21 déc. 2012

PETAL WOUNDS - VOL II: THE SPACES BETWEEN



[FOR THE FIRST ELEVEN CHAPTERS, PLEASE CLICK ON "SEPTEMBER" IN THE BLOG ARCHIVES ABOVE]






CHAPTER TWELVE

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             “Lily...”



I know that voice. And the silence around it is still absolute.



“Please, please, open your eyes!… Vlad, are you absolutely sure this is harmless to them?”



Who them?...  I’m in such a peaceful haze that it’s impossible to think straight. Slowly, it all comes back to me: the hospital, Peter’s panicked glare, Erik’s face, frozen in time, the two beautiful beings gliding towards me in the stillness – three, technically, if I include Peter. Although he looks the most human…

Them! Did he mean Humans?!



My eyes flash open in alarm. I know he’s there, so there’s a strange reassuring thought at the back of my mind, putting a dam to the terror.






The first thing I see is an abnormally radiant, abnormally high, abnormally huge church cupola. It’s so luminous that it hurts to stare at it. 



Wow… I feel so hazy that I wonder idly if someone’s drugged me, inducing a hallucination episode. The warmth of this place is exquisite, soothing, and the surface under me is so amazingly… silky. I run my fingers over it… Yep, I’m definitely not at the hospital.  



And judging by the unearthly look and feel of this place, I have an inkling it would take time for anyone to explain it to me. I’m a dangerous, foggy second away from screaming.





I feel a palm and long fingers very gently stroking my cheek over the bandages. The first thought that crosses my mind is a fatalistic one: I still have bandages here? Now that’s just cruel!

Then, out of the bright blue, Peter’s face finally appears. He looks troubled …and criminally beautiful. I think this is the most accurate way to describe him.



“Are you okay, you stunning, courageous girl?” he coos.



I close my eyes at the sweet chime of his voice, and again, resort to lame humor. “So, no limbo, or light at the end of the tunnel?” I tease, with an undercurrent of terrified denial. I hear no laughter. Tough crowd! They must not be familiar with techniques of reassurance, which I need very, very urgently.



I re-open my eyes and see Peter’s, filled with tender concern. I’m aware Mr. Supernatural Vlad is also there, and maybe the other silent one too, but I’m in no state to start exploring the premises and checking who else is present.



“I’ll also add ‘silly girl’ to the list,” he jabs, shaking his head. “And I’m shutting all known tunnels from this day on,” he promises with a warm smile, pouring more balm over my misty panic.





But Erik’s unnaturally still face pops back into my head, abruptly shaking all my senses to life, and opening my eyes to what’s really around me. I still see the sleek white cupola high above, and the silence is still crushing, just like it was at the hospital. 



“Peter!!!” I breathe in a rising voice, “What just happened? What did you do to my dad? Is he okay?! …And where exactly am I?!”



Despite my alarm, he keeps looking at me with a reassuring smile, and simply says, “Just… have a look around.” There’s a hint of pride in his voice, as if he were sure whatever I’ll see will impress me.



I tentatively swivel my head to the right, only to see that the cupola multiplies into an entire intricate web of majestically carved, bright white stone – too shiny to be marble. My eyebrows almost reach my hairline, and I hear an obviously satisfied chuckle. The merged cupolas seem to form a breathtakingly large circle, defined by… what are these exactly? They look like veils of white sand, suspended in perfect stillness, and serving as subtly shimmering walls. Freddie Mercury’s voice peals in my head, “Am I dreaming, Am I dreaming?”…



My eyes keep descending for what feels like an eternity, until they come across a long set of shockingly beautiful sculptures, standing equidistantly against the entire span of the walls. Carved in the same marble-like material as the ceiling, they represent more unearthly beings like Vlad and his bodyguard, but none the same as the other. They’re too far for me to see all the details, but they seem to be one breath away from springing to life. This place feels sort of like… an ethereal mausoleum.



My jaw keeps dropping lower, until it reaches an awed maximum, especially when I notice that the statues are also suspended in mid-air! They’re not still though; I can see an eerie sideway gliding, as if they were rocked slowly by an unfelt wind, and needless of solid ground. Although, the ground looks amazing: equally white and marble-like, but with absolutely no markings whatsoever. A pure milky sea.



My sight finally sets on the two magnificent creatures who helped in getting me here, standing at a close distance, as if giving Peter and me some space. And since I’m already light-years beyond my threshold of tolerance of all things supernatural, I allow myself to stare at them. Beyond their undeniable beauty, there’s definitely something not… human.   



“I’m sorry; this is Vladimir… and Nirav. And technically, this is Vlad’s…erm… home,” Peter explains.



“His home where?” I ask incredulously, “In Paris?”



Light laughter fuses from Vlad and Peter, but Nirav keeps a perfectly silent, broody composure. Great, laugh at the dead girl!



“Lily, I know this all seems surreal to you, but in time, we’ll all help you understand…”



In time?! I suddenly feel claustrophobic.



“What do you mean?! Shouldn’t you take me back to the hospital now? Cause this is really starting to creep me out…” I order, with as much strictness as I can muster, for someone bedridden and at the mercy of three mythical-looking creatures. 



Peter suddenly appears grave, and decides to use a diversion.

“Are you still in pain?”

“Yes… please, take me back?...” I plead, not even wanting to know where I am, and why exactly I was brought here.

He throws a quick glance towards the other two, then whispers, “I’m so sorry Lily… I can’t.”

And this is when I realize I’m being kept here by force.

“Why not?...” I choke pathetically, unable to hide the trembling in my voice. My throat goes dry, and tears start pooling in my eyes. Before the assault, I would have tried to stand up for myself. But that impulse is long gone now. I realize I’ve become just a pitiable wreck who caves at any threat. I hate myself…

“Lily please… No one is going to hurt you, not as long as I’m around. You have my word,” Peter swears solemnly. But to me, he’s currently the bad guy, and his words can’t stop the fear from escalating inside me. He sees it, and suddenly slouches in defeat. Hmm… interesting! I should learn how to use this effect I have on him to my advantage from now on.

“Listen… I once told you that the circle I’m from is not one I’d like you to be involved in, and for good reason. We’re… bound to secrecy, and to preserving it… True, I put it at risk when I drew you,” he admits, looking more at the other two than at me, “but you really weren’t meant to find me! I first asked Vladimir and Nirav to come along because I wasn’t sure how you’d managed that. You seemed like an immediate threat, and I couldn’t risk having you expose us…”

“What the hell are you talking about?!” I huff, “I had, HAVE no idea what ‘circle’ you’re from or what secret you’re keeping!! I’m not a threat to you, I swear! You don’t even need to reveal anything to me, and no one would ever believe me if I described this place, so… Please, please, take me back!!!”

“You told me that it was Officer Brandt who found me, and I believe you. Though the coincidence is just too great… And besides, I might have just settled for a discussion at the hospital, but something else made us bring you here…” he adds mysteriously.

Vlad finally decides to interfere, and approaches so noiselessly that he manages to startle the hell out of me.

“When did your skin start to change?” he asks imperiously, with his shockingly clear voice.

“I… I don’t know. After the assault I guess. The doctor pointed it out…” A swift panicked glance circulates between them, and I bite my tongue. Damn it… I should have kept my friggin mouth shut. But then again, why? Doctor Culbard knows absolutely nothing as to why this has happened, and neither do I! But they sure seem to know more than they’re letting on. “Why? What is happening to me? You know; I suspected it, and now I can see it in your faces. So again, Peter… what have you done to me?!”

All of a sudden, heavy sadness seems to fall on his shoulders, and he appears to surrender. He throws one more glance at Vlad and Nirav, then suddenly flicks his arm backwards, towards the sandy wall, with fingers spread wide open. In a fraction of a second, the silhouette of a face starts materializing, out of sheer sand.

“Peter!!!” Vlad scolds, furiously.

“Oh relax, she’s a smart girl. She’s already caught on to the fact that we can… do things,” Peter lashes. He suddenly looks like a rebel teen, defying authority.

Vlad and Nirav turn to me, and I roll my eyes. “If everyone could use teleportation instead of trains, the world would be a better place, so…yeah,” I say cheekily. Peter chuckles, as if trains have become our inside joke. Vlad remains impassive, although I could swear I see a fleeting smile on Nirav’s face. 

This distraction is not powerful enough though, to keep my eyes off of that specter of a face, being etched in sand. Peter turns towards it, and starts moving his fingers like a gracious air painter, sending some sort of invisible signal that adds details to the shape: more defined lips, an eerily realistic look in its eyes, a well-drawn nose…. Suddenly it becomes obvious. “That’s my father!” I almost yell.

“Yes, as I told you, I never forget a face, down to its tiniest detail. This is why I can do what I do when I’m working with the police. But it doesn’t stop there…” He adds cryptically. With one flick of the finger, he makes a dark shape appear on Erik’s left cheek, a sort of horseshoe-shaped tattoo, which my dad clearly doesn’t have. “I also add my touch to it. A touch that would be obvious enough to raise suspicion. A touch that, if I will it, actually ends up becoming one of the suspect’s features…” he says guiltily.

What?!

“So, whatever you draw… ends up on someone’s face?!” I ask, totally incredulous.

“No, not everything. Just one element, and only if I will it to… This makes them… easier to catch,” he shrugs.

“But that’s like… cheating!” I scoff. Vlad finally smiles, as if agreeing with me.

“Now please stop doodling on my walls Peter, thank you. I think she got the point,” Vlad jokes.  

Wow, I didn’t know supernatural beings could be anything other than grave and solemn.

Peter lowers his arm, and the sketch disappears into thin sand. “Cheating or not, I mean well,” he challenges.


I try to wrap my head around it, and to understand why he’s telling me all this. How does it explain things? He drew you, you idiot. Okay, but his drawing depicted my freckles really clearly, if I recall well. 
 “I don’t get it… Are you telling me that you ‘willed’ some detail on me? My freckles were in the drawing, and they’re gone in reality, so that can’t be it…”

“Lily, nothing of all this is clear to any of us. I didn’t ‘will’ anything for you, I can promise you that!” he argues, frustrated, throwing angry glares at the other two.

In a moment of clarity, everything seems to click. “But you’re not sure you didn’t cause this either, is that it? I might be some freak, unexpected damage, so you brought me here… to make sure?”

He nods, looking positively distressed. “I know you don’t believe it right now, but I truly, heartily am sorry…”


This is so unfair! I’m being held accountable for constituting a danger to a secret… race? Community? Sect? Although they have no idea what the danger really is, and they might even be responsible for it?
I just have to come up with an explanation! That’s all I can do to put them at ease. In a second of inner terror, I wonder if they’ll ever release me, even if I do find one.

“Peter, you said you knew you would ‘bind’ yourself to me that day,” I whisper, tactfully. The others suddenly look deeply surprised. “So could it be that you… unknowingly wished for something after all, while drawing me?” 

As I say those words, I feel like I’m paying myself a disproportionate compliment. Peter’s eyes suddenly get wider than I’ve ever seen them, but he remains as silent as the sculptures around us. It’s Vlad who finally drops the bomb.

“Isn’t it obvious? He’s held to secrecy, and can never really share anything with… your kind. So he wishes you could be… more like us!”

Peter closes his eyes and exhales.

 He wants me to be more like them. Like him. And if I got the idea behind his supernatural drawing skills, it takes one distinctive detail to cause it….



The Necklace.



My immensely shocked gasp catches their attention, and I utter, with dawning realization,


“I know what you are!!!”








CHAPTER THIRTEEN 
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My genius revelation is met with indulgent and frankly condescending smiles.

         “‘Elves’ is a good enough name your people has invented for us,” Vladimir intimates, “although we’re not too crazy about the…”
Nirav simultaneously mimes a pointy ear, and allows another short-lived smile to cross his face. For some reason, I feel this doesn’t happen very often. His gleaming olive-green eyes have this averse, dangerous side to them, so something as simple as a smile coming from him looks out of place, yet reassuring.

         “So... how much of it is true?” I whisper cautiously. “Your superpowers… teleportation, freaky drawing skills… These just don’t seem… elf-like. I mean, do you also live incredibly long, in enchanted forests, controlling our minds, and all that?...”

         “Guilty for the forest,” Peter says, very humanly raising his hand.

         “I don’t understand…” I frown.
Strangely, I’m proud of myself at that moment. I think of Erik and everything he’s taught me, about not showing weakness, about stalling with questions, about keeping the other talking, and showing interest instead of fear… For here I am, surrounded by three eerily beautiful beings out of some twisted kidnapping dream – one of whom is the ‘man’ I’ve loved so far – discussing their nature, their powers, while I unyieldingly reject the fact that this nature and those powers might soon, by some supernatural trick, become mine. I throw a discreet look at Peter and almost choke on a tear. He must think I’m really curious about him, about his world, and even flattered by how he’d like me to turn into… whatever he is. When the truth of the matter is, a truth that I will be very careful to keep to myself: he’s never given me a choice!!! And if any of my reflexes is normal, I’m inevitably bound to RUN.
           
          “Vlad, show her…” Peter asks enthusiastically.

Vladimir pauses for a few seconds then seems to surrender. He stretches his long fingers towards me, and whatever I’m lying on suddenly starts sliding forward. It’s not unpleasant… The three turn and walk towards the center of the colossal hall, while my “mattress” follows, as if frictionlessly gliding on air. Peter paces as gracefully as the other two, and my heart sinks even further: It was all an act. I liked his shyness, his teenage posture, his once obvious innocence… but that’s not who he really is.   

Vladimir’s fingers break their invisible connection with me and point up towards the cupolas. At the same second, the slight, round shape of what looks like a framed mirror appears from thin air, and slowly descends towards us, shimmering as it flips round and round on its axis. Then it comes to an abrupt stop as it reaches our level. The outside is made of what looks like faded gold, with motifs I couldn’t identify, while the inside turns out to be a thin rope of water-like liquid vertically traversing the frame. What is this?

The liquid rope gradually unfolds and spreads throughout the inside of the frame, forming a sort of molten screen.

        “Vlad is kind of our ‘historian’ if you will,” Peter explains animatedly. “He keeps a trace of everything we’ve seen, done and can remember. All we need to do is touch the Chronophora, and our memories are sieved and kept there for eternity!” His childish enthusiasm is confusing. Is the innocence there after all?... I wear an awed face, which seems to satisfy him.

On the liquid screen, an ethereal image slowly appears; one of an emaciated silhouette standing in what seems to be a blank void. I don’t recognize the individual, but he’s a younger version of them.  He lifts his arms in that graceful manner they all do, and strange elements start appearing, out of nowhere. Stone-like shapes materialize, then are superposed to form an arcade-like portico, all in a few seconds. It looks like high-speed CGI-animation, with the geometrical constituents whirling around and assembling like a hypnotizing carousel. Woah

In a teacherly voice, Vlad offers what he believes is a very simple explanation.

       “We are like… architects of space and time. We each have a consecrated Space that we receive at birth, and we slowly fill it as we see fit. It becomes our home.  It’s not easy to create the elements, but we have a lifetime to train for it. And yes, our lifespan is considerably superior to yours… As for building, it is a common ability, but we also have a talent that is proper to each and every one of us. You’ve seen what Peter can do. That is his own, exclusive skill. And I am responsible for that little temporal stand-still you witnessed in your world. Whereas teleportation, as you call it, is Nirav’s specialty.” The silent Nirav nods once, looking grave again. “We just laid our hands on you so as to connect the group, while he transported us to this Space. Mine.”

I swallow hard. Interest, not fear. Interest…

         “So you… basically hitched a lift through me. Huh… And where is your… Space? Is it… on Earth?” I ask, feeling dumb.

         “Well, don’t think of our Spaces being on Earth, but of Earth being in our Spaces,” he throws matter-of-factly.

          “…I’m not sure I understand. Earth is… here?”

          “Not in my Space, no. It’s in someone else’s. It’s his… how can I say this in human terms? It’s his… Garden.”

Peter rolls his eyes at the apparently improper translation, and I let out an uncontrollable giggle. A Garden?!

           "And we Humans are… plants?” I drip with sarcasm. Explains why I was named after a flower.   

           “Oh, no, no,” Peter quickly interferes, “We have the utmost respect for Earth! We even used to visit as ourselves a few centuries ago, and share a lot of our knowledge, languages, and architecture… but that didn’t turn out so well. That’s also when the legends began, with Elves and Nymphs and all that… Since then, only one ambassador is allowed there at once – in this case, me. With Nirav’s teleporting help, I’m the only one who can occasionally go there, with the strict orders of anonymity and non-interference…” 

            “But you were all there to get me…”

            “Yes, this was… an extreme situation” he says uncomfortably.

            “And you do interfere!” I object, “You help in finding suspects, which, don’t get me wrong, is noble. But isn’t that interfering?”

            Vlad decides to cut in, not missing an occasion to poke at Peter.

            “Yes, our friend here has grown… attached to the Humans,” he says with suddenly piercing eyes, “especially now. This is a new peak for him… He’s not allowed to, of course, but he does it anyway.”
           
            Peter’s eyes zero in on me, like that first time outside the train window, with a look that shows absolutely no regret. 

            “So, you each have a Space of your own…” I say, changing the subject, “and you need Nirav’s help every time you go from one to the other?”

            “No, we only need him to go to the Gardens.” …There are others?! “But to travel from one Space to the other, we… politely ask permission from the landlord in question,” Vlad winks. 

            I take a very deep breath. This is too much information at once, and I don’t believe any of it. My brain feels like a pan of scrambled eggs, and Peter seems to notice that.

            “Maybe we should address the other major issue…” he suggests tentatively. “Whether or not Lily is going through… a metamorphosis, we have no way of knowing for sure, or of stopping it for that matter…”

            “Why not?!” I ask with the seams of my self-control starting to break. “It’s your supernatural ‘ability’!!! How can you know it so little?... How do you normally undo that detail you add to your drawings?!” My voice is bordering on impolite-loud.

            “It depends on the detail!” Peter argues, with a voice barely lower than mine. I don’t know if it’s my tone angering him more, or his own guilt in this matter. “If I add a tattoo, then it’s relatively permanent. But if I draw a rash, then it’s eventually bound to disappear. You know, like a rash! And even though you don’t believe me, I swear, by everything that’s dear to me, that whatever I might have done to you, it was not intentional! It was only… wishful thinking,” he confesses, with his tone falling towards the end. “If nothing was supposed to happen to you in the first place, how am I supposed to know how to stop it?”

            I reach for straws, “Any cross-dimensional doctors around here by any chance?”

            “Absolutely not,” Vlad interjects, sounding positively offended. “Sickness is part of life. We don’t study it, we don’t change it. We just experience it as part of our existence. Nirav doesn’t have the gift of speaking, and yet he lives with it, it’s who he is!” Throughout the speech, Nirav remains neutral, although a very quick look my way clearly shows some unnamed emotion… But Vlad continues with his moralizing, unaware. “Your so-called Garden scientists are constantly a few steps away from playing Creators, it’s abject!” he sneers. 

Woah, where did all that come from?

            “This is going nowhere,” Peter huffs, with his arms crossed against his chest and his teeth clenched.

            In the meantime, I see slight movement to my right, and turn just in time to see Nirav walk up to me with a determined frown, and lay his fingers on the cast around my arm. The others barely have the time to register this fact before a neat, chilling ‘crack’ is heard, and I scream from the searing pain. 

            With what looked like the slight pressure of three fingers, Nirav has split the cast in two.

            “Are you crazy?!” Peter screams, and once more, his shoulders seem to change shape for what feels like a second, making him look much more like the other two. With a light tap on the shoulder, Vladimir holds him back.

            “Wait, he’s right! If she is indeed morphing, those white moulds would shape her wrong! The wise thing would be to take them all off and let the change take its course, studying it closely in the process…”

            “Don’t you sound like a Garden scientist!” I lash at him. 

            Peter observes me for a few seconds, before surprisingly choosing to give me the ultimate say, for once. 

           “Lily, does this make sense to you? We won’t do it unless you agree,” he declares very decisively, as if holding the others in check.

            This is so surreal! In a world that literally rejects medicine, I’m being asked if I’d prefer to “develop wrong” because of the casts, or to have them taken off at the risk of putting a stop to my entire recovery… I finally decide to choose the lesser of two evils.
           
            “I don’t want to be the weird-looking Elf any more than I was the weird-looking human,” I decide, despite my fear of all the pain I’ll be experiencing in consequence. Besides, I’d do anything to be out of the casts and bandages right now…

            “Okay then, if you’re sure…” Peter says. “Would you rather I did it?”
           
            I nod insecurely, and look towards Nirav. I’m startled by the deeply remorseful look he offers me, as if hurting me had never been his intention. But I’m comforted all the same when I see him give up his place for Peter. 
           
            I then sense the three pairs of eyes ogling at me, which considerably adds to the pressure. Are they going to just stare at me while I scream? And most of all, am I really doing this?!

            Peter’s face relaxes as he seems to notice my mood. “Er… Vlad, you think we could have a brooding bubble for her? It’s after all the same process…”

            “A what now?” I ask. Peter leans closer and very lightly lays his fingers on my cheek, taking me by jolting surprise. Tingles, tingles all over.
           
            “Don’t worry, it’s just like an incubator. We use it for our babies here, and honestly, this is sort of the same thing, isn’t it?”
            I nod, hopelessly distracted by his fingers continuously brushing against my sore skin. He looks back at Vlad, who raises his arms and elegantly produces what looks like a giant, glimmering, whipped-cream peak, encircling Peter and me in. 

           …Did they just give us some privacy?!

            The temperature rises noticeably, and a sort of light, perfumed air seems to circulate inside the bubble.

           
             God help me… 








CHAPTER FOURTEEN
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              “Is it warm enough?” he asks, very conveniently.


“M-hm…” I swallow. “How do you do that? With the heat and the…smell. There’s nothing in here! It just looks like a shimmering white shell.”


“All in the power of will… which seems to be one of your greatest qualities, by the way. I have a feeling you’ll fit right in, Lily Brandt…” he says with hardly concealed warmth.

He seems…happy. Happy that his freak gift unintentionally makes it okay for him to have feelings for me. And every fiber of my body, human or not, wishes for him to remain so. I need to get out of here! Because soon enough, I will no longer have the strength to resist him.


His fingers leave my cheek and find the end of the bandage around my head. Then, very delicately, he starts to unravel it. Bit by bit, my skull feels lighter and my face starts getting used to no longer having a frame. Towards the end, Peter gently holds my head up, and slips the folded bandages right underneath.

“You still have a wound at the back… But if this goes well, it will heal along with the transformation… Oh and I was right. The swelling is decreasing, and your features have undeniably changed. You’ll see…”


He then moves to my arm, picking out the broken pieces of the cast, then very slowly lays my elbow back down in the same position. Besides the tingles, it’s as if he’s not touching me at all. This is torture. Supernatural torture.


Finally, he starts untying the splint immobilizing my hip and leg, before ending with all the minor bandages left. I wince a few times, but I also notice that distraction is not such a bad painkiller.


When he’s done with me, I feel lighter, and honestly, very much exposed. My wounds look shockingly gory, and I wonder how Peter managed not to make a face while uncovering them.


“There… You didn’t make a sound. Did I hurt you?” he asks, with anxious, earnest eyes.


“I’ll… I’ll be okay… Peter, do you think this was the right thing to do?”

He puckers his eyebrows and reflects on it for a moment, then delicately sits next to me on the mattress.

“Under the circumstances, yes… I think so. All we need to do now is keep you perfectly still… and just see how your state evolves.”


“And what if it does?... You’ll ask Vlad if you can ‘keep me’?” I ask cheekily. But he only looks mildly amused.
“He might not have given you the best impression, but he’s my closest friend. You know, he risked his own neck by going there with me. I have authorization, he doesn’t. So… please make sure you never mention that, if you ever meet the others…”


“The ‘others’…How many are there exactly?” My throat feels dry all of a sudden.


“Well, if Earth is just a ‘garden’, then…” he kids, but quickly notices how unreassuring his answer is. “Don’t worry about that for now, though. I’m sure you understand why we’d rather… keep you secret for the time being. Lily… no one can know!” he pleads, his eyes boring into mine. His words are so intense they freak me out.


“I won’t tell! I swear! But do you realize what you’re asking of me? If someone comes, it’s not like I can get up and run! Besides, where would I hide? I’m in very, very foreign territory!...” I ramble on, as his features quickly soften.


“The brooding bubble will keep you hidden for now; we’ll take turns in guarding it… And as soon as you’re better, I’ll tell you everything you want to know…”


“Why not start now?... You filled my brain with nothing but bits and pieces of information today, and they all felt like the tips of several icebergs at once… Is Earth really a ‘Garden’ to you? And why would you need Nirav to get there, but not to travel to the other Spaces?... What are we talking about here? Alternate dimensions? Space portals? Black holes?...”

Now that I’ve got him here, he’s telling me everything I want to know. Be careful though, too many questions might raise suspicion


“Energy. The keyword is Energy… To put it simply, imagine that our Spaces are like… FM radio waves. We know those waves well, and we can read them precisely enough to harness them. Whereas Earth, and all the other elements like it, are on AM. We know of their existence, but only Nirav is attuned to them, so only he can…leap from one wave to the other. We wouldn’t know how…”


“But… what about the creators of these “Gardens”? How did they get there?”


“With Nirav’s skills as well. There were others with slightly similar gifts that also helped, but he’s by far the best at it…” As he says those words, a quick but sinister frown digs a passing crease between his eyebrows. I sense a story there…


“What’s wrong?”I venture.


“Nothing… I’m just… worried you’ll want to run for the hills if this gets too much, when there aren’t many hills around to run to,” he winks, with strained supernatural humor. “Just… can you please promise me to keep an open mind? I have so much to show you!... I know, I’m asking way too much.” Oh, you think?! “Forgive me… Let’s not think about that for now. Just know that I’m here, and you won’t have to face anything alone; starting with what you’re currently going through…” he vows.


“Yeah, about that… Are you… stuck in here with me? This place doesn’t seem to have a door!”I say, working my flirty-shy approach. What is wrong with me?



He smiles and seems to wickedly appreciate the idea, then leisurely lowers his eyes to my lips.


“A small confession… I’m glad these haven’t changed,” he whispers, raising his thumb to the corner of my mouth. I swallow hard. Torture, torture, torture. “I wonder how it feels…”


His words remain suspended in the hot air, and very carefully, making sure he doesn’t touch any injured part of my body, he leans down, and softly lays his warm lips over mine.

My heart threatens to beat its way out of my chest, as a million contradicting thoughts and emotions take over. I feel him exhale, as if letting go, and his lips start to stroke and melt into mine, in a slow, heartbreakingly sensual cadence. Don’t give in Lily… focus on how sore you skin feels, and hold on to that…


Oh who am I kidding. Kiss him, kiss him!


He stops very briefly, keeping his eyes closed and his forehead against mine, then whispers, “You may not see it now, and I can grasp how scared you are… but there is one constant that I will prove to you, no matter what; a constant you’ll need to bear in mind if ever things get rough... : I love you. I love you.”



He kisses me again, and this time, I so give in. It’s such sweet torture that I oscillate between bliss and tears.


I know I’m out of my haze when I feel his lips slowly detaching themselves from mine, and the perfumed air filling the unwanted space between us. His forehead lingers on mine, and he takes a few moments to control his breathing and open his eyes. He then sits up and looks at me with a tender gleam in his eyes. He doesn’t seem to expect an answer. Instead, he gives my cheek a last stroke before lithely standing up.


“This place doesn’t need a door”, he says playfully, as his raised fingers wave towards one end of the incubator. A slit opens in the façade, as if the whole thing were made of silk! “Sleep… We’ve given you too much to take on for one day. I’ll be checking on you every once in a while. In the meantime, if you need anything, please just say my name…”


I give him a dazed, tentative smile. A smile that reluctantly disappears as soon as he steps out of the bubble.


I have to sober up, to think straight. He’s just said he loves me, and all I could think of is how to get away from here…


They believe I’m turning into one of them, because of Peter’s drawing. And they have never seen this happen before.


I, however, have a different theory.


Peter didn’t exactly draw me as ‘one of them’. He specifically drew me as Leetah. And for some strange reason, it has evaded them that maybe, just maybe, I could be turning more particularly into her.

And from what I know of her abilities, I might turn out to have more control over this, than they could possibly expect…



-----------------------------------



“I’m sorry, did I startle you? I thought I heard…”


Peter enters the bubble once again. Third time in the last few hours, and third distraction from my… experiment.


“No, I’m okay. Must be sleep-talking. Too much on my mind I guess…” I smile cautiously.

“You’re sweating!… I’m sorry, I’ll ask Vlad to reduce the heat level,” he promises, while very invasively staring at every inch of my limbs and face, for a sign of change. “Your complexion… it’s getting very faintly darker. You can’t see it yet, but it’s clear to me… This is really happening!” he says with evident wonder.

I nod, trying to look somehow unafraid, as he kisses my palm, steals my breath with a smile, and leaves.


Panic rises to the surface and makes my lower lip tremble. ‘This is really happening!’ I’m losing myself, bit by bit… My experiment has to work!!!

For the past hours, I’ve been remembering everything I’ve read about her. ‘Leetah – Elfquest. Healer and gatherer.’


Healer. How could Peter miss this?!


In the books, she would spread her fingers wide over a wounded body, just like Peter does for drawing, and then she would concentrate intensely, and… her energy would cure the hurt Elf. I know, it’s just a comic!... That’s what the little voice in my head has been telling me all along. But with everything I’ve seen today, nothing should seem impossible anymore…


And yet, every time I spread my hand over one of my wounds, and concentrate hard enough to break a sweat, I end up feeling deeply stupid.

I’m no supernatural creature!!! I’m just Ginger from Paris, with the dysfunctional family, the pathological forgetfulness of keys, and the now obvious cataclysmically bad taste in men…


A faint noise makes me jump, and I loosen my silly healer’s pose just in time to see Nirav’s dark, imposing silhouette entering the silk meringue. He stands at the slit-shaped entrance, politely nodding, as if asking for the permission to enter. For once, I allow myself to stare at him. He’s clad in a thigh-length dark-reddish coat, and dark pants I can barely make out, both of textile I’ve never, ever seen before. Man, he’s tall! Probably taller than Vlad, and definitely tanner. He’s got this fierce gaze that makes me want to look down. I nod back, and he relaxes as he advances towards me.


What is he doing here?


He stops a tactful few inches away, and points towards my arm. I think he’s about to play some other Elf-trick, but nothing happens. It takes me a second to realize that he’s actually asking if my arm, the one whose cast he fractured, still hurts.


“Oh! No… it’s better now,” I reassure him, puzzled by why he would even care.


He looks away, as if he doesn’t really know what to do with himself, then turns back to me with a very subtle start of a smile. He nimbly pulls an object from his pocket, while stealthily looking over his shoulder, towards the entrance.


Once he’s sure we’re alone, he holds out his hand and slowly opens his fingers to reveal… yellow hard candy?!


I gape at him for a second, confused. He lifts his chin and advances his hand, as if urging me to take it.


I reach out, undecidedly, and grasp the small pastille. The brand is carved in the sugar; I know it well. Oda even brought some of it for hospital guests! …A small souvenir from the Garden?


He nods again, curtly, and twists around to leave, as if not wanting to stare at me while I eat it.


“Um… thank you!” I mumble.


He gives me a polite, profile smile and steps out.


How incredibly strange!!!...



Somehow, his nice initiative has tripled my resolve.


One day, I will need him.


             A deep glare of determination etches itself on my face, and with one last excruciating surge, I concentrate my entire being on the open fracture wound on my arm.


             And then…


I suddenly sense a deep, deep, disturbing shiver, coming from my very insides, and nausea…Staggering nausea… I muffle a strained moan, and have the swift reflex of looking at the wound, as it feels like it’s been set on fire.










CHAPTER FIFTEEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________


           
           This must be some kind of otherworldy hallucination…
 

Either that, or the last few events in my life have never taken place, because I’m pretty sure I’m currently standing in my room! I’m standing. No fractures, no gashes. As if the whole thing’s never happened.

All around me is personal stuff I’ve been hoarding for years, old records, and Parisian dust. Yep, this is my room alright. And man am I happy to see it!!! I feel a lump in my throat as my brain tries to figure out how the hell I got here, and if I should trust this to be reality. It all looks, feels, and smells eerily familiar, although… there’s a light scent of smoke in the air. My eyes quickly scan the place, and I swiftly take a step back as I see my bed abruptly burst into flame. After a second of frozen panic, I run towards the door, and violently try to twist the knob and bang at it, but it feels more like stone than wood. This can’t be real 

Like dry leaves, the records start catching fire, one by one, in a domino effect, rushing all the way to the curtains. Fuck!!!
 

“GINNY!!!” I bang again, and again, to no avail. 


And then, like an incandescent, deadly Egyptian cobra, a flame slithers up my entire arm, without a sound. I shriek from the pain, and…



My eyes open to a more recently familiar setting: airy, white, whipped-cream-shaped silk. 


Soaked in sweat, I quickly check my arm, and my eyes ball out. Are these… burns?! The entire limb is riddled with sores, so much so that they’ve covered the initial wound…

No, wait…

Where is that wound?! I squint.

Naw… No way.

I try to move my arm, which should be impossible, with this kind of fracture…

Motherf…!   


I DID IT!!!! 


I may have given myself a dozen burns instead, but I actually healed an open fracture!! I might even have fainted from the pain at one point – I shudder at the thought of rising flames – but I actually DID IT!!!

Not sure it should be done on oneself though… The energy it takes to make it work and the excruciating pain that comes with the process, are enough to wear anyone out. 

Peter was right… Energy. The keyword is Energy.

But no time for musing right now. Someone could come in at any moment, and I need to get this done. On all the wounds. Tonight.

Come to think of it, is it even night time? Does that exist over here?...Well, the only way I could check is by standing on my own two feet. 

The face and eyes will be the trickiest; I’m not sure I’d like to end up with burn scar tissue all over. I’d probably become the first Elf in History with a skin condition. Great. 
            

 Okay, hipbone, it’s just you and me now…

                                                          
                                                           ------------------------------------


            I don’t know how long I’ve been at this, but it felt like hours. And I was so lucky – and quiet – that Peter didn’t march in to check on me for the millionth time.

            I’m so sore it feels like I’ve been dragged across boiling asphalt for days… I had another couple of blackouts, all leading to the same, blazing dream. And the wound at the back of my head took over fifteen tries to heal. I was too terrified of giving myself a brain injury… Hey, not like I know what I’m doing here! But the rush is indescribable. I’m in a whirlwind of sweat, fear, throbbing, concentration, tears, and abrupt incredulous chuckles. If this weren’t so horrible, it would be cool.    

What is not cool, however, is the only remaining wound: my swollen, inflamed face. How the hell will I go about this, when the simple idea of going near my eyes freaks me out? And what if I just mess it up and… maim myself? Thoughts like ruining my entire genetic legacy fleetingly cross my mind. The prospect of losing every trace of Erik and Oda in me, is distressing. I close my eyes and decide to take a few minutes. I’m just so… overwhelmed. You can do this! No one can help you here but yourself. Do it!

As I open my lids, I gasp loudly then bite my lip.

Sshh! If they hear you, you’re screwed!

But the surprise is too big to repress: A few inches from my forehead, a small speck of light floats soundlessly, a little like a firefly. It’s tiny and only bright enough to catch my attention. I watch it drift there, straight above me, with slight, weightless motion, just like the statues outside.
However I’m too dog-tired to be wary, and it looks so… reassuring that I decide to go for the next sentimental interpretation: whatever it is, it’s here to give me hope. I really can do this!

I clench my teeth, and direct my palm and wide open fingers at my face. Here goes nothing…


A few minutes later, I decide to stop. Just as with the other wounds, the burning effect started off very intensely, then faded proportionally to the healing. I try grazing my eyelids, very delicately, and can already feel the blisters forming. But the swelling has gone down considerably… Good. I gaze at the little luminous speck, and feel tempted to thank it, when exhaustion suddenly engulfs me, and I drift into a heavy, dreamless sleep…

     
                                               ---------------------------------------


I awaken with a start. How long was I out? Not being able to tell the time here is very frustrating. But the good thing is I’m still alone. If anyone had come in, they would have been too intrigued by the burns to leave me to my dreams…

And the small light is still there, hovering at exactly the same distance from my forehead. It looks like… it wants something.


Sorry mate, I don’t speak Elf-light.


Carefully, I test my own limbs. The left arm is still functional. I shake my head in wonder. Did I really do this?!... It feels a little rusty, but besides that, no pain. I lift it to inspect the sores, and I get a gobsmacking impression of déjà-vu: just like my former freckles, the blisters are nowhere to be seen!!! 


So that’s how it works? Healing with excruciating fire, getting drained of all possible energy, leaving sores, sleeping it off, then… voila?


My skin is a limpid tone of olive, just like Peter said, and very much like the others’. Have I really morphed into… something else? I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around that.

I slowly turn my glance towards the entrance of the cocoon, and to my surprise, the luminous dot follows my head’s trajectory, while keeping the same distance. I tentatively lift a finger towards it, only to notice that it magnetically catches on to my finger’s trail, and starts hovering over it. How strange!

I gather my strengths and try sitting up. It feels like I haven’t done that for ages! I get a little dizzy after the initial thrust, but it’s nothing serious. Then, like I used to do at the pool, I let my toe touch the milky ground, very softly… It feels like… it’s very subtly vibrating! I screw my eyes up, and notice that, for some reason, my toe isn’t quite touching the ground, no matter how hard I try.

I put down the entire sole… The vibration is more and more distinct. It’s almost tickling, but not unpleasant. Second sole. Hmm… the temperature is just right. Or maybe it’s because my feet aren’t really touching the ground?… Oh what do I know!

Here we go… I stand up, feeling like a trembling newborn fawn.

Yes!!! I’m finally vertical again! I swear, my butt was starting to go flat on that thing…


Lifting my head, I’m yet again faced with the light dot. What am I to do with you?

I form a cup with the palm of my hand, and raise it up. As expected, the thing catches the new magnetic field, and follows it, while keeping a safe distance. I then try to close my fingers around it, making sure I leave enough room in there for it to float… It doesn’t burn at all.

Looking down, I inspect my hospital gown. Ew. Those things are just awful. I just hope nothing is… hanging out at the back!

Nevermind that now; I need to get out of here… 


I turn towards the almost invisible exit, and start with baby steps… God it's so good to be walking again! The vibration underneath is a bit unsettling, and the idea of not actually being in direct contact with the ground makes me unconsciously feel like tripping. This will need getting used to…

 A few more steps and I’m there, staring at this eerily beautiful silk-like lining. I reach out for it, but instead of letting me touch it, it slides open, like a forming guard of honour.  

Woah… the mausoleum-like hall appears in all its oval-shaped splendor. It’s so void, yet breathtaking in its vacuity. There’s this sense of awe that one gets in old cathedrals. The convoluted web of shimmering cupolas up above is nothing if not a confirmation of that. A quick estimate of how high it is would be the Montparnasse Tower, if not higher. And yet, its only bases are walls of thin, glowing sand which seems to ripple like oily waves, now that I look at it.

As for the majestic statues, they’re all clad in much more elegant clothes than Vladimir and Nirav’s, and have a sort of intricate laurel-branch-like crown. I wonder why I couldn’t see this before…

I take a deep breath, and step out of the bubble.



A loud huff abruptly stops me in my tracks. A few meters to my right stand the only three people I know in this new universe; three individuals who are now eyeing me like they’ve just seen a ghost.

The first one to move is Nirav. He lithely puts his hands behind his back, lowers his head, and freezes in that position. Vlad, whose mandible is almost touching the ground, throws very quick glances his way, though he can’t help but stare back at me every time.

Peter, however, gives me a look that sends my heart racing through my system.   

It’s hard to describe. There’s a side of “I knew it” in that gaze, mixed with intense wonder, evident pride, and… some scorching emotion I can’t identify, but that still manages to turn my insides into goo. He’s like a young version of Christopher Plummer in The Sound Of Music, when he stares at Julie Andrews with this intimidating yet gloriously loving look, while indulging in a small budding smile. A shiver swiftly slinks down my spine. 


“… How?” Vladimir whispers, barely containing his amazement.


“Must be the brooding-bubble,” I offer the excuse I’d been mulling over in the last hours. “The transformation must have really kicked in, because I no longer feel any pain. Is that normal?” I ask, while internally doing the I-own-you dance.

“Well…erm… we have no history of…” Vlad mumbles, then seems to prefer staring to speaking.  

I discreetly exhale. That’s what I’d been betting on all along: their lack of information in such matters as morphing humans and their potential healing powers. Yes, maybe I CAN do this…

Peter’s awestruck stare turns progressively into a sly, amused smirk, as he slowly kneels and puts his palm against the quivering ground. Gradually, the vibration under my feet seems to increase. I look intently at the bright floor, and see a sort of beautiful, creamy, undulating motion advancing my way, fast. I raise an eyebrow at Peter. What is he playing at?

Suddenly my entire balance is off.

Oh so it’s a test then!

Okay, Alberic, it’s ON!


When the small waves reach me, I try to keep my balance by bending with the motion, like I’m so used to doing in the metro. But a fraction of a second later, it’s no longer enough.

I’m NOT giving them the satisfaction of laughing at me!

I spread my arms out, making sure my fist stays closed around my little glowing friend, and start oscillating, ridiculously, in a desperate attempt to remain standing. I hear no laughter yet, so I’m able to stay calm.
The undulation keeps getting stronger though, and I know I’ll have to come up with something else quickly.

It’s amazing how Peter can just wield the earth like that… It’s like the vibration rebounds against his hand and ripples all the way out to me. But if that’s true, then maybe… I close my eyes and try to really sense the tremors under my soles. I sort of feel like the luminous speck now, in its inherent skill to just… ride the energy wave. Maybe all I have to do is…not resist. I lower my arms, and feel increasingly… lighter. I open my eyes and see Peter’s grin spread from ear to ear, as the other two just look baffled beyond their wit. 

Glancing down at my feet, I realize that the waves are still there but I’m just…hovering over them, as if magnetically attracted yet kept at bay, both at the same time. And it feels AWESOME.

I wonder if I can provoke that too! I bow down and, with my free hand, carefully touch the ground, using only one wary finger. It tickles, but I can fully sense it: there’s some sort of power there, in constant yet subtle movement. I slightly push down, only to hear a rustle of thuds and laughter. 

I look up, and see all three Elves on the ground!


“And this is what she can do with only one finger!” Peter gloats to the others, while locking eyes with me.  


He gets up and advances towards me, making me nervous all of a sudden. Will I be able to lie to him too?

As he gets closer, he spontaneously reaches out for my closed hand. Should I reveal the light speck to him, and to everyone? Either way, I have no choice. They’re the only ones who could tell me what it is.

I put my hand out, and delicately open my fingers. The small firefly happily bobs out, then steadies itself right above my palm.


Without warning, Peter jumps back, and turns towards a terrified-looking Vlad, as Nirav lets the scariest of frowns etch itself on his panicked face.


“What?... WHAT?!” I demand.


Peter turns back to me, with a furiously clenched jaw.




“They know… They all know!!!” 











CHAPTER SIXTEEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________



            “It’s called a Lume. It’s our main means of communication between Spaces. And you just got one, personally addressed to you. Do you realize what that means?” Peter explains with patience as distended as a heavy water balloon.

            Three pairs of eyes ogle at me as I try not to let my blushing reflexes kick in. What have I done to cause this? My mind quickly goes over everything I’ve said, seen and touched since I got here, and I pathetically worry about having broken one of the local codes – codes that I have no knowledge of whatsoever. This is bull! I haven’t done anything!

            “Yes. It means someone knows I’m here. But if you’re insinuating, in any way, that I…” I choke.
           
            “Okay, let’s go about it differently. Vlad, Nirav, has any one of you sent a Lume before or after our trip?”

            The two Elves shake their heads adamantly, and all eyes veer back to me.

            “This is just… beyond ridiculous! Who could I possibly have spoken to?!” No blushing yet. This new skin seems much less revealing, which makes for a good change.

            “Not ‘spoken to’, but connected with on some level,” Vladimir interferes, sounding diminished relatively to an obviously furious Peter. “Have you dreamt or thought of anyone that didn’t look familiar to you?”

            “Huh?... You guys ever heard of Freud?” I throw, with aligned eyebrows. Okay, maybe it’s a bad time for fresh jokes, but I’m just trying to keep up with the absurdity of it all.
           
            “Lily, please!” Peter says, huffing and pressing the heel of this hand against his forehead. Hello drama queen!
           
            “First, NO, I haven’t. And second, if you could ‘connect’ like that, why need Lumes?” I ask with genuine curiosity.
           
            “Erm… we can’t. But since we each have a particular skill, we’re still waiting for yours to manifest…” Vlad admits. 


Well, they can wait. 

 
            “And in the meantime, it sounds like you’re reaching. You know I can’t possibly have provoked this! You know it,” I insist, throwing a pleading glance at Peter. He looks me straight in the eye, which seems to be the habit with him whenever he needs to know what’s going through my mind.
           
            “Lily,” he says in a slow whisper, “soon you will get the hang of this world, and you will start recognizing the sender through the aspect and sound of a Lume. And this one, white, clear, and perfect in its silence, is very distinctive…”


            “It’s from Danielle,” Vlad states gravely, as if that says it all.


            “Danielle?” 


            “In human terms, she’s our regent. Our queen, if you will,” Peter utters distractedly, as if already thinking of an escape strategy.

            Wow… I have a message from the Elven Queen herself!... To my name… And I really don’t know what to make of that, or how scared I should be right now.

No one can know! he’d said, perhaps to avoid the news getting to her, ultimately. And if it has, then she knows about me: a Human, out here, that seems to be undergoing some radical “changes”, harbored by three subjects that really should not meddle with the Affairs of the Garden. In other words, if I’m in trouble, then so are they. All three of them. 


Hm… I now see exactly how screwed we are.  


“Wait… we haven’t even read to the message yet! This could all be a… coincidence or something,” I try, feebly.

The three look so grim that I start to seriously feel the fear, deep in my gut. The first to straighten his shoulders is Peter, who seems to have come up with a plan.

“Lily and I will face her alone. And whatever happens, I’ll take all the blame. You guys never went there with me, and Nirav, I basically threatened you into teleporting me. Is that clear?”


What?! No! Him taking the fall does not sound like a solution!


With a perfectly neutral face, Vlad and Nirav lift up their right hand, bending down their index and middle finger, like we humans would to mime quotation marks.

“Is that a solemn vow gesture?” I ask.

“Um… no. They just flipped me off,” Peter states bleakly, as the others fight off a smile. “So that’s a no then...” He lets out a heavy sigh, then grabs my hand and raises it up to the Lume, still floating carelessly near my temple. “There are two ways of reading this. If you want to listen to it privately, you’ll need to direct it gently towards your ear, and then usher it in.”

“Ew.”

“Focus, please… If you want others to hear it too, you’ll need to make it come to you, and then press it against your forehead, like that.” 

He mimes encircling the speck with his palm, but the second he does that, the strangest reaction occurs. The Lume starts shivering uncontrollably, and suddenly seems to let go of my magnetic field for Peter’s.  Its entire gravitational powers just change focus, and it starts following his movements.


“What the…?!” he frowns.

It takes a few seconds for it to click in my head.

“Wait, that’s great! It could mean it was sent to you instead of me, couldn’t it?” I speculate, finally feeling a modicum of relief.

“No… I don’t believe so. A Lume is intended for the one it reaches first… but it could simply mean that some of my Energy has gone on to you!...” Peter reveals with the shadow of a proud smile, before locking eyes with me in one of those heart-stopping, meaningful gazes. 

He then seems to pull himself together, though I can still see his weakly concealed delight. How can he look so thrilled when the thought alone makes my hairs stand on end? If my energy was passed on from him, wouldn’t that make him my… genitor of some sorts?!... That’s just twisted on so many levels! Erik and Oda did that job well, and I would under no circumstance perceive Peter as a father figure! 


            “Here…” he whispers cluelessly, as he guides the Lume back to me. In a fraction of a second, the same quivering reaction takes place, and the light dot is back to its former orbit. 

“So… will it be private or shared?” he pushes.


I choose forehead. Besides, if it’s not addressed to me after all, everyone present would witness it first hand. So, as I shove the speck against my forehead, Peter warns, “Now, this might be a bit intense the first time…”

ARGH!!! Ow ow! My brain whistles sharply like an earsplitting Larsen effect, as the Lume disappears completely; and in a swift second, a loud, hollow voice fills my entire being. 

The language is completely unknown to me, but it sounds so airy and elegant that I hold my breath and listen, absorbedly. The message ends after a few seconds, and I quickly look to Peter for a translation, with ears still ringing like the Angelus bell. 


“It says, ‘I am Danielle. Whoever you are, and whoever your maker, you are both expected very shortly. I look forward to knowing you’.” 


A very heavy silence falls, none daring or knowing how to react. 

My first thought is: she doesn’t know exactly who I am… which might be good news, right?

But did she really say “maker”?! This is an absolute nightmare!!!

On the other hand, the invitation did not sound hostile… Then again, how would I know?... The look on everyone’s face is as reassuring as a looming thunderstorm. 


I try to break the graveyard quiet with more annoyingly inquisitive questions. “Erm… how come you guys speak our language so well, when you have your own?”

“We’ve actually created your languages. Or at least the root ones,” Vlad explains, not resisting the history trivia. “Aber wir können Deutsch sprechen, wenn Sie möchten. Cela ne nous pose aucun problème en fait. [1] 

Wow. He so would’ve gotten his butt kicked in school. 
 



[1]  « But we can speak German if you like. (German) It’s no problem at all actually. (French) »



“Oh… That figures. English is good, thanks…” I then warily turn to a furrowed-browed Peter, “So… This all seems inevitable, doesn’t it? I have to go see her… She will then notice I’m some weird hybrid and terminate me, and then no harm would be done to the general equilibrium. A very straightforward, basic prospect…” I ramble on, noticing that deep inside, I still haven’t comprehended or believed any of this, and that my brain is still waiting for me to wake up eventually, and find myself in that hospital bed. The pain felt real. This doesn’t. Not in the least, especially now that I’m kindly invited to my own potential execution. 
   
“Hey, no, don’t say that!” Peter objects, then throws an awkward look at the others, as if pleading for something. Vlad nods, and they both turn around and slowly walk away, as if giving us some privacy. While carefully keeping an eye on them, Peter puts his hand out sideways, for me to take. I’m thrilled, although it oddly feels like he’s about to do something he shouldn’t.

I lightly touch his fingers, only to feel them grab on to my hand, and fiercely twirl me around until my face slams against his chest, then his arms enfold me as fiercely, and lift me off the ground. I’m suddenly like a little girl, carried as if I weighed nothing at all. He buries his nose in my hair, although I can feel that he hasn’t lost sight of the others for a second. My heart embarrassingly pounds against his torso, and I can’t seem to de-goggle my eyes. I wrap my arms around his neck, not daring to jinx any of this by asking questions.

He whispers very lightly and almost too fast for me to grasp everything, “If you knew just how heartbreakingly beautiful you are right now, and what a radiant being you’ve turned into, you would understand what I’m about to say: Nothing will happen to you. Nothing. One look at you and everyone will know your reason for existing. And if they don’t, I’ll be there to show them…”

And just as brusquely as it started, the hug is broken with an almost violent yank. Peters puts me down exactly where I was before, and draws his arms so quickly it’s hurtful. I simultaneously notice that the other two have stopped and turned around at nearly the same second. I narrow my eyes at Peter. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to comprehend that for some very serious reason, he and I are not supposed to be seen having any physical contact.  But… why not?!    



Peter nods once, all business-like, and the two walk back towards us, carrying a curious-looking, oval-shaped device. Its bright golden surface is mesmerizing, but not as much as its mind-boggling intricacy, which reveals itself with every step closer. 

“It’s a Pathavane,” Vlad answers my unasked question. “We use it to clear a specific itinerary, and we’re going to need that–” 

“No, you aren’t, because you’re not going!” Peter commands, but no one gives his tantrum much importance.

“As I was saying,” Vladimir resumes with almost Rickman-like phlegm, “this will help us get clearance for the Spaces we can cross to get to Danielle’s, based on what is currently going on in each, and how… ‘welcome’ we might be there,” he winks. 

“But… can’t Nirav teleport us directly?” I ask, peeping apologetically at the tall Elf.

“No, it’s not the same thing,” Peter interferes. “He only does, erm… FM to AM jumps,” he explains as if to a five year-old, while the other two raise a quizzical eyebrow.

I choose to ignore the patronizing, and swerve my attention back to the Path-thingy.


It looks like a series of concentric, Penrose-stair-like oval rings, each shaped differently from the next. And in the middle floats a glistening golden sphere. The whole device seems like a much more complex version of a gyroscope.

 Vladimir lets go of the Pathavane, which, like most things – and people – here, doesn’t obey the laws of gravity. It merely hangs there, awaiting its orders. Peter advances and slides his index on one of the loops, which causes the entire thing to collapse horizontally: all the circles join in at the middle, forming a ring system around the sphere, as if it were their Saturn.   

He then delicately presses his finger against the sphere, and draws a very strange, slender symbol. The second he steps away, the loops pop back into position and gradually start spinning, each in a different manner and direction. Slow at first, the rings progressively speed up and, like a very cool science experiment, light symbols appear on the sphere, one after the other. The rotation gets so fast that the rings almost disappear, and the symbols inside get clearer by the second.


I, of course, have no idea what they mean, so I observe everyone’s reaction in the hopes of getting some sort of clue. 

The group doesn’t even wait for the Pathavane to stop before they start discussing the suggested route.

“Whatever the order, I’d like her to pass by Sam’s first,” Peter requests, and the others seem to agree. 

“Dem and Indya should be free at this time, and they won’t give us any trouble. Better yet, they might teach her the basics…” Vlad ponders, and everyone directs considerate glances my way. 

Thanks for using the third person when I’m standing right here, guys. 
"But unfortunately, it means we’d be passing by Corb…” Vlad suddenly bites his tongue and gives Peter an apologetic look. 

Peter brushes it off with a headshake and a swift change of subject. “Either way, we’d have to go through mine, but then Pi’s… and I really think it’s too soon for that,” he muses, as Vlad unexpectedly beams at me, playfully. 

“Don’t look at me,” I throw with a hardly concealed pout, “you lost me at ‘Pathavane’!” 

And with their usual tact, they all snort. Loudly. 


“Okay then,” Peter eventually adopts a leader’s voice, “if any one of you needs to prepare for the trip, go right ahead. We don’t have much time.” 


He then turns to me and ruthlessly eyes me from head to toe, with a little more than mere interest. “As for you, young lady,” he puts on a mischievous smirk, “let’s get you out of that shapeless, human dress.”


My eyebrows almost reach my hairline.  












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________


“Whatever could you mean?” I ask coyly, fighting off a blush that never comes. That’s still very unsettling. 

“Oh, you’ll see,” he promises with a smug wink and total obliviousness of Nirav, who’s still standing right there. 

Ah, so flirty innuendoes are okay, as long as there’s no touching? We’re going to have to talk about this, eventually.

Meanwhile Vlad takes a few steps away, then slowly lifts his forearms like a T’ai chi master, and seems to be pushing air forward with his palms. A disturbing second later, an arcade-shaped, rippling blue veil appears right in front of him. 
And in one step forward, he disappears. 

“How did… Where…?” I mumble.
“This is a big place! He just stepped into another room,” Peter indulges.  

It’s bigger than this?!?
“You saw how we could build things, in the Chronophora, remember?” he explains, looking all excited again about teaching me the ways of his world. 
I nod.

“We can also make them disappear and reappear at will. Vlad overdoes it, like he does everything else… But it comes from a good place, I guess. He wants most of his Space to be a memorial for our Elders,” he motions toward some of the statues, “So he keeps his own rooms hidden, in respect.”

“Um… Can I do this? Build things?” I can’t help but ask.

“Oh you’ll learn! We all have. There’s a… school for this, run by two of my closest friends. We’ll pass through their Spaces on the way.”

“Shall we?” Vlad asks, reappearing all too quietly, and comically waving backwards to make the veiled entrance disappear. He’s carrying what looks like a long, maroon cloth bag, bean-pod shaped, with ends twisted like a sultan’s slippers. He hoists it up to his shoulder.

“Is that food?” I whisper to Peter, “’Cause I’m starved, honestly.”

My words stop him dead, and he stares at me, puzzled. “You’re hungry?!” he asks a little too loudly, drawing a mystified look from Vlad. Nirav, however, seems indifferent. It’s his thoughtful candy gift that has kept me going so far. …What does he know?


“But… we don’t get hungry!” Vlad blurts.

The only word I like in that sentence is the “we”. It shows I’m part of the group. But the rest suddenly depresses me. “You don’t eat?!” I ask with exaggerated woe. Yes, I said ‘woe’. This seemed the dramatic moment for it.

“Well… yes we do, but for… pleasure. It’s part of our baser needs,” Vlad goes on, murmuring that last part as if it were dirty.


No food?! I hate this place!!!


Peter’s worried knuckle goes back up to that juicy lower lip of his. “I don’t see how we can find things to eat anytime soon… Are you still capable of physical effort?” he asks, as if addressing a human again.

“’Starved’ is an exaggeration… I’m okay,” but the residual distraught look on my face convinces no one.

“We’ll hurry and find you something, I promise,” Peter intimates, worriedly.

He then turns to Vlad and speaks in their airy, elegant language. The vowels seem longer – some even doubled – while the consonants sound more labial than anything else. It’s fascinating to listen to, and it seems like they’re discussing the route again, so I’m not too frustrated to know what’s being said, as long as it leads us to chow.


As I stare on and grab my rumbling tummy, I feel Nirav’s imposing presence, looming, somewhere to my left. Another very strange aspect of this place: everything and everyone is teeming with so much energy that I could feel it against my very skin. I wonder if it’s the nature of things here, or mine.  My “new nature”, unknown to everyone, including me…

I lightly lean towards the tall, intimidating Elf, and speak as low as I can. “Did you know? That I would need to eat, I mean?”

He gazes at me, as if unsure whether or not he should answer that, and then raises three fingers to his mouth.

What happens then is both icky and beguiling: a trail of luminous, orangish sparks follows his fingers, as he does a soft, pulling movement. They gradually bundle up in an irregular sphere which levitates in front of his lips for a second, then lightly glides over to me. 

Wow… If that’s his Lume, it’s absolutely beautiful.

I carefully do as Peter taught me, ushering it toward my ear, while cautiously glancing at the other two. Should they be seeing this?

To my surprise, I feel Nirav’s fingers still my hand mid-motion. He faintly shakes his head, and lifts my fingers to my eyes.

What…? His Lume is read differently?... I stare at him, befuddled, and it’s seconds before I finally understand.
Oh no… I can’t even bear the thought of putting a contact lens in there, and this guy wants me to push a fireball into my eye?!

Ugh… Okay, here goes… Good thing it’s not actually fire. I barely even feel the impact…

At first, nothing happens. But then, slowly, gracefully, gleaming shapes start forming, too close for me to see clearly. I instinctively screw up my eyes and concentrate, as if adjusting the focus of a camera lens. It’s intense enough to make me dizzy. I have no idea if these shapes are seen on the outside, or if they’re only reflected against my own cornea. What are they?

A few seconds later, they start making sense.

“Suspected it. I had to check”.

The incandescent words scroll before – or within – my eyes, then slowly disappear, as if their job is done.

I blink a couple of times, quizzically tilting my head. How is a Lume really made? And how could he have written those words without even using his hands? What I would give for a crash course in Elf!!!

But I try to stick to the subject at hand.

“Oh… so the candy was a test?” I ask, although the answer is obvious. He nods, shrugging apologetically.

My next question catches him off guard.


“But then… what am I?”


If what’s supposed to be an optional, “base” need to them, is a primary necessity for me, then how “Elven” could I possibly be?...


The sudden silence that follows puts an end to the conversation. From the corner of my eye, I notice Peter watching me, warily.

“Ready?” he asks, addressing only me.

For some reason that goes against all my feminist principles, I nod, obediently, and scurry to him, like a child who’s got caught stealing from the cookie jar.

And my question just hangs there, unanswered.



Vlad guides the group to one side of the colossal hall, where two statues, one male and the other female, seem to be floating in perfect synchrony. I observe as the lot stop to briefly bow in respect. I clumsily do the same, although the only admiration I feel is for their obvious reverence toward their forefathers slash mothers… I wish I knew their history, and what these figures have actually done to deserve all this…

Vlad slides one hand sideways, and the statues part, leaving a wider vacant space in the sandy wall. And very gracefully, Nirav and Vladimir step forward into the glittery powder, disappearing on the other side.

Now that we’re alone, Peter turns around, surprises me with a very swift, happy-teenager kiss – the hiding game again. Why? – and takes my hand.

“Remember what you did back there, with the ground?” he asks, with a tint of awe. I nod. “You’ll have to explain to me just how you figured it out so quickly! We all fall a few dozen times at first!!... But for now, just know that the principle is the same with this wall: feel the Energy of the particles, and just… float into it. Ready?”

I blink. Can I do this again? I’ll just have to think of Danielle’s Lume perhaps…

Peter squeezes my hand encouragingly, and slides through the sand as if it were water, keeping a hold of my fingers. But his dragging me with him barely gives me the time to concentrate, or even ask him to slow down. And so, soon enough, I find myself swallowing sand.

I cough in panic, and take a step back into the mausoleum, losing grip of Peter’s hand.  Damn it!

I ogle at the wall, fuming. It won’t get me that easy!

And just as I take a small but determined step forward, I see Peter’s forearm comically sticking through the sand, with an open, expecting palm. I chuckle at the sight of it, before a sneaky thought hits me. I delicately put my own palm underneath it, bend forward, and kiss the soft skin between the thumb and the index finger. It’s entirely his problem if he can’t keep a straight face on the other side, isn’t it? I snigger, proud of my flirting techniques, when his fingers softly reach up to my cheek and caress it in the sweetest of ways. I feel my insides shiver then loosen considerably… That man is very, very dangerous.

I straighten up, take a deep, uncertain breath and grab his hand. I can feel the vibration; it’s everywhere, and it never stops, so all I have to do is focus…

I close my eyes, and march into the wall, feeling only a slight tickle, as I somehow try to push the vibrations away, and try to… “glide” through them.


“You did it!” Peter whispers, letting go of my hand. “Now open your eyes…”

I do as he says, and my heart violently drops all the way to my feet.


Sweet mother of…!!!


We seem to be standing on a hill, with Elysium at our very feet.


The first thing that hits me is the infinity of floating, random-shaped, and highly colourful plots – … of land? – spreading as far as the eye can see, and beyond. They’re all woven into what looks like an endless, glowing, raw silk scarf, rippling softly and horizontally, on a supernatural, mellow, unfelt breeze.

The plots are of widely different shapes and sizes, with details I’m too scared to even focus on.

I’m frozen there, winded, with limp extremities and a reeling, overwhelmed mind, staring at what could very well be the heavens.

Everything floats here, even the earth. It’s so full of… Life, or what they call Energy; so much so that it seems animated by an actual heartbeat; a very gentle, immense one, as if this entire universe were built on a whale’s back.

And just when I think I’ve gone to the utter limits of bewilderment, I notice what lies beyond and above the ebbing and swelling silk…

This could be their sky, but instead of a clear, sunny-Sunday blue, it’s made of molten, soft-light-casting GOLD. Massive swirls and eddies of specked, melted gold, that resemble, to the stroke, Van Gogh’s Starry Night – without the blue. They shed a honey-yellow light, which seems to go perfectly with our olive skins, and reminds me of the outdoor scenes in Gattaca, one of my all-time favourite films…

But what good are human, earthly comparisons here? These are sights, colours, textures, and proportions I’ve never seen before, and I suspect no one else ever has.

My breath hitches heavily.


 “Are you okay?” Peter asks softly, but I don’t have it in me to answer.         

I look down and realize we’re actually standing on grass. Such an earthly thing, yet it exists here. I never imagined I would miss simple, uncut grass so intensely. It reminds me of the Luxembourg gardens in Paris. I swallow a threat of tears.


“Is this too much?” Peter insists. I slowly shake my head. My voice sounds hoarse when I finally manage to say, “Is this real?!...”


They all smile, then ceremoniously position themselves side by side in a straight line, with their backs turned to me. I wonder if they’re also contemplating the view, but then the three raise their hands to their mouths. Peter and Vlad whisper a few words in their language, while Nirav stands by. Next thing I see, three dots of light rise above their heads, and float there for a moment. Nirav’s orange-coloured Lume is easily distinguishable. Vlad’s looks more like a weightless, white, glowing snowflake, and Peter’s…. I smile as I realize it’s of the same, adorable green as his eyes. It’s perfectly round and flat, like a silver coin, and flips on itself, constantly reflecting light on both surfaces.

The three Lumes then dart out like shooting stars, towards different plots of land at the foot of the hill, followed quickly by many others the trio keep generating, three by three, in perfectly synchronized motions. There’s something very poetic about it...

In my daze, a faint thought slowly dawns on me: they’re informing everyone of our coming, or as Vlad put it, “politely asking permission from the landlords” to go through their Spaces.  But... what excuse could they possibly come up with to explain... me?! When I got Danielle’s Lume, Peter said it meant that everyone “knew”, but knew what exactly?...

 As I tensely watch the firefly-like messages head for their intended destinations, a kind of route is drawn by their light, like dots on a metro map; a route that looks anything but straight. The direct way to Danielle’s castle must have been too much to ask of the Pathavane...


A few seconds later, the Lume ritual is done, and the three Elves turn to see if I’m ready to start the journey, only to find a deep, worried frown.
“What did you tell them... about me?” I ask feebly, still choked up by the overwhelming sights, information, and worries that seem to have washed over me in a matter of minutes.

Peter glances playfully at the other two, and his slight smile aims to reassure.


“I told them I drew you, and you came to life,” he states simply.


My jaw drops.


“C-can you... actually do that sort of thing?” I ask, unable to hide the tinge of freak-out in my voice.

“No... but skills evolve here,” – They do?! – “so with a bit of bluff, I think I can pull it off... As long as you...”

“Don’t screw up?... I... How?...” I mumble, more overwhelmed by the second.

 Vlad whispers something in Elvish and Peter nods.

“Come, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’re running late. Danielle is not overly fond of waiting.”


                                               ----------------------------------
 

I follow the small group down the hill, soothed by the feel of wet grass against my soles. It helps me cool down and somewhat regulate my breathing. I discreetly check the back of the hospital gown and heave a sigh of relief: the ties are pretty tight. Imagine the embarrassment ... Hello new universe, one of yours drew me to life, but forgot to cover my rear end!

It’s a steep descent, and all I can see ahead is a weird-looking, grey mist, at the very bottom of the hill. I hope we’re not going through that...

Peter interrupts my musing. “We’ll all need to agree on the same story. Vlad and I were thinking, maybe I should say I drew you in my own Space, in an intensely inspired moment, and was shocked to see you materialize. Everyone knows I’m a Herald to your Garden, so they won’t be surprised I gave you a human language. I’ll explain all that, and how I took you straight to Vladimir’s Space...”

“For counsel, since I’m the expert on our History,” Vlad interferes. I catch sight of Nirav rolling his eyes, and I swallow a smirk. “He wanted to know if this had happened before, which it hasn’t. I then put you in a brooding bubble, just as Danielle’s Lume arrived.”

“What you’ll need to do is avoid, under all circumstances, any reference to your Garden, or your life there,” Peter instructs carefully. “No talk of memories or of people you knew.”

His casual, past-tense reference to my family and friends rips a hole through my chest, and for a second there, I hate him. 

Still, I try my best to keep a neutral face.

“You’ll need to look at everything with wonder, as if you were seeing it for the first time in your life. No comparisons with anything you’ve seen before. And if anyone asks you where you’ve learnt to speak, say you don’t remember that. Or anything for that matter.”

“What were my first images of? If they’re of you in your Space, well... I’ve never been there, and they might ask me...” I ramble.

“No, you first woke up in the bubble, which you know well... Lily, you have to be very careful... We’ll be with you at all times, and try to keep the curious ones away. We haven’t decided what to tell Danielle yet... We’ll have to come up with a plan. But for the others...”

“Okay, I heard you, I just... need to mull this over,” I murmur, staring at my feet as we walk on.

This is too heavy... Am I even up to it? All three of them are implicated, so if I fail...
Great, classic Stockholm syndrome! Why do I even care so much?... Yet again, if they’re in trouble, then so am I. Who knows what the others would do to a hybrid freak.

            I swallow hard.


As we get further away from the mausoleum, I inconspicuously throw a fleeting look backwards, and gasp. The circular outside is a mix of beautiful Indian-looking arcades decorated with floral-shaped silver motifs, and sturdy, pearl-white columns, probably of that same gleaming marble-like material as the ceiling cupolas. The roof is much more massive than the actual walls. It looks like a colossal silver crown, with liquid mercury spikes of all shapes and heights, all reaching upwards.

Vlad notices my stare. “They’re tears.”

“Come again?"

“They’re all tears, or at least they have their shape. One for each Elder who has moved on. Every time one of them leaves, I add a tear to the roof. You could say they’re ‘falling upwards’, to follow the Elders.” His tone falls slightly at the end, as if the emotion were still raw.

We keep walking, with Peter suddenly strangely quiet, and staring fixedly at the fog.

“What is that?” I ask, crossing my fingers for it not to be in our route plans.

“Nothing. It’s a condemned area. We’ll have to go around it, and get straight to Sam’s,” he says broodingly. Something’s off.

As we get closer, the fog becomes less opaque, and I start to distinguish black earth, as if after an extensive fire, and a desolate mess of stone, textile, and some material I don’t even know. And the mist is actually smoke, still oozing out of the ground itself. I can only see a few yards into it; the rest disappears within the fumes. It’s more sinister than a war zone.

“Who would do this to a Space?” I wonder out loud, but Vlad cautions me with a sharp look then quickly peers at Peter, as if hoping he hasn’t heard.


“My brother,” Peter blurts out without looking at me.


We walk on in silence, and I know that for now, this is all he’ll let on. He has a brother?!

Out of the blue, memories of his hospital visits start to come back to me.

Oh my God... his mother was assaulted. And now his brother and... this!



What the hell has happened to his family?! 












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________



At this point I don’t know what feels longer: the heavy, uneasy silence while we walk on grass, or that sinister wall of smoke, spreading on and on to our left, and keeping us all on edge. 



His brother did this. And the deeply troubled look he got when I asked him about these fuming ruins wasn’t a first: the same frown was there when Vlad was discussing the route around the Pathavane. Argh... I wish I could remember everything he’d said then, and what exactly had triggered the emotion still so rawly and distinctly etched on Peter’s face.




To our right is a string of small, green hills – or more like immobile ripples, which I assume are still within Vladimir’s Space. As for what lies ahead, I can’t really tell... All I can see, in the far distance, is an origami-like crest of colourful light beams, rising up from the earth, and billowing slowly like an aurora borealis. Their sheer beauty distracts me from the gloomy ambiance, and my entire being seems to suddenly be riveted by that place.    



  
Out of nowhere, a blue Lume materializes from thin air, as if breaking suddenly from its speedy momentum at the sight of its intended addressee: Peter. He ushers it into his ear, and his features seem to relax, finally.  

“Sam welcomes us. Good thing we got the Lume this quick; or else we would have had to wait for it outside the Space,” he tells me, didactically. 

I add “good manners” to my mental list of attributes for this people; a list that also contains “anti-PDA”, “no esteem for how awesome food is”, and of course, “take for granted the fact that someone they’ve kidnapped and turned into a freak would still find this place so awesome that she wouldn’t even long to leave”.  But then, when I look at the spectrum of colours in the distance, I’m in a state of fidgety curiosity. Could I actually be at risk of getting too enthralled by this world, and end up losing focus of... who I am, and where I would rather be?  

I shake my head. Erik. Ginny. Oda. No. No chance I’m losing perspective.


The light beams grow nearer and I start to distinguish their edges. They look like two-dimensional layers and layers of intricate colour variations, each leaning in a different direction, and merging in their intersections to form the most beautiful palette. What seems strange though, are their tops: the beams don’t fade out like normal light would, but they’re very clearly cut off in random, sharp lines. 

The crest grows higher and more complex as we get closer, and my eyes almost pop out of their orbits from all the staring. So much so that, in a very quick and very embarrassing second, I feel myself tripping over something in the grass, and falling flat on my face in the most burlesque of fashions. 

“Woah, you okay?” Peter rushes to help me up, then tries to choke a giggle at how pissed off I look.

“I thought I had this superhuman sense of balance thing! Not so sure now!” I huff. “What was that anyway?” I wonder, staring at the grass. I reach down and grab what looks like a very thin, almost invisible... thread? It’s coming straight out of the dark, glittery soil, and slithering forward though the grass. I keep my back arched and decide to follow it.

“Watch out Lil’, there will be more!” I hear Peter caution. And sure enough, others seem to spring out of the ground and head in the same direction as the first. Dozens, then hundreds of threads, of different shapes and tones, all headed in the same direction: the origami. Soon enough, the grass subsides and we find ourselves walking on what feels like an unravelled, undulating carpet. My pace slows down as it starts to dawn on me. I abruptly stop and look up at the colourful shafts with renewed awe. 


 
“Oh my God... These aren’t light beams, are they? They’re... yarn?!”

“More like thread art. You have this in your world too, don’t you?” Peter explains.

“I guess, but not on such scale!... And it’s like the strings are... glowing!!! ...And they’re never the same pattern, are they?” I ramble in wonder. Taking a few steps closer, I can finally touch the first of the massive layers. “These look like they have 3D depth... No, wait! They’re slanting lines and those in the next layer are the same, but they lean in a different direction... An optical illusion! Ingenious!!!” I leap from one tier to the next in childish wonder. There are so many that it must be a right labyrinth in there. “Can we go in?” I beg expectantly.

“Of course! It’s Sam’s Space. We’re expected!”

Huh! I’m liking this Sam person more and more. He must have one hell of an imagination to come up with this. One would expect the colossal layers to be supported by solid columns on either side, but instead, the yarn doesn’t look attached to anything. It’s just tightly strung to... nothing, and the entire tier is actually paper-thin. Curious as to how this world looks from behind the threads, I take a step and stand on the other side of the first layer, facing the group. My three Elves look the same, olive-skinned, wide-eyed, and straight out of my adolescent dreams... except that they now seem bathed in a gentle, bluish glow, through the magical fibres. Even that horrible smoke behind them looks less threatening...



What happens next only takes two seconds. Just two seconds for me to frantically jump back, point at the grey fumes, and scream.
“THERE’S SOMEONE IN THERE!!!”


Through the intricate, glowing web, I could clearly distinguish, in the smoky distance, half a face, peering from behind a blackened, fallen boulder. I can’t see its expression or guess its reaction to us being there, but I can tell it’s female. Dark eyes, dark hair, and so close to the ground that I’m certain it’s kneeling. The peeping tom disappears a fraction of a second after I’ve seen her, which increases the creepiness. The group, however, doesn’t seem as affected. They turn around for a quick, casual check, then let Peter do the explaining.

“No… It’s Sam’s threads; they make you see things. That’s just a first example of why you shouldn’t trust your eyes around here!” he winks.

“But I know what I saw!” I insist, miffed. “There’s someone behind that boulder, and she was staring at us!”

“ ‘She’?... Either way Lil’, it’s not possible for any us to even cross the Space line into the ravaged areas. These places have been altered in their very matter and constitution. If we so much as set foot in them, we are scorched alive! Trust me, some have tried.”

 These places?! How many are there? I shiver as I throw another long look at the boulder. There was someone there! Or at least that’s what I saw… But what if Peter’s right? What if Sam’s Space is making me see things that aren’t really there? I admit that an optical illusion, compared to someone who’s really there in the foggy furnace, would be the lesser of two creepers… And when did I become so paranoid anyway? I only saw what I saw for a tiny second after all... I feel the trio observing me, and suddenly get self-conscious. Do I really want to come off as the nervous one of the group? I decide to cut the scary thoughts short.

“Um… Shouldn’t trust my eyes here. Got it.”

“It’s okay though,” he says kindly, “We’ve all had all sorts of visions around here. It took ages to get used to them.”

“Okay… Now please let’s go in. I’ve had enough of all the grayness…” I say in reference to both the place and our mood. 

At those words, Peter’s expression hardens. He gives me a sharp, determined nod, and walks into the yarn-made maze, as if equally eager to get away from this place.

“Come!” he absent-mindedly ushers, and the rest of us follow, willingly. 




Walking into the multilayered maze that is Sam’s Space very quickly changes the overall disposition. It is like taking a stroll through a never-ending art gallery where the walls are the canvas, and the work only reveals itself through motion and perspective. Three-dimensional rainbow-coloured lozenges, exploding strokes of fluorescent yarn against a pitch-black background, and even dizzying yet static gold and orange spirals…   



 As I marvel at the endless range of beautiful shapes a mere depth of yarn has to offer, I sometimes get a glimpse of an unexpected object, another optical illusion, just by taking a step forward. So far I’ve managed to see a sort of tree – which disappeared as soon as I shifted, and would not reveal itself again, no matter how insistently I tried to retrace my steps – and a breathtaking silhouette of what looks like the statues in Vlad’s Mausoleum, floating upwards as we pass by. 

But what stops me in my tracks is the most unexpected sight yet: As the other three advance in silence, clearly not as impressed as I am by all this, I catch a glimpse of Peter, through one very thin, see-through purple layer of thread. I recognize him from his shirt and glasses, which have not changed, but his face… There is something very different about his face! His eyes are wider, less innocent, and his complexion is considerably darker. His cheekbones are more deeply carved, and his lips protrude further than they already do. I could even swear he looks taller – more like the others, but with a bonus: his majestic composure and otherworldly features strike me as stemming from the divine.  

I stare at him, for that mentally slowed-down second, with eyes almost popping out, before the illusion disappears as swiftly as the ones before it…  And the realization hits me, in a why-oh-why-haven’t-I-thought-of-this-before moment. 

“You´ve changed yourself…” I mumble.

“What’s that?” He has no idea of what I’ve just witnessed.

“This is not the real you! You’ve changed the way you look, to blend in better… in my world!” I feel my intonation rising, while the three suddenly look somewhat strained.

Peter carefully raises one hand, as if calming down a nervous steed. 

“Yes… I’ve had to change. The ones before me tried disguising themselves for the Gardens, but it didn’t always work…”

“How?!... How did you do it?” I ask while tactlessly gawking at him, in an attempt to see the “real Peter” through his humanized traits.

“As I do everything else: I drew myself… this self.”

Oh!

“Is it… permanent?” My tone goes back and forth from slight, confused disappointment, to contradictory relief. This is so weird!   

“Yes… I believe so,” he whispers, looking tense. 

What…?! Who is this man that I’ve fallen so heartbreakingly in love with? Is he the adorably self-conscious, green-eyed sketch artist I’ve always known? Or that dark, radical, quasi mythical figure I’ve come to be acquainted with here? 

Not to mention how utterly drastic and terrifying I find the idea of foregoing one’s own identity for the sake of… a mission! Or maybe, like Erik, he did it out of…love? This fascination with the Human kind seems to go much deeper than I’d imagined, and I don’t know whether to feel admiration or shock at his… his sacrifice

Except that he’s not the only one who’s forfeited himself, is he? That dark, enraged thought creeps back into my brain; the thought that Peter has deprived me of myself, the real me, without even giving me a choice. And besides, he’s only had to let go of his appearance. I’ve had to give up my nature.  

I swallow back the bile as he finally warns me, “Now could you please save these questions for later? I promise to answer every one of them, but for now, I’m not sure how much of this Sam’s heard, and I don’t want to take any more risks. No human references whatsoever, remember?”

I nod, slightly tempted to reveal the whole riddle to whoever might be listening, just to make him pay for what he’s done. But I know all too well that I never would. 

Peter stares at me for one more second, as if not sure whether or not I’m satisfied with his answers, then chooses to change the subject. “We’ve been walking for too long… This can’t be right.” He looks around, gradually narrowing his eyes, then suddenly looks up and shouts, “Sam! We know what you’re doing! She’s seen your work and given it the esteem it deserves; now could we please see you already?!” He exasperatedly rolls his eyes, and no more than a second later, in a low, rumbling noise, one of the walls shifts a few degrees to the right, and a new path is revealed to us through the labyrinth. “Thank you!” Peter huffs, not amused. 

 Wait, so… All of this was a peacock’s display, to impress ME?


  
I try to choke a smile. If that’s true, then it’s worked like a charm. Major points for Sam. 



            A few steps into the new alley reveal a multitude of opaque light orbs, like those you’d buy for your garden, laid here and there on the woolly ground, or just hanging in mid-air; and each bearing a detail that makes all the difference: they’re covered in warm-coloured lace motifs. Flowery patterns, geometrical shapes… all of red and gold and orange, shedding some sort of mystical mosaic of beams and silhouettes against the surrounding thread shafts. Notes from a sitar fill my imagination, and like a moth, I feel compelled to follow the light. 

The orbs draw a defined route that suddenly opens up to a vast hall-like space that I greet with a gasp: Forget about a few spheres; there are hundreds of them! I’m blinded by so much vivid gleaming, and feel I’m stepping into a very starry outer space.  It automatically reminds me of a life-size piece I’d seen at one of Oda’s exhibitions, by a Japanese artist, about infinity and the brilliance of life… The daze is such that I have to focus really hard to distinguish what’s waiting for us in that hall. The first thing I see is a flurry of pale blue silk-like material, a few inches away on the ground, spreading onwards. I follow it with screwed up eyes, and notice it going up at one point. It’s only then that I finally make out a silhouette. 

My deep frown loosens abruptly, and my lips pop open but no sound comes out.


Sam’s absolutely gorgeous. Enormous, inquisitive jade green eyes; glossy, platinum blond hair, and a scarily sylphlike, muscular frame.




Except this frame is clad in a pale blue silk dress, and Sam is, for all intents and purposes, very much female.


                                  ________________________________________________
                                 


I know my part consists mainly in staring and looking absolutely clueless, while trying to avoid any speech, comparisons or even gestures that might look remotely earthly. I might as well just quietly gape in wonder, which isn’t so hard to do here, especially in the presence of this goddess. She seems to have sunrays for hair and jade stones for eyes. My goodness, those eyes… 

Of all the stunning things I can now distinguish in this hall, her gaze is the most difficult one to handle. It’s like she has eyes only for Peter and me. Her stare would go from me to him, in slow, paced motion, and would just linger there. Isn’t gawking considered impolite in this world? I most definitely don’t want her to win at this game, so I align my eyes with hers, and shamelessly take in every detail of her ravishing anatomy. On Earth, she would have no hope of passing off as human, not even for a second. 

She speaks one short word in their language – or at least I think it’s one; it sounds something like “Elu’thinri”, with a very slightly rolled R – before Peter interrupts her.

“English, Symarin! That’s the only language I gave her.”

For a second I wonder what Symarin means, before feeling stupid: It’s her name. And ‘Sam’ ’s just short for it. The statuesque Elf ponders for a long minute, then says, “Very well. Welcome.”

Peter gracefully thanks her, then launches into the elaborate scenario he’d come up with, about my being born yesterday, so to speak. He improvises a few details about how I opened my eyes and panicked, and how he’d managed to calm me down. Vlad looks nervous, not so much because of Sam, but rather because of Peter’s inspired digressions and spontaneous detail-weaving.  Either way, little does Sam seem to care what is going on with Vlad, or even less with Nirav. Her fixation leads her alternatively and exclusively from my person, to Peter’s. 

As soon as he’s done with his speech, he gives her his irresistible “Will you help us?” look, while I feel like I’m the only one choking on all the heavy tension in the room. She observes me one last time, before turning to Peter and blurting out, simply: 




“She’s a Human, isn’t she?”



  




CHAPTER NINETEEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________


My entire body freezes in one awkward, guilty position, and my brain starts screaming, What…!!! It took her no more than 5 seconds!!! I feel my heart pound one very heavy time, then abruptly race beyond anything my breathing and poker face can control. I bet she can hear it from where she’s standing.


 “What? No, why would you think that?” Peter inquires, as coolly as Elvenly possible.


My brain continues with the seriously unhelpful panic and reeling. What did you DO? How exactly were you human in the last few minutes?! Was it my stance? Or the fearful look in my eyes?

Her answer, however surprising and soothing to my own conscience, turns out to be an even bigger cause for panic. 


YOU made me think that, Peter!... Look at you. I’ve often seen you in your Herald clothing, but what’s with the accessories? Those things on your eyes? And that overall human disposition?... The posture, the feigned casualness, or even the toned down assertiveness… Tell me, why would you keep up the Garden act if it weren’t to reassure her?”


Peter swallows and very subtly straightens up. His silence is nothing less than proof of how spot on Sam’s theory is. 


“So you’ve finally done it; you’ve taken your obsession to the next level. Are you completely out of your mind?... Danielle hasn’t sent us the usual birth Lume, and you know her Tells are never wrong. Do you honestly believe she will fall for your story?!” 


She scolds Peter, but somehow, I hear more concern than judgment in her tone. There’s also an obvious familiarity between them which makes me wonder how close they really are. This must be the worst ever timing for jealousy, especially when I should be focusing on whatever it is she’s saying. Danielle has “Tells” for whoever’s born around here? And she could see I wasn’t?


“She sent Lily a personal one, and addressed her as an adult,” Peter certifies. His translation of the Queen’s words creeps back to the surface: I am Danielle. Whoever you are, and whoever your maker, you are both expected very shortly. I look forward to knowing you’. 


“Her Tells obviously reveal more than we think,” Vlad finally interferes. “She must have seen this was not a birth, and yet still knew there was an addition to the realm…Her invitation could be out of eagerness to see what has generated such contradicting signs.”


“This doesn’t change anything,” Peter huffs. “My story still makes sense. It explains how Lily was added to the party without really being born, and why she is not a child.”


Sam knows she’s fighting a losing battle so, for the first time, she glances at Vlad and Nirav for help but neither of the two reacts. They’re all apparently too familiar with Peter’s incomparable stubbornness. Her face falls, and for a very creepy second, the light orbs floating around her seem to be backing off and giving her some space. My mouth pops open at the thought of a universe so organic it reacts to its creator’s every mood. 


“Why have you come here?” she asks in an obvious tone of reproach. “Why make me an accomplice of one of the most serious offenses in our people’s history?”

… Gulp.



“First, we were hoping you wouldn’t figure it out; at least not so quickly…” Peter whispers, running out of valid excuses. “But now that you know…”


“…You’re hoping I would just accept it, and even work on making her more believable, is that it?” she scolds, with an undercurrent of evident self-assurance, as if confirming she’s perfectly capable of doing just that. But… what is it that she does exactly?


“Not more believable, just less...”

“Human,” I interrupt.

The mistress of the Space suddenly twirls, and her eyes bore into mine again, as if remembering I was there, and also slightly surprised by my voice. I suppose she still expects me to be as intelligent a life-form as one which has just stemmed from a drawing, despite knowing my true nature by now. That says a lot about what she thinks of Humans.


“Yes, speaking of which, what is that horrible thing you’re wearing?! Did someone mean to torture you by means of bad taste?” she asks on a wholly different note, seeming genuinely insulted by my hospital attire. I’m surprised by my own laugh. So she can also be funny. That’s unexpected!  


Her playful mood disappears just as quickly though, and the light spheres push even further away, making her the darkest spot in the room. Her hesitation is painfully palpable, and she gazes into Peter’s eyes as she struggles to make a decision. A few seconds later, she straightens up and all the light in the rooms seems to be drawn back to her. “Alright children, out you go!” she addresses us regally.


 Um… what? That’s it? It’s a No then?

I look at Peter for the next move, and he nods, as if reassuring me, before turning to leave. I follow, confused, before Sam’s voice booms across the hall. “No no, not you, young human!”



I could swear I hear Peter chuckle lightly as he and his two companions disappear into the origami, and leave me alone with the weird and frankly intimidating landlady.
I slowly turn towards her, with one foot barely touching the ground. My body’s decided on keeping to a ready-to-run position. What is it she’s meant to do to me?


“I apologize for that. I’m often forced to be those boys’ conscience, it’s exhausting!” she complains in the most dramatic yet jokey way. “Seriously though, whoever has dressed you in that… thing, deserves a good burning! Not to mention the stench! What is that smell?!” 


Disinfectant. Hospital stink. Old blood. Under-the-cast skin


“I really need to get cleaned up… Erm… how do you do that here?” I ask, feeling stupid.


She stares at me, blankly, then in an abrupt movement, drops her head backwards and raises her palms towards me, in a very spectacular fashion. “Like this!!” she states, through deep, melodramatic concentration.


I hesitate, expecting something bizarre to come out of her hands and clean me up in an instant. But the next thing I know, she drops her hands, aligns her eyebrows, and says, in an intentionally anticlimactic way, “We use water and soap, dear. What did you think?”


I look so bewildered and unable to laugh that she does it for me. Her giggle fills the hall as she gracefully gestures at one of the massive thread layers, which slowly shifts to reveal a kind of silver-coloured, giant-leaf-shaped vessel, next to a very slim, ornate vase. 


I gawk at the silk of her dress billowing behind her like a wave of blue air, as she glides forward and effortlessly lifts the vase which looks almost as tall as she is, pouring a milky, lilac liquid into the silver leaf. She then smiles and gently gestures for me to go in. 


Of all the thoughts that could go through my mind, one barges in and takes root: What’s this civilization’s view on nudity? Because I can’t think of a way to ask her to give me some privacy.


“Call on me when you wish, alright?” she enquires, reading my mind. I nod, and she very swiftly disappears behind the threads. I take advantage of her polite absence to look around and touch everything: the yarn, the ground, the light orbs – hot and vibrating, unsurprisingly – the unexpectedly soft silver tub, and finally, that deliciously warm soapy water in it. I even duck and smell it – Hmm! Melted chocolate mixed with some delicious flowers from my childhood?...


I smile as I realize I’m comfortable enough to go into the water. I undress, unceremoniously dropping the hospital gown to the floor, and slowly let myself glide into…oooh my God, this is awesome!


The soap feels like it’s hugging, massaging, and unloading the burden off my shoulders. Before I leave, I should definitely get me some of that for home!




Finally, I’m alone again… I inspect my old wounds, my skin, my hair; everything seems to be the same since my so-called transformation. That thought suddenly brings a worrying fact to my attention: if Sam knows I’m human, does she also know I’ve morphed into something else along the way? Can’t she see it? Argh… so many scenarios to avoid here, how will I ever keep up without getting us all in trouble?


I breathe hard and close my eyes to control the ever-so-present panic. This is the worst way to go about this; I should be taking advantage of the situation instead of dreading it. Sam might be the first and hopefully the last Elf, outside the trio of course, who knows I’m human. And unlike the others, she may be willing to give me some answers.


“Sam?” I hear myself saying.


In a second, the elegant Elf soundlessly walks in from behind the layer, smiles again, and with a flick of her fingers, a tiny red sofa glides into the room, with a design straight out of a Dali painting. She positions it next to the leaf, and in a flower-in-the-wind fashion, she lets her dress flutter up ever so lightly as she sits opposite me, curious   and eager-eyed.

“So, Peter drew you, didn’t he?” she asks, looking too happy about having me all to herself.


“Um… he told you he drew me and I materialized, but you didn’t believe him,” I feign dumbness.


“Of course I didn’t believe him; it’s clear you are a Human, but Peter’s not an idiot. He must have drawn you a mask, to make you look as Elf-like as you do now.” I do?! “Well… did he?” 


“Yes… he did.” Oh God, please let this not be something I’ll regret saying later!



 
“I knew it! He’s so good at this, isn’t he? You look eerily…real!” she gushes.


“I am real!” I tease, and suddenly realize I’ve affected her more than I’d imagined. She frowns guiltily and launches into endless apology.


“Forgive me, I really didn’t mean to offend you, how clumsy of me! I never intended to imply that Human isn’t real, please forgive me if this is the impression my words gave you!!”


I realize that she’s apologizing for the equivalent of an unintended racist comment, and swallow an endeared smile.


“It’s okay,” I pretentiously forgive her, “to be honest I’m not too sure what’s real and what isn’t anymore.”


“That’s easy. Real is what you can see. We try not to be too philosophical about it. For instance…” she pauses, lifting her fingers and looking up. Out of thin air, a horizontal bunch of threads appear, and quickly begin to twirl and twist and weave into each other at shockingly unnatural speed, forming what looks like a thick, silky cloth. “A second ago, this wasn’t real. It was just a thought, an intention. But now I’ve made it real, and there’s no need to overthink it. Just use it for what it was made for.”


I stare at the floating towel, and reach out for it. It feels and looks real alright. I hold it up and wrap it around myself as I step out of the vessel. 


“Thank you,” I say honestly, feeling appeased. “So, is this what you do? You make cloth?”


“Oh I make so much more than that! I make everyone here look the way they look, and it’s no easy task. I make them reflect their birth colours, and trust me, not many of them successfully manage that without me. The horrors I’ve seen… What’s yours?”


“Mine?... Oh, you mean my birth colour?... I’m not sure that exists where I’m from.”


“Nonsense. Close your eyes and think. If you could meet the Elders today, what light would you like to have? What aura?” 


“Wow. Er… maybe blue?” I say randomly. Or a sweet, sweet green.



 
“Not the least bit convincing,” she scolds. “You’re a green. With an array of brown and shades of dark gold… That’s lovely, it reminds me of…”


“What?”


“Peter’s Space. But it’s normal, since you’ve been there.” She seems to believe that part of the story, and I let her; partly because I’m happy with the comparison. Maybe I do know Peter better than he thinks. 




Sam raises a hand towards me, and I nervously stand still, expecting the worst. But the first thing I feel is a ring of textile forming around the middle of my left calf, then my right. I look down and realize than she’s molding an actual pair of Capris around me. It goes all the way up to my waist, looking as thick as golden brown, Indian silk, and yet so light that I could barely feel it against my skin. I lift the towel above my waist and let her inspect her work. She bends her head sideways, looking slightly dissatisfied. She then points a finger at me, and in one quick flick, the trousers tighten up around my legs. I make a funny choking face and she winks at me. “It’s better this way. It shows your figure. Now turn around and if you don’t mind, please drop the towel so that I can see the shape of your back.”


I stare at her for a moment, feeling even my new Elven skin turn crimson, but I do what she says. 


In a whisper, thousands of similarly coloured threads start their happy dance around me, drawing my silhouette and forming a thigh-long, tight-waist tunic, with a hard Mao collar and an asymmetric fasten. And all the way across the edges, front and collar, a wide, gold and forest green brocade makes my eyes pop out. It looks like an Elvish calligraphy print of some sorts. This is…breathtaking!


I expect the tunic to pull at my arms or just be too dressy or uncomfortable for the journey, but in what I’m sure is a magic trick, Sam has made this into the most malleable, light and adaptable garment ever. Sam sees the awed look on my face and seems to find all the satisfaction she needs in it.




I only feel I have to put my foot down when it comes to the shoes. If this is really a makeover, I should at least have a say in that. I give her very specific instructions, down to the colour, texture, shape, soles and a full explanation of what shoelaces are for, and why they are cool. When she’s done, she once more basks in my stupidly happy expression. Little does she know that it’s less in admiration of her work, and more for owning the only pair of dark gold, taylor-made, Elven Vans in History. 


“Now the hair. You’ve got a very unusual shade. Do we keep it?”


“Yes please!” This might be the only place where ginger qualifies as original.


“Alright. Let’s see what we could add to it…” 


I watch Sam at work. She looks so concentrated and serious that it’s easy to trust her for the result. “Here,” she says after a few long minutes and a lot of pulling and twirling and Ows. “Have a look,” she offers, while waving at one of the walls. Suddenly, all the threads there acquire an astoundingly pure reflexivity, and I find myself standing in front of an enormous mirror. 


My jaw drops, as I barely recognize the girl in the reflection. My hair has acquired volume and flowing curls which no one could pull off with human tools. Sam’s added a few ornaments to it, like an emerald clasp and a few tiny and delicate golden flowers here and there, for the girly touch. The deep red locks flow over the embroidered collar, and almost distract me from that greatly altered face staring back at me. Oh… this isn’t the girl I’ve lived with for the past twenty years. This is a character from those fantasy tales they used to make us read in school. What have I become?


This is deeply disturbing. My features aren’t human, they’re… Photoshopped. Flawless bone structure, lips pouting out without effort, unnaturally perfect almond-shaped eyes – Geez, they’re HUGE!! – and a supernatural glow over my now entirely freckleless skin. But it’s not me. How will I live with this?...


  
“I can see you!” Sam says out of the blue. 


Er… Huh? This is a castle-wall-sized mirror; of course she can see me. But she shakes her heard. “Not you,” she whispers. “Chloë, dear, I can see you there! Come out!”


We’re not alone?! I twist around in panic and see, in a hidden corner of the bright hall, a tiny tuft of dark, messy, pixie hair, and under it a pair of curious, brown eyes. A child, no more than seven to eight years old, and a shy smile that could melt the poles. 



“Have you been eavesdropping again, you little devil?” Sam reprimands her in anything but a serious tone of voice. 


I stare at the tiny thing, and my throat suddenly goes dry. It’s her!!!  There was no kneeling woman in the ravaged areas, and it was no illusion. It was this crafty little child! And from everyone’s reaction when I saw her, it’s clear no one knows she’s been there. Or that she actually could, without being scorched alive. Only me.  




She can see how confused I am, which makes her smile even wider. She hurries over to us and glances at me with one eye, as she hides behind Sam’s skirt layers. 
“Is she… yours?” I venture.

“What do you mean?” Sam asks, which makes me raise an eyebrow. What’s not clear about my question?

“Is she your daughter?”

My second question seems to confuse her even more. “Did you give birth to her?” I try one last time.

“Oh! No, no! I didn’t, and I’m not quite sure who did, but that’s not important, is it?”

“Um… it isn’t?!” 

“… I don’t know what it’s like in your Garden, but here, we don’t ‘own’ anyone, especially not the Newborns!” Sam explains in such a neutral manner that it baffles me even more. 

“You mean no one here considers themselves the parents of these children?”

“What are ‘parents’?” she asks. 

I open my mouth, and nothing comes out. I’m the last person qualified to define that to her. And if I did, I’d also have to explain why mine don’t quite fit the profile. I decide on a different direction. “But when two people love each other here, don’t some of them start a family… at some point… if they want?”


“We love everyone here. But I don’t see why you would limit a family to only two.”


I gape at her, not really understanding. This could go two very, very different ways: Woodstock, or Little House in the Prairie. “How many members should a family have then?”


“We lead very lonely existences, don’t we? Each one of us in his or her own Space… And it’s good for us. It’s how it’s always been. But make no mistake, as the common saying here goes, we ‘Know every Ælfric in the Aether”.  And we love them all. But births are different. We are very sexual beings,” – so it’s Woodstock then – “It is a natural part of who we are, and a means to reproduce. But when Newborns see the Gold, they are loved, taught, sheltered and taken care of by everyone.  They belong to no one; they only roam the Spaces until they can create their own.”



  
Ælfric? See the Gold?” 



“Or what is it you call us? Elf-kind? And the Gold is what lies above us, where the Elders go after they’ve moved on.” 



Couldn’t she just say ‘sky’?



“Peter spoke to me of his brother… and his mother…”


“Did he?” she sounds deeply surprised. “He would never talk of Corbin. Not to anyone. Not since the Fires… But yes, he’s been using Human terms, just so you would understand. They were birthed by the same Elf. They however never formed a bond that’s stronger than the ones they had with other children. And their “mother” has never owned them. If Peter thinks the way you do, about “parents” and their family, he’s surely picked this up in the Garden.”  



I try to swallow every implication of what she’s said, but keep getting stuck on a very bitter pill: If notions of love, parenthood and family are a collective matter here, it means Love, in the Human, exclusive, romantic sense doesn’t even exist for them. No two Elves have “fallen in love” here, and decided to be one another’s “Other”. No “relationship”, no “couple”, no “The One”. No jealousy, no monogamy, or polygamy for that matter. Just love in the general sense, sex, and Children of Elf.



But Peter loves me. He’s said it… or did he mean it in the global sense? Does he love me like he loves Sam, or Danielle?  



It’s then that it finally hits me: This is why he can’t touch me, hold me, or kiss me in front of them. They just wouldn’t understand! He loves me, in a very Human way; a way he has only acquired on Earth. A way which doesn’t even exist here.





I close my eyes. Mine is the most Human of Ælfrics. 




And as long as we’re here, he and I can never be. 




  




CHAPTER TWENTY
________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sam whispers a few words in their language to Chloë, and the little one shoots out of the hall, as if on a mission. 

“I think you’re ready,” she then says to me encouragingly. “Listen… I’m a friend of Peter’s and would never give him or you away. But others out there would not be as understanding; especially that everyone’s been expecting him to slip one day. You’d think he’d be immune to it after such a long Heraldry…”

“Immune to what?”

“The Garden appeal,” she winks. “Just bear in mind that you’re supposed to be a Newborn, so act like one. Emulate Chloë. She’s only been around for a few Raedes.”

“… Raids?!”

“Yes… Isn’t that how you measure time too?”

“Um… no. I don’t think so. What’s a Raede?”   

“Huh... How do I explain this?… Every once in a while, the Energy changes course. We feel it very subtly, in the movement of the ground, the smell of the air, and the warmth of the light. The Gold acquires new patterns and it’s then that we know a new Raede has begun. We hold very memorable celebrations at Pi’s every time…” Her mind seems to wander off and a tiny, amused smile curls the corner of her lips.

“We also read time based on the changes of nature I guess. But our Time tends to come in regular cycles. How long is…erm… Do you know what the Garden equivalent of this is?” I’m starting to sound like an Elf. 

“I'm not sure there is one... So far Heralds have had a few surprises with this. Sometimes with the passing of a Raede, Peter would find himself propelled into older Garden times, while at others, he would make a huge leap forward. This is why he insists on finishing all specific missions within one Raede. Or else he’s never sure he would find the same Humans at his return.”

You know this moment in movies, where someone falls in slow motion, say from the tenth floor, and you see them mimicking a scream of terror, but all you hear is the heavy silence before the crash? That’s the state my brain is in right now. 

So far I’ve allowed myself to grow more relaxed around Sam, but something tells me I shouldn’t show my sudden frantic distress to her. A deep, painful, sinking feeling brings my heart down to my feet. If I understand this right, I need to get out of here now or else, if the current Raede ends, I might not land in the same period of time?! And my parents, my friends, everyone I know would either be dead, or worse, not even born yet?  Oh my God, oh my God… I can’t breathe!!!

Like an echo to my paranoia, the ground suddenly seems to vibrate differently against my soles, and I feel a very slight push forward; not from a person, but from the actual air in the hall, as if it needed to make room for a new presence. I twist around, and a fraction of a second later, Peter and the other two, along with Chloë, walk back in. 

Not a Raede change then, obviously… But I could swear I felt them coming!

 Can all Elves do that? 

It reminds me of Peter’s small rippling ground game, where I also managed to feel the energy around so distinctly. For some reason, this is the second time being under pressure has suddenly boosted my senses, times a hundred. Two minutes ago, I wouldn’t have felt a bull if it had come a-roaring through the Space.  

The three look at me in delighted awe, but Peter’s only lasts a second. The sight of my troubled face registers very quickly with him, and his first reflex is to abruptly lash out at Sam. “What have you told her?!” he growls. Sam frowns, clearly not understanding where any of this came from. I quickly jump in, with one of my most brilliant fake smiles on, “Nothing!! Don’t be rude to her Peter, she was really nice to me. I’m okay; I’m just… very hungry, and it’s giving me one bad headache, that’s all!!”

With that, I slowly realize how on edge he is, and that he might have been trying to put on a serene face around me all along, to keep me calm. Geez, how many faces of his must I uncover?!...

My excuse gradually appears to be working on him. He unclenches his jaw, and a deep breath later, says, “You’re right. My apologies, Sam. She looks… stunning. Thank you.”

Sam smiles silently, still a bit taken aback by the previous adversity.  

Peter takes two steps towards me. I’m sure it was two, even though I didn’t count. The ground quivered under me so distinctly that it gave me the exact number of times it was trodden, along with a creepily accurate intuition about these steps coming from a male Elf; just like when you’re a child hiding from your parents, and you know by the sound of their steps whether it’s your mom or dad approaching. Except that in this case, it’s more a feeling than a sound. If I’d closed my eyes, I would have been able to perceive all of this just as clearly. I wonder if I could have guessed it was Peter, or someone else… 

Oblivious to what’s going through my mind, and eager to lighten the atmosphere, he allows himself to take a long, appreciative, top-to-bottom look at me. He spends a few minutes on the face, then glides down to the outfit and seems to linger on the trousers, for some reason. Yet, as soon as he notices what type of shoes I’m wearing, he raises both eyebrows. “….Really? Sneakers?” he mutters, shaking his head. “Could you be more conspicuous?!”  

“What, I’ll tell them you drew those too,” I challenge him, while barely containing the urge to stick out my tongue. 

He narrows his eyes for a second then rolls them dramatically. “Sam? Help me out here?…” He turns and faces her, while slightly lifting a foot. Sam gets the message, and in less time than it took her to make mine, she gives him the same model sneakers, in green. My Elf the Hipster. And even before the task is done, Chloë runs to Peter’s side, and lifts her tiny little foot too. 

I giggle as Peter scolds me, though less harshly than before. “Happy now? What a great influence you are!”

Chloë stares relentlessly at the platinum-haired Elf, determined to get her way. Sam surrenders after a pretend two-second fight, and offers her an adorable pair of tiny, silver Vans. 

I feel a pinch in my chest when I notice how similar we look to an actual family… “Family”, a notion that is lost on this species. I force myself to think of something else, and suddenly realize that the distractions of the last few minutes have managed to calm me down. What is surprising about this is that the super-senses I had are now barely even there. It’s like a near-past memory that I can’t really bring back to the surface. What is the meaning of all this?... First I find out I can heal my own wounds – I shudder at how painful that was – and now it seems that every time I get nervous, I automatically become more… more what? Perceptive? 

Huh… It seems I’m never escaping the skin thing after all! Even here, it makes me feel... alien.

"Are you ready?" I hear Peter say, as Chloë's little hand in mine brings me out of my reverie. She's coming with us then? I glance at the others: none of them looks surprised. My eyes slide back to the tiny Elf, and I worry about her. I worry about her taking part in this already crazy journey, but mostly, about there being no one else worrying about her! Then again, this is the child I saw standing in the middle of a wasteland of scorching fumes, like it was her own private playground.

"Let's go..." I mumble with little conviction. This is it: once we get to the next Space, it's back to being in mortal danger if discovered. I look at my latest and last ally, Sam, and mean to thank her as warmly as I can, but she spares me the effort by winking and nodding, as if perfectly aware of my intentions. I smile and tighten my fingers around Chloë's, while the others say a very solemn goodbye: they each take Sam's hands in theirs and softly lay their foreheads against hers, eyes closed. I suddenly feel I'm intruding on an intimate moment; but that doesn't exist here, does it?

No one seems to expect the same show affection from my part, so I just follow the group, and soon enough, we are back on our way through the maze...


I observe Chloë all the way, barely catching the remaining origami sights around me, while perfectly aware they would be as strange as the ones I'd caught going in. But a behavioral study seems much, much more urgent. The little one looks confident and positively thrilled to be walking with us 'adult Elves'. She unabashedly stares at me, at the others, at the colours, at the path ahead... at everything really, with a smile of happy wonder. Hmm... Looking happy might be the tricky part for me, come to think of it. A lot more fake smiling ahead then.

A while later, the golden hue gradually increases inside the maze, which could only mean we are close to the exit. I swallow and prepare for whatever new Space is out there, and stretch my dried up lips over the tight, frozen smirk. 

I'm not able to keep it up though, since the first thing I see when we step out into the open is... Nothing? 

As far as my eyes can see, there's a gentle yet very vacant stretch of land with an endless horizon. Is this a hallucination? When we were up on Vlad's hill, I couldn't see such a large, empty spot on the silk-scarf-like infinity of these Spaces. Where did this come from?

I turn to Peter for answers, and all I get is an excited grin. 

"You look too happy there, Alberic!" I say with half-serious frustration.

"Well, I am actually; we're almost there!" he teases. There where?? There's absolutely nothing ahead! "Wait, Vlad, don't send out a Lume yet... Let's have Lily do it!!" he adds, and I freeze. No, what? Wait, no! What?!

Vlad looks just as reluctant to the idea as I am, but Peter insists. "Come now Lily, you're going to have to learn this sooner or later."

"I choose later! Please, Peter... There's already too much at stake, starting this Space..."

"No, there isn't! You're about to meet two of my closest, most cherished friends, so... please, trust me; and breathe," he winks. "They can't see you now, can they?" How on earth would I know? I still don't see anything out there. "Now... All Aelfrics can do this instinctively, so you'll have to find it inside you. Close your eyes, please..." 

He can be so unnervingly stubborn! I close my eyes, with my heart starting to race. And, just like that, my nervousness propels me back into this eerie state of super-perception. In a second, Peter’s voice becomes secondary, and I start sensing a very unusual breeze; one which brushes against my arms, and flows forward before suddenly being stunted, just a few meters ahead, by a massive, wide surface. My mouth pops open. There is something out there! I can't see it but I sure can feel it.

"So? Did you try?" I hear Peter ask me through my sensitive haze. 

"Hmm?"

"Please, focus Lily... You seem absorbed by something else... Again, you should picture me standing across a river or some sort of obstacle between us, with so much noise that shouting out would not be an option. Try to keep your lips tightly shut, and resist the urge to speak, but still feel very strongly about getting your message through..."

"You do realize that doesn't make much sense, don't you?" I tease, more as a distraction, while I continue mentally sounding the distance between us and the invisible wall ahead. But instead, I hear Peter take a few steps towards me. This feeling is one of the most familiar. "Remember the train, Lily?" he whispers. 

I hold my breath.

"Remember when I stood outside, looking in? Watching you leave? Do you have any idea how many things I wanted to tell you then and there? I'm curious... What would you have liked to say to me?"

"I..."

"Ssshh... Don't say it. Just feel it burn, deep inside of you. Feel the frustration, like I did".  

Pffft... I doubt he felt any frustration that day. He was too busy leaving the drawing behind, and looking all expressionless and driving me crazy. He pretends he left the portrait so as to spare me from "getting involved in the very different circles he lives in". And now they are mine too... If I'd been able to speak directly to him through the train window, I would've wished he'd never done that drawing. That he had never ripped me out of my own circles and forced me into his, indefinitely. This is all that's burning inside of me right now, and I don't think he'd want to hear it!

I open my eyes, and try to contain this bitterness that keeps bubbling up to the surface. "See? It doesn't come naturally to me. My instincts must not be..." My sentence is cut short by Peter's wide, incredulous smile. A few inches from his face, a tiny, almost translucent hourglass-shaped Lume bobs gently and shyly in mid-air. It faithfully reflects the Gold, and its silhouette is drawn in white against it, like a cartoon object. Did I make this?! 


               If I did, then it’s more than official now… I am Aelfric.


"It's one of the most beautiful I've ever seen," he whispers, and before I could even think of stopping him, he ushers it into his ear. Oh no! What will he hear? How much of what I thought is actually on it?

Gradually, his face falls, and his eyes center on mine, scorching. I have my answer. Shit... 

He stands there, staring at me, and I can see he's trying not to react. This is neither the time nor the company for such a discussion, and knowing him, I reckon he will swallow it and pull it back out later, if we ever get a moment alone.

"Good," he says formally, with his all-too-familiar neutral expression, "most of us normally generate a Lume first, then actually speak our message out loud to it. Yours came out of your very thoughts, and it was perfectly audible... I got it loud and clear." He gives that last remark slowly, with obvious reproach, and eyes never leaving mine. "This means you could also send a Lume to our next host, Demetrius. It's harder when you don't know whom you're addressing, but try anyway. Please ask him if he would be so kind to show us in straight away." Man, he's angry.   

   I nervously glance at Vlad, who seems as uncomfortable as I am, but would clearly not come to my aid. Maybe Nirav? One begging glance his way seems enough. The tall Elf nods curtly, then swiftly generates one of his beautiful orange Lumes, without even looking at Peter. What strikes me more though, is Peter's reaction: he twirls furiously towards him then, very abruptly, inhales and composes himself, almost apologetically. Is he intimidated by Nirav? I mean he's scary-looking, there's no denying it. But from what I've seen so far, he also seems like a gentle soul. Yet, Peter has just shown him a sort of reverence which goes beyond mere friendship. Weird.

With a tight-lipped smile I thank Nirav, as he softly sends out his Lume. It floats forward like a firefly, then suddenly disappears into thin air. My eyebrows almost reach my hairline, although I shouldn't be surprised. Whatever's only a few meters ahead is like a mirage, an invisible wall, camouflaging what should be an entire Space! There are no sounds coming from there either. The perfect concealment.

I turn to Peter and inhale sharply. His eyes are sounding me, but they're no longer angry. Now all I see in them is pain. He clearly wants me to see how much my thoughts hurt him, and I want him to know that he doesn't understand me as well as he thinks, and that the hurting is way stronger on my side.   

Our moment is interrupted by a lozenge-shaped Lume that appears out of nowhere and speeds hectically past me, stopping right in front of Nirav. It's lovely, very mirror-like, with a rainbow-coloured reflection. I know it's our ticket in, and I try to brace myself for... 

"WO...!!!!" 

I can't help the scream that comes out when the invisibility wall is lifted in the blink of an eye, submerging us in an enormous multitude of sights and sounds. I blink uncontrollably, as what looks like a titanic, futuristic city spreads endlessly before us, all the way into the golden horizon. It's nothing short of a major, very densely populated metropolis stemming straight out of an architect's twisted dreams: irregular-shaped, breathtaking edifices - what are they? Buildings? Giant sculptures? Megaliths? Tim Burton's heaven? - fill most of the landscape, and no two are alike. My eyes try to take them all in, but it's simply impossible! I manage to pick out an entire area of intertwined, smaller sculptures; another where the earth itself seems to have been molded, twisted, stretched and shaped, like putty, into intentionally structured elements; and a third that looks like an experimental architecture area, where every piece seems to defy gravity somehow: a huge, black, half-sphere-shaped fortress with a million thin, horizontal windows seems to be standing, in perfect equilibrium, on nothing but its lower pointy angle, while another one looks like a series of narrow, white, rectangular blocks, floating vertically, two by two, forming what looks like a huge needle-like building, aiming for the heavens. I look closely and notice that the entire structure is levitating very much above ground. An overwhelmingly massive number of equally imposing mega constructions, all built above, around, within and along the most whimsically-shaped terrain. If anything in this world qualified as outright proof that I'm in the presence of divine creatures and otherworldly skills, it's this Space.    
       
"I... I thought you lived alone in your Spaces," I say, then quickly bite my tongue. Is this something I'm not supposed to say? I'll have to ask myself this question every time I mean to speak. This statement seems harmless enough though.

"We do." I'm not surprised to hear Vlad answering. Peter really doesn't feel like talking to me right now. "Only Demetrius lives here."

"Who are all these people then?"

"Students!" I hear a voice behind us say, and turn around just in time to see the grandest entrance anyone has made so far: that of a silver-haired angel, who's barely just landed. Literally, since I could still see his deployed, glass wings. Or more like carved pieces of mirror, forming every long feather in the pair of wings whose width is almost twice his height. His black attire clashes so beautifully with the hair and the feathers - and the silvery hazel eyes! What the...? - that he looks like a starry night. My jaw drops, and I have absolutely no trouble gawking like a Newborn then.

The majestic Elf folds his wings and I see them disappear slowly into his back. 

"This is a school," he says while distractedly nodding to the trio and keeping his eyes on me. "Everything starts here. This is where you will learn how to create your Space and, if we're lucky enough, where you'll manifest your Talent."

"My talent?" I ask, and imitate Chloë's inquisitive glance. 

"Yes, and I'm sure you have one. Demetrius," he introduces himself, and suddenly overshadows me as he approaches, in all his imposing tallness, takes my hands in his and puts his forehead against mine. I freeze, with eyes balling out. I do recognize this from Sam's Space, but I'm not sure there's anything I'm supposed to do in return. I close my eyes and give in to it, like I would to a hug. 

Demetrius steps back, but keeps hold of my hands. The prude in me wakes up and gives him an apprehensive look. And much to my surprise, he counters it with a smile that's halfway between awe and affection. "Peter, you've really created an authentic one! Her eyes are both candid and ancient, and her soul spills right out of them!" he winks, as I quickly look away. Peter seems teased but smiles back, unsurprised by the assessment. "Would you like a tour of the school?" the silver landlord addresses me. I nod repeatedly like a child, and pull Chloë to my side. I'll need her for inspiration. "Then by all means, follow me".

He turns, and my first reflex is to check his back for wings, but they're nowhere to be seen. I take a few steps to follow, when a violent wave of dizziness stops me dead in my tracks. I close my eyes and wait for it to pass, as my heart races. This feels a lot like an effect of the unbelievable hunger I've been trying to fight since I got here. So far I've only been a little lightheaded and tired, but this is new. 

Ah, and here comes the headache... I feel Peter's hand on my shoulder, and turn to see his worried face, but I just can't tell him I'm hungry, can I? That's too human a term not to raise suspicion. 

I shake my head to reassure him and pull myself together. It's nothing, don't think of food, don't think of how famished you feel. Just put one foot in front the other, and soon there will be something to eat, I think.

"This here is the Aptitude Level," our host explains as we slowly approach the area with the sculptures. In this forest of intricate shapes and structures, I can see at least a few dozen students, all beautiful and teenage-looking, deep at work. Each one is standing on a round pedestal, and all are slowly moving their arms in graceful synchrony. All around them, a wide selection of different objects are gradually changing shape before our very eyes. Huh... I could have gone on thinking these were modern art sculptures which I didn't really understand yet admired, when they're really nothing but the students' draft attempts at creation. One of them falls and shatters to pieces, and I hear what is surely cussing in Elvish. Demetrius addresses the culprit sternly, and the student quickly bows. "Please excuse Akaär, he has a few problems with balancing Energy and his creative ambition. You and I will certainly discuss this during your Learning."

"You will teach me this?" I say in disbelief.

"Why wouldn't I?" he asks, and I'm suddenly reassured. Not only am I accepted, but I'm also perceived as a normal Newborn, who will follow the same path as all the others. My wide, happy grin makes him smile, while he leads us through the workshop, for lack of a better term.  

Beyond the Aptitude level, we arrive to what he calls the Landscape Laboratory, where the earth itself looks as light as a feather and as flexible as dough. Or that's just the impression I get from how it's twisted, wrought and shaped in a million different ways! From small hills to giant beanstalk-like twirled thingies, to elegant curves which rise, paper thin, and playfully intersect. But this looks so hazardous that I wonder how we're going to cross it, before Demetrius provides an obvious yet very, very impressive answer: he stands straight as an arrow, and with palms turned outwards, he spreads his arms wide and stretches his chest forward, and just like that, sends out a narrow but endless liquid scarf over the grounds, like a cream-coloured textile bridge for us to have an air view of the colossal workshop. Our own flying carpet. He then turns to check out my reaction, and I make sure he sees the honest stars in my eyes. 

We all follow him, treading slowly although there's no need: the scarf is rock-solid. At that moment, I guess I'm the only one unaware of the splendor of what I'm about to witness underneath the bridge. From above, the workshop reveals designs that rival by far any crop circles, colours that look like they belong more in an Impressionist painting than in the very texture of the grounds, and sinkholes so horrible that I can't help but feel like I'm about to fall and be swallowed by this world. 

With every step, the feeling worsens to the point where I sense Peter's hand pulling at my arm. How did it get there? I seem to have had a moment of absence or something, and can't remember the last second, or how I was still standing. It's like falling asleep for an instant while still on your feet. Peter gives me his grave, extremely worried glance, but I don't know how to explain to him that I'm running on fumes here! I've never been so damn starved! I make sure no one is looking, and very swiftly touch my belly. He tightens his jaw and desperately looks around, totally helpless. At this point I'm even willing to taste dirt. Just...anything, please!

Oblivious to what's going on, the silver Elf gives details on how every student needs to begin with the smallest particle and know every tiny speck that makes up this world, in order to reach such a level of proficiency as to mold the earth itself, and transcend the ideas of weight, solidity, and most of all, Impossibility. 

"Indya will teach you the Art of Matter. Only she could spark your ability to create the smallest elements. I will only help you bend Matter once created."       

"Indya?" My curiosity draws some more energy from the thin stock I have left.

"I'll introduce you of course. She's right there!" He lifts up a finger, and points at the very top of the sky-scraping white needle structure, still floating in the too-big-to-look at mega-structure district. Goodness... I can't wait to see how he'll get us up there!

"Would you like to go now?" he offers, and my huge smile is enough of an answer. He throws a sly, sideway glance at the rest of the group, and despite Peter's stepping forward to protest, Demetrius suddenly grabs my waist, and too quickly, deploys his startlingly majestic mirror wings, and... Up we go!!!

I scream the whole way as we twist and turn like an arrow shot up to the heavens, but more of a thrilled than upset scream, while the others grow as small as ants in a matter of milliseconds. Woohooo!!! My shouting is only interrupted by Demetrius's loud laughter. He's loving this more than I am!

One moment later, a sudden peace falls on us, and I realize we're bathing in the most wonderful of golden lights, as we get closer and closer to their strange, luminescent, swirling ether. It's so surreal it feels like staring straight at the sun, although the only source of light here is the sky itself! I forget everything, including the fact that we're soaring so high no one could see us anymore, and stare, with the tinge of sadness I'd get when watching a beautiful sunset. 

I dreamily wonder if we're not getting too close, and if Icarus's wings would melt at some point. But no, his wings would not falter, I would.

I guess I should have expected this, and Peter had every reason to worry. My exhausted, weak body suddenly just... gives out. Of course, Demetrius has no way of knowing or expecting this, so the moment I faint and my limp body pulls at his arms, I slip out of them. Or at least that's what I realize a fraction of a second later, when my eyes open and I see myself falling further and further away from him, while he frantically flaps his fully deployed wings, in an attempt to catch me. In my haze, he looks every bit like an angel; the first and last one I would see before my death.

My panic rises from zero to a million in a second. No! Stop! Stop!!
 
And with panic comes that now familiar surge of powerful senses. I can suddenly feel everything: the friction of the wind against every hair, every cell. The ground far, far underneath, and the distance separating me from it. Demetrius's body heat, although he is still very high above me. The twirls his wings are making in the invisible Matter as he flies to save me. 

Stop!!! My very insides scream.

I'm too weak to move, but lucid enough to realize that he is now approaching much, much faster, as if the speed of my fall has decreased. A second later, he's a few inches above me, with wings no longer moving. He's just floating there, and by the absence of wind against my skin, it seems I suddenly am too. We're not touching the ground. Actually, I can still feel it a long way beneath me. We’re just suspended, like two leaves in contradicting winds.


Demetrius frowns deeply and his shocked eyes grow wider and wider by the second. He looks baffled, intrigued, even scared, but most of all, he seems somehow thrilled, like he's just found another Elf like him. 

An Elf who can fly.       







CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
________________________________________________________________________________________________



              A few seconds go by with the both of us floating there, perfectly horizontal, perfectly parallel. The silver Elf's face keeps going from shock to wonder, and it's clear he's not doing anything to hold me there. But then… how? I can’t be doing it either, since I can barely move or think straight. What energy would I be using to fly, if I had none left? 

Demetrius takes me out of my confused misery by finally drawing nearer and very carefully surrounding me with his arms.

"Are you unwell?" he huffs in a slightly panicked tone. At first I wonder why he's being so intense about it, before realizing that with this people's no-healing-or-treatment ideology, any sort of "unwell" is a grave matter here.

"I think I'm...weak, because of what I am," I mumble, grasping for inspiration for all the lies that will inevitably follow.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm just--" I'm too exhausted to come up with a coherent, full sentence,"-I wasn't born right" 

A bit on the dramatic side, but not entirely false. Please, please buy this! Cause I have nothing else, and this helpless state is really, really reminding me of the assault. Apparently, putting an entire world between that memory and myself wasn’t enough to erase it.  

He pauses, and the slow, ensuing smile he gives me seems not only satisfied with my answer, but also a bit... affectionate?

"Don't be afraid," he winks reassuringly while changing the embarrassingly close hug into more of a damsel-in-distress carrying, "I'll bring you back down now". But the minute I relax, whatever's been keeping me afloat disappears, and my entire weight suddenly pushes down on his arms.

He tightens his grip to counter the surprise, and shakes his head in disbelief. "Do you see what you did there? You put your powers to rest without even realizing it. 'As natural as breathing, as powerful as your will'... Lily, I think we have found your Talent!"

I smile, not lucid enough to fully understand his cryptic words, but reassured by his delicate presence, and drift off into a semi-unconscious state as he flies us back down to solid ground.


 The first thing I hear is a flurry of voices, and hazily recognize Peter's. Thank God, he's here... And this is definitely the ground I feel beneath me. I slowly open my eyes and see, in what appears to be a rather private area back at the Aptitude Level, the entire group next to me, including an ogling yet unworried Chloë. The grown-ups are engaged in what looks like a heated discussion. There's also a female Elf I've never seen before - Indya? Peter notices I'm conscious and quickly switches to English. 

"What do you mean she fell?!" 

"Please, forgive me Peter, she just went limp in my arms and pulled out of them. It caught me by surprise, and I'm very, very sorry! You're aware of my speed, so you know I would have caught up with her eventually. But you're forgetting what's important here: she stopped her own fall! I swear on all the Elders, she flew!"

Peter glares at him, unconvinced. The fact that he is more set on questioning Demetrius than asking me if I'm alright proves that he is still mad. Geez...

Dem understands that his supposed discovery of my Talent seems to be less important to everyone than my fainting in mid-air; so he tries to calm Peter down by conveniently providing the excuse I gave. "Do you think she is weak because of the way she was conceived? She seems to think she's fragile because she was born from your drawing..."

Peter throws a very swift glance my way, and I'm sure I see a subtle, cunning twinkle there. He pauses for a few seconds, and says, "That’s the only theory that’s crossed my mind so far, and it’s driving me insane. As you might suspect, I had no idea what I was doing then, and I don't know what exactly is happening to her now. 'As natural as breathing,' right?"

Dem nods, as these words echo his. What is this? A motto here or something? 

"I guess it's inevitable then..." Peter puts on an exaggeratedly musing face, and it seems like I'm the only one there to think it's downright fake. What's he up to?

"What is?" Vlad asks, almost as confused as I am.

"I'll need to go back to the start: I need to get her drawing from my Space, and try to alter it. Maybe that would remove the imperfections. We were planning on passing through on our way to Danielle's, but I believe this is an emergency".

What? What's he talking about? The drawing is not even in this world, so how could it be in his Space?!

He shares a look with Nirav, then unveils what he thinks sounds like an unrehearsed plan, in a very pragmatic, managerial kind of way. "Vlad, Dem, Indy, could you please stay with her? As for you, Nirav, we've already asked so much of you; and you've done us so many priceless favors. At this point, it's fully up to you whether you choose to stay or leave."

No!! Not Nirav as well!

The tall Elf doesn't even bother to reflect on it. He takes a step forward, as if choosing to accompany him. 

I try to sit up, but my body just doesn't follow. I then open my mouth to object, however weakly, but Vlad stops me with a subtle, swift head shake. Are they really leaving me here?! 

I panic as I hear the others agreeing, and slowly but surely, my senses are boosted, in that creepily magnifying way. Peter kneels next to me and whispers, "We're going to solve this. Don't you dare get worse on me in the meantime!" 

Huh, as if I had a choice!

He gives me one last, long look, and stealthily lets the back of his fingers touch mine. With my super-senses switched on, it’s like his skin sort of merging with mine for a warm, intense second. It seems like eons since he's last touched me. And then, in what feels like a band-aid being ripped off a fresh wound, he gets up, nods curtly to everyone, and follows Nirav.

No, don't leave!!!

My heart rate doubles, as I distinctly feel them walking further and further away. No, come back!!! They keep walking till, at one point, I sense their steps slowing down. I turn and see Peter staring my way from a distance, with a clearly guilty look on his face. I try to scream out to him but I have no strength left for that. I just desperately watch as he turns and continues to grow further and further away, though I can still perceive him very clearly. And then, when he and Nirav are far enough not to be seen by the others, they very abruptly generate an incredibly powerful amount of heat, so powerful I could sense it against my cheeks, and just like that, disappear from my radar. 

What?! Where did they go? I should still be able to sense them!

Unless... 

Oh no... No, no, no!!! They're not really going to Peter's Space, are they?! 

They've gone to get me food... They've jumped to the Garden!!! My Garden! Without me!

Argh, no, no!!! I can't believe I've missed my chance!!! Damn you, Peter! And damn you useless, weak, human body!!!

I should have gone with them! But they left too quickly, and were too far away for me to sneakily hang on to either one of them - their arms, their legs, anything! - and get teleported along.

I glare at Vlad and heavy tears suddenly pool in my eyes.

His features tense up and he rapidly twirls and hides me from Dem and Indya. With his back turned to them, he draws a quick Lume, puts it over his mouth, and then jams it into my ear. I hear his voice, whispering in a panic, "Crying is Human! Stop!"

But I just can't help it. Right now, Peter feels more and more like a traitor, and the prospect of having missed probably the only opportunity to go home, within this Raede at least, is utterly inconceivable. I turn away from Vlad and the others, and let my silent tears flow, unhindered. 


A few moments of silence follow, as if echoing the void I'm slowly sinking into, before the remaining Elves start a whispery talk. It feels like they're tactfully speaking low so as not to increase my state of unwellness. The only oblivious one is little Chloë. She just walks round to me, sits on the grey, sandy ground, and starts touching every rolling tear, then staring at her fingers, intrigued. I watch her for a long while, dulling my senses in the process, before I hear a non-familiar voice sneak up on us from behind. "She's really taken a liking to you, hasn't she?"

I know the voice is Indya's, but it's not the reason why my skin is abruptly covered with goosebumps, as badly as when it was still fully Human. The voice, the tone, the accent… they all sound so… Earthly!!  

I swiftly run the back of my hand across my cheek, making sure to remove any wandering tears, and turn to face her. Big grey eyes, ash-blond hair with careless curls, a flowing cream dress, and an overall nymph-like demeanor. On one side of her head, there's even a small, golden half of a crown which, though metallic-looking, is a perfect carving of small twigs and flowers. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she was probably this world's equivalent of a hippie.

"She's wonderful," I mumble.

"In normal cases, I would have told you to teach her, but I'm sorry to say that she seems to have more training than you!" she jokes. I smile, although her words may be confirmation of how obviously different, clueless, and far I am from ever really blending in.
"Why do you say this?" I venture.

"First off, you stare. Whenever any of us speaks, especially Peter, your eyes follow and linger. I realize your bond with him is strong, and clearly none of us knows the implications of being born straight from someone's Talent, but this is one of the first things we tell Initiates: Perceive enough to fill your Spirit, but don't stare."

What?! Chloë stares much more than I do! 

"Spirit?" I ask as ingenuously as possible. Besides trying to sound child-like enough not to comprehend metaphysical notions, I'm also curious to know how an Aelfric defines them.

"Yes, it's your... Essence, or the Energy through which you think, create and feel, no matter the Vessel... Hey -- you're staring again!"

"I'm so sorry!" I look away and expect the impossible blushing, "I just... don't understand what you're saying." Come on, hippie Elf, spill!

Instead, she gives me nothing but a scandalized frown. "Hasn't Peter told you anything about anything?" 

I almost smile at how Human that sounds, and quickly shake my head. That seems to push her off the edge, as she angrily turns and calls out to Vladimir. "You royal idiot!" she throws, and I gulp. There is no way she's heard this expression in Elf land. "She's on her way to see Danielle and you didn't think it relevant to teach her anything at all?! If Peter hasn't taken the time to teach her, why haven't you? Is this your way of educating a Newborn?" she tsks. 

"She's too young..." he protests.

"She doesn't look young to me!" her eerily Human voice comes out again, making me like her instantly. When she speaks, it sort of feels like listening to a parent, defending their kid against bullies.

I avoid looking at Vlad, although I feel him take a step forward. I know he disapproves of this and would attempt to interfere and stop her from revealing the Realm secrets, as Peter would wish him to do. But both Peter and Nirav have left him in this mess, and he let them! So he might as well allow her to tell me, then have Peter deal with the consequences at his return.

"Nevermind him,” Indya says, more determined than ever. “You answer to me now; he clearly hasn’t earned that from you,” she glances at him and makes a funny, taunting face. “Close your eyes, Little One… Now, you should be standing up for this, but we don’t really have a choice. Don’t be scared, I’m just going to put my hand on your forehead. If you feel weird, just…” But I’ve stopped listening to her. Somewhere between the moment I felt her palm on my forehead and her last words, an entire world was created around us. From the darkness behind my eyelids stemmed this CGI-animated, abundantly colourful carousel of images. It was just like being inside a spinning magic lamp. I can still feel her hand, but no longer see her or my own limbs when I try looking at them. It’s eerie yet so luminous and enthralling that I just give in and start making out what it is she’s trying to show me.  

The first thing I notice is of course the gold, mixed with everything. Landscapes, silhouettes, fleeting images of faceless, stylized Elves… all glimmering as in a beautiful mirage

“We are Creatures of Space and Time,” 

Inside the illusion, her voice suddenly fills my ears like Surround Sound, and takes on this grand yet kitsch storyteller’s tone, which almost makes me snort. A sobering image puts an end to it though: a flock of gliding, faceless Elves slow down, as if listening to her tale. 

“We have no beginning, and thus we are endless.” 

A crowd of other Elves join in, forming a wide sea of slender, graceful beings, reaching the far, golden horizon.     

 “But we are only  so as a People. As individuals, we end, and we move on.”

The ethereal crowd splits down the middle, revealing a wavering Aelfric who collapses in slow motion, falling backwards like the Little Prince drawing, and then elegantly rising again – not his opaque spirit, but all of him – and shooting upwards like a light arrow. 

“The Spirit of the Aelfrics is One, and it is the force which allows each of us to move on. No one knows where we go, but there have been signs of us returning. Signs that only some of our Elders can see. Our Elders, our rulers, our pride, our most revered ones.”

Great. With all the poetic narrative, I feel she’s leaving me in a bigger haze than before! The minute she mentions the Elders, a small, distinct group appears in the background. They are all significantly taller and more richly dressed than the others. They are also the only ones looking up at the rising, deceased Elf.      

“We all have the ability to create, which we learn to perfect. These images you’re seeing now, they are drawn on the walls of your imagination. This is what all Newborns do, as practice, before the real creating begins”

Interesting Talent she has! Immaterial, yet infinite. “And this is what you alone can do for them? You show them these walls?”

“Yes. On top of creation, we also have our unique, individual Talent. This Talent reveals itself when you’re ready for it. You can’t provoke it, but once it’s there, your task is to make it stronger. We say that it comes as naturally as breathing, yet is as powerful as your will.”

 Echoing her words, the crowd of Elves disperses into a chaos of random gestures that are really hard to follow. I manage to notice one of them walking in a straight line through the others, as if he could penetrate solids. Another faceless one changes shape and resembles any of the other Elves she touches, while a third one puts his fingers against his temples, and everyone else disappears then reappears, as if they’d been shielded from me for a short instant. In the background, I notice someone simply levitating. “Flying?... Is that Demetrius? Where are his wings?”

“Props!” she throws, wryly. “He can very well fly without them. Don’t tell me you fell for them too… Not you, Little One!”

In her hilariously clichéd, lyrical voice, this sure sounds like teasing, non-serious jealousy. And if I’m not mistaken, Dem might be listening to all of this. I get why these two are such good friends of Peter’s. They seem to share his sense of banter. God… I miss him. That son of a bitch. 

“To those of us born without a Talent…”

Ah? I didn’t know there were any!

“… the Elders gracefully offer a gift of their own. A gift of responsibility. You might know one such Aelfric who has had this honor.”

“Um… I honestly don’t,” I rush to say, suddenly intrigued.

“Have you seen Nirav display any abilities?”

…Well I can’t say yes to that now, can I? I shake my head.

“His Talent is either not there, or hasn’t manifested yet. So he’s been given a very valuable task. That of ensuring passage to the Gardens.”

I recognize an artistic representation of the tall Elf being handed a bright ball of light by the Elders, and then… swallowing it?!

Ouch! Is this why he can’t speak? Is that the Elders’ “gift” to him?! So far I have only thought of it as a very powerful Talent when it was actually a consolation prize to the talentless... but at what cost?

“The Gardens?” I ask, to distract myself.

“Yes… Only once, in our entire existence, has an Elder reached such power, such wisdom to create them. They are like separate parts of this world, although they’re not really part of it.”

The entire illusion suddenly goes darker, and I gasp as I realize I’m inside what an Elf conceives as the cosmos. My own cosmos, with galaxies and all.  

“The bigger mystery though, is WHY he created them. He never said. Ever since he moved on, we’ve had the task of supervising and trying to understand the Gardens, and we’ve succeeded on some levels…”

Her voice abruptly loses its grand narrative pitch, and I blink as I feel her hand leaving my forehead and the shimmering images slowly fading out.

 “… And failed miserably on others,” she continues, while my eyes readapt to the scenery. When I finally see her clearly, I catch a tinge of sadness there. She smiles slowly, and reveals a secret that explains a lot. “I was once a Herald to the Gardens, just like Peter is now.”

At that point, I actually wish I could hug her. She’s been there. Maybe in my Garden, or in any other, but she’s seen it. Somehow this is enough for me to feel she would understand me better than the others. I want to ask her so many questions, but the sight of Vlad behind her cuts the conversation short.


He seems agitated, even upset. I hear him whisper in a slightly nervous tone, "What do they want?!"

‘They’ who? What did we miss?

I turn just in time to see Dem pushing a purple Lume into his ear. What really strikes me then is how rapidly his face falls. "Another Check! Prepare yourselves!"

Those cryptic words push Vladimir into the tensest state I've ever seen him in. He turns to me, grabs my arms, and violently pulls me up.

"Hey!" I protest feebly. I wonder if this skin bruises as easily as the old one.

"Get up! And look alive! Quick!" 

His features are unmistakably twisted into what could only be described as fear. And it's pretty contagious. What's happening? I growl with the effort it takes to stand up straight, and quickly grab on to his arm. I have no strength left; how will I pull this off? 

Everyone suddenly looks to the east, and my super-senses swell up and sound the Space for the smallest sign of someone coming.

First, I feel a lithe couple of steps speedily coming closer. But then, another couple... Then another, then another. What is this?
 
The steps are rough, pounding... And there's a certain military cadence to them. I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. Vlad whispers almost inaudibly in my ear, "The Realm's Sentinels. They make rounds, looking for Insurgents and Invalids. So please, please, let them not see you're unwell!"   

I try to inhale but my lungs don't follow. What is this place?! Not only do they refuse to treat the ill, but they also capture them?! A rush of adrenaline helps me open my eyes and straighten my shoulders a bit more, but to someone who knows me, it's obvious I'm not okay; not entirely anyway.  

Slowly, I start sensing a very strange… vibe. It's neither a temperature, nor a vibration, but more like an "impression". An impression of anger, of lethal determination, of a thirst for blood. I knew my super-senses could latch on to sounds, to images, but not to actual feelings or intent. And this is one I wish I hadn't perceived.

And suddenly… there they were, stepping one by one out of the sculpture maze, in their terrifying, dark stringency and clenched jaws. No less than twenty Aelfrics, marching in blood-curdling, angular formation. They're so synchronized that they all almost look alike. And those uniforms, for lack of a better term, resemble much more the Human image of how an Elf should be dressed, with their dark brown, mid-length capes, partly covering an eerily clear metallic cuirass. The latter has an extremely intricate carving of a giant tree, all across the chest - and it looks oddly familiar… Didn't I see this same one in Sam's thread shafts? The cuirass's curves draw, rather faithfully, what I've come to describe as their Elf-marble muscles, and its lower part extends into scale-shaped chaps going all the way down to their ankles. What is most striking though, are their helmets. Round at the front and pointy at the back, they remind me of those weird biking helmets worn for the Olympics. But I couldn't for the life of me take my eyes off the ear area: the sides of each helmet are elegantly ornate with a breathtaking, dark-green carving of a leaf, pointing upwards. 

Huh... That's probably what Humans saw as Elf ears!

Wait… Could it be that Sentinels were the first kind of Elves that Earth had actually seen? By the looks of them, no wonder things had gone so wrong then.   

The formation comes to a full stop at a rather safe distance, and the leading Sentinel detaches and approaches Demetrius. No forehead-touching or closed eyes here; only short words, in their very musical language, which somehow sounds dissonant coming from the brutish leader. 

I throw a quick glance at Vlad, who seems to have gone into a shell of extreme concentration. Somehow, I want him to understand that if I'm addressed directly, and in Elvish, he'd better have some sort of plan! 

The longest five minutes of my life go by, minute by ticking minute, as the leader's tone seems to rise with every one of his replies. His creepy, grey eyes have a subtle purple-ish gleam, as they browse through the small group, and linger on mine. Twice. 

Don't move, don't breathe, don't blink!

Then, his long, leather-clad arm rises slowly, and his majestic finger seems to be pointing towards me. Fuck!!!

Everyone turns and I get this weird feeling that they're looking right through me. The nervousness makes my knees tremble, as I find it harder and harder to remain standing. If everyone in this place could point me out so easily, then we have a snowball's chance in hell of getting to Danielle's Space unharmed, and then trying to convince her of the cover story.

What the Sentinel does then is so violent it almost shatters my teeth: he lets his massive body fall down on one knee, and furiously plunges his fist into the ground. And instead of a rippling effect, his move provokes a scene that's straight out of my nightmares: just like a snake, slithering underground, and lifting a huge mound everywhere it passes, a horribly fast trail of lifted earth speeds towards me, as if something were about to dig itself out and bite me whole. My screams are choked before even reaching my mouth, and I stand there, a stone sculpture, waiting to be eaten alive.  

But Vlad would have it otherwise. He yanks my arm backwards and moves me from the trail's path. I look at him, confused, then back at the trail. So this wasn't aimed at me?!

The mound continues its speedy advance into the Workshop, and soon, all the sculptures in its way start dropping like Dominos. One by one, they fall and shatter, till the real target is finally revealed. Out of nowhere, a scream fills the air as an Elf is literally propelled by the angry trail, and flies up, then starts his descent straight towards us. In a terrifying counter action, the Sentinel jumps up, grabs the flying Elf by the waist, and pulls him down to the ground, smashing him so violently into the earth that he is folded in two. The ensuing screech sends icy ripples down our spines. 

I look at the poor Elf, and recognize a student I'd seen earlier - Akaär? What could he possibly have done to deserve this?! And where was he hiding?... Could he have seen me crying, earlier?

With a stony hand still pushed into Akaär's stomach, the Sentinel recites something which sounds rehearsed. The student protests all throughout, with a voice going from begging to screaming. It's so atrocious that I clench my fists, only to feel Vlad's hand against my back, urging me not to show emotion. I try to concentrate on my breathing, when suddenly, Akaär twists his head backwards, in an attempt to look at me. I instinctively step back, only to witness an abrupt and familiar scene: everything, the Elves present, the golden sky, the vibrating ground... - everything goes very, very still.

"Don't you dare move!!" I hear Vlad whisper, with his fingers imbedded in my arm like a vise. "These are the last people I should be using my powers on, and if a hair on your head moves now, they will notice it when I unfreeze them. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

"Y..yes! Yes-s!!" My voice borders dangerously on hysteria.

"Akaär has done some very condemnable things on his end, and he's trying to divert the attention from himself by turning it onto you. He doesn't know anything, but he saw Dem carrying you and laying you on the ground. He has just accused you of being an Invalid. This means you could be given the same treatment he just did."

My breath comes out in ragged puffs, and I realize how badly I'm shaking.

"STOP MOVING!" He tightens his grip around my arm. "Now repeat after me: Direth nur, lenyren ome Deni-el."

"Direth nur, lenyren... Oma.."

"OmE! Ome Deni-el. It means 'I am not, I swear in Danielle's name'. So say it now, and say it like you mean it. And Lily.."

"Hmm?" The shaking is getting worse.

"Please, whatever life you've got left in you, I beg you... Use it to look alert. Please... Now, ready?"

My silence is enough for him. Suddenly, everything comes back to life, and the Sentinel looks up at me, as Akaär keeps repeating the same words, again and again.

"Direth nur!" I say a little too forcefully.

The Sentinels all stare at me, slightly taken aback by the sound of my voice. 

"Lenyren... Ome Deni-el!"

At those words, both the group and the Sentinels touch their chests, in respect for the name. And just like that, the leader leaves Akaär's waist for his foot, and drags him like a dead prey, while the young Elf continues with the heart-tearing howling. The others turn and walk away, as abruptly as they came, and I wait till the last one's disappeared before dropping like a leaf, and simply letting my knees crash against the hard ground. At this point, I'm too weak to care about pain.

Vlad instinctively pulls at my arm in the hopes of alleviating the shock, while Dem and Indya rush to my side. No one says anything however, and their silence shows it was as traumatic to them as it was to me.

Vlad is the first to break the silence."You did well... You did well..." he encourages.


The female Elf doesn't seem intimated though - by anything for that matter. All throughout the inspection and arrest, she'd remained as composed as she is now, with the addition of a slightly disdainful, lifted brow over her grey eyes every time the Sentinel spoke. She must not find any of them as scary as Vlad and I do.

"What was that?!" I quickly change the subject.

"Sentinels doing a Check. Aaagain," Indya rolls her eyes, but doesn’t see it fit to explain further. "You swore in Danielle's name," she then says out of the blue, "which makes it impossible to lie. But... you really do look like an Invalid!" 

"Indy!!" Dem scolds.

I wish I could deny the accusation, but their disbelieving words and wary faces are the last thing my brain registers, before running out of any sort of energy left, and completely fading to black.




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