Chapter Sixteen: Pillars, Pt. 1: Scattered
An emotion untouched, something, not forced to the back of the head, but put down then neglected then as good as forgotten, until it's found again, and quite by accident. The first time on a bicycle in years, the drop after leaping, at last, from the board. Griseous did not have the background to compare to bikes or high dives, but if Jasmine were to explain it to him, he wouldn't disagree with it. That's what it felt to fall out of the world for the first time in thirteen years.
He opened his eyes and understood why he felt so nostalgic: the sweet smell of healthy rot, the life scent of the deep, lost woods. He opened his eyes, and found himself inside of a treehouse. It was hollowed out of something with the stature of a redwood, with a small, child-sized bed that fit him like Goldilocks. He sat up on this bed; its mattress was stiff, and it reminded him of the ones he'd seen on the beds in prison movies. Jasmine didn't like movies like that, so he had only ever watched a few that Jason had sat for, but he liked them and the way they could stay in one place while progressing anyway.
He glared at the tree-ring in the middle of the floor, an eerily perfect arrangement of saucer sunk into plate into platter. He visualized a circled X – or was it an X'd circle? – in the middle of the ring, the image firmly fixed. In his mind, he turned his back on the world, felt his neck prickle at the exposure, at the feeling of openness: the unknowable darkness ahead of him, the light of story and dream blazing behind him, through the back where wings would be if he were an angel, which, he reminded himself, he was not. This was magic and power as he had always been taught: disregard the curtain between life and death, one toe forever dipped in the silver sea.
He jolted with surprise. He knew he wasn't in Kansas anymore, let alone Ottawa. The light he found here at the back of his mind was stranger, brighter, somehow fuller, than the scant wells of power that sometimes opened at cause of Bytown's – maybe, in a way, all of Canada's – history of blood and death. He drew upon the light, drank of it, savouring it. No cord connected him to a rift; this place itself, it seemed, was a deeply misterious font of its own.
The tree rings beckoned his attention once more. They were so very perfect and round. Trembling with the anticipation of being back on a bike, he held his hand out to the circle, and with almost no effort at all, the little demon brought to life a golden casting circle. The spell, as he usually used it, made a map, a crude radar of points of light, and when he thought of Jasmine, he knew which point of light was hers. This was usually.
The treehouse filled with the light, and Griseous' eyes widened in astonishment as the circle grew into a cylinder, featureless save for its dots and lines, with the proportions of a soup can. It told him nothing concrete, but it told him that wherever he was, it was huge.
A curtain, smoothly woven in earthy greens and browns, like a forest floor, served as the door to the treehouse. Reluctantly, like finally deciding to get out of the shower, he let go of the power, and watched the circle break and shatter like so many fireflies. He stood up, and crossed the circle, feeling as though he were walking across the remnants of a campfire. He swept the curtain aside, and he was faced with a wall of green.
He could tell at once that, though oak and elm and ash and yew were abundantly in attendance, he was not in a true forest. He stepped onto a platform and climbed down a frayed rope ladder. He could see more little houses, some seeming to have two or three storeys, with grey rope ladders trailing down their fronts, or slats nailed into the rock-hard trunks to serve as footholds. He wanted to explore, but Jasmine came first.
But this wasn't a real forest. He looked up; beyond the thick ceiling of branches and leaves, he was sure that he could see a roof of stone. He looked behind the house he'd emerged from, and found a sloping, curving wall of solid bumpy grey rock. He tasted the air, his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth like a determined lizard. His ears twitched, as he tried to detect any sound at all beyond his own low breathing. The leaves were silent, and the air was still, and he couldn't feel at all the pressure of what made a forest what it was: worms and birds and processes and life. This place was frozen in time, a forest in a cavern, a bug in amber. And, he realized, after far too long, that there was no sun.
He noticed that a beaten path led away from all of the houses, arteries twisting to a heart. He followed the path, like a small street, with houses on either side. It took him to a clearing with eleven single-storey treehouses surrounding a dead firepit. A square of backless benches enclosed the pit; there was room for at least fifty people, if personal space were disregarded.
Griseous sat down lightly and looked at the pit. Ashes and charred logs lay like discarded bodies. He tried not to speculate in situations like these, but even his curiosity was piqued. There were at least a score of houses, all seemingly built for... for what? Peter Pan's lost children? And for how long had the houses been empty? How long had the firepit been cold?
He stood up, and saw a hole in the wall, a wide, mostly circular corridor. The heart to which the paths and arteries led. He threw a golden circle; the disc hovered an inch above the ground, stray blades of grass poking through the light as though through a clear, still pond. He glanced at the dots, sparse in places, thick in others, like acne. This grotto might be dead, but beyond the corridor, there were things that were alive, and Griseous needed to find Jasmine before they did.
"And Terra too, I suppose," he said to himself as an afterthought.
Terror gripped Jasmine like a paralysing choke-hold as she awoke, her stomach a knot of vertigo. She lay motionless, her eyes so tightly shut that phosphor sparks burst to life through the nebulous blackness.
Bit of a dramatic thought process, Eka snided.
Terror, and then shame, as tears leaked through her scrunched-up eyelids. They kept coming, and her shoulders shook with hicoughy sobs. The blanket was soaked through before too long.
Maybe you should open our eyes, so we can see what's actually happening.
Jesus Christ, just do it.
She did so, her vision filling with sweet baby blue. She lay foetally on a small bed that was low on a sandy flagstone floor. She didn't look up yet. The mattress was soft and thick, but without being tightly curled in her ball, her legs would have hung over the frame. The blanket was primarily the softest, lightest of blues, with stripes of dark sapphire and pale ivory accenting it. Jasmine buried her face into the blanket. It smelled delicately of vanilla and baby skin and dust.
Whose blanket do you suppose this is?
Who's to say I'm not just dreaming?
Jasmine felt Eka convey her shaking her head. If you're dreaming, it means you've been knocked out by a Shell or a golem, and you're freezing to death in that park. She sounded quite gleeful as she said it.
"Jason! Griseous!" she cried.
Not to mention the yummy one with the shoulders.
Get up! Ekaterina shouted, and a shock, like when you're four seconds from sleep and you're jolted awake like lighting, seized Jasmine for a moment.
She breathed heavily, curling deeper into her ball. Don't do that, she whimpered. Please.
Bang! An audio component this time. BANG! Louder, and with flashes of blinding light.
Whatever this place is, it's making me a lot stronger, Eka said.
Jasmine shivered. There was nothing for it. She sat up, and saw a room, all in gold-brown stone, with an ornate curtain for a door, and a second, much larger, bed taking pride of place in the middle of it. Two small bookshelves stood on either side of the bed that Jasmine sat upon. She stood up, and noticed for the first time that she was still wearing her skipants and loud, rustly winter coat. She kicked her boots off so she could peel off her skipants. The floor was hard, but not cold, under her socks. The room was dry and neither hot or cold. She put her winter things onto the larger bed.
Wanna see what this place is?
The room was quieter than any room Jasmine had ever been in, and Ekaterina's voice rang especially loudly.
She pulled a book off one of the shelves without looking. It was bound in smooth paper, with an odd, angular script. She couldn't read a word of it, but it was definitely novel-shaped.
Nothing in English? Eka asked. You know, I'm starting to think that we're not—
"Don't say it," Jasmine said out loud.
You're boring. We're not on earth, I mean, I don't think.
What makes you say that? There were framed photographs on the walls, on the shelves, on the bedside tables. This had been somebody's home.
Another shock, this one bringing Jasmine to her knees. She clutched her head as her eyes filled with tears.
A month ago, it would've taken me days of preparation to hurt you like that, Eka said. But here, well...
We're not in Kansas, little light. And your dear sweet brother isn't here right now. Nor is your demon, nor is your knight.
"I can take care of myself," Jasmine snarled, furiously wiping her eyes and nose on her sleeve. Her backpack had made the trip, and she dug through it for her supplies. Her thin, carved wand in her hand, she pointed at the floor—
and collapsed again, as Eka sent wave after wave of electricity through her bones. The wand dropped to the floor with a poignant clatter.
"Why?" Jasmine moaned through gritted teeth.
Because you don't need that thing here. Go on. She said it almost gently. Give it a try. No drawings, no sticks. Just magic.
Jasmine slowly got to her feet, her legs weak and shaky. Her heart pounded in her chest. She pictured in her mind what it would look like, once the lines and curves were drawn. The room was deathly still and quiet.
The photos on the walls and on the shelves looked very old. They weren't black and white, but had a gold cast to them. Sepia, Jasmine thought it was called. Keeping the circle in her mind, she looked closely at the pictures. Three of them were sitting portraits, of a man and a woman about Jason's age, and of a small angel-haired girl of six or seven. Their clothes were noble and their demeanours regal. Another showed the three together, splayed out on a lawn with a picnic basket. The man, who had hair down to the nape of his neck and a smoothly styled fringe, gazed adoringly at the woman and the girl.
You remember when I first woke up? Ekaterina asked.
How could I forget it? Jasmine said, coldly. You ruined my first day of seventh grade.
I wonder whose room this is, Eka murmured. Jasmine looked up at the portraits. They hung above the larger bed, the two adults flanking the girl. Don't you think he looks like Julian?
That gave Jasmine some pause.
Don't you think it's strange that, the day you fall in love with—
I'm not in love with Julian McLeod! Jasmine said, going so far as to stamp her foot.
Whatever you say, little light. Do the spell. We need to know if there's another living soul here.
Jasmine sighed, and stretched out her arm, her palm facing the floor in front of the master bed. She felt her scalp prickle, and saw goosebumps on her arm, and in her mind was nothing save for the circle, and a bright golden light. The circle manifested itself on the floor, shimmering like a reflecting pool.
Wow, Eka said. That's a lot of dots. Moving, too. You think they're all Shells?
Golems don't show up, do they?
Not to my knowledge. Which isn't much more than yours.
Then they could be Shells.
Jasmine stepped backwards away from the circle, and focused on making it disappear. She made it reappear again, to make sure that she could. She felt Eka grin.
No, I'm certain that they are, the voice said. Still have that stunner? We might need it.
She stowed her coat and snowpants in her backpack, and put the stolen item in her jeans pocket. She examined the curtain, which had an abstract design of red and gold woven into the material. She pushed the curtain aside, and stepped through.
Jason woke in a panic, wriggling in the navy-blue sleeping bag that he had somehow appeared inside of.
"Jasmine! Where are you?" He scrambled out of the sleeping bag and stood up. He was in a very small room of rough tan stone, the floor hard but smooth. Small actually didn't begin to describe it; it was about the size of a larger closet. A thin mattress separated the sleeping bag from the floor. A sketched portrait of a young man with long hair and a stylish goatee hung on the wall, next to a faded photo of someone who, despite looking to be the same age, was almost certainly his son. Another picture hung at the back of the rectangular room, where a headboard would be, of the son and a young woman, their arms around each other's shoulders, looking at the photographer with identical expressions of profound happiness. A picture opposite the "father" showed the couple, maybe only ten or eleven years old, having clearly fallen into a fountain in the middle of a very well-manicured lawn. Lastly there was, most incredulously, a Dark Side of the Moon poster. Jason had one just like it in his dorm room.
"A jail cell?" Jason wondered aloud. He desperately wanted to find Jasmine and make sure that she was safe, but this place was quite curious. There were no windows or doors, and no source of light, although he could see perfectly. His shadow was an indistinct scattering at his feet.
He ran his hands on the wall underneath the couple's picture, trying to feel anything. The wall was almost like tan stucco.
He hadn't expected to need to work today, so only Jasmine had brought any weapons or tools. He growled in frustration, wishing that he had even a tenth of Jasmine's talent with magic.
"Jasmine!" he called. "Ugh, no use."
He leaned against the wall, trying to gather his thoughts. He was definitely trapped. There was no door to speak of, nor any sort of slot where food might be delivered. He kicked a the sleeping bag, which turned over slightly. He picked up the bag and chucked it to the wall to his right. He kicked at the mattress, trying to find any clue at all. It skidded a few inches. A patch of pale, sickly yellow caught his eye, and he lifted the mattress up.
"The fuck?" Jason murmured. What was unmistakably a dried and faded condom was stuck to the floor. He resisted the morbid urge to peel it from the floor, and let the mat fall to cover the thing again.
He looked at the sleeping bag, and shivered in horror as he considered the possibility that there were more forgotten prophylactics secreted about the room. He kicked the sleeping bag, and blinked in surprise when half of it slipped through a portion of wall as though there were no stone at all. A moment later, the rest of the bag had been pulled through the wall. Trembling ever so slightly, Jason tried to touch the section of wall. His hand passed right through. It felt like absolutely nothing.
He poked his head through the wall, then pulled back as vertigo seized him. He didn't see much before retreating, but he could tell that he was very high up, at least two or three storeys above a wide room the same colour as this one. Feeling blindly, he found a sturdy ladder attached to the wall below the hidden door, which not very close examination showed was perfectly rectangular.
With a final glance at the pictures, he slipped through the wall and found a foothold on the ladder. He looked around him as he slowly climbed down, taking in the massive room. Its shape was hard to define, but it seemed relatively diamond-ish.
Not a jail cell, then, Jason thought. A goddamn love nest.
He reached the bottom, and looked up at his progress. The ladder stopped near the ceiling, below a completely unremarkable stretch of wall.
His head snapped round as he heard a high-pitched skittering pierce the eerie silence. An inky-black Shell, scuttling along on six spindly legs, its proportions almost ant-like save for the fact that it was the size of a large dog, bared down on Jason. He looked wildly around. There was a wide, round hole in the wall, behind the Shell, leading to a corridor of some kind. And another right behind himself. He backed slowly away, wondering why the thing hadn't killed him yet, assuming that it was sizing him up.
He found himself in a round room filled with what looked like storage closets. Ornamental suits of armour stood between these closets, each holding a great grey shield an odd single-edged sword, like a metre-long kitchen knife. He yanked a sword from one of the suits of armour, which clanged to the floor with a terrific teeth-grinding crash. The Shell entered the room, apparently having decided that Jason sembled a meal much more than a threat. He held the sword out in front of him with both hands. It so happened that, despite all the video games that had occupied his adolescence, he had never before held a real sword. It was heavier than he expected.
The Shell lunged, and Jason held the sword straight out, waiting for the creature to impale itself. It passed right through the blade and pinned Jason to the floor, extending a writhing proboscis to Jason's chest. He shut his eyes and thought of Jasmine.
The Shell's weight was suddenly wrenched away, and Jason heard it land with a heavy muffled thud a few feet away. He opened his eyes and saw a small figure, wrapped in roiling shadows, its short arms ending in wicked, bear-like claws.
"Griseous!" Jason said, relief rushing over him. The figure nodded, and rent two of the Shell's legs from its body. Jason clambered to his feet, holding the useless sword.
A few moments later, and Griseous made short work of the monster. He looked up at Jason. The mass of shadow, something like a cloak, fell away, and his hands returned to normal.
"About damn time," Jason said. "Where are we? Where's Jasmine?"
"Not sure, to either of those," Griseous replied. "Alright?"
Jason dusted himself off. "Peachy keen."
"We're not on earth," Griseous said. "Some sort of weird pocket realm. But magic is very strong here. Jasmine will be fine."
Jason sighed. "I suppose."
"Come on. Bring that sword with you."
He looked down at the blade. Its handle was made of metal and a smooth white material almost like plastic. Probably enamel. Its pommel was a solid lump of steel fashioned into an eagle's head.
"Will it do any good?"
"Probably not," the little demon said. "But it looks cool."
They left the armoury, returning to the other room. Jason pointed up at where he'd woken up.
"I appeared in somebody's sex closet," Jason said. "How'd you get here?"
"Woke up in a treehouse," Griseous replied. He led the way through the other corridor into the unknown.