The Transmundane, Episode 4: The Middle of Nowhere

Ashlyn leaned her forehead against the chill glass and stared out into the night rushing past. Frigarsen had made it her holy duty to keep her and Seitetsu apart all day, but by now they should have been home, where she would have been chewed out by her parents, but at least she could have phoned Tetsu and talked about... whatever it was that had happened. But the over-used and under-maintained schoolbus had made an emphatic CLUNK half an hour out of the mountains and they'd spent all afternoon and half the evening waiting for the gas station owner's son to retrieve the necessary part: endless hours being teased by her classmates every time she tried to think and being chased away from Tetsu every time she tried to even sit near him, as though she were going to jump his bones in broad daylight, on a concrete bench, in a crowd of forty people.

The empty landscape wasn't as clear as it had been an hour ago, though she could still see more than the stars should have shown. By morning, she guessed, any effects she could have demonstrated to prove the previous night had really happened would be gone. All they'd have left would be the thumb -- if it hadn't turned into a rock, or dust. She'd miss being able to see in the dark, and count the feathers of an eagle so high up it was only a dot, but not the brain-hurting sensation of being able to see around things, or the psychedelic colors on the insides of her eyelids.

Ashlyn had never believed in magic. Looking out into a sunrise, she'd often felt the longing for golden cities far, for brave dragons in need of rescuing from rampaging knights, for something no one had ever seen before, for the power to right even one wrong. Once, on a San Francisco street alive with summer and life, she'd heard three verses of a song -- she'd never found out what song, or who by -- that expressed it better than any of her eminently discardable poetry:

What you're aching for,
Where the magic's real and you're like a fire in the sky,
When the deal calls for a sacrifice,
And you know you cannot die.
For the edge the best ones live on,
For it all.

You want to be a hero
With the axe about to fall,
You'd buy it for the love and for the glory,
For it all.

You want to dress in black
And lose your heart beyond recall,
Hunt a dream through rain and thunder,
On your honor
For it all.

It was a physical ache, to be able to imagine those things but know they were impossible, but she'd never doubted that impossibility. She knew what was real and what was only dreams.

Until last night, that was, when the magic had become real. The dream had been a nightmare, and hunting her, and Tetsu had been the hero, but that didn't matter. She'd been hurting all over from bashing herself on the troll and skidding face-first on the ground, and so terrified it was a miracle she hadn't wet herself, and that didn't matter either. The desire that was so much a part of her she almost never thought about it any more had been satisfied, and she didn't have words to describe what that was like. Maybe the words didn't exist; it didn't seem likely that people who fought trolls went home to write dictionaries afterwards.

Now the shadows of the prison bars were thickening back into iron, and she didn't know if she'd be able to escape them again. If not, she hoped the one taste of freedom she'd had would be a fond memory to comfort her, rather than making the reality she had to live in seem all the more confining.

With a sigh, she twisted around to put her shoulders against the window, and looked over Ginny -- conveniently crouched low over her GameBoy -- at Tetsu, who was sensibly asleep instead of worrying himself sick over something he couldn't control. He was leaning precariously against his window, hips almost off the seat and head lolling limply, but the curve of his lips made the pose not goofy but terribly appealing.

She eyed the empty seat next to him and sighed again. The warmth of his skin, the softness of his hair, the taste of his lips... But Frigarsen would have a full-grown cow, horns and all, without anaesthetic. It wouldn't kill her to wait until they got back to town and escaped the school's loco parenting.

Thoroughly unconvinced, she picked up her book -- something about stupid vampires, a smart heroine, and lots of sex, that she couldn't have remembered the title of if it hadn't been at the top of every page -- and realized that she could barely read it, even with the glow of Ginny's game. That crystallized her anger: if she couldn't have miracles, she'd at least have Seitetsu, and Frigarsen could go whine to the Devil about it! She waited until the teacher made one of her periodic scans for illicit happiness, then the moment she looked away, she slipped past Ginny, who oblingingly swung her legs up out of the way with a grin and a thumbs up, and slid across the aisle into Tetsu's seat, crouched low to keep her distinctive head below the seatbacks.

He mumbled incoherently and his eyelids flickered when she curled up against his side and brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth, but she put her head on his shoulder and lay still, and after a minute he sank back into sleep, smiling at the resumption of his dream. Embarrassed, she realized she was staring at his face in the worst cliche of romantic fiction, and quickly closed her eyes to keep at least some self-respect.

* * *

Breath burned in her throat, and her legs felt limp as jello, but she kept pedalling; she had to, or they would catch her. She couldn't keep going forever, though, and she frantically scanned the road for anywhere she could get through that they couldn't, but though she could see in the moonless night as easily in cloudless day, all she saw was impenetrable woods, towering up to the river of rainbow stars overhead.

Her foot slipped and the pedal gouged her shin; the bike wobbled and skidded on the worn asphalt and she only just avoided losing it altogether. Feet finally planted solidly on the ground, she hunched over the handlebars and gasped like she'd just escaped being drowned. She couldn't afford to waste any time not moving, but she couldn't lift her trembling legs to keep riding.

She knew it was a mistake, but she looked back to see how much ground she'd lost and for the first time got a good look at her pursuers. For a hallucinatory moment she thought they were riding their smouldering black motorcycles backwards, but then she saw it was only their helmets that were back-to-front. On each smooth black curve a design was painted in red: an eye on one, a human nose on another, a pair of ears base-to-base like a butterfly on a third. In the time it took her to realize that the U-shaped design on the fourth was a tongue and the abstract swirls on the last, a fingerprint, they closed half the distance, and with a humiliating squeak of terror she stomped hard on the pedal and was off again.

She could hear them now, even over the rasp of her breath: a ragged growl of engines, and a faint cackle of laughter tossed back and forth between them. It was all a game to them, nothing personal, but the consequences to her would be just as final as if they hated her like she hated them.

If they kept chasing her on motorcycles while she rode a bike down this straight-line road in the middle of nowhere, she couldn't escape. If she turned to fight them, fragile unprotected flesh against leather and kevlar and steel, she couldn't win. Therefore, to escape she had to not be here on this road with only a bicycle. To win, she needed more than flesh.

It was like a black vase becoming the gap between two white faces; she couldn't imagine how she had failed to realize the solution before. With the ease of incalculably long practice, she pulled the oval from where it hid behind her head and let her momentum catapult her through it.

With the riders' howl still echoing inside her skull, she fell face-first across Seitetsu's lap and banged her head on the metal side of the bus.

With a groan, she flopped over on her back, and stared up through speckles of light and dark at the mirror floating over Seitetsu's head. It was oval, maybe a foot and a half wide by two tall, and framed by a sword blade bent so its two chisel tips met at the top. Headlights flashed past outside the window, and the grey metal of the blade shimmered briefly with multicolored iridescence in crystalline triangular patterns.

Tetsu himself appeared as only ill-defined blobs of shading, like a watercolor painting. She blinked a few times, but his form didn't resolve, and as the sparkles cleared she saw that the rest of the bus's interior was even more blurry, just swathes of dark color as background to the sketches of people.

A long white shape leaned against Tetsu's shoulder, with only faint shadings to indicate the difference between skin, clothing, and hair. She was surprised to see it, and then surprised that she was surprised. Of course this was a dream, and a dreamer had to have a body.

Her mirror was the same size as Seitetsu's, but had a frame defined by the inner curves of two many-pronged antlers bound together at the base and tips with silver. The tines that branched up and out to each side were tipped with needle-pointed silver; each antler had six, plus the one that followed the mirror's contour.

The phrase "gate of horn" seemed familiar, and she was sure she had seen the patterns on Tetsu's mirror somewhere, but she couldn't place either of them. Rubbing her sore head, she sat up to look around, and the spangled blackness of her mirror gave way to pillars and lines of coal-orange fading into dark. Not the stars of a head injury glittering on the dim reflection of the bus's ceiling, then, but the stars of her dream, and now trees lit by the hateful glow of her pursuers' headlights. By kneeling on her own lap (which felt soft as flesh but didn't actually give beneath her nonexistant weight), she could see the dismounted riders prowling the road and ditches, puzzlement and frustration obvious in every line of their massive bodies. Fingerprint's bare arms bulged and writhed obscenely, or at least pruriently, as he meticulously crumpled her abandoned bicycle into a wad of metal with gauntleted hands.

She stifled a laugh, not knowing if the mirror transmitted sound. Of course they couldn't have caught her. She was... what was she? She felt she should know, but there weren't any words. More unsettled than smug, she moved away from the mirror just in case and looked around the bus. The dream vision she had was too strange for her to tell if she could really see in the dark again, but the mirrors floating above the few sleepers were perfectly clear. They varied from the size of her palm to as large as her own mirror, and had frames of wood or bright plastic or, in the case of the largest, white curves like elephant tusks fastened together by bronze vines.

Carefully as though those in the waking world might hear her, she crept down the aisle to that ivory-framed mirror, and saw with astonishment that the sleeper beneath it was Tiffy. She would never have guessed that Tiffy had anything exceptional in the way of dreams. Peeking into the mirror seemed faintly wrong, or at least rude, but she couldn't resist, and was surprised again to see a younger Tiffy, well below the age at which she could make her tank top interesting, sitting on a wooden fence in a field of tall grass surrounded by forest, tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth in concentration as she plaited blades of grass into a circlet. It made a strange sort of sense, though: Tiffy's life was the stuff of fantasies, so why shouldn't her dreams be ordinary? With more affection for Tiffy than she'd felt in many years, she brushed a tendril of hair away from the sleeping girl's mouth and left her to her quiet dreams.

Halfway back to her and Tetsu's seat, she realized what she had done, and stared back at Tiffy. The dark streak of hair was across her face again, but she couldn't tell if it was because it had fallen back, or because she had only dreamt moving it.

Experimentally, she plucked Mikey Hong's baseball cap from his head, but though it felt solid as she carried it back to where Tetsu slept, Mikey didn't react visibly.

Her own mirror now showed only a stretch of empty road, smudged with black tire tracks in a curiously symmetric pattern around a basketball-sized lump of metal and rubber, so she climbed into Tetsu's lap to get a look as his inconveniently outward-facing mirror.

The emerald jungle, sapphire waves, and alabaster sand were straight off a travel agency poster, but most travel agencies only hinted that their package tours included what was happening on the bronze-colored beach towel. Too embarrassed to watch, but too fascinated not to, she compromised on watching the action from the corner of her eye while pretending to any other astral projectors who might be passing through that she was looking out the bus's front windshield. Apparently Tetsu had been taking notes while she was running around in shorts and a bra, because although she doubted the Hawaiian sun would leave her skin that color, what she saw in this mirror was very similar to what she saw in the mirror in her bedroom. When she was making those kind of noises she usually had her eyes closed, so she couldn't tell if the expression was accurate, but she hoped she'd feel half that happy when the time came.

Face burning and heart fluttering in the most intense arousal she could remember ever feeling, she watched until the action in the mirror came to a theatrically loud climax and the dream-Ashlyn slumped blissfully exhausted onto the dream-Tetsu's chest. Overhearing the tender whispers they exchanged made her feel like far more of a voyeur than watching them make love had, and though her rational mind pointed out that not only was the scene completely imaginary, it featured images of her and the guy she had already decided to give her virginity to, embarrassment finally prevailed.

The heat of her skin turned instantly to clammy chill as she saw the shadow oozing in through the rearmost window. It didn't have the watercolor blurriness of the real scenery, but she could discern only glimpses of features: a red-gleaming eye, misshapenly-long digits, a twitching rat-like nose. Her skin crawled as it slithered into the bus and down Denice Elizalde's unaware body to the floor, feathery antennae probing horridly into the decolletage of her sundress and caressing her bare leg.

Still little more than a dark blot on the dark rubber matting of the floor, it made its way slowly toward her, snuffling from side to side at each pair of seats it passed. It wasn't any larger than her mother's obese and entirely harmless cat, but it gave her the sort of shudders she imagined other people got from spiders or snakes and she sank slowly behind the seatback she was peering over in response to some long-forgotten "if you can't see it, it can't see you" instinct of childhood. That was stupid, of course, but knowing it was stupid jarred her brain back to life, and she realized what it was after.

Fast as she could, praying it was fast enough that it couldn't touch her, she swung around on Tetsu's lap and dived headfirst through her own mirror. It wasn't the best front roll she'd ever done, but it beat falling on her head, and she was back on her feet in moments, glaring around at the completely imaginary road and forest. None of it really existed, and it was just getting in her way, but it obstinately refused to vanish. She pushed harder, denying the asphalt beneath her feet and the wind on her face, focusing her mind on the bus and Seitetsu.

A wavering image coalesced from the night wind: Tetsu, wearing no more than he had on the Hawaiian beach and impressively ready for action. With a vanishingly brief pang of regret, she forced clothes onto the visualization, the blue Nike shirt and black running shorts he was wearing in real life. The clothes and the compelling body fought for dominance like competing TV stations, and suddenly she was bubbling up through the molasses of semiconsciousness into reality.

* * *

The daze of sudden waking clouded her thoughts and vision, but her purpose remained clear. Seitetsu mumbled and squirmed as she groped in his pocket, but when her hand clutched around cylindrical hardness he sat straight up with a yelp of pain. She yanked her hand back, but it caught in the cloth, and her face turned from pale back to red.

"Ashlyn? Huh?" He blinked down at her hand, but wasn't together enough to do anything about it, and that gave her time to seize the other hard object and drag it out. She scrambled into his lap, not worrying about where her knees ended up, pressed the latches at the top of the window, and yanked.

It jammed solid before the crack was half wide enough. "SHIT!"

"ALFLATT! What in God's name are you bellowing about?" There was the thwap of practical shoes hitting the floor, but Ashlyn had more important things to worry about.

"Here! Move!" Tetsu shoved her out of the way, grabbed the top of the window, put his folded legs against the wall, and kicked.

Cubes of safety glass went everywhere, and Tetsu flew across the aisle to land with his head propped against Ginny's leg, blinking confusedly at the twisted metal frame he held and then at Ashlyn as she collapsed where he'd been sleeping, weak with relief at leaving the troll's thumb behind at a mile a minute.

"Trackers," she mouthed at him, and tapped her nose, not caring what the bus full of startled onlookers made of it, and then Frigarsen was hauling her out of the seat and shouting, "What the HELL do you think you're doing?"

Credits: The song Ashlyn heard is For It All, and you can find the lyrics on page 218 of Emma Bull's excellent book War for the Oaks. It has been performed by Cats Laughing, but the music they gave it was not anything like I imagined, so I prefer to ignore their version.

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