Updated: Dec 22, 2020
by Dillon J. Romney
Ajmeet woke up sweating and breathing heavily. He had been having a nightmare, but it was already fading. He reached for his notepad to catch the last remaining image: a small peach tree emerging from fresh soil. He finished writing and looked up. The glow of the outside sun brightened his black-out curtains. But it was strange: too bright, too orange.
He looked over at his wife; she was still sleeping. He got out of bed and went over to their large window. He drew the curtains aside and saw the source of the light. A ripple of panic erupted in his chest. Many miles away, a tremendous mushroom cloud rose higher and higher. The mushroom cap was smoke, the column beneath was a pure, bright orange fire. It lit up their bedroom. Fire-clouds, he thought, those bastards.
Ajmeet's mind raced, My daughters are at their friend’s house. My wife won’t survive this. Why are they dropping bombs?
He watched the explosion on the horizon expand and spread in his direction. That firestorm would kill everyone for miles. It might kill him, too; he had never suffered a fire-cloud bomb.
Should I wake Claire? he thought. Or let her die in her sleep? His cold, inner soldier tilted that way, but no, he couldn’t do that. She deserved to face her death. That was an honorable thing. He realized that they only had a few more minutes together, and his calm broke.
Ajmeet scrambled over to her. He shook her awake as gently as he could manage. Tears streamed down his face.
“Claire. Wake up! Claire!”
She woke and noticed the tears in his eyes. “Ajmeet, what’s wrong!?”
“Come to the window. Now. There is something you need to see,” he said.
He pulled her to the window. Together they looked out toward the column of fire.
“It will reach us soon, and there is nowhere to run or hide. So we will stand together--” His voice broke up.
“Ajmeet, the girls! What about the girls?” She turned to run out of the bedroom or get dressed or grab her phone. It didn’t matter. He grabbed her and pulled her into his embrace.
“Aj! Let me go, what are you doing?” Claire asked.
“We have no chance.” He bit his lip to avoid sobbing. “They might live; they might have my abilities. I will look for them if I live. I will find our daughters.”
Then another bomb fell. A brilliant spark of light preceded another column of fire. Smoke crashed into the sky.
That was much closer, Ajmeet thought.
“Oh no, please no. Aj, I don’t want to die. Our girls…” Claire shook and cried while Aj held her.
A second later, their window shattered from the shockwave. Glass slammed into their faces. Claire screamed in pain. Ajmeet ignored the pain and held Claire tighter. He watched the firestorm rush over their neighborhood.
They had slept naked after a long night of sex and intimacy, and now stood nude in the coming firelight. Heat came ahead of the flames and he watched his and Claire’s skin boil. Blood seeped and roiled out of their pores. Claire continued screaming while Ajmeet clenched his jaw tighter. The fire came across their street and into their home.
The fire-cloud hit them, and their skin blackened. His wife’s face melted away to the bone. Then her screams stopped. The progression was slower for him; he was a different kind of human. He watched the muscle on his body blacken and wither. Claire’s bones turned to dust and blew away from his arms.
Then his eyes boiled, popped, and were gone. In the darkness, he felt the last of his organs and tissue roil and peel away. The pain was excruciating, and then that, too, was gone. He thought of his daughters, and the peach tree, and then all went blank.
“Is this far enough?” Sammy asked. She and Jericho looked out into an endless desert.
Sammy glanced over at him. She was taller than him and looked down at his scraggly black hair. They were both lean from long travels.
A hot wind swept across oceans of sand plains and blew into their faces. The sun loomed overhead. Her brown hair rustled from the breeze, and she rested her left hand on her sword, belted to her left hip. A holster on her right hip held her pistol.
Sammy looked behind them. About half a mile away, there was a desert oasis that they had just left. Back there, palm trees stood in a small circular thicket surrounded by infinite sands. There had been shade and a cool-water spring, but that wasn’t why they had been there. Although, after they had failed to find the Eye of the Serpent, they had rested and hydrated.
She turned back to the empty desert.
Jericho shrugged. “Yeah, it should be far enough away. I could have done it a little farther back, but…”
“It is easier to do in a new place, isn’t it?” Sammy asked.
Jericho raised his eyebrows and nodded.
They had traveled to and through many worlds together, but they still didn’t fully understand how. Sammy knew that in some places, his talent came easier, and in others, it came harder. They had figured that out through trial and error. His ability came more naturally in unexplored territory. Until now, neither of them had articulated that.
“That might be it. It’s like I can more easily create our pathway to the next world when I don’t recognize anything. Like here, where all I see is sand,” Jericho said, laughing.
Sammy laughed and nodded.
Jericho closed his eyes; his summoning’s required that. He called it capturing the scene. The portals for travel appeared as various modes of transport. Sometimes it was a bridge, or a door, or an elevator, or a staircase. Each time, Jericho’s portals were unique, always different, even from others of the same type.
Using those portals, Sammy and Jericho had become vagabonds, travelers between worlds. Sammy didn’t believe they would ever see home again. One of their core problems was that Jericho couldn’t choose where they went; they just went. That was why they wanted the Eye of the Serpent, which was some kind of portal guidance amulet.
Disastrous, paranormal rains in their home world had brought forth nightmarish monsters, destroying their homes. During that time, they had discovered their supernatural abilities. These skills were the only reason they had survived. After the ruination of their home world, they had decided to follow the pathways granted by Jericho's ability.
Jericho had been ten years old when the nightmare rains had come. Sammy thought he was now about fifteen years old. It was hard to tell, though; traveling between worlds made time slippery.
His young body had filled out over the countless miles they had walked. Oddly, food was always available, even in the strangest places. In that desert oasis, they had found berries in bushes and clams in the spring. That, of course, was absurd, but such strangeness had become normal to them.
Now, sweat covered Jericho’s face. Sammy watched as specks of reality in the desert scene in front of her transformed. It was like every particle changed, one by one, into a particle from their destination. Each molecule swapped positions with that of another from somewhere, or sometime, else. It was like watching a digital television screen change channels, but slowly and one pixel at a time.
Sammy watched a short, arched, white bridge surrounded by darkness cohere in front of them. One the other side of the bridge, and in another world, there was more desert. No, Sammy thought, not desert, city ruins.
The possibility of walking into a place worse than the one they were leaving scared Sammy. Right now, they might be heading into a war zone.
However, despite jumping between places and times without aim, they might find the next thing they needed in the murky waters of their journey. They were searching for the Eye of The Serpent because it should help them direct their travels.
They had found the sword Sammy now wore, a relic from her ancestors, in the middle of some god-forsaken marsh. Elsewhere, Jericho had found several books, now in his backpack. Those had revealed a great deal about Jericho’s magical ancestry and the Eye of the Serpent. They had also learned more about Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun, the ether between worlds.
If their random travels took them to useful places, at least sometimes, then why search for the Eye? Sammy and Jericho had spent many nights talking of this. The answer came down to three things.
First, by now they had discovered enough answers about their ancestry and powers. They were strong now. Second, with the Eye, they might find the rot that had corrupted their home world. That sickness came from somewhere within Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun. With the use of the Eye, they might be able to save their home world by cleansing the place between worlds. The Eye might then take them home. Jericho’s books suggested that all that was possible. Although, the texts said nothing about how to use the Eye.
Third, Sammy and Jericho wanted control. Wandering the universe without aim was not appealing. While some worlds had been a useful part of their journey, others had been hellish.
Jericho opened his eyes. “A white bridge in the darkness leading to a desert. Or…a broken city, maybe? Great.”
“Shall we?” Sammy asked.
From the side, the bridge would have looked like it sprouted up and into the air before disappearing, sheared off clean. The other half of the bridge was in the next world, only visible from head-on while looking through the portal. Sammy and Jericho walked up and onto that other half. Particle by particle, the bridge behind them shifted and shimmered away.
Ajmeet couldn’t move, and he couldn’t see, but he could think. He recalled the fire-clouds and disintegration of his flesh, his eyes bursting. Worst of all, the sight of his wife boiling, burning, and vaporizing in his arms was crystal clear.
A sickening sorrow flooded his mind. Images of his wife dying tortured him. There could be no tears in the darkness of his thoughts. That somehow made his weeping feel worse; there was no physical outlet. He imagined his daughters buried under the rubble of a ruined house. Sharp needles of emotional pain stabbed into his being.
He wondered if he would be stuck in the darkness of his thoughts forever. Whether he was dead or alive didn’t matter; if all he could do was float in darkness and feel pain, then it made no difference.
Wounds from his past bloomed in his heart.
Ajmeet was a rare kind of human. His people had evolved on Mani, the moon of Airpoe, which was the planet he was now on.
Although volcanic wastelands covered Mani, there were some habitable places. However, lava geysers could erupt anywhere. The moon had an unstable core and thin surface crust. From that brutal environment, Ajmeet’s people had evolved impressive adaptions.
Their skulls held both their brains and hearts. Their bones consisted of dense minerals and metals that were resistant to destruction. And their flesh and organs, except for the brain and heart, could regenerate.
Ajmeet had been a soldier during a war between the people of Mani and those of Airpoe. He had been damaged by grenades, bullets, gases, flamethrowers, and all kinds of blunt weapons. Regardless of the severity of the damage, his flesh and organs always grew back. Also, his bones never sustained any injury. The regeneration process was fast but painful.
His skull could reshape itself in a split second, cutting off every opening to protect the brain and heart. In consequence, the skull severed the optic nerves, spinal cord, and everything else entering the head. That temporarily debilitated the person but kept him or her living.
During the war, his people’s physical abilities had made them very hard to kill. So, instead of trying to kill them in battles, the enemy had captured most of them. Then, one by one the enemy had injected tiny needles into the eye sockets of the moon people in order to reach the protected brain. Those needles had carried terrible chemicals. The pain must have been incredible before death had finally brought peace
After his kind had lost the war, he had had no choice but to hide from the authorities of Airpoe. He’d been doing so for twenty years now. Some years after the war, he had met his wife, a woman from Airpoe. He had told her what he was, but she had still fallen in love with him. She had been one of the people of this planet who had protested the war, calling it genocide.
Ajmeet’s sorrow for his scattered and murdered people amplified his current grief.
He became aware of the pain of regeneration. It was worse than ever, and so he knew he was alive. The regeneration pain started in his skull as it opened back up. The pain was white-hot and intensified in his optic nerves and spinal cord. Nature had not decided that pain relief was necessary for regeneration.
Fluid spilled out from the base of his skull. Nerves and blood vessels emerged and snaked around the bones. Muscle tissue followed and reformed. There was a great deal of blood, cerebrospinal fluid, and amniotic fluid. His eyeballs rebuilt at the end of his optic nerves.
An inkling of light entered his cognitive darkness. It was like a sunbeam blazing through a pinhole into the caverns of his mind. Slowly, more of these pinholes opened up, becoming less radiant but fuller.
Together, the brain and heart facilitated the regen process. The heart pumped, the brain directed, and the new nerves, tissues, and fluids emerged from both. The dense, almost sentient fluids both protected and guided the process.
It took an hour before his skin reformed. The pain was incredible, but it became distant.
He thought of his daughters. They had been born on this planet but were his children, and they might have inherited his adaptations. If so, they might be alive.
Either way, he would search for them.
Before his body finished its full regeneration, Ajmeet passed out.
Sammy and Jericho stood in a field of destruction. It had once been an urban community, but something mysterious had flattened it. She’d thought it might be a war zone but it seemed that no fire had raged, for nothing had been burnt. Maybe it isn’t a warzone, Sammy thought. It looked like a hurricane had just knocked everything down and then dried up.
Sammy could naturally see much farther than Jericho. That was a consequence of her supernatural abilities. She could also conjure a flickering green fire that swirled out from her irises. The world she saw then would become more vivid, a deeper image visible in a wider spectrum of light. She could perceive currents of air, heat, and deeper into reflective light. Combined with her regular eyesight; it was like having the blended vision of several creatures.
Her regular vision, even without the swirling fire active, remained uncanny. She saw within the typical human visible spectrum, but had much stronger eyesight than most people.
Many areas up ahead appeared barren and clear. They looked flat, smooth, and circular, like bomb craters without the cavity. But even there, nothing was blackened from fire. However, there was what appeared to be a body in one of those clearings.
“Jesus,” Jericho said.
“I don’t think there will be a Jesus here.”
Jericho laughed. “Still: Jesus.”
“Yeah, we missed a catastrophic bombing.”
“How do you know? It looks to me like a bad storm came through.”
Sammy explained what she saw.
“Do you think we will find anyone alive?” Jericho asked.
“Maybe. I see something ahead in that clearing; it might be a body. But what if this was a nuclear war? We might get very sick or die.”
“If they were bombs, they were a kind that doesn’t cause radiation.”
“And you know this how?” Sammy asked.
“Well, from the way things have been damaged, it looks like whatever caused this had nuclear level force. But if there was that kind of radiation, wouldn’t we already be getting sick? Also, do you see anything that is black or burned?”
“Right, me neither. That is strange. Have you ever heard of a bomb that doesn’t burn?”
“No. Let’s go check out that body.” Sammy started to walk.
“Wait.” Jericho turned around, as did Sammy.
“Fuck,” Sammy said, seeing the world behind them now that the portal had vanished.
A massive city lay in rubble. Sammy could see many more blast zones, all flat and smooth. As far as she could see, and in every direction, there were empty circles surrounded by ruins. The piles of debris were much larger here than in the suburbs now behind them. But still, there were no fires or blackened debris.
“I think we should go the other way. We can’t navigate that mess.” Sammy said. Jericho nodded and they turned back around.
“I guess we’d better go see about that body in the clearing that you saw,” Jericho said.
The portal had dropped them off on what used to be a house. They walked off it and onto an asphalt street. The street had plenty of debris on it, but there was enough open space to roam. Also, it ran toward the blast zone where the body was, and that was a good enough hint for Sammy and Jericho. When stepping into a new world, they always followed the path that most caught their attention.
Sammy sometimes wondered if an external sentience was guiding their path. Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun itself, perhaps.
After a short walk, they came to the blast field. The ground was light brown, smooth, and reflective; it looked like a sheet of glass with sand under it. Jericho could now see the body off to their right, at the edge of the circle, which was about a football field wide. Jericho was pretty sure the person was naked and dead, but he couldn’t imagine how the body had gotten there.
Sammy drew her sword with her right hand, and tapped the glossy ground. It was indeed as smooth as glass, but it did not crack like glass when she stabbed it. It was rock hard.
“What kind of bomb could do this?” Sammy asked.
Jericho shook his head.
They looked at each other and continued onto the smooth ground. They knew each other and strange situations well enough to speak only with their hands and eyes.
They soon approached the naked body of a man who didn’t look wounded; he could be alive and dangerous. Sammy kept her sword out: double-edged, it was light, and had a grip made of simple black strap braids. She stayed ahead of Jericho, who held no weapon. That was how they approached most situations of this nature. Sammy was the warrior; Jericho was the summoner.
Jericho stopped as Sammy walked over to the man. The stranger had dark brown skin and a full black beard. There were no bruises, cuts, abrasions, or discoloration on his body.
Sammy couldn’t put her finger on it, but something felt off to her. His skin seemed too new, too fresh. He looked alive, but his chest wasn’t moving. Sammy waited, staring at the naked man. He had the look of an Indian man from her home world.
Ajmeet woke up after a long, dream-filled sleep. He blinked his eyes open beneath a bright sky and heard footsteps. He decided not to move yet and to let those approaching reveal their intentions first. He assumed they were soldiers.
He thought of Cara and Karla, his daughters. He was anxious to run off and find them. It took all his will to remain still.
Ajmeet held his breath to appear dead but it soon became difficult. If they didn’t do something soon, he would have to reveal himself. He heard one of them walk closer and stand at his feet. He could only hold out a little longer. Then he felt something tap his foot and decided to move. With a vicious jerk, he leaned up and pushed his palms into the ground to give himself momentum for a kick. He aimed at an ankle.
Sammy had tapped the man’s foot with her sword, and when he moved, she was quick enough to avoid the kick.
The man’s foot had whipped out in such a sickening, fast blur that Sammy thought it might have snapped her ankle.
Too fast, Sammy thought, he can’t be human.
The man hopped up into a squat position.
Sammy sprang away and swung her sword at his chest. The man raised his right arm to block the sword stroke. To Sammy’s grim surprise, the blade cut into his flesh and stopped at his bone. Sammy had cut off several arms in her time as a warrior; this had never happened before.
The man tried to uppercut her in the chin. She leaned backward and spun around to her left to avoid his swing. As she turned back around to face him, the green fire appeared in her eyes and swirled outwards. She was Wraithian. Fire emerged from her green irises like little tornados. The world sprang into vivid slow-motion, highlighted by the green blaze. She could move faster this way and, if the need arose, wield that green fire through her sword.
The man’s eyes widened in surprise at her blazing eyes. He almost faltered when Sammy began slashing fast and with deadly precision. But he was as quick as she, maybe quicker. The man caught every swing with his arms; he used them like duel swords, blocking and attacking.
He also threw a torrent of kicks that Sammy narrowly avoided. Blood and flesh flew from his arms and legs, but it did not seem to bother him. They danced, sidestepped, attacked, and defended back and forth. Each sweated under the open sun. Blood splattered the glass sand.
Sammy made it past his guard and slashed a brutal cut across his gut. He fell backward and, as Sammy came at him again, he threw both feet up into her stomach. He hit her with tremendous force. Sammy flew back several paces onto her ass with a gasp. Then the man stood and ran toward Jericho.
Sammy had lost her breath, but after many years of fighting and traveling, she had deadly skills. She had to move fast and buy Jericho a moment. As she hit the ground, she dropped her sword and pulled the six-shooter from her right hip holster.
Sammy let off a burst of three rounds. All three went true; two bullets hit the man in the side of his chest and one hit his head.
Those burning eyes, Ajmeet thought. I am in trouble.
As the woman fell from his kick, he moved toward the other person.
Ajmeet rose and then staggered hard as three bullets hit his right side. His head cracked violently to the left. Had his target been closer, Ajmeet would have reached him before getting shot. Still, he rebounded and, in a few steps, threw his right fist at the person’s teeth.
Ajmeet’s fist almost collided with that face. Instead, a dense network of roots materialized both out of the air and from the ground. They wrapped around Ajmeet’s body, legs, and arms. In a heartbeat, he became immobile. He struggled to no avail and looked into the face of a teenage boy. The kid had his eyes closed. Not in fear, but in pure concentration.
He made these roots, Ajmeet thought. What are these people? Why are they here? I need to find my daughters!
The boy opened his eye lids and slate grey irises regarded Ajmeet with interest and confidence.
Ajmeet noted that the kid had no weapons on his person. He apparently didn’t need them.
The woman approached Ajmeet, her eyes still full of green fire. She was panting but gaining her breath back. Thick, immovable roots enveloped Ajmeet. A bright green leaf sprouted from one of the branches and fluttered in his face. It sharpened to a point less than an inch from his eye. The woman put a restraining hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Easy now, easy,” she said and regarded Ajmeet with her flaming eyes. That fire dwindled and her eyes became normal again.
The boy looked up at the woman. He nodded and gazed back at Ajmeet.
At the same time, all three of them said: “What are you?”
Ajmeet’s mind raced. He needed to be away from these people so that he could look for his daughters. A fresh ripple of emotional pain went through him as he thought of his dead wife. Were his girls also dead? He tried not to let his grief show on his face.
The woman spoke. “My name is Sammy, and I am a Wraithian. This is Jericho, and he is a Shadewalker. We traveled to this world through a portal. We don’t know where we are, and we didn’t come to harm you. That is all I am willing to tell you for now. Your turn.”
“I am Ajmeet,” he said. They’re probably not soldiers, he thought. How can I be sure?
Sammy raised her eyebrows at him as if to say, go on.
“What do you mean, portal?” Ajmeet asked. He wanted to find his daughters, not fuck around with these people. “Did you drop the bombs?”
“We came from another world through a portal, a doorway between times and places. Look, you just stopped a sword with your arms, survived a gunshot to the head, and are already healing from your injuries. So, I don’t imagine that this is too much for you to grasp. And no, we don’t know anything about who dropped the damn bombs,” Sammy said.
“Okay,” Ajmeet said. “So, you are a Wraithian, some fire-eyed witch? And you are a Shadewalker, some kind of summoner? Both from another world?” That sounded ridiculous to Ajmeet, but he had just seen it. He also supposed that if they were from another world, they’d think just as strangely of him.
“Close enough,” Sammy said.
“Set me free then, please. It seems we are not enemies,” Ajmeet said. If they set him free, should he run? Or tell them about his daughters? He felt torn, but he thought that running might be the faster path to his daughters.
“Answer me first. What are you, and how are you not dead?”
Ajmeet hesitated. The answer to that question was dangerous, and he wasn’t sure he should tell them. Then again, if they were here to kill him for that reason, then they would already know what he was. They would have plunged that sharp little leaf into his brain.
“I am from the red moon of this planet. It is a place of volcanic chaos, but with a few habitable mountain ranges. My people physically adapted to survive the harsh environment. Impenetrable skulls and tissue regeneration are among those adaptations.”
“What do you call this planet?” Sammy asked.
“Airpoe, and the moon is called Mani,” Ajmeet answered.
“So, you’re not a robot?” Jericho asked.
Ajmeet had had enough. “No, I am not a fucking robot! Listen, my two little daughters are buried under the rubble somewhere in this warzone. I hope that they are like me and survived the fire-cloud bombs. Now, let me go! I have to find my girls!” That last came out as a shout. Ajmeet felt rage and sorrow break out on his face.
Sammy and Jericho looked at each other. The boy closed his eyes again, and the roots were gone. Ajmeet stumbled from the suddenness of it, and then stood upright, still naked.
“Thank you,” Ajmeet said. He felt his voice tremble in his throat. Was he going to cry in front of these strangers? “I must find my daughters. Help me or don’t, its nothing to me.” Ajmeet said. He spun in a circle.
He replayed the events of the past in his mind and tried to decide where he should start his search. The combination of regeneration and a harsh battle had left him exhausted and weary.
His girls would be under the rubble somewhere unless they were in a blast zone.
Where do I begin? he thought.
“Your daughters, are they like you?” Jericho asked.
Ajmeet spun toward him. “I don’t know. I just said that, and I don’t have time to explain. Shut up and let me think.”
“Okay, okay, slow down. We want to help. You don’t know where to start looking. I can see that and I can help,” Jericho said.
Ajmeet took a breath and composed himself. He still felt wild, unbuckled, but he focused on Jericho.
“Where were your daughters last?” Jericho asked.
Ajmeet explained that his daughters had been at their friend's house several blocks away.
“West,” he said, “their house was west of ours. In the next neighborhood over. Not far.”
“Okay. That doesn’t matter. Well, not really,” Jericho said.
Ajmeet was on the verge of losing it again. “Of course it matters! My girls must be buried in the debris somewhere that way!” He pointed west.
Jericho held his hands out. “I understand. But what are you going to do? Sift through hundreds of houses worth of wreckage? You might never find them.”
Ajmeet remained silent, barely, and waited for Jericho to go on.
“This is a strange process. Bear with me. What are their names?”
“Karla. She is five. And Cara, who is seven.”
“Did they ever tell you about their dreams?”
Ajmeet clenched his jaw. “Of course. They are my daughters!”
The boy had crossed a line with that question. But of course, as a foreigner, he had no way to know that dreams were sacred to Ajmeet’s people. He tried to slow his mind.
“If I offended you, I apologize, but you must tell me one of their most recent dreams. Right now,” Jericho said.
“Absolutely not. We do not share our dreams,” Ajmeet said and crossed his arms.
“Ajmeet, I can feel and track dreams, but I have to hear them told aloud,” Jericho said.
“Dreams are sacred to us. You say you can track them?” Ajmeet felt a tinge of awe washed in suspicion.
“That’s right,” Jericho said.
Ajmeet was reluctant, but he finally answered. “Cara, hers was the last. She told me about it yesterday morning.”
“That should work. Dreams leave a residue and are always creative. That is, they provide pathways and ideas that are original, useful, and surprising. Because I am a Shadewalker, I can feel that residue and creativity. Then I can follow the feeling. Tell me the dream, Ajmeet.”
“Okay.” Ajmeet took a deep breath and felt as though he was about to jump off of a very tall building. He considered turning to run instead and look for his girls on his own. Yet, the look of honest care in Jericho’s eyes made him open up.
“Cara told me that she was in a deep, dark valley.”
“I was in a deep, dark valley last night, Papa.” Cara was seven years old, and that meant she was old enough to cut her own waffles. That made her proud. Telling her father about her dreams made her feel even more proud. He always listened intently and without judgment.
The kitchen window faced east, and the sun shone into the room. The metal sink glinted behind Cara. The sunshine washed the breakfast table and its contents with orange light. Cara’s light brown skin soaked in the rays. Her shoulder-length black hair almost dipped into her honey-covered waffles.
“How did you get to the valley, Honeybear?” Papa asked.
Cara poured honey on her buttery waffles every morning, as she was doing now. That was why he called her honey bear.
Cara only talked to her dad, mom, and sister about her dreams. Other kids at school talked about their dreams, but not her. Papa was sometimes strict, a bit harsh. Most of the time, he was thoughtful, funny, and encouraging. But, when it came to dreams, he demanded that she never speak of them to others. She agreed. Partly because it was the only thing that he was dead serious about. Partly because she read fear on his face, and that scared her.
About one year ago, Cara had asked why she couldn’t speak of her dreams outside the home.
“Because our dreams are special, they can take us to real places. We are different from others,” Papa had said.
She had left it alone then, confused, but had asked again later. “How are we different from the other people I know?”
“Cara, if I promise to tell you when you are twelve, can you promise me to follow this one rule without question?” His anxious expression had convinced her. He hadn’t just been serious about this; he had been afraid.
To make it easier for her, he’d always paid close attention when she spoke or wanted to show him something. Also, Papa would discuss and negotiate all other rules at any length she chose.
Cara went on. “I dunno. I was just there, you know?” Cara said, and her father nodded. “I was just there, and so I kept walking deeper into the valley.”
“Why not out of the valley?” he asked.
“That was the wrong way,” she replied.
Papa nodded and smiled.
“Tall trees lined a downhill path. The further I got, the darker it got. And there were lots of snakes in the trees. They were big, but they left me alone, and I wasn’t scared. I was brave.” She said that with wide eyes and waited for her dad to admire her bravery. He did, and so she continued.
“Deeper and deeper I went until the forest opened up in a big circle, and then I saw a man. Or maybe it wasn’t a man.”
“A woman then?” Papa asked.
“No, I mean, maybe he was an it.”
“Yeah. But also like a human. You know?”
He paused, then said, “Yes, a humanoid.”
“Yeah, a huma-oid.” She laughed before going on. “He was behind a hole in the ground where mist was coming out of, so I couldn’t see him too well. He asked me what my name was.”
“Did you tell him?”
“Duh. You told me always to give my name in dreams.” She rolled her eyes and then spurted the rest of the dream out. “Anyway, he was sitting cross-legged and holding something in his hands. A rock maybe, but I couldn’t see. I asked him what his name was, but he didn’t know. He said that he was hoping I knew his name, who he was, where he was from, and why he was trapped in the valley. I told him that I didn’t know, and then he asked me to leave. I said, okay. Then he told me to send anyone to him that might know the answers. Then I walked out of the valley and woke up. Weird, huh?”
“Yes. Was it a real place?” Papa asked. It was always his first inquiry.
“Yeah, I think so, Papa. It was sharp, and, uh, con, coh, coooo, hhmmm.” She paused. “Coherent!”
He smiled at her.
Cara recalled his lesson. Dreams that took place in real places were sharp and linear, not blurry and disjointed. He had taught her the words sharp and coherent to describe such dreams.
“Good. What should you do about it?” Papa asked.
Cara thought very long and very hard about that, and he let her. Cara finished her waffles and leaned back in her chair, looking a tad like an older woman deep in thought.
“If I go down a dark path,” she paused, wanting to get it right, “and I don’t have the answers, I should go find the answers and come back later, maybe even with help.”
“That would be good if it were a normal dream, but this was a reality dream, and that man is real; he exists somewhere.”
That scared Cara.
“I need more time,” she said.
“Okay, but no later than tomorrow. This is an important one, love. That man in the mist may need our attention.”
The man in the mist, Cara thought. The idea that the huma-oid was real frightened Cara. She knew where this valley was. She didn’t tell her dad this part, but when she had walked out, she had recognized a church by the stream. Her dad had gardened there before. Cara did not tell Papa that part.
While Ajmeet told them this dream, Jericho’s sense of Cara increased and became vivid in an unexpected way. He had tracked dreams before to find people, but none had ever been like this. At once, his mind fully grasped the images from Cara’s dream.
He felt dizzy and closed his eyes. The dream forced his mind into his things-out-of-nothing state. That was where he summoned new elements into being with his imagination.
Jericho was having Cara's dream, not just sensing it, even though it had occurred two nights ago. He thought that was because it was a reality dream, as they’d called it.
When Ajmeet finished the telling, Jericho opened his eyes and started walking. He was not just tracking the dream; it had entranced him. His eyes did not register the smooth ground of the blast zone, the ruins outside the circle, or the empty blue sky. The image of the valley stood at the forefront of his mind.
“Where is he going?” Ajmeet asked Sammy.
“To your daughters, I imagine. Let’s follow.”
Jericho walked across the blast zone, moving fast and in silence. He stepped into the destroyed neighborhood. He stepped on boards, hunks of concrete, sheets of torn-apart roofing, and bits and pieces of furniture and appliances.
The dream images, the path, the trees, the snakes, the darkness, all slowly became more tangible. Jericho thought that meant that he was getting closer.
He came to one particular pile of debris among many, and the dream-trance broke.
“Over here,” Jericho said, and started tossing away hunks of wood, metal, and concrete. Ajmeet and Sammy followed suit. They raked and pulled and tossed, but with careful hands watching for sharp objects and little girls. And then there they were, two small bodies buried under a few more pieces of wood. Arms, legs, and long hair were visible. There was no movement.
Ajmeet stopped. Jericho and Sammy backed off. The last bits would be for him to remove alone.
Ajmeet moved the final pieces to expose his daughters. It was a terrible sight. The younger girl, Karla, was dead. Her skin was charred black, but while her clothes were in tattered ruins, they were unburnt. Also, something had hit her face, crushing it.
Only the girl scorched, only the living tissue, Jericho thought, and clutched the sides of his pants. His eyes filled with water.
Sammy put her hands to her mouth, tears falling from her eyes. They remained silent.
The older girl, though, was alive. Cara was breathing. Her clothes were also ruined and unburnt, and her skin was fresh and undamaged. Ajmeet put his hands on her and she opened her eyes, jolting up in shock.
“Cara!” he lifted her into a fierce hug.
“I tried to save her Papa!” A heavy sob. “I tried to save her! She’s dead! She’s dead!” More heart-wrenching cries. Cara went on, and Ajmeet uttered comforts to her.
“It’s not your fault, Honeybear. Shhh, it’s not your fault.”
“I couldn’t save her, Papa! I’m so sorry!” She could barely breathe in the throes of her grief.
“No, my baby, no. You did your best. It isn’t your fault.”
“We were in the street playing after breakfast, and we saw the bombs go off. All I could do was hug Karla and tell her it would be okay, but it wasn’t. But it isn’t. It isn’t!” A piercing wail ripped out from the child’s throat.
“No, no, it isn’t,” Ajmeet said softly, rocking his child back and forth, squeezing her tight.
“Then we were trapped under there, and I knew she was dead!”
While they cried and grieved, Sammy and Jericho wandered off to give them some room. Farther from the blast site, they found some rough clothes for Ajmeet and Cara.
Jericho heard Cara ask about her mom, and heard Ajmeet tell her that horrible news. Deeper bellows of emotional pain followed. Jericho and Sammy returned to the father and daughter when they were all cried out.
“I must bury my daughter,” Ajmeet said.
“Where will you bury her?” Jericho asked.
“I don’t know, to the north, I guess. There are rolling hills and forests that way.”
“Cara,” Sammy said. “Where is the valley from your dream?” The look on her face changed to horror and surprise. The same look then haunted Ajmeet’s features. What Sammy had asked was sacrilegious to these people.
“Papa! You told them?” Cara yelled.
Sammy spoke first. “Hon, he had to. Jericho here can feel and follow dreams, even days afterward. That is how we found you in all this rubble. You were trapped, and your dad might have searched for days without finding you.”
Now the look on her face was one of pure wonder. She looked at Jericho with awe. Dreams were sacred to them, and if he could track dreams, they might view him as a kind apostle. Ajmeet, too, looked at Jericho with fascination and fear.
“Did those roots come from a dream, Jericho?” Ajmeet asked.
Jericho didn’t know where the things came from; he assumed that they came from his imagination. He supposed that was also the place of dreams. In that sense, the answer was yes, and so Jericho nodded.
Ajmeet and Cara’s mouths hung open.
“Please, Cara, tell me where the valley is. We should go there to bury your sister, and then go into the valley,” Jericho said. “I believe that the contents of your dream dictate that path.” He didn’t know for sure, but he felt it, felt it ocean deep. The Eye of the Serpent might be in that valley. And he believed that this family, including the dead member, had to come along.
There was a long pause, and then Cara pointed northeast and said, “When I walked out of the valley in my dream, I saw the river and the church near the field.”
"Cara, why didn't you tell me that before?" Ajmeet asked, a little too harshly.
"’Cause it scared me," she replied, looking abashed.
Ajmeet opened his mouth, but Jericho interrupted him.
“It doesn't matter now. It is where we need to go." His voice was calm and caring, hoping to persuade them.
Ajmeet nodded, and the four of them set out toward the river and the church.
A strong little stream ran up ahead. A bomb had gone off farther north in a small township; Sammy could see the blast zone. It had destroyed the surrounding farmhouses and acreage homes. The little church had been just on the north side of the stream. Now, its painted white framework was scattered around, and some parts of the building now lay in the stream.
Sammy and her travel mates crossed an open field now, green grass up to their knees, south of that stream. They had not seen any other people so far.
Sammy strode closer to Ajmeet, and asked, “Who was the war between? I got the impression that you were a soldier for the people of the moon."
Ajmeet gazed at her for a moment. “The current war is between the countries of Airpoe."
“What kind of bomb knocks everything over but only burns people and nothing else?” Jericho asked. He had moved up beside Sammy.
“Fire-clouds,” Ajmeet said, with a horrified reverence. “The fire from those bombs seeks out living things. The force of the blast knocks everything over. And, as you have seen, everything in the direct circular perimeter disintegrates. The ground in the circle melts into a sheet of sandy glass.”
Sammy thought about how to ask her next question, but Cara beat her to it. Apparently, everyone had queries that only Ajmeet could answer.
“Papa?” Cara asked.
“How are we different from others? Why did mom and sis die, but not me and you?”
Ajmeet took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and spoke. “Do you remember anything after the fire hit you?”
“No. It hurt for a second, and then I woke up trapped with Karla. Then I slept. Then you were there.”
“Let me gather my thoughts as we walk. Then I will tell you everything while I dig your sister’s grave,” he said.
Cara shed fresh, silent tears.
Sammy kept her questions to herself. She would find out soon enough it seemed.
They all walked in silence until they reached the mouth of the valley. It lay to the south side of the southeast-running stream. The valley opening was across the creek from the ruined church. Sammy wondered if someone had built the church there for that very reason.
The valley that dropped down into the earth was actually more of a narrow canyon, full of trees. From the field a ways back, Sammy had only seen the tops of those trees. The valley floor went down so dramatically that the trees fifty feet away went up one hundred feet to reach the top edges of the valley. It was dark down there, and there was no way to tell how long and deep it might go.
Sammy walked to the side of the valley opening. As far as she could see, treetops bristled along the valley’s ridges as it shot straight south into the horizon. Sammy guessed that if the valley continued to drop, some of the trees in the deepest parts of the canyon might be hundreds of feet high. She wondered if there would be snakes down there, big snakes.
“Right here, Ajmeet,” Jericho walked to the left side of valley mouth, which was close to the stream. “We need to bury her here.”
Ajmeet paused and then said, “I do not like being told where to bury my daughter, Jericho.”
Jericho turned to him. There was no compassion in his face. “Yet, you will bury her here.” There was a degree of cold steel that Sammy had never heard from him. She didn’t know if that was good or bad.
Ajmeet clenched his jaw, tilted his head back a bit, and then laid his dead daughter at Cara’s feet. “Cara, sit with your sister while I work.” Then he looked at Jericho. “I will dig, and you will wait without helping.”
Jericho and Sammy nodded, and they sat in the shade near the mouth of the valley.
“There used to be a shed at that church. I did some grounds keeping for them once,” Ajmeet said. He crossed the little stream, went over to the obliterated church, and found a rough old shovel. Then he returned, began digging, and spoke to his daughter.
“Cara, you and I are not like the people from this planet. That is because I am not from it. I am from Mani, the red moon, and you inherited mostly my genes. Your mother, however, was from here, and your sister inherited mostly her genes.
“For millions of years, our people evolved on the moon while your mother’s people evolved here. Once the people down here developed space travel, they came up and found us. Within that first year of meeting, there was war. They wanted what little good land we had, and the moon’s resources. They wanted us out of the way. We were not as technologically advanced as them, but we were much more resilient.”
Jericho interrupted. “You said the war was between the people of this planet.”
Ajmeet nodded. “The war going on now is, Jericho. Once they won the war on the moon and killed most of my people, they went to war with each other down here. Every country wanted the land of the moon; the mineral resources there are vast.”
Ajmeet went on speaking to his daughter. “You see, Honeybear, that moon is red because of the volcanic geysers and lava rivers that cover most of it. There are small, higher-altitude plateaus with life-sustaining land full of trees, water, and animals that are not all that different from here. Still, the conditions are brutal, and the good land often crumbles away from earthquakes and eruptions. Surviving and migrating was our way of life.”
Ajmeet explained to Cara their people’s adaptions and biological abilities. Her eyes widened during that explanation. He told more of the moon war, his experiences with regenerations, and how he had met Cara’s mother after the war.
Ajmeet spoke until he finished digging, and then rested his hands and forehead on the handle of the shovel. He wept there, standing in his daughter’s grave.
Cara picked up her sister on her own, tears streaming down her face, and brought the limp child’s body over to the grave.
Ajmeet took his head from the shovel and regarded his daughters.
“Cara and Karla,” he said, and then he reached up out of the five-foot deep grave to take Karla from Cara. He laid his younger daughter into the earth’s embrace. Cara cried as Ajmeet returned the soil.
When Ajmeet finished the burial, he asked Jericho, “Why here, then? You must have had a reason.”
“Yes, I will show you.” Jericho stood. He hadn’t known why until now. Well, he still didn’t know why, but he knew what the next step was.
Jericho closed his eyes and the others waited. Moments later, water bubbled up from the nearby stream and made a new path. It cut through the soil, as if conscious, making its way through the earth toward the grave. When it reached Karla’s final resting place, water pooled in and around the burial site.
“What are you doing, boy?!” Ajmeet strode toward Jericho. Cara stopped him.
“NO! Papa, look,” she said.
Ajmeet stopped, looked at Jericho as though he might swing the shovel at him, but turned around instead. The water had soaked the grave, carved a moat around it, and then cut its way to the valley. The water split into two streams and flowed down the left and right sides of the valley’s path.
A single, small tree sprouted from the center of Karla’s grave. It had a short trunk that extended into multiple branches. Together, they looked like a roughly shaped basket. Some green leaves sprouted, and then a cascade of buds appeared on the branches. Seconds later, whitish-orange flowers bloomed from those buds. Then, tiny peaches grew from those flowers to hang on the branches.
“Look there.” Cara pointed into the valley. Flowers and peaches sprouted all over the trees that lined the valley path above the flowing water, even though those were not peach trees.
“What magic is this?” Ajmeet asked. His anger had changed into a ripe mixture of wonder and suspicion.
“Protection, guidance, and sustenance from Karla. We can eat the peaches of the valley, but not hers.”
Ajmeet opened his mouth to speak but found he had nothing to say; he was awestruck.
“Touch one of those peaches. Both of you,” Jericho said to Ajmeet and Cara. After some hesitation, they did. Fresh tears fell down their cheeks onto bright, yet sad smiles. Cara even laughed a little. Jericho knew that Karla was speaking to them from her resting place. He could hear the whispers.
“Perhaps, if war doesn’t ravage this place, you can speak to her here again. But for now, you must come with us into the valley.”
“Yes,” Cara said. “We must.” She put her feet shoulder-length apart, crossed her arms, and stared at her father with her jaw set and eyes wide, face wet with tears.
Ajmeet repeated her words. “Yes,” he said. “We must.”
The path was long and dark. It took them deeper and deeper into the earth. As they walked, the trees grew taller, and the tops faded from visibility. Shortly after they descended, the sunlight faded, choked by the dense forest, and was gone. However, there was an orange light to guide their way. The peaches on the trees glowed.
“That’s from my sister,” Cara said with her chin up.
“Yes,” Jericho replied. “Yes, it is.” He walked over and plucked four peaches. The glow remained as he bit into one.
“Are they okay to eat?” Cara asked.
“Yes, they are. Eat up.” He passed a peach to each of his traveling partners. As he ate his peach, he wondered when he and Sammy would part from Aj and Cara; traveling as a group of more than two never lasted long, and usually ended in death. Jericho was becoming cold to that fact.
There were lots of snakes, and they were big, just as in Cara’s dream. Hundreds of them followed along near the path and beyond the glow of the peaches.
They stayed away because of that orange light. The snakes seemed to want to cross the path. Many of them paused, tried to go through the orange light, but then snapped back as if in pain.
Some uneasy hours later, they stopped because, up ahead, the peaches and their glow ceased. So did the trees. At the end of the trees and light, a stone wall stretched upwards and out of sight. There was an archway through the stone wall and a clearing on the other side.
“It wasn’t this dark and scary in my dream,” Cara whispered.
“There were also no glowing peaches or stone walls,” Jericho said. “At least Karla’s water is still flowing into that clearing. It might help us. We have to go through.”
Ajmeet grasped his daughter’s hand. “We should go back. She is only a child.”
“No. You cannot go back. Look.” Jericho pointed his thumb behind them. The peaches were going dark at a rapid rate, and snakes were filling that darkness.
“We have to go into that clearing right now,” Sammy said.
Nobody argued. They all went ahead and walked through the archway. Karla’s stream pooled in the stone corridor. They splashed through the shin-deep water and out into the clearing, which was a large circle. At its edges, the valley walls rose straight up, like cliffs, and out of view.
Somehow, trees grew everywhere out of those sheer rock faces. They went out and then up in grotesque bends and strange angles. The tops were not visible; there was now a dense fog fifty feet up above them. A faint, pulsing white light emanated from that mist and lit up the clearing.
On the left side of the clearing, a waterfall fell into a tiny pond. Karla’s water now worked its way over to join that pool. Jericho was sure that the waterfall was from the same stream at the mouth of the valley.
In the middle of the clearing, there was a black hole in the ground. A column of dense whitish-grey mist flowed from it up into the ceiling of fog above. There was a figure behind that column.
“Hello?” the person called out. It sounded like a man, and he appeared to be sitting cross-legged.
“Hi!” Cara said.
“You again? I thought you couldn’t answer my questions,” he said, but he didn’t seem irritated. He sounded as though he was speaking from within a dream, distant and flighty.
“Yeah, but I brought some friends,” Cara replied.
“Is that so?” he asked. The ‘is’ was vibrant and young. The ‘so’ creaked and cracked. His voice wavered from youthful to ancient. “Will you tell me your names?”
“My name is Sammy Rowley, of the Wraithians, protector of Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun.”
“Hhmm. I didn’t believe anyone else knew about that place. I didn’t think it could be known outside of this clearing. I learned about it when I came here and ceased knowing about everything else. I sometimes wonder if that is the reason I don’t know who I am. All that I do know comes in flashes and then flutters away. Like a dream upon waking. Sammy, do you know who I am? Or where I’m from?”
“Come out of the mist. I have to see you to know who you are,” Sammy said.
“Right…right. Sure, sure,” he replied, his voice first lively, then shifting to dreary.
“I never thought of that,” Cara said, looking unhappy with herself.
The figure stood and walked around the mist column. Cara had been right. He was an it, a huma-oid, as she had put it, but it did look male.
His head was absurdly oblong, disfigured, and off-white, like dirty snow. There were wild tufts of red hair in bushes at his temples. His eyes were not eyes, but long black X’s. His mouth was human enough, but he had no nose. There was only the empty skeletal structure of where a nose should be. His body was round and squat. He shuffled as he walked, and there was a large grey stone in his hands. Huma-oid, Jericho thought, she nailed it.
As soon as he came to stand before them, about ten feet away, Sammy, Jericho, Cara, and Ajmeet grabbed their heads. A sickening pressure erupted inside Jericho's skull. He thought his head might explode. The others must have felt the same thing. The light that pulsed from the mist faltered and faded until the clearing was dark.
“Who are the others with you?” The huma-oid asked.
The pressure within Jericho's head passed. The others also seemed to recover. The glow of the mist returned, although with a lower intensity than before, and pulsing.
“What the hell was that?” Sammy asked.
“What was what?” He looked around as if he was blind. Sammy wondered if he could see with those black X’s.
“That pressure in our heads. What did you do?”
“I am afraid I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said and looked down at the stone in his hands. “But it could have been this.” He held out the rock. “Who are the others? Please tell me.” The mist’s glow flickered double-time, but only for a moment.
“This is my dad, Ajmeet. He is of the Red Moon called Mani,” Cara said.
Ajmeet smiled at her and said, “She speaks the truth, stranger.”
“Stranger? Yes, I suppose I am a stranger and am stranger. But I do know the Red Moon, now that you mention it.”
“I am Jericho Decant. A Shadewalker,” Jericho said.
“No, you cannot be. That was just a book.”
"How do you know?"
"I don't know, but I know. It was a book."
“Right, a book I wrote, or rather, will write, because I was, or will be, or am, the first Shadewalker. It is hard to say; our travels have made my mind strange. Anyway, I am here, and I am what I say I am.”
“What does any of that mean?” Ajmeet asked, looking at Jericho.
“That is a long story,” Jericho said.
The pale creature considered this and shrugged. Then he turned to Sammy. “Can you answer my questions, Sammy?” He was now pointing his black X’s at her.
Sammy thought, and then asked, “If we answer correctly, can you show us to the Eye of the Serpent?”
“Of course, it is in this stone.” Young voice. “Stranger and stranger still…” Old voice. He raised the large stone.
Jericho could see the edges of something carved into that stone, but only on the side facing the man.
“What hints can you give me?” Sammy asked.
“Absolutely none, of course. I don’t know who I am.” He looked upward to the mist, which faltered and flickered at his gaze, then pulsed faster.
“Then how exactly are we supposed to know you? You could be anyone,” Sammy said.
“I have heard whispers in the mist, that if you knew me, you would know me.”
“The mist talks to you?” Jericho asked.
“Oh, well, sometimes everything talks to me.”
“I see. Well, I cannot answer your questions then.” Sammy shook her head, as did Cara.
“Ajmeet,” the creature said without looking down from the mist.
“You say we would know you if we knew you, but I do not and so also cannot answer,” Ajmeet said.
Jericho stepped forward. “I am going to approach you.”
Jericho walked over beside him and turned so that he could look down at the statue. He immediately had a flash of recognition, but couldn’t place it right away.
“If we all come close to you, will you harm us?” Jericho asked.
“No, I am bound from violence by this stone.”
Jericho wondered what might happen when he was unbound from that stone because indeed, that had to happen. He motioned for the others to come over, and they did, but hesitantly.
Sammy and Jericho stood at one shoulder. Ajmeet and Cara stood at the other. They all stared at the stone, which was a carving of a face. Sammy, Ajmeet, and Cara all gazed on with bemusement. Jericho, however, looked on with the light of recognition. He knew that face. He knew it very well, and now he remembered. That face had given him nightmares when he was a child.
“Sammy, I know this man in the carving. He was in one of my school’s textbooks.”
In grade school during a history class, Jericho’s teacher, Mr. Vandenberg had taught the class about a terrible event.
In 2013, a series of floods had stretched across the entire western side of a certain country during springtime. It debilitated multiple provinces, and several small towns got it the worst. There had been one such small town in Southern Alberta called Black Diamond.
Those floods had cut off all power and services within Black Diamond and all contact with the outside world. The waters had raged like rivers around every possible entrance into the township. The bigger cities in other parts of the country received all the emergency resources. Therefore, the population of Black Diamond received none. They had become trapped for two weeks before the waters receded, and help finally came.
By the time help did arrive, Black Diamond had been through utter chaos. Robberies, vandalism, rapes, and murders had been rampant. It had taken another two weeks to sort out the mess and make arrests. At the end of the investigation, it turned out that a town RCMP officer had been the driving force behind the madness. He had turned the town into a totalitarian police state within the first week by enlisting the help of dozens of panic-stricken, violence-prone locals. He had committed fifteen out of the twenty-five murders that had occurred over those two weeks.
Upon further investigation, authorities found that the officer had committed an additional twenty murders before the natural disaster. They had found the bodies of all his victims in his basement. The RCMP officer had confessed to all his crimes and asked for the death penalty. That man’s name was,
“Renee Casey,” Jericho said.
“What? What did you say?” said the huma-oid.
“That is who you are. Renee Casey. That,” Jericho pointed at the face on the statue, “is you. For your crimes, Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun punished you. You had to stare at your face in the depths of this valley for an eternity. Somewhere along the line, you lost yourself.”
“My crimes?” he asked, but there was a hint of understanding in that question. His memory was returning.
“Yes, your crimes,” Jericho shared the story that he had heard back in school all those years ago. Everyone, including Renee Casey, stared at the carving with dawning horror.
“You, Renee Casey, deserve to stare at yourself for another ten thousand years,” Jericho said.
Renee pointed his face at Jericho. Those black X’s regarded him.
The stone in Renee’s hands changed color. The facial features flexed, coming alive, and flaked off bits of rock. The living, human head of Renee Casey emerged from the stone carving.
The huma-oid version of Renee also changed. His soiled white skin and black, X eyes turned watery. Those freakish features all washed away as if a hose was running over his head, washing off paint. A moment later, a deformed and decaying version of Renee Casey’s face stared down at the youthful, whole face that had come out of the stone.
They looked at each other with wild astonishment.
The face from the carving was of Renee when he was forty five years old. That was when he had confessed to all the murders. That was the face that Jericho had seen in his nightmares.
Decaying Renee’s expression went from awe to fury. He was looking at the pinnacle of his evil. And so he squeezed the face. He jammed his thumbs into the head's ears and pressed until the skull collapsed under his grip. There was blood at first. Then a whitish-grey mist flowed from the ruined head and up into the fog above.
“I don’t know if a man like me can repent, but I suppose it is all I have left. Eternity in knowledgeable repentance is better than eternity in ignorant denial. That was a whisper from Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun. It has been in my ear, just out of range, since I came to this place. But now can I hear it clearly.” His voice still wandered from young to ancient.
Renee pulled the bits of flesh apart, and from the center of the remains, removed a single reptilian eye. He wiped off the blood, reached out, and handed it to Jericho.
Renee stood, walked toward the dark, misty hole, and stepped into it, vanishing.
A fresh gust of heavy mist erupted upward and continued to build in strength until the mist ceiling grew and lowered. It moved down toward them, the glow brightening and pulsing faster.
“The valley is not a valley, and the eye is not an eye,” Jericho said.
“What?” Ajmeet asked.
“The valley is not a valley,” Jericho repeated. “It is a portal hub. And the Eye,” he held up the Eye of the Serpent, which felt like glass, “is not an eye; it is a portal aid.”
Jericho closed his eyes with his hand around the reptilian glass. The waterfall to the east side of the circle changed. It was still water, but it was also a set of stairs leading upward through a break in the mist.
“You and Cara can take that waterfall staircase back to your home,” Jericho said.
“Which home?” Ajmeet asked.
“Which one do you want?” Jericho asked.
“The red moon. I don’t think we can rebuild our other one.”
Jericho nodded and closed his eyes again. A ripple ran up the water stairs, and a faint red glow came down from above.
“And where will you two go?” Ajmeet asked.
“Through the endless forms. Through the Rae-Cog-Nigh-Shun, as Renee just did through that black hole.” Jericho closed his eyes again and thought, return me to my sender. The black hole ahead of them changed colors. It became brilliant snow-white bathing in sunlight; only the light was coming from below.
The mist above was now close to their heads.
“Go, now, fast,” Sammy said. “I do not believe we want that mist to touch us. No time to embrace or anything. We will probably never see you again.”
And with that, the foursome split into duos. Ajmeet and Cara reached the steps, hesitated, but then stepped onto the water. It was solid; they walked up the stairs and out of view. Cara took a second to wave goodbye.
Sammy and Jericho ran to the now-white hole and jumped into it. They landed in soft snow, and the hole above them closed off before the mist hit it.
They looked around and found themselves at the top of a snow-covered mountain. It overlooked a vast range of rolling hills, which flattened into bright green plains and lakes.
“Did it work? Did you choose this place?” Sammy asked.
Jericho shook his head. “Well, I thought 'return me to my sender.' But I didn’t think of anything other than that. This” Jericho held up the Eye of The Serpent, “may take some practice, and might be more dangerous than our random travels.”
"Why did you think that phrase?" Sammy asked.
"It was the only thing any of those books said about using the Eye," Jericho replied. "Maybe I should have followed up that thought with something else." Jericho shrugged. Next time, he thought.
Sammy smiled and pointed. “Perhaps, but this seems good. There are peach trees down there. A good omen?”
They began walking down the mountainside.
Jericho paused. Then he turned and walked up to the peak of the mountain. Sammy followed. On the other side of the mountain, there was a blackened wasteland full of horrible creatures that were anything but human.