, demon, or I will slaughter every last one of you.”
Laughable empty threats, the voice of self-doubt came. How many before you tried to fight as well?
The cowering creatures whimpered pitifully and crowded even closer together. The hatred coming from the big one intensified. Was it protective of the smaller ones? Should Hellspawn care about one another?
She had only a second to ready herself before the thing let out a bloodcurdling screech and sprung toward her like a coiled viper. Alexandra threw herself out of the way, barely avoiding snapping claws and lashing tail. She strove to ignore the rough landing on the gravel and the new scrapes that came with it, rolling awkwardly on her side and springing to her feet as quickly as she could.
The beast skidded forward as it tried to change direction, its wits buried beneath an avalanche of rage. Without any time to lose, Alexandra ran and leaped after it, left hand frantically grabbing at its flailing tail, the other made into a fist and raised over her head. Her teeth were bared with enough ferocity to match the demon’s.
She punched the monster’s back with every ounce of her strength, hoping her new-found superpowers would make short work of it. The chitinous plate looked so solid, though. Too solid. She knew it the instant before her hand made contact.
It was like punching a slab of granite. Alexandra grunted in shock through gritted teeth, feeling knuckles give way and bones break past her wrist. Her vision blurred as the tide of pain crashed through her arm and flooded her senses.
Her legs went limp and she fell against the writhing creature, the thrust from her jump carrying over onto the landing and sending both bodies stumbling forward. Out of instinct she twisted to shield her injured arm before she came down hard against the ground, her shoulder bearing most of the impact as shards of gravel flew everywhere around them.
The demon kept its balance easily on its four legs. It turned and closed the short distance between them in a heartbeat.
What had been pained moans through a clenched jaw turned into an agonized scream as the demon’s tail wrapped around her broken limb and jerked her upright. The chitinous monster dangled her in mid-air for an interminable moment, her screams becoming wailing sobs as shattered bones crushed together, ripping and grinding against her flesh. It pulled her even closer and let out another screech that she couldn’t understand. Alexandra was barely aware of anything other than the unbearable throbs spreading through her entire body.
Can a soul have broken bones?
The thought came out of nowhere and vanished as quickly as it had come. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t think, she could only feel pain so intense that it clawed at her sanity.
It was the pincer that suddenly stabbed her just above the knee that sent her over the edge.
She had to make it stop. There was nothing else.
Her free hand darted around another claw and clamped around one of the demon’s other arms: a thick, awry thing ending in a razor-sharp talon.
Alexandra pulled with strength born of desperation, pulled with the grim knowledge that her leverage rested on a mangled limb and an impaled thigh. Like a demented mantra, only one thought repeated in her head above the pain.
Nothing to lose.
The extremity twisted off the beast’s body like a sapling being uprooted from the earth. The demon’s shrieks became almost loud enough to match her own. Her leg was fire, her hand was a blinding ball of torment still clutched by the thing’s tail, but she forced herself to keep pulling and twisting until the limb yanked free. Dark yellow fluids immediately sprayed and oozed from the ghastly wound.
She refused to relent even as the enraged creature shook her violently. She tossed aside the useless hunk of flesh and reached for the closest thing she could grab, determined to cause as much damage as she could. The beast whipped around in a frenzy, its tail flexing and extending, tossing her about in a wild fit that dislodged whatever was stabbing her thigh. She had thought it impossible for the pain to get any worse, but she had been terribly mistaken.
Blinded by the unbearable jolts traveling up her maimed limbs, she grabbed aimlessly with her free hand at anything at all that she could rip apart from this hideous thing that wouldn’t let go of her wrist. Something landed on her extended palm, and her fingers clamped on it like talons on prey.
She twisted. She pulled.
This time the demon’s screech far surpassed Alexandra’s pained sobs. It released her in mid-motion, sending her sprawling across the ground. Her awful trip came to an abrupt halt when she thumped against a column. Even as she struggled to get air in her lungs, the agony in the beast’s high-pitched wails gave her a modicum of satisfaction.
Her muscles refused to obey. She was unable to do anything but lie still, all her efforts concentrated on breathing in and out. It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds.
She strained to sit upright, moans escaping through bloodied lips and gritted teeth. She’d bitten her tongue at some point. A look at her good hand confirmed her suspicion: she’d torn off a handful of those thick antennae that sprouted at the top of the monster. Judging by the ongoing screeches, these demons were quite attached to their antennae.
Not this one anymore, she thought with a mirthless chuckle that turned into a groan.
She tossed aside the disgusting things, and in doing so she caught sight of her injured leg. It was a clean puncture wound on her quad, right above the knee and on the outer side of her thigh. Blood already soaked her battered purple sweatpants, making the fabric cling uncomfortably to her skin. Hopefully she would be able to limp her way through this.
She didn’t want to find out how her hand looked. She might truly empty her stomach at the sight of it, if it looked half as bad as it felt.
You’re not done yet. Finish what you started.
Alexandra couldn’t help crying out as she pushed herself upright against the pillar. She cast a quick glance around and was relieved to see that the remaining lesser demons were nowhere to be seen. Whether they’d fled in terror or gone to seek help, she wouldn’t have to deal with them for now.
The chitinous beast writhed on the ground, its agony subsiding into gurgled whimpers as it thrashed about. Slowly she limped toward it, jaw aching from how long she had clenched it. Shallow breaths that came in spurts were all that she could manage as she put one foot in front of the other, awkwardly trying to keep all the weight on her good leg.
By the time she got to the creature it twitched feebly on its side, uttering faint noises that Alexandra took as pained moans. That viscous liquid that was the demon’s blood continued to pour from its wounded stumps.
Don’t you die on me now, you son of a bitch. There’s no way I can do this again.
The beast recoiled when she bent over and stretched her arm toward it, but went deathly still when her hand wrapped around and tugged at the remainder of the antennae.
“You will answer my questions,” she rasped. It was all that she could manage.
Alexandra could feel the creature’s anger returning. When it spoke, the screeching sounds somehow translated into words she could understand, albeit crudely.
“You no get anything, biped! I no give you anything!”
Alexandra’s scowl deepened.
“Where are other humans kept? How can I reach them?”
There was only a strangled trill for a response. The thing was laughing at her.
She gave the antennae a sharp tug that stopped the laughter dead.
“You will answer,” she said, and a different approach occurred to her then. “Or I will hunt down the ones that fled and give them pain that will make your fate seem merciful.”
A part of her was startled at the words coming out of her mouth. It wasn’t just a threat, she knew. She would do it, if that’s what it took to loosen the monster’s tongue and get the information she sought.
It wasn’t something a nice person would do.
You have nothing to lose, Alex. You are already damned.
“Can’t trust biped,” the thing said. “You go after, you kill anyway!”
Her last shreds of patience vanished. She yanked again, hard enough for something to start ripping. She yelled over the demon’s agonized cries. “You are in no position to bargain, you worthless shit! I’ll go get them right now!”
The thing talked as soon as it could stop screaming. All defiance had evaporated. “Not hurt them. Not hurt them, I beg. I answer all. I not know all, but I answer all.”
What kind of demon was this? It didn’t even seem very bright. The anguish in its alien voice was enough to make her determination falter.
It would kill you if it could. It tried to do just that. You can’t afford guilt. You can’t afford mercy.
She made a conscious effort to harden her resolve.
“I have to find someone. His name is Aaron Gretchen. Do you know where he is?”
The monster took a moment to respond. “I not know names,” it said. Its stump twitched and oozed.
Alexandra scowled and tried to organize her thoughts. The daunting scope of her task became clear as she searched for the right questions to ask.
I need to learn the lay of the land. Even the Pit of Damnation needs to have some sort of structure.
Might as well get the obvious question out of the way.
“Where are non-believers kept, and how could I reach them?”
The creature appeared uncertain. “You look for more bipeds? Like you?”
“Not just anybody.”
Her grip had begun to shake. Bending over the demon was torture, but she did not dare release it to get more comfortable.
“This not good realm for you,” the demon said. “You only one here. Go other realms. Find more bipeds. I tell you way out!”
So she’d gotten her very own realm. Was that the way it went? A small pocket of warped reality for every soul?
“What is this realm supposed to be? Why did I come here?”
“This realm, Carved Barrow.” It paused. “You, newborn. Newborn very weak, very dumb. Sever on sight. Not supposed to fight back.” The alien’s comment was deeply reproachful.
“Why? What did I do to deserve that? Why did you attack me?”
“All bipeds evil! You newborn biped, easy to sever, easy to be rid of evil. You kill clan, you hunt clan! Clan fight back! No bipeds wanted in Carved—”
She cut the rant short with another sharp pull that sent the demon writhing and screaming in pain.
“What the hell are you talking about? You’re a goddamn demon! Do you think you can feed me bullshit like this? I swear I will make you regret—”
“No hurt! No hurt!” the creature responded in shrieks, trampling over her words. Alexandra realized that she had kept pulling without meaning to. “I say truth! Clan keep stories, Clan say newborn all crazy like you!
“This realm, one of many. Clan live in Carved Barrow. Clan proud of Carved Barrow! Clan not let bipeds take over, many deaths, much blood. Bipeds say, not worth fighting Clan. Many bipeds in other realms. You go Nexus, you go other realms, you leave Carved Barrow. This all I know, I beg.”
Frustration swelled even further. None of it made sense. She’d risked her neck to interrogate this wretched monster, and it made no damn sense! Was there even a point to it? Wasn’t all this a simple illusion of freedom? Would she turn out to be a rat in a labyrinth, trapped to relive the same futile quest for eternity in her tiny little pocket of reality?
You’re wasting time retreading pointless questions. It comes down to the same choice as before: you fight, or you give up.
Her captive took her thoughtful silence as an invitation to continue. “Nexus gate out that way.” It made a vague gesture with one of its remaining arms in the direction she’d been running earlier. “Go Mount-bound outside, turn Temple-bound upon crossing chasm. Gate five chasms Temple-bound. Cross gate, Nexus seven chasms Mount-bound.”
Alexandra barked out a laugh that became a grimace. Somehow the distances had seamlessly translated into miles in her head.
“Fifty-something miles,” she said, hoarse and out of breath. “I’ll fall over before I walk fifty feet.”
She was ready to fall over right there and then. The stab wound was becoming too much to bear in her current position. Her crushed hand got worse with every passing second.
What will you do once this interrogation is over? Will you leave this thing here, so it can recover and chase you down?
Will you kill it in cold blood?
She put the disturbing thoughts out of her mind.
“You keep calling me a newborn. Why?”
“Stories say bipeds appear in realms, anywhere. Not common in Carved Barrow, but happens. Always crazy, always wild, like hatchlings, like you! Always afraid of Clan.”
“You attacked me first!”
“You always kill Clan! No friends, never friends, you always kill!”
“What the hell are you talking about!” She pulled again, but it only fed the monster’s anger.
“Clan hunt newborn, sever newborn, Clan hate all bipeds, Clan hate you! Hate you!” Suddenly it lunged at her, claws and talons all outstretched to rip her apart.
Alexandra didn’t have time to think. She yanked as hard as she could while scrambling to get away.
She stumbled when her injured leg failed to bear her weight. She fell awkwardly on her backside, and the landing sent yet another jolt of pain through her limbs. She struggled to keep still, hoping for the worst of it to pass.
The beast’s high-pitched howls reached new heights as it contorted and twisted where it lay, thrashing mindlessly, extremities flailing wildly. The whole handful of antennae was still in Alexandra’s hand, yellowish blood oozing all over her skin. She tossed them aside with a disgusted shudder.
The screams died out abruptly before she had time to even shake off the dizziness. She looked up to see the demon lying almost motionless, twitching in its death throes. She would have put some more distance between the dying monster and herself, but she couldn’t fathom the thought of moving even an inch.
Alexandra sat there, staring at the thing. A part of her couldn’t help feeling sorry for the beast, despite it all. She stuffed that part of her into a chest, locked the lid, and threw the chest down a bottomless pit.
She’d asked herself whether she could have killed it in cold blood. It was a great relief to leave that question unanswered.
Fifty miles. I need to walk over fifty miles to get out of here, if this thing can be trusted at all.
She labored to repeat the directions in her head, just in case she decided to follow them. The terrible pain from her injuries made it nearly impossible to concentrate. Its sharp edges had dulled slightly, but were still far from manageable. The throbbing was unrelenting, while her whole arm felt numb and limp at her side. She still dreaded taking a good look at it.
Lord, how am I going to get any of it fixed?
Alexandra pushed the worry out of her mind, with some effort. Maybe if she ignored the problem, it would solve itself. That’s as good a plan as she could come up with at the moment.
A pool of blood had already formed on the ground under her knee. No wonder she was feeling dizzy. Suddenly the slight dullness overtaking the worst of the pain took on a new meaning. Between the puncture wound and the cuts and bruises from all the nosedives through gravel, how much blood had she lost already?
Does a soul bleed?
She dismissed the thought out of hand. It obviously did: she only needed to look at pretty much any part of her anatomy for proof. She strained to bend over and examine the wound closer, peering past the torn fabric clinging to her skin.
It looked awful. Deep enough to have done some serious damage to muscle tissue, wide enough to need a lot of stitches that she had no way to procure, even if she managed to get it cleaned somehow. She was afraid to even apply pressure on it for fear of getting even more filth in there. As she carefully touched the area around it, she noted with bitter disappointment that her engagement ring was as soiled as the rest of her hand.
She put the silly concern out of her mind. Maybe the back of her shirt would be clean enough to use, but taking off her shirt meant getting it around the misshapen mess that was her arm. Not a pleasant prospect. Still, if she didn’t do something about it, it was going to get furiously infected.
Does a soul die of a fever? Does a soul bleed to death?
The questions stayed with her this time. Her injuries didn’t make much sense. What would happen if she simply kept bleeding? Could she die twice? Die in the afterlife?
That’s ridiculous. All this is ridiculous.
A soul was immortal by definition. How had she been maimed to begin with? She didn’t even have a body anymore. How did a spirit get broken bones? How did a spirit feel dizzy from blood loss? It was simply absurd, it didn’t make sense, it went against everything she’d ever—
The dizziness flared up in a flash, becoming a harrowing migraine that pounded across her whole brain. It occurred to her that her brain should be far beyond feeling pain, which in turn made the merciless stabs inside her skull even worse. She gasped for breath, eyes bulging, and for a brief moment she saw her skin flicker. Its contours became fuzzy, indefinite. Thick mist floated around her.
She squeezed her eyes shut, bringing up her good hand to cradle her forehead. It felt like her head was about to split open, swelling throbs pushing against her skull from the inside. Soon she couldn’t think of where she was or what she’d been doing as the bloating pain overtook every other concern. Her one and only desire became to make the pain stop.
She focused on drawing deep breaths. No questions, no puzzles. Just breathing.
Breathing. She had lungs that needed air. She had blood that needed oxygen to carry to her muscles and organs. She had a heart to pump that blood through arteries and veins. Nothing hurt, nothing was wrong, everything made perfect sense. She focused on her heartbeat, not letting any concerns come between her and that steady thumping as it slowly regained its normal rhythm.
The tides of pain that had drowned her receded bit by bit, becoming a dull ache after long, long minutes. She waited until it was completely gone before opening her eyes.
The first thing she noticed were the tattered rags that had replaced her clothes. A threadbare, long-sleeved cotton shirt, dyed in what might have been bright pink once, full of rips and torn in several places. A long denim skirt with a slit up one side and a highly irregular hem covered in so much dirt that there was more brown than blue to it.
“What in Tartarus . . . .”
She hadn’t worn this outfit in over two decades. Alexandra touched the coarse fabric of the skirt with her fingertips, pinching and rubbing with her thumb. Shortly after her eyes widened at the fact that she was using her right hand to do it.
As she effortlessly flexed perfectly healthy fingers, it finally registered that not just the headache had vanished. All the pain was gone, from the hundred scrapes and cuts to the soreness in her feet. She hurriedly lifted the side of her skirt to find only smooth, dark skin where a gaping hole used to be. No blood remained, not even the blood that had pooled beneath her, not even the blood that didn’t belong to her. Every inch of her was free of the filth that had covered her just a moment ago, her beloved ring included. And her feet . . . .
She bent a knee and grabbed her foot. She ran her fingers along the sole, traced the arches and poked at the toes. My, but it was one rough foot, full of calluses and tough scar tissue. The kind of foot that could walk on glass shards as if they were cotton balls. The kind of foot she used to have, and had wished for in a moment of weakness.
“What the hell just happened?”
Panic crept in, stirring the deeper dread that had never really left. For a brief time, just a minute ago, she would have done anything to make the pain go away. And then it was gone. Had she made a bargain without even knowing it? Had it all been an elaborate ruse for her to surrender her soul in exchange of relief?
She looked in all directions, expecting a triumphant laugh gloating at her demise. She began to feel silly after a minute of uneventful waiting.
Other explanations began to emerge. Maybe she was trapped in a nightmarish illusion where everything happened by design, without apparent reason. Maybe she had been shown a small mercy by whoever was watching. Most likely, she’d done something that she did not understand at a time when her thoughts were wildly flailing about. It was not the first inexplicable thing that had happened, after all.
Don’t ask too many questions. That’s what brought on the headache in the first place.
Also, maybe you should get out of here before the others come back with help.
Alexandra chafed at the part of her that wouldn’t let her just sit still for a while. She made an effort to tack miraculous healing on her growing list of unexplained mysteries, along with her ability to punch holes through aliens as if they were mounds of lard and pluck arms off bodies like picking petals off flowers. She pushed away bleak suspicions, stomped down on both dread and self-pity, and inhaled deeply. She got to her feet on the exhale, and it was delightfully painless.
She looked at the motionless beast one last time, a frown pursing the corner of her mouth.
Say for a moment I believe its story.
If these guys aren’t here to torment me, what is really going on?
Hardly anything it had said or done was consistent with a demon’s expected behavior. It had mostly wanted her gone, in fact. Considering what it had said about newborns and bipeds, Alexandra almost got the impression that her presence was no more than random chance.
The possibility was even worse than her fate being an isolated mistake. Random judgment, regardless of her deeds in life? She could barely suppress a shiver.
Stop standing still, she admonished herself. You’re in danger no matter what these things are. Stay alert and see if you can avoid your special brand of diplomacy from now on.
Alexandra averted her eyes from the hapless mess surrounding her and started the long walk that would supposedly take her out of the realm.
Her feet felt the gravel under her steps no more than a rock feels the downpour in a rainstorm.
The hallway stretched unwavering straight ahead, flanked on both sides by a forest of ornately engraved pillars. Reliefs and decorations covered the walls: primitive depictions of strange creatures, whimsical forms and geometrical shapes. Everything was blue, from the indigo-on-cobalt of the columns to the midnight blue of the vaulted ceiling.
She would have been fascinated, in different circumstances. She barely glanced at the patterns anymore, because nearly an hour of brisk-but-cautious walking had brought a different concern to her attention.
I hate these clothes.
The raggedy shirt, faded and filthy, was one rip away from falling apart. It clung to all the wrong places and constantly rubbed against sensitive areas. The skirt would shift on its own, flap about and be a general bother. Coarse and full of hard edges, it scraped her thighs with every step. And it felt too loose down there, too airy. She loathed skirts.
She would have stripped down to her underwear, but her underwear was gone. Alexandra was well aware that she had much bigger problems to worry about, but her mind kept coming back to her attire no matter how much she tried to focus on everything else.
She grabbed at the shirt and curtly adjusted its tattered hem for the hundredth time. One of the holes in the fabric ripped a bit further.
These clothes had no reason to exist, other than their connection to her new-found foot hardiness. They’d been the only clothes she’d owned, back when shoes were a coveted luxury.
Does a soul wear clothes?
Alexandra tried to shove the question away as soon as it formed, but she found the silliness of it impossible to ignore. She had hardly expected everyone to be naked in Heaven, but how could a spirit possibly wear actual clothes? Might as well say that she’d have to shave her legs and trim her fingernails next. Or did the fabric have a soul too, so that it could transcend into the afterlife? It was a remote possibility, except she hadn’t died in these clothes. These clothes had shown up out of nowhere.
If they can pop out of thin air like that, could they also . . . .
As the possibility blossomed in her thoughts, the skirt she was dejectedly glaring at started rippling, its fabric sublimating into billows of mist. She stopped in mid-stride and stared as it blurred, melted and scattered before her eyes, leaving only bare skin behind.
She was stark naked.
Alexandra looked around in a panic, then jumped behind a nearby pillar. She felt silly for it almost immediately, but even then the prim and modest part of her wanted nothing more than to have those nasty clothes back. As soon as she acknowledged the thought, they coalesced back in place.
There was a certain elegance to how they materialized, fleeting gusts of smoke coming together to become solid. She feared the crippling headache would make a roaring come-back, but all she felt was a small stab in her temples that was gone almost before it began.
This is an interesting development.
Could she do it again? How much control did she have over it? Best to find out while there was relative calm. She wouldn’t want a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of monster bashing.
Alexandra did as she had done before, believing that the clothes shouldn’t be there at all. With hardly an effort they dissolved into nothingness. Another thought, and the clothes coalesced on demand.
It was beautiful. She found herself simply watching it happen, while working to assimilate that she was putting clothes on and off with her mind.
Wishing for them to be gone wasn’t enough, she realized. She had to visualize it, apply her will for the change to happen. The tattered rags kept coming back without a hitch, on and off, on and off . . . .
Well then, this crap outfit better not be all there is to it.
This time, she visualized the clothes she’d been wearing when she arrived. Her white top and beloved purple sweatpants materialized with a fascinating flourish, snug around her skin as if they had never gone away.
Alexandra covered her mouth with her hands and looked around, wary of passersby. Then she forgot about keeping watch altogether, because her thoughts swam in a pool of wonderful possibilities. Could she truly don any clothes she wanted, merely by willing them into being? The very idea was enough to make her giddy, which in turn filled her with shame at such frivolous thoughts, especially when she was neck-deep in a heaping mound of problems.
The shame didn’t last long. She went through everything she could remember in her wardrobe, delighted every time a piece of clothing materialized. Then she ventured into items she had never worn herself, trying on clothes that belonged to friends, stores or celebrities. She even gave a few fancy gowns and dresses a go, although, as expected, they turned out not to be her thing.
Some of the pieces fell apart immediately, probably because she lacked the proper knowledge of seams, clasps and straps. Certain fabrics looked off upon closer inspection, as if the patterns that weaved the materials together weren’t fully realized. Still, not too shabby, for someone that didn’t know the first thing about making clothes. Who would have thought that Eternal Damnation could be so stylish?
Alexandra Gretchen, you are wasting way too much time with this.
She stubbornly disagreed with the nagging voice. All frivolity aside, this was a discovery worth exploring. She could alter certain things with her mind; she could control something, however small. It was a soothing thought.
When the demons come back for you, will you soothe them with a fashion show?
Alexandra sighed. The nagging voice had a point. Something nasty would catch her if she didn’t keep moving.
She settled on comfortable clothes fit for running. First of all appropriate underwear: a sturdy sports bra and suitable panties. Then a long-sleeved shirt with a hood, along with yoga pants. The hood was wide and deep, while the shirt itself clung to her frame, the hem reaching down just barely above her hips. She made the sleeves long enough to hug her hands, and the pant legs long enough to graze her heels. She slashed the wide cuffs down the ankle seam for bit of a fluttery feel. Nothing wrong with remaining a little stylish.
She figured it would be best to blend in with the background and colored her shirt in a vertical pattern of sinuous shapes, all shades of clear blue that complimented the carvings in the pillars. Her pants were a subdued gradient that went from sapphire at the waist to azure at the ankles. She couldn’t resist adding a deep violet cloth belt at the hip, knotted on one side so that the soft fabric would hang lightly down her thigh.
She eyed her feet pensively. Thirty minutes ago she would have murdered for a pair of trekking boots, worn sneakers or even flip-flops. Now she found herself reluctant to put on anything. She may have stolen that tattered skirt, and salvaged that pink shirt from a heap of garbage, but it had taken years to earn those feet. Unlike everything else, they felt like a badge of honor.
Why, where’s the hurry? Try your hand at boots now. Let’s see how many hours you can spend making the perfect pair of sneakers. Go nuts and try on some heels just for fun, why don’t you!
No longer able to ignore her cautious side, Alexandra figured she could work things out on the move.
She had no need for shoes, anyway.
Alex stood motionless among the rows of pillars, well out of sight. She was staring at the pretty ring that had appeared on the palm of her hand.
Every detail was there, from the delicate pattern of vines wrapped around tiny amethysts to the engraving on the inside in the shape of an elongated infinity symbol. She’d always appreciated how discreet and unobtrusive it was, without any points to get caught on fabric or large gemstones that could come off their setting. She could feel the tiny weight of it, the smooth texture of the shank on her skin.
She hesitated, then reached to pick it up with her other hand, afraid that it might disappear at the slightest disturbance. No more had she thought of the possibility that she perceived a small flicker to its substance, a slight attenuation of its solidity.
The ring is there, she admonished herself. It won’t disappear no matter what I do, and that’s that.
It felt real enough between her thumb and forefinger. It still did when she slipped it around her free ring finger. A little too real, she thought irritably as she struggled to get it past her bony joint. She stared at it some more, fascinated with her accomplishment.
It had started as a simple thought. There’s nothing special about fabric, it had occurred to her. What else can I make?
Curiosity had taken over, and after some consideration she’d set out to replicate the only Earthly possession still on her person. What could be simpler, she reasoned, than making a copy of a ring she knew in every detail?
Her first efforts had yielded nothing.
Her further, more involved, more doggedly stubborn efforts had yielded faint eddies of mist gravitating toward the center of her palm, shimmering brighter as they formed a dense band of smoke atop the lines of her hand. She’d nearly fallen on her ass from surprise at the sight, which made all her progress vanish in an instant.
Forging her will into an indisputable certainty had produced a flow of swirling ethereal shapes that collapsed into one another, forming a ring of white mist that solidified and hardened in the space of seconds. The details that she held so clear in her mind sprung from thought into reality and coalesced upon the ring as if they had always been a part of it.
At first she could hardly believe it. Now, she could hardly stop there. What else could she do?
She looked around for the hundredth time, making sure there was nothing new in sight. Her surroundings proved to be as deserted as ever.
With hardly suppressed excitement, Alexandra put her mind to work. Some fifteen minutes later an assortment of disparate objects cluttered around her feet. She surveyed them with a furrowed brow:
A brown wooden stick, one foot long, smooth and featureless.
A simple wooden mallet. A claw hammer with a crude metal head. A large sledgehammer, almost too heavy to lift comfortably.
The blade of a curved sword, somewhat dull. An unadorned sword hilt without a slot for the nonexistent tang of the blade. A razor-sharp sabre with an ornate hilt and a wide, sinuous guard.
A thick-bristled hairbrush. A hand mirror that reflected nothing. A magnifying glass that did not magnify in the slightest.
A hunk of metal in the rough shape of a handgun. A hunk of metal that looked very much like a handgun, but not quite right. An honest-to-goodness 9mm. semi-automatic that did not work, surrounded by what very much looked like bullets, but weren’t.
A two-inch-long wooden stick with a slightly bulbous head, painted red. Next to it, an empty matchbox. Next to it, a number of matches, most of them broken or beaten, but none used.
The scattered parts of a lighter, an unidentifiable liquid leaking from the top of the reservoir.
What she imagined a flamethrower should look like, complete with a heavy propane tank, a harness, and a long hose with a handle and a trigger. It didn’t do a damn thing.
The semblance of a shortbow, strung too tight, discarded unceremoniously.
An extremely primitive bicycle, leaning against one of the columns. It had no brakes, no chain, deflated tires, uneven spokes and rigid pedals. Entirely useless.
A car tire.
Alexandra had reached a few conclusions through the process. The first was that she knew precious little about how machines actually worked. She’d fired handguns thousands of times in online matches, but she had no idea how the bullets were loaded into the chamber from the magazine, or how the trigger mechanism made the gun go pow. She couldn’t even figure out the simplest standard flamethrower, much to her disappointment.
Second, it was possible to alter things without having to make new ones, and it would require significantly less concentration. The sword turned out to be a fine piece of craftsmanship when she was done with it. Too bad she’d never learned to wield one effectively.
Also, volume and weight mattered a great deal. A large stone wall that would have barred the hallway from end to end had refused to show up, no matter how much effort she put into it. A thick slab of granite the size of a mattress had lasted maybe a whole thirty seconds before it dissolved into shimmering fumes. The chassis of the first car she ever owned got as far as being outlined in faint smoke before disappearing, and with it her hopes of driving all the way to this “Nexus” place. She made the tire mostly out of spite after that.
Just as her thoughts were touching that accursed tire, she saw the sad excuse of a bike frame ripple, become translucent and break down in misty swirls. The tire followed almost immediately.
Well, guess I’m stuck walking.
Things that she didn’t care about vanished without warning. She stepped toward her latest and most prized creation as items kept dissolving all around her.
A beautiful staff leaned against one of the columns. Alexandra lifted it off the ground and held it in both hands, enjoying the solid feel of the carved hardwood in her palms. It was slightly longer than she was tall, with notched steel caps tipping both ends. Tightly wound leather straps braided a fifth of the staff’s length at either side and center, to aid grip. The naked wood, varnished dark brown, displayed myriad curved lines of intricate carvings that glowed a faint turquoise, in keeping with the oh-so lovely blue theme of her environment. Creating that elegant vine-like pattern just by thinking of it had been one of the most wonderful things Alexandra had ever done.
There were a number of excellent reasons to justify crafting this weapon. Fighting would be much easier: she couldn’t get guns to work, or use a bow with any semblance of proficiency; she wasn’t able to throw a knife to save her life or even begin to figure out how to shoot a slingshot, but she had learned how to handle a staff at the gym. A long stick was her best available option.
It was a fashionable stick because the limits of her crafting skills were worth testing. She had feared that getting the glowing effect in the carvings would be problematic, but colors came easy as pie. The hardest part had been getting the leatherwork right so it wouldn’t fall apart and dissipate.
And there were many miles yet to cover, if she could trust the monster she had questioned. A walking stick couldn’t hurt.
All perfectly reasonable.
Her efforts had nothing to do with the fanciful idea of walking around with a kick-ass staff, looking cool and mysterious. She had absolutely not been tempted to add a cloak to her outfit, and Aaron’s fantasy novels and their staff-wielding wizards had had nothing to do with her weapon of choice. Her decision had been purely functional.
Alexandra rested the staff in the nook of her shoulder, used both hands to very deliberately put up her hood, and resumed her long trek toward the exit.
The steady beat of steel on gravel set the pace of her footsteps.
January 7th, 2012
~War for New Earth II: Insurrection~ Private Channel Log - [January 7th, 2012] at [07:31PM(PDT)]
Users: [Saudanaishi] , [MoutHwasH]
[Saudanaishi][07:31:02PM]> Hey Mr M!
[MoutHwasH][07:31:05PM]> I was hoping you'd log on
[MoutHwasH][07:31:09PM]> and jumping on my team to boot!
[Saudanaishi][07:31:13PM]> Yeah, I must be getting tired of kicking your sorry ass around.
[MoutHwasH][07:31:22PM]> I've gotten so much better!
[Saudanaishi][07:31:30PM]> not nearly good enough, I'm sorry to say. I very much fear you may be a lost cuase.
[MoutHwasH][07:31:41PM]> well, forgiiiiive me for not measuring up, your majesty
[Saudanaishi][07:31:49PM]> good, good. I'm glad you know your place.
[Saudanaishi][07:33:10PM]> Hey, um.....
[Saudanaishi][07:33:16PM]> I was just wondering
[Saudanaishi][07:33:28PM]> you know I'm a girl, right?
[MoutHwasH][07:33:40PM]> I'd... kinda gathered, yeah
[Saudanaishi][07:33:51PM]> oh, really now? what gave me away?
[MoutHwasH][07:34:01PM]> well, can't really talk as much as we have and not know
[MoutHwasH][07:34:19PM]> even if you've been gender neutral in your speech to sometimes awkward extremes
[MoutHwasH][07:34:26PM]> it does say 'female' in your vMail profile :P
[Saudanaishi][07:34:30PM]> my vMail? I....don't recall giving it to you.
[MoutHwasH][07:34:35PM]> I, uh. So hows oyur day going anyway?
[Saudanaishi][07:34:47PM]> good grief M, not cool. How'd you even track that through the game ID? I wouldn't be surprised one bit if you already know my full name and address.
[MoutHwasH][07:34:59PM]> what can I say, I'm disturbingly obsessive
[MoutHwasH][07:35:08PM]> (its not that hard)
[Saudanaishi][07:35:08PM]> you're not helping your case any.
[MoutHwasH][07:35:13PM]> its your fault for being so fascinating. You're stalker bait
[MoutHwasH][07:35:18PM]> what brought this whole thing on anyway? *trying to change topic*
[Saudanaishi][07:35:18PM]> uh huh. right.
[Saudanaishi][07:35:40PM]> ....my friend was making comments about it. Saying you thought I was a dude and that you were hoping for some man on man action.
[Saudanaishi][07:35:57PM]> it made me feel uncomfortable and I needed to clear it up.
[MoutHwasH][07:36:12PM]> gays make you uncomfortable? No judegment implied
[Saudanaishi][07:36:18PM]> no, you moron =P
[Saudanaishi][07:36:32PM]> ...I wanted you to know I'm a girl.
[Saudanaishi][07:36:41PM]> it made me uncomfortable to think that you thought I was a guy.
[Saudanaishi][07:36:57PM]> just in case, you know.
[MoutHwasH][07:37:12PM]> just in case..... what?
[Saudanaishi][07:37:25PM]> you can't seriously be this clueless.
[Saudanaishi][07:37:49PM]> Just in case I end up liking you, only to find out you're gay.
[Saudanaishi][07:38:08PM]> cause you're kinda charming in this dorky way and I've been thinking an awful lot about you. There you have it.
[MoutHwasH][07:38:31PM]> <-- totally not gay, for the record
[Saudanaishi][07:38:36PM]> glad to know.
[MoutHwasH][07:38:53PM]> of all the ways I fantasized of this subject coming up, this didn't even cross my mind :-P
[Saudanaishi][07:39:03PM]> "this subject"?
[Saudanaishi][07:39:41PM]> Still there?
[MoutHwasH][07:40:01PM]> The fact that I'm pretty sure I'll marry you one day.
[MoutHwasH][07:40:04PM]> No pressure.
[Saudanaishi][07:40:30PM]> Um, wow.
[MoutHwasH][07:40:36PM]> I know, really heavy isn't it.
[Saudanaishi][07:40:37PM]> You dont know anything about me! You don't even know what I look like!
[MoutHwasH][07:40:51PM]> Are you a bedridden 400 pound monstrosity?
[Saudanaishi][07:40:57PM]> Er, no.
[MoutHwasH][07:41:05PM]> Then we're good
[Saudanaishi][07:41:14PM]> Well, *I* don't know what you look like.
[MoutHwasH][07:41:31PM]> My, so terribly shallow. I'm having second thoughts on my marriage proposal, I must say
[Saudanaishi][07:41:53PM]> You KNOW what I mean, you damn creep. Just why am I still even talking to you? A normal person would have blacklisted you by now.
[MoutHwasH][07:42:37PM]> You're not a normal person. Everything I've seen about you makes me feel like I've been looking for you all my life. If I don't take this chance, what does that say about me?
[Saudanaishi][07:42:49PM]> we're barely more than strangers! you think that dropping bombs like "I'm totally gonna marry you" is just the way to win me over?
[MoutHwasH][07:43:03PM]> I wouldn't usually, but you value it, don't you? I'm actually getting massive brownie points as I speak
[MoutHwasH][07:43:06PM]> Type. Whatever.
[Saudanaishi][07:43:10PM]> you have me all figured out apparently =P
[MoutHwasH][07:43:22PM]> Not at all! I just get the feeling that you don't enjoy the whole, uh... dating thing. That you like being told everything upfront
[MoutHwasH][07:43:43PM]> I mean, just look at how you told me flat out that you are SO into me. Can't tell you how much that made my day, by the way :D
[Saudanaishi][07:43:51PM]> I never said such a thing!
[MoutHwasH][07:44:06PM]> not in so many words, but it's TOTALLY there. No wishful thinking whatsoever on my part.
[MoutHwasH][07:44:31PM]> In the interest of free flow of information, my name is Aaron Gretchen, I'm a healthy 23 year-old, and I live in Florida.
[MoutHwasH][07:44:52PM]> also, I'm so nervous I'm shaking. Just thought you should know.
[Saudanaishi][07:45:31PM]> Mr. Gretchen?
[Saudanaishi][07:45:39PM]> this might be a prank but I'm gonna take you seriously and be really honest with you here.
[MoutHwasH][07:45:47PM]> good. I appreciate that
[Saudanaishi][07:45:49PM]> You are a dumbass.
[MoutHwasH][07:46:00PM]> uh, okay.
[Saudanaishi][07:46:22PM]> All you have is wild assumptions and a head full of air. I could be a huge bitch in person, for all you know. I could be a 60 year old slobbering cat lady just having some fun online. I could have an infectious disease. that you've put so much
[Saudanaishi][07:46:36PM]> hope into what will come out of our conversations is proof enough for me that you don't have much of a head on your shoulders.
[Saudanaishi][07:46:41PM]> it's also kind of sad.
[Saudanaishi][07:46:48PM]> Sorry if I'm being mean, but it's all true.
[Saudanaishi][07:47:11PM]> you can see my point, right?
[MoutHwasH][07:47:19PM]> . . .
[MoutHwasH][07:47:37PM]> I could try to save face by saying I was just kidding
[MoutHwasH][07:47:42PM]> but I wasn't. It IS pretty sad
[Saudanaishi][07:47:51PM]> Yeah. I'm glad we have it on record.
[Saudanaishi][07:47:56PM]> That being said
[Saudanaishi][07:48:30PM]> I do like you a lot. I know I shouldn't, but I do daydream like a teenage girl with a crush. If things work out the way I've been fantasizing, I'll be making sure to never let you forget this conversation.
[Saudanaishi][07:48:48PM]> But I've been assuming you'll turn out to be a real jerk eventually, or lose interest, and generally having low expectations.
[Saudanaishi][07:49:04PM]> because I am aware that we're just two strangers on opposite sides of the country that spend way too much time playing computer games.
[Saudanaishi][07:49:17PM]> I mean, we've been trading jabs off and on for what, a couple months?
[Saudanaishi][07:49:24PM]> Sure, we do talk a lot....
[Saudanaishi][07:49:31PM]> and you're really funny, though you try a bit too hard sometimes, which is adorable
[Saudanaishi][07:49:37PM]> and I'm disappointed whenever you're not online
[Saudanaishi][07:49:47PM]> but that doesn't mean we're living in a fairytale and we're gonna ride into the sunset holding hands.
[Saudanaishi][07:49:54PM]> I don't mean to shoot you down, even though I should
[Saudanaishi][07:50:01PM]> I just think that you're a dumbass.
[Saudanaishi][07:50:10PM]> that's all =)
[MoutHwasH][07:50:29PM]> I guess
[MoutHwasH][07:51:17PM]> Will you be upset if I say that now I'm even more into you?
[Saudanaishi][07:51:30PM]> I think I'll just roll my eyes
[Saudanaishi][07:51:34PM]> and call you a weirdo =P
[MoutHwasH][07:51:40PM]> thank you for being honest with me
[MoutHwasH][07:51:49PM]> I have a head full of cliches and fantasy novels to keep me going though
[MoutHwasH][07:52:00PM]> you'll have to do far worse than that to shoot me down
[Saudanaishi][07:52:11PM]> I guess I'll have to keep that in mind.
[MoutHwasH][07:52:23PM]> how about a name? I'd really like to know your name.
[Saudanaishi][07:53:25PM]> Alexandra Sanders. I live in Seattle. Please don't show up at my doorstep?
[MoutHwasH][07:53:31PM]> no promises
∞The cave opened up onto a grassy ledge jutting out the side of a cliff. Below the precipice, Thousand Rivers sprawled.
A spider web of watercourses skittered through the expansive valley, stems forking and tributaries merging in a tangle of bright blue lines. The liquid that flowed through them cascaded down the walls surrounding the valley, and one such fall thundered not far from their position. Though it almost looked the part, the liquid wasn’t water.
It clung together, too viscous to flow naturally, too cohesive to mist up the way it should when traveling down such a drop—as if the liquid itself was reluctant to move. The large stream fell without interruption, without breaking up in countless tiny droplets. Aaron’s hands itched to find out how it felt to the touch.
Prying his eyes off the fall, he stared down the cliff in awe. Queg hovered quietly by his side.
The slope leveled out much farther down, eventually becoming a gentle descent all the way to the coast and the mass of blue beyond it. The only way down was a dirt road that hugged the steep mountain ridge surrounding the valley, and Aaron could see the group of almost-dinosaurs trudging on it with their lizard-like gait, puffs of dirt drifting about anywhere their feet landed. They were constantly goaded by the little herders that darted about them in stop-start motions, but the ponderous creatures didn’t seem to care much about them.
Greens and browns covered most of the landscape wherever the rivers didn’t flow: sparse trees in blooming fields, small forests, square patches of dark soil, weedy fields of light dirt. Herds of animals could be seen, their specific anatomy obscured by the distance. Every color and texture seemed more vibrant and tangible than he was used to—it reminded him of a computer screen with color saturation set too high, and he found himself squinting even if there was no sun from which to shield his eyes. Nothing glinted. Nothing cast shadows.
The sky was a monotone expanse of electric blue, broken only by a smattering of small figures floating far above. They were shaped like . . . jellyfish, mostly. Aaron’s eyes lingered on the curious sight.
“They will report our arrival in detail,” Queg said, anticipating his curiosity.
I guess security cameras are too high-tech for the afterlife.
Right on cue, one of them dropped from the sky and headed like a speeding bullet toward the part of the valley where a mosaic of clashing colors overtook the idyllic view. There was bright desert orange next to deep blue, mossy green next to straw yellow and blood red: a patchwork of walled-off plots separated by anything from tall granite barriers to a line of bushes. They were loosely organized in concentric rings delineated both by roads and the few rivers-become-canals that meandered into the area. Some plots were entirely covered by a dome, which could range from completely opaque to clear as glass. Things . . . floated . . . within those domes.
A crescent-shaped structure lay at the center, pristine white. At such a great distance, Aaron could only make out a great circular tower presiding over the compound.
He took a deep breath and stepped toward the edge of the cliff. The air smelled clean and crisp, the way a mountaintop would be expected to feel.
“I suppose that’s where we’re headed?” he asked, hands in his pockets as he pointed his chin at the massive structure.
Queg floated closer. “Yes. I presume I shouldn’t expect you to be able to fly with me there? It would make for a far shorter journey.”
“I didn’t think so. You’d have done it by now if you could, I gathered.” The guide shifted height subtly while making a languid gesture with two of his appendages. A shrug, Aaron knew. “It couldn’t hurt to make certain.”
“You’re telling me humans can fly here? You’ve seen them?” Take things in stride, take things in stride, take things in stride.
Queg made what could pass for a grimace. “I should not have said anything. Once more I speak without thinking it through. Please, forget all about it. We will meet your peers soon, now. They can teach you all they know.” Queg paused. “You won’t tell them I have been so careless, will you? You said you wouldn’t. Not that I doubt your word, mind.”
Aaron quirked an eyebrow at the alien. Just how bad are these people?
“Don’t worry, man,” he said. “Um, I mean, remoran . . . thing . . . .” He trailed off, then tried again. “I’m really grateful for what you’re doing, I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble. I’ve got your back.”
Aaron caught himself as soon as he said it. Would idioms be understood as well?
“You honor me, Aaron.” Queg said. “You have my thanks.”
Deeming the guide’s answer inconclusive, Aaron decided to test it. He wouldn’t want to be caught in a hilarious misunderstanding while talking to the afterlife’s version of a Klingon. He responded after a brief stretch of silence.
“Don’t sweat it, mate. We better wrap this up so we can call it a day. Hopefully we’ll put this thing to bed in a jiffy.”
He eyed the Remoran closely, secretly proud of his string of obnoxious expressions. Queg nodded in agreement and kept quiet.
“You did understand what I just said, right?” Aaron asked.
“Why, yes, of course. You told me not to worry, and expressed your desire for haste, hoping to conclude our business successfully. That is what you said, yes?”
Aaron simply nodded, then let out a sigh. He’d have loved to know how in blazes the whole thing worked.
“Looks to be a long way down,” he said. “We better get going.”
He delayed turning toward the road, despite his own comment. There was something else about the walled-off area that kept nagging at his attention, and it had nothing to do with the cringe-worthy colors.
The whole region gave off a . . . feeling. A new kind of feeling, a certain quality that he was not familiar with. It was faint, almost imperceptible.
Aaron tried to concentrate on it. It felt like something pulling at him, only not in a physical way. Like the feeling he would get when someone entered the same room he was in: an awareness of difference. Of presence.
The sensation wasn’t spread evenly through the region. He could feel distinct sources scattered through the patchwork area, and one of them was definitely moving. A little more focus, and Aaron understood that it was moving toward him.
He leaned forward and squinted, scanning the landscape. Movement caught his eye: a black dot, swiftly approaching.
“Queg,” Aaron said, pointing. The dot had already resolved into a disk the color of rock and fresh soil. A man stood atop it, wrapped in long white robes that incongruously hung still about him.
“Should I be worried?” Aaron asked, wide eyed. Just how fast is the guy going? He shouldn’t even be able to stand upright!
Queg’s lights flickered while he made an intermittent humming noise. Aaron barely saw the lights and noises anymore, he simply understood “Queg gasped in awe.”
“You are worthy of a personal escort, sir,” Queg said, both proud and fearful. “Our journey is at an end.”
The man had almost come upon them during their brief exchange. His elaborate white robes, accented with golden embroidery, made stark contrast against his olive skin and long black hair. His broad chest and shoulders bulged under the garments. He looked young, about Aaron’s age.
The platform, made of rock and clumped up earth, came to rest at the edge of their perch. Its underside melded with the irregular surface of the cliff as it settled, the dark soil becoming one with the light brown of the mountain. The man stepped off immediately, movements measured, dignified. He stood there for a moment, regarding them the way a soaring falcon might regard a hapless hare.
Queg was already prostrated, the alien’s tentacles chaotically spread over the ground. Under the man’s impassive stare Aaron felt the urge to bow before the mighty wizard that had flown at ludicrous speed on his magical disk in order to meet with the intruders.
And then the wizard’s stern face broke into a smile, pleased, warm, encouraging. His teeth were slightly uneven.
“Welcome, brother,” he said, spreading his arms in greeting. His wide sleeves were bound to his forearms with straps of white-and-gold cloth. “I thought there was something different about you. A newborn, how momentous! I am glad we decided to come receive you immediately.”
The man spoke, and Aaron understood it flawlessly, but lips and tongue formed sounds that did not match what he heard. The experience felt like watching a foreign movie with pitch-perfect English voice-over.
“It is well that you have arrived at our doorstep safely,” the man continued. “I am sure we have our friend here to thank.” He gazed at the prostrated Remoran. “Ah, we have dealt with you before. Queg, do rise. You will be honored as you deserve for your service.”
Queg did as he was told, plainly deferential. Aaron realized he’d been staring at the man with his mouth open for quite a while.
“Um, greetings,” he said, and he offered his hand. “I’m Aaron Gretchen. Nice to meet you.”
The robed man stepped forward and clasped Aaron’s hand with both of his, shaking firmly. It was a good shake, Aaron thought. Confident, yet gentle.
“I forget myself,” the man said, his earnest smile giving his eyes an honest bearing. “My name is Diego Hidalgo Santana, Steward of Thousand Rivers—but call me Diego. Last names are for strangers, and you are among friends now, Aaron. We are always overjoyed—” He cut off with a small frown, his smile faltering, although not fading completely. Brown eyes stared at Aaron closely from behind bushy eyebrows.
He adjusted his glasses as casually as he could with his free hand, struggling to keep from fidgeting. Santana’s eyes narrowed slightly, as if trying to make out something in the distance that he couldn’t see well—except whatever he was trying to make out seemed to be within Aaron’s skull.
He let go of Aaron’s hand and turned to Queg abruptly, his frown deepening. “What have you told this newborn, Fourteenth? Do you not know the protocol?”
Santana cut Queg off with a wave of his hand.
“Never mind. You have still performed a service, flawed as it may be. Ming Xiu will decide what to do about it. As far as I am concerned, you have done well, but she will determine your reward, not I.” He turned back to Aaron, and much of his friendliness returned. “Come. I will take you to her. She will be delighted to know of your arrival, and will want to see to your well-being personally.”
Diego Hidalgo Santana, Steward of Thousand Rivers, stepped aside and held out his hand toward the platform, gesturing for Aaron to go ahead and step onto it. That inviting smile was as harmless as could be.
“Um, Diego,” Aaron said. “I assure you, Queg did everything he could to stick to this protocol you mention. He only told me some things because I threatened not to follow if he didn’t answer. Even then he was very tight-lipped—it was quite frustrating, actually. If he told me anything he shouldn’t, it really wasn’t his fault.”
Santana nodded, glancing at the Remoran. “I see. Like I said, it’s truly not up to me. We will have your testimony in mind, I promise.” He gestured again, flowing robes rustling. “If you will?”
Aaron eyed the man for a brief moment. Alright, but only if you also promise not to throw a magic missile at my ass.
He did as he was told and walked to the other end of the platform, his step wary despite the unquestionable solidity of the disk. Queg floated right behind him. The Remoran looked less like a guide now and more like a prisoner.
I thought he’d be more excited to be so close to the famous reward.
Santana climbed in last, moving in the same imperious way as before. “Step or otherwise move away from the edges, please. I wouldn’t want either of you to fall.” He sounded mildly amused by the possibility. “In fact, allow me to create a safer environment.” He turned as he spoke and raised his hands before him, palms up.
Something happened to Santana’s body. Although the shift was immediately noticeable, it was hard to say exactly what the difference was. He looked like the same white-robed wizard, but more corporeal, somehow. More dense. Where before he had been pumice, now he was granite.
Suddenly loose boulders and chunks of rock lifted from the face of the cliff and floated to the sides of the cone-shaped platform. They did so without resistance or audible protest: they hadn’t been so much torn off as simply sliced effortlessly off their resting place. Before Aaron’s befuddled gaze the mismatched pieces of mountain surrounded the circumference of the disk, each one lazily rotating in place.
Santana spread his arms in a slow arch from the front to the sides, palms face down. As he gestured, the rocks thinned and stretched into cylinders, some slightly curved, some straight. The straight cylinders became vertical posts that attached to the outside of the disk, while the arched ones rotated to a horizontal position and joined together to form a rail that came to rest atop the newly created supports.
The waist-length handrail looked as solid as if it had always been there.
Santana lowered his hands, his body shifting back to its former state. There was nothing visual to the transformation—Aaron simply felt it. The man faced them with a friendly smile that had just a tiny bit of smugness thrown in. A smile that held the promise of wondrous things to come.
“Do feel free to hold on to it as we travel,” Santana said. “The ride should be smooth enough, but there is no harm in taking precautions.”
Too stunned for words, Aaron took the man’s advice.
The trees around the clearing stood tall and close together. They were straight and narrow, their trunks splitting only once in a Y-shaped pair of branches that continued to shoot straight up. Their bark was white and their long, feathery leaves a fiery orange. Filaments of the same color blanketed the ground.
A dark-haired woman stood in the clearing, with a group of small creatures crowding at her feet. They looked like bald, overgrown, obese rabbits. She was tossing gnarled little sticks at them, which the critters slurped up with a long proboscis that flexed and probed erratically. Stubby antennae twitched where their eyes should have been.
The woman turned to face the approaching transport. She was short and slender, with markedly Asian features. One of the sources for the strange mind-pull effect that Aaron had been able to sense from the very top of the cliff was embodied in this woman.
The platform landed smoothly, like sinking in thick molasses. Its arrival sent the whole group of fat rubbery creatures scrambling away among teeny buzzing noises; they burrowed underneath the mantle of filaments, hid behind trees, disappeared into the copse. The handrail fell to pieces shortly after, and Diego stepped off without preamble. Aaron would have followed, but his tumbled thoughts needed a moment to find their footing.
It had been a silent and extremely short ride, but every second of it had been instructive. His attention had been split between unsettling realizations and the white-knuckled effort of holding on to the rail.
They had accelerated at a constant rate for half of the trip, then decelerated during the second half. The world had seemed to blur at peak speed, and at that moment Aaron had realized that there was no drag against the wind. The disk had seemed to move through a completely alien medium, as if there was no air at all to displace.
It had felt ethereal, like wading through a substance that was neither solid, liquid nor gas; a smooth plasma that slid around him like water on grease. It was a subtle thing, and he wasn’t surprised not to have noticed until then.
The woman’s gestures brought him back to the present. She had tossed aside the rest of the sticks and was brushing flakes off of her high-collared red blouse and silky white skirt. Rebel wisps of hair curled free from the loose bun at the back of her head.
She regarded their arrival with a benevolent smile. Her face was long and narrow, a soft triangle with pleasant curves and high cheekbones. Like Santana, her age appeared to be somewhere between thirty and fifty. There was a certain agelessness to them, which Aaron found refreshingly logical. Why would anyone age in the afterlife?
She looked Santana up and down as he stepped off the disk, a twinkle in her almond-shaped eyes. “Always such a show off, Diego.” She gestured at Aaron with a tilt of her chin. “Trying to impress a wide-eyed youth? Did you get all the awed deference you were hoping for?”
Santana stopped mid-stride, eyebrows raised. He opened his mouth to protest, but the woman spoke again before he did. “I’m just teasing you, my friend, but do change into something less gaudy, will you? You’ll have the child thinking we’re all magicians.”
Her voice was deep and smooth, defying Aaron’s expectations. He looked back at Santana, anticipating irritation, but the man was simply shaking his head, smiling. “There’s nothing wrong with creating a sense of mystique,” he said, glancing back at his charges as he casually walked over to her side. “Might as well entertain while providing a service. But it will be as you say, Ming Xiu.”
No sooner had he uttered the words than his clothing rippled and shifted, his frame becoming a blurred shape. A moment later his clothes had turned into an entirely different outfit.
Aaron stared at him, eyes wide but mouth carefully shut. Santana’s attire now was a simple brown shirt and honest-to-goodness breeches, of the kind that had been out of fashion for at least two centuries. He showed no intention of offering an explanation or even making introductions.
The woman patted him on the shoulder, sparing only a warm glance at the Steward before returning her attention to Aaron. He got the clear impression that her eyes, dark and heavily tilted, did not miss a single one of his movements.
“I understand your surprise, young man,” she said. “Don’t worry, we will share everything we know with you, although you must be patient, for your own sake. I officially welcome you to Eternal. You may approach, if you wish.”
Eternal. So that’s how they call it.
Aaron stepped off the platform, doing his best not to look as apprehensive as he felt. Queg was already sprawling on the ground, bowing even lower than he had before.
Still smiling affably, the woman closed the distance in a few steps, her skirt flowing around her ankles in a curious fashion, like dancing with a breeze that was there only for her benefit. She offered a hand to him, palm down.
“I am Ming Xiu, friend. I lead our small gathering here in Thousand Rivers. What is your name?”
Aaron took her hand in his and wondered what to do with it. He felt the urge to kneel before this woman. For all her earthy demeanor, there was something regal about her, a certain aura of command. Did she expect him to kiss it? Make a leg? Maybe he should knuckle his forehead.
He settled for an apologetic smile and an awkward handshake. “I’m Aaron Gretchen, your—uhm . . . ma’am.”
I almost called her “your majesty.” Way to look like an idiot in front of their boss.
She stared for a moment, her hand going limp in his grip, but soon her smile showed a hint of understanding. “Ah, a modern one, I see. Western, yes? European? American?” She nodded in satisfaction with Aaron’s assent at the latter. “Your clothes betray as much. You are exceptionally calm, Aaron Gretchen. It isn’t common, for one as young as yourself.”
“Oh, I, um. I figured I might as well take things in stride.”
“Truly the best attitude to confront your situation. You must tell me your story, Aaron. Only then will I be able to help you, and hopefully instruct you in our ways.”
She glanced at Queg, whose tentacles were still spread all over the floor. “You may rise, Fourteenth Queg Remora. You will be dealt with shortly.”
Aaron couldn’t decide whether it was a promise or a threat.
“Come,” she said to him, withdrawing her hand and gesturing toward a path leading off the clearing. “Let us walk as we speak. It will help you feel more at ease.”
She started down the path at a leisurely pace, clearly expecting him to keep up. He hesitated a moment, then moved to follow. Queg and Diego kept apace not far behind, the man at a casual saunter, the alien nigh reverent in his demeanor.
“Actually,” Aaron said, doing his best to ignore the unease in his gut, “I’d like to ask something first, if you don’t mind. I’ve been trying to find my wife. Has anyone else showed up around here recently?”
Ming Xiu cringed faintly, then gave him a sympathetic look. “You died together, didn’t you. An accident?”
Aaron shook his head. “Not really. An explosion, sort of. War, if it was what I think it was.”
As he said it, he caught sight of a fat little pig-rabbit monster peeking from behind a tree trunk. It was gone in a blink.
Ming Xiu was studying him, thoughtful. “You are the first newborn we have received in a very long time, I’m afraid. Share your story with us. We will help you.”
Aaron let out a deep breath, his brow furrowed. It couldn’t be that easy, I guess.
“Alright,” he said. “Should I start at showing up in this place, or . . . before that?”
“As far back as you feel comfortable with.” The ever-present smile turned slightly wry. “You will learn soon enough that we have nothing if not time. You may tell us of your journey here, starting at the moment of your arrival. If you don’t object, we can also talk about your life, the world you come from, and the events that led to your departure.”
“Oh, okay. I don’t mind, no. Though it’s pretty boring stuff, honestly.”
She nodded agreeably. “Share with us what you will, Aaron.”
“Alright, well, let’s see. I was born in Gainesville, Florida, 1990. Grew up there, graduated high school, pretty uneventful. Lost my parents to a car crash on my first year of college. It was no fun, but even then I knew it had been a long time coming. My father, you see.” He made a halfhearted drinking gesture. Ming Xiu nodded in understanding.
“Anyway. I got a degree in Physics, eventually. I met my wife online before graduating. No dating service or anything, we just stumbled upon one another.
“You could say I stalked her for a while.” A fond grin had made its way to Aaron’s lips. “Then I moved to Seattle to marry her, or trick her into marrying me, depending on who you ask.” He shook his head at the thought. “It worked out, somehow. She got lucky with an opening at the museum, I got a job with an insurance company and made it to claims manager. Would've rather worked in my field, but hey, it was pretty good money. We saved enough to get a nice little house, with a nice fenced back yard where she likes to practice her forms.”
A small pause. His fond expression dropped into neutral bleakness. “Liked, I guess. And then . . . well, then we blew up.”
Aaron took a few more absent steps before realizing that Ming Xiu was no longer walking at his side. He turned his head to see her standing still, her eyes widened slightly, her fine eyebrows lifted just a bit. Queg and Santana stood quietly behind her, by all appearances entirely disengaged from the conversation. The feathery canopy above them rustled subtly, even in the complete absence of wind.
When she spoke again, Ming Xiu seemed to give thought to every word.
“Did you die on the twenty-third of July, year 2021 of the Gregorian calendar?”
Aaron eyed her in a state of bewilderment. “Um, yeah, I think so. It was a Sunday, Friday had been the twenty-first . . . yeah, that’s today’s date.”
She hesitated for a moment, mouth pressed down to a fine line. Then she gestured for them to resume their walk. “This isn’t normally discussed until much later, once your mind has had a chance to adapt and start to become free of the trappings that bind it. However, it is a common exception to be made, since about one in a hundred newborns share your circumstances. A significant portion of the modern population died that day.” She studied his expression with mild interest. “You don’t seem as disturbed by the idea as would be expected.”
Aaron looked away, pursing his lips. “It looked bad. I hoped it was just Seattle.”
“Far from it. 2021 was the beginning of an irreversible path to extinction. You, my friend, were witness to the pinnacle of human civilization, and fell victim to the terrible first blow in the war that ended it all.”
“Wait, the whole world? You can’t tell me eight billion people got exterminated just like that, new bombs or not.”
“After all the retaliations and countermeasures, the plasma destroyed two-thirds of the population. What it did to the weather, the soil and the water finished us off over the span of a miserable century. A few hardy survivors made it past that time in remote or sheltered areas, but they too succumbed, in the end.” She shrugged, wistful. “Another brief sigh of life expired from the Universe. All species meet that fate, sooner or later.”
Aaron’s frown deepened. “It sounds more like myth than historical account, to be honest. Even the worst plasma bombs couldn’t ignite more than a forty mile radius before running out. You’d need one at every population center in the world to kill that many people at once—I don’t think there were enough bombs in the world to do that. They were barely just past testing stages, for goodness’ sake.”
Ming Xiu was shaking her head. “More conventional weapons were used as well. Events are well documented by thousands of different accounts, Aaron. You can debate motivation and methods at a later time, if you wish, with others that can claim deeper knowledge than I on the matter.” She looked him in the eye and spoke in a taut voice that allowed for no contest. “The outcome is still the same, regardless.”
His frown remained, although he made an effort not to come off as contrary. “You talk about it as if it’s all in the past, but it can’t be more than a day since I got here.”
Her smile returned, slightly enigmatic, knowing. “Past tense is mostly convention; space-time is a curious thing. But that will come later. Do tell me of your journey here, please.”
She raised a forestalling hand. “Have patience, Aaron. All the knowledge we can offer will be yours, in time. There is absolutely no hurry. In fact, too much at once is counterproductive, and often dangerous.” She paused briefly to let it sink in. “Now, if you please.”
He wanted to be stubborn and keep pointing out the dubious likelihood of her tale, but then he remembered where he was and who these people were. They could refuse to answer any and all of his questions, if they felt like it. They could stuff him in a magic box made out of the rock beneath his feet and throw him into a river, for all he knew.
He was literally at their mercy.
Aaron swallowed his insistence and nodded.
“Okay, so. After everything faded away, suddenly I was myself again, and I was falling.”
He continued his story, telling her of his appearance in some random corner of the Pathways, his chance meeting with Queg and the trip to the realm interface. He praised Queg’s flawless performance as a guide, mentioned the herd of massive monsters, “which, oh, by the way, they’re coming down the road,” and the ordeal of getting past the horrifying sentries—“what the hell is that about, anyway?”
Ming Xiu deflected every question that Aaron raised, displaying an impressive array of variations on the phrase “we will talk about it later.” Aaron took the woman at her word, for lack of a better choice.
“Then we saw mister Santana—um, Diego. We saw Diego approach. He took us on his rocky cone of marvels to meet you, and here we are.”
The telling didn’t take as long as he thought it would. He found it several orders of magnitude less awe-inspiring than he remembered it.
“You are a fortunate man, Aaron Gretchen,” Ming Xiu said. “There are much worse places to integrate than the Pathways.” She glanced over at where Queg was floating. “Much worse creatures to encounter besides our good friend, here.”
“Ah,” said Aaron. “I . . . guess I should be glad.” He pressed his lips together. “Sorry if I seem insistent, but maybe you know what might have happened to my wife? Her name is Alexandra, if it helps any.”
Ming Xiu briefly looked at him and kept a thoughtful silence. They continued walking through the forested path, her steps precise, her poise dignified. Their feet stirred the fluffy mantle underfoot like paddles making eddies in water.
The woman finally spoke, worry creasing her brow. “I am sorry, child. I do not relish giving this news. It doesn’t get any easier with experience.”
She breathed a small sigh and looked up at him. Her expression alone brought a stab of dread to Aaron’s gut.
“I will tell you the simple truth, Aaron. I am sorry to say that there is little to no chance for a reunion. A scant few of those who transcend into the afterlife ever make it to Human domains. She could be anywhere in Eternal, or nowhere at all.”
There was honest sorrow in her voice, as if she felt Aaron’s loss in her bones. His step slowed bit by bit until he came to a full stop.
“Wait,” he said numbly. “What?”
“I know it’s difficult to accept.” She placed a hand on his arm, fingertips lightly grazing his shoulder. “Many of us have gone through similar grief. I am sorry, Aaron.”
“Are you telling me . . . .” His voice barely went past a whisper. “Are you saying that she might not even be here?”
Ming Xiu nodded solemnly, and her smooth voice felt like a soft blanket choking his throat. “There are very few of us, taking into account the thousands of adult lives that expired every day on Earth. Theories abound, but it is certain that a significant percentage doesn’t survive integration for a number of causes—anything from a hostile environment to cohabitation with already existing matter. It is also conjectured that many, perhaps a majority, don’t even come here at all. You are exceptionally fortunate to have come the way you did.”
Her response rang hollow in his ears. He was lost in the memory of Alexandra’s voice, a purring drawl in the black of night.
“You’re such a smartass.” Her smile brushes against my chest. “I’m just saying there’s a chance I could be wrong. Couldn’t you be wrong?”
Aaron squeezed his eyes shut. Everything was wrong.
“You don’t sound sure of anything.” His voice was flat, somber. “There’s a good chance that she’s out there, somewhere. Right?”
“There is a chance. And that’s part of the problem, Aaron. Eternal is infinite, as far as we know, and she could be anywhere. At best, she is a single speck of dust in a storm. She might not even be there at all. You simply cannot fathom the breadth of this existence.”
His hands balled into fists. His stomach felt about to sick up.
“Why? How does that work? Why me and not her? Why you people and not her?”
She shook her head. “There are only theories. You’d expect billions of us in the afterlife, but we’re barely over a million, less than most other Sapients. Our numbers have grown with—”
“I don’t care about your numbers, I just want my wife back!”
He didn’t want to be angry, to raise his voice, but the words came out unbidden. Ming Xiu must have reacted in some way, but Aaron’s mind couldn’t be farther from the woman standing at his elbow.
“I just want . . . .”
“Are you crying? The movie wasn’t even good, you’ve been griping about it the whole time! You’re such a softy.”
A void drained inside his chest, giving the memories a bitter taste, giving his longing a set of sharp teeth that sank deep into his neck.
“We were in the same spot,” Aaron said, mostly to himself. “It makes no sense. Why didn’t she show up with me?”
She looks at me, amusement in her eyes. “Maybe there is no explanation at all. Maybe some things simply are. Is it such a terrible thing for your big brain to swallow?”
I stare for a moment, trying to decide whether she’s serious. Sometimes she’ll goad me into flustered ranting just for the fun of it, and I fall for it every single time.
She goes back to chopping up vegetables for the salad, a smile playing on her lips.
“There is always a reason,” I tell her, as if she doesn’t know already. She expects me to get worked up, who am I to disappoint her? “Even for the strangest things. We’re just blind to it sometimes.”
The sounds of conversation behind him banished the image of Alexandra leaning over the kitchen counter.
“I can also grant you limited access to the Archives,” Ming Xiu was saying, “or sustenance for several portents in a Caretaker reservation of your choice.”
“I aspire to Risen status, your grace.”
“I see. Yet you have failed to preserve this mind from harm. Can you be counted on to adhere to the protocol?”
“He . . . has many questions, your grace. He required answers and would not follow without them.” Queg glanced at Aaron in his peculiar eyeless way, all but wringing his tentacles with anxiety. “I did my best to respect the protocol I was taught. I could not—” He cut off immediately at her peremptory hand gesture.
“You spoke of us. Of the nature of Humanity. Do you deny this?”
“He didn’t,” Aaron butted in, remembering his promise. His voice wavered, but he managed to get it under control. “I tried to pry things out of him, but he wouldn’t budge. He managed to get me here with barely any information, just enough for me to trust him. If he said something he shouldn’t, it’s my fault.”
Ming Xiu turned and eyed Aaron evenly for a moment, then went back to his former guide. “Are his words true, Fourteenth Queg?”
The Remoran hesitated. He divided his attention between Aaron and Ming Xiu, then bowed even lower. “I did mention the Caretakers, your grace. I caught myself and made sure to let him know that nothing I said about Humans would be accurate. I did ask him to help me conceal my mistakes. I have shamed both him and myself for it.”
“He was just nervous,” Aaron said. “He got me here safely, isn’t that what counts?”
Ming Xiu took a step toward Queg, but not before giving Aaron a brief look of reproach.
“Trust, Fourteenth,” she said solemnly. “You have proved that we have your loyalty. Are you worthy of our trust?”
Queg didn’t give an answer. She took another step and pointed at the left side of his chest, her finger hardly an inch away from touching him.
“Do we have your trust?”
The question was quiet, almost intimate. Her stare bore down on the prostrated creature with probing intensity.
A thundering bass rumble began in Queg’s chest. It spread from his center and seeped into the bizarre woods, subtly shaking the feathery leaves above the path. His array of colorful glands grayed, then became the black of the deep sea.
Queg rose slightly, so that Ming Xiu’s fingernail brushed the fleshy hide beneath his shoulder. The hypnotic sway of his appendages conveyed a single word.
“So it is done,” Ming Xiu intoned. She moved her finger across Queg’s skin, and flickering rivulets of mist sprouted from her hand and enveloped them both. The booming rumble was replaced with an agonized screech as the mist violently churned around them. Santana looked on, impassive hawk-like eyes watching everything unfold.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. The thick mist vanished, thinning to strands of smoke that floated away into nothingness. Ming Xiu withdrew her hand and waited. Queg remained where he had been, worn and restless, his appearance unaltered except for the patch of flesh where she’d touched him. There, a small symbol glowed in gold and fiery orange.
Two oblong circles, flattened and joined at the side to resemble a tumbled number eight: a lemniscate of Bernoulli. It was a symbol that Aaron had traced hundreds of times, both in mathematical notation and as idle sketching on random pieces of paper. He was rather fond of it.
The lemniscate was seared onto Queg’s body, shining in a way that transcended vision. Aaron could sense it in the same otherworldly way he sensed the other humans around him, albeit more faintly.
“Rise, Queg Thousand Rivers,” Ming Xiu said. “You are no longer of the Fourteenth. You are a Human hand, part of a greater whole. You will not bow again.”
Queg rose as told, the sphere beneath his tangle of tentacles brightening up with additional subtle hues. He reinstated a respectful distance between himself and Ming Xiu. Queg’s fear was no more.
“You have leave to get all of your former commitments in order,” Ming Xiu said. “You may depart at your leisure, but return swiftly. I will have a task ready for you.”
The newly named Queg Thousand Rivers nodded agreement in his peculiar alien way. He turned to Aaron and nodded to him as well, and to Diego next. He then took off flying toward the exit of the realm, proud and puffed up like a rank-and-file infantryman that had just been promoted to Captain.
And that’s it? Aaron wondered. When does he get the actual reward?
Their ritual apparently finished, Ming Xiu returned her attention to him.
“It will not escape you that much is different in this existence, Aaron.” She stood in a professorial stance, hands clasped before her as she addressed him in a calm and measured voice. “Grieve not what you have lost, as there is so much more to gain. It will take time, however. Are you ready to learn?”
Aaron gave her a blank look. Had she truly just told him to simply forget?
She must be kidding. Though they take themselves too seriously for it to have been a joke.
“When do I get my lightsaber?” he responded.
They didn’t get the reference, but he didn’t care to explain. He didn’t care about a great many things at that moment.
He didn’t care about odds. He didn’t care about what Ming Xiu believed was the truth. He didn’t care about the allegedly incomprehensible size of Eternal.
He would do what these people wanted him to do: study, train, practice, research, endure. Whichever was needed to learn how to travel through the afterlife, to visit every corner and turn every stone. He would learn everything as quickly as he could, to the very best of his ability.
He needed to. There was a lot of ground to cover, and Alexandra was out there, somewhere.
May 23rd, 2014
Queen Anne neighborhood, Seattle
We’ve talked about meeting in person many times by now. It’s a fairly common topic nowadays, and we fantasize about what we’ll do, the jokes we’ll tell and the fun we’ll have. It’s always something distant, something that will eventually happen in an indeterminate future. She’s got a job, I’ve got a job, she’s got a family, I’ve got a cat. Maybe next vacation. There’s this holiday-plus-weekend coming up, maybe then! Christmas, that would be awesome.
It doesn’t happen, though. There’s always something coming up, from her end or from mine, so we just put it off without much of a fuss. They’re reasons with the ring of excuses, because the real reason is something that we don’t want to say out loud.
The real reason is fear, of course. Can you blame us? We know the statistics. We know how internet relationships can and many times do turn out, and know how distance hides all those flaws that crop up the minute you start coexisting in the same living space.
We’re not interested in a fling. We don’t want this to flare up and then die out. We don’t want to meet and be disappointed. We want to be together forever, and that’s what makes it terrifying. We’re in love with this relationship, the way it is, the way we imagine it will be. What if we’re fooling ourselves? What if we do things for real, and we wind up hating each other within a month, within a week? I can’t even bear the thought.
We’re such idiots, and we’re aware of it. There’s no reason for delaying. As enjoyable as this is now, what’s the point? What kind of life plan is it, to love through a web-cam, to long for the construct of a woman, instead of the woman herself? We both know it’s time to do something, to stop testing the waters and just jump in and hope the current won’t tear us apart.
She thinks these things too, I know she does. She must.
What if she doesn’t? What if she’s perfectly content with the way things are right now? What if she punches me in the nose? Man, if even just half of what she says is true, she could kick my ass without breaking a sweat.
My legs feel like gelatin. My stomach is doing somersaults. Cold sweat drips down my back.
I’m smiling like a moron as my finger presses the doorbell.
∞Screaming demons were right on her heels.
Alexandra dashed up the ramp and went through the enormous archway leading outside. She could hear their steps somewhere behind her, a constant trot of dozens of legs on gravel. Avoiding them on their way in had only saved her some time: they found the corpses, eventually, and then her tracks, neither of which she had thought to hide.
They’d caught up fast.
Please let no-one be out there, please, please . . . .
She came to a large square lined with tall, narrow arcades. A group of five slug-beasts entering through the road straight ahead spotted her almost immediately. Two of them were of the big and chitinous kind.
Alexandra turned left and ran between two of the fat pillars by the wall, going out of the square and into the scabrous badlands beyond. She quickly noted her surroundings as she fled, panicky eyes darting everywhere: miles of terrain ahead, cracked and jagged, slightly downhill; a vertical cliff far to her left, boxing her in on that side; a gravel road to the right, traversed by sparse traffic. They’d soon be alerted to her presence, no doubt.
The chasm in the distance broke the view in half like a second horizon. A huge mount loomed far behind it, dwarfing every other feature in sight. Everything was colored in shades of blue under a cloudless sky without a definite source of light.
Go mount-bound and across the chasm.
Soon she was forced to plan a path for her feet to avoid all the clefts and rocky mounds. More voices had emerged behind her. After jumping over a narrow crevice, she skidded to a stop and risked a look up the slope.
Her original pursuers had arrived, getting together with the new group and presumably organizing hunting parties. Even in her frantic state of mind she was taken by the impressive entrance to the underground complex. Its walls, towering around a good portion of the square, were engraved in enough patterns and decorations to rival a baroque monument.
Alexandra took off running again, the terrain growing more difficult with every stride. She darted brief glances ahead, trying to formulate a plan for the near future that didn’t involve fighting giant slug monsters.
Only one bridge across that chasm. They’ll wait for me there, if they’re smart at all.
Some of them were already on the chase. She tried to run even faster, but gave up after several almost-fatal stumbles. Her staff, carefully held off the ground, had become more of a hindrance than a boon.
Won’t be able to run pretty soon. Hide and lose them, maybe. There’s lots of cover.
Alex dropped into a wide crevice, hopefully disappearing into the landscape. After following a sinuous path, she came up behind a tall pile of stones only to go down into the next drop.
This could work.
She continued her meandering advance for a long while, always staying behind shelter. The increasingly narrow paths between rocks gave her a smidgen of hope. Those fat-asses will take forever to get through this maze.
She couldn’t hear them anymore. Alexandra considered poking her head out for a peek, but decided against it.
It’s safe as long as I don’t show my face. They don’t know where I’m going. And if push comes to shove, I’ll just find another way around that chasm.
She’d much rather walk around it if doing so would keep her away from those things, even if it took her ten times as long than using the bridge. The pain from her previous injuries was still fresh in her mind.
She followed the bend of a narrow passage, then carefully kept out of sight by hugging a rock wall. While her path changed directions frequently, the towering Mount was a constant presence in the distance, pointing the way as indisputably as any compass. There was no danger of getting lost.
Alexandra hiked and prowled in equal measure, making headway toward the chasm. Like a rat in a wolf’s den, she would scurry through the crevices and hope not to get eaten.
She peered into the abyss. Fifty feet of emptiness separated her from the other side.
It wasn’t just a chasm. If she looked far in either direction, Alexandra could see its dark outline turning at a right angle and disappearing behind the hill whence she came. The fissure was a bottomless moat that wrapped around the entire area.
The way through, the only way through, was a massive slab of stone wedged at a slight incline between the sides of the precipice.
Hardly twenty yards away, Alex studied it from a discreet perch at the edge of the cliff, ragged nails digging into her palms. The bridge was about as big as an eighteen wheeler flatbed, and it lacked even the crudest of safety rails.
They waited for her there. Large and chitin-clad, they moved around and twitched frequently, agitated. She couldn’t hear what they were saying.
There’d been only two just moments ago. Now there were three. More groups traveled the road in both directions, and some were bound to join if she dithered any longer. Those that searched through the badlands were closing in, no doubt perfectly aware that she had run out of places to hide.
Alexandra pressed her back against the short wall and wiped the tears off her cheeks. They’d herded her there, she knew, and now it came down to the same choice as before.
She closed her eyes. She breathed deep.
I will not go quietly.
She clutched her staff in her hands, climbed to her feet and ran for the bridge.
High-pitched shrills rose behind her, much closer than she’d expected. Two of the three beasts on the bridge let out a similar cry and started for her. The remaining monster grabbed one of the pair by its arms and held it back, while the other rushed toward her at full speed.
“You kill brother!” it bellowed. “You torture brother!”
Alexandra charged along the edge of the cliff, a guttural scream starting in her throat. She raised her staff over her head as she drew near, ready to bludgeon the monster’s eyeless head. The beast hunkered down like a bull in response, claws and talons poised to lunge at her as soon as she came in range.
At the last possible moment she jumped to the side, lowered her weapon to hold it like a baseball bat, and put her whole body into a sideways swing. The demon’s tail lashed out and opened a narrow gash on her shoulder just as the staff struck the monster’s flank with a wet crack.
The blow staggered the beast and redirected its charge toward the pit. It tried to change course, skidding and scraping against the rocky floor, but it carried too much momentum. The monster went over the edge, its enraged screams fading into the depths.
Alexandra gritted her teeth against the pain and picked up speed. The other two stood arguing in the middle of the bridge.
“Let pass,” one said.
“No let pass!” said the other.
“Biped newborn no more. We die. Let pass, others sever.”
“No let pass! We delay, we sever!”
Alexandra glanced behind her. The hunting party was catching up. Looking ahead, several groups on the road beyond the bridge seemed to take interest in what was happening. It wouldn’t be long before they joined the fray.
She leaped onto the stone slab and rushed forward.
“Get the fuck out of the way!”
“No let pass!” the aggressive one yelled, pushing the other one aside and facing its enemy.
Alexandra bared her teeth and sprinted toward the beast before it could steamroll her on the narrow passageway. She wielded the staff like a lance, anchoring it against her abdomen and aiming it high enough to upset the balance of the four-legged monstrosity. Her weapon met its target just as the creature braced for impact.
The demon held firm, but the steel tip of Alexandra’s staff wedged itself between chitin plates and broke through. The beast writhed in pain and recoiled as the shaft sunk one, two feet into its flesh. The weapon stopped with an audible crack when it hit the plates on the demon’s back, but Alexandra kept pushing, kept screaming as the thing’s feet lifted off the ground, her face only inches away from its flailing claws and pincers. The tip pierced through the cracked exoskeleton and slid out the other side with a shrill grinding sound.
She changed direction and swung her improvised pike toward the precipice, getting the impaled creature over the lip of the bridge. Its legs tried to seek purchase, but she continued her relentless push until its last toe slipped off the platform’s surface. The monster’s enraged trills grew desperate as it tumbled, its body scraping against the side of the bridge, claws frantically holding on to the staff.
She tried to yank the weapon free, but it only helped the demon gain an inch of relief. As its tail darted out to grab at her, Alexandra let go.
The monster fell out of sight.
Suddenly free of the weight, she staggered a few steps back before turning around, fists clenched, legs ready to jump one way or the other.
“No hurt!” the remaining one said, cowering on the other side of the bridge. “No kill more, I beg. Leave Carved Barrow.”
She’d already started moving, keeping an eye on the monster as she side-stepped toward the exit. She counted her pursuers at a glance. Seven, and more to come.
“Tell them to stop chasing me!”
“They no listen! You go Nexus! Temple-bound, cross Gate, Mount-bound!”
She took off as soon as it was clear that the thing wasn’t attacking. Alexandra jumped out of the bridge just as the first of the hunters reached it. Their furious screams were close enough to blot out even the sound of her own footsteps, but she could hear the cowardly one beneath it all. “Let go!” it was telling the others. “Let go to Nexus!”
The road forked at a right angle straight ahead. One path went Mount-ward, directly in front of her. The other went somewhere else. Rocky hills rose in the space between paths as far as she could see.
Temple-bound’s gotta be not Mount-bound.
She reached the bifurcation and turned right, running for the vast hillside to avoid further encounters on the road. The few groups that had noticed her remained hesitant, but surely their indecision wouldn’t last long. The craggy slopes would be her only chance to lose the crazed demons.
Alexandra tried to force her legs to move faster. She had to put all of her concentration into finding steady ground for her feet as she climbed up the hill. Her body virtually flew over the jagged terrain.
There’s always a little more to give, come on!
Alex jumped over a rocky crest and dropped into the wide cleft that opened behind it. The six foot fall barely touched her stride as she kept on running, pushing herself to the furthest limit of her endurance.
The high-pitched yells behind her faded gradually, steadily overtaken by the rock-solid thumping of her heart.
She did not tire.
Hiking up and down the features of the rocky hillside, Alexandra felt like she should need to rest for a moment and quench her thirst. At least an hour had passed since leaving the last of the creatures behind, but the need to rest simply wasn’t there. All basic needs and bodily functions remained in a neutral spot of adequate satisfaction.
“Makes sense,” she muttered to herself. “No need to pee in the afterlife.”
But you still breathe, the voice in her head pointed out. How does that make sense?
Unable to come up with an answer, Alexandra shrugged, then winced. The dried blood on her shoulder pulled on her skin with every movement.
Why do you bleed?
“Maybe it’s all symbolic,” she mused as she climbed over yet another obstacle.
I’m not flesh and blood anymore, but I’m still made of something.
“Maybe I could fix it somehow, just like before.”
It was worth a shot. Alexandra concentrated on the abrasive line that went from joint to shoulder-blade and wished for it to go away.
She wished for it to go away really hard.
The wound was still there.
Picture a healed shoulder, just like with clothes?
She tried it as well, but her efforts yielded no results. Alexandra kept mulling it over, barely noticing where she stepped anymore. She reached a rend in the land and absentmindedly evaluated whether it was worth going around. It wasn’t. She jumped down with hardly a second thought.
A wracking jolt of pain traveled from sole to hip as soon as her foot hit the ground. Caught completely off-guard, she crumpled inside the cleft and huddled against the irregular wall, trying not to cry out. She made a feeble attempt to crawl away from whatever had attacked her, but for long moments she could only moan quietly while sucking air through her teeth.
She looked at the culprit as soon as she was able, and found nothing but bare rock. Only upon closer inspection did she see an edge jutting out of the stone like the blade of a rusted knife, chipped, uneven, razor-sharp. The absence of shadows had concealed it until it was too late.
Alex glanced down at her foot, afraid to let her eyes linger for dread of what she might see, but nothing bled. Nothing was broken.
She sat cross-legged on the ground and ran her fingers along the fading imprint left on her sole. It felt tender, but the pain was almost gone already. Again she looked at the knife-like protrusion on which she had landed.
“That thing should have split my foot in half.”
Her feet had been tough back then, but not this tough. She had made them even more resilient than they used to be, somehow.
Alexandra frowned, biting her lip. Was she able to change her own anatomy at will, after all? Why couldn’t she heal her shoulder, then?
Maybe they’re not the same process. This seems important, I need to find out.
She let go of her foot and tried to think of a suitable test to perform.
Grow an extra arm! A juvenile voice jumped up inside her head. A centaur body! Elf ears! Wings!
Another, more masculine voice answered. It sounded exactly like Aaron.
Something easy to begin with, Alex. You always go and take on the biggest challenge. How about you start on something with small chances of going horribly wrong?
Alexandra smiled at the suggestion. It was exactly what he’d say, calm, collected, eyebrows slightly raised as he looked at her over the rim of his glasses. He’d been infuriating at times, especially when he spoke calm and collected sarcasm. Now, the memory of his voice was a treasure to savor.
“Where’d you go, Aaron?”
All traces of her smile vanished. It was as if the whispered words had tightened around her chest, making it much harder to breathe. If only she could hear him talk again . . . .
Alexandra shut her eyes and pressed her lips together.
Stop it. Start thinking about him and you won’t stop. You need to figure this out and then keep going.
She shook her head vigorously, banishing his memory but taking his suggestion. An easy change, then. Small. A haircut? Not without a mirror, which didn’t seem to work right in this place. A tattoo? Too similar to clothing to be conclusive. Her wandering gaze fell on her hands, on the short, nibbled-at, almost nonexistent crescents that were the free edges of her fingernails.
Longer nails. Hard to find anything more harmless than that.
It sounded safe enough. Her mind made up and her focus restored, she concentrated on the fingernail of her left pinky and pictured it just a little longer. In fact, Alexandra put every mental resource into convincing herself that her pitiful fingernail was about a third of an inch long and perfectly smooth.
And lacquered a glossy dark orange. Orange went well with blue.
The tip of her finger rippled with the tiniest flicker, the faintest swirl of mist, and markedly unpleasant discomfort. Less than a second later, a beautifully manicured pinky stared back at her.
“Hah! I knew it!”
She concentrated on one finger at a time. She also imagined them harder, strong enough to provide reliable grip. It wouldn’t do, having to worry about ruining them later.
It came easier with every iteration. She did the last two at once, just to see if she could. The mist was thicker, the discomfort more poignant, but they turned out fine.
Alexandra admired her work. She’d never been able to endure the drudgery of making her nails look pretty, but she could definitely get behind this method. She prodded and pulled at them to make sure they were real.
Well, let’s see how they do.
She tested their mettle against the hard rock at her side, gently. It felt uncomfortable, but no damage was done.
She firmly scraped the rock as if scratching a chalkboard, then brought her fingertips up to her eyes for inspection. Not a single chip, nor the slightest hint of imperfection.
Alex brought her hand back down and clawed the rock as hard as she could. Her fingers gouged four inch-deep tracks into the stone.
Not one dent on her nails. As she examined them in amazement, she winced at the scrapes all over her palms from climbing and keeping her balance.
Gloves would help.
A pair of tight-fitting gloves immediately coalesced around her hands, the bright mists coming together into one-piece garments of drab blue spandex. A few subtle swirls of smoke brought charcoal-colored leather padding to the palms and underside of the fingers, careful black stitching holding the seams and joints together. She turned her hands over, and the color shifted on the cloth, lines and shapes twisting and dancing to settle into a simple camouflage pattern of blue on dark blue. A flick of her mind, and the glove fingertips got sheared out of existence, dark-skinned fingers and polished nails peeking out freely. To aid grip, evidently.
It felt so natural, so effortless. Being able to make things happen with just a thought, a belief; it let her forget for a tiny moment that she was all but drifting aimlessly in a stormy sea.
After a moment of consideration, coming up with useful improvements proved to be a challenge. That extra arm would actually be quite gross. Wings were tempting, but felt silly and pointless after realizing they wouldn’t provide enough lift to let her fly like a bird—there was a reason hang-gliders took off running from mountainsides. A centaur body would be nasty, and she was mortified that elf ears had even come up in the first place.
Grow a pair of horns and a tail. Turn your staff into a pitchfork. Somebody decided you belong in this place, you might as well embrace it.
She dismissed the thought with a roll of her eyes, but the pitchfork idea reminded her of the tragic loss she’d suffered at the bridge. Watching her beautiful weapon sink into an endless pit had been heartbreaking.
“Stupid slug monsters, I loved that staff. It’s probably vanished by now.”
The realization dawned on her just as she said it.
Maybe I can dream it back into existence?
It had taken a good thirty minutes to create the original, an amount of time she couldn’t afford to lose at the moment. Alexandra darted the thousandth look at the scarcely traversed road, about a quarter mile downhill. It had been quiet so far, but who knew when the monsters would catch up?
I already know everything about it, though. Maybe I only need to . . . .
She tentatively held out her hands and simply believed her staff to be resting on her palms. Right away the familiar swirls of mist came together in a faint cylindrical outline. Wide-eyed, she excitedly pictured its glowing patterns, laced together the leatherwork, felt the texture of the varnished hardwood on her skin. The mist wiggled and sharpened in intricate ways faster than ever before, plucking details from her memory into reality in a matter of seconds.
She eyed it closely, slightly incredulous. Can I just switch it off and on?
Alexandra willed it not to exist, and it dissipated with a fluttery flourish of shimmering smoke. She willed it back into existence, and it obliged promptly with a silent flash of mist.
This is the most awesome thing ever.
She hefted it appreciatively and winced once more at the twinge of pain from her shoulder.
Alex put down her weapon and pursed her lips. She dissolved the soiled top with a brush of willpower and craned her neck to take a good look at the wound. It was red and ugly, but shallow, and the cut had been fairly clean. Her bra strap was ruined, only held in place by virtue of being stuck to her skin. She made the garment vanish as well, then conjured up a length of white cloth and proceeded to clean up as best she could.
“I got rid of blood and injuries before. Why can’t I do it again?”
Try as she might, picturing the wound closed and the blood gone did nothing at all. The bloodstains did seem to scrub off easier than she’d expected, however. Done cleaning, she wrapped a newly created bandage around ribcage and shoulder, and then willed her clothes back in place.
She tested her arm’s range of motion. Still painful, but much better.
Alexandra gathered up her staff and went up to a hunched over position, intent on immediately resuming her stealthy trek toward the mysterious Gate. She lurched to a halt after catching sight of her dark skin and orange fingernails against the blue background.
I stick out like a clown at a funeral. Maybe there’s some changes I can make after all.
The demons might not even rely on eyesight to track her, but why take the risk? Changing her skin color couldn’t be that much harder than dying her clothes.
Rather excited to see the results, she pictured her skin shifting, like a toad blending in with the background. More so, like an octopus, changing pigments in the blink of an eye to become one with the environment.
And then she believed it.
The pain flared up everywhere at once, like a thousand needles jabbing into every inch of her body. Alexandra slumped against the side of the cleft with a deep gasp, eyes widening in shock—she could feel her eyeballs transforming along with everything else. A thick mist clouded her vision, and for interminable seconds she could do nothing but grit her teeth and hold on.
It ended as abruptly as it had begun. She was left panting on hands and knees, shaking. Sunken eyes stared at blue-tinged fingers.
She sat back wearily, trying to catch her breath.
It was unpleasant just doing your nails one at a time, the voice of hindsight came. What did you think would happen if you changed your whole body at once?
After her eyesight finally regained its focus, Alexandra looked down and rolled up her sleeve.
Her skin was no longer of Kenyan descent. Blue on blue covered every inch of her, a dynamic pattern that shifted with her movements to match the colors of the immediate surroundings. It would even adapt depending on the angle from which she looked.
She let out a smug chuckle. “Damn, I’m good.”
Aware of having spent much longer experimenting than she had intended, Alexandra hurried to tie up loose ends. She colored her nails and staff a mix of subdued blue shades, then pulled up her hood and made sure it covered all of her hair. The thought struck her halfway through tucking her short curls under the cloth.
I could’ve just put on more clothes, instead of becoming a smurf.
She blinked a few times. The realization brought a flush of heat to her goofy blue cheeks.
And you thought you were being so clever.
“Oh, shut up.”
Alexandra looked up toward the horizon, where tens of craggy hills met that cloudless cobalt sky with no sun in it. She could see an enormous structure far, far in the distance, peeking behind folds of scabrous terrain. Its pyramidal architecture looked . . . temple-like.
“C’mon, double-time it, genius. Gotta make up for all the faffing about you just did.”
She resumed her trek, speeding up to a nimble trot that turned steps into strides, drops into leaps, climbs into jumps.
She did not tire.
The archway stood about ten feet tall at its apex, a smooth and narrow half-circle that protruded from the ground as if a stone ring had been buried upright into the rocky soil. The road forked left from the main Temple-bound path and led straight through it.
“So I guess that’s the Gate. This place could use some damn signposts.”
The Temple itself still appeared impossibly far away. Although she had no way to be certain this was the gate she sought, the stone arch was the only notable feature she had come across during her long trek. Twenty miles must have come and gone already.
Alexandra watched from a prudent distance behind the cover up-slope. The Gate looked . . . solid. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, even if everything else decayed to dust in this realm, that stone ring would stay unmoved, unblemished. This arch was like shrapnel biting into bone: it had become part of the body, but it didn’t belong there.
Most curious of all, the road didn’t continue past the gate, but it did continue straight through the Gate, into a markedly different landscape where no mountains could be seen. She had gone to the trouble of finding out what the back of the half ring looked like, expecting something mystical—a shimmering wall of light, a mirror-like liquid surface, a pool of blackness. On the other side the mysterious Gate was nothing but a simple stone arch where the road came to an abrupt end.
I probably should feel more put off by the prospect of going through a wormhole, Alexandra thought as she watched the deserted road for traffic. Shooting a portal gun for hours might have taken away the wow factor here.
“Maybe I’m just jaded. The cake was a lie, after all.”
Once again she found herself in a position where she would have to run out into the open. While she hadn’t seen any traffic, she couldn’t get a good look at the area across the waygate. Anything might be waiting on the other side.
Does it even matter? Unless you want to start wandering aimlessly, you have to go through no matter what.
She sighed in resignation and gathered her courage. She said a prayer out of habit, hesitated mid-way, then put it out of her mind with a grimace. She took a couple deep breaths and looked around one last time.
Alexandra vaulted over the side of the shallow cleft and ran downhill, approaching the archway at an angle. More of the area beyond the portal became visible: a fortunate absence of guards, a couple forks in the road, a worrying lack of rugged terrain. Then she almost missed a step as the horizon came into view.
The shape of the huge mount in the distance was a mirror image of the one she was used to. It looked much smaller, but then again she was much farther from it. The mountain still towered over all others like a colossus among men. It might not have been the same Mount, but she very much doubted it.
Alexandra crossed her fingers and sprinted through the threshold.
Nothing attacked her. No-one saw her. There was nowhere to hide, and so she ran.
Far from the road and straight toward the Mount, Alexandra imagined herself as little more than a shifting silhouette against the blue backdrop of unending plains and mountainous skyline. Ahead she could see a large cluster of structures, still nothing but dark geometrical shapes to her eyes.
This damn Nexus gate thing better be there. Hopefully as unguarded as the last.
Traffic on the road was increasing, however. Smaller trails joined it sporadically, coming from far-off features that she couldn’t make out. If it kept up, there would be a crapload of creatures to deal with by the time she reached her destination.
We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Keep going, don’t think too hard.
It would be about two hours of running at breakneck speed, she figured. She’d never gone this fast on the treadmill.
I’d have barfed my heart out trying. Feel fine now, though. Could give Legolas a run for his money.
She snorted out a chuckle.
“Damn fantasy novels,” she muttered, one word for every stride. “That man turned me into a nerd.”
Aaron had been so ecstatic when she picked up one of his cheesy novels that she hadn’t had the heart to disappoint him without giving it a try. It had felt silly at first, but then Raistlin had cast his sleep spell on the goblins and she just couldn’t put the book down after that. It was only a matter of time before they ended up having the geekiest, most shameful conversations, daydreaming about learning spells, channeling weaves, visiting Seattle Below, trying to call the Name of Booze. And there was that one time when they’d had an argument (my God, actual arguments!) on the finer points of staves and wizards.
I was right, too, she thought with a smug smile. Almighty know-it-all couldn’t prove me wrong.
She remembered being overly stubborn on purpose, just to get him a little flustered. She couldn’t resist giving him a hard time now and then.
The corner of her mouth quirked down. Alexandra’s smile disappeared.
I miss you, Aaron.
She quickly shook her head and looked around for something else to think about.
Her eyes scanned the landscape. Why have such neat roads, if there were no vehicles to use them? There was pedestrian traffic, but they didn’t seem to carry anything other than an unhurried pace. They definitely didn’t have the look of patrols watching for the comings and goings of the condemned.
Alexandra frowned at the thought. Where was the eternal lake of fire? The weeping souls, the sadistic torment? This place was nothing like the Hell of scripture.
Not that I’m complaining about it.
Could this truly be her designated punishment? What had she imagined Hell would be like?
She remembered trying to explain it to Aaron. It had always been more an idea than a specific place for her. A formless void where the soul was dumped to suffer for all eternity, if it was deemed corrupt beyond redemption. There didn’t have to be demons poking people with pitchforks while the Devil gloated in the background.
He listens to me quietly, seriously. His arm shifts subtly under my head.
“Why would the faithless go there then?” he asks. “It seems . . . petty.”
“Aaron . . . .”
“I’m just curious, I swear.”
“It’s not like that. Belief is like . . . like knowing the password. Or like knowing the way. Faith is the map to Heaven, and without it your soul doesn’t know where the door is.”
“But why make it like that? Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair? I mean, talk about disproportionate punishment just for being misguided, or ignorant.”
I keep silent. He’ll hand-wave scripture if I mention it. And how to defend something on which I’m conflicted myself?
I get an elbow under me and lean my chin on his chest.
“Maybe you’ll be the one that does the weeding at the Fields of Elysium. You’ll fetch my drinks, arrange my cushions and be my servant forever.”
He chuckles. “I already do all those things.”
The memory brought another smile to her lips that soon turned brittle.
What would he say now?
She’d have laughed back then to know she’d come to miss the awkward wariness of those delicate conversations. It had been impossible sometimes not to come off as confrontational, although they’d managed to defuse things before they escalated into arguments. Mostly.
Now, those talks stood out as their most intimate moments, precious memories of heartfelt sincerity and nervous confessions, of trust and vulnerability. Treasures that she wouldn’t have traded for anything in the world.
Her step had faltered to a leaden trot. When had she slowed down? Her eyes were glazed over, staring off into space.
Stop thinking about him. Stop it!
Had she ever told him how she felt about those moments? How she loved his mild temperament, the gentle way he voiced dissent, how firm he could be when necessary? She had secretly bugged him on purpose sometimes, just to see that set in his jaw, that look of determination and confidence.
She shouldn’t have done that. She shouldn’t have done many things.
Her legs stopped all on their own. She realized she could barely breathe by then. When had the tears started? They dropped off her chin, wetting her toes.
Alexandra squeezed her eyes shut and fought to get a hold of herself, push back against the vise that threatened to crush her lungs. She’d been doing so well. Had she been hanging by a thread all along?
What’s the point? What am I even doing?
It was all so foolish; her camouflage and clothes and gloves and tough feet. Her mad flight and stupid, pointless journey at the direction of some deranged creature.
He was forever lost to her, and she couldn’t even remember her last words to him. She’d always made fun of it, the melodrama over saying goodbye, over saying “I love you,” but now she understood. It was awful, a terrible sense of loose ends and unfinished business. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
He’s not gone. You went through this already. He’s here too, he needs you. Get up and go on.
Alexandra shook her head. She had latched onto all the things she could do and fooled herself into believing she might have a chance. The small freedoms and distractions only served to let the underlying despair lurk deeper, out of sight, until it could catch her off-guard and clamp down on her throat.
She tried to shove it away, to get off the floor, to stop crying. When had she dropped on elbows and knees? When had the open-mouthed sobs started, the strangled gasps for air?
What’s wrong with you? When did crying ever help? You’re pissed off about this, it keeps you going!
What a load of bullshit. Everything so far had been an act, all posturing and bluster to cover up the truth: she was terrified inside, paralyzed by the unshakable belief, deep within her, that everything she did would be ultimately futile. Anger and defiance were nothing but a brittle wall of denial.
Her hands clawed at the ground, clenching and grabbing compulsively. The wrench twisting her insides wouldn’t let go, and she found that she didn’t even want it to. What was the point in fighting? Who cared about her outrage, her disappointment? She’d been disposed of. She didn’t matter anymore, and probably never did.
It would have been better to disappear, just like Aaron had believed. That’s what had probably happened to him: he’d ceased to exist, not caring about a thing. Couldn’t she do that as well? Couldn’t she join him in oblivion? It’d be so much easier.
So much easier.
She felt it, then. A light-headedness, a hazy tugging in every direction. She felt it through the sobs and the suffocating sense of loss, a blurring of the edges of her mind, the enticing call of dissipating mists.
Alexandra recognized the feeling. She had felt it before, when she sat covered in blood, her hand and forearm twisted in a broken knot as she pondered in frustration why she had bones to break. There had been unbearable pain then, along with this sense of dissolution. The pain had been so intense that nothing else had registered.
But now the pain, though worse in its own way, didn’t shock the senses. She could feel it, the possibility to end it all, close within reach, effortless, tempting. She could scatter herself into nothingness and vanish from existence, dissolve herself the same way she could dissolve clothes, items and fingernails. She would cease to be, if she wanted to.
If she dared to.
Do it. There’s only suffering here. Just do it.
She reached for the hand of oblivion and took it. Through the tears she could see curls of smoke peeling off her body, dispersing into her surroundings. Alexandra let it happen.
As her thoughts began to blur, a question came through the haze.
Can a soul commit suicide?
The question planted a tiny seed in the darkness. It floated motionlessly in the midst of despair.
Then the answer came, gently; a faint thread of light piercing through the fog of her thoughts.
Not in Hell.
The words took hold slowly. Their meaning pushed against the overwhelming desolation, burrowing into the hopeless void.
And the seed blossomed.
This can’t be Hell.
Understanding washed over her, and her gasp felt like the first breath of consciousness after nearly drowning. It was so delightfully simple. A way out existed, and that changed everything. How could she be in Hell, when she could escape her fate at any moment? It would defy the fundamental purpose of eternal torment.
Therefore, she was somewhere else.
Alexandra exhaled tremulously, and the truth shivered through her, rousing her skin with gooseflesh. The mists receded from her perception like seawater retreating after high tide.
I’ve been so blind. I’ve been an idiot.
She simply breathed for a long time, prostrate on the floor of an unknown place, surrounded by the alien features of an existence she hadn’t begun to understand. The blue soil under her nostrils smelled of recently dredged mud.
There were questions about her beliefs that clamored for answers, but they appeared insignificant next to the overwhelming sense of relief. She could dare envision a future without inescapable defeat. Everything seemed to shift around her as the realization settled—her situation wasn’t as dire, doom was no longer around every corner. Though there were still hundreds of mysteries to solve, the uncertainty had suddenly become encouraging. Uplifting.
The crushing burden of hopelessness had unlatched from her shoulders, and so she could stand again.
Alexandra picked herself off the floor and wiped her face with the back of her glove. She looked around, embarrassed. The Mighty Alexandra, reduced to a blubbering wreck crawling on hands and knees. Her eyes continued to scan her surroundings as she worked to restore her dignity, making sure she remained unnoticed.
Everything was cast under a different light. This wasn’t a hellish landscape, but some strange world that her soul had wandered to upon death. The monsters weren’t demons at all, but the denizens of this land. She wasn’t a soul to bind and torment, but a hostile intruder. That creature she had interrogated had been trying to get rid of her, nothing more.
And I pretty much tortured it, she thought with a pang of guilt. They don’t seem the kind to accept apologies, either.
Most important of all, her husband wasn’t being tormented in some other circle of the abyss, hopelessly beyond reach. They simply had been separated, somehow. He was out there, and all she needed to do was find him.
At least I’ve been heading the right way. Maybe if I meet with other people I’ll find out what’s really going on.
Alexandra took off Mount-ward again, her long strides fueled by a renewed sense of purpose. A faint smile played on her lips as her feet glided over the desolate plains.
The gate to the Nexus was a gargantuan slab of blackness framed in thick concrete. She had watched several small groups go through, their size dwarfed by a portal that was as tall as a five-story building, as wide as a four-lane interstate. The creatures had walked into it and simply disappeared. The surface of the gateway would remain undisturbed, as if it were nothing but an opaque sheet of the darkest shadow.
A long ramp led up to it, carved in the same elaborate line patterns she’d seen before. In contrast, the featureless frame of the Nexus portal felt alien in this environment, a jarring intruder that stood out to her senses like a cube of tofu in a box of chocolates.
Alexandra squatted behind the closest vantage point she’d been able to find: a dip in the ground with a few rocks for cover, about half a mile away from the gate. She had been watching for some time, noting details while trying to come up with a way to approach undetected.
Which was impossible, because there were many, many guards.
They formed a large perimeter around the gate, complete with irregular battlements in rock walls, squat conical towers, trenches—a crude medieval fortification carved out of piled rocks. A few groups stood not ten feet away from the black surface, posted behind short bulwarks at the sides of the ramp. They bore no weapons that she could see, other than the sharp claws and talons on their multiple arms.
Everything was set up to guard from inbound traffic, which only reinforced what she had learned. These Clan weren’t Hellspawn out to punish her, but a deeply territorial culture bent on defending its borders.
No wonder everything else is unguarded. The only way in is to sneak past a garrison of a thousand enraged monsters.
Rows upon rows of dwellings sprawled to one side of the main road: tiny rock buildings in the shape of upturned bowls with an arched opening on one side, like a doghouse door. About a fourth of them were occupied, judging by the twitching antennae peeking out. Beyond this war camp was a village, with beautifully carved buildings that were tall and angular, squat and round, big, small, and everything in-between. Most of the travelers that trickled in would bypass the gateway and go straight into Nexus Town, as she’d started calling it in her head.
What do they even need buildings for?
Now that she saw them as more than evil tormentors, Alexandra wondered about the lives of these aliens. Was guarding the gate a simple job, after which they went home to their friends and families? Did they get paid? What did they do for fun? She didn’t need to eat, drink, or sleep; did they? Would they have a government, an economy, a criminal code? She felt like a zoologist watching a band of gorillas, too afraid to approach them for fear of getting pummeled.
“I’ve got no clue how to go about this.”
Every course of action she could think of was either foolish, counterproductive or outright disastrous. She had considered capturing another creature to interrogate or even use as hostage, but the thought of maiming yet another of these guys felt like stabbing a cashier to get the petty change in the register. The best plan she’d come up with was to sneak in stark naked, trusting the shifting camouflage of her skin to get past the whole camp unnoticed. She had discarded that option as well after taking a good look at their numbers.
The longer you delay, the more chances for something terrible to happen.
Just then, a group of creatures grew agitated around one of the outer rows of doghouses. They went up to some other Clan that were closer to the gate, next to the outer layer of barricades, and seemed to engage in conversation. Then a few members from each group broke off the main garrison and started walking in her general direction.
There were nine of them, hulking masses of chitinous plates and twisted limbs, lumbering thighs and twitching antennae. Ahead of the pack marched a smaller one, also chitinous and horrendous, but whose antennae were longer, twitchier, more supple. The group went past the camp, across the road, and entered the half mile of flatlands that stretched between them and Alexandra’s hiding spot.
Put off making a decision long enough and it will be made for you.
“They’re not coming here,” she whispered. “They can’t. There’s no way they saw me.”
They meandered some, as if sniffing out something in the air, but their path remained true. The closer they got, the more confident their four-legged stride.
They would be upon her in a matter of minutes. She frantically considered her options, her back pressed against the pitiful rock that provided the only decent cover in a twenty yard radius. She could cower and hope that they would walk past her, run away as fast as she could, or confront them.
All the choices were terrible. They were hardly a hundred yards away, and gave no signs of slowing down.
Think of something, or you’ll have another fight in your hands.
She almost groaned out loud. Maybe she could bargain. Intimidate. Reason. Plead, if all else failed.
Whatever you do, do it fast.
Alexandra clenched her jaw and stepped out into the open.
“Clan!” she spoke in a commanding voice, before they had a chance to take the initiative. “You are not my enemy. I come in peace.”
Good grief, how lame was that?
They froze for a second, stupefied.
They started screaming.
They charged, spreading out to surround her as they advanced.
Son of a bitch!
Her staff flashed into her hands as she assumed a defensive stance.
“Stop!” she yelled over their screams. “I don’t want to kill you!”
The smaller guy held back, shock radiating from it. The bigger ones did not slow down, primal hatred pouring off them in waves.
Shit shit shit shit!
She swung her staff in a wide arch, trying to intimidate them into keeping away. At the same time, the smaller guy spoke.
“Hold!” it said in a short, discordant screech.
They skidded to a halt in unison, not even a foot out of range. Alexandra jumped back, ready to swing again and hoping she wouldn’t have to.
“I seek to leave your homeland! None of you need to die today. Allow me safe passage and you won’t see me again.”
She forced herself to relax her posture, look less threatened and more threatening. None of them moved an inch.
Stay in control, don’t let them see you’re scared!
Alexandra stared at their supposed leader and made her weapon vanish, purposefully willing the hazy swirls to be extra flashy.
The creatures took a step back at her display, moving as one. The leader appeared to be sizing her up, wary of what she might do.
Her gaze jumped from one alien to the next, trying to keep them all within her field of vision. “Do we have an agreement? I bear no ill will toward your people.” I pinky swear. “No one needs to die today.”
The creatures seemed to consult one another in silence. Finally, the scout leader spoke in their characteristic high-pitched screech.
“You want come in camp? You come to Gate, go away, no hurt Clan?”
Alexandra nodded solemnly. “No hurt Clan.” She felt inspired enough to add, “can I trust the Clan’s honor?”
They looked at one another again in their unsettling eyeless way. “Honor,” said their presumed leader. “Yes. You trust Clan. Clan trust you. Come with us?”
With such reassurance, how could I refuse?
“I’ll be right behind you,” she said as she gestured for them to lead the way.
She had expected them to demand that she walk ahead, but they complied without fuss. The search party formed a semi-circle around her, keeping their distance.
That asshole found me somehow. Probably they don’t even need to face me to know what I’m doing.
They advanced slowly toward the camp, each party remaining wary of the other. Alexandra maintained what she hoped was a dignified silence. She’d have liked to probe them for information, but she was bound to undermine her already precarious position if she started asking questions.
Apprehension went on a steady rise as the outpost grew near. The place was abuzz with the din of high-pitched murmurs, hostile mutters directed at the biped that had dared enter their domain. It felt like walking into a human-sized beehive, with every one of those grotesque slug-lizards twitching their antennae at her, intent on her approach. Those inside their lairs had stirred out of their stupor, lining up with the rest.
Alexandra could hardly resist the sudden urge to turn tail and run for it. She gathered her resolve to look imposing and confident, and addressed the leader of the search party.
“Tell them of our deal,” she demanded loud enough to be heard throughout the masses. “No harm will come to the Clan if you let me pass in peace.”
She was met with louder mutters from the rabble and no response from the scout. They continued leading her deeper into the camp, coming close to the rudimentary fortifications where the bulk of the guards awaited her arrival. They would soon reach the passage between trenches where the road ended and the ramp leading to the gate began.
The intensity of their hatred washed over her like a rising tide, swelling with every step toward the massive gate. The sound of their voices quieted down, then disappeared altogether. A looming sense of dread settled in Alexandra’s gut.
Run. Just run and jump through the gate. You might make it.
She looked at the myriad faceless monstrosities that crowded the outpost. This had been a terrible idea. Why wasn’t that damned little creep speaking on her behalf?
“I do not wish to harm any of you,” she yelled at the crowd, trying not to sound as frenetic as she felt. “Keep your word and I will keep mine.”
The thing spoke then, a screeching sound that carried across the entire fortified area. “Biped want go away. Biped want come with Clan, go to Nexus. Biped agree walk here.”
About damn time you said something, Bubba!
The creature raised its arms dramatically. “Biped agree walk here!”
It must have been a grand joke, because the crowd erupted in the strangled trills that she recognized as laughter. Alexandra took a step toward the jester.
“You will all die if you betray me. You know that, don’t you? It will be a bloodbath!”
The scout leader blatantly ignored her. “Biped stupid. Hold biped. Sever biped.”
“What!” Staff in hand, she was able to take three strides toward the treacherous heap of sewage in front of her. No-one moved in to interfere.
Her fourth step proved more difficult. Something pushed against her advance, as if her body had entered a much denser medium. By the time her foot left the ground for a fifth step, the chanting had begun in earnest, and she could move no more.
Alexandra stood frozen mid-stride, staff held aloft, ready to unleash a blow that never came to bear. As her mind raced to figure out what was happening to her, only one thing was doubtlessly clear.
She had made a terrible mistake.
May 23rd, 2014
Queen Anne neighborhood, Seattle
“Man, if it’s another damn salesman, I might punch them in the nose.”
Bleary eyed and grumpy, I make my way to the door. Gabby can’t be bothered to answer, apparently, even if she knows I stayed up late again. Probably because I stayed up late again, and she knows I’ll get rid of unwanted visitors in no uncertain terms.
I peek through the peephole, fully expecting a generic clean-cut man in a suit. Instead . . . .
I scramble away from the door as if I just realized that it is, in fact, a snake. I look at it for exactly one stupefied moment.
Then I break into a sprint, running wide eyed and holding my breath for some reason. I go up the stairs, taking two and three steps with each stride. The way to my roommate’s door has never felt this long.
I try the doorknob, then bang on the locked door while yelling whispers at her. “Gabbie! Gabbie, open up now!”
She opens after a few more bangs. She looks even worse than I do. It’s past noon, how can she still be sleeping?
“Bloody cock and bollocks Alex, the house better be on fire—gah!”
I probably shouldn’t have yanked her out so forcefully, or put my hand over her mouth like that, but I don’t seem to have a great many options at the moment.
“He’s here. He’s at our door. He’s right there!”
“Who do you think? Him! Aaron freaking Gretchen!”
“Mmm, yrr in-trr-nit crsh.”
She’s even more irritating this way. I let go of her face so we can have a proper one-sided conversation.
“You’re going out to talk to him while I think of what the hell I’m supposed to do about this!”
“Oh, no no no no.” She wags her finger at me. I should have kept her immobilized. “I’m having none of that. You’ve daydreamed about this for ages, and now you’re hiding? You need to deal with him, girl.”
“Are you kidding he can’t see me like this I don’t know what to say I just got up are you serious what the hell is he even doing here!”
“You got yourself an online boyfriend, and I told you he’d be a complete wanker. You’re not going to dump him on my lap now.” Suddenly she grins like this is the grandest joke in the world. “Cheers!” She scampers out of reach and slams the door.
“Grargh!” I kick the door and rattle the doorknob, mostly out of spite. I run to my bedroom, throw some sweatpants on. I run to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, rub the sleep out of my eyes, quickly towel off. I grimace at my reflection, head down the stairs, take slow, deep breaths.
It’s no big deal, I can handle this. Just think, he’s as nervous as me, probably more. What the hell is he doing here? I might punch him, if only out of principle. No wonder he was so vague on why he wouldn’t be online for the weekend. Oh my god, I haven’t told him. He’s here and I haven’t told him.
I exhale one long, quivering breath, quieting the butterflies in my stomach. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. He’ll be hearing a few of my thoughts on the matter once the dust settles. He might hear a few of them right now!
I’m smiling like a moron as I open the door.
He’s not there.
I practically jump out onto the porch landing, looking everywhere in a panic. And there he is, talking to the neighbor across the street, showing her a piece of paper with some scribbles on it, gesturing mildly with his hands. You’d think he would have tried the other unit in the duplex, just a few feet away.
Or maybe he did. I didn’t take that long to answer, jeez.
It comes out as barely a croak. Good grief, get a hold of yourself! I clear my throat, straighten my ragged T-shirt as best as I can, then call out louder. You can’t even tell I’m trembling.
He turns around looking for my voice, and his face lights up when he sees me. I feel something bloom in my chest that I simply cannot describe.
I wave at him like a fool, doing giddy little jumps while I gesture for him to come over. I can’t stop smiling.
I just can’t stop smiling.