He'd made a pot of coffee, what he lived on, and was sitting in front of the computer in a small trailer he used as an office and writing room. Surrounded by trees and brush, it was the perfect ambience for him, for what he liked. Sunday morning. None of his neighbors, of which there were few, were going to work; no noisy cars and trucks driving past heading for town. Safe and secure, no one knew where he was, a thought he relished. He could relax, open his mind and heart and think clearly; although, lately, clarity had become a major problem.
He'd checked his mail, deleting all but those most personal, signing petitions, hoarding messages he knew he would never look at again. It wasn't the same as a handwritten letter from a friend, which he saved also as though gold coin, but this is the modern age, email was close enough. At least he knew they'd taken the time with thoughts of him, it was something to cherish. He closed out the mail program and opened his short story. He'd gotten lost the previous day, or rather, his characters forgot what they were doing. Before he tried to get things back on track, he decided to rewrite what he had down, maybe he could see where they went off the path, or, more than likely, they'd show him the path they wanted to follow. Tedious to some, he found the process mysteriously exciting.
He sipped coffee and slowly read what he had, immersing himself into the world he'd created. A fantasy world where animals talked and life was charged with magic and strange creatures, anything could happen. His main character was an outsider, not capable of magic, so for him, it was all new, every act of wizardry by the others a surprise and a wonder. He found where the story was moving off on its own, against his will. He resisted, even though he had only the vaguest of notions where the story was heading in the first place. Oftentimes, a twist, unforeseen and contrary to what went before, forced itself upon him, changing what he'd thought was the plot. A completely different story would emerge, one he found most satisfying, after his surrender. It was there all along, only he couldn't see it until it happened.
He had only a beginning, his people shoved onto the stage he conjured. Because of that reason, he never titled his works until after he was finished. Ordinarily, he just started writing and somewhere along the way the story, if there was one, would take over, he followed. But now he found himself attempting to thwart the will of his people, those he created out of thin air. But it was no use, they were determined, he gave up. He was in the passenger's seat once again, pointing out landmarks and roadsigns and the occasional deer crossing the road. And keeping an eye out for potholes.
Amused at himself and buoyed by the whole uncanny writing enterprise, he joined his people, chronicling their adventure, or what, he hoped, would be an adventure, he didn't know. He sat in the quiet, the hum of the computer the only sound. Absorbed in this other world, he didn't give it much thought, a background noise, they came and went. Tree frogs, birds, a squirrel who lived nearby, Mariah come to check up on him, a number of things it could be. But then he heard it again, more distinctly, louder. A gurgling sound, high-pitched, definitely not an insect or any of the other creatures he was familiar with.
He stood to open the door, expecting Mariah once again to be showing him another unusual sound she could make. But no one was there. He stepped out onto the small yard of grass and gravel and peered off into the trees looking for crows, creatures with a wide repertoire of language skills. It was mid-morning, the air smelled fresh and clear with a hint of sweetness from summer's seeds. Blackberries bordering one side of the yard were popping out, he paused to sample a few, thinking about the direction his story was taking. Abruptly, with a sense of urgency, not wanting to lose touch with his fantasy world, he returned to the computer, leaving the door open. He read the last few lines and fell right in, anticipating what was to come. He needed to get outside of himself, to drift, to feel what they were feeling, to understand what they found important. To see everything from their perspective. To enter a place where the main character would experience something he could never have imagined, a place that would reveal something of himself he wasn't aware of. A place filled with surprises. He and his magical companions will know what to do when they arrived, he believed, wherever that may be.
He began to write, the scene materializing around him, a virtual reality complete with props. He paused for a moment, searching for that word on the tip of his tongue, when he heard the gurgling again. With the door open, it seemed to come from beside the trailer. It was deeper in tone this time, not quite so cheerful. He stared at the open doorway, listening intently. "Is that you, Mariah," he asked hopefully. He rose to go outside once again, irritation mixed with frustration quickening his movements, when a low growling vibrated through the back tin wall. He froze in place.
He'd heard Mariah growl when raccoons came by and knew its timbre. This had considerably more mass behind it. A cougar? he wondered, anxiety building in his chest. A coyote? He was familiar with coyotes and knew them to be human shy, ordinarily. And he'd seldom ever seen one in the daytime. Same went for raccoons. He had neighbors, not very near; nonetheless, bears tended to stay away. What else could it be? A rabid squirrel? The back of the trailer was dense brush, difficult to walk through. Disoriented, his mind clouded by thoughts of talking animals and bizarre landscapes, he was having trouble focusing on the problem at hand, separating fiction from reality. He stood at the doorway scanning what he could see of the yard and beyond, worried for Mariah. Surely she must be aware of whatever this is and is hiding. He thought to steel himself and make his way through the thick growth around to the back to confront whatever it is. But a deep-throated humming caught him up. He couldn't tell where it was coming from, it seemed to be everywhere. He glanced around one more time for Mariah, then closed the door.
He tried looking out the back window but it was covered by tall, leafy bushes. Unable to think, he sat in front of the computer. He felt a little silly. It was broad daylight, the sun was shining, for God's sakes. This kind of stuff only happens in the dead of night.
He listened, his whole body had become an ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a shadow pass by the side window, a good five feet above the ground. Could've been a bird passing by, he wasn't sure. Humming filled the air again, lasting for several seconds. Pushing back fear, or at least, recognizing it, he tried to imagine what it could be. Whatever it was didn't sound very friendly. He searched the room for a weapon, anything, but besides a couple of pens and an old printer he could take apart, nothing was available. From the other end of the trailer he heard what sounded like someone talking under water, thick, muffled. As he moved aggressively towards that wall, intent on facing his tormentor--albeit with a sheet of hard metal in between--the doorknob turned and the door swung open as though caught by the wind. All was quiet, silence descended like a moist, smelly blanket. It creeped him out.
His heart stopped beating, he held his breath. He blamed the characters in his story for his predicament. If they hadn't been so demanding, he wouldn't be here now. At once, his mind returned to that magical world he'd created as though offering him sanctuary. It was tempting, but he fought it, the pull, the impulse. He quickly assessed his situation: he was standing in a tiny trailer in the woods on an early sunny morning, cowering from strange sounds while the whole outside world ignored him. He'd had enough.
He strode to the doorway, what he met shocked him to the core. His home, his car, the two-by-four work table, the assorted things that end up where they're left, everything was gone. In their place was a lush, tropical forest of unfamiliar trees, their leaves shaped like cups, and spoons, and ripply waves, some had long spindly fingers that appeared to move as though feeling the air; brush of greens and browns but also reds and blues and yellows gathered together in clumps. Off in the distance he could see snow-capped mountains, taller than any he knew. Sweet fragrances wafted in, soothing his frazzled nerves in spite of himself. Sounds of insects buzzing about accentuated the otherwise quiet scene.
He closed his eyes tightly and remembered how his front yard once looked, counted down from ten, thought briefly of his mother, then opened them. The bizarre, fanciful forest was still there. Bracing himself, he stepped out into the tiny meadow, flowers of every color combination imaginable covered it up to the treeline. Tall ones with huge heads the size of sunflowers swayed gently in the stillness. Winding away through the middle of this cornucopia was what could pass as an animal trail. He followed it. The flowers seemed to notice him as he passed, leaning into one another as though gossiping. Suddenly feeling nervous, thinking he should go back, he turned towards the computer trailer. But it was gone too, replaced by more meadow. He could see that the trail widened off in the distance as it neared the trees. The direction he'd been heading seemed to end at a hedge of reddish-green bushes about chest high several yards before the woods.
He chose the path that widened, thinking it did so for reasons to do with traffic, people traffic. By the time he reached the treeline, the trail had spread out a good ten feet and appeared to be maintained. He studied what seemed like its beginning, but beginning from what or where he had no idea. No trails from the woods led into it. The air was plush with perfumed smells mingled with just a hint of forest-floor dankness. Completely bewildered by what was happening, he tried to focus on his current reality when he heard that strange growling coming from the left. He peered into the dark, dense forest of twisted trees, their bark seeming to vibrate as though breathing. He dared not stop, however. It grew louder, he hurried. Suddenly, the growling turned to a squeal, branches broke, then yelps and pitiful crying, followed by an abrupt silence.
Anxiety rose in his chest as he continued walking down the center of the road. It stayed pretty much the same width, he'd half expected it to suddenly end. Soon he heard what seemed like someone talking, that muted, water-logged voice he heard in the trailer. It didn't have the same menacing tone as before; however, that's something he could've imagined at the time. He could tell there was more than one of whomever, they seemed to be having a conversation in a language all their own. The voices paced him and they made no attempt to conceal their presence. Sounds of footfalls crunching dried leaves and twigs came closer. He stared into the dense foliage thinking he should run, when in front of him two creatures no more than four-feet tall broke out of the treeline onto the road. Heavily bearded and wearing large, pointed hats--one red, one green--they carried spears, and over the stout shoulder of one was a beast with long, stringy, oily hair about the size of a raccoon, its head a light grey with teeth the size of a large rat, only more tapered. He stopped dead in his tracks. The thought of closing his eyes and clicking his heels together passed through his mind. They stood in front of him, staring, surprise in their eyes. Their rotund bodies were clothed in rough green and brown coats and pants held up by a wide belt with a big buckle. Black furry boots went up to mid-calf. He wanted to laugh at the cliche of it all but was too freaked out.
One of them spoke in that thick, rubbery tone, it was one long modulated stream. If he was speaking actual words separated by spaces, it fell on deaf ears. It was a stalemate. They squinted as though confronted by an idiot. As they stood staring at one another, the two hunters seeming to be waiting for a response, the faint sound of buzzing interrupted the tableau. At once a bright orb of light the size of a softball flew in between them from above. Inside the ball of translucent light, he could barely discern a being with four delicate wings. She spoke, or so it seemed, in a high-pitched voice to the two ruffians. They laughed uproariously, then approached. She, he wanted to call this creature she for some reason, flew above his head and sprinkled flecks of golden dust over him. One of the creatures spoke again as they neared, "What brings you to this neck of the woods, stranger?" in perfect English.
Astonishment held his tongue. The tiny creature in the orb of light flew into his face, he could see her smiling. "Speak," she demanded. "Who are you and what are you doing here? You don't look normal."
As though a dam had burst, he abandoned all attempts to hold onto reality; at least, the one he was familiar with. He said, "My name is Jason, Jason Abernathy." The sound his voice made in these surroundings completed his immersion. "And I don't know why I'm here or how I got here, wherever here is, except that, I stepped out of my trailer into this world, and now I'm here, on this road."
After a pause, one of the hunters whispered loudly, "I told you this would happen. They thought it would just stay in the castle, the walls would block its power they said, but it's happened before when they read from the book. No one can control it; I don't care how good they think they are. What arrogance. To think they're special."
"But the spells," said the hunter with the carcass over his shoulder. "Asgelane herself performed them. How could this be? There must be another explanation."
The ball of light spoke to them, "We mustn't jump to conclusions. This could just be another cross-rif, an accident, like when Prince Meladon opened that portal to the nether world. A singular incident."
"That's what I'm thinking. But nonetheless and even so, here he is." He pointed a stubby finger at Jason. "What do we do with him?"
"What do we do with him? I beg your pardon. I only came to help you hunt this bird eater, just so you wouldn't get hurt."
"Get hurt? I'm the one who speared him first; you were hiding behind a tree."
"I was not hiding. I assumed you'd miss, so I waited for him to go by. You got lucky is all."
"Please, gentlemen," implored the tiny being. "We have to think. What do we do with him?"
All three peered at him with mild consternation, like they were trying to decide where to put a piece of furntiture. "You better come with us," the tiny creature said, landing on his shoulder. One of the hunters--you know the one--snorted derision, "What if we get caught with this guy? What then? They'll blame us."
His friend slapped his arm, "Why would they blame us? We're hunters is all, out hunting greslings and came upon this... whatever this is on the road. He was lost, we're doing a good deed. Besides, so what? You afraid of the council? It's their fault in the first place, no doubt, one way or the other. Somebody somewhere screwed up. We're helping is all."
The other nodded somberly, then the two burly, squat folk turned down the road. Jason stumbled along behind as though slightly drunk. Eventually, the sweet relaxing air, the melodious singing of invisible birds, and the breathing of the trees and swaying of the roadside flowers worked wonders on what was left of his nervous system. Startled but acquiescent, he watched as the orb of light landed on his shoulder. In a bright, cheerful voice, now sitting bereft of her personal atmosphere, the creature introduced herself.
"My name's Nalina," she began exhuberantly, making herself comfortable on his coat collar. Her voice changed pitch to one of an even range, appealing, in fact; not jarring like she sounded at first. He guessed that was her attention getting tone.
"I live on the other side of the waterfall, past the town of Ingwald, named after the first wizard of Keshmish. He founded it during the rein of Sanguinon, the great ruler over all the lands between Leewrashal and Begelesta. All these forest and rivers were once his, but after his death, the empire broke up into separate kingdoms. Keshmish was a sprawling country of misfits and independents of all breeds and types. Ingwald brought them together to form a common bond, to treat each other with respect and to use their magic for the good of the land. He was a fine wizard, and most powerful. He was kind and just, but oh, could he get angry. And then look out."
Shyness didn't seem to be one of her problems, thought Jason. They ambled on. The two dwarfs stayed several feet ahead and argued continuously, speaking in whispers from time to time. Jason got an earful; she was filling in the details of where he was. Somehow, he'd stepped into or onto a plane of reality that either existed only in his mind or, that if true, was far more dangerous than its appearance would suggest. And it was self-contained. In all her story telling and description of the lay of the land, he saw no way out. But there must be, he thought, else how did I get here?
They came to an arched bridge over a swift-running stream, its deck made of rough slabs of a wood that yielded when stepped on, yet seemed sturdy enough to support his weight. The bridge itself was made of large, rough-hewn rocks of various sizes. Each was carved with a face of different creatures that dwelled in the land. Nalina made them stop at the peak of the arch to gaze at the running torrent. Rocks strewn here and there caused foam to erupt around them. Its banks were covered with bushes of multicolored flowers and greenery that lapped into the stream. Nalina warned of the water sprites who lived along the banks, they were treacherous and were blamed for many a drowning.
She had to yell, for her, the cacophony overwhelming. As he stood there, transfixed by such wildness and power, the scene enveloped him, overcoming his will, drawing him to it. He was sure he could make out laughter mixed in with the noise. The faces carved into the rocks smiled, encouraging him to jump. He could hear those words, or thought he did. Nalina recognized the symptoms and yelled for him to go. The two dwarfs had been waiting on the other side, they too beckoned him with hand waves, concern on their round, ruddy faces. She kept yelling to go and stood on his shoulder, stomping a foot. Finally, the spell broke and he slowly, at first, moved down the arch, gliding his hand over the smoothed, wet, wood railing. When he reached ground at the other side, the sounds abated to a mere muffled shrillness. Bewilderment clouded his eyes, and fear.
"See, I told ya'," one of the dwarfs--you know the one--said, shaking his head, "This is a mistake. Trouble is what this guy is."
Nonetheless, they proceeded as before, Jason gradually coming out of his stupor with each step. The road had gotten wider without his noticing to a good twenty feet across, the edges bathed in wild flowers. Nalina pointed out different kinds of trees and their ways. One particular species, she said, grew to an enormous five hundred feet or more and could live thousands of years. Its leaves were broad and flat reminding Jason of the maples on his property, but that's where the similarity ended. Its deeply-grooved bark, constantly flexing ever so slowly as befitting trees of their age, she informed him, was dark blue at the base, imperceptibly lightening with height, passing through green to a soft yellow. Its upward spiral brought to mind candycanes at Christmas. His mind wandered off, it didn't take much. He recollected those years he tried to stay awake on Christmas eve waiting for Santa Claus, but then dozing off 'till morning. Running downstairs to find presents under the tree, and regretting, however fleetingly, having missed Santa. She named the different kinds of fruit trees as they approached them, and what the fruit was good for. They stopped occasionally to pick some whose branches hung over the trail, the colors and shapes of which Jason had never seen. But their taste was delicious and satisfied his gnawing hunger.
Squadrons of insects with bulbous heads stopped to stare at Jason as they flew by. Eyes bulging, antennae twitching, they'd whisper in a pitch so high he couldn't make out what they were saying, then they'd jet off down the road. He found it mildly disconcerting to be such an object of curiosity, but also enjoyed being the center of attention. Listening to the running commentary of his tour guide perched next to his ear, he couldn't help but smile.
Following a bend in the road they came upon a rise overlooking the town of Ingwald, nestled far below in a bowl encircled by the forest. Off in the distance, a range of mountains topped with glistening snow was itself backed by an even higher range as far away as the eye could see. The pale-blue sky almost hurt his eyes with its softness. More pedestrians could be seen ahead And a small, two-wheeled cart pulled by some kind of bear, he thought. He'd been doing this comparison of what he saw to what he knew since his arrival. It reminded him of when he learned French. In the beginning, a long beginning, he would translate what French he read or heard into English in order to understand, and back again into French for speaking and writing. Until it happened one day that he began to think in French; it was a major breakthrough. He figured, sooner or later, a similar thing with regard to flora and fauna would happen here. Assuming, of course, he'd be here that long. He'd already learned the language, apparently; thanks to Nalina and her golden dust.
It was all downhill from here, the road peeked out from the forest in sections as it wound its way. More folks and animals and carts were journeying to town ahead of them, and, Jason surmised, probably behind them as well. But where they were coming from, he couldn't guess. They must live deep in the woods, he thought, but he'd seen no trails or paths along the way. At least, not thusfar. But they had to have passed where the people directly ahead of them had entered the road, didn't they? He found it painful to attempt to reason in the manner with which he was accustomed, as though he was trying to see the topography of one country in the map of another. He was trying to impose Aristotelian logic--premise and conclusion--onto a world that couldn't care less. They had their own rules. He decided not to think about it right now; the answer would reveal itself eventually or never. He didn't care; he needed to stay focused on the present.
Nalina informed him that today was market day. Actually, every day was market day but today was the special day when there'd be entertainment and demonstrations of magic. "You're very lucky to be here now," she said happily into his ear. He didn't see it that way; nonetheless, what she said, or how she said it, struck a chord. Instead of feeling lost and confused and on the verge of panic at his predicamnet in what very well may be a parallel universe, he decided that there was a reason he was here. A real reason beyond the surface of what his mind considered reasonable. He put his faith in that and held onto it as though it were life itself, which it may very well turn out to be.
Clamor and music from Ingwald reached them well before they arrived at the north gate, about mid-day. Immediately within, stalls selling refreshments of cooked food and drink greeted them. Beyond was a large crowd milling about amongst other stalls and tables of wares, none of which could Jason identify; he could only guess at their uses. The two dwarves who led the parade had vanished, probably into one of the many taverns around the enormous square. He searched for the hunter with the gresling on his shoulder, but to no avail. Bartering and trade were going on at a fast clip in some quarters, methodical in others with more expensive items. Jason had trouble adjusting his eyes, and his mind, to the hodgepodge of beings in the throng.
They ranged in size from Nalina's up to creatures of nightmares, ogres twelve feet tall or more whose head was cone-shaped, two long teeth jutted up on either side of the bottom row. He knew they were ogres without having to think about it. And others now made sense. Trolls, gnomes, elves, brownies, and more he could not name, no human had ever imagined them. Some with four arms and legs, others with two heads who moved jerkily as though each head sought a different direction. Beings with wings and those who crawled like snakes while yet upright above the waist. Some with skin of leather, others whose skin seemed more like light itself. Elongated bat ears tipped and painted, eyes slit like a cat's, noses with several nostrils, and mouths with serrated teeth shaped like icicles and others with rows of tiny razor-sharp points.
But he could see what looked like humans among the hustle and bustle. They moved about as though everything was normal, indifferent to the weird creatures around them. He tried to come up with an explanation for their existence here. Are they earth-born humans who, by some mischief, wandered into it like him, or are they only human-appearing, some indigenous lifeform that resembled humans? He was about to ask his loquacious companion when an argument broke out between two behemoths bearing two short, curved horns on their head. Whatever they were yelling at one another wasn't english and most definitely wasn't friendly. A crowd gathered around them, blocking Jason's path.
Nalina held his earlobe and whispered to be calm. She directed him to go and pointed the way through an alley that led back onto Market street well past the rancor. They turned left at a bronze statue of Ingwald the Wizard standing tall with a long cape and wide-brimmed hat, its pointy tip bent over. He had the bearing of one peering off into the distance, beyond the horizon, his eyes burned bright as though alive. After a few steps the noise from the marketplace subsided to a muffled backdrop. The houses on either side of the street could have grown there by the looks of them. Stories were packed on top of one another haphazardly and rooms jutted out at all angles and shapes. Some were huge and others improbably small, but they all seemed to fit somehow. What dissonance he should have felt transformed into a broad feeling of openness and acceptance, of playfulness and freedom. Trees and bushes were interspersed at just the right places. Besides formal gardens around the houses, flowers popped out of everywhere, from balconies and window boxes to ornate vases hanging from outer walls and porch roofs.
At the end of the road sat a simple two-story house surrounded by a white picket fence. The front-yard garden was busy, flowers were engaged in pleasant conversation as the noon sun poured down on them, ignoring their passage. For the first time he noticed that the sun was not quite what he was used to. It was round and yellow, but it gave the appearance of being flat as though pressed against the sky. Nalina pulled at his collar and told him to knock on the door. The porch was well-appointed with comfortable chairs and a swing bench that moved all by itself. Jason clanged the bird-shaped, bronze clanger. As he stood waiting, it finally occurred to him to ask just what the heck they were doing here when the door opened.
They were greeted by a young woman charmingly attired in soft brown leather pants and a long-sleeve blouse of black silk embroidered with creatures in dazzling colors. The buttons were pearl. Around her neck she wore a chain of silver links from which hung a green gem about the size of a nickle set in gold. Her hair was jet black, straight, down to her waist. She was barefoot on the print rug.
"Nal, sweetie," she squealed. "It's been so long. Come in, come in. Have some black-root wine. Last week I was over in the valley and picked up a few bottles. They don't make it from black roots, they just call it that. I don't know why. It's really good, you need to try it, I know you love wine. I've made cookies, with nuts, a new recipe I got from over in Shaleck at the booth where they were selling these cookies. You'll love 'em. C'mon, sit down, here in the parlor, I'll serve. You got to tell me what you've been up to, hon." As she hurriedly left for the kitchen, she asked over her shoulder, "Who's your friend?"
He could see how they could be good buddies. The parlor covered most of the back of the house and was overhwelmingly plush and curiously circular. A thick well-worn rug lent a feeling of homeyness, it was busy with all manner of characters involved in idle activities. The couch was curved the same degree as the wall, pillows were plentiful. Paintings lined the walls, curved paintings, of colorful landscapes and royally dressed animals. Wicker chairs sat on opposite sides of a round table of what looked like straw woven tightly together. Many unusual things were strewn about it including a tiny rocking chair. Nalina flew down to it, momentarily enveloped by her sphere of bright light.
Jason chose a wicker chair, adjusting the pillows to suit; he was exhausted for many reasons and welcomed the respite. The ambience was deeply gratifying. He let his mind go and soaked up the unpretentious splendor of the room. The smells were novel, yet they brought to mind lavender or sandlewood, or both. Candles of different shapes, sizes, and colors sat on dark-wood tables on either end of the couch, reachable from the chairs. A large fireplace against the inner wall faced the couch, a curved fireplace; it didn't look like it'd been used for a while. Too warm for a fire, he nonetheless imagined how cozy it would feel. On the mantlepiece stood three smooth, white statuettes of animals standing on their hind legs, dressed in formal garb reminiscent of old England, their faces carved in vivid detail; they held themselves with dignity and aloofness, their expressions serious. Above the mantlepiece hung a framed embroidery of curlicues and swirls and curved lines with hooks on the ends all twining together. A language perhaps, he thought, by the pattern. Two rows neatly spaced. The richness of the colors held his attention, and as he stared, the shapes began to morph, rearranging themsleves. When they finished, it read: Magic is the Bloodstream of the Universe.
Nalina's friend returned from the kitchen with a tray she set down on the table. On it was a plate of cookies and two pale-blue crystal glasses half-filled with a dark blue liquid. From her blouse pocket she produced a tiny replica, poured a little wine into it and handed it to Nalina. She put a glass in front of Jason with a cookie and said, "My name's Joleanna, but you can call me Jo, everybody does. And your name is?"
"Jason," said Nalina quickly, feeling mildly possessive. "He's not from here."
Jo sat on the couch, glass in hand, and smiled brightly, her hazel eyes sparkling. "Oh," she said, "are you from the other side of the mountains? I've heard there was some trouble over there and people were migrating to this country."
"No," corrected Nalina. She took a sip of wine, then said, "He's from another world entirely. And he doesn't know how he got here. I'm thinking it was Prince Meladon again, messing with portal incantations. Remember that time..."
"Yea, yea, I do," she interrupted, seeming to take the news of Jason's alien origin all in stride. "I remember how it backfired and we were plagued with creatures from the netherworld. So you think Jason's here because of him? What the frell is the matter with that guy?"
"Well, we don't know for sure. I'm just guessing. Right now we don't know. That's really kind of why we're here, Jo. To find out."
"Oh," she said, feigning hurt. "You mean you didn't come to see me? I can't believe it. My best friend who hasn't been around since the festival shows up with this interesting character and it's not to see me?"
Nalina brushed her off. "That's right Josie," she said in a tough tone. "You got me drunk and then ran off with that handsome Ramadhi from Thistlesith."
"That guy," Jo laughed. "What a jerk. So in love with himself."
Jason could see where this was going; he'd been here before. Apparently, some things are the same everywhere. "Ladies," he interjected, trying his best to be polite.
They both peered at him as though he was crazy, a look he'd seen before too. They were visiting and he'd violated that sacred custom. He sat back and sipped wine and looked around at the paintings, wondering at the animals and whether they'd forgive him and get on with it. It didn't take long. They picked up their animated conversation where they left off, with jibes and laughs and tales of experiences and people they'd met. Jo refilled her glass and Nalina's whenever they neared the bottom; Jason refilled his own. Despite everything else he'd let go since his arrival, a sense of urgency hung on. But with the strange familiarity of these two females from another world, albeit one no taller than several inches and with wings, no less, engrossed in catching up, he let go of that too. The wine helped. It wasn't bitter and it wasn't sweet, but seemed to be both at the same time.
He got the idea they would talk more freely if they were alone, an idea supported by occasional sidelong glances his way, so with glass in hand, he went through the back doorway leading to a curved porch and down the steps to the garden. A slatted bench under a plum tree in full purple-flower bloom beckoned. But first he relieved himself into a bush, a chore long overdue, to the vehement and unintelligible scoldings of surrounding flowers. It would seem Nalina's translation dust didn't extend to flora; he was grateful. Sitting under the tree, he tried to think, but the variety of colors displayed in the expansive garden took his breath away. He listened to their not infrequent murmurings and hummings, leaning towards one another as though to whisper in confidence. Bees and butterflies and other fliers of indeterminant persuasion visited one after the other, sharing banter briefly in some universal language, then moving on. The combined fragrances spoke to him of dreams and delights, reviving his spirit. It all felt very casual to Jason and he couldn't help but feel comfortable in this new world. Everything of his was becoming irrelevant, sloughing away like so much dead skin on a snake.
He tried to recall what he was doing in his computer room before the sounds started. Did he do something to cause this, to open a doorway to this strange universe? But it was no use, he could barely remember being in the trailer or why he was there.
He'd just finished the last of the wine when the two girls came around the corner towards him. Jo had a fresh bottle in hand, Nalina flew beside her, wavering a bit as she approached, her personal atmosphere darker than usual. Jo sat to one side of him, taking his glass and half-filling it; Nalina landed somewhat unsteadily on the arm rest on the other side. They sat quietly for awhile, Jo taking deep breaths, the flowers obviously aware of her presence. Birds scratched around in the dirt and roosted in the tree, singing their separate songs in turns.
Finally Jo said, "Nal's told me about how she bumped into you and where. We were looking at my charts of the area, there are weak spots scattered throughout the kingdom."
"Weak spots? Jason queried.
"Yes. Our world is not like yours." Jason sniggered. "What I mean is, it's not a place in time but an extension of mind energy, of the pure consciousness that gave birth to all that is. Dimensions of reality, other universes, exist independently. But these separate worlds are bounded by that of mind. It pervades all. It's of a different nature and character than the type of reality you're familiar with. It's rules are based on the unlimited and encompass those of other universes, including yours. The beings who live here can channel those forces in ways peculiar to their natures. What you call magic."
Jason was sitting up straight. His initial impression of Joleanna took a back seat to the person talking to him now. Even her tone was different. Of course, the wine may have something to do with it.
"Weak spots occur sporadically and for no apparent reason, if reason indeed dictates. For the briefest of moments, however long a moment is, a resonance of sorts between a parallel and mind melds the two, opening a temporary portal. Usually, except for the parallel being infused with thought energy, imagination, dreams, nothing happens, nothing passes between. Although there have been stories of beings from our world falling into yours. You may have read about them if they were seen. Anyway, according to my charts, that meadow you spoke of to Nal is in that general vicinity."
"On the other hand," Nalina said, a little tipsily, "someone on the council, or the whole council, performed an incantation to try to open a permanent doorway to your world. Why they would want to do that, I don't know. But it's been attempted before. It's like they have nothing better to do with their time. At any rate, I see no good in it." She flew over to the other arm rest and held her empty glass out to Jo who filled it from her own.
"So what you're saying," Jason began, "is my stepping into that meadow may have been a freak accident, unintended and owing to the vagaries of a temporary equivalence. A blending, as it were. Frequency modulations may have coupled between our worlds causing a tear in spacetime." Jason surprised himself by what he just said, never having been all that scientifically minded.
Jo added, "Our world, the universe of mind, is a vital and essential ingredient of all universes, without which, there would be none. And it's also their expression. All life channels forces like love and curiosity and imagination. Unfortunately, they come in paired opposites. Hatred is the absence of love--anti-love. Ignorance is the fear of learning something that might undermine one's view and perception of their world. It is a force unto itself, protecting those who indulge it from discovering the truth, not only about the reality they live in, but also about themselves. Many forces of the mind are channeled and expressed through acts on the physical plane."
She stood to walk around her garden, admiring certain flowers and seeming to communicate with them. Nalina said, her voice slurring a bit, "You know," noticing the way he was looking at Joleanna, "you could do worse than get stuck here." He turned to her, she smiled, her tiny green eyes blurred but still bright with magic.
Jo came up and said, "You two look famished; I'll bet you haven't eaten all day. I'll make dinner and then we'll talk some more." She left for the kitchen, leaving the bottle behind.
Nalina mumbled to Jason, "Nap time." She followed Jo into the house. Jason sat immobile, glass in hand. Food is what he needed, he knew. He put the glass down on the bench and fought hard to stay awake. But it was hopeless. The atmosphere, the peace and quiet, the soothing fragrances, the extraordinary experiences of his day, and especially the wine, all conspired against him. He put the glass on the ground next to the half-full bottle and lay down on the soft-wood bench. Instantly, he was asleep.
He dreamed of flying on a carpet of flowers on a red background. He undulated across the blue sky high above a city, weaving through its pointed spires and rock turrets, cruising low to gander at the people milling about. He had no idea where he was going, the carpet seemed to have its own destination in mind. He sat unsure, his fingers digging into the material. The carpet rose, far above the city and on out into the countryside, splendorous with colors and animals roaming about. It continued ever higher, Jason became concerned, deeply concerned. Suddenly, a recollection, a memory popped into his head. He'd put his faith in believing there was a real reason beyond the surface of what his mind considered reasonable. Immediately, he let go, not of the carpet, but of worry and anxiety over its purpose, if such there be. They glided along, the carpet flat and true, Jason revelling in the warm, soft air in his face. He closed his eyes and simply felt.
Pungent, rich smells of food woke him. Rising unsteadily, he followed his nose, leaving the wine where it lay. They sat in silence around the table in the parlor, eating voraciously. Jason had no idea what it was, but it was delicious and satisfied his gnawing belly. Greens and browns and whites mixed together in perfect harmony. Jason took a breather and looked again, as he did before, at this beautiful, hazel-eyed woman. And she can cook too, he heard himself say. Returning to his plate, he slowed down to merely picking at the remains. Finally having stuffed himself sufficiently, he leaned back in the wicker chair. Where Nalina was putting it, he couldn't imagine; her tiny utensils made short work of the pile of food on her plate. Finished, she retired to a cushion at one end of the couch and curled up. Jo placed a strip of blanket over her, then she too leaned back into the couch cushions and closed her eyes.
"Jason," she said quietly, "Nalina probably didn't tell you what I am, she likes surprises. I am a sorceress capable of many things. I am able to channel powers that reside in the world around us and see into a person's innermost thoughts. Their soul."
Jason felt suddenly embarrassed. Had she seen his admiration for her? His attraction? He meant nothing by it, it was only natural. He hoped she wouldn't turn him into a frog for his effrontery.
She laughed a muffled laugh, then opened her eyes and looked at him with amusement and tenderness. "Come," she said as she rose. "It's getting towards evening; you won't be going anywhere tonight. Let me show you my cottage at the back of the garden." She lead, he followed, watching her every movement, not caring if she could read his mind or not. The cottage was covered in rough slabs of what could've been cedar. Behind it was a tall hedgerow. Inside were three rooms: a sitting room containing a couch and one wicker chair on a thick dark-green rug, a round table sat in the midst of it; a bedroom with a four-post bed and canopy of thin white silk, a side table with a candle, and a few paintings of animals dressed in bizarre costumes; and a bathroom where he could clean up.
She sat on the edge of the couch, not staying but not going just yet either. Jason took the wicker chair, his now favorite kind, and arranged the cushions to suit his tired muscles. Satiated with good food and wine, in this incredibly peaceful surround, he felt at ease like he never had before. The sunlight pierced through the thin curtains, bathing the room with pale yellow light.
"Jason," she began, looking at the floor, "I am able to see into the enveloping cloud of being that enfolds the council members, within in it lie the pathways through which they channel the forces of magic; that's why Nal brought you to me. I've looked and I don't believe the council or any of its members individually had anything to do with you being here. Their magic is profound, that's how you get to be on the council. That, and a history of good works and intentions. Wisdom helps, but is often gained rather quickly once the responsibilites of running a kingdom fall on you. In the wilder days, people like Prince Meladon practiced without regard for the consequences. After his last foray into the world of dark magic, he was sanctioned and controls were put in place to which everyone swore allegiance. They learned as did we all."
She paused for a moment while arranging some figurines on the table; it seemed to be more than just an idle gesture. She stood to face him. "I'm going to find a way to get you back home. I know others who possess the ability to move among the various planes of existence, shamans and wizards. Phase shifting and transiting. It's complicated. I'll enlist their aid, perhaps they can help."
She smiled, she was through talking. He could see after the day's events, and cooking an enormous meal, she too was exhausted. He rose and walked her to the open doorway; she turned towards him. Standing inside, he gazed at her tall, lean beauty, her long black hair and hazel eyes, against the background of swaying flowers, the plum tree, and fading blue sky. She didn't need to be a mindreader to see how he was feeling. She hugged him tightly. Her warm, supple body and tantalizing earthy smell were exhilarating; overwhelmed, he stood helpless and wanted to be so.
She smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and left. Over her shoulder she said, "I'll wake you for breakfast. Good night, Jason." She laughed for the sake of it.
He said the same as he watched her saunter up the winding garden path, onto the back porch and through the open doorway to the parlor. He closed the door to keep out the night insects and retired to the bedroom. He thought to light a small fire in the fireplace for atmosphere, but was just too tired to deal with it. He took off his clothes and rolled into bed. He didn't need a blanket, although a few were available in case the night air chilled. Lying there, he was lost in thoughts and feelings alien to him. How a day that began filled with such shock and bewilderment could turn into...this, he never could've imagined. He watched the light fade to darkness through the curtain. The croaking of frogs and the singing of night birds lulled him to sleep. He dreamed the same dream as before, flying on a magic carpet. Only this time, he was unafraid from the beginning and let the carpet do the driving, taking in the sights from far above, scanning the horizon.
A loud knock on the door jarred him awake. The harsh light through the dirty, cracked window hurt his eyes. He spun to sit up on the side of the bed, a reckless move that made him dizzy. Another knock and the call, "Jason, you dead? It's me, Franky, are you all right?" Jason stumbled to the door rubbing his eyes. He opened it, his friend stood there with his girlfriend Maryann. "It's late, partner, afternoon." He laughed. "What've you been up to? Hang one on didya'?"
Jason staggered back to collapse on the bed. Franky and Maryann sat at the table and popped a beer. "I know it's early for you, but I'm thirsty." He tried offering Jason a beer, but he nodded no. "We finally got that damn car of ours fixed, the ignition switch was the problem. I told them that, but they wouldn't take my word for it. Had to test everything else first and then expect me to pay for their time. No way, I told them. So we negotiated." He smiled broadly, proud of himself and took a big glug of beer, then banged it on the table. Maryann had nothing to say, she usually just smiled prettily.
Jason was stunned. He had no idea what to think. Images flashed through his mind, pictures of Joleanna and Nalina, of the two burly dwarves, of the menagerie of beings in the marketplace, the houses, the flowers, all of it was there. But he was not, apparently. He ran to the door and flung it open. It was his yard, the computer trailer off to the right, junk and busted machinery and old appliances that needed to go to the dump sat amongst the uncut grass and patches of dandelions. He walked out into the afternoon sun and scanned the area. It was gone, the meadow and the trail. What wildflowers there were didn't move about or whisper to one another. They just stood there, staring blankly.
Franky came out, beer in hand. "I'm worried about you, brother," he said with genuine concern. "You been working pretty hard on that story of yours. The fantasy one. You finish it yet? All those strange creatures and magical whatnots." He laughed, not disparagingly, but not as one who appreciates such things either. A nervous laugh. Maryann joined them and said, "Let's go. Jason needs to wake up." She smiled prettily. Franky nodded, he was looking for a party, it wasn't happening here. He left a beer, told Jason they'd stop by later, and drove off.
Jason sat in an old, armless office chair spotted with dried bird droppings, facing the trail that once was. He closed his eyes tight, then opened them quickly. His yard remained. He stood and raised his arms above his head and cried, "Joleanna, Nalina, where are you? Take me back. Please, take me back."
No one answered. He sat cross-legged on the ground, tugging at stems of grass. Did I imagine it all? he thought. Was I dreaming? His rational mind kicked in, taking charge as before. That must be it, he decided. Or else I'm going crazy. He went into his cabin, trying to shake it off, the whole experience. Slowly, he dressed. He needed to get away, to drive into town and buy something, anything, just to do something normal. He was collecting change from the table when he stopped dead. In the midst of it, almost hidden by a quarter, was a tiny crystal wine glass laying on its side. He held it as though it was the most precious thing in the world. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed movement and turned hopefully. It was Mariah, his cat, come home after a day's play looking for food and some pets. He put the glass in a watch box and placed it on a shelf, then sat on the bed. She jumped into his lap; he scratched her neck and stroked her head. She purred, delighted.
"Do I have a story to tell you, sweetheart," he said, fighting back tears. "You won't believe it."