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.
Left Behind, Part Two
The River Network was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. We had found a quiet place under a bridge for us both to slip into the metaphysical realm, which was apparently second nature to Akshainie, and found ourselves standing before a completely different version of the river. The water was teeming with spirits, the color of the water was a marvelous, shimmering thing that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the physical realm; but it’s somewhere near purple. Everything was alive, even the bridge above us seemed to have a slow movement like the breathing of a hibernating bear. Akshainie spoke to the water in a language I could barely even process, let alone understand, and it opened for us. The moment we stepped in, however, I felt a rush, fast and colorful and uncontrolled. Akshainie seemed entirely disinterested in the process itself, so I avoided asking about it. We surfaced at a different river, with landscape I didn’t even recognize.
We stopped and stepped deeper into the water, then beneath the water, to a ramp with outcroppings that served basically as stairs in the dry air. This, I was told, was the entrance to Iravati. Akshainie resumed her naga form, which I had never seen before, and when we reached the bottom of the ramp we were surrounded by other naga in what looked to be an open-air market. They paid no attention to us, except to try selling me fruits I’d never seen or wares that they probably described but I couldn’t understand. Akshainie ignored them, and I kept pace with her. As soon as they realized I was with her, in her glimmering armor with curved swords strapped to her sides, they gave me a wide berth.
We entered a house and were greeted warmly by a group of naga of varying ages and genders, who gave Akshainie hugs and grabbed my shoulders to look me over and comment in their own tongue. I smiled and tried to make nice, and they either lost interest in me or quickly realized I couldn’t understand them, and focused all their attention on Akshainie. She was happy. I’d never really seen her smile, I realized before now. Granted, I’d only met her at Henry’s funeral, and then today under less than desirable circumstances. But she seemed comfortable, and it was such an obvious change that I wondered why I hadn’t noticed how uncomfortable she felt elsewhere.
Our stay was short, however. She gathered some supplies, had a few conversations, and then we were off again. The smallest of the naga, who Akshainie later told me were her three nephews and two nieces, followed us the whole way to a door set into a wall at the edge of Iravati. She gave each of them a hug, and they came to me with arms out and I did the same, and then they stayed behind as we slipped through the doorway.
It would be wrong to call what we entered a tunnel, but I have no other word for it. It was not a tunnel, because it wasn’t fully enclosed, sometimes even lacking an apparent floor. But it had a very real sense of being closed, of having borders, of maintaining a separation. It had bends and changes in elevation, though I can’t for the life of me describe how I knew they were there. These, Akshainie explained, were the roads. They were carved through the nature of the realm itself, passing through worlds and voids with equal ease. Sometimes, she explained, we passed through a place by being so small nothing in that realm could see us and we could not process the enormity of what was around us. Sometimes we stepped over an entire reality in a single pace, like a pebble resting on the road. She corrected herself later, noting that it was neither true nor false that they were ‘carved;’ they simply were, and the realm simply was, and they existed within and around each other, and it was impossible to know which came first, if indeed either had.
We followed that road for a few hours until it emerged into a vibrant glen, with an orange sky and flowers of every color imaginable. I sat and she curled up under a tree and we had our lunch, and finally took some time to chat. She told me about her family, how proud they were of her when she became a guard, how much she misses them sometimes when she’s out in the world of man. I told her about mine, and how I missed my parents and sister. She asked why I hadn’t seen them, and I managed to avoid saying too much about it before I was able to get her talking about Iravati some more. After we’d eaten and rested, I worked on the tracking spell, and off we want following the trail that highlighted. We passed through a handful of realms taking different roads, which seemed to be a convoluted mess but the spell seemed to know where it was going.
We traveled until we needed to stop and eat again, and spent what I assume was a night on a mountainside looking down over a city of twisting, fungus-looking spires. When I woke, Akshainie was already up and preparing for the day, and the city had been replaced by a forest of glittering trees with small dark shapes skittering around among them. Akshainie explained that that sort of thing happens sometimes in the Deeper Realms. As we walked she told me about how the realms here are shaped by human imagination and fear and collective memories and hopes and dreams. She said sometimes, you can fall into a world without form, actively being shaped and reshaped and torn apart as the ideas it feeds from are changing. Every now and then, she warned, someone would lose their way and end up in a dream and not emerge again for centuries if the realm got cut off from the rest of the realms just right as the person awoke. Sometimes they emerged because they found a new way out; usually it was because someone, somewhere, happened to have the same dream and accidentally reconnected the dream to the other realms.
I asked how a place like Iravati is able to remain largely unchanged for long periods of time if the realms are so dynamic, and she said some realms are more stable than others. Ultimately, however, it’s down to the way people envision or believe in a thing. Younger cultures, she said, have a lot more flux in their views of the world. They’re still coming to an understanding about who they are and how they relate to the world around them. They’re shedding whatever cultures they’re leaving behind, and forming new identities, and the whole thing gets at least as messy on this side of the Hedge as the physical side. But a culture with thousands of years under its belt, it changes, but usually there are large parts that stay the same or change so slowly that a single generation will barely notice. The places tied to these ideas of the world, to an outsider, look like they never change at all. But Iravati has, she added. The Iravati her grandmother knew is not the one she knows, though she doesn’t fully understand what the differences are.
I learned so much about how the metaphysical realm works by just walking around in it, eating its food and breathing its air, sleeping on its ground and bathing in its waters. Akshainie was an excellent guide, and I suspect it will be a while before I manage to write down everything I learned there over the five days it took us to arrive at our destination.
On the sixth day—or at least, after the fifth sleep, since time was difficult to nail down there—we arrived in a dark and dreary world. The tracking spell, which I had to renew each time we slept, stopped there. We spent all of that day and the next scouring that realm, and we found a little blood. Thanks to a spell we cooked up on the spot, I was able to identify some of the blood as Rick’s, but not nearly enough to be a real danger to him. There were burn marks, and wet places where Akshainie said the water showed signs of being magically controlled, though I don’t know what she saw to tell her that. We never found Rick or the Barzai, though, and despite my best efforts, the tracking spell turned up nothing more. When we awoke on the third day, we did one last look over the area, and then admitted that this was a dead end and decided to head back to pursue a different avenue.
The blog of Jackie Veracruz.
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