Over the Hedge
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.
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