Huge trees lurked in the gloom, supporting a canopy unguessably high above the flat ground. The trunks were oddly indistinct; she rubbed her eyes, but it didn't help. Muttering annoyedly, Ashlyn picked her way through the leaf litter and occasional fallen branch to the nearest trunk.
Hollowed out, the tree could have enclosed most of her house, and it was hollow, or nearly so: smooth-edged gashes wide as a front door and stories tall split the bark and silvery wood, letting the darkness inside seep out.
Something scraped far overhead, and wood groaned under massive weight. She froze, but the noise wasn't repeated. She still couldn't see what was above; it figured her superpowers would crap out right when she was under a dragon's nest or something.
She wasn't sure why she thought she had superpowers, but it didn't matter much. Her eyes were adjusting to the dark, anyway, and she could see farther between the irregularly-placed but widely-spaced trees. There wasn't much to see, just flat ground, sticks of deadwood big enough to be dreaming trees (and where had that phrase come from?), and ragged or withered treetrunks. And, she realized, something pale heaped up at the base of each one.
The pile for the tree she was at was on the other side, a whitish half-cone thirty or forty feet high and just as broad. Whatever it was made of was scattered around the base, but before she could get a chunk to look at, a horrible congested-sounding gurgle came from above, and a cascade of white objects thundered down on her.
She threw herself away from the tree, landed rolling, and kept going, but was knocked down and half-buried by the avalanche of excessively hard and pointy objects anyway. She squirmed and flailed her arms behind her to get some of the weight off her back, then froze as one of the objects rolled in front of her. She'd never seen a real human skull before, but there was no mistaking this.
The pile wasn't all skulls, but it was at least half bones, bizarrely intermixed with shards of china dishes. There was no consistency to the patterns or shapes of the china, and when she looked closer, the bones were not uniform either: all broken or at least chipped in different ways, and of widely varying sizes. She dug through the mess a bit, to see if there was anything except bone and china, but gave up at the sight of a skull no larger than her fist, too small even for a newborn.
The thing in the tree gave a suspiciously digestive rumble, but she had wanted to check the other trees anyway.
Bones and ripped and stained playing cards, bones and shattered but unmelted snow sculptures, bones and broken white tiles, bones and crushed white prescription bottles... bones and white and ruined, but there had to be a larger pattern. All man-made, and they seemed to be human bones, but that wasn't quite it.
Her scalp and spine crawled at the distant sound of motorcycle engines.
Suppressing the instinctive but useless urge to run, she instead hunkered down against the pile of bones and bottles, hoping white skin would camouflage her against white debris. A spark of irritation went through her at not being able to stay clothed in her own dreams, and then she realized.
She knew what they were when five headlights appeared around a particularly massive tree two or three hundred yards away, but she waited until she could see the drawings on the blind fronts of their helmets before crawling through the mirror.
* * *
The perpetual storm whirled overhead, framed by a wobbly border of trees. Seitetsu laid back down and leaned his head against hers, temple to temple in the center of the merry-go-round. "I can hear your brain working," he said. "I hope it's doing better than mine."
"Well, of course. I'm thinking about the dream means, you're just thinking about the part where I was naked."
"Hey." He didn't sound mad, but she winced anyway.
"Sorry, it's just that being about to DIE makes me bitchy."
He squeezed her hand. "It'd be easier if we knew we were about to die, instead of just guessing, I think. Or if we had any idea how it was going to happen."
"Yah. I don't think this dream was about that, though. It was... bigger."
"Like the dream with the birds, about how there are invisible forces watching you? Wait... the five-sense bikers were in your dream, maybe they're going to catch us tomorrow afternoon."
"This afternoon, you mean; it's after two. But I don't think so. They aren't what I dreamed about, even though they were in my dream..." She waved her free hand frustratedly. Words were too flimsy to convey the clarity and certainy of the dream. All words could make someone know was that you had said something about the dream. "They got in through the back door. They weren't part of my dream any more than I was part of yours when I went in to get you."
She felt him nod. "Okay, that makes sense. So the bikers might be the problem, but they might not." He sat up and scooted out to give the merry-go-round another boost, then returned. "Big things in trees that crap out bones and broken white things... Dragons, but that's too literal."
"Rotten trees. So they can be brought down easily?"
"Something big, unseen, high up but easy to bring down, that craps out bones and broken things... I dunno, an army? Armies kill people and break things, anyway."
"But you can see an arm-- duh! Governments! Nations! You can see people who work for a government, you can see dirt that belongs to a country, but you can't see them themselves!"
"Yah! Corrupt governments, which is why they're rotten at the base! You're a genius!" He planted a kiss on her cheek, and she felt herself blushing.
"I just ran with your idea!" she protested, but his praise made her so embarrassingly goopy inside she didn't really want to stop him. "But I'm glad you love me for my mind."
"Mind, heart, and body," he murmured into her ear. His warm breath made her squirm ticklishly, but also made her pulse rate double. All the reasons for not ripping Tetsu's clothes off and ravishing him on the spot still made sense, although it was getting harder and harder to think of them.
"Let's go look around," she said brightly, and then winced at how doofy she sounded. Well, if he gave up on her mind, that left two out of three to keep him.
"Okay, sure. I'm not getting any ideas just lying here. Well, not about how to avoid dying, anyway. Maybe all the stores on Washington have turned into wizard shops all dying to show off by breaking unbreakable curses or something." He slid off the merry-go-round and stopped its spin casually with one hand.
"I don't think it'll be that easy, but we won't know unless we look." She accepted his hand up and led him off through the park by it.
After a bit, he said, "When I was looking stuff up in the library--"
"You got to go to the library? You're not grounded for life?"
"Nah, my brother snuck out so much that my parents eventually gave up on grounding as a punishment. I can go wherever I want, I just won't have any money to spend when I get there, and I have to be back in time to do all the chores. For the rest of my life, yah," he added glumly.
"Bleah. You'd think being assaulted by a troll was a crime."
"Well, if we'd told them what happened instead of letting them guess, we'd be in the loony bin instead, which is like being grounded with a straitjacket."
She shuddered. "And drugs. And electroshock. And it gets worse from there."
"Yah, I had to watch that special for Woolley's class too. I was trying not to think about it."
"Sorry! Tell me about what you found in the library!"
"Right. Good and bad; in the stories, prophecies always come true, but usually not in the way you expect. Like the pope who was told that Saint Paul would be the death of him, and spent his whole life avoiding Saint Paul cathedral. Finally, as he was travelling, he fell ill and had to find an inn in some out-of-the-way village to rest up. He asked what the name of the village was, and as soon as the guy said 'San Paulo' the pope fell over dead."
"I wonder what was in Saint Paul cathedral that the fortune-teller didn't want him to see? But right, any assumption you make about something that isn't nailed down is probably wrong."
'This seems pretty solid, though. Full name, and it said 'you' so it can't mean someone else with the same name, date and time..."
She laughed. "I really doubt there's anyone else named Seitetsu Valeroso in the world. But it didn't specify a time zone. I hope that's not it, though, since then it could be twenty-three minutes past any hour. Or fifty-three; there are some time zones that are half an hour off."
"That's stupid. But you're right. And there's the date line, so for all I can figure out, we could already be in the danger zone."
"Oh! Year! It gave month and day, but not year."
"Usually when people do that, they mean the nearest time that date comes around... Assumptions, yah. So we have to worry for about two days every fall for the rest of our lives? Duh, obviously for the rest of our lives."
A few more blocks went by while she thought. What would she do if she were setting up a phone system to tell people the date and time of their death? Why would she do it? If anyone did it at all; it might just be a supernatural feature of the astral plane.
"Maybe we're missing the point," she said finally. "It didn't say 'If you go to Za'ha'dum, you will die', so we can't just not go to Za'ha'dum and weasel out of dying."
He frowned. "So it's just some sort of existential thing? 'You, too, are mortal' and all that?"
"Maybe. Hey! I wonder if the books in the library have turned into anything useful?"
"See, you are a genius! It should be right down Oak... Um, where are we?"
Ashlyn looked around at the broad streets lined with one-story ranch houses, distinctly Californian, but otherwise completely unfamiliar. "I have no idea."
|<-- 10: A State of Frustration||Contents||12: On the Paths of the Dead -->|
This file was last modified at 2350 on 24Dec02 by firstname.lastname@example.org.