XIII: Like Like The The The Death

Chapter XIII

The dirt path wound down into a small gorge, earthen walls moist and fertile. Ends of tree roots protruded just into view, having prodded tentatively at the empty air and, satisfied that there was nowhere left to go, stopped growing amongst dark pebbles and crushed rock.

Maria breathed in, tasting the trees and the flowers, their scents carried on full and cool air into her weary lungs. Somewhere along the way, her mind had officially decided to go on holiday and had stopped grinding in opposition to the way that things were. A single thought now played repeatedly through her head, saying, Let it all burn away. Everything. Fear. Pain. You… Burn away. 

It was as if her perception of reality were becoming more distorted the farther she went. She felt more grounded than she could remember having been in years, but the world seemed strange; somehow, too concrete to be real. She held out a hand in front of her, turning the black shrouded mitt this way and that, glistening strands catching the sun with subtle luster.

Blood… beating through my veins, she thought, inhaling. Her eyes roved over the unfamiliar landscape. It beats through the world, too… Everything was filled with energy, not unlike her own. All made of light… Vibrating particles. Like me. 

And everything was connected. She didn’t know how, she just knew that it all was. A concept she had considered mentally, but had never felt the truth of before. It’s this world… It shows me things I couldn’t see without it. A chill ran up her spine and into the back of her skull. Something, somewhere, seemed to agree. A benevolent something… Gentle and caring…

More thoughts that don’t feel like my own… gifts from Hecen? 

She rubbed at the back of her neck, her nanofiber glove soft against her skin. Her arm couldn’t help but bump into Frank’s body, and she patted his leg in almost indifferent acknowledgement. Whatever Hecen had done, it was working; she didn’t feel so numb anymore, but at peace, her feelings quickly resolving themselves beneath the surface. It probably didn’t hurt that she had dealt with this sort of thing before.

God… I just don’t know what to think… But how could I? It’s all so alien… Yet so strangely familiar… I can’t… She raised her eyes to the path ahead. It climbed steadily up a hill before dropping over the other side into the unknown. Anything could be beyond that hill…

She walked softly on, trying to imagine the city she would find, based on what she had seen from the mountain. Less than a day ago… Feels like a lifetime. She was glad she had stopped trying to figure things out, even if a sickness in her heart told her it wouldn’t be long before she tried again. Let it burn away, a calming notion soothed.

I just want to be free…

She imagined the city must be like Idest—trees had blocked much of her view earlier, but the domed roofs of houses, scouted out by her image magnification device, had given her an idea of what it was; and though Hecen’s memories had been somewhat disjointed, she had been given a vague concept by him as well.

She emerged over the rim of the hill; her heart pounding in frightened anticipation; her eyes searching through heaving boughs of leaves for any indication of where she was headed… She saw nothing, but she knew she was drawing close. She could feel it.

I should be able to see something by now, she thought apprehensively. She looked closer at her surroundings. 

Or maybe I’m already there…

Jutting up from the crowded earth were carved wooden poles, mossy and crooked from neglect. Each about half her height, squat and wide, they blended into the landscape almost seamlessly, their surfaces carved with swirling designs filled black by dirt.

She looked side to side and saw that there were two rows of them, leading her along the path she had been travelling. She bit her lip, again thinking, There could be anything up here… Anything anyone could possibly imagine…

The dense forest grew brighter as she went, golden sun breaking high overhead and trickling through swaying leaves. All around her, the world felt healthier; fuller. Her eyes marveled at the new lushness of her surroundings, wild and overgrown, and her body began to sing, flush with the breath of life.

Up and down, up and down, she thought, One minute I’m out of my mind the next I’m happy as can be… Oh well, guess I better enjoy the moment then. She half forced a smile. Then as her thoughts sank away once more, a genuine grin graced her lips. How bad could things really be when such a wondrous place as this had existed the whole time?

Up ahead, she sensed a denser concentration of sentient-life energy. Or, at least, she imagined it was there.

Just trust… she heard herself think.

She continued along the path, an odd thought distracting her. Those beings used to live near where I’m standing… in homes… She stopped, spinning around in a circle, searching for anything reminiscent of a house. Maybe in the trees? At the very least, they did seem to have an interest in carpentry. Doesn’t look like it…

She continued on, feeling small pockets of “lived in” space passing all around her. They feel low… below me, even… 

“Hello?” she said aloud. She felt that she had no need to be afraid, but caught her breath as she said the word, her voice stiff and cold.

Not getting a reply, she moved tentatively towards one of the spaces that she could feel. I know it’s here… And, traveling a short ways off the path, she stepped on a large, broken tree branch and fell right through with a loud yelp.

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