Chapter 25: Dreams

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The crowds dispersed slowly, in a flurry of confused and disturbed chatter about what everyone had just witnessed. The police drove back to the station, a sense of quiet resignation hovering over their cars as they moved slowly through the crowds, honking to get people to move to the sidewalks.

"Come, now," Pythia said, tugging at Ashley's hand, seemingly unaffected by the outcome of the fight. "Someone wants to see you. And we must go while the Empyrean spirits are resting."

Ashley frowned. "What? No, I – I need to talk to Zach, and I -"

"Later," Pythia said, and there was a hard, determined edge to her voice as she gripped Ashley's hand and tugged her up the street in the direction opposite the crowds, the direction Rhea had run in. "You can talk to him later. We have to go meet this person now, while the Empyrean spirits can't see us."

"O-okay," Ashley said. As usual, she had to trust Pythia when the little girl stressed the importance of something she wanted Ashley to do. Together, they walked off into the night, which was growing old and dying into a light blue, pinkish dawn. Ashley glanced back over her shoulder and saw Zach still sitting motionless on the bench, staring at the ground where Astarte had disappeared, wounded, through the trapdoor.

---

A figure emerged from the crowd and ran up to Zach.

"Zach! I did just what you said," Andy said as he hugged his son. Zach slowly, awkwardly put his arms around his father. "I stayed hidden, and I heard someone going through everything in the apartment, and I was so goddamn scared, but I stayed hidden until I could hear police in the apartment, and then I got out and talked to them. And then everyone was going down here, because there was something happening here, and I saw … I saw the things that just happened …"

He broke the embrace and stepped back from Zach, staring down at his son. He looked strangely overcome – overcome with love for his son, and with fear. "What is happening to this town? Something is happening, and you've known about it for a while, haven't you? Everything that Ethan told me and Rachel about … that was all true, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Zach said, feeling strangely like a parent adressing a confused child. "I can … I can explain tomorrow. We're going to have a long talk tomorrow, and I'm going to try to explain everything to you."

"Okay," Andy said in a small voice. "Okay. Then … let's go home now."

"I, uh. I actually want to stay out a little longer," Zach said. "And just … sit here, and gather my thoughts. You go on home. Don't worry; it's over for now. It's safe now."

Andy gazed at his son, stepping back hesitantly. "Okay, Zach. We'll … we'll talk in the morning."

And he walked down the street, looking back at his son a few times, trying to smile.

Zach stayed motionless on the bench. He cried, silently, as the dawn came.

---

Pythia led her to the outskirts of town, and then beyond. They simply walked out of town, up into the woods north of it. Douglas firs towered above them, the pine trees obscuring the light blue dawn sky. The air was cold and clear out here, almost scarily so. They walked in silence up the narrowing tracks, Ashley following the little girl without thinking, too exhausted to question this strange expedition.

Finally, she asked: "How far do we have to go?"

"It's just in here," Pythia said as she left the trail to take a sharp left, walking between the massive tree trunks.

Ashley followed her, remembering fairy tales. Don't leave the trail.

Pythia walked down a slope into a slight valley, grown heavily over with ferns and bushes. Here, there was a strange, rocky bump of moss-covered granite, sloping upwards like the crooked roof of a buried house. Pythia brushed some ferns aside and revealed a doorway, a rectangular doorway in the rock held up by beams of rotting wood. There was a tunnel inside, receding into the distance and the darkness. "Wow," Ashley said. "Is that … a mine?"

"Yes," Pythia said as she started down the tunnel, producing a flashlight from her pocket and lighting their way. "The mine." Her voice echoed up and down the wide, low-ceilinged passage.

Ashley followed hesitantly. "What, the … the one they tell you about in school? George Damp's mine? Oh … Oh, wow. I thought it had been sealed off and then buried in a landslide."

"Obviously it hasn't."

Ashley was silent, concentrating on putting her feet on the right flat surfaces so as not to slip and knock her head on one of the numerous jagged, protruding rock formations. Soon, cobwebs appeared, and soon they started getting large. "I hope to God we don't get to meet the spiders that made these. I hate spiders."

Pythia didn't comment. She moved the flashlight in a triangular pattern, left on the ground, then right, then up down the tunnel. Ashley stopped briefly to look back. The light from the entrance was a tiny pin-prick. She was surprised; she didn't think they'd gone that far.

Ahead of them, there was another light. Warm and flickering, from fire.

As they approached it, Pythia turned off her flashlight. They finally emerged in a larger, circular room, a stop along the way deeper into the mine, maybe a station for supplies and lunch breaks. A bonfire was lit in the centre. In an old-fashioned rocking chair pulled up to the fire, an old, familiar woman sat, huddled with a quilt over her thighs.

The Bench-Lady looked up from the flames and met Ashley's stare with a welcoming smile. "Hello, Ashley. So good to see you again."

"Bench-Lady!" Ashley walked up to her old friend and gave her a long, tight hug. The Bench-Lady didn't know how to react for a moment, then put her arms stiffly around the girl. Ashley stepped back with a smile.

"Ah, yes, these human gestures," the Bench-Lady said.

"So this is your hideout," Ashley said, running her eyes over the subterranean chamber.

"Yes. Quite cozy."

"Not really," Ashley stated, sitting down at the fire with her legs tucked in.

"This place was the beginning, you know," the Bench-Lady said. "This mine … deeper down … They found something. An opening. And it was the beginning. I'll tell you the whole story someday. There are people in your town who know. They remember. It is important to remember."

Ashley shivered. It was cold here, icy air brushing over her back, even as she sat close to the fire. She was too tired to take in the Bench-Lady's words fully. "Why did you want to see me right now?"

"To say goodbye."

"What?" Ashley stared blankly at the Bench-Lady. "Goodbye to you?"

"No," said Pythia. She stood still beside Ashley, her face expressionless. "Goodbye to me. This form has served its purpose. Now it is time to be unified."

"Unified?"

Pythia walked up to the Bench-Lady and hopped up as if to sit on her lap, like a loving granddaughter. But she did not sit on her lap; she melted into her, colours and textures, skin and fabric changing like a chameleon's skin, losing depth and substance, disappearing into the larger body. Unified.

"Ah. Like that," Ashley said tonelessly.

"Yes," the Bench-Lady said, "like that. Now I only need to be unified with the part of myself that resides in Pandemonium. And then I will be as powerful as I once was."

Ashley nodded, remembering the Oracle of Pandemonium. The jukebox in the ghostly, deserted version of the Dampmine shopping mall. "And … why do you need to be … whole again?"

"Because there is a storm coming," the Bench-Lady said, rocking slightly back and forth in her chair. "I will be needed. So will you. Most of all, you."

Ashley responded with a half-smile. "A storm coming? What a cliché. That sounds like something from a bad action movie trailer." She bowed her head and stared into the flames. "You know, I feel like … we really haven't gotten anywhere. Nothing has really changed, at least … not for the better. Astarte is still going to come after Rhea, isn't she? And … you say a storm is coming, so apparently this big thing is still going to happen, where I'll need to travel to Empyreum and go through the 50 Gates, the stuff that Pythia wanted me to prepare for. And … everything is still … such a mess. Nothing has changed," she repeated. "At least not for the better."

Bench-Lady contemplated Ashley for a moment, then spoke slowly and softly. "Go to Zach. There is one thing you can change."

"Zach." Ashley gave a tired sigh, thinking about their friendship that had come to such an abrupt stop, thinking about the boy's addiction, the Memoria. "Zach just … just wants to dream."

"How do you save a person from drowning in dreams?"

Ashley didn't reply, closing her fuzzy eyes for a second.

"You give them what they've been dreaming of."

Ashley looked up at the Bench-Lady, lips hovering apart. She understood. "Where is he?"

"Still sitting on my old bench. Go, now."

---

Ashley ran up the tunnel and burst out through the curtain of ferns into the cold, clear morning light. She ran up the slope and back onto the forest trail, then down towards the town. Her entire body ached with exhaustion; her heart was pumping, thighs heavy, back dripping with sweat, but she had to run; she had to find him, save him. She couldn't waste a second.

She emerged on the deserted, curving road leading out of town, sprinted across it and down the streets, past all these suburban houses and picket fences she knew so well, past birds twittering, past a dog barking. The air was moist and cool and good against her hot face, her hair flying stringily behind her. Her dress was torn in long lines here and there from branches in the woods, but she was glad of that; it made it easier to run, strips of the silk taffeta fabric billowing like a blue cape behind her, her bare, pale legs revealed in the unflattering morning light. One strap off her shoulder.

Finally, she reached the main street, and she could see him, there, on the bench. She hobbled the last few steps up to him, completely and utterly out of breath, reaching out an arm to support herself on the back of the bench. Zach stood up before her, gesturing aimlessly. "Ashley, I, uh -"

The sunlight cut across the low rooftops of the town and hit them with its warm, sweet, orange glow.

Ashley practically stumbled against him and pressed her lips to his.

He was caught off guard, fatally so, defeated and crushed entirely by this surprise attack.

Slowly, gradually, their bodies slipped into what might be called a less awkward embrace, a proper kiss. She raised her hands to his cheeks. He wrapped his arms around her waist, sliding one hand up along the curve of her back, the valley between shoulder blades, the tangle of hair.

It wasn't romance; it wasn't happiness. It was simplicity. It was morning in Dampmine, and the sun was rising, and Zach and Ashley, long time best friends, were kissing. It was probably something that could be called love.

For a moment, as they stood crystallized between the darkness of the past and the menace of the future – just for a moment - things didn't seem all that bad.