Ashley floated in a place that was no place. The place was unlike the VOID, for while she'd had a body and a mind in the VOID, here Ashley was just a sliver of consciousness away from being as non-existent as the place where she was.
She couldn't even see enough to know if this nothing-place was as empty as the VOID. Maybe a thousand other souls like her own were trapped in this non-place, desperate to escape. Maybe nobody cared, as people barely existed as people here, only as subtle, almost un-graspable ideas.
Some slight shift reminded Ashley of her name, and her identity. In another moment, she remembered all that had happened; she'd been born, she'd been abandoned; she'd met Fred. She'd loved Fred. Her father had found her, something had happened to trap her in this place.
Her father had been trying to transport her somewhere. She hadn't known where he was going, but before they could get away, enemies had appeared. They'd attacked her father, maybe killed him. She remembered her father being engulfed in flames. Maybe he'd died. A twinge reminded Ashley in the real world, she had loved her father. Back there, she would be grieved at his death.
She didn't know for certain if he was dead, though. If he wasn't, though, he'd certainly been captured. That was why Ashley was here now. The spell to teleport them had been in effect enough to get Ashley off the real world, but it hadn't been completed in order to get her to her destination. She'd been trapped in a place in-between, mid-transport.
Ashley knew she should leave. She didn't know what would happen if she didn't- maybe she'd starve, or her soul would deteriorate without its body. Maybe she'd simply spend centuries here, until her friends and family were all dead. Those things weren't immediate when Ashley was in this state, but she knew she should be.
Moving was a great effort, only because lethargy colored all that Ashley did. She sifted through her memories, seeking a place where she was comfortable, and safe, and where she could wait as she had waited here.
The task was more difficult than she'd accepted. One home presented itself, but it was from a time when Ashley had been young, and she'd lived with her mother. Her mother was no longer there, and the house had certainly been sold to someone else.
Ashley remembered another home. It was the first place where she'd truly felt comfortable since she'd left her mother. She'd had to leave, however, when the religious family had feared that she was possessed after her demonstration of her power.
Another home presented itself, and this one was the first that would work. Her soul reached for a familiar house filled with loving spaces, and she left the empty space behind.
Ashley reached Fred's house with no memory of the endless minutes she'd spent in the in-between space. Instead, her mind was seared with the image of her father being captured by their enemies. She reached the same conclusion that she had before; that her father was dead or captured, but either way, he was lost to her.
She ran for the house, waiting for her enemies to appear after a moment. After all, if they could follow the magical trail of any teleportation, they'd certainly know where she was now. When Ashley reached the front porch and nobody materialized, however, fear overcame her.
They must have been busy with her father to ignore their pursuit of her.
Trying to push aside the panic that rose in her chest, Ashley threw open the door to cry, "Fred! Fred, are you home?"
Nobody answered. Ashley cut through the kitchen to run upstairs and pack a bag. As she passed through the kitchen, the beeping of the answering machine caught her eye. Curious as to what the messages said but well aware that she had no time to waste, Ashley decided she could pack food in the kitchen while listening to the messages.
Ashley pushed the button, then opened the cupboard to look for something non-perishable but that wouldn't need the use of an oven. She settled on crackers and peanut butter just as a message from Fred's mother began to play.
"Ashley," it began. "It's me. We're at the hospital right now. I don't know where you are or what happened, but you need to get out here right away. Christie's in a coma, and she could die. Paul and Fred both seem really nervous. We could really use you here right now. At the very least, give me a call and let me know how you're doing. Please."
The answering machine beeped to indicate that the message was over, and Ashley put the food away. The need to survive aside, Ashley didn't seem to be being pursued at the moment, and she needed to be there for Christie.
If only she knew how to teleport! Negative side-effects during times of pursuit aside, Ashley's father's trick would bring her to the hospital in less than a moment. Instead, she'd have to find some other way to get there.
Ashley pulled Fred's mother's keys off the counter, trusting that his father had taken the larger van to seat the entire family and Paul. That left the two-door for her.
Fifteen agonizingly long minutes later, Ashley reached the main doors of the hospital. A conversation with a bored receptionist told her Ashley had gone to the wrong doors, and that her friends were all in the waiting room of the emergency room. She spent another five minutes driving to the other side of the hospital and parking, then entered.
It didn't take Ashley too long to spot Fred and his family. Fred's mother saw her before anyone else, and rushed forward to give her a hug.
"Ashley!" Fred's mother sighed as they hugged. "Where have you been? I've been so worried about you!"
"I was with my father," Ashley answered, trying to stay as near to the truth as she could. "Some emergencies came up for him back home. He's going through a lot right now, and needed to see me right away, even though I was spending the day with Christie. I got your message when I got home, how is she?"
"Not well," Ashley's father answered. He then proceeded to simply and quickly explain all that had happened while Ashley had been away.
When he finished, Ashley asked, "Can I see her?"
A few minutes later, a nurse pushed open a curtain to reveal the comatose Christie. Ashley hesitantly stepped into the room to survey her friend. "Can she hear me?" Ashley asked the nurse.
"As of right now, that's uncertain," the nurse answered. "More information will be available after we-"
"OK," Ashley interrupted, uninterested in listening to medical mumbo-jumbo. "Do you think I could talk to her? Alone?"
"Of course," the nurse answered, already beginning to pull the curtain closed again. "We'll be just outside if you eyed anything."
Ashley waited a moment to determine that the nurse wasn't near enough to overhear, then turned her attentions to your friend. "I'd say you're lucky to have a healer like me as a friend," Ashley began, "but that wouldn't really be fair, seeing as it's my fault you got into this condition anyway."
She stepped towards Christie and put her hands on her friend's shoulder and arm. Ashley closed her eyes to sense Christie's body; it was different from her mother's, but still familiar enough that she could do some good.
A few minutes of healing passed. When she opened her eyes again, Ashley felt wearied. She still had a bit of energy; she wasn't on the brink of exhaustion or anything, but considering how the rest of the day had gone, Ashley wanted to save a little something just to be safe.
Giving Christie's shoulder a squeeze, Ashley said, "That's it for right now, missy. Don't let it get this bad again. You're well enough that you'll wake up in a few hours, and if I'm still around, maybe I'll give you some more healing again later on. Who knows?"
The women had all walked down to the hospital cafeteria to get something to eat. Ashley had resisted Fred's mother's offer of a meal, surprising Fred and many others, but eventually she'd given in, accompanying Christie's and Fred's mothers. Paul, Fred, and his father remained on duty in the waiting room in case any new information became available.
Fred felt a small start of panic when the doctor emerged from the waiting room asking for Christie's mother. Fred and his father approached him, and the older man explained, "They went to get some dinner. Should I call them to come back?"
"Please do," the doctor requested. "I've got some good news. It's some sort of miracle! Christie's body recovered from the allergic reaction, and she's bound to wake up any time now. Maybe within the hour!"
Fred's heart soared while his father pulled out his phone.
"So, when you weren't sure if she'd even live, I was allowed to talk to Christie as much as I wanted, but now that she's going to be fine, I can't see her?" Ashley demanded.
"Christie is going to need her rest," the doctor replied. She's been through a lot today, and while I am very optimistic at this unforeseen recovery, I still want to take every precaution to ensure that she doesn't slip back into a dangerous state again."
"I guess that makes sense," Ashley mused. Turning back toward her family, she announced, "Listen, I'm really glad that Christie's OK, but there's some stuff that I still need to take care of for my Dad. I'm going to head out now, all right?"
"All right, I guess," Fred's mother replied.
Ashley turned and headed toward the door, but Fred ran after her. "Ashley, where are you going?" he demanded.
"I already told you, I'm heading home," Ashley answered, wrenching her arm from his grasp.
"Well, thanks for making an appearance," Fred replied sarcastically. "You come in, and then you turn around and leave again without even telling me what you've been up to? Care to pretend you care?"
Remembering the anger Ashley had felt toward her ex for the past few weeks, she snapped, "Why do you think Christie's even waking up now? That miraculous recovery of hers didn't come out of nowhere, you know."
"Well, it's nice to know you did something for your friends during the entire ten minutes you were here," Fred retorted. "Think you'll send a get well card when she finally wakes up?"
"Listen," Ashley snapped. "I don't need to put up with this. I'm glad Christie's recovered, but now that I've healed her, there's nothing more I can do for her. She'll be fine. I have more important things to take care of."
"Oh, right," Fred snapped. "Your ever-more-important Dad wants to see you."
"My dad is dead!" Ashley roared. "I saw him murdered right before my eyes, and his killers are coming after me now, so if it's all right with you, I'd like to get out of here before I die."
For a moment, Fred could only gape. Then, he gasped, "Ashley, I'm sorry."
"Thanks," Ashley said sarcastically. "It's good to know you pity me, now that I'm an orphan and all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some bags to pack at home. Tell your parents I appreciate all that they did for me, and I'm really sorry about leaving them without saying good-bye. Make something up for me; some explanation for why I ran off when I did."
Ashley turned away again, but Fred stopped her, grabbing her arm. "I want to help you," he insisted.
"Help me with what?" Ashley demanded.
"I want to help you escape," Fred answered. "I love you. I'm sorry about everything that came between us, but maybe it'll make things up a bit if I help you get away."
"Fred, there's no help for me," Ashley retorted. "These men know what they're doing, and they will kill me if they get the chance. The only real opportunity I have is to spend the rest of my life running until they catch up to me. That's what my mom did."
Fred considered for a moment, then said, "Let me come too."
"Fred, this isn't a vacation," Ashley complained. "You can't come with me for a while and then go back home. This is a forever kind of thing."
"I know," Fred answered. "I'm going to make up everything to you after the ways I hurt you. I'll spend my life with you in hiding, if I need to."
"Shut up," Ashley retorted. "I'd never want that for you, or anyone else. Go back into the hospital. Spend time with your family while you still have one."
Christie opened her eyes. Her head was pounding, and for a moment, she thought she was having a nightmare. Her room smelled like a hospital room, and an annoying rhythmic beep woke her with its noise.
Christie's vision focused. Her head was killing her. She was in a hospital room. She didn't know why. Bile rose in her throat, and Christie wondered if she was dying.
She still couldn't remember why she was in the hospital. That scared her more than anything else. The last thing Christie remembered, Ashley had been visiting her after her mother's wake. Everything after that was a fog.
A nurse wandered into the room. "Oh, you're up," she announced. She took a look at a chart at the foot of Ashley's bed. While she flipped through it, she continued to chatter. "We didn't think you were going to pull through so well, actually," she announced. "We were all pretty scared there, for a while."
"What happened?" Christie demanded. She was startled to hear how weak and strained her voice sounded.
"You were. . .asleep for a while," the nurse hedged. "I really shouldn't give you any details. The doctors want to break it to you gently. You need to rest."
"Am I all right?" Christie demanded.
"Of course, now that you're awake," the nurse assured her.
These words made her all the more nervous, and Christie began to wonder what exactly had happened. She wondered if her parents were nearby. She thought of all of her friends, and wondered what they thought of what had happened to her.
"Paul?" Christie wondered. "Is Paul here?"
"Paul?" the nurse repeated. "I'm sorry, I don't know who. . ." She trailed off.
Christie noticed for the first time how heavy her eyelids felt, and fought her own body to stay awake. "Paul!" she gasped in her desperate attempt to fight her weariness. "Paul, don't let me. . ."
She said no more, for sleep had overcome.
Ashley parked the car and climbed out of the car. Fred's home seemed the same as she'd left it, and Ashley hoped that was a good sign.
She started toward the house, wondering why she'd even come back here in the first place. She had few personal possessions, and none of them were worth risking here life over. If anything, she should have ran for it while she was in Fred's mother's car.
When she started to walk toward the house, Ashley was all the more inclined to think so when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She screamed until her assailant spun her around to face him; it was her father. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"I'm packing a bag," Ashley answered. Her father sounded so angry, she'd blurted her excuse before she could process the wonder of her father being free and alive. Now that she'd spoken, however, she cried, "Daddy!" and wrapped her arms around him.
"Ashley," her father chastened her, prying her arms off his shoulders. "I'll admit that I'm relieved that I don't have to hunt you down, but that also means our enemies could find you easily. Forget about your bags; we're leaving now."
"But, what happened?" Ashley demanded. "I thought you were dead."
"I just led them away so you could escape," her father answered. "I played a few tricks on them, but they'll catch on quickly. They're not stupid." He steered her toward the car, talking as he walked. "We can drive, it'll keep us from being detected as easily."
"You can't do that!" Ashley protested. "That's Fred's mom's car. She needs it to get to work every morning; we can't steal it."
Her father grunted, still moving toward the vehicle, and said, "Honey, I appreciate that you've developed a strong moral code despite your lack of upbringing, but you must understand that sometimes intense situations require us to bend the rules a bit. If Fred's family knew we were only taking the car to save our lives, I'm sure they'd understand."
Ashley couldn't argue with that, and she followed her father into the car. As she buckled her seatbelt, she asked, "Where are we going?"
"I don't know," her father answered. "I guess we'll see how far from here we can get before we need to refill the gas, and we'll see what happens from there."
"Is this all that we have to look forward to for the rest of our lives, then?" Ashley asked while her father drove away. "We'll just run forever?"
Her father looked to Ashley, and then protested, "I don't like it much, either, but there's not really anything we can do." He pulled into the road, still arguing. "Even if we evade our pursuers now, others will come after us; not to mention the invasion that could begin any moment."
"Isn't there some way we could, I don't know, lock the door between the worlds or something?" Ashley mused.
Astonished, her father glanced at her, then shook his head. "No," he argued. "No, we could, but. . . Ashley, you'd be asking me to never return home again. I love that place more than I love anything here, except for you, of course."
He sighed as he stopped at an intersection. "Then again, now that I've been condemned to death, I can't exactly go back anyway." He thought for a moment, and Ashley stared, wondering why he hadn't suggested this solution earlier.
"You'd have to be strong," her father announced, turning to his daughter. "You'd need to use more power than you ever have before. It could kill you, but you'll save all of humanity. Are you willing to do that?"
Although she understood the severity of her father's words, Ashley couldn't help but smile to know she had another option besides constant running.
"What do I do?" she asked.
Paul flipped through a magazine. He wasn't so worried about Christie as he'd been earlier. While a few nagging fears still played at the back of his mind, Paul knew the doctors had already announced that she'd awakened once. He knew she would be fine.
The doctors for the most part had recommended that Christie be left alone to rest, but apparently, the last time she'd awakened, Christie had demanded to see Paul on the verge of a panic. She'd fallen asleep before he could be brought in, but the doctors had suggested that Paul spend some time in the room with Christie so that if she woke again, he'd be there to assure her.
Since that time, Paul had spent a good deal of time simply being bored in the room. He'd read the same sports magazine three times already, and now he read a list of possible reactions in an add for medication. He longed for almost anything else to do.
At the sound of a cough and a sigh, Paul looked to Christie, who was slowly waking up. He set the magazine aside and scooched his chair closer to her bed. He took her hand and ran his fingers in circles on her palms until Christie opened her eyes and looked questioningly in his direction.
"Hey," Paul sighed, casting a smile at his friend. "How're you feeling?"
"I have a headache," Christie answered. She sighed, then asked, "What are you doing?"
"Don't you remember?" Paul asked. "There was a car accident. You've been in the hospital, in and out of consciousness. Last time you woke up, you asked for me, so here I am."
Christie looked troubled as she gazed up and down over Paul. She murmured, "My hand. . ." and he immediately released it.
"I'm sorry," Paul blurted. "I didn't mean to come on too strong, I was just so worried. I love you, Christie, and even though we're not dating any more, I care about you very much. I'm going to be here as long as you need me, honey."
Christie smiled, and she seemed almost too touched by what he'd said. "Thank you," she said after a moment. "I love you, too."
Paul returned her smile. "You're going to be all right," he sighed. He found that all of his old anger and bitterness over his break-up had dissipated. Maybe he still had a chance to get back together with her later on; he could think about that later. For right now, he'd treasure the sweet moment he and his ex shared.
Ashley's father looked to his daughter with concern. Once more, they'd returned to the field near the entrance to his home land. Now, however, rather than enter the beautiful world that he considered his home more truly than any other place, he was going to cut himself off from it forever.
When he'd been young, he had believed that his destiny lay beyond the land of his people. Eager to make a name for himself and escape the confines of his upbringing, the young elf had entered the surface lands, a journey rarely made by any of his race. It was while he was there that he had met Ashley's mother, and, eager to move against any established tradition, be it his own or another races, he'd loved her despite her vows of marriage.
When she'd left him, the jolted lover had sought her for months before it became apparent that she didn't want to be found. Heartbroken and ignorant of his status as a new father, the mourning man had returned to his home land and for the first time had taken full advantage of the support of his people. The very ground beneath the earth hummed with the life of the plants above and of his fellows. He'd never before realized how beautiful and wonderful his homeland had been until he'd had a chance to miss it, and he had sworn never to leave his home again.
A few years later, tithe political tide of the elfin people changed, as it was wont to do. As more people rallied in opposition to the supposed evil of the human race. During his peoples' ventures into the human world, Ashley's father had felt the first stirrings of another with powers somehow akin to his own. He hadn't recognized the meaning of these feelings until thinking the situation through and realizing that just over ten years had passed since his affair, and any potential child would be the proper age to begin developing his or her powers.
It had taken the father far too long to contact his half-human daughter, but since meeting her, he loved her almost enough to make up for it. He'd told Ashley she'd probably die in her attempt to close the door between worlds, but he had no intention of letting it get to that point.
The father had driven himself near to exhaustion that day, through his many teleportations and his lending of strength to his daughter when she'd wearied. He didn't know if he'd be strong enough to take the wall apart with Ashley's help; he knew he couldn't do it alone. He'd try, and even if the cost was that he'd never see his home again, at least he could know he and his daughter were safe from those who would kill them.
That was the best-case scenario. More likely, he'd exhaust himself and die in the attempt. He supposed he should tell Ashley some lie to prevent her from trying to heal him- the effort to do as much would kill her as well, particularly after their attempt. He wouldn't let her be hurt; he'd die before he let that happen.
The father extended his arms and closed his eyes. "Can you feel it?" he asked her. The magic surrounding and protecting his home, and even the power that emanated from the land itself thrummed through his veins as he flexed his fingers.
"Yes," Ashley answered, mimicking his movements.
"Imagine that the magic before you is loose clay," her father said, trying to describe the complicated procedure in as simple of terms as possible. "It's scattered- chaotic- in its natural place. You need to find a small bit of clay, and shape it into a brick."
He demonstrated his motions with his power, using his slight control of magical forces to compress a few. "Once you have the brick, you have to build a wall. Piece by piece, you can't rush through it. We want to make this wall last so that our enemies can't disassemble it."
The father felt another shift in the magic before him. His daughter was moving large, loose masses of energy. He dissipated her work.
"Smaller," he suggested. "Tighter. Take your time. This is going to take a while, but if we do it right, it could take years to undo from the inside."
His daughter shifted a much smaller segment of magic. "Like this?" she asked, pressing it together to a ball of magic.
"Yes," her father answered, pressing the two bits together to make an almost solid blockade that would prevent anyone from teleporting through. He began his next bit.
Sweat streamed down Ashley's neck and back, and her shirt stuck to her. The day wasn't even that warm, but her work was hard. She felt as though she'd been working at the wall for hours; maybe she had. She was surprised she hadn't succumbed to exhaustion much sooner.
Ashley glanced at her father, and noted that he was disturbingly pale. She tried to say something, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.
Ashley ceased her brick-making for a few moments to work up a bit of spit in her mouth. The task was difficult, as she was so dehydrated, Ashley needed to roll her tongue over in her mouth several times just to make enough spit to ask, "Are you all right?"
"I'm just a bit tired," her father answered, panting around the words. "We're almost finished. Listen, if I pass out or anything, don't worry. It's natural with exhaustion. The best thing to do is let me sleep. Don't even check to make sure I'm all right."
"Those are odd instructions," Ashley mused.
"Magic works in odd ways," her father responded. "Just do what I say, and don't wear yourself out too much."
Ashley did as instructed, and continued compressing the power before her. There wasn't much loose remaining. After their work to build a wall, they'd extended it so that the entire edifice couldn't be toppled from within.
Above, thunder rumbled. Ashley supposed that if energy couldn't be created or destroyed, all that she and her father had expended had to go somewhere. The sky was a scary green color, and lightning crackled above. Although Ashley knew the storm was not natural, she supposed rain would begin to fall in any moment.
Finally, the last few vestiges of power were compressed into a tiny brick. Together, Ashley and her father placed the final brick on the wall. Invisible, the wall towered over the pair humming with power. It seemed immobile, although Ashley supposed that given enough time, the elfin people would find a way to knock it down. With any luck, they wouldn't learn to do that until they'd had time to evaluate their invasion and call it off.
"We did it," Ashley sighed, licking her cracked lips with a dry tongue. She smiled at her father and announced, "We really did it."
Rather than respond, Ashley's father collapsed.
In a second, she was at his side, holding her father's hand. He looked even paler than he'd been before, and his eyes had a frightening glaze to them. "Daddy," Ashley sighed.
"It's going to be all right," her father responded, his voice a dark rasp. "You leave me be. The wall is finished; we won. Just leave me be for a while; I'll take care of myself."
"Don't talk like that," Ashley begged. "You make it sound like you're dying."
"I am," her father answered. "Just let me be. It'll be better this way."
"No," Ashley growled, slapping her hands on her father's chest. Although she was wearied almost to the point of passing out, for a moment, magic surged through her hands.
Remembering his love, Fred sat at the window and stared at the stars. He could hardly believe that in the course of a single day, Christie had almost died, Ashley's father had died, and Ashley had left Fred's life forever to go on the run. He still had to attend Ashley's mother's funeral, and wondered how much more grief he could take that week.
Hoping to give her a head-start before the police could come after her, Fred had lied for Ashley's sake, telling his parents that she'd told him she'd be with her father for the night. Hopefully, by the time his family realized anything was wrong, Ashley would be well on her way to another state and out of danger.
At the sound of a doorbell, Fred raced down the stairs, wondering who could be visiting. He hoped it was Paul bringing news of Christie's status in the hospital.
Fred reached the top of the stairs just as his mother pulled open the door to reveal none other than Ashley, looking very much disheveled but quite present.
"Ashley!" Fred's mother gasped. "I thought you were going to be with your father tonight."
Her father appeared behind her, emerging from the shadows. He looked quite sick; Fred supposed that Ashley and her father must have run into a great deal of trouble with the elves from below the earth. At least they seemed relatively healthy, and most important, they were alive.
"We ran into some trouble at home," Ashley's father explained, sounding wearied beyond all explanation. "We need a place to spend the night. Do you think you could possibly let us stay with you?"
"Of course," Fred's mother responded, seeming startled by the request but eager to help out. "What happened?"
Ashley sighed loudly, then said, "Do we have to get into that right now? I don't want to seem ungrateful for you letting us stay over, but I don't think I could stand to go over all of that again. We'll explain everything tomorrow."
Fred knew what that meant, and he knew he'd spend a long night brainstorming with Ashley and her father to determine a lie for why they had to stay with Fred's family. He was eager to hear the real story, although he didn't think Ashley was faking her exhaustion too much.
"You know where the guest bedroom is," Fred's mother announced. "I'll grab some extra pillows an blankets, and you two can head upstairs and get settled in." She scurried away, leaving Ashley and her father to find their own way up the stairs.
Fred met them halfway. "Ashley," her murmured, speaking under his breath so that his parents wouldn't overhear. "It's good to see you. I thought your father had died."
Ashley forced a small smile and said, "The situation wasn't as bad as we thought." She looked to her father. "We came close, but we're still alive."
"And what about going on the run?" Fred demanded. "Aren't there enemies after you?"
"We took care of that," Ashley's father answered.
"You mean. . ." Fred trailed off, afraid to say what he hoped for fear that he would jinx it all.
"I'm staying," Ashley answered, fixing Fred with a sweet smile.