The story so far:
A woman was summoned to another world, but decided it wasn’t really her thing. In her rush to run away she took a tumble from a window and fell to her death. Lucky for her, the death thing didn’t stick.
I lounged on a fluffy white cloud. Far below, the kaleidoscope still turned over a ruined landscape. Shards of wandering colors jutted up like mountains, their peaks rising above my mattress. There was a beauty in that ruin. It felt familiar.
Slowly, the dream folded into reality. I opened blurry eyes to find my cushion was not heavenly at all, but instead thick, cottony sheets that smelled like flowers and country rain. I stretched beneath a fluffy white duvet and tried to piece together the only clear memories I had.
The cavern. My escape. Falling.
The wet noises my body made as it stitched itself back together.
I sat up abruptly, my fingers spread in a protective cage around my face. Sweat rolled down my neck as I choked down the cool, thin air of an unfamiliar room. Wide eyed, I stared at my trembling hands. They weren’t the mangled, grotesque things I expected. The skin was soft, and marked only by the faint lines of age. They moved how I told them to move, and my joints didn’t complain. I wiggled them deliberately until my heartbeat finally stopped thundering in my ears, then balled them into fists. What fresh hell was this?
A tranquil one. Sunlight streamed in through a tall stained-glass window. It cast pools of reds and yellows that embraced on my sheets. They danced as I pulled my legs over the side of the bed.
I was still wearing the robes I had died in. Maybe, I added reluctantly. It wasn’t like I had stopped to admire them before. At least, I hoped they were the same. It was mortifying to think I had been carted around both naked and unconscious.
“Can’t do much about it now,” I said out loud, trying to sound tougher than I was. Even if it was only for my own ears, it felt necessary. The words came out as a low alto with a bit of gravel just under the surface. “Hello, morning voice,” I tested it again, consciously smoothing out the rough edges and pitching it up to a more pleasing tone.
With a groan, I pushed myself to my feet. One hand hovered near the bed just in case my balance or my knees faltered. Still nothing hurt, and I was a little surprised that I could stand up without wobbling. If the fall hadn’t been playing on a loop in my brain, I might have been able to convince myself that it had all been a horrible nightmare.
The outside world beckoned beyond my window. A few steps took me to the sill, and I ran my fingers along its polished surface. The window was set into a stone wall that was as smooth as the glass it housed. Through a faded, yellow panel I saw a beautiful array of mountain peaks that fanned out across the horizon.
They brought me back, I knew then. I didn’t expect to feel the relief that I did. Clearly they weren’t going to let me run away, but I woke up in a comfy bed and not a cold, dark prison cell. At least I knew they didn’t mean to kill me… yet.
No, they wanted me to like them. Trust them. A thin, calculating smile twisted across my lips. That gave me more options than it gave them.
Below my window hung white, wispy clouds that lounged on a cushion of shadows. A sudden wave of dizziness crashed through me, and my hands scrambled to grab the sill as I fell. The stone floor felt solid and cool against my bare legs. I pressed my cheek against the wall as the room tilted with sickening speed.
Was I scared of heights? No, my thoughts whimpered back, I’m afraid of that pain. The fire of nerves half-made as they stretched back into place. The cracking of bone fusing back together. The…
I squeezed my eyes shut but it only gave the horrible memory a more perfect canvas to project onto. The weight of my fear curled me forward into a tight, protective ball. It threatened to crush me, but I could already feel an opposing tide rolling in. Contrary thoughts shouted back: You look pathetic. Huddled on the ground like a child? Get up, you useless woman. You coward.
Shut up! I roared back indignantly. My palm slammed against the floor, splitting the silence of the room. Pain throbbed through the fog in my head and cleared my thoughts.
Who would want to carry my dead weight — I shook my head to scatter the memory again — back up a mountain? There’s nothing about me worth that kind of effort.
“I can’t die,” I realized as the dots connected. That was a good thing, right? I didn’t have to be afraid of anything… except the pain of putting myself back together again.
I shivered, and something cool tickled my thigh as it snaked its way down. My fingers cut off its progress and came back wet, glistening green in the tinted light. Another tear rolled down my cheek and splashed onto my knee.
“I don’t have time for this,” I growled, frustrated by my body’s betrayal. I rubbed my hand against my robes to dry it, then winced when the still-tender bruise barked at me.
Got someplace to be? a sarcastic inner voice jabbed back.
A clipped chuckle of annoyance escaped me. “Not here.”
Every direction is the same when you don’t have a plan, huh?
I felt more in control on my feet, so I pulled myself back up and looked around. A pile of neatly folded fabric lay on a table beside my bed. What I had on was short, barely reaching my thighs. My arms poked through slits in the fabric that went from shoulder to waist. None of that would have stopped me from leaving, but I was happy to explore other options.
I unfolded the fabric and found a pair of loose, cloth trousers and an equally shapeless shirt. The word sweatpants crossed my mind and I grinned. As I pulled the shirt over my head I wondered what other remnants of my past life still lingered in there.
My thoughts turned inward, but what they found was like the clouds outside: a thin, light layer of consciousness over a vague shadow of half-formed ideas. I still felt like me. I knew I was stubborn. Determined.
But why? No reasons came floating to the surface. No challenges overcome, or trials endured. Finally, I had to admit that I was those things simply because I believed that I was. The thought was unsettling. Uncomfortable.
Frustrated, I shook my head again and found the door. There was no handle, but my fingers found a recessed slit on one side. I gave it a gentle tug, wary of squeaky hinges and posted guards. It wasn’t locked, and swung easily on two thick, black metal hinges. Eagerly, I left the room and my disturbing introspection behind.
The hall was empty and quiet. The floor was glowing softly, and curiosity lifted my head. The ceiling arched several feet above me, but my body didn’t cast a shadow. It didn’t seem to be a wave of light that could be disrupted, but more like a gentle pool that I was immersed in.
To be fair, I looked down. The floor around my feet was noticeably darker. I lifted one foot and found an imprint of my toes in the glow that gradually regained its shine. Since it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stop me from creeping further down the hall.
My fingers brushed the wall as I moved. The surface was smooth but uneven, like stucco. I wondered if the strange magic in the floor had also carved these halls. If it could do that then what else was it capable of?
I passed another door like mine. It fit into the portal so carefully that I couldn’t tell if the room beyond was lit or dark. A bit of fabric draped over the top, and as I kept walking I found more like it. Each one featured a slightly different pattern, making me think of a Scottish tartan.
The invasion of strange words nagged at my thoughts again, and I toyed with them as I moved. Scotland I remembered, along with the Great Lakes and the Milky Way. As my thoughts pulled closer things became less reliable. Where did I work? Where did I live? Was I married? It felt like everything personal had been deliberately tossed into a trash compactor.
A door opened behind me, snapping me back to the present. My eyes darted around nervously, trying to find a place to hide. The long, straight hall provided no easy answers. My need to run or fight bickered until I froze with indecision.
A short, elderly lady shuffled backward into the hallway, trying to drag the heavy door closed behind her with both hands. Her cane wobbled around the arm that pinned it to her chest. She gave an annoyed yelp as it slipped free and clattered to the floor. Her short, wispy hair bobbed as she bent to pick it up with thin, fragile fingers. She couldn’t crouch low enough to reach it.
I was moving to help her before all of the reasons not to could swarm my thoughts. It just felt… right. A waterfall of emotions cascaded over her face as I passed her the cane. We locked eyes as I pulled the door shut, and she settled on a peaceful sort of gratitude.
Then, like a magician, a handkerchief appeared from some hidden pocket. She dabbed delicately at the sweat on her forehead and groaned lightly. A tumble of tired noises fell from her mouth, and I translated them to mean: getting old sucks. I don’t recommend it.
Despite everything, I chuckled. She flinched at the unexpected sound, and I felt a little guilty as I towered over her. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not her fault, I decided at last. She didn’t strike me as dangerous, and even if she chose to thwack me with her cane I doubted that she had enough strength to leave a mark. I bet she’s just a pawn like me.
She beckoned for me to follow and I shrugged passively as I did. It beat wandering aimlessly through the mountain maze. I conjured polite noises as she filled the empty hallway with pleasant chatter. After a while I stopped paying attention to the turns we took. There was nothing back in my room that I would miss if I never found it again. If things turned out like I wanted them to, the mountain would be at my back by sunset.
Eventually we emerged into a larger hallway, and I saw two people chatting near a spill of natural light at the end of the hall. I knew this place. My stomach twisted and I covered my face with one hand. I could hear the wind in my ears as I remembered racing toward the ground.
An easy smile lit her face as she cooed soothingly: there, there. Nothing to fear.
I knew the “translations” were just what I wanted to hear. I want her to like me, that need demanded, then I shook my head. No, I want her to understand me and still be able to smile like that.
And I knew that it wasn’t going to turn out like I wanted it to. I hesitated, watching her shuffle further ahead. She’s one of them, I reminded myself too harshly. I don’t care what she thinks. I’m just using her to find answers.
Better hurry then. The grandma with the cane is getting away from you, my inner voice snickered back.
A clutter of stacked voices grew louder as I jogged to catch up. Some unseen woman shouted — it sounded like a warning — and there was a shattering noise. The two young men paused their conversation to rubberneck. They didn’t say anything as we passed them, but I caught recognition in the curious flicker of their eyes toward me. Their expressions were void of that adoration I’d seen in the cavern.
That suited me fine, too. I didn’t want them to rely on me. The nicest thing I could do was reject them; that way, they wouldn’t be disappointed when I turned their hopes into garbage.
The lady and I turned into the passage, our hands rising reflexively to shield our eyes against the blinding, natural light as we emerged from the tunnel into the outside world.
Overhead, the sky was a brilliant blue and cut with thin whispers of white. We stood on a wide, flat landing that felt solid beneath a thin layer of dirt. Had this balcony been been carved from the mountainside as well? A wall of mortared stone rose hip-high around the edge, but a part of it had been torn away near the cave’s mouth. The ground there was marred by long, deep scars.
I shivered again, recognizing the spot I’d fallen from.
This way, the lady beckoned, and our path curved around the mountain until the landing widened, revealing a busy outdoor market. Dozens of people wheedled and laughed and cursed as they wandered among makeshift carts and vendor stalls. All of them stole glances, but still no one approached us. Their conversation sounded forced as we snaked through them. Fake.
They looked strange. I didn’t know who had been in on the plan to steal me, and who was merely a pawn like the old lady, but none of them looked normal. Many had skin stained an alien shade of blue. Angry, puckered scars marred others. The clothes they wore were sometimes dirty but unanimously well-worn, and no one seemed to be having a good day.
I didn’t care if they were grumpy. So was I, and their avoidance began to feel like an insult instead of a blessing. My nose curled to breathe the same air as them. How could they just live their lives knowing what they had done to me?
I dodged them deliberately as the old lady waved and laughed, though she never slowed her already glacial pace. At last we came to her destination: another gap in the protective wall. This time it looked intentional. The hole was cleanly squared off, and a shining metal plate as wide as my hand was bolted to the top end of the wall.
She touched that plate almost absently, then started to walk off the edge. When I realized she meant to keep going I shouted suddenly, drawing the attention of half the market. My hand lashed out, grabbing her arm too roughly, and her head whipped around bearing an accusation.
“What are you—” I began, but a suffocating fear smothered the words. My mouth worked soundlessly, then I gave up and shook my head. “Please, don’t,” I begged her, wishing she could understand the emotions underneath my words.
She followed my terrified gaze toward the edge, then laughed with comprehension. Her bony fingers patted my hand, then pointed at her own eyes.
She turned to touch the plate again and stepped over the edge without hesitation. And then she fell, because gravity.
With a cry of anguish, I dropped to my knees and crawled forward to peer over the edge. Through my vertigo I saw her look up at me, her peaceful smile growing smaller every second. Then her path seemed to twist like a roller coaster’s, and she waved calmly as she zipped past me into the sky. I gaped after her. She was barely a dot in the sky when her path curved again, this time toward the mountain’s peak.
Still in shock, my unfocused stare slid back down. My fingers were white where they clutched the edge like a lifeline. Almost as white as the blanket of clouds below.
“Oh, hell no,” I muttered as I crawled backward. “No… just no.”
It looks like fun, my inner demon argued. She didn’t fall to a splattery death and neither will you.
I’ve got no reason to follow her, I reminded it firmly.
At a safe distance, I pulled myself back to my feet. I could feel the stares on my back so I dusted myself off with as much dignity as I could muster. Let them make fun of me, I thought defiantly. I’m too old for peer pressure to work.
The child with the dead eyes was an arm’s length away when I turned around. Her disapproving stare was piercing, and I felt like the shorter woman even though her head barely cleared my shoulders. Had she been following me the whole time? Or had she just happened to appear when I wanted her the least?
I rolled my eyes and started to say something sarcastic so I didn’t see her move. My breath shot out of me and I was staggering backward before I knew she had hit me. I couldn’t breathe. My hands went to my chest and found the hilt of a gleaming, blue blade.
I felt it scrape between my ribs, sending eerie vibrations through my body. There was fire in my lungs instead of air, and ice in my veins. The edges of my vision blurred and faded to black until I was watching everything from the end of a long, hazy tunnel that pulsed with my heartbeat. A gust of wind rippled up the side of the mountain and scattered my hair. I crumpled over the edge like a ragdoll.
And I was falling. Again. Faster, and faster.
I couldn’t draw enough breath to scream. My fingers clawed at the air above me, flailing for a lifeline. Then it felt like the air grew solid behind me, like I was skidding down an invisible wall. It turned gently at first, then my momentum shifted sideways, and then I was upside down.
As I rocketed past the market again, I caught a glimpse of the evil child as she stepped off of the edge. My screams turned into curses. I was only halfway through my favorite five when I flipped right-side-up again. As my momentum faded the tunnel grew thinner.
My backside passed through the wall first, and I felt an indescribable sensation as it skidded along a tunnel made of solid air. It broke my fall when I crash landed on the solid earth of the mountain peak.
The grandmotherly lady was waiting nearby, and I stared up at her with wild eyes. She hid a smile behind her fingertips and retreated a few steps, her cane clicking over the hard, packed ground like a metronome.
Beside me, the child dropped to her feet like a graceful cat, and I hated her for it. “You!” I hissed venomously, struggling for enough breath to speak. Shaking uncontrollably, I rolled to my knees, then wobbled back to my feet. I needed to be taller than her again. Than both of them. I towered over her as I shoved my face into hers. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Her level, disinterested gaze felt like a promise. Casually, like she was about to flick a bit of lint from my shirt, she pulled the blade from my chest. Blood soaked through my shirt around the hole she left. I gestured at it like the solid proof it was.
My lungs felt heavy and full, and I collapsed to one knee. The flattened ground of the peak pulsed with red as my body fought for oxygen. I pressed my hand against the wound to keep any more of my insides from coming out. Dirty smoke leaked through my fingers. The child watched it with open curiosity as she wiped her knife clean on my shirt, then slid it back into its sheath.
“This is some Alice In Wonderland bullshit,” I gasped as I collapsed the rest of the way to the ground.