Kemet, Chapters 1-5

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Forward

This is a story with a female protagonist who doesn’t fall in love at the end. Just wanted to let you know that upfront. No relationship can survive without honesty, so I’m going to be honest with you from the beginning. There is no man (or woman, for that matter) in the following pages that I end up with, just my cat and my parents and my friends and my new… coworker? Partner? Tormentor? I’m still not entirely sure what to call her yet. She dragged me kicking and screaming into her world despite my best attempts to ignore and avoid her. Now we fight monsters and save the multiverse together. Make of that what you will. And if by the end you think I could have done more to prevent getting into this situation, well, you try blowing off a goddess. See how long you get away with it. The adjustment period was rough (I almost died, several times, thanks a lot Bast!), but this is my life now and it is exactly how I want it, so don’t you dare feel sorry for me. I don’t.

I know what some of you are thinking: What!? A female protagonist who doesn’t fall in love at the end? What else could this possibly be about? And I get that. I personally know a number of people who can’t imagine a leading lady not riding off into the sunset after being swept off her feet by her handsome prince. Well, I do get swept off my feet, sort of, and I believe that the guy who did the sweeping genuinely thought he was saving me, but then the jerk turns around and literally murders an entire world. More on that later.

The point is, if you fall into this camp of love/romance fanatics, you may want to stop reading now, before you become emotionally invested, and reach for your worn-out, well-loved copy of Pride and Prejudice. I’ll try not to take it personally.

 

Chapter 1

My life started out normal enough. In fact, in the moments before my life went hurtling out of control, I was on my way to game night at my favorite hang-out.

            I was strolling down the sidewalk, looking up at the blue late-afternoon sky with cheery relief from under the visor of my white fedora. Finally, a nice day. I was starting to forget what the sun looked like. The birds were singing, the late spring sun was shining, and in that moment I didn’t have a care in the world.  I sniffed at the gentle breeze that blew off the lake and ruffled my frizzy ponytail, grateful that the soppy weather that had been saturating upstate New York for the first half of the year had finally let up for a day. Cars whooshed past me on my right as I ambled down the street, swinging my canvas shopping bag with its heavy board game absently at my side. Wonder if Karl brought his copy of Terra Mystica this week? I’ve been interested to play it. If I knew how to whistle I would have.

I hopped over a fallen tree branch and stepped carefully over the leafy twigs. Man that was some storm last night. Good on the utility people for getting the power back on already. It was such a strange storm. For twenty minutes the wind howled like a wild animal and torrents of rain sluiced down from the heavens. Trees were toppled, shingles were ripped off roofs, and electric lines were wrecked in the storm’s fury. The weather man couldn’t explain it. Just hours before he’d been predicting clear skies all night. There was nothing on the radar all day and then bam; a green blotch appeared on the map covering the entire area, seemingly from nowhere.       Finally I reached the plaza with the game shop. The Enchanted Badger had a tinted-glass storefront with a colorful neon sign beside the door proclaiming “We Have Games!” It had been two years since I had moved to Ithaca, but I still looked at this place with the same affection as the first time I had walked through the door.             I hadn’t known anyone in the area before moving here and I was desperate to meet people, but didn’t have much clue of how to go about it. Supporting myself working two jobs through college hadn’t left me much time for making friends or socializing the last half decade, and so I was left with the uncomfortable knowledge that I was entering the adult world socially awkward and friendless. My only idea of where to meet people came from my high school days playing Dungeons and Dragons with my fellow nerds as we drank cup after cup of coffee at the local Denny’s in my hometown outside of Pittsburgh. Those gaming sessions had been among the few things I actually enjoyed about high school, so I figured a game shop might be worth investigating in this brave new city.

Cthulu-shaped bells tinkled merrily as I walked through the door that first day and the woman who owned the shop turned to me and gave a smile that was all kittens and rainbows. She walked up and asked if I was looking for someone to play with. I liked her instantly. This angel with twenty-sided dice dangling from her earlobes had immediately recognized a lonely soul and pulled me over to one of the long wooden tables to introduce me to a group of others who would be lonely but for this place.

I smiled faintly at my reflection in the dark storefront as I snapped out of my reverie and grabbed the door handle, but then paused, listening. A rhythmic clippity-clippity-clippity noise was coming this way from down the sidewalk. I frowned and turned toward the sound. It was definitely something with hooves. Once in a while a confused, hormone-crazed deer could be found running around downtown during mating season, but this sounded much heavier than a white-tail. What would a horse be doing here?

My gaze fell on the creature racing toward me and I froze in place, eyes widening. It wasn’t a horse. It was a unicorn. A shining white unicorn. I only had a moment to take it in before it blew past me, but even in that brief time I could see that its coat was immaculate, its eyes dark, and its forehead graced with a tapering spiral horn. I swiveled on my heels and watched the creature disappear as it veered right off the sidewalk and galloped across a small urban park. My mouth hung open, and I took half a second to decide whether I should call animal control or pull out my phone and take a video since, you know, I was looking at a freaking actual freaking unicorn for freaking real and when was this ever going to happen to me again? I pointed my phone’s camera at the rapidly receding hind-quarters, hoping at some point the creature would turn its head and I could get a profile pic, when something collided with the back of my skull.

Whoa, what!? It wasn’t heavy or hard, but it hit me with enough force that I pitched forward a step and felt a flash of pain spread through my neck. I reached my hand up but couldn’t feel anything sticking to the back of my head or see anything on the ground around my feet. So what just hit me? “Sorry!” a sheepish little voice chimed. I looked up from the ground. Hovering at head height, perhaps three feet from where I stood, was a fairy. She was about six inches tall and daintily built, with light brown skin and long forest-green hair hanging loose about her shoulders. She wore a knee-length sundress that appeared to be made of sewn-together birch leaves and grass blades. Her wings were hardly visible; they flapped so quickly they were an iridescent blur behind her.

            There’s a fairy hovering in front of me… She looked flustered and red-faced and her hair and dress were rumpled, one of the grass blades that formed the shoulder straps of her dress torn in half and dangling down her chest. For a moment time stood still, frozen by the sheer strangeness of the tableau. I rubbed the back of my aching neck, lost in a world that had suddenly stopped making sense as the fairy giggled uncomfortably and tried to smooth out her appearance. After patting ineffectually at her dress the fairy looked up at and opened her mouth to say something, then paused. Her gaze slid over my shoulder and she gasped, her face going deathly pale and her eyes widening to outline her emerald irises.

Visibly trembling, she turned back to me and squeaked, “Run!” before turning and zipping off in the same direction as the unicorn with a sound like dragonfly wings. My stomach sank and my heart fluttered. I had always scoffed at the stupidity of horror movie characters for turning to face the monster slowly, but now I understood why they did it. They didn’t want to know what was behind them, didn’t want to enter the moment they had to face the Big Bad Thing. And so, fully conscious of how melodramatic it was, I slowly turned around to see a…

Oh, shit…

            My guts turned to water as adrenaline crashed through my muscles like an electric current, instantly raising every hair on my body and propelling me down the street with the crazed energy of a woman trying to outrun death itself. I dropped my bag and broke into a dead sprint, grateful for all the cardio I had been doing at the gym lately. My peripheral vision darkened, narrowing the world to the strip of sidewalk directly in front of me. It was charging from about ten yards behind me, roaring with the fury of an enraged sun. Height-wise it wasn’t much taller than the unicorn, but its slim, sinuous, serpentine body was much longer. Brilliant blue scales glittered with hints of green and red like opals in its hide, fading to a lighter aquamarine on its underside. Ivory horns curved from the top of its skull and steam curled from a snout full of fangs. Nasty-looking talons as long as my hand clicked on the pavement with every stride, growing closer by the second. It would have been beautiful if I hadn’t been sure I was about to get a chance to examine its tonsils up-close.

A hot-metal smell like the tin hot-food containers that caterers use at buffets reached my nose and I cried out, despairing at the wave of fire and burning agony I was sure was about to wash over me. Would it flame-thrower me until I was crispy? Would my charred skin crunch like fried chicken when it bit into me? I darted a look at the traffic whipping past and considered playing Frogger. Getting flattened by a bus couldn’t hurt anymore than being burned and/or eaten alive right?

Suddenly I felt a pop in my left thigh and my options evaporated. My knee buckled under the quadriceps that had given out and I could only watch as the sidewalk leapt up to slap me in the face. No, No, NO!

I crashed to the pavement and skidded a little, banging and scraping my knees and the heels of my hands. I thought with mounting resignation that there was no way I could get up before it overtook me. I rolled onto my back, knees bent to my chest, and hoped I could get in one good kick before…

The freaking dragon wasn’t behind me!

I sat up. There it was, maybe twenty yards away. It was turned away from the highway and snarling in the direction of the park. Something red glistened on its face. Blood… The dragon was bleeding from a gash under one sapphire eye. Was that there before? I don’t think so… I followed the dragon’s gaze to see a cat-woman standing in a wide stance and looking like she was ready to kick serious ass. And why not? I’ve seen a unicorn, a fairy, and a dragon already, so why not a kung-fu cat-woman? She was quite a sight. Her skin was the color of bronze, sun-kissed, and her eyes the exact shade of gold. She had glossy black hair that fell straight to her shoulders and facial features that were an elegant combination of human and cat. Pointed ears pressed flat against her skull, the fur on her black tail raised on end. She wore a green scoop-neck shirt under a darker green leather jacket and form-fitting black capri pants that accommodated for the human legs that ended in cat’s paws. Completing the look was a brown leather satchel slung over her shoulder. I crossed my legs where I sat and stared, dazed. I’m being saved from a dragon by a cat-girl in a green leather jacket… How has my life come to this? I reviewed all of the events of my life and honestly couldn’t see where I’d gone wrong.

The dragon opened its mouth wide and roared, unleashing a jet of yellow-orange flame from its jaws. With an effortless grace the cat woman flipped out of the flame’s path, landed lightly on her feet, and with speed almost too fast to follow charged while bellowing a battle-cry that almost made me pee myself. Claws dug furrows along the dragon’s side from shoulder to hip leaving four deep, bloody lacerations like drippy racing stripes. The dragon’s sapphire eyes grew wide and it let out a deafening shriek, but needed only half a moment to recover before it whipped about with fangs bared. A fist smashed into the side of its face with enough force to send several of the beast’s teeth plinking onto the pavement.

Taking advantage of its disorientation, the cat-woman stepped forward and executed an impressive side-kick that toppled the dragon to a sprawling heap on the ground and left a paw-shaped dent in its hide. For a moment the dragon looked dazed and then curled up on itself, tail wrapping around its forelegs and wings furling over its back. Its mouth hung open and blood ran freely from its side and its broken teeth. The cat-woman panted and ran a hand through her hair. “Now,” she said, “If you’re done screwing around it’s time I sent you back where you belong…” Sinewy legs gathered beneath the dragon’s body, and it launched itself into the air toward the trees and houses across the park.

A look of outrage twisted the cat-woman’s features. “Hey! Get your scaly ass back here!!!” she roared as she dashed after it, leaving my scraped, terrified, rattled self sitting on the sidewalk staring after them. I started to push myself to my feet while still watching the pair disappearing into the distance when a voice called out, “Hey, are you ok?” I whipped around to see a middle-aged man in sunglasses and a Yankees ball cap leaning across the seat of his stopped sedan with a concerned expression on his face. “Oh my God, did you see that!?” I blurted, pointing toward the park. The man craned his neck looking past me, and then asked in an interested tone, “See what?”

I looked back, but dragon and cat-woman were gone from sight. I opened my mouth to tell the man what had happened, but then the part of my brain in charge of common sense came back online. “Ahh… never mind! I’m fine!” The man looked like he was about to ask something, but the cars behind him were starting to blare their horns, so after a final concerned look in my direction he put his car in gear and continued on down the highway.

I dusted myself off and looked around. It was strange; everything appeared to be completely normal. The sun was still shining; the trees lining the street swayed in the breeze, and commuters drove past on their way home from work. Nothing remained of my encounter to suggest that this little corner of the world was experiencing anything other than a typical Tuesday evening. I stood there trembling, not knowing what to do with myself. What were you supposed to do after an experience like this? For several minutes I stood there wringing my hands, paralyzed by indecision. Eventually, I decided that whatever I did next, I didn’t want to be alone. And then something occurred to me; the sun was shining directly on my face. My hat was gone, must have blown off at some point. I gasped, looking around. And my bag! The bag with my wallet and my copy of Scythe in it! Half dazed, I limped as fast as I could back to the game shop. I let out a relieved sigh a few minutes later when I found the shopping bag laying on its side where I had dropped it and found my wallet and game undisturbed. A few feet away I found my phone. The screen wasn’t damaged but the purple cover was pretty scuffed. Well, that was alright. I mean, that’s what phone covers were for, right? My hat, however, was not so fortunate. I could see it in the middle of the highway, crushed by several cars and covered in dirt. I made a mental note to pick another one up next time I went to the mall.

Shaking with the after-effects of an adrenaline rush, I staggered to the door and this time made it into the store without incident. The familiar flamboyant green walls, whimsical posters of cartoonish badgers announcing upcoming gaming events, and nerdy paraphernalia scattered about the room comforted me immensely. Coming here always made me feel as though I were walking into my second home. As I stepped past the counter I was greeted warmly by the gamers seated at the store’s four long wooden tables. I had gotten to know most of them in the last couple of years, and as I smiled and returned their friendly hellos in this place that was so comfortable and familiar, the previous events started to feel unreal and distant. I went straight into the Badger’s small bathroom and cleaned my scraped palms and knees as best I could. It was funny. My hands and knees hadn’t really hurt when I fell, but now that I was calming down the scrapes were really starting to sting. After doing what I could to clean up I let myself out of the bathroom and saw three of my friends at one of the tables beckoning me over.

The majority of the Badger’s clientele were pale, stocky, bearded men, and the three guys setting up a game of Terra Mystica all fell within this category. To my left sat Karl, a man in his late twenties with dark brown eyes and long, dark, wavy hair and beard. He tended toward very casual clothing; tonight he was wearing a blue t-shirt and blue plaid pajama pants. My guess was that this was what Karl was wearing while working today and he just hadn’t bothered changing before coming here. And I could hardly blame him; if I worked from home selling insurance plans over the phone all day I would want to be comfortable too. It was nice that he could join us tonight. Karl couldn’t make it to game night often since many of his evenings during the summer were taken up by gigs. He played guitar in a band, mostly 80s rock music, and I would occasionally see him doing a set in local bars and stuff around town.

Across the table sat Gary and Frank; both men in their 50s sporting grey hair and glasses. Like me, Gary had a bachelor’s degree in Biology and had a job on Cornell’s campus, but he worked as a technician in a Biochemistry lab whereas I was employed in greenhouse complex. He was bald with a full but tidy grey beard and pale blue eyes, and in his typical manner he wore a dark t-shirt and jeans. Gary adored twisty puzzles and pieces of art made from scraps of metal and mechanical bits. I looked at his hands and saw he was fiddling with a small wooden puzzle now.

Frank was the slimmest of the three men, with brown eyes, slightly disheveled hair, and neatly clipped beard. He had the prim posture and academic air of the university professor that he was, and was slightly more formal than most of the gamers present in his white dress shirt and khaki pants. I had heard Frank explain what he taught once, but didn’t fully understand it. He taught at Ithaca College and his class was called “Artificial Intelligence”. Most of his students were computer science majors, so it sounded like the type of class that would be useful for designing smart phones and programming robots and such. When he wasn’t teaching he either came here to hang out with us or he went to rehearsal with his medieval story-telling group. He was big into his Icelandic heritage, which explained why most of the games he owned were Viking-themed.

I looked around the table and breathed a sigh of relief to be in a familiar place surrounded by familiar people. I had no idea what had happened to me, had no explanation for it, but sitting in such a normal place doing such normal things made it feel almost like a dream. A frightening dream, and one I was happy to forget about while I was here. “So how was your day Erin?” asked Gary from across the table as he placed his pieces on his player board, and I cringed and wrung my hands together under the table. So much for forgetting about it. “Uneventful,” I replied after a pause. “Got up, went to work, ate Thai food, came here”.

“Story of my life,” Karl murmured as he examined the game board. Desperate to get off the subject of me, I asked, “So Gary, how is your son doing?”

“Vince’s doing great,” he replied, straightening in his chair and smiling all the way to his eyes. Gary always brightened up when talking about his twelve-year-old son, and it was a subject he would cheerfully go on about for hours. “It’s so cool. We’ve been playing games together for years and I’ve always creamed him, but in the last few months he’s come close to beating me several times. It’s so amazing, watching his cognitive abilities develop right in front of me like that.”

The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly and after a while I was able to stop running my fingers over my knuckles and relax them on my lap. We terraformed our territories and built settlements and temples for the next two hours, until Frank finally claimed victory. “Good game,” I said quietly while sorting my pieces into a baggie. “Thanks for bringing it Karl.”

“My pleasure,” he replied. “I see you brought Scythe today. I’m interested to try it but I’ve heard it’s a longer game and we’ve only got ninety minutes or so until the store closes.”

“You’re right,” I agreed, handing him my baggie full of plastic pieces for him to put in the game box. “It is a longer game, so maybe we could play it first thing Thursday evening?”

“I won’t be able to make it on Thursday,” Frank interjected around a mouthful of the chips he’d bought from the counter. “We’re putting on a production of Beowulf at the high school that night, but I could make it next week.”

Gary folded his hands on the table and added, “Well, I’ll be around for Scythe day after tomorrow. I’ve played it twice and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.”

“Cool, I’ll bring it Thursday then.” I gathered up my things and stood.

“Heading out?” Karl asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, I want to get to the gym before it closes. You guys have a good night ok?”

I picked up my bag and wished everyone still in the store good-night. Several patrons turned and wished me a safe trip home as I pushed my way out the door and into the cool spring evening, wincing slightly at the pain in my thigh. I’d have to make sure to do plenty of stretching when I got to the gym. I had planned to use one of the stationary bikes but it was starting to look like this was going to be a swimming night. The rapidly cooling evening breeze blew through my thin clothes, making me regret not bringing a jacket as I walked as quickly as I could under streetlamps that created pools of light and shadow down the length of the sidewalk.

For the first time in hours thoughts of earlier crept into the forefront of my mind. What had happened today? A brief loss of insanity? An incredibly vivid daydream? I shrugged and rubbed my thumbs against my finger pads; I had no plausible explanation for what had happened and would really rather forget about the entire incident. Hopefully this was a one-time, momentary thing caused by stress at work or something. I shook my head to clear it and started to consider more important things, like whether I should go to the Laundromat tomorrow or wait for the weekend. For the next few minutes I mentally tallied how many clean pairs of socks and underwear I had left and wondered how many days in a row I could wear the same pair of pants without anyone noticing. I had just decided to put the tedious chore off until Sunday when something dark emerged from the shadows and slunk into a circle of yellow street light. With an audible gasp I jumped and was ready to drop my bag and hobble away at top speed, but then I realized the little dark figure trotting up to me was a cat.

Feeling suddenly exhausted and extremely glad no one was around to see me freak out, I squatted down carefully, taking most of the weight on my right leg, and held out my right hand palm facing downward. My heart melted as the little creature sauntered up to me. I had grown up with cats and couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have at least one. This was a lovely animal, sleek and lean with glossy black fur and golden eyes. It sniffed at my fingers for a moment before shoving its head under my hand, purring loudly.

I smiled and stroked the cat’s warm coat. “Hi baby, out for a stroll? I would love to take you home but you obviously belong to someone, and my cat doesn’t get along with other kitties.”

I scratched its head and ran my fingers along its back, and after a few moments the cat slunk a few feet away and turned to look squarely at me. It stood up on its hind legs, and suddenly grew to several times its size, its limbs lengthening and twisting, its facial features re-proportioning until before me stood the cat-woman from earlier. I let out a shriek and my entire body twitched. As I stepped backward my legs got tangled up in my bag and I fell onto my ass. I gazed up at her with my mouth hanging open. She seemed taller up-close than she had in the distance. I thought she had to be close to six feet in height, and her golden eyes almost seemed to glow under the glare of the street lamp.

“You have no idea how happy I am to hear that you’re a cat-person,” the cat-woman purred quietly in a rich alto voice, her mouth curling into a smile. I sat frozen, pinned in place by that golden gaze. “It means you’re in your right mind and getting you over this learning curve should be pai-…” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “…relatively painless. I foresee a good working relationship between us.” She stepped toward me gracefully on her cat’s paws as I struggled to stand up with a bum leg and a heavy bag throwing me off balance. “Now we need to get going; things to do, people to see, a dragon in need of your talents, et cetera et cetera.” Then quick as a snake she grabbed my wrist and hauled me to my feet, the tips of her claws digging uncomfortably into my skin. “I’m sure you’re completely freaked out and have about a million questions for me, but we’ll have time for that later. For now just be satisfied that things are going to get weird from here and you’re going to learn stuff about yourself that’ll melt your brain for about a week. But then you’ll be fine. Probably.” And with that the cat-woman turned and dragged me off into the darkness.

Chapter 2

            Oh God, what now!? I panted with the effort of keeping up with the cat-woman. We were tearing past houses and backyards at a sprint and the pain in my leg flared up with every step, so I ended up being half-dragged across the neighborhood. It was incredible how strong she was; her warm hand gripped my arm like a vice. This close I could also smell her perfume. I had some body spray at home, but it smelled like flowery alcohol compared to what this woman was wearing. The scent coming off of her was a spicy, exotic aroma of cinnamon, lilies, and incense. I breathed it in, for a crazy second wondering whether Bath and Body Works might have something similar, when she made an irritated noise. “Come on, move it!” she growled impatiently. “That stupid lizard keeps running off after the human that stole her treasure and she tries to barbeque me every time I catch her! I can’t do my job and babysit at the same time. I still have a full night’s work ahead of me even without the distraction, damn it, so move your ass!”

“Wait a minute, we’re running toward the dragon!?” I screamed. “What are you going to do, feed me to it!?” The cat-woman looked back at me with an expression like she wanted to club me upside the head. “No, stupid! We’re sending her home! Well, you’re sending her home and I’m standing by to make sure she doesn’t eat you while you do it.”

I wanted to cry. The arm not being pulled out of its socket by the cat-woman’s unforgiving iron grip was starting to ache from holding my shopping bag with the heavy Scythe game inside, and my leg felt like it wanted to detach itself from my body and curl up on the ground in agony rather than run another step. I wouldn’t be making it to the gym tonight. If I got out of this alive I was going straight home, crawling under all of my blankets, and whimpering into my cat’s fur until the sun rose and I woke up from this nightmare.

Finally, just as I was about to drop and make the cat-woman carry me the rest of the way to where the dragon was waiting to crunch my bones, she abruptly came to a stop in a backyard at the end of a cul-de-sac. I bumped into her and peered over her shoulder. Speak of the devil; there was the dragon, curled up in a little patch of woods on the edge of the residential area. The light was poor and it was hard to see, but I thought it looked even more injured than the last time I saw it, as if it had gotten into a fight with a wood chipper and lost. It cringed and whimpered as it saw us approach, wrapping its bloody, tattered wings protectively around its body.

“Ah, good, you didn’t try to sneak off this time,” snarled the cat-woman through bared, clenched feline teeth as she glared menacingly at the dragon. She grabbed it by the lower jaw, forcing its face up to look directly into her eyes. “Smart choice, because you wouldn’t like what would happen after you made me chase you down. Again. Now, my human is here. We’re going to open the way to your world and you’re going to slither home without any more mishaps.” She pulled the dragon’s head forward until their eyes were only inches apart. Her glare exuded such malice that the little spark of outrage I felt at being referred to as “her” human was instantly doused by a wave of terror that left my legs quaking and my guts gurgling. I couldn’t even imagine the level of fear the dragon must have been feeling.

“Isn’t that right?” she growled. The dragon and I both quivered visibly and the beast made a series of rumbling and sibilant sounds. Was the dragon speaking? Or was that just the sound they made when begging for their life? It certainly seemed like the dragon was saying something, because the cat-woman sneered at it and said, “That isn’t my problem. I get that having something valuable stolen is upsetting, but I can’t have you running around attacking humans. And besides, does this human look like she just made off with your horde?” She turned its head to face me and I saw pain and anger in the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. I felt sorry for it. It had tried to eat me earlier today but still, I felt bad seeing such a majestic creature cower and grovel like that. “You’ll just have to find some new shiny objects to fill your lair with.” The cat-woman turned her gaze on me and my back immediately stiffened. “The door to her world has either closed or I just can’t find it,” she said, irritation plain on her face. Then she let go of the dragon’s head and sauntered over to me, swaying her hips as she walked until she stood in front of me. “So I need you to open another one for me.”

I stared at her with a blank expression. Sure, portal to another world? No problem, I’ll just pull one out of my ass for you. Anything else you want with that? Some anger management classes maybe? Fortunately my instinct for self-preservation kicked on in time to keep me from saying something that would have gotten me a hard stare at best and beaten into the ground at worst. Instead, I bit my tongue and responded with, “Huh?”  

The cat-woman sighed and flipped open the leather shoulder bag hanging at her hip and pulled out what appeared to be a string of black beads and a sheathed knife. She draped the beads around my neck and put the handle of the knife into my hand. As soon as she did, I felt something I can’t adequately explain in words. It was like the pressure you feel when you swim to the bottom of the deep end of a pool, but also like a sub-woofer blasting at an ultra-low frequency; a sound that was too low to hear but could be felt thrumming in your bones. My vision swam a little, and after a second I realized the feeling was emanating from the cat-woman.

Power. The word popped into my head out of nowhere, but I knew it was the right one. Somehow, I knew that it was this being’s power I was feeling, immense, weighing down on me like a pulsing thirty foot column of water. “These are a perception amulet and Opener’s dagger,” she said, pointing to each one. She spoke slowly and over-enunciated her words, like she was talking to a slow two-year-old. “They will amplify your abilities until you become proficient enough to do without them.”

“Um, wait,” I stammered, struggling against the press of her aura. “There must be some mistake. I don’t have any abilities…”

She patted me on the shoulder a few times and clicked her tongue. “Come, come now, everyone has abilities and yours, my young friend, is to travel between worlds, so let’s not waste that talent and put it to use. Now, where is the closest portal to this dragon’s world? Another dragon came through right around here earlier so I know the portal is close by.”

A faint tone and a flicker of color in my peripheral vision caused me to look off to the side, and I started at the strange quality the world had taken on. All around, I could see what looked like pockets of colored mist. Directly to my right, encompassing a raised bed of pansies, was a pale yellow haze with glittering motes of gold that gave off a resonating noise like a note of flute music being drawn out. With a sense of wonder I put down my bag and walked over to reach my hand into the mist, and was surprised by the warmth of it. I had expected it to feel cool and damp, but instead it felt as though I had extended my hand into a patch of sunlight. I marveled at the sensation and the way the gold motes swirled and danced in the air currents when strong, clawed hands settled onto my shoulders. “I realize it can be overwhelming at first”, the cat-woman said, tugging at me with her almost fever-warm fingers. “But you can explore later. Let’s keep focused on the task at hand shall we?” She turned me back to face the dragon. “I need you to find a point at which her world touches this one, and then open a doorway so we can send her back. Everyone carries some trace of their home-world on them; you should be able to sense it if you focus.”

I peered at the dragon for a long moment and realized that, just at the edge of hearing, I thought I could discern a low cello-like tone resonating from it. Wandering amongst the fantastic clouds hovering about the cul-de-sac as if in a dream, I listened for a matching tone. A few minutes later I found it coming from a swirling aqua mist under a large oak tree in front of one of the houses. “It’s over here,” I said, pointing.

The cat-woman turned to the dragon and snapped, “Get moving!” Heaving to its feet, the dragon slunk in the direction of the oak tree, head down and tail dragging the ground. Upon reaching the spot, the cat-woman indicated the knife in my hand and said in a voice that sounded like she was regurgitating something she’d been forced to memorize from a manual, “Use it to cut open a door. Simply imagine that you are slicing through the barrier between your world and hers. And don’t worry about your technique or looking cool. Intention is the most important thing.”

I looked down at my new accessories. There was a pendant hanging from the heavy beads that was made of an opaque blue stone, possibly turquoise, carved into the shape of a man holding a scroll. I pulled the knife from the sheath and examined it next. Hilt, sheath, and blade all appeared to be made of gold, polished and gleaming. Encircling the hilt were bands of engraved wave and diamond patterns, and the sheath depicted an image of a jackal standing in profile. The blade had smooth, straight edges that gradually tapered to a fine point, and bore a matching jackal etching. It was heavy and warm in my hand, and I felt vaguely uncomfortable holding something so obviously old and valuable. I stepped cautiously into the bluish mist and was instantly enveloped in the fresh smells of wildflowers. Holding up the knife in my left hand (I’m left-handed), I followed the cat-woman’s instructions and imagined cutting my way into the dragon’s world.

My eyes flicked nervously around the neighborhood and I hoped the owners of the house I was standing in front of weren’t home. I mean, I had to look like a crazy person out here, standing in some family’s yard making Tai-chi-like movements while holding a ceremonial golden dagger in my hand. Better get this done before someone called the cops.

To my amazement, where the tip of the blade passed a line of light appeared in mid-air that slowly widened over several seconds until I found myself standing before a glowing oblong portal about as tall as me. On the other side was a sunlit meadow in an oak grove filled with flowers of every color and description. Little fairies like the one I had seen earlier turned surprised faces toward us as they fluttered among the blossoms, their flower-petal clothing making them resemble colorful hummingbirds zipping to and fro.

Something heavy shoved me to the side and almost knocked me over. When I regained my balance I saw it was the dragon forcing its way past me. It immediately curled up on the soft, fragrant grass as soon as it was through the portal, wrapping its tail around its snout and giving the cat-woman a mournful expression. The edges of the portal began to move in toward each other, closing the gap. Giving the dragon an evil smile, the cat-woman said cheerfully through the shrinking aperture, “You caught me in a playful mood today, dragon, so I’ll let you off with a few bumps and scrapes, but next time I may not be so forgiving.” I don’t know which one of us shivered harder, but as the view of the world beyond grew smaller, I envied the dragon being able to put a world of distance between it and this sociopath. After a few moments the portal closed completely, leaving only a view of an oak tree and a house through a turquoise haze.

I stepped backward out of the mist. My mind suddenly caught up with the last few minutes, and I began to notice a salty taste in my mouth and a fine trembling in my hands. The cat-woman folded her arms and nodded approvingly. “Hey, not bad. A little practice and you’ll be able to do this without a focus. In no time moving through worlds will be like walking through a door for you.”

I sheathed the knife and lifted the beads from around my neck, the portals instantly evaporating out of existence, or at least out of my ability to see them. “No, I don’t think so.” I turned and shoved the pendant and dagger into the other woman’s arms and backed away shaking my head. “This is crazy, ok? Totally freaking nuts!” My voice rose steadily and started to sound shrill in my own ears, but I didn’t care. “I don’t know if this is a dream or if I’m hallucinating all this, but either way I am going home now and I’m going to bed and I’m going to forget about this whole freaking day!” I grabbed my bag and started off toward my apartment in as fast a walk as I could manage when the cat-woman called after me, “No, it’s alright, I get it. This is a lot to take in. You did good today; go home and rest up. We’ll pick this up again tomorrow.” I ignored her, moving briskly toward the familiar sidewalks and streetlamps.

By the time I turned the final corner on my way home I had broken into a sweat and half ran past the tightly-spaced houses of my street. Lights shone from the front windows, and through them I could see people doing ordinary week-night things; eating dinner, watching television, folding laundry. How could their lives still be so normal when mine had gone so out of control? It didn’t seem fair somehow. I slipped through the narrow gap between two houses and hurried toward the back yard. Quickly I clomped up the blue wooden stairs onto the covered white-painted back porch and pulled out my apartment key, but my hands shook so badly it took several attempts before I actually inserted it into the lock and twisted the bolt free.

Cloe darted out of the door as soon as it opened and rammed her shoulder against my legs, scaring the hell out of me. I jumped backward and yelped, but then mentally slapped myself for startling at the sight of my own brown tabby. Suddenly exhausted, I reached down, scooped up the little feline before she could jump down into the yard, and shut the door behind me.

As soon as I was inside I bolted the door and leaned my back against it, sighing. Cloe purred in my arms and I scratched her head. The apartment was quiet and dark, and small enough that closing the door felt like closing out the entire rest of the world. Within these four walls was a tiny island of peace on a suddenly chaotic planet. For a minute I just stood there in the gloom, drinking in the quiet and rubbing my face in Cloe’s fur.

Then I noticed a slight trembling under my feet. Cloe struggled out of my arms and hid under the desk, yowling as the entire building started to shake. Several picture frames rattled off their shelf onto the floor, clattering as they hit the beige carpet. Outside I could hear car alarms wailing as my next-door neighbor’s huskies howled like a pack of wolves. Holy hell, this is it. The end of the world has come to Ithaca. Then everything stopped.

I stood in front of my door, heart pounding. I’d never experienced an earthquake before. One of the attractions of living in this part of the country was its dearth of natural disasters; it was a major reason I didn’t move out of the Northeast. I mean, California dealt with earthquakes and wildfires on a regular basis, the entire middle of the country was routinely decimated by tornadoes and hellacious winter storms, and the length of the east coast got pounded by hurricanes every year. Why wouldn’t I stay here? Natural disasters were something that happened to other people. Except today. I closed my eyes and sighed. A perfect end to a perfect evening. Eventually I flicked on the light switch beside the door, set down my things on my desk, and padded into the bathroom to examine myself in the mirror.

A slim, pale, narrow-faced woman in her mid-twenties stared back at me, her curly light brown hair pulled back in a frizzy tail at the base of her neck. The corners of her chapped mouth tugged down into a frown. Tired blue eyes that looked about two sizes too small thanks to her corrective lenses scrutinized me from behind purple-framed glasses. Other than the marked pallor of my skin, I couldn’t see anything off about my reflection. Certainly I couldn’t see anything to suggest that I was experiencing a mental breakdown. “Then how do explain today?” I asked my reflection. She only shrugged and gave me an unhelpful “I have no idea” look.

Clearly I needed to talk to someone; preferably someone qualified to handle people experiencing recurring hallucinations. For a minute I considered calling my mom. She was always the first one I called anytime anything happened, and she always seemed to know exactly what to say to make me feel better. But what could she do in this situation? Nothing, and telling her about this would only worry her. No, I wouldn’t tell her about this, not yet anyway. I would look up therapists, schedule an appointment for an evaluation, figure out what was going on with me. Tomorrow. I would worry about it tomorrow. Right now I was too tired to think straight, so I put my stuff away, washed my face, brushed my teeth, changed into my nightclothes, and crawled under the purple comforter on my twin bed.

Within minutes I gratefully felt myself sinking down into the depths of sleep. Cloe jumped onto the bed and curled up in her accustomed place between my knees. I reached down and stroked her fur until my hand became too heavy to lift. My body relaxed, my eyes closed, and with a profound sense of relief I drifted off…

 

Chapter 3

“I’mmmmmm coming up so you better get this party started!” I lay in bed sleepily listening to the radio play from across my studio apartment, promising myself that I would get up when the Pink song ended. As the last few bars played I still hadn’t quite worked up the motivation to haul myself out of bed, so I turned onto my side and listened to John Legend’s “All of Me” as well. I was starting to drift back off to the soothing tone of Mr. Legend’s voice, but then the song ended and a news segment came on. “Strange incidences happening all around the Ithaca area,” the earnest-sounding reporter read out. My eyes snapped open and I propped myself up on one elbow, fixing my blurry, near-sighted gaze on the alarm-clock as the news continued. “Residents around town began calling in yesterday with unusual reports, including a rash of mysterious thefts from pedestrians walking through the downtown area, an unexplained column of fire that suddenly appeared then disappeared in Cass Park, and unidentified animal tracks around Cayuga Lake that have animal control workers baffled. Ithaca police have looked into the incidents, and while the cause of these occurrences is still under investigation, they conclude it is most likely a series of pranks and acts of vandalism…”

I staggered out of bed, almost tripped over Cloe, who was rubbing against my legs to remind me that it was meal time, and mashed the buttons on the alarm until it turned off. It’s too early to be dealing with this already. Wide awake now, I made my bed and raised the blinds on the windows to let in the morning sun. The light gleamed in cheerfully and painted the west wall of the room a warm orange, but it didn’t look like it was going to last. Clouds were moving in from the South, and they looked like they were bringing rain with them. Typical. Ithaca was every bit as cloudy and rainy as Pittsburgh had been. Sunny days were a rarity in this part of the world and were treasures to be cherished.

Cloe jumped onto the sill to soak up the rays while she had the chance. Here was a cat who knew how to appreciate nice weather. I walked into my tiny kitchen to turn on the coffee maker and scoop a handful of kibble into Cloe’s dish, and then freshened up in my even tinier bathroom, noticing my face had a little more color to it this morning. A few minutes later I poured myself some cereal and a cup of coffee, sat down on the loveseat in front of the television, and watched Star Trek on DVD as I munched my breakfast. The smell of the coffee permeated my little living space, and I picked up the cup and smiled. During my college days I’d had to make do buying cans of the cheapest bulk coffee available. It was rough and bitter, but it was caffeinated and all I could afford working behind a cash register. Now I lifted the steaming mug to my lips and savored the smooth richness of Pete’s brand.

Finishing up my breakfast I looked over at the radio. The bus was due to arrive in about six minutes, so I turned off the television, tossed a jar of nuts and a couple of apples into my black-and-white striped lunch bag, threw on a form-fitting blue t-shirt and a pair of black yoga pants, stepped into my purple New Balance sneakers, and headed out the door. As an afterthought, I went back into my apartment and grabbed my phone from its place on my nightstand, then locked the door behind me.

I jogged a block down the street and made it to the bus stop just as the bus was turning the corner. I nodded to the driver when I waved my Cornell ID in front of the fare box and sat down in one of the empty seats. As soon as I was seated I set my bag beside me and brought up Pokémon Go on my phone, keeping my eyes down and carefully not thinking about last night. The bus made its way through downtown, climbed the long slope through Collegetown, and wound among the tall academic buildings and expansive green spaces of Cornell’s campus. Ten minutes later I got off in front of the Plant Research building and pushed through the front door.       The entry area was a spacious, airy two-story atrium filled with shade-loving foliage plants and a round pool churned by a small waterfall. Plenty of natural light filtered in through the skylight this morning, giving the room a tranquil feel. After crossing the atrium I turned into a hallway and breezed by one of the young janitors as he pushed his machine down the dark linoleum floor. I smiled and waved at him, “Mornin` Carl.” He smiled and nodded and I passed the first-floor laboratories and administrative offices before stepping through the automatic doors to the concrete-floored plant growth facilities.

A couple of graduate students ambled past me as I turned the corner into the long concrete tunnel that comprised the entire back of the building. Pop music drifted out of the cavernous potting room off the corridor, and as I walked by the doorway I could see an intern repotting potato seedlings at the steel bench while jamming to Maroon 5. I passed the room and made another right into the greenhouse office, a narrow, cluttered, rectangular room that ran parallel to the main corridor. As I walked in, I looked to my left to see my boss slumped in his chair, staring red-eyed at his computer screen. I had seen pictures of him from twenty years ago; apparently he used to be a total gym rat and had a body like Atlas, but decades of constant fretting coupled with the depression from a nasty divorce a few years back had whittled him down to a grey old man. In the time I had worked here, I could count on my hands the number of times he had seemed genuinely happy. He smiled and chattered constantly, but there was such a desperate quality to it, and he kept that strained smile on his face even when he was whining about something, which he did often.

I sighed. Dave was always complaining loudly about something, be it his kids or his girlfriend or his finances or something one of the researches did that got under his skin. Negativity poured out of the dude’s mouth like a noxious fog from the time he got up in the morning to the time he laid down and stared at the ceiling at night, unable to sleep because he still had so much to complain about (his insomnia was something I got to hear about often). I guess he figured that if he couldn’t be happy then no one around him should be either. Still, he was my boss, so though working with him made me uncomfortable at times I made a point of being civil with him.

He was definitely struggling today. It was normal to see him vibrating behind his desk in the morning, but today he looked even closer to an emotional breakdown than usual.

Tell me his girlfriend broke up with him again. “Morning, Dave!” I chirped in my perkiest voice. “How’s it going?”

Dave pivoted slowly in his computer chair and gave me a feeble smile through half-lidded blue eyes. “Not so great, unfortunately,” he said in that irritating nasally tenor of his. “I broke up with Marsha last night.”

You broke up with her? That’s new. “Oh, wow, so sorry to hear that! Are you alright to work today? Do you need to go home?” Go home! Go home and take your raincloud with you!

“No, I think it’s best if I’m here today. At least at work I’m too busy to think too much, and I get to spend time with you guys!” I’m going to have to listen to him whine about how horrible his life is all day… I looked over at the big wall calendar we used to schedule personal time and weekend coverage. At least Art is here today, so I don’t have to deal with Dave by myself. Am I a bad person for thinking this way?

I turned back to him. “Ok, well if you feel like you need to leave early, Art and I can handle things here. We’ll hold down the fort!”

“Thanks, buddy! You’re such a good person! I really appreciate you!” I smiled uncomfortably, gave him a quick “Sure, Dave, it’s no problem!” and walked over to my desk, which was mercifully at the opposite end of the office. I turned on my computer and started scanning the national headlines: Terror bombings, apartment buildings collapsing, violence escalating overseas, a hopeful Congressman drafting articles of impeachment for the president… Why did I even bother following the news? This was enough to depress anyone. I switched to checking both my work and personal email accounts: nothing important in the last day or so. Well, there was always YouTube.

Art walked in while I sat giggling to myself watching a cat video. He sat down at the desk next to mine, took off his hunter-green ball cap and said, “Mornin! So how was game night?”

I paused the video and grinned at him. “It was good. I got chased across town by a dragon, saved by a cat-girl, played Terra Mystica, then helped the cat-girl send the dragon back to its own world.” The smile stayed on my face, but I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. Art raised his bushy eye brows and burst out laughing.

My fellow greenhouse assistant was a few years older than Dave and thin to the point of looking scrawny, but he wore the look so well. Art looked like the proverbial sweet old grandpa. He had an expressive face with laugh lines outlining his mouth and his pale blue eyes. A fringe of scruffy grey hair encircled his bald head, and rectangular glasses perched on his small nose. An aura of calm emanated from him the same way a miasma of anxiety radiated from Dave.

Many at the research facility thought he was just a quiet, boring old guy, but I’d known him long enough to know better. Beneath his innocent exterior beat the heart of an imp, made the more insidious by the fact that you could never see his pranks coming. One time one of the building maintenance guys fell asleep in his chair in the small basement lunchroom, and I had watched as Art crawled under the table, tied the man’s shoelaces to the chair, and then went back to his meal without even a smirk on his face.

Another time he somehow convinced one of the high school kids interning here for the summer that the particular strain of soybean he was experimenting with needed to be talked to for at least one hour each day to grow properly. For weeks I walked into that greenhouse every morning to find the poor kid chatting dutifully with the plants about whatever small talk he could manage. Eventually I broke and told him that Art was messing with him. The guy blushed and slunk up to his lab, from then on only coming down to the greenhouses to collect tissue samples.

“Sounds like you had fun,” Art commented. “Did the dragon breathe fire?”

“Yeah, I thought I was going to get fried to a crisp there for a minute.”

He considered this for a few seconds. “Hmm… Well, I’m glad you made it through the evening un-charred. I would have had to do all the watering myself today.”

Art turned away and logged onto his computer. “By the way, Art,” I said casually. “There was an earthquake downtown last night. Did you feel it at your house?”

Art scrolled through his emails. “No, but I heard about it. It didn’t cause a lot of damage from what I hear, but it certainly shook people up.” He smirked at me.

So I didn’t imagine that. My heart fluttered, but I managed to roll my eyes and smirk back. “Very punny, Art.” Eight o`clock rolled around and with a sigh I paused my cat video and pulled my water-proof boots from under my desk. Dave took a few steps toward me wringing his hands and looking strained. “Will you be ok doing the houses by yourselves today? I have a meeting with one of the labs in half an hour and I need to prepare for it. ”

I stood up and made for the door. “Sure, that’s fine. It’s not a problem.”

Dave smiled and held up his hand for a high-five. “Thanks buddy, see you later ok?” I stared at his hand. A grown man really wants me to high-five him right now. I smiled awkwardly while cringing inside and touched my palm to his before Art and I hurried out of the office.    “So I guess I’ll take chambers today,” Art said as we passed the potting room and the door to the labs. I nodded and continued straight toward the far end of the corridor. Occupying the left side of the tunnel was the maze of sporadically placed growth chambers, and to the right stretched the row of colorful doors that opened on the greenhouses. (Basically growth chambers are really big seafoam-colored refrigerators, except they’re lit and warm inside and have shelves of delicate plants growing in them.) Art wandered off to check on the chambers while I walked to the far house.

Each of the facility’s twenty greenhouses had a door with a large round window that cast circles of sunlight along the concrete floor, creating a pattern of light and shadow. Sort of like the streetlamps last night. I shook myself and focused on the doors themselves. The door to each house was a different color, starting with cherry-red opposite the greenhouse office on one end and ending with crayon-purple at the other. I had asked Dave once why the doors were painted like a rainbow, and he told me that was done under the previous greenhouse manager. The paint on the doors had become worn and chipped some years ago and needed to be re-done, and the then-manager had asked the painting company how much painting the doors different colors would cost verses painting them all the same color. They informed her that there was no difference in cost, and so she excitedly asked them to paint the doors all the colors of the rainbow.

I reached the purple house, picked up the watering wand from its holster on the glass wall, and fell into the familiar routine of tending the plants. I slowly made my way down the line of greenhouses, watering, fertilizing, and looking over the occasional plant for signs of pests or fungal infection. It was almost Zen, standing in the quiet spaces under the blue sky and the bright orange sodium lamps. I felt truly relaxed for the first time since yesterday. Suddenly the peace was shattered by a dull thump against the back wall. I jumped and felt my heart pound, remembering the cat-woman’s words: We’ll pick this up again tomorrow! Letting the leaf I had been examining slide through suddenly cold fingers I crept up to the glass and peered out, expecting the worst. What would it be this time? An ogre? A werewolf? Some horrible beast with ten heads and claws everywhere? I looked outside, trembling, to see a soccer ball resting on the grass.

I let out my breath in a whoosh and clutched my chest. Summer students. That’s all this was. A group of college students playing soccer. The roughly rectangular lawn behind the building was about the right size for a playing field. Still, there was too much glass around for me to feel comfortable with them playing so close. After I finished up I would head outside and ask them to take their game to the football field down the street. No one used it this time of year and it eliminated the risk of the greenhouse panes getting smash-

A red figure darted up to the back wall of the greenhouses, snatched up the ball and stood, and I found myself standing nose-to-nose with a fox. Our faces were inches apart, separated only by the glass. It stared at me in surprise for a moment, and then I swear the fox smiled. One paw raised and waved at me. Not sure what else to do, I waved back. Satisfied, it dashed back to the middle of the lawn where an entire group of foxes stood waiting. They were larger than normal; standing on their hind legs they were nearly as tall as a smallish person, and each one of them wore an ornate cotton kimono. Their triangular ears pricked forward and their jaws dropped open in canine grins as their retriever threw the ball in the air and resumed their game. They were incredibly fast; I watched with my mouth hanging open as the foxes raced across the entire length of the field within seconds, their colorful sleeves waving at their sides and their bushy tails trailing behind them like banners.

“What are you looking at!?” demanded a stern voice from directly behind my right shoulder. I practically leapt out of my skin before I whirled around to find Art doubled over laughing, one hand holding his chest and the other leaning on a wire bench full of tomato plants. He looked up at me, tried to say something, and then shook with another wave of laughter. I slumped heavily against the bench, almost collapsing onto it. “Aaaah ha, Art. Don’t laugh too hard, old man, you’ll give yourself a heart attack.”

This of course only set him off again. Finally he choked out, “You were looking out so intently, and you didn’t hear me come in. I couldn’t resist!”

“Yep, I will admit, I did make myself an easy target there,” I acknowledged with a nod.

Art straightened up, grinning. “So what were you looking at anyway?”

“There’s a bunch of foxes outside playing soccer.”

He rushed over to the wall and look out, craning his head back and forth to take in the entire lawn, looking but not seeing. “Ooooo, where?”

“Right in front of you.” I pointed to a knot of four foxes fighting for control of the ball. “See, they’re right there.”

He looked at me and chuckled. “I see. They’re not just soccer-playing foxes. They’re invisible soccer-playing foxes.”

So, Art can’t see them. I sighed. It’s true; I really am going crazy. I folded my arms and leaned a hip against the glass. “Yep. And they run around on their hind legs and wear Japanese-style kimonos.”

Art’s mouth stretched until his smile threatened to split his face. “Man, you are full of it today. You oughta tell Dave that one.” At this, he walked out of the greenhouse and into the office. I watched him go, feeling bleak and so, so lonely. Art couldn’t see the foxes. And if he’d been there with me yesterday he probably wouldn’t have seen the dragon or the cat-woman either. Tears welled up in my eyes and my breath caught in my throat. I was losing my mind, and I had no idea who to talk to about it.

I shook myself and blinked back the tears. There was nothing to be done about it for the moment. I was at work right now; I had to hold it together. After work I could worry about this. Giving the game outside a final glance, I picked up the hose and finished the morning watering, then walked into the potting room to check on the supplies. Long stainless steel benches and a double row of 55-gallon barrels filled with various custom potting soils took up most of the center of the room. Lining the side walls were large cubby-holes filled with pots, flats, and cell packs in several shapes, colors, and materials. The near wall was taken up by a large, deep sink next to another steel bench covered in freshly scrubbed pots stacked in pyramids to dry, and the far wall was dominated by an autoclave big enough to pressure-cook an entire cow.

Most of the shelves next to the autoclave were piled with plastic bags full of discarded experimental transgenic plants. By law, all genetically-modified plant material had to be neutralized before it could even leave the building, which was too bad since some of the eggplants thrown out yesterday looked really tempting. I turned on the steam generator, flipped the switch to bring the autoclave’s jacket up to pressure, and loaded the plants in to cook. While washing my hands in the sink I noticed the stack of paper towels was almost gone. I refilled it and checked the soil barrels. One of the mixes was getting low; I whipped up another batch in the soil mixer, sanitized and programmed a growth chamber for a graduate student to move her plants into, and generally made sure to stay busy all day.

Lunch time came and went, and the afternoon went by quickly. Finally the end of my shift was in sight. Art and I were doing the final watering of the day when I saw Svetlana pruning her tomato plants in the yellow house. I groaned inwardly and tried to slink past her without being seen, but she caught sight of me and stormed over. I could tell she was angry just from the way she held herself. Another dragon is chasing me today, but I can’t even run from this one… “You!” Dr. Svetlana Rostkowski barked. That’s how she always referred to me. I was “You” because she couldn’t be bothered to remember my name. I resisted the urge to bolt as she planted herself directly in front of me and demanded, “Why do my plants look so terrible? Are you overwatering them again? They never look good; why can’t you greenhouse people ever seem to keep them healthy?”

I stared at her with my tongue clamped between my teeth. It’s not our watering that’s the problem; it’s the fact that you work in other greenhouses before coming here, drag all manner of microbes in from outside, and never, ever clean your pruners between plants. I looked at the teal lab coat she wore over her clothes while trimming. In the two years I’d been here I don’t think she’d ever washed it or changed it out. Why do I even bother putting buckets of disinfectant in your house? You never use them.

            Anger was starting to well up in my chest like lava rising up through the earth. I could feel my face start to turn red. For just a second I thought I was finally going to let this unreasonable, domineering woman have it. She’d been making life miserable for the greenhouse staff for decades now, and she got away with it because she was married to the Dean. Just once I would have liked to knock her down a peg and tell her that she couldn’t just bully anyone who didn’t have a PhD. But then my anger knocked into a wall, like always, and dissipated like vapor. I felt myself deflate, all the air leaking out of me the way it leaks out of a balloon, and I sighed. This is what happened every time, ever since I was a kid.

Growing up, my little sister had a terrible temper. At least once a week she would have an explosive episode where she would rage at our mother or tear the house apart. Mom did her best, but Jen was pretty hard to control once she’d gotten good and irate. After these incidents Mom would look at me, exhaustion in her eyes, and run a hand through my perpetually messy hair. “Thank goodness for you, my easy child,” she would say. It was nice, knowing Mom loved and appreciated me. I did everything I could to make her proud: behaving perfectly in public, helping out around the house, getting excellent grades in school. But being an easy child, I found, wasn’t so easy. It meant that certain emotions were forbidden.

Jen could scream and break my things and generally raise hell at home, and would receive little more than a half-hearted scolding and a resigned order to go to her room. Meanwhile, if I so much as let the slightest amount of heat creep into my voice when I spoke to Mom, I would be shut down immediately. “Don’t you take that tone with me!” our mother would growl as she towered over me. “I get enough of that from your sister!” And so it was. Mom already had one challenge child and couldn’t handle another, so even the smallest display of anger from me was unacceptable. I wasn’t allowed to be angry.

Eventually I learned to suppress it. I didn’t want to be a bad girl; I wanted Mom to love me. So I buried the anger deep and focused on school, until anger became an emotion that rarely intruded into my life. And then one day Jen got mad at me about something. I don’t remember what it was. All I remember is that I didn’t deserve it. I’d done nothing wrong, and yet she was screaming at me and tossing things around the room. Most people would have gotten pissed off and fought back, but not me. A barrier had grown up inside my soul, sealing off the forbidden feeling behind a thick, impenetrable crust. Sadness was an acceptable emotion, though. It was ok to cry. So I stood there with tears running down my face while Jen shrieked and slapped me.

I guess Mom had reached the end of her patience that day, because she stomped into the living room like a hurricane. Jen could sense the storm coming, and so she backed up into me, causing me to back up against the wall. We were pinned in a corner with nowhere to go. Mom screamed at Jen for probably five minutes, for once leaving my sister speechless. “You need to quit being so mean!” she screeched. It was terrifying. Even though it wasn’t me she was yelling at, Jen was smushed up against me, so I could still feel the full brunt of Mom’s wrath. Then her smoldering brown eyes swiveled over to mine. “And you…” she began, but then she paused, as if uncertain of what to say next but sure she had to say something. Because of course this whole thing had to be partly my fault somehow. I must have done something to set Jen off. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times before she finally came up with, “Grow some balls!”

Heat welled up in my chest and my hands balled into fists. Grow some balls!? You’re yelling at me because I didn’t fight back? You’re the one who’s always telling me I have to control myself! But the barrier within me held fast; my fury crashed against it and bounced off, fizzling out and receding back down into the depths. I sighed. It’s not worth it. Yelling would just make things worse. So instead I turned my eyes downward and to the side and said quietly, “Sorry Mom.” I’d gotten so good at shoving the rage down I couldn’t even summon it when I needed it.

Svetlana glared at me impatiently, waiting for me to say something. I would probably lose my job if I flipped out on her. It’s not worth it.  Turning my eyes down and to the side I muttered, “Sorry Svetlana, I’ll be more careful.”

She sniffed and sauntered off, satisfied that her dominance had been asserted. Finally five o`clock came, and with relief I locked up the office and walked across the street to the bus stop. The day had grown from cool and pleasant in the morning to sweltering and sticky by midday, and judging by the dark clouds gathering above this warm front was bringing a storm with it.

I stood at the stop with a couple of guys for a few minutes, sweating in the damp heat and tapping my foot at the bus that was running late. Motion in my peripheral vision suddenly caught my attention; I turned to the right and noticed a young woman standing a few feet away. This girl looked like an Indian princess; she had delicate, almost doll-like features, with eyes the warm color of milk chocolate and full red lips that looked ready to smile at a moment’s notice. She wore her shiny black hair in one long braid down her back, and numerous bangles jingled on each slender wrist every time she moved. Her small, lithe body was graced by an iridescent blue and green sari that gleamed in the sunlight. It was a lovely, eye-catching ensemble that gave the overall effect of delicate beauty. The two guys standing with me must have thought so too; they had both turned to admire her.

She looked around as if lost, then caught me looking at her and smiled shyly. “Excuse me,” she said softly. “Do you know which way it is to the botanical gardens?”

I pivoted and pointed to the nearest cross street. “Yes, just turn left at that intersection and go down the hill. The gardens will be on your left. In fact,” I nodded toward the wooded slope behind the bus stop. “You can see the gardens’ gift shop through the trees from here; it’s the building just across that lawn at the bottom of the hill.”

The woman smiled and thanked me, then made for the slope. It was then I realized that instead of a pair of small feet poking from the folds of her sari, long serpentine coils stretched out behind her as she slithered down to the botanical gardens. I stood staring after her for a minute or two, and then turned to look at the men. They stared after her too, but they acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. The bus pulled up to the stop and they climbed on, perfectly calm.

They could see her, I’m sure they could. But I’m the only one who saw her as a snake. I sat on the bus and wringed my hands the entire way downtown, wondering how much it would cost to see a psychiatrist. Would my insurance help cover that? I’d ask the HR department tomorrow. The ride down the hill was uneventful, and then I got off and started across the Commons toward my street.

Walking across the Commons was always interesting. Depending on the day, you could encounter anything from musicians and street performers to gaggles of screaming children, vendors, protestors, and homeless people. I remembered the first time I came to the Commons, shortly after moving to Ithaca. There wasn’t anything like it in any of the places I had lived before, and I had marveled at the idea of a pedestrian-only area three blocks long plunked right in the middle of downtown, lined on both sides with three-story buildings filled with trendy shops and apartments. “Come, see some magic!” shouted the Magic Man from behind the little stand he had set up in front of the fountain. “Best magic in town!”

I looked up. The Magic Man was pretty much a fixture in the Commons when the weather warmed up. He was a youngish African-American man, and every time I’d ever seen him he was wearing a long, dark coat and a top-hat patterned like the American flag. I’d watched his show once a year ago and he was pretty good. I walked past him toward the alley that led to the public library and the indie-film cinema, but then I did a double take and stared.

The Magic Man was smiling and taking a bow while a couple of spectators clapped, but they all were moving in slow motion. I rubbed my arm over my eyes, but when I opened them again the Magic Man was still straightening up at a snail’s pace and his spectators’ hands were nearly frozen in their applause. Something flashed in front of me. I thought I caught an image of a woman stopping in front of me and waving her arms frantically, but it was over so fast I wasn’t totally sure I saw it.

Then time seemed to start running normally again. The Magic Man thanked his spectators as they turned and walked away, and a number of people around the Commons were looking about with distress clear on their faces.

I’d reached my limit. I looked down at my shaking hands and knew I didn’t have long before I lost it. I needed to get somewhere that I could freak out in peace, right now, so I spun on my heel and hurried across the street to the library. Automatic doors whooshed open and I walked into the cool, open entrance area, nodding to the security guard on my right and waving to the circulation desk librarians on the left. I loved libraries. I loved the tranquil spaciousness, the smell of ink and paper, the serene background noise of people turning pages or talking quietly. And Tompkins County Public Library was an especially nice one. Probably the only library I had ever been to that was nicer was the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

I wove past the tables where people sat reading and through the non-fiction stacks to the study rooms. To my intense relief one of the rooms was empty with the lights off. Quietly, I let myself in, closed the door, pulled out one of the wooden chairs around the central table, and slumped into it, resting my head on my arms. For a while I just sat there in the dark, trembling. What was happening to me? Around this time yesterday everything had been fine. So what the hell happened? My eyes stung, and I sniffled as the first tears ran down my face. Were the things I was seeing real or not?

I wiped at my cheeks and did my best to compose myself. Ok, so one of two things is going on; either I’ve gone crazy, or the world has. I sighed, not sure which thought was worse. I could really use a distraction right now…

Pushing myself to my feet, I grabbed my bag and went into the restroom to splash water on my face. Once I’d washed off the tear streaks I pulled out my phone and checked out what was in theaters now. Looked like there was a new Marvel movie out, so I texted my friend Hannah:

Hey Hannah, I know it’s kind of short notice, but do you want to see a movie                                today?

Almost immediately I saw her start to type back, and after about thirty seconds I got a reply.

Sure! As long as it isn’t too late a showing.

I left the library and walked down the street to my apartment. The movie was due to start in about forty minutes and I wanted to eat something beforehand, so I hopped into my grey Subaru without even going inside to drop my things off.

Driving to the mall took a little longer than usual since the going-home crowd was on the road in force, but I still got there in time to scarf down a foot-long from the food-court Subway before getting my ticket. I had just paid and was thanking the cashier when behind me I heard a cheerful “Hello!” Turning, I saw Hannah walking through the mall doors and up to the box office.

Hannah Skarsgard’s family was of Swedish descent, and she looked every inch the Viking warrior princess. She had long, straight blond hair, eyes the color of robin eggs, and a round pink face. Hannah stood a couple of inches shorter than me and was much curvier than I was, and had about three times as much energy. Whereas I was generally quiet and self-contained, Hannah was vital and flamboyant, making it seem as though a ray of sunlight followed her wherever she went. We made an interesting pair of twenty-somethings.

She worked as a tech in one of the upstairs labs and the first time we met was in the greenhouses; I was doing a water-check and she was pollinating tomato plants. Being shy I didn’t usually talk to the researchers beyond the normal greetings and maybe occasionally making a comment about the weather, but Hannah had the gift of gab. She could immediately jump right in and start chatting with strangers as if she had known them her whole life. We had become fast friends, with her generally doing most of the talking.

“Hey, Hannah,” I said smiling. “How was work today?”

“Good! I finally finished sequencing the fruit I harvested from House 15 last week (the midnight-blue house), and we’ve decided we’re only going to be keeping a few of the tomato plants. I’ll start tossing the rest tomorrow; sorry in advance for the mess I’m going to make for you guys!”

I waved it off. “It’s not a problem. Keeping the houses clean is our job.”

“Great!” She walked up to the counter and bought her ticket and we pushed through the heavy glass doors into the cinema. “So how is Gidget?” I asked, and with all the enthusiasm of a life-long cat lover, she whipped out her phone to show me pictures and chatted about her feline until we took our seats, but then she switched to a very different subject. “Did you hear about Cayuga lake being closed until further notice?”

I turned to look at her in the dim light while the previews rolled. “No, I didn’t. What happened? Was there an algae bloom or something?”

“Apparently, there’s a huge animal living in the lake that’s preying on people’s dogs.”

My stomach fluttered. I do not want to be hearing this right now. “Has anyone been hurt?”

“No, but one of the people I pet-sit for was walking her dog next to the lake last night and something came out of the water and grabbed it. Dragged it right under then threw the entrails back on shore. It was awful!”

I swallowed. “Did she see what it was?”

Hannah shook her head. “Huh-uh, she never saw it, but it was getting dark at the time and it all happened so fast. Rumor is someone released their pet alligator into the lake. The cops found another gut pile along the shore too, but they think it was from a deer.”

I sat back in my seat and watched bleakly as the opening credits came on-screen. I felt a little sick and I barely registered the first half of the movie. My fingers twined and my palms rubbed against the backs my hands. Thoughts kept whirling through my brain. What if I wasn’t crazy? What were the odds of so many strange things happening around town in the last day? What if everything that I had been seeing was actually real?

Eventually the action on the screen was able to grab my attention enough to muffle the noise in my head, and my hands stilled on my lap. The movie was satisfyingly upbeat, an entertaining mix of sci-fi, action, and comedy that ended on a high-note. For a short while it distracted me from the anxiety that had been gnawing at me, for which I was grateful. “That was pretty good,” I commented as I got up and stretched after the credits ended.

“Oh, yeah, CG has gotten to the point now where the visuals in these movies are just breath-taking,” Hannah replied while we walked out of the theater. Dusk was gathering out in the parking lot, and after about ten minutes of Hannah comparing this movie to other Marvel films we said our good-byes and I drove back into town.

I pulled up to my building and got out of the car when a sudden blast of wind squalled past, causing the neighbor’s wind chime to tinkle crazily. A flickering lit up the sky, and I looked up in time to see a flash of lightening, followed by a snarling crack of thunder that practically shook the ground. Here it comes. I hurried around back toward my apartment, but stopped a few steps from the back stairs. A rustling noise and a damp, marshy smell drew my attention to the dimness of the back yard. I sniffed; the air tonight smelled like a wetland, a mixture of water, mud, and the swampy plants that grew in it.

Something slunk toward me from the darkness. Another bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and by its eerie glow I glimpsed a huge, dark, worm-like creature propelling itself toward me on dozens of coiling tentacles. I recoiled in terror. There were no eyes, no mouth, no distinguishing features on its body to determine which end was head or tail, and its dark form glistened as if coated with a layer of Vaseline. I gasped and dashed for the road, my mind going blank with horror.

They’re at my place now! Oh my god, that thing is straight from the pages of Lovecraft! I put everything I had into escaping, but I’d only gone about three steps when tentacles as thick as my wrist wrapped themselves around my thigh and waist. The creature’s body was cold and incredibly strong; I screamed and struggled against the tentacles with all my strength, but the muscled limbs barely budged. Then, something thin and slithery like a half-dozen worms started creeping up the back of my neck. Shrieking, I reached back and grabbed them in my fist, squeezing appendages no bigger around than shoestrings, and the creature let out a horrible screeching noise that could have been pain or anger. More of the larger tentacles shot forward to bind my arms, one wrapping around the wrist holding the writhing bundle and constricting with bruising force until I thought I could hear my bones grind together. Gasping at the pain I let go, and the smaller limbs pressed themselves against the base of my skull.

Oh god it’s going to lay eggs in my brain or crunch open my head or –

And then came the strangest sensation I had ever experienced.

 

Chapter 4

Please, please help me! I just want to go home! I was only here for a minute, I swear! I just wanted to see what was on the other side, but then the way back went away and I want to go home!

It was disorienting. We could feel the concrete walkway under our shoed feet and the cool pressure around our limbs and on the back of our neck; but we could also feel the grass beneath our tentacles and the nearly scalding heat emanating from the bony body we were holding onto. Our rib cage expanded and contracted under the appendage wrapped around our chest, and panic was momentarily overwhelmed by curiosity. It seemed like such a strange thing, and somehow kind of gross being full of hard bits. Shouldn’t it hurt, being full of hard parts that were right next to soft parts? Then the shock of merging with such a foreign creature passed and the fear returned; horrible anxiety, mixed with desperation that caused our chest to tighten and the entire length of our body to quiver.

My breath was coming fast when the tentacles disengaged from the back of my head and retracted into the underside of the creature’s body. It shrank down in front of me, convulsing with what I now knew were sobs. I rubbed at my sore wrist and considered the being coiled on the ground before me. The mind that had touched mine felt afraid, trusting, and simple. A child’s mind. This horrifying creature was a little kid trying to get home, and had been waiting for me. Me, specifically; from our brief encounter I knew it wasn’t an accident that it was in my yard. How had it known to come here?

“You shouldn’t keep this little one waiting. I am sure it is quite terrified, and its mother is probably worried sick.”

I looked up onto the porch to see the cat-woman sitting on the railing, eating a bag of dried apricots. Had she been there the whole time? She slid off the railing onto the porch and glided down the steps, pulling out the necklace and dagger and offering them with a grin on her face. “Come on, you better get going. It looks like it could start pouring anytime now and the faster you get started the sooner you’ll finish.” I scowled at her. “You brought it here didn’t you?”

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and popped an apricot into her mouth. “I did. Look, the rip in reality in this area is big. It’s letting a lot of aggressive things through and I’m a one-woman show trying to keep a lid on things right now.  I don’t have time to wait around for you to pull your head out of the sand, so I decided to help move things along. Besides, I did say we would pick this up again tonight didn’t I?” She ate another amber-colored fruit then held the bag out to me. “Want one?”

Irritation swept through me, and for a moment I considered stomping past the instigator of this most recent episode and slamming the door in her face, but decided that would be childish. Not to mention the kid who was still lost and alone in my back yard. I growled and pushed a loose strand of hair behind my ear with more force than necessary. This was such a pain. I doubted I was crazy at this point; too many other people had been affected by strange things, even though they couldn’t see them like I could. But in a way that was worse. If I wasn’t crazy, that meant all the weird shit around town was really happening, these creatures were really here, and I had to deal with it. Somehow.

“Alright, fine. Fine!” I raised my hands in front of me, feeling my stress level climb through the roof. “But this can’t become a habit. I have a job and a social life and I can’t be spending all my time runni-” The cat-woman handed me the necklace and dagger. “We’ll talk about it when you get back.”

I looked at her in horror, a terrible feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. “There is nothing to talk abou-“

“Scoot!” She shooed me back toward the street. “It’s about to get wet out here so you’d better hurry up and get this thing done.” With a sigh I turned to walk to the front of the house, but then realized, “Um, I don’t actually know where I’m going. I mean, I can see a couple of places that lead to other places from here but I don’t know if they’re where I’m supposed to go…”

A slithering noise moved up behind me, and a single tentacle wrapped itself gently around my fingers. I looked down at my charge, and it began to move forward, tugging me along. I decided to just let it lead the way; after all I had no idea where I was going but the little one seemed to have a specific direction in mind. We turned left in front of the house, moving away from downtown and toward Cass Park and Cayuga Lake. Several colorful blotches of mist leading to other worlds were visible from the street, but none were obviously the one my companion belonged in. Unlike the dragon, this being didn’t give off a signature tone that I could match to a cloud. The only sensory information I got from it was the coolness of its skin and its marshy smell.

We walked along for several minutes until we eventually came to the bridge on State St that crossed over the inlet, and I saw a way to another world at the near end of the bridge. It emitted a sound like a long trumpet note and looked like a cloud of swirling orange smoke. Certainly this wasn’t the right place, but the little one had stopped moving and was now looking up at me. I think. It was hard to tell since it didn’t obviously have eyes. From my bond with it earlier I knew it could see, but it wasn’t like human vision where you saw from one viewpoint near the middle of your face. This creature saw from its whole body, as if it had little visual organs everywhere. But its “head” was pointed toward my face, so I assumed it was directing its attention at me. I looked from the kid to the bridge and back again. “Hey, are you sure this is the right place?”

Small appendages unfurled from under it once more and I got another peak inside its mind. The experience was less jarring this time, probably due to already having done this once before and not fearing for my life while it was happening. I got from our link that the world on the other side was indeed not the kid’s home world, but it was the world it came through to get to this one. Apparently the little dickens had gone exploring through more than one portal to get here. And to further complicate things, the kid couldn’t actually see the points that led to other worlds; it could just remember the general areas where the portals appeared. This was starting to look like it was going to be more than a quick jaunt.

I sighed and looked up and down State. Of course the portal would be right in the middle of one of the busiest streets in town. Luckily traffic was light this time of night, so I walked the two of us over, pulled the dagger from its sheath, and opened a portal large enough for us to walk through.

On the other side, I found myself standing on another bridge, but instead of concrete this one appeared to be constructed from some shiny black material. I bent down to touch it and it felt smooth and glassy under my fingers, like obsidian maybe. This bridge was very simple in design; it had no railing, no overarching trusses, no sidewalks, and no joints where the slabs of material fitted together. It was a single enormous piece of black glass ten or twelve feet wide and long enough that neither end was within sight. I looked over the side of the bridge and saw that it was supported by a series of arches and pillars made of the same shiny black material. About a body length below the surface of the bridge, an unfathomably vast swamp spread out to the horizon in every direction.

My companion tugged at my hand and we started walking along the giant boardwalk.  A yellowish sun shone weakly through a layer of high, thin clouds, making everything look a little hazy. Colorful plants resembling reeds in the swamp below blew in the breeze, creating waving clusters of pastel blue, yellow, and lavender stalks against a background of grey-green water reflected by a grey-green sky. Delicate white flowers consisting of countless layers of feather-like petals floated on the surface as fish with scales that gleamed like mother-of-pearl glided and shimmered just beneath the surface.

The air here smelled surprisingly crisp and clean, but then the wind changed and I caught a whiff of a familiar marshy scent. As we walked the smell grew stronger, until finally we came to a group of rocks sticking up out of the wet land. There were five of them, irregularly shaped but reasonably flat rocks extending out into the swamp like stepping stones, each one higher than the last. The closest one was only a few feet out from the bridge and sat high enough in the water to be level with my knees.

Suddenly the kid’s tentacle unwrapped itself from around my hand and she (I’ve decided to start referring to the creature as “she” because I feel bad referring to her as “it”, like she was a chair or something. This species doesn’t actually have gender; I learned some time later that they reproduce asexually, so it wouldn’t be incorrect to refer to all members of this species as “she”) lowered her long, long body over the side of the bridge, tentacles working in a strange, wave-like synchrony that allowed her to glide through the murky water. She twisted and swam in figure eight patterns all around the rocks, playfully splashing enough water up at me to drench my clothes and soak through my shoes to get my socks nice and wet. Great.

I sighed and called out, “Look, I’m glad you’re having a good time, but I need to get home. Is this where you came through into this world?” She stopped frolicking in the shallows and climbed up onto the rock furthest out, where she curled up her body and turned to look at me. Of course it would be the hardest one to get to.

I inched toward the edge of the bridge and looked out at the stones. They weren’t spaced too far apart; I thought I could jump between them. Taking a few steps back, I darted forward and took a running leap. To my relief, I landed on the first rock without slipping or toppling into the water or twisting an ankle. Alright, one down, four to go. I made the next three jumps with relative ease, but hesitated when I looked at the last one. This one was spaced a little further than the others, and was about level with my thighs from where I stood. I would have to jump across and then scramble up over the ledge.

I tossed the dagger over first, and thankfully it landed about where I wanted it to instead of skittering over the edge. I think that if I’d had to go fishing for it I would have curled up where I was and cried. Now that it was safely on the next rock and I had both hands free, I just had to get myself across the gap. What a pain in the ass. Whatever, here goes… I can say with some pride that the first part of my attempt was successful. This final jump knocked the breath out of me when my belly landed on the ledge and my knee banged against the rock face, but I ended up with my forearms and chest on top of the stone. Now all I had to do was clamber up and…

A loud crack and a sudden shifting sensation told me that I had misjudged the structural integrity of the surface I was trying to climb onto. The section of stone I was hanging from split away from the main mass, and I began to fall with it. Instinctively I reached upward though there was nothing to grab onto and hoped that there weren’t more stones hiding in the water below me. My life flashed before my eyes as I fell to near-certain death, but then a strong tentacle whipped out and grabbed my hand.

I dangled over the edge for a moment as the debris splashed down, reflecting darkly on what almost happened. After about a minute I recovered from the latest adrenaline rush to finally scramble up onto the damned rock. Lying on my back, I looked up at my companion and muttered, “Thanks kid.” I stood and brushed myself off, sniffing the air. This was definitely the place. The marshy smell seemed to be coming from everywhere, and the world around me was slightly distorted, as if I were looking at it through a haze.

I picked up the dagger and opened a portal to see another swamp through the opening. Whereas the place I was in now was mostly open to the sky, this swamp was heavily shadowed by the thick canopies of trees. The ground was mostly covered by water, but here and there were dark mounds as tall as I was coiling around and amongst the trees. My companion launched herself forward and dashed through the portal, heading straight for one of the mounds as I stepped forward carefully onto a tree root sticking up above the water level. When she splashed up to one, it heaved upward and turned toward her. I realized with a start that they weren’t mounds at all, but bigger versions of the being I had escorted home. Several of them began to converge on her, surrounding the little one, sending out their smaller communication tentacles to touch hers. She spun from one adult to another, clearly overjoyed to be home and at the center of attention.

One of them turned to face me and began to swim in my direction. It didn’t move quickly or show any sign of aggression, but it still made me nervous to see something so large coming at me.  The hulking creature stopped a few feet in front of me, causing a little wake of water to splash up over my shoes, soaking my already damp socks. I picked up one foot and looked down at it mournfully. Wet feet were the worst. I contemplated having to squelch all the way home, but then felt the large creature’s cool limbs press themselves to the back of my head.

This being was very different from her younger counterpart. She didn’t cause me to lose myself in the connection for one thing. Oh, her thoughts were there, and I could feel them, but I was still myself. Apparently experience allowed them to maintain a degree of separation.

The first thing I became aware of through the joining was the matron’s age. She was ancient; my body ached with the weight of so many years. There was a great, patient calm in this being that had lived and endured for unfathomable amounts of time. Beneath the vast stillness, though, was genuine happiness and relief. She was grateful that her descendant had been returned to her, and wished to express her goodwill to the entity that had brought her back home.

            Several tentacles wrapped around my left arm and I felt something hard and smooth press into my palm. The elder disengaged and turned away, and I looked down at what was in my hand. Cool and round, it appeared to be a river stone or something, except it was transparent. I held it up to the dim light filtering through the canopy above and could not see one speck of dirt, not one crack or chip or any other imperfection. Not stone, then. Glass, or maybe crystal. I shrugged and turned back the way I came, wishing I had a pocket to put the crystal in. The portal to the other swamp had closed, so I cut another opening and leapt onto the broken stone leading back to the obsidian bridge.

I hopped down the stones onto the solid causeway and sloshed along the bridge for a few minutes, promising myself a hot shower and a change of clothes as soon as I got back. Eventually I reached a patch of mist that I assumed led back to my own world. I think this is the way back. The scenery doesn’t change much around here, and I don’t recall seeing any other worlds between the stepping stones and the spot I came to this swamp through.

             This connection between worlds was a fabulous cloud of every color of the rainbow, shot through with glittering white sparks in a swirling pattern. Beautiful…it looks like a nebula. I cut through the technicolor haze and with a sigh of relief stepped out onto State St.

Chapter 5

The sky looked like it was going to start pouring any second now, so I started briskly down the street back toward my apartment. I turned the corner around a building and saw the cat-woman leaning against the wall. She fell into step beside me. “Not bad,” she said. “You got to the swamp and back reasonably clean and in very good time. Well done.” She draped an arm over my shoulders and steered me through a small parking lot to the front door of Liquid State.

“Why are we going to a beer garden?” I asked as we let ourselves in. “Because I want to have a drink while we talk. Here, I’ll buy you one too.”

“Hey, wait a second!” I said, looking up at her. “How do we explain you?”

“Nothing to explain.” We took our seats at the polished wooden bar and the bartender turned to look at us. “Welcome to Liquid State,” she said with a smile. “What can I get you ladies?”

“I’ll have a stout,” the cat-woman told her, then turned to look at me. “You?”

“A pale ale please,” I told the bartender. The woman nodded and grabbed a couple of glasses.

“She doesn’t notice anything strange about you,” I observed.

“Most humans don’t,” the cat-woman said, resting her forearms on the bar. “Usually when humans look at me they just see a woman. A little exotic-looking maybe, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

The bartender set our drinks in front of us and the cat-woman picked hers up and took a generous swig. “Same goes for a lot of things from other worlds. Humans either don’t see them or they see them as something they can understand.”

I picked up my glass and took a sip of the ale. It was good, crisp and flavorful, with a hint of citrus. “You know at first I thought this was all a hallucination?”

“I know. You over that yet?”

I raised the glass to my lips and took another drink. “I don’t know. All the stuff that happened in the last day is so hard to believe, and to be honest I don’t want to believe it.”

“Well, being honest is a good place to start, so we’ll begin with that.” She finished off her beer and ordered another one. “Here’s the upshot; the fabric of reality has become unstable in this area. It’s causing portals to open up randomly between universes, along with causing all kinds of other crazy phenomena, and I need your help keeping things under control until reality mends itself.”

Nice use of door-in-the-face technique. I think I’m going to need another beer too. “Wow. That’s kind of a lot to lead with. You think we could ease into this a bit? I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

The cat-woman looked over at me and smiled so that her fangs showed. “You may call me Bast.”

I almost laughed, not sure if I genuinely found this funny or if I was fighting back hysterics, but I controlled myself at the last second and managed to make it look like I was just choking on my beer. “Bast?” I finally managed. “Like the Egyptian cat goddess?”

She crossed one ankle over the other and smirked. “The one and only. Try not to be too awe-struck.”

I wiped my sleeve across my mouth then held out my right hand. “Erin Renwick.” Bast stared at it for a moment, clearly finding the idea amusing. Finally she grabbed my cold hand firmly in her own warm one, gave it a shake, and melted back into her barstool. “Alright, ask your questions. You get five.”

“Why only five?”

“That was one of your questions. And because I don’t want to be sitting here answering you all night. Next.”

My mind raced. “Uhh, ok. You mentioned needing my help. Help with what exactly, and for how long?”

“Sending dangerous critters back to the worlds they came from before they eat someone.”

I swallowed. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Once a rip in reality forms it usually takes, oh, a few months or so to heal. In cases like this we put a stabilization spell down on the area, which reduced the number of randomly opening portals and cuts down on the natural disturbances. I’m working on one now. It should be finished in the next day or two.”

“Oh, wonderful.” So this was going to go on for a while. “What do you need me for? Powerful as you are, I would think you could open the portals and send the things back yourself.”

“Psshh, if only.” She finished her dark beer and set the glass on the bar with a soft clink. “It would be a lot easier if I could do this myself, but the ability to go world-hopping like you did is exceedingly rare. In the ten years I’ve been at this job I’ve met maybe a few dozen who could do it. And weirdly most of the people with that ability are human. So for the most part I have to rely on Wepwawet. He takes me to the rip I was assigned to and I send the critters back myself if I can find an open portal to their world. Otherwise I just do my best to hold down the fort until someone’s human partner can come and send them back for me. We’re very short-staffed these days.”

“Wepwawet?”

“He’s one of ours,” Bast replied. “The title we give our human partners came from him. Wepwawet was the original Opener of the Ways. Helped make that, as a matter of fact,” she said, pointing to the sheathed dagger on my lap. “It’s his image etched into the blade.”

She looked forward, leaning onto the bar. “It sucks. I’m told the points where the worlds touch are beautiful, but only Wepwawet and a handful of others can even see them, let alone use them to explore the multiverse. And this is a great world to be in for that.”

“Yeah?” I said, careful not to frame it as an actual question.

“Yeah. This world is the party animal of the cosmos. It touches dozens, if not hundreds of other worlds. Kind of like an airport with direct flights to everywhere. Most worlds have a lot fewer connections than that; my own only has about half a dozen worlds touching it directly.”

My brain was burning. This was so much to take in. I set my ale down and cupped my head in one hand. Then something struck me as odd. “Ten years?” I lifted my head and looked at her. “If you’re really Bast that would make you, like, thousands of years old. Why did you decide to start doing the guardian of the multiverse thing only ten years ago? What’s in it for you?”

Bast looked at me with wide eyes and put one slender hand over her chest. “Why, I do it for all the sweet, innocent little people out there. I protect the weak and defend the helpless because it’s the right thing to do.”

I stared at her. If her sarcasm had been any thicker I could have walked on it. Smartass. Suddenly two guys walked up to us. They looked college-aged or maybe a few years older. Both were tall with brown hair and eyes. One wore his hair a little long so that the ends brushed his collar of his red Cornell hoodie. He may have been on an athletic team or something because he also wore red basketball shorts and shoes. The other guy had his hair neatly clipped and wore jeans and a blue Grateful Dead t-shirt. Their eyes were shiny, and I was guessing they’d already been here for a while. “Evening, ladies,” slurred Grateful Dead shirt, smiling. “My friend and I have a table over in the corner; care to join us?”

Crap. Why did we have to be bothered by a couple of drunks when I was just getting some decent information? I opened my mouth to tell them politely to go away. “Thanks for the offer, but-“

“Love to,” Bast purred. She slunk off her barstool, wrapped an arm around the guy’s neck, and traced one finger of her other hand along his jaw. “And what’s your name?”

I almost fell out of my stool. “Hang on; we’re in the middle of something! I still have one question left!”

“Later,” Bast murmured.

Cornell hoodie stared in open envy at Bast and my discomfort level shot through the roof. I didn’t want to be here. “Um, I’m going to go home now.”

Bast glanced at me and shrugged. “Suit yourself. See you later.”

I gave the three of them an awkward little wave and hurried out. Outside the heavens had finally burst, so I got to have a nice walk through a downpour that left me soaked to the skin by the time I climbed up onto my porch and let myself into my apartment.

I shut the door behind me and took a breath. God, what a long day. I set the dagger, necklace, and stone on the table and stripped off my wet clothes. Turning on the shower, I stood under the near-scalding stream until my skin turned pink and the bathroom filled with steam. When the hot water ran out I dried off, pulled on a set of blue pajamas, and threw some kibble into Cloe’s bowl. The clock on my bookshelf read 10:40. This was around the time I normally went to bed, but there was no way that was happening right now. The shower took the edge off but I was still wired.  How could anyone sleep with everything that was going on? Red envelopes sitting on the corner of the coffee table caught my attention. That’s right; a couple of movies from Netflix came in the mail the other day. I tore one open and put into the Playstation. Tonight’s late-night showing was Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I wrapped myself in the pink fleece blanket draped across the back of the loveseat and flopped down on the cushions as the opening credits rolled. Most of the reviews I’d read for this movie were bad, and half an hour into the film I could see why. The scene where they went into warp for the first time was just plain bizarre and Spock was like a robot when his crew greeted him. Still, there was one scene toward the end that stuck with me.

Spock was lying in sick bay, talking up to Kirk. He had just performed a mind-meld on a sentient machine, a being of pure logic like Spock had aspired to become all his life. He thought leaving behind all emotion and embracing perfect logic would finally allow him to make peace with himself, but Spock was dismayed to find that achieving pure logic had brought the machine no closer to inner peace than Spock himself. “Is this all that I am?” he implored his best friend. “Is there nothing more than this?”

A pang of emotions I didn’t care to name tightened my chest and I jumped up and turned off the Playstation. The movie wasn’t over but I’d had enough. I couldn’t put my finger on it but something about that scene bothered the hell out of me. Is there nothing more than this… No, there wasn’t. I climbed into bed and pulled the blanket up to my chin. There was nothing more than this. I had the college degree, the quaint little apartment, the full-time job with benefits and a retirement plan. Lots to be thankful for. This was as good as it got, and I couldn’t afford to let some supernatural weirdness ruin the life I’d build for myself.

I turned onto my side. Sure, maybe there was a time when I thought there would be more, but that was years ago and I was more realistic now. I wasn’t a fresh-faced, starry-eyed undergraduate out to change the world anymore. There were people who were meant for greatness, but I’d learned I wasn’t one of them. I yawned, drifting off, and felt Cloe jump up on the bed to sprawl out on top of me. She started purring and I scratched her under the chin. There was no shame in knowing your personal limits. If I couldn’t even handle a graduate program I certainly wasn’t cut out to be running across dimensions and chasing monsters like some kind of superhero. Is there nothing more than this…

Quiet sounds of papers rustling, keyboards clacking, and students murmuring under their breath blended together to form comforting background noise as I sat in front of one of the computers at Hillman library. My hands trembled in excitement to an email in my inbox from Mike. Maybe he had a lead about another research assistant job. Mike wasn’t planning on doing more field work next summer so working for him again was out, but I’d heard his friend in the Forest Service was doing some interesting research. So I sent Mike an email the other day asking if he knew anyone who was looking for an assistant. Networking, they called it. Use what contacts you have to network.

There was also an email from Long Island. I clicked on it: it was a job offer from West Kurwa Greenhouses for a section grower position. My eyebrows raised in surprise. Wow. I didn’t actually expect to get that job. I mean, I only went because Kari told me it was a good idea to practice being interviewed. Plus being flown to New York and getting put up in a hotel with a pool was pretty cool… I put Long Island on the backburner and opened the email from Mike.  His response was very curt: “There’s something we need to discuss. Meet me in my office at 1.”

Why bother with a meeting? Just give me some contact information. With a shrug I logged off of the library computer and pulled the earflaps of my hat down onto my head. Bracing myself I pushed out of the heavy doors and braved the December Pittsburgh weather to my 11AM Biochemistry lecture. After class I went to the commuter’s lounge with a couple of friends and scarfed down the vegetable soup and apple I’d packed. I told them excitedly that I was probably going to get another field job this summer, and who knows? Maybe this one would help me get my foot in the door to something bigger, maybe even get me noticed by a researcher looking for a promising young PhD candidate. They told me how happy they were for me and wished me luck as I crossed the street to Langley Hall and walked along the drab concrete basement corridor to arrive at Paige Lab at 12:55.

The door to Mike’s tiny office was open and I could see the doctoral student at his cluttered desk clacking away at the keyboard with his eyes glued to the screen. He rubbed his face as I approached then turned to me and smiled. Mike has a great smile. It is a wide, genuine grin that shows off his very even, very white teeth. After a summer of working with him I had decided that smile was probably one of the major factors that convinced his wife to marry him.

He scrambled to clear papers and textbooks off the only other chair in his office and piled them on his desk amongst the stained coffee mugs, ungraded ecology exams, and scattered pens. He motioned for me to have a seat. I settled onto the creaky chair and looked at him expectantly, but Mike simply stared at the floor between us for several seconds. Just as I opened my mouth to ask him if something was wrong, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend you to be Alex’s field assistant.”

For a second I thought one of the legs of the ancient chair had broken. It felt as though the floor had been pulled out from under me, and the room spun a little. “Alex is more demanding than me. He expects a lot of his assistants, and I just don’t think you would be the right candidate.”

My heart pounded and I could feel my face heating up. “Oh… I didn’t know Alex was looking for an assistant,” I stammered, struggling to put together a coherent sentence. “I was wondering if he knew someone who needed one… I figured getting a little more experience would improve my grad school applications…”

Mike sighed and lowered his head. He steepled his fingers together while resting his elbows on his knees and continued. “Look, about graduate school. I would seriously reconsider it if I were you.”

Time stalled. I could think of nothing to say. My mouth hung open, paralyzed, like it wasn’t accepting orders from my brain anymore. The world was suddenly going crazy. Five minutes ago all was going according to plan, but now my life was spinning out of control and I was powerless to do anything about it. “Don’t get me wrong, you were a big help to me. You were great as long as you knew what you had to do, but if we hit a snag or reached a point where you didn’t know how things were going to go, you shut down.”

A single hot tear rolled down my face. I swiped at it, irritated with myself for showing this display of weakness, and said as evenly as I could around the lump in my throat, “I don’t understand. You told me several times that I did an exemplary job and that I was a great student.”

Mike nodded and looked at me with soft blue eyes. “You have a great work ethic, and I think you would excel at a job where you could just… you know, take orders or follow a manual or something.”

His words were a slap across the face. He couldn’t have hurt me more if he’d physically hit me. Take orders. Follow a manual. I already had a job like that. Running a cash register. I’d been working at a gas station for more than four years now, waiting on every cranky commuter on their way home from work, ringing orders for all the drunks who come in for sandwiches after the bars close. I hated the job with my whole being. My desperate desire not to die behind that cash register was just about the only thing that made the stress and loneliness of college bearable. And now, as the finish line was finally within sight, this man who I like and respect was telling me that running a cash register was the only thing I was good for.

More tears escaped as Mike sat back in his chair looking uncomfortable. “You know,” he started. “I had an uncle who I was really close to, almost closer than my own father. When he died, I knew I really needed someone to talk to.” The abrupt change in topic was jarring. I looked at him in utter confusion. How had we gone from there to here? He licked his lips and his gaze wandered around the room. “I realize you’re under a lot of stress lately. You’ve got what, two jobs? And one of them makes you work nights. Oh, I helped you get that greenhouse job by the way.” He fidgeted in his seat. “When Kari was considering people for her new greenhouse assistant last year she asked me about you and I told Kari, ‘You should hire her.’ Anyway…I think you should talk to someone. There are therapists here on campus, so you should go see one while you’re still a student and their services are free.”

Another slap. First you tell me all these horrible things, and then you say I need to see a shrink just because I cried in front of you? What the hell Mike!? I needed to get out of there. I could feel my future slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t stop the tears. The air in that tiny room had become heavy and oppressive; I could barely breathe.

Mike let out a sigh and swiveled back to his computer. “Look, I need to get back to work, but you can stay here for a while. Sit there quietly for a few minutes and compose yourself, and I suggest you take what I have said to heart.”

I felt no need to compose myself. I got up and left without a word, then waved my security card in front of the reader on the elevator to take me up to the penthouse. The hushed sounds of fans and the comforting smell of green growing things greeted me as I got off the elevator and opened the door to the roof-top greenhouses.

There was no one else scheduled to work up here today, and no one could even get up to the sixth floor without a security pass. I would not be disturbed. Gingerly, I pushed open the door to the greenhouse office and gasped to see Dan standing inside. My fellow assistant, like me, was pale and slim. He stood about an inch taller and had neatly clipped black hair and dark brown eyes. His hands were working the buttons on his dark blue down jacket, so I’d apparently either caught him leaving or just getting here. Dan smiled over at me, but then he saw my face and his smile disappeared. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Wonderful, the universe adds insult to injury. I wiped at my face. “Oh, I watched A Fault in Our Stars for the first time before coming in.” I looked up at him. “What are you doing here? I thought I was the only one scheduled to work today.”

Dan nodded in acknowledgement. “Yeah, that movie’s a real tear-jerker. And I’m just leaving. I had some free time today that I wasn’t expecting so I asked Kari if I could pick up a few extra hours.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder. “And oh, super exciting, I heard back from Penn State today. My grad school application got accepted!”

I sniffled, half wishing I would expire on the spot. Finally I choked out, “That’s great Dan, I’m really happy for you.”

He smiled happily. “Thanks! Alright, I’m going to head out. Have a good day, and maybe lay off the sad movies for a while.” Dan let himself out and I was left alone in the dimly lit office. Listlessly I set my backpack and my coat on one of the chairs in front of Kari’s desk, put on my water-proof boots and began my solitary rounds checking on the neat rows of strawberries and kale and alfalfa. Tears streamed freely down my face for the next hour, and I felt such gratitude to the security doors that would prevent anyone from seeing me. I watered the kale flats and trimmed the strawberry plants, my boots scuffing against the concrete floor as I dragged my feet from house to house. Halfway through my shift I stopped and looked out at the campus below.

One of the perks of this job was the view. From up here, I could look out through the glass walls and see the entire neighborhood spread out before me, the buildings small enough I could reach out and pluck them from the street if I wanted. Being up here was usually inspiring. But not today. Today I just felt like a poser. I worked here, in research greenhouses where respected scientists conducted their experiments and worked to make the world a better place, but I didn’t really belong here. I would, never, really belong here.

My throat closed and I cried fresh tears. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have what it took to become anything more than I already was. Then a terrible fear gripped me; what if this was the best job I ever had? Graduation was only a few weeks away. What if, once I graduated and had to leave this student job, I never got out of working behind a cash register? And then I remembered the other email I’d gotten today.

As soon as I finished my shift I went back into the office and pulled out my phone. I dialed the Long Island number and after three rings I heard a middle-aged male voice answer, “West Kurwa Greenhouses, George Kurwa speaking.”

I sat up in my chair. “Oh, hello Mr. Kurwa, it’s Erin Renwick.”

“Erin!” came his jolly reply. “How are you? Did your flight back to Pennsylvania go alright?”

“Yes, sir, the trip was very smooth, thank you. So I got your email today, and I wanted to call to let you know that I accept.”

“Hey that’s great! You think you can start after New Year’s?”

“Certainly. That shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

“Perfect. Hey, enjoy the holidays and then get yourself up here. See you in the New Year, ok Erin? Erin? Erin! HEY! Damn you, wake up!”

I jerked awake in the dark, confused and alarmed. “What!? What’s going on!?”

The ceiling lights flashed to life and I shrieked and covered my eyes with my hands. I scrambled for the night-stand and slipped on my glasses to see Bast standing over me in my dazzlingly bright apartment. “What the hell, Bast!? It’s two-thirty in the morning!” I looked over at my door. “Wait, how did you get in here? My door was locked!”

Bast grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet. “We don’t have time for this. The night isn’t getting any younger and we’ve got something big to wrangle before morning.”

“Hey, wait a second!” I tried to pull my arm back, but Bast’s grip had all the give of a steel bar. “I just got back a few hours ago from running an errand for you and you’re expecting me to go out again already?”

“Yes.”

“But…”

“But nothing! An each uisge has taken up residence in your local lake. We need to send it back before it gets tired of eating dogs  and deer and decides to go after something bigger, like your neighbors.”

Awk ooshka? What the hell is that? “Ok, ok, I get it. Can I just have a second to change please?”

Bast rolled her eyes and huffed impatiently. “Fine, but hurry it up. You have two minutes before I drag you out the door, and to be honest I don’t care what state of dress you’re in.”

I hurried over to my dresser and threw on another of my many pairs of black pants, my emerald-green Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt, and a fleecy Columbia jacket. The day had been hot, but the rain had cooled things off considerably and I wanted an extra layer. Last I grabbed a pair of dry socks and pulled an old pair of black Nikes out of the closet, grabbed the necklace and dagger from off the table, and I was set.

“Ready to go?” Bast asked, opening the door.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I muttered, slipping the dagger into my jacket pocket as we walked out of my apartment into the night. Thankfully the rain had stopped, but the ground was soaked and I had to dodge the puddles beside the house.

I walked up to my grey Subaru and pulled out my keys. “So what part of the lake are we going to?”

“The southern end,” came Bast’s voice from behind me. “I’ve found the most evidence of the each uisge’s activity there. And put your keys away. The place we’re going isn’t far; with all the traffic lights in this town it’ll be quicker if I just take you there.”

“Take me there?” I turned toward her, forehead creasing. “As in carrying me on your back or some- whoa!” Standing on the sidewalk in front of me, larger than life, was an enormous lioness staring at me through familiar golden eyes. Eerily, the lioness spoke with Bast’s voice. “Yes, as in carrying you on my back. Now hop on, we need to get moving.”

“Um, are you sure you don’t want me to drive? I really don’t mind…”

“NOW!!!” Bast roared. (See what I did there?)

I climbed onto her back nervously and bear-hugged the base of her neck. This was a terrible idea. I wasn’t the most coordinated person in the world. My only riding experience came from the pony rides at the local carnival when I was a kid. There was no way we were going to make it to the lake without me flying off and eating concrete. But I didn’t have much time to worry about it. As soon as I was on, muscles rippled beneath the furred hide under me and we took off like a screaming tawny rocket across town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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