Monday, August 31, 2009

Part 12: Food

Sitting in the dark by the dying light of the fire, Brown Lizzy and Kopczik continued to stare in dismay at Stoner, who was busy picking her teeth with the splinter of an eagle bone.

"Yep, back in my day, we used to use the whole eagle," she declared, and started to giggle. It wasn't long before she lapsed into uncontrollable laughter, flicking the bone into the fire and wiping the tears from her face as she gasped for breath. She looked across the fire at her companions, who were clearly not amused. If anything, their expressions were of a yet deeper disapproval than before.

"Sheesh, lighten up, dorks! You're always looking for signs and crap like that, but I think I know a real sign when I see one. That stupid bird was pretty much wearing a sign that said 'KFC', know what I mean? We gotta eat."

"You're pathetic," Kopczik muttered. "Do you even care that we lost Rachael?"

"Oh yeah, like you care about her!" Stoner snorted disdainfully. "You're just sore because you lost your precious 'annoy-o-mancer'."

Brown Lizzy looked startled. "You talkin' like you don' b'lieve in Rache. I thought you even said--"

"I was joking!" Stoner laughed. "You think I really thought that someone's dream was the 'real' world? Come on! If nothing else, if it was the real world, wouldn't we all dream about it? You've certainly never mentioned dreaming about it, Liz ol' gal." She picked up one of the chunks of wood they had gathered, and tossed it on the fire. "See, in the dream world, these pieces of wood are the Allens, and instead of having to fight them, we toss them in a pile and make s'mores!"

Stoner paused, and a look of seriousness passed over her face. Kopczik wondered for a moment if she was done with her sarcastic harangue, when she spoke again. "Damn, I'd just about kill for some chocolate."

She kicked a small pile of feathers into the fire. "I don't even remember my dreams, most of the time. When I do, I don't find them particularly enlightening. Last dream I remember, I was eating at a Chuck E. Cheese, and they had the best pizza in the world, which I'm pretty sure isn't true in any world.

"Look, I don't understand why we struggle so hard to get by in this horrible place, just because some dream told us this is where we had to be. There's got to be some way to get back someplace civilized, right? Why don't we just leave?"

Kopczik and Brown Lizzy looked at each other in surprise, exchanging something wordless. Finally, Kopczik spoke.

"You really don't understand, do you, Stoner?"


The elevator came to a stop as the indicator reached nine, and the doors opened. A breeze wafted in that carried more of the self-contradicting sensations Rachael had experienced before. The odor was somehow both sweet and acrid at once, and while the was something smoky in the air as well that suggested warmth, cool goosebumps were immediately raised on her arms.

Her mother motioned to her to follow out of the elevator into the office space before them.

The office was strange, but not nearly as disorienting as much of what Rachael had seen before in this realm. The floor, although solid (and cool) enough to the touch, appeared to be a shifting mass of lava, which stretched across the office from one wall of fire to another. Despite such an appearance, like many like many offices in our world, the office was decorated with small potted ferns sitting in the corners and pictures of abstract art hanging from the walls. The only furniture in the room was a large desk with a swivel chair on either side, apparently made of glass.

Rachael's mother moved to the chair behind the desk and indicated the other one. "Come, sit. Are you hungry? I see someone has brought us some snacks!"

Rachael stepped forward and sat in the chair, which she realized was made not of glass, but ice. It seemed like something out of a dream as she looked on the desk and saw plate of, well, they were...

"S'mores?" her mother asked, as she pushed the plate towards Rachael.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Part 11: Throne of Minos

Rachael came to, with Nate buzzing annoyingly around her face. She tried to swat him away, but with no success. Nearby, Necros7 stood watching disinterestedly, while from somewhere either above her or below her drifted the sound of sighs so weary that just to hear them tugged at Rachael's heart. Above these soft, dolorous sounds came the strain of distant cries of souls lost in torment. Rachael heard these cries and for a moment she recalled standing on a ladder, climbing downward into an Abyss that hung impossibly above her. Her mind rebelled against the memory, and she nearly heaved. All she wanted to do was to slip back into unconsciousness, but something forced her to her feet.

"Where are we?" she asked. "Nekros7, can you get us out of here?"

If a robot could be irritated, then that was the tone in Nekros7's voice as he responded. But it sounded more like profound boredom.

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" he asked, his voice a weary monotone.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply -- "

"Oh, don't worry about it," Nekros7 said disinterestedly. "It's the sort of thing I'm used to. 'Tell me how to get to Kroger's, Nekros7.' 'Do my taxes for me, Nekros7, and don't forget to use Schedule SE and to include my itemized deductions.' Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and no one comes up with an interesting task for me to do. It's never 'Find an intelligent national energy policy, Nekros7' or 'How would *you* recommend reforming health care, Nekros7?' Ask me about the time I saw President Obama at the White House."

"You've seen President Obama?" Rachael asked, impressed. Too young to vote, she nonetheless had been captivated by the president's inspiring campaign and his commitment to make government work for the people instead of just for industry, as his predecessors had done. "What's he like?"

"Bipedal," Nekros7 said despondently. "Bilaterally symmetrical, and carbon-based. Depressing, really. All he could ask me to do was to throw out the empty take-out containers that President Bush had left in the Blue Room."

They had been walking as Nekros7 talked, and now the three travelers found themselves in a large chamber. Marble pillars stretched from floor to ceiling, and a vast crowd as silent as the grave filled the room. At the front of the room a man in judge's robes sat behind a wooden lectern. Fatigue was etched into the lines of his face, and as he read the book before him and listened to the testimony of the woman before him, he pursed his lips as though he were eating a bitter piece of fruit.

At last he brought his thundering gavel down on the podium before him, and the marble hall echoed "doom" with the finality of that blow. What happened next Rachael did not see, because just then a familiar voice intruded. It was scarcely more than a whisper, the noise a solitary reed might make when the wind blew across it, yet in that room she would have heard it even if the speaker had been across the room.

"Rachael?" She spun and found behind her a man in his mid-forties. His face was tanned from sunshine, and though he was still young, his long, braided hair was the color of smoke. A hawk sat upon his shoulder, its right wing badly broken.

"Daddy?" she said. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm dead," he said, then the hawk added, unnecessarily, "I was killed looking for you."

"Killed?" she asked, alarmed. "By whom?"

"Jonathan Stone Crow!" The voice of Minos rang out in the hall, and whether he would or no, Rachael's father began walking toward the seat where the judge sat.

"Beware your sisters," her father's ghost whispered, and the bird said: "Anorme."

Rachael watched helplessly, unable to hear what was said, as Minos and her father spoke. Then, horrified, she saw a long red cord whip out from beneath the podium where Minos sat, and coil around her father's chest once, twice, three times, until it had completed eight circles about him. He gave no grunt or sign of distress as it squeezed. With no immediately apparent effort, the cord hefted him and thew him through a portal that appeared suddenly behind Minos, and he fell into the Abyss. He hung suspended there, receding in the distance, growing smaller but always perfectly visible as he fell farther and farther while the seconds passed like long hours.

"NO!" The scream tore itself from her, and it occurred to Rachael somewhere deep within her that it was the first real outpouring of grief she had expressed since her father had disappeared when she was seven. She fell to her knees, conscious of the eyes of the entire courtroom upon her.

She expected to be reprimanded; she half-expected that hideous red whip to lash itself around her and dispose of her as it had disposed of her father, but neither of those things happened.

The hand that touched her on the shoulder was gentle, like she had always imagined the hand of her mother would be -- her real mother, not Lisa, who had raised her almost begrudgingly after Jonathan Stone Crow had not returned from his weekly trip to the pharmacy for the Sunday paper and a packet of chewing gum, but the one she had never known save in her idle fancies and daydreams.

She looked up, tears brimming in her eyes, and found herself looking at the most intoxicating woman she had ever known. Her hair was a red as deep as fire, and her eyes were bewitchingly calm as the open sea. The woman smiled, and Rachael found herself wanting nothing more than to be held by this woman, to be comforted by her, and to be told that everything was going to be all right. At the edge of her vision, Rachael could see that Minos had risen reverently to his feet, while bailiffs all around the great hall had bowed their heads or fallen to their knees.

"Everything's going to be all right now, Rachael," the woman said. "I knew you would find your way here when the time was right."

"My lady," Minos said. "It is has been ages since the First Among the Fallen has come to my court. You honor us with your presence here."

"My daughter is here," the woman said. "I had to come for her."

"Your daughter?" Minos' tone was hushed and awed, and wonder rippled through the guards and all the souls gathered in the room. "This is indeed a great honor to our court. Not only the Adversary, but her dear child as well." The kindly old judge looked at Rachael, and his eyes crinkled with tears. "It's been fifteen years," he said at last, and though he had found his voice, it came with only the greatest effort. "I can still remember the day your mother had you at the hospital. You couldn't have weighed more than seven pounds."

"Six pounds, four ounces, actually," the woman said, and she cradled Rachael in her arms. "My breasts ached for weeks afterward, for want of you, but they wouldn't let me have you. But now you're here, and we can be together at last. Things will finally begin to happen as they should."

Rachael looked around, bewildered. It was too much, too fast, and she couldn't even begin to make sense of it.

"Come with me to my office," her mother said. "It's down on the ninth floor. You two" -- and here she indicated Nekros7 and Nate -- "can wait right here. We'll send for you when you're needed."

And with that, the woman opened a door in the air, and ushered Rachael through. Only when they had disappeared did Nate dare to speak.

"What an extraordinary woman," he said. "But imagine the idea of us just standing here until she returns, as though she has any authority. Who does she think she is?" He stood still for a moment, and sweat began to bead on his forehead. "I say, Nekros7, can you move from that spot at all?"

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" Nekros7 asked, and for a long moment, he did nothing. Then at last he said, "No, I can't."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Part X: Confusion

Temporarily distracted from Stoner's audacity, Brown Lizzy and Kopczik turned to eye the hawk. The hawk was definitely eying them in return.

Kopczik scratched at his beard in thought for a moment, trying to remember the last time they had spotted a bird of any sort in these parts, much less such a grand specimen as this. "Do you suppose--?" he asked Brown Lizzy.

"Sure as I do," she responded, before he could complete the thought. "Ain't no way that a reg'ler bird."

"So what then?" he said hesitantly, "Are we supposed to, what, follow it or something?"

There was a loud thunk and a flurry of feathers. Lizzy and Kopczic turned in horror, simultaneously screaming, "STONER!?"

Stoner moved quickly to the carcass and scooped it up. "I'm HUNGRY dammit!" she said defiantly, clutching the bird to her chest. Picking up the rock with which she had killed it and brandishing it defiantly, she looked back at her companions, daring them with her eyes to say another word. "Somebody make a freaking fire, 'cause we're having chicken!"


As Rachael followed her companions, it occurred to her that she was probably supposed to be at the airport by now. Of course, that was assuming that there was any sort of normal flow of time at the moment, which seemed doubtful.

They approached the edge of a cliff, and Rachael looked down. The effect was strange. Down below, there seemed to be a deep blackness, something beyond dark and into what might be called negative brightness. It was as though she were looking into a vast pit of fire that gave off darkness and cold.

"Hurts the eyes doesn't it?" Nate asked with a chuckle. "That's not the worst of it, either. We're going down into it, and the journey might make you a little sick, since we're going there." He indicated a spot a few meters to their left.

Rachael's stomach took a flip. A rickety old wooden ladder rested against the edge of the chasm. She thought to herself momentarily that having to climb down such an unsteady thing as that might be hair-raising enough, but the way it was arranged? Was there nothing that approached normal in this place?

The ladder clearly was placed there to allow access to the lower level of this pit of cold fire, and yet at the same time, it was clear that in order to descend into the pit, one needed to climb up the ladder. As if to prove that it was no mere optical illusion, Nekros7 had already begun to climb. Nate motioned for her to follow. She put a hand on either side of the ladder, closed her eyes, and began her ascent (descent?).

Now that she was over the pit, she noticed a sweet-smelling smoke rising from the cold flames. She wasn't sure whether it was the height or the smoke, but she began to feel dizzy. "I don't know if I can do this!" she yelled to Nate.

"Just hold on and keep climbing," he shouted back. "It's not as far as it appeared from above."

She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. While she would have never said that she was a person afraid of heights, the darkness below her seemed to stretch away forever, and her sense of vertigo increased. She felt her hands slip off of the ladder as she tipped back and her arms went slack.

"Do you require assistance?" she heard Nekros7 say as she lost consciousness.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Part 9: Into the Woods

If the sleep of the just is sound, then it is fair to say that Khepri never had an easy time when it came to sleep. She had long since got Mufane and Elizabeth under her thumb so that together they could manipulate Rachael into the task that Khepri had selected her for, and such controlling behavior no longer troubled her. Even murdering Scott Allen and making it appear to be a suicide, all to build and reinforce the illusion that Mufane was an out-of-control New Age freak, was practically a matter of routine. There were sheep, and there were wolves, and the laws that governed the sheep did not govern the wolves. Common morality was for weaklings like Mufane, Elizabeth and poor beknighted Rachael. It was not for the strong like Khepri.

Yet it would not be fair to say that she was untroubled by the cruelty she visited upon her sister, nor by the string of murders she had committed. She would never acknowledge to another, nor even to herself in her waking hours, but her sleep was tormented at every cycle by nightmares of horrible violence, where her victims roved at will through the ruins of the world and she was forced to depend upon those she held in contempt for her very survival.

Khepri clung to amphetamines like a programmer holding to a battered TRS-80. They no longer worked, but she could not let them go. As the sun began to rise over the Staples office supply center across the street, she fought desperately to stay awake. If she could, she would stay awake forever.

She could not. At her sister's house, hiding from the law, Khepri fell asleep.

* * *

The sun was beginning to set when Kopczik awoke, his arm throbbing where one of the Allens had bitten him. They had been able to escape from the ruined hotel after an intense fight, but not unscathed. One of the Allens had caught Rachel around the throat and dragged her back, screaming, into the building while Kopczik, Brown Lizzy and Stoner had been driven by the size of the assault backward and ultimately out of Allen territory.

"Aw hell," he muttered. The bite felt like it was on fire; it was probably infected. "I'd hoped it was just a dream."

"Youse looking like you's had a bad one youself," said Brown Lizzy. "Is it th'same'n, where you's a girl and we's all sisters?"

Kopczik nodded, but didn't say anything. He had made the mistake once before of telling the others about his bizarre dreamworld, where he was a cruel and domineering woman named Khepri living in the world as it had been before Autumn came, and the others had never passed up a chance to talk about it. And when they had discovered that each member of their band had an analogue in his dream -- Rachel as Rachael, Stoner as a woman named Mufane, and Brown Lizzy as Elizabeth -- Stoner especially had made the analysis almost unbearable.

"You know, maybe your dream is the real world," said Stoner. Her eyes were unfocused, and her mouth hung open so that a long strand of drool fell unnoticed to her patchwork pants. As she talked, she removed a dried plant from a small pouch and rolled it into a paper. "Remember that butterfly I talked to who said he dreamed of being a man? I bet it's just like that."

Stoner paused to light her cigarette on the last embers of the fire, and took a long drag. She closed her eyes and felt her agitated mind relax and lose focus.

"You guys hungry?" she asked. "We got any groundhog left?"

Copzik said nothing. He just shook his head, and turned his attention to Brown Lizzy.

"So what are we going to do, Lizzy?" he asked. "They got our oneiromancer, and I don't see any way to get her back."

Brown Lizzy bit her lip and stared into the dark and forbidding forest that once had been a city. Rachel's dreams had been their best guide, and now she was gone, captured by the Allens, and her dreams with her.

"Come on, I'm really jonesing something to eat," Stoner said. "Don't hold any roast groundhog out on me. I know you got some stashed somewhere, Kopczik."

"Before we lost Rache, we was gonna go into the city," said Brown Lizzy. "We was hoping Rache's dreams'd tell us the safe way."

"She said she saw someplace restless," Kopczik offered. There was a rustling sound from their supplies. "That was all she was able to tell us before the Allens attacked."


At Brown Lizzy's cry, Kopczik turned and looked. Stoner had scattered all their supplies on the ground, looking for the supply of smoked groundhog meat she was sure they still had. His toothbrush -- a priceless artifact of a lost civilization, in that it had helped him prevent the sort of oral infections that had claimed his last companion before he had met up with Brown Lizzy and her crew -- was lying in the dirt; the only other shirt he had was lying in the spilled water; and their pre-Autumn maps of the region were scattered and in some places torn. And still Stoner was digging through their supplies like a wild animal.

"I'm hungry!" she said as Kopczik grabbed her and tried to pin her arms behind her back to stop the rampaging destruction. "I haven't eaten in hours. Where's the bag of groundhog?"

There was a loud cry overhead, and the three of them turned in wonder to see a large brown hawk alight on the low-hanging branch of a nearby oak.

Monday, July 6, 2009

פרק ח:גולם

As Scott disappeared into the waters, the dogs were upon Rachael. While some stood on the edge of the river, snarling at the spot where Scott had sunk beneath the waves (but not daring to follow), the majority of the beasts turned their attention to her with great fervor.

Well, at least, upon the spot that Rachael occupied; it seemed that like so much of this realm, the dogs and their masters were largely incorporeal to her. They leapt upon her, tried to bite at her legs, but all to no avail. Well, mostly; as it happened, as their vaporous teeth and paws sunk through her, she repeatedly felt a great chill settle over any part of her body so affronted. Although there was no pain per se, there was something quite eerie and unsettling about it.

A cold hand grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her away. Before she could see who it was, she heard a voice speak to her, saying in what oddly enough seemed to be rather bored tones, "Run. I will hold them off." Gladly, she ran.

Looking back over her shoulder as she ran, she saw a man who appeared to be fighting with the hounds, driving them and their infernal dog-walkers back the way they had come. She faltered, suddenly realizing that she didn't know who it was that had come to her rescue, what it was she was being rescued from, nor, for that matter, where she was supposed to be running. It was not as though there was somewhere to hide, as this side of the river seemed to be severely lacking in landscape, at least as far as she could see around here. She waited and watched.

The man who had pulled Rachael away from the dogs seemed rather odd for numerous reasons, most of which she couldn't put her finger on. There were obvious things about him that were odd, although she wasn't sure what to make of those things, since they had to do with the apparent supernatural quality of this realm: The dogs occasionally bit at the people who had come across on the ferry, and their effect was much as that of the bites of normal dogs on normal people, it seemed; while the people showed no wounds, they did seem to be experiencing pain. The strange man, unlike Rachael, seemed to make physical contact with the dogs, but appeared none the worse for it. The hounds and their keepers seemed to note this, and eventually retreated. He turned towards Rachael.

"I think we have found the third member of our party," Nate said, making Rachael jump. She had forgotten in the chaos of the attack that he was with her.

"Who is that?" Rachael asked.

Nate smiled and shook the hand of the man, who had come to stand in front of them. "I'll let your other companion explain himself, I think."

The stranger extended his hand to Rachael, giving a slight bow of his head, and speaking in the same bored voice she had heard earlier. "I am Nekros7. I am here to protect you." She shook his ice cold hand, realizing now what he was.

"You're a robot, right?"

He nodded. "That is correct. It was surmised that the spirit beings of this realm, while incorporeal to living matter, are susceptible to manipulation by non-living matter. This has been shown to be true. Furthermore, while the hellhounds could not physically harm you, they could cause great distress to your soul. I do not have a soul to be harmed."

Rachael considered this for a moment, then said, "I guess I should thank you for saving me, then? Or would that be appropriate?" She looked to Nate questioningly.

The robot responded, "I assure you that it is of no consequence. It is no trouble for me. I am merely doing that which I was programmed to do."

"Are you programmed to tell me what the heck I'm here for? Nobody seems to want to explain anything to me, and I thought I was just on my way to the airport."

Nekros7 shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, the most human gesture he had displayed so far. "I am sorry to say I know nothing of your purpose here. As yet I have not even been told your name. I am merely here to serve the living."

"Rachael's purpose here may soon become clear I hope," Nate said to the robot. "It's not my place to tell her, though, but I hope as we're now ready to begin our journey, it will soon become clearer. Let's go." He walked away from the river, beckoning them to follow.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Part 07: Over the river

Exactly what had changed because of Rachael's ignorance, Nate refused to say. He waved off her questions and began to walk down toward the river, and when she failed to follow, he simply stopped and turned toward her, with all the patience in the world, until she finally yielded to his stoney obduracy and moved to his side.

The silence that engulfed Rachael on the brief walk to the river was neither one of hushed expectation, nor one of growing dread. It was simply empty. As the path sloped gently to the bed of the river, a crowd gathered around her and padded in a silent procession toward the ferry she had seen earlier. Their feet glided across the ground without even the gentle swoosh-swoosh of feet on grass, and if anyone noticed the others, they gave no indication of it. They kept their eyes fixed on where they were going, and moved relentlessly forward with a weary, resigned patience. Not a soul there was disturbed.

Except for one.

To Rachael, the gathering crowd was a vise that tightened upon her heart and lungs with each step. She wiped her hands anxiously on her jeans, and glanced furtively about, looking desperately through the crowd for a familiar or at least friendly face. Not a single eye met hers; it was as though the people in the crowd weren't aware of her.

She could feel the panic welling up within her when she was still a hundred yards away from the bank of the river. By the time she was 50 yards away, she was shaking with a terror she could not name. By the time she reached the bank of the river, it was impossible to move another step. She fell to her knees in the mud and began to sob, hiding her face behind her hands.

In all this journey, no one in the crowd had taken the least notice of Rachael. Now, to her surprise, she felt a gentle hand rest lightly upon her shoulder, and she heard a soft, tremulous voice.

"Are you all right, girl?" Rachael lifted her eyes and saw a weathered, careworn face looking back down at her. It was the man she had seen earlier, from a distance, poling the ferry across the river. He was dressed in a tired gray outfit that had long since lost whatever shape it had once had, and the deep lines on his venerable brown face showed his great age. "It's not often we see someone like you here, but the way you breathe, I heard you coming an hour ago."

"It is willed that she come this way, where such things are willed," Nate began, but the older man brushed him off impatiently, without even a word.

"Where am I?" Rachael asked at last.

The old man smiled mirthlessly, and helped her onto his feet and onto the ferry, but still said nothing. It was as though, at his age, he had long since grown weary of words and the effort it took to communicate things that he felt people should be able to figure out for themselves. Around them the ranks of passengers swelled, more than the wooden carrier should have been able to hold, but still it sank no deeper in the water than when Rachael first stepped onto it.

At some point, though, the ferry must have reached its capacity, because at that point, the old man touched his long pole to the shore and pushed off. The far side of the river was far off, and at the speed they were going, it seemed to Rachael that it would take them all day to reach it. She sighed, and a long deep shudder worked its way through her, and she looked back at the shore they had just left. Already a vast crowd had begun to gather at the edge of the water, and still more people were streaming down the hill in eerie silence.

"Where are we?" Rachael asked the question scarcely above a whisper, not expecting an answer, but in truth she had forgotten that Nate was still hovering right by her. His voice came at once in a high, irritating pitch.

"'She stands at the very cusp of nightmare,
Daring not to admit what already she knows,
Keeping secrets and truths from herself
That could unlock the deepest mysteries
That none but she would keep hidden;
Here where the sun never sets, respite
Forever denied those who suffer 'neath
The groaning burden of their wickedness.
And yet, not there, merely on the edge,
Nearing the very door where faith, hope,
And love lay forgotten, abandoned;
There she rides --"

There was a loud crack as the oarsman struck Nate a staggering blow to the crown of his head with the paddle.

"Shut up, you pest!" the old black man shouted. "I've no time and no patience for your doggerel." His eyes seemed to burn like fire in his head as he glowered angrily at Nate. Then the fire subsided, and he sank the pole into the river, and began moving them once more to the far side. At length, his eyes alit upon a bald-headed man with a gray beard that jutted forth from his jaw.

"You there, balladeer," he said. "We've another twenty minutes to go to the other side. Have mercy on an old man and sing us a song, will you?"

The bearded passenger nodded, though he seemed scarcely aware of where he was or what was happening. It was more as though the oarsman had turned a key in a clockwork and started the passenger walking down familiar paths. Literally from nowhere, the ferry passenger produced a long neck banjo and began to strum it.

"The song I'm going to sing comes from the Georgia Islands," he said. "It was a sea shanty sung by slaves as they rowed from one island to another, but it also told them about freedom in the North, where they could go to escape their lives as slaves. If you know the words, I'd like you to sing along with me."

And then, in a tenor voice, he led the way, joined automatically by almost everyone on the ferry.

Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
That River Jordan is mighty cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body, but not the soul, hallelujah.

There were many verses sung, and they had the desired effect. Although the balladeer and every passenger on the ferry fell eerily silent once the sung had ended, for Rachael – if not for the others – it shortened the ferry ride tremendously. The boat reached the far bank, and the passengers began at once to disembark in the same empty silence that they had boarded in. The oarsman gave Rachael his hand, helped her off the raft, and then began his long journey back to the side they had just come from. For a moment, Rachael had an image of the oarsman, poling the ferry across the river, time after time, through the unrelenting passage of years, and she felt an odd sympathy for the man.

She was aware that someone was buzzing in her ear and pulling at the sleeve on her shirt. It was Nate, of course, but what was unexpected was that he was drawing her attention to someone else who was coming toward them. It was Scott, Mufane's late husband, and he was running toward them as though all the demons of hell were at his heels.

"Scott?" Rachael managed. He was wild-eyed and desperate. "What are you doing here? They told me you were dead. How--?"

"No time to explain," he said. "There's stuff they don't bother to keep secret from you on this side of the river. Rachael, don't trust them. It's too important."

"What are you talking about?" she said. "Don't trust who?"

"I don't have time to explain," he said. There was a commotion behind him, something -- or someone – was coming after him, and it was clear they weren't coming with a friendly intent. "It all comes down to you, that's why they killed me."

"Killed--? Who?" The world was tilting now, making less sense than ever, and Rachael struggled to find some way to balance it again.

Scott wouldn't give her that chance. He leaned in close, and whispered in her ear. "You're still a child, but don't let them use that against you. You have the means to stop them." The clamor was tremendous now, and Rachael saw a pack of massive dogs, straining heavily against their masters, coming toward them. The dogs' teeth were bared, their masters dressed in the austere clothing of those who have power and authority to punish. They would be there in seconds.

"Anorme" Scott whispered, and then without another word, he dived into the river, and before Rachael's eyes he faded from view.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Part 6 - "Via"

Rachael checked her watch one last time, and started to give herself a good pinch just to be sure.

The little man said to her, "alas this is no dream; and you’ll not find liberation through waking. Do you find yourself frequently talking with small people in your dreams?"

She smiled ruefully, "if you start dancing I'm leaving, my life resembles a David Lynch film too closely as it is." Then she sat down, and still looking at him, asked in a soft voice, "so you are neither surprised by the recent turn of events, nor unprepared for our journeying together? So, what... I'm supposed to hunker down, join the fray, petition Charon and struggle to cross this nouveau river, ignoring the fact that I'm not in Topeka anymore?" Then almost screaming, "where is the airport little man? Things like this ONLY happen in dream! And where the hell am I?"

The little man chuckling began,
"Thus her first step. Characteristically, she sits when asked to stand;
shaking her Olympian brow, she scorns her invitation to the dance.
Reluctant to join in pursuit of the banners, though pursued by wasps; and gnats that gnaw
Shall we wait then my lady for ignoble prods to thrust us forth
until your own mind, recumbent, lurches up to shout ,‘This cannot be!’?"

Nate paused his oration. "What are you doing?" he inquired curtly.

Rachael was still looking at her watch.


Mufane sniffed as she drove off. "It's OK," She thought pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and biting the sides that pressed out between her teeth, "Rachael's going to be OK. She's fine." The entire drive home, Mufane found herself poised between guilt and hope.

"How'd it go, Muffy?" Elizabeth asked, as Mufane wallked through the door.

"Package delivered, Liza," Mufane grumbled and sat down on the floor. "We have a lot of work to do, if we're going to pull this off," she continued.

"So tell me, what's wrong?" Khepri inquired, "you need to tell us if there were any ... difficulties."

"No," Mufane sobbed, "I just hate this. I hate the deception, I hate the role I'm playing in it, I...I hate me."

"Ohhh Honey," Elizabeth sighed, "you know that mom said, there must be an innocent among us - 'The pure one shall find him, but not know.'"

"Its just all these lies. Being innocent and being profoundly misguided by the ones you love is not the same thing." Mufane continued.

Kephri nodded and shrugged. "I empathize with your situation, Fannya; you love Rachael, and have chosen the path of understanding, but you must keep her, off kilter. Your role in our circle conflicts with the path you have chosen in life.

Elizabeth smiled, "you can't stand the fact that you have to play the new-age flake. Miss careful consideration, you'd prefer to be the informed hero."

Mufane just rolled her eyes, and then giggled half-heasrtedly,"I told her to call me when Elizabeth arrives, and that I'd answer the phone if the stones allowed."

Elizabeth chortled, "that's almost as good as the time she found out that Scott shot himself after you misguidedly invested all your money in Enron."

"No, no, James left, because of the money thing. Scott shot himself because I had to divine each step..." Mufane corrected.

"Have you heard from him? ... Scott, that is?" Kephri asked, "I sometimes wonder how he is."

"Kephri , I'm sure he's gotten over the fact that you shot him," Elizabeth repied.


"Yes! Dream sign! The watch still says 5:03" Rachael began humming to herself.

"Did you ever consider that your mechanical device will not work here?" the man’s small high voice sputtered. "Look, what is wrong with you? is this your modus operandi for coping with the oddities in your life? I know you have had more than a few interesting experiences in your life, considering your parents…"

Rachael gave him a scathing look. "I'm trying to summon my magic falcon to carry me out of here, and find Liz. I will you away."

The little man gave her a sideways glance.

"I will you away," Rachael repeated, furrowing her brow in concentration.

"You know, we can do this as long as you wish," the man calmly advised, "it will never get dark, not here."

Rachael sat there in lotus for a long time. Nate seemed to stare off.

Suddenly Rachael opened her eyes, stretched her legs slowly and grimaced, "You don't understand, this has to be a dream."

"And what, may I inquire, leads to this certainty?" posited the man.

Rachael’s eyes filled with tears, "it has always been a dream. I have been having these dreams about this place since I was a child. What do you think inspired me to pursue Oneiromancy in the first place?" She looked up at the eternal grey sky. "So, we are here. This isn’t dream. I’m dead? Did Stoner crash the car, and I’ve already made the transition? It’s not fair." Rachael lamented. "I hope she’s suffering, maybe a broken rib or something." She groaned.

Nate looked a bit perplexed. "Wait no-one has told you anything? Nothing?" The small man clucked and turned his outsized eyes towards her. "Well, that sets a whole new spin on everything."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Part 05

Mufane shifted down into third as she pulled her Jetta off the freeway and took onto the cloverleaf that would take them to the terminal where Elizabeth's plane was due in another ten hours. Beside her, Rachael sat fuming in the front seat.

"I told you the plane won't be here until two-thirty," Rachael said. It was all she could do to stop herself from strangling her sister with the pine-scented air freshener that hung from the rear-view mirror of the car.

Mufane's obsession with geomancy had started out innocently enough, when they were children. At the time it had been an idle curiosity, something she did out of boredom or an inability to decide whether to watch reruns of "Land of the Lost" with that hunky Wesley, or to tune in instead to the new "Captain Caveman" cartoons. At some point during her teen years Mufane had started taking geomancy much more seriously, collecting books on the subject and buying stones whenever she could. By now, when Mufane had reached the age of 42, it was an unhealthy obsession. Her first husband had left when she had put their entire life savings -- the children's college funds included -- into Enron just before the company went down in a flaming heap, on the advice of the stones; and Scott, her second husband, had shot himself with an antique service revolver because she refused to make a single decision anymore without the blessing of her stones.

Rachael had never liked Scott much when he had been married to her sister, but now she felt an odd affinity for the man. She found herself wondering if that revolver was still around, or if the stones had told Mufane it was all right to get rid of it. Given the sort of advice she solicited from the stones, they had probably told her to take it Baskin-Robbins and exchange it for an ice cream cone.

She allowed herself an idle smile as she imagined Mufane standing there with in the ice cream store, pointing insistingly at the stones and explaining to the disbelieving manager why it was vital that he follow the instruction of the magic stones. The thought almost alleviated her aggravation at having to ride in the Jetta to the airport at 4:30 in the morning, just because Mufane the night before had asked the stones when they should leave.

There was a rattle of stone within the cup holder.

"Can you turn the dome light on for a sec, Rache?" Mufane asked. Rachael groaned, but she complied.

The Jetta slowed to a crawl while Mufane stared at the stones to divine their message. Behind them came the blast of an air horn and the scream of metal twisting as a tractor trailer swerved through the guard rail to avoid running over them. There was a loud crash as the massive truck plunged off the side of the road and rolled down the hill before exploding at the bottom in a tremendous fireball.

"Ah," Mufane said at last. "Well, if that's what happens next, we'll go along."

Something about Mufane's tone made Rachael sit up straight and take notice. "What?" she demanded. "What is it?"

Mufane didn't answer. She just drove up a bit further, then pulled over next to a grassy strip along the right side of the lane. She turned off the Volkswagen Jetta -- even though Mufane never passed up a chance to brag about having a high-effiency diesel-powered automobile, she also made it a point never to waste fuel by idling when she could avoid it -- and unlocked the doors.

"This is it," she told her sister. "You have to get out here."

"What on earth are you talking about?" Rachael demanded. "The airport's still at least two miles away, and it's still dark. Are you crazy?"

Mufane shook her head solemnly. "I'm sorry, this is where the stones say you have to get out," she said simply, as though that explained everything. "Give me a call when Elizabeth comes in. If the stones say it's OK, I'll answer the phone."

"But -- ! But -- !"

There was no arguing with Mufane when the stones had told her something. She knew that she had divined the will of the universe, and she never argued with it. Nor would she let anyone else do so either.

"Freaking stoner!" Rachael yelled as the car pulled off. In the distance she could hear emergency vehicles rushing to the site of the truck accident.

Rachael shivered, and pulled her white jacket close about her as the red tail lights of her sister's Jetta vanished in the distance. It was cold and wet and miserable out here, and she was wishing not for the first time that she had been born in a more normal family.

She had been walking for a while before she realized that she had no idea where she was. The road had faded from view, and the ground was now sloping gently down toward a river. Dry brown grass crunched under her feet as she walked. Up ahead, a crowd had gathered by the river, unable to cross by any means other than a small raft manned by a solitary worker with a long pole that he was using to propel the raft back and forth. Long cables connected the raft to each shore by means of an erect pole in its middle.

"Where am I?" Rachael wondered aloud. "I've never seen this place before."

The voice that answered her was high and thin, and oddly familiar, like something she had once heard in a dream. Beside her stood a small man, with an overlarge head and vast bulbous eyes that seemed to see in all directions at once.

"You are at the beginning of a long journey," he said. "Where such things are willed, it is willed that you should begin this journey with a single step."

She looked at the man curiously. "Do I know you?" she asked.

"We have met," he allowed, bowing courtesouly. "You may call me--" and he told her his name.

"Nate?" she repeated, uncertainly. She looked at her wrist. There was no welt on her wrist, no sign of gnats. Her watch said 5:03. She turned her eyes away, then back. It still said 5:03. She knew then that, odd as this experience was, she was not dreaming.

The odd little man tilted his head to the left as if he were evaluating her. "That will do," he said. "And with your permission, I will be your Virgil for all that is to come."

Anorme Part 4 – “Populous”

Mufane sat watching her sister for signs of the delta stage, the softening of her breathing, sleep talk, or even apnea. Apnea wasn't tremendously likely, but still, these induced dreamings sometimes had their cost. She studied Rachel's reddish hair and impish nose, and wondered how they could be related, let alone be sisters. She was darker, and heavier, of course she looked pretty good, considering she was more than fifteen years older than Rachel, her youngest sister. It wasn’t that she didn't love her sister, they were just so different. The four of them were all so different she supposed. The only things that bound them together were the disparate genes and common splinters of time they shared.

And perhaps Jason, she smiled to herself, though she wasn't sure about Rachel. That girl was so serious, headstrong and possessive she put the rest to shame. She knew Jason would have tried, but she doubted that Rachel would have conceded. She was still so young.

"Oh well, Rach, no stress. How you run is your business. I'm just hoping you've loosened up a bit." Mufane thought, looking gently at her. She looked a bit worried, and thought, "We're taught so many judgments, stereotypes and blatant untruths, that it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff sometimes. Examples: Math doctorates are hard to come by; people holding them are purposeful, diligent and serious...No-one who was serious about math and science would ever waste their time with... well magic wasn't exactly the right term... divination?" She shrugged inwardly, "doesn't matter in the end." She was who she was, and while anxious about many things (her PhD mostly), she accepted herself; and she delighted in geomancy.

Geomancy had started out as a bit of a joke for her. A bit of a game, with a dash of a calculation, a hint of abstraction in the interpretation, and…, incredibly it all worked. Somehow it all fell together. It had slipped into her life subtly through the least likely vehicle she could have imagined, her mother.

She remembered how surprised she was when her mother actually seemed interested in Mufane’s leisurely pursuit of geomantic divination. It was funny, mom had always seemed a bit cool to her, considered and almost uneasy when she spoke to Mufane. It was as if she'd allowed part of herself (accidentally?) to be swallowed up by her role as parent. There wasn't much left to connect with by the time Muffy had reached adolescence.

But in that moment, Mufane must have been about 13, when she casually mentioned she'd been playing this game with a binary system for telling the future, geomancy. Her mother came to a complete stop. She sat down with her and turned her undivided attention to Mufane. She asked a bunch of gently probing questions about what she was doing and why. Mufane remembered how warm and thrilled she felt in those moments. The sunlight from the bay window softly reflecting off her mother’s black hair as she looked at her devoid of any appraisal, just genuine curiosity about something she found valuable.

It had also, however, puzzled Mufane; her mother was not interested in math, not at all. To even try to share such a technical thing was preposterous. She now wondered to herself if her revealing that confidence wasn't in some way guided by more than the efforts of a little flower vying for a moment of sun.


Rachael looked at Brown Lizzie, "Allens?” she groped. She looked at her arm. The welts from the gnat bites were gone. Whack, sudden insight leapt up Rachael’s spine like an expertly placed blow of the keisaku, a Zen master’s stick. Kopczik was a woman, her sister, not a man, definitely a dream sign. Rachael nodded cautiously. She looked at her silver watch. 7:24 it read; still cautious, Rachael looked away at Kopczik's low trimmed blouse. "Look at the watch again," she thought. The gold watch read 11:36. "Hah! Still in dream," she thought triumphantly, "focus now on the stone, where is my sister, Elizabeth."

"Lizzie," Rachael yelled, and in her hands the silver charm began to glow.

Brown Lizzie approached; "Right here sweetie, what's up?" she asked. "By the way, I was hoping '20 Allens' would get you back," She giggled. "Ray-ray, it’s great to see you, how're Khepri & Muffy doing?"

"Elizabeth, we all have to return to Caltech," Rachael said hurriedly. She started rubbing her hands together, as if they were cold. "Stoner’s divined that we are all going to be facing considerable danger from, well, something from Mom and Dad. The only hope for us to escape unscathed is for us to resuscitate the circle; soon."

Brown Lizzie looked at her penetratingly, "Jason?" she inquired with an eyebrow raised half-amusedly at the answer she was anticipating.

Rachael sighed, "Yes, Snot Boy's already standing watching with Stoner. I wouldn't be surprised if he weren't already putting the moves on her, while they’re waiting."

"You know she hates it when you call her Stoner, almost as much as when I call her Muffy," Elizabeth smiled. "If you don't wake up soon he may have both of you," she added.

"That...boy lays one hand on me and I will own him for a month," Rachael threatened angrily.

The room briskly started to fade. Rachael took a deep breath; she rubbed her hands more vigorously. The colors crept back in ponderously.

"I'm sorry, try to hold it together; you know, I really missed you," Elizabeth said gently, "I'll make the real-time journey back. 2:30 Friday, airport, pick me up," tilting her head to one side, to make it seem more of a request and less of an order.

Then squinting a bit with concern, she added, "Don't forget me. I don't have anyone’s number."


"Huh! Oh, Jason," Mufane flinched as his warm hands softly working her shoulders yanked her out of her memories.

"What," he asked slyly, "no Snot Boy?"

Mufane chuckled, "Rachael always objected to sharing. Your hypothesis didn't survive its test phase."

"Glad she wasn't my first subject then," he laughed, trying to sit next to her.

"Oh no mister, I don't care who you imagine yourself to be, or what remains of the relationship we shared, there is only room in this chair for one of us. And I am not moving." She tried to sound firm.

He sat at her feet, and rested his head back on her knees. She ran a hand through his long, soft, auburn hair. She sighed quietly.

She really liked him, despite his flakiness, and perhaps because of it. "Damn our situation," she thought, "I could really use a little time to work off some steam." Of course that was probably what he was counting on. She knew math, but he knew people, and he specialized in the feminine gender. He laid his head further back on her lap and smiled as he looked into her eyes.

Rachael’s restlessness on the bed reminded Mufane of what she was supposed to be doing. She looked at Rachel, and seeing her breathing patterns knew it was about time to waken her. She told Jason to turn on all the lights in her room and stroked Rachel's arm gently. "Raych," she said gently, "honey, wake up."

Jason hesitated a bit at the other end of the room, like a dog that had been snapped on the nose one too many times for chewing his master's shoes. He mumbled something about getting tea and went into the kitchen. Mufane smiled with amusement and nodded.

Rachel's breathing began to change and she showed signs of waking. Mufane knew better than to do anything to disturb her. Rachel was doing the hard part now, remaining still long enough to hold the dream and whatever information she was able to gather.

Geomancy was so much more straight-forward Mufane thought, you set the question you rolled the stones and you interpreted the results, which led, of course, to the next set of questions; lather, rinse, repeat. Dream work was much more of an art form with all that that implied. You could never be fully confident it would come out right, even if you did everything correctly.

If you didn't transition smoothly, you might miss the dream signs. If you gained lucidity, you could lose it to emotion, excitement, wakening or any of a number of other accidents. And if you were successful, but slept too long past the dream or moved too quickly upon waking, or had sufficient interruptions while you were still imprinting the experience on your conscious mind, all that work could still go down the tubes. "The whole process is just too delicate to be worth the effort," she thought to herself. Of course, with geomancy, it was a lot more difficult to interact with anyone directly, she admitted to herself.

Rachel's breathing had fully changed. Mufane hesitated; she didn't want to disrupt Rachel's remembering. She visualized counting to sixty-four in Oct, took a deep breath, and asked, "Did you get her? Is she coming?"

Rachael took a momentary breath and then said drowsily, "Yes, the airport, 2:30 on Friday."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Part 03

The sloping hill faded from view and Rachael Stone Crow found herself in the courtyard of what until the Autumn had been a Hilton hotel. Brown Lizzy had wandered off somewhere during the night, as she was wont to do; and Stoner somehow had fallen asleep on the rusted skeleton of a pool chair, as she was wont to do; leaving only Snot Boy and Kopczik to keep the vigil while she had explored the dreamtime.

The pungency of burnt sage filled the air, though it didn't make Rachael feel particularly clean. It had been a week since she had been able to get to the river to bathe, and almost as long since she had been able to wash the clothes that were almost her only possession in the world. The embers on the fire were a dark red, turning ash, and the light of the stars above was blocked by the trees that had grown around the hotel courtyard. 

"You back with us now, Rachael?" Kopczik asked. "What'd you see?"

The dream flowed through her conscious mind like a stream. Rachael felt that she could just perceive its edges and its general flow, but knew that once she tried to grasp it, it would slip through her fingers and be gone. She closed her eyes and let herself get the feel of the dream once again. It was slipping away, the lightest gossamer being torn asunder on the wings of waking.

A gnat from the brackish mess that had once been a pool buzzed in her ear, and suddenly a piece of her dreamwalk fell back into place. She opened her eyes and looked across the dying embers at her two companions.

"I was someplace restless," she said. "It had a kind of beauty, but I couldn't enjoy it because whenever I stopped, gnats would bite me." She felt her wrist and there, sure enough, was the angry welt she had discovered in her dream.

"Gnats," Kopczik repeated. He sounded disappointed. "That's no surprise. They've been bothering us all night."

Rachael scowled angrily at the interruption, but didn't say anything. She was already struggling to retain the least bit of the dreamwalk. Letting Kopczik get to her would cost her everything she had gained from the night's work, and it was already too vague for her tastes. There had been a journey she was trying to avoid, somewhere she was being forced to visit that she didn't want to go. She almost had it, when Brown Lizzy stepped into the clearing from the tangle of brush and spoke.

"Allens coming, maybe twenty of them," Brown Lizzy said. "They's gonna be here'n about five minutes."

"Sark," Kopczik swore as he jumped to his feet and grabbed his iron. "Snot Boy, wake Stoner up and make sure she's got her shiv. We got to get out of here fast."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Part 2

On and on over blurred hours Rachel walked. Eventually, all of this walking, even at a measured pace, made her dizzy. She sat for a moment, and running her fingers through her hair, felt an unwelcome stickiness. It hurt. Inspecting her head with her hands, she felt for bumps and bruises. As she brought her hands down she saw the red of her blood, but ... she took a breath and stared at her fingers visualizing each digit.

Rachael sighed. "Just breathe, don’t get excited," she thought to herself. She knew this dream; next the hawk, who was also somehow her father, would land at her feet and berate her for not paying more attention to what she was doing, and ask her when she would stop wandering aimlessly, and settle down. "What do I do next?" she thought, reminding herself not to struggle. If she got too excited she'd awaken, and she'd be unable to take the next crucial steps. If she let go of her focus, she'd be pulled back, back into the dream, and then who knew if she'd be strong enough to re-manifest her consciousness.

A few gnats settled on her as she hummed the gentle tune her grandmother had taught her, “Why the Pines Stay in the Mountains.” The song gave her strength and called to the earliest moments of her consciousness, and perhaps to those parts formed even earlier. "Soft yet firm, ever wise, man and woman and child..." She loved the pines and their multi-faceted utility and beauty; breathing through her nose slowly she tried to smell their resin.

The gnats buzzed, and began biting her again. "Stay with the pain," she had been taught, "Seeing through the pain means to endure; enduring caries through time." Rachael sat in a calm discomfort for some time, focusing on visualizing her hands. When done with her hands, she slowly moved her focus up her arms attempting to see even the hairs on them. The welts were small reddened ruptures in her skin, in her being. The more solid she made herself here, the more particularly she felt the pain, and its hollowness.

She watched one of the gnats landing on her arm, its long, hair like antennae stroking her before it sank itself down to crunch into her flesh. "You know, you almost seem to be enjoying yourself," Rachael muttered to the insect, as she focused further on making herself fully present.

"It’s kind of important," the gnat sputtered, as if back at her, "I mean I have children to spawn and feed, and it’s not like blood comes easy, if you know what I mean. I am a little embarrassed at times you know, but you were put here for me to feed on, and who am I to question the works of the creator?"

The gnat’s voice was unimaginably high and thin. But that only helped Rachael focus further. She reached slowly into her tunic to take out the smudge pot, removed the flint and steel, and began to strike them together over the coal to light the pot.

"Can you do that a little bit less sharply?" The gnat griped, "I am trying harvest a bit here, and… ahhh what am I saying to you, you probably can't hear me even if you could understand..."

Rachael smiled to herself, as the charcoal took the sparks and the sprinkled sage slowly began to smoke. Yes that was better. The gnat flew off sputtering, as she cleansed herself with the sage smudge.

Part 01

The odd thing about the wall was that it didn't seem to be getting any closer, no matter how fast she ran toward it.

When Rachel had started walking toward the wall, it looked like it couldn't have been more than a mile away, and probably about six feet high, made of loosely stacked stones. By rights, she should have been able to reach the wall and climb over it before half an hour had passed. So she had started toward it almost immediately, stepping around and over the earthen jars haphazardly scattered across the ground, determined to figure out where she was.

That had been five, six hours ago. She had walked, sometimes jogged, and sometimes run pell-mell across the plain as an unreasoning terror of the place had come over her. Still the wall remained obstinately six feet high and no more than a mile off, no matter how fast or slowly she traveled, as if Xeno's Paradox had become the law of the land – except that at least with Xeno's Paradox, she would have been able to cross half the distance, and half again, even if she never could reach the wall itself. But there were no halfways here, just the same unrelenting distance between herself and the wall.

Rachel had been alone ever since she awoke on the level field, though there were other people about. She had seen a group of them, off in the distance, chasing a kite or banner that was flapping in the breeze, just out of reach, but they had been too far away to call, and she had had no desire to chase whatever it was that they had been chasing, with them.

There were mosquitoes here too, or gnats, with a sharp, stinging bite that she felt if she stopped or stayed in one place for too long, and a red welt on her right wrist were one had bit her.

The wall was impossibly close. She was a police officer, in top physical condition. There was no reason she shouldn't be able to reach it. With a sudden, frenzied burst of speed, she ran toward it with all that she had within her, her feet turning up chunks of sod with every stride, until the pounding of her heart filled her ears and her lungs ached with the effort of her run, until at last she fell to the ground, gasping for breath, trying to puke up food that wasn't in her stomach, while sweat fell in great drops upon the ground.

She was almost too tired to care when the gnats started biting her again, but only almost. Their stings were little goads that finally drove her to her feet and got her walking again.

But not toward the wall. It made no sense, it defied all logic, but she had to concede that she would never reach it, not if she lived a thousand lifetimes. She had thought that by climbing that wall, she would be able to avoid whatever it was that the owner of this land clearly had intended to be her destination, but obviously that wasn't going to be an option.

Rachel sighed, and started her long walk back.