Chapter 89



A deafeningly loud gong reverberated through the air. It forced my eyes open from a dreamless sleep, but I immediately noticed that there was no soft bed at my back nor a ceiling above. An infinite expanse greeted me, the only company being a grey fog drifting within the boundless world of white. My body stood on its feet, and my clothes were already on.


When I looked down, an acute episode of vertigo assailed me; the infinite expanse of white continued downward forever, a sole transparent glass pane held me in place. There were no shadows; there was nothing for it to cast over, not even myself. I stood in a place which defied all logic. A quick self inflicted Indian burn on my left arm registered no pain, and only then did I finally realize that I was dreaming.


That put the matter to rest, but it didn't help me at all. Knowing this is a dream didn't grant me any cool powers of flight and control of my surroundings. To be honest, I felt cheated. I took one cautious step forward to see if I had at least control over my own body. My foot clopped down on the invisible barrier. An eerily loud sound not unlike tap shoes on linoleum echoed outward and gradually died. Yet no reason to walk existed. Without any landmarks it was impossible to tell how fast or how far one could move in this place.


As if to assuage my unease, the billowing grey fog banks got were caught up in whirlwinds which slowly left behind tangible shapes. The expanse below me came rushing forward till I could see my own shadow cast all around me. Brilliant bright tubes of light above me replaced the omnipresent illumination of the expanse and took the form of florescent lights. A confining hallway quickly encased me, and I nearly panicked when it moved so fast before stopping that I thought it may have crushed me with blinding speed and force.


It was one terrifying thing introduced after another. From existential terror, to vertigo, onward to claustrophobia to phasmophobia. Specters which were vaguely in the shape of human beings whirled into existence out of the fog. They were no more than silhouettes that congealed into smokey existence before dissolving again when they strayed too far from where I stood. A haunting chatter just beyond my ability to hear droned with what seemed to be a dozen conversations creating the white noise of a crowd.


And at last, after all the bizarre sights, this world came into focus. Doors, windows, chairs and even posters on the wall. Many of the words melted on the pages, but I could make out some of them. They were recruitment posters for club and sports activities. A few were activist and informational ones about trivial and meaningless things. One advertised a special lecture on organic chemistry from some guest professor. The rest were those pages with the peel-away tabs looking for roommates or desperate individuals looking to unload an old car, furniture or appliance for emergency cash.


I very quickly got an idea where I was.


And on cue a man came around the corner with a hurried step to his gait. A thick down winter jacket hung from his shoulders. His cheeks and nose were cold bitten and red, but a layer of sweat poured down from his forehead. His arm had a red binder tucked underneath, and he clung to for dear life. As if his life depended on it. The two of us were on a collision course because I stood in the middle of the hallway like an idiot, but he passed through me like mist... Or perhaps it's me who passed through him like mist. Either way, I recognized the man.


It was me.


My brain refused to respond to Houston's calls, and my own mind felt as together as the fog. I shook it violently and watched myself jog into the distance. The ghost looked left and right for other people before breaking off into a run, slowing down just to avoid crashing into someone, or when going around a corner. I manged to pull my feet from the floor when the world started to collapse. It began were that ghostly self of mine came from. This world is not centered around me; it's centered around him.


The threat of oblivion finally cohered from frozen nerves to let my panic stricken self run. I watched as the flat level ground and everything resting on it, melted down and finally fell downward to infinity. That's something I could live without experiencing, thank you very much. And so I ran, but the collapsing world was not just behind me. It also crept up toward me when I reached a T intersection. I looked to my right, where that ghost had run to before, and noticed the world still existed there. That put to rest any doubt that my only way to avoid doom would be to follow myself.


Catching up to him proved harder than I thought. I very nearly ran around a couple corners into the encroaching white abyss. I turned around and sprinted the other way to avoid getting caught up in the melting world. The sole clue was the places where the world was most vivid. I finally caught up at stairwell where I heard the echoes of someone skipping two steps at a time. This whole floor looked ready to dissolve, so I had no choice but to follow him upward.


From the stairwell I could see the outside world, well, what little of I could see. The surroundings were covered with a thin layer of snow, and the sky hung clouded with a layer of grey. A few other multistory buildings loomed above the snow, but there was also a distinct lack of continuous earth. Some of those other buildings floated on islands of rocks suspended above that very same white abyss. That sight had been so surreal that it stopped me in my tracks. I remembered myself when the stairwell behind me began to vanish. It jolted me when my one hand on the handrail stopped me from falling backward into that infinite space which ate the stairwell to the step below me.


I followed the echoes of the other me to the top floor. At last the advantage of all that traveling proved advantageous because the stamina of the other me had been sapped. It was a little embarrassing to see me so tuckered out, but perhaps I could attribute my own well being to my current form being ethereal. The other me finally reached his destination at a secluded corner of the top floor. A door stood in the way, and he waited outside it catching his breath. I appeared hesitant to enter. That I didn't remember any of this drove me nuts; the man with hands on his knees and sweating up a storm couldn't be anyone else but me, yet I felt as though I watched someone else's life unfold. Were these memories locked in my subconscious, my imagination... or someone else's?


My time to dwell on scary thoughts such as those were cut short when he finally turned the handle and crossed the threshold. I followed closely behind, and the inside had as much color, form and solidity as real life. It was a lab. Computers lined a series of desks, white boards covered three walls. A dozen overclocked computers sputtered as their HDDs and CPUs were strained. A distinct sound of nearly burning silicon drifted out from the room. They fluttered between graphs and lines of code and raw data crunched and spat out an endless stream of numbers. Filled to the brim, with barely a spot of white remaining, were the boards covered in black felt ink. A labyrinthine mess of calculations and formulae covered it.


I watched the eyes of the other me dart from left to right as if looking not for something but someone. No one stood inside the room except for one other person; the apathetic sigh of relief seemed to me like he was happy to not find him or her. I slipped in while the other me closed the door behind me.


     “Excuse me,” he called out.


I took another look, and the back of the person currently filling up the last corner of the whiteboard did not turn around. Given the shape and size, it was a woman. A head of platinum blonde hair, thin limbs and petite frame. A white lab coat clung to her with a pair of tight khaki pants wrapped around her legs. The woman wasn't short by any means, but she still had to stand on the tips of her toes and stretch her arm out to fill in the last corner. It didn't occur that it could be solved by finding a chair or stool. The woman was far too engrossed with her work for that.


     The other me called out again, a little less patiently, “Excuse me?”


The head of the woman twitched. Whatever spell had a grip on her had broken, and she turned to face the two of us. My initial thought of 'woman' had been misplaced, the face I saw looked young enough to qualify as 'girl'. This girl looked barely out of high-school. Her face was a mess. There were bags under her eyes which failed to be hidden by the pair of thick rim glasses. Greasy unwashed skin protested by breaking out in a couple of red pimples. Not a spot of makeup or care was present on this girl... All except for her hair. A long thick braid draped over her shoulder. It hung down to her navel, but on closer inspection, the ends were frayed.


The other me reeled on his heels. An intense pair of brown eyes scrutinized me. A sudden nervousness that shook him caused me to reconsider another thing; the girl's hygiene may be a mess, but she was far from ugly. Perhaps I had merely grown accustomed to more and dulled to less. For a natural born human girl, her features were feminine, symmetrical and appealing. Had she cared to take care of herself more, I may have to worry for this other self of mine caught like a deer in headlights in front of her.


     “H-has Professor Richard swung by yet?” He asked.


     “Who?” the girl's response was quick and pointed.


     “Dr. Richard... He shares this room with Professor Mikkel...” He replied, sounding slightly unsure.


     “Hmm,” the girl pulled her eyes away and thought. “No. Just me until you arrived.


I watched as the other me's shoulders drop as if a great weight rolled off them.


     “Thank fucking Christ,” he said.


He then marched over to a small side preparation room and dropped the red binder triumphantly into an empty IN bin. He emerged from the room, the girl watching him closely, and he stretched and finally a smile returned to his face. I tried to steal quick glance at the cover of the binder, but of course the letters there were a jumbled mess. His name, my name, should be there... Figures.


The girl pulled herself away from the whiteboard and got right into his space. By the time he opened his eyes after that long stretch, the fact that she was so close freaked him out. She may as well have teleported with how quiet her footsteps were. Yet she didn't react with panic when the man before her flipped out and nearly fell over backward. Rather, the girl didn't get the message and stepped forward into his personal space again. But this time the other me didn't have anywhere else to go when the back of his legs ran into a desk.


The girl tilted her head as if she were a cat curiously inspecting something. I felt a pang of sympathy embarrassment for myself and this situation looked so awkward I was a little happy I didn't remember it. Her large brown eyes stared up at him, and his blue eyes looked back down at her. She knit her eyebrows together, deep in thought, and after what felt like a minute they shot back open. A strange smile spread across her face and she took a few steps backward, finally allowing me to pull away from the table behind him.


     He was a little freaked out, but mostly curious when he asked, “Do I... Know you?”




The smile on the girl's face straightened. What color there was to her pale white and pasty skin drained. Her eyes shot wide open with surprise at first, quickly moistening before hardening with resolve. It all happened so quickly that I could not fault the other me in not reacting to it. For all the dangers I've had to deal with my senses had become sensitive to these subtle changes. Noticing these things have become a matter of life and death the last few months. A subdued smile quickly replaced the emptiness between the glowing previous one.


     “Yes...” she replied.


Social graces were not this girl's forte. The tone and inflection in her voice was not lost on either me or the other me. There was something odd about it.


     “...Laven,” she said, clear as day.


The other me did not react aside from shaking his head after hearing something odd and inconsequential. Meanwhile, my heart stopped.


The world stopped. That abyss quickly melted the walls, and the two figures before me melted into mist and dissipated into the ether. I had not finished gasping a rush before the floor gave way. My body fell through empty space into the darkness which quickly climbed up the infinite walls of white. The distant shining white light of that infinite world became a spec, a distant star before being consumed by the rushing darkness of claustrophobic finite space.


I had not the time, will or ability to scream.


* * *




A voice called out to me. I opened my eyes and saw the real world. I felt a soft bed at my back and the stone walls of the room I last remembered falling asleep in. My body leaped up from the bed, and I sat upright, sweating, breathing heavily and quickly. A sensation of falling still wracked my nerves. Why was I falling? I didn't know, I couldn't remember.




The voice called out to me again. It sounded as thought it came from behind the door, yet felt impossibly far away. I remembered one thing; someone had called out to me. That's why I had woken up... Right?


I looked to my left and right and saw Rose and Minte curled up in the bed beside me... Rather, Minte curled up on my left and Rose sprawled out in a slovenly and unladylike manner to my right. Naked, on top of the covers and snoring a bit with her mouth wide open. But if someone was making a noise, even that quiet, why would Minte be sleeping so soundly beside me? Her hearing was at least two orders of magnitude better than my own, yet she slept soundlessly without so much as budging beyond her chest expanding and contracting with each little breath.




It called out again. I grabbed Rose by the shoulder and shook her.


     “Rose, wake up!” I hissed through my teeth.


Her open snoring mouth closed up and hummed delightfully. She turned over in her sleep while mumbling something about food. I turned over to Minte and shook her the same way. She moaned, stretched a bit and then curled up even further like a pill bug. That's not right, I thought. And it certainly wasn't. Because a chill fog billowed over the floor. It wasn't high enough to reach the window, so it couldn't be from outside where I had seen it across the garden before. The only place it could enter from was underneath the door. I leaped out of the bed and turned back to the two sleeping girls.


     “Come on! Wake up!” I shouted this time.


I grabbed hold of the blanket and tried to yank it off, but two dead weights on it proved too much to budge it. They didn't react either. I rushed over and gently opened up Rose's right eye.


Out cold. No reaction. She was gone and the same is true for Minte. Even the large insectoid compound eyes on top of her head refused to budge. I dared to caress and fondle her antennae. That should have gotten a reaction, but I got nothing instead.




The voice called out again. This time, however, the door to the room opened slowly on its own. A gentle creak caused the hairs on my arms to stand up and a chill to run down my spine. Neither Rose nor Minte were going to wake up. I ran over to my clothes heaped on the floor and searched the pockets for that golden ankh... And found nothing.


     “That's... Impossible,” I muttered, lips trembling.


There wasn't anything I could do. And that voice kept calling for me. That same voice which had to be responsible for this. A voice which had already passed this way and remained unseen and unheard until now, a thief in the night. A sense of duty, a need to protect the two girls and my own curiosity led me to dressing myself and stepping out into the hallway.


The rolling fog bank spread out in every direction. The fog rolled out-of-the-way a bit wherever I walked, but remained constant and always returned to the way it had been before. I stood there afraid, confused and on guard until a path through the fog opened on its own.




The voice implored me to follow it. My heart heat inside my throat, but I had no other choice. This voice was responsible, and it held hostages. I complied and walked along the open path through the fog. I tread carefully down the empty hallways, coated with the witching hour twilight.


My boots stopped when I encountered the first living souls. Two guards standing at the entrance to another bedroom. They were motionless, their faces hidden behind barbute helmets. I wasn't sure how much help they'd be, but we were still guests, technically, so they weren't going to strike me down for merely approaching.


And they wouldn't because they were asleep. Their bodies were locked and standing tall, but their heads were slumped over, their eyes were closed and their breathing was shallow and rhythmic. This ain't no normal falling asleep on the job; this had to be the work of magic. The billowing fog had to be part of it; either as a conduit or side effect.




The voice called out from behind. It called me away from the room. I had no reason to babysit the guards or try to rouse them from their own personal sleeping beauty fairy tale, so I followed the mysterious voice.


Everywhere in the manor I wandered, the story remained the same. The light of the stars and moon through the window lit the world, and the path through the fog and the call of that voice guided me. It led me through the winding hallways and down the floors till I reached the garden I had watched over before. Except now the guards patrolling it were gone. And at its center, waiting under a gazebo stranded amongst the floral beds, was a lone solitary figure.


A waspish thin woman wearing a black cocktail dress which clung to every sensual curve waited in the fog. And that fog billowed off her. It did not flow around her; no, it came from her finger tips and from under that dress of hers. I approached quietly, but her head turned toward me. Long and wavy locks of nearly white hair danced in the night air which gave way to her warm smile. Yet her eyes felt cold, like the sapphires they appeared to be, and they stabbed through my chest like icicles.


     She curtsied low and greeted me, “Welcome, Laven.”


I stepped closer, slowly. My suspicion was thicker than the fog surrounding our feet. Gold flashed in the palm of her hand, and she tossed something through the air toward me. I wasn't nearly on guard enough because my instinct caused me to catch it instead of evade it. From the air I snatched the other gold ankh Susan and Ba'el had prepared for us.


     “Call them now or soon, if you feel it is necessary,” she then said with a distinct smile: “But... I already know that you won't.”


I rolled the ankh in the palm of my hand and through my fingers. There didn't appear to be any alterations to it. My mind was more preoccupied with how she managed to get her hands on it though. But now that it was back in my possession, all it would take is to smash it into the ground and the other three girls would come running... Yet I did not feel compelled to do so. This woman was the same from the party before. I still remembered what she had said. However, I could not stop myself from asking the most obvious question:


     “Who the hell are you?”


     “Hyria, of course... I apologize. Did I not introduce myself properly before?” She said, raising a coquettish hand to her cheek to feign concern.


     “That's not what I meant,” I snapped back.


A smug expression crept across her face.


     “I am of old blood. Blood blessed to tap into the astral weaves,” she replied.


     “Magic. That much is obvious. Why the hell would you pull the sorceress stunt like this?”


     “It was preordained as such. The two of us meeting like this. Here, in the fog... No one to interrupt us. No one to overhear what is to be discussed.”


Her voice, which had been the one calling me from before, is now barely loud enough to hear, and I had to get even closer.


     “And so you put the whole manor to sleep?”


     “Most of the manor already slumbers. This spell merely makes sure that the others do as well.”


     “So you can lure me out here. All by myself and vulnerable?”


     “Talowasi's Reprieve,” Hyria explained. “Formulated long ago. Used by those besieged to strictly enforce ceasefires; providing all with a much needed slumber. The rain of arrows, the slinging of stones and boulders, the threat of soldiers sneaking in during the night and seizing them by throat with steely knives... All worries that are banished because it is impossible while the specter of sleep is so strong it weighs down the eyes all.”


     “Convenient,” I said, still eying her suspiciously.


     “—As a test for you as well,” Hyria fired back. “I am now convinced I did not see wrong. You are capable of fulfilling my request.”


     “What are you—?”


     “If you were not, you would still be sleeping.”


The chilling feeling of realization passed through me; her words passing through me. In her lace gloved hand she held a pendent suspended by a golden chain around her neck which housed a broken sapphire gem.


     “Yes, that's correct. You too should slumber... On that bed with your two companions... Yet, you are awake well before the spell's effect should lift... Two hours from now.”


     “...You said you had a job... What is it?” I asked.


Hyria smiled warmly. The smug satisfaction that everything adhered to her predictions, to her plan, rubbed me the wrong way. I felt a distinct sensation of being used, and I didn't like it.


     “Do you know much of Yaleria?” She asked.


     “No one handed me a travel brochure on the way in, so not much.”


Either my pointed words passed right over her head, or Hyria simply brushed them aside and so she continued:


     “Upheaval and change in these lands now called The Empire were but another facet of life so long ago. The Imperial Crown, the Church of the Almighty, all the lords and ladies of the grand and noble houses of this age, they all forget the past. But not Yaleria... Yaleria reveres the past... It's past. And I seek to pay long overdue respects to family and friend long since past.”


Hyria produced an emerald green crystal from a purse. It shone in the nightlight, but eerily so. No... It had to be producing its own light. A radiative green aura. I felt a sense of danger at the sight of it. She held it out to me, goading me closer to retrieve it from her hands.


     “It is harmless,” she assured me.


The sincere tone in her voice and gentle expression didn't appear to hide and malice and I could not sense any deceit... Nor a need for deceit. The thing did appear to be crystalline and made of emerald. But the way it glowed reminded me of kryptonite. Except... it was the size of a glow-stick. You could sell a fifty carat fine cut emerald for millions of dollars; this thing, if it really was a cylindrical gemstone, had to be worth hundreds of millions. And she handed it to me.


Intrigue, curiosity, greed— All of those emotions led to me sticking my hand out to accept it. A browned paper scroll was tried around the end of it, which had previously been hidden in Hyria's palm.


     “It is an heirloom. Long separated from my family's mausoleum... Buried deep beneath Yaleria's catacombs. I want you to do what I cannot. Return it to its proper resting place.”


I asked the most obvious question first, “What's stopping you from doing it yourself?”


     “Those catacombs are dangerous. Lethal. Protected against grave robbers. Traps long fallen to disrepair, unpredictable and many forgotten... You may not believe me given all the troubles you have endured, and will endure, but magic is not just a tool of war and destruction. I am not a warrior. I cannot brave those depths, nor do I know of another to deliver is safely.”


     "And what makes you think we can do it?"


     "I don't think; I know you will succeed. I have seen it."


This woman who thought herself a fortune teller didn't sell her point well at all. She had convinced herself, but the thought she had to convince anyone else with more than her word eluded her. But talk of danger also put me on edge.


     "And what makes you think we can succeed?"


     "All the bodies, minds and spirit you require lay ready at your finger tips. You merely need to reach out and seize it."


     “And trust? This looks like it could sell for a fortune. What's to stop me from selling it for far more than you're going to pay me?”


     “Because you won't.”


She was sure of a lot of things she shouldn't be.


     “Maybe I will, if only to prove you wrong....”


Hyria retrieved a small sack, large enough to fit in the palm of her hand. She held it out with her other hand toward me. I took it off her and felt the weight and heard the sound of metal. Inside were two pieces of unmarked golden disks, the shape and size of coins. In addition to those there were five silvers coins of the same size, shape and lack of markings. If these were pure silver and gold... It could feed the five of us, to stomach's bursting, for a month. And there would still be more than enough to kit ourselves. We wouldn't need to continue holding everything we had together with proverbial duct tape.


     “You could. But you will never find a buyer who will pay its true worth... Not here, not within a thousand leagues as the raven flies. Follow the map, brave the dangers of Yaleria's past and return that gem to its intended pedestal, and I will grant upon you all the silver and gold you need to reach your intended destination.”


It was compelling, but I still had to shake my head. Something still felt off.


     "This is all very— I mean it's what we needbut..."


     "Laven," Hyria sighed disappointing, "You've spent so much time in company such as yours, but you've gained little tact. You should not pry too deeply into the affairs of a fine maiden. Her charm goes only so far as her mystery."


She smiled once more, another cryptic, oddly beautiful and refined smile.


     "Now... Have we come to terms?"