Ch. XII, p.2

. . .

They had been travelling for what felt like days, or weeks, but could have been only minutes. Maria rubbed her eyes and checked the time.

Seven hours, she thought numbly. She hardly felt as if she had walked at all. Even in her advanced body armor, she should have been subject to at least some fatigue, especially with the body she carried. Hecen stopped, bidding her to do so as well.

“I can continue no longer,” he said. “I am tied to this forest, my essence growing weaker the farther I travel from its heart. However, I must ask of you one thing, when you reach the city…”

She caught herself wondering why her brain had changed gears to ye olde English, but quickly snapped out of it, answering, “Yes, of course.”

“There is a man there. A dear friend of mine, long since departed from my side, but never from my memory. From within the forest, my energy is clouded in darkness, and I am unable to share myself with others. I can still feel them, like a bright light shining through the black… I need you to go to him and think of me when you do; he will understand my intent.”

She found herself processing his thoughts more fluidly now, even if there seemed to be some ambiguity in the way they were presented. But she felt sick, and off balance, like a child lost in a grocery store. All she wanted was to be someplace familiar. Someplace that didn’t reek of death and chaos.

If only that place existed… But at least Idest is the devil I know… “How will I find him?”

“You will feel him. Of my kind, he is one of the many who have chosen to go without spoken name, but for you, it should no longer be a problem. Whether twisted or corrupt or somehow else changed, you will be able to recognize his essence when you once more feel this…”

She took a deep breath, her body singing with the spirit of another entity, as if she were that other for those short moments. She felt as if she knew him—old, yet with a fresh sense of the world; a cool demeanor, like the color blue; prone to a deep, internal way of being. Artistic and sage like. She found herself curious to meet him.

“He is a capable alchemist, able to bend the laws of the world to his will. After he meets with me, I’m sure he will wish to help you find your way home.

Home… she thought. She had almost completely disconnected herself from the idea. As far as she could tell, there was no home anymore.

“And one other thing… I have been processing your feelings around your friend for you. Once you leave my side, you will be responsible for dealing with the emotions that are still left to recover from.”

Her eyes startled wide open; she felt as if she had been robbed of something. As if the grieving process were a necessary part of her. But it was a fleeting sense of betrayal—she was sick, and tired, and wanted nothing more than to feel alive again, at all; right then, she couldn’t have cared less about the ways that the being poked and prodded at her humanity.

“Fine,” she said, “whatever. Which way is out?”

She felt a draw at her chest, leading her in the direction she had been travelling.

“Goodbye,” said Hecen. “I hope you find what you are looking for.”

She nodded and peered into the trees around her, cast in just enough light to appear almost darkly monochrome. “Goodbye, Hecen. Thank you for everything.”

The being acknowledged her once more and then disappeared a little way into the woods, giving her space to proceed.

Dark swathes of branch and leaf followed a steady gradient, shifting almost imperceptibly in shade over the distance of a few hundred yards until their stiff, black-veined leaves swayed with a subtle and lively energetic. The rocky earth sloped mildly downward, a gentle guide for her unsteady limbs.

Soon, the leaves began to part, light no longer sticking to them in beads as it had before and, her eyes glimmering with streaming rays of the morning sun, a great smile broke over her, heart beating euphoric.

“My God…” she said aloud, the irony that she didn’t have one failing to occur to her. Her eyes burned tearfully and she cried out in delight, bursting with shaking relief. Her mind could hardly comprehend that the forest had been anything more than a terrifying dream, and she couldn’t imagine a more rapturous scene to stumble upon than the one that spread itself out before her.

Shuddering, her thoughts went peacefully blank as she allowed herself to feel as one with the ochre morning clouds, spread in a wide semicircle above a distant mountain range, softly featured in shadow against the morning sun. And the city she had seen from so far away seemed to rise from the earth itself, glinting with a strange and compelling light. And the dark soil at her feet ran in all directions, sprouting emerald strands of grass, until it dropped stiffly off in front of her, blending into solid, deeply hued rock lined with large fissures and cracks, almost ornamental in their perfection.

She found she had wandered to the edge of that sheer cliff, her whole being overflowing with wonderment about this strange and alien landscape, so alike her own. And if she hadn’t fallen to her hands and knees to feel the grass, thick beneath her grasping fingers, she might not have noticed the differences at all—the way the vegetation seemed heavier, moister; the earth, fuller; and most awe inspiringly, the colorful varieties of ants and beetles, ruby, sapphire, and emerald—but not just in color, rather they seemed as if formed of shining carapaces of what were once precious jewels in her own world.

She reclined, propping herself up with one arm. As she felt the world flow around her, her mind turned to thought. Am I escaping? This joy… Am I trying to shut out reality?

She looked around, breathing in the peaceful light. A flock of birds had taken wing, not far from her, their elegant forms soundless and awe inspiring. She felt genuinely at peace; though a kind of peace overlooking an uncertain fate.

No… This is as true as anything. In this moment, this is how things are. My focus is what becomes my reality, even though everything else is still there… As soon as this is all over, I promise to myself that I will only focus on the things that I love, like this moment. And I will leave behind all the dark forests of my past.

Her smile grew broader and she laughed, wiping her nose, eyes still streaming. I guess it’s good to let it all out, she thought. Then, muttering, “I feel like I’ll never stop crying.” At least, even if she couldn’t attain her hope, the worst thing that could happen was death.

She patted Frank’s legs gruffly and said aloud, “And that’s really not so bad now is it, old boy?” She reflected on that thought and screwed up her lips, staring blankly ahead. Then clicking her tongue in disapproval of herself, she whispered slowly, “I’m kind of fucked up, aren’t I?”

Pressing herself steadily up from the ground, she felt a teetering sense of rejuvenating hope in her chest. She was going home, and Frank was going to be put to rest in the way he deserved. And so what if she was basing her hopes on the words… or whatever… of some spirit-y thing? Made of specks of light?

Oh no… She could feel herself crashing again. Internally. Oh… damn it…

The joy was washed away in a crushing wave of despair. That ‘being’ could have been anything at all. A hologram? A hallucination? Did I eat anything strange since I got here? she wondered.

She touched Frank again. Still there… At the very least, she could safely deduce that it had all happened.

And, what’s more, it’s the only thing I have to go on… Aside from myself… She placed a hand against her chest. This world seemed almost familiar.

Lana… she thought. The valley splayed out before her, at least the beautiful parts of it, felt like her mother.

“There are no coincidences in this life…” she repeated the woman’s words aloud, finding the action comforting. That time… When I told her of how I killed those people in the lab… Or, at least felt that I had…

The memory felt so far away, yet so immediate. Her mother had saved her, then, and it had felt like she was emerging from a black and unforgiving world, even though nothing had changed outside of herself

“And what had she said?” she mouthed quietly, half to Frank, half to herself, “ ‘Close your eyes and find the light. It is there in all of us and everything. And besides, no matter what you do, the world is little more than dream.’ ”

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