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.