Over the Hedge
Left Behind, Part Four
15 May 2007
Without the tracking spell to guide us, it took a little over a week to make our way back to Iravati. Akshainie knew the roads pretty well, but we were starting from a realm she’d never seen, and I’m pretty sure we were lost for at least a day at the beginning. But she gave no indication this was the case, and I didn’t feel it necessary to mention.
But we made it back to Iravati safe and sound, though exhausted from that day’s travels, and spent the night there with her family. As we ate, I took a more thoughtful look at the building, and realized I didn’t see anywhere for bedrooms. When the naga began to gather into a large pile like snakes, the arrangement of the house began to make sense. Akshainie seemed to suddenly remember I was there, and pulled me aside.
“I’m sorry,” she began, “I didn’t even think! I’m sure we have some spare cushions you can use if—”
“It’s fine,” I said, chuckling. “I don’t mind sleeping in a pile. It’s…it’s been lonely sleeping alone lately, anyway.”
“Oh. Okay. I just, you know. The first night I was out traveling with Benedict and I realized he expected us to sleep in separate beds, I just kind of thought that was how humans operate.”
“To an extent, it is. But, also, he’s a Catholic priest, and I am not. He’s bound to be a bit more prudish than me.”
“I need to understand Catholic priests better. The more I learn the less human they sound.”
“Yeah, well. Same.” We laughed about that, and then found places in the pile to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I drifted off trying not to think about how in the world they ever find the opportunity to make more naga.
The next day, we ate breakfast with her family and then left Iravati, taking the River Network back to Sharon. The spirits of the Shenango River greeted us and asked me about Matteson, and then informed us that there was activity on the river that day and led us to a better place to step back into the physical realm without drawing attention to ourselves. Akshainie resumed her human form before crossing over. The walk back to the house was quiet, and it finally started to sink in that we were back. We’d gone into the spiritual realm to find and rescue Rick, and now that we were back in the physical realm without him, the burden of our failure weighed on me. When we were still in the Deeper Realms, there was always the chance. Maybe we would stumble across him, or some new clue would arise, or we’d pick up his trail again. But not now. Not on this side of the Hedge. Near the library, I had to stop and sit down on the low stone wall and cry for a bit, with Akshainie trying to comfort me.
We got back to the house about an hour after I started crying, and by then I had managed to recompose myself. When we entered, we found Matteson and Benedict looking through a dusty old book and comparing notes. Benedict practically leapt off the couch to come over and check that Akshainie was alright. Matteson seemed pleased to see us, but was moving slow enough that I walked over and pushed him back into the seat before he was fully standing.
“I’m glad you guys are alright. But,” he looked past me, to the empty open door.
I lowered my head. “We found where they landed, but the trail went cold from there. I think I need to try something different.” Matteson squeezed my hand and tried to give a comforting smile, which I returned, and then I went to the kitchen. “It’s been over two weeks since I had a coffee made in the mortal realm,” I said, by way of explanation as he watched me go.
“You’ve been gone one week!” he called after me.
“For you. Time is different once you get further from this realm.”
“That’s true,” Akshainie said, pulling herself away from Benedict and closing the door. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to travel to realms where it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done that. Are you sure your aging isn’t going to be affected by this stuff?” Matteson asked.
“I have no idea. But it’s fine,” I answered. “I’m not spending years there.”
“Not so far. But if you keep going over there—”
“I’ll be fine, Matteson.” He grunted but dropped the subject. When I had finished making my coffee and returned to the living room, Benedict and Akshainie were sitting on the couch looking over his notes and Matteson had the book out again. “What’s that one?” I asked.
“It’s about the earliest known days of the Brood of Nachash. We’re not sure who collected these stories, though it seems to be mostly notes from Catholic Inquisitors in Spain, but we’re hoping it sheds some light on their goals.”
“They believe their High Priest will return when they’ve fulfilled their mission and given the world over to Nachash,” Benedict said. “Very messianic.”
“Wait, there’s someone above the Barzai?” I asked, sitting down on the arm of Matteson’s chair.
“Well, not right now,” Matteson answered. “They had one high priest, right near the beginning here, and then he was burned at the stake. But the cult seems to believe he’ll be back. In the meantime, his office is left vacant for his return. He’s kind of a figurehead, like the Queen of England. The Barzai is essentially his Prime Minister.”
“It’s like they’re trying to mirror elements of other religions and world systems,” Benedict said.
“European systems,” Akshainie noted.
“Yes, well. I don’t think they were global yet at this point.”
We talked some more about what the boys had been researching while we were gone, and then they asked us about our trip. Akshainie expressed concern that Rick was well and truly lost, but I insisted that I just needed to try something different. Matteson was supportive of my plan, but urged me to be careful how far I pushed myself.
After dinner, Benedict and Akshainie left, and I spent some time cleaning up before bumming another smoke from Matteson and then flopping onto the couch.
“I want him back, too,” he finally said, staring off into the distance.
“I know you do.”
“I just don’t want to lose you, too, over it.”
I sat up and looked him over. His eyes looked tired, almost old. “I’ll be careful, really. I just. I can’t give up, not yet. We came so close to finding him, and then just had to turn back. I can’t, I just can’t let that be it.”
“I know. And I’ll help however I can. But, please,” he turned to face me, “please promise me that when it’s time to stop, you’ll stop.”
I hesitated. The idea of there ever being a point when I would need to give up felt alien, wrong. But he was right. The spiritual realms are vast and complex, and if I just throw myself into them heedlessly in search of someone with no remaining trail, I could get irreversibly lost. “I promise,” I said, finally. He nodded, and we sat silently smoking for a while. After a couple hours of watching TV and trying to take our minds off things, he announced he was going to bed. I followed him up the stairs, he insisted he didn’t need help but I wanted to make sure, and when he was about to open his bedroom door I stopped him. “Matteson, I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“How many things do you blame yourself over?”
He stood for a long moment with his hand on his doorknob, just staring down at it. “Only as many as I deserve.”
“You don’t need to punish yourself forever over everyone you lose, John.” He seemed to wince at the name, and I realized he hadn’t had anyone call him that since he learned that it was Alethea all along that had been calling him Matteson. “What happened to Rick, and Lori, and Alethea, they aren’t really your fault.”
“It’s good to know you believe that.” He started to open his door and I rested my hand on his arm.
“I…I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”
He looked into the room and sighed.
“Do you?” I asked.
“Not really, no.”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
I followed him into the room and, in his arms, I fell asleep quickly.
The blog of Jackie Veracruz.
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