Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Place Between: Chapter One
Warm, gentle waters carressed her legs, and overhead the woman could hear seagulls calling each other. It was strangely peaceful. She was sprawled on a beach, it seemed, a beach covered in soft sand. She wasn't entirely certain how she had gotten here. Shipwreck seemed a plausible enough explanation. Which begged the question what she had been doing on a ship. Somehow, although her memories were otherwise befogged, she seemed to remember not caring much for ships at all.
The background sounds of crying birds and dancing surf were interrupted by the sound of many voices. Women's voices, all surprisingly musical sounding. This might have been an illusion, in part due to the language they were speaking, which the dazed woman on the beach did not understand. Still, whatever language it was, it sounded beautiful and friendly. The voices were coming her way. At last she forced her eyes open, but knew that if the women were hostile in contrast to their language, there was nothing she could do about it. Her body was crippled by exhaustion, hunger, and thirst. But her eyes were open, and to her delight they showed her a wondrous sight.
The first of the women reached her, and she managed to say one word before losing consciousness. "Amazons!"
"Where did she come from, do you think? Her clothes are not at all familiar looking."
"It is hard to say. Her clothes are not familiar to one as young as you, but I see their relationship to those of a people I stayed by for a time."
"Really? What were they like?"
"Angry." The unexpected reply left the younger woman nonplussed, so she didn't try to keep the conversation going. Instead, she took the bowl of water that was being used to rinse the unconscious woman's forehead, and left to change the water.
Zapreus sat still, gazing intently at the woman laying in the bed to her right. A youngish woman, thin from her ordeal. Roughly shoulder length dark hair, with a sturdy build. Not tall, though. Speaking in a language when she was found that Zapreus had learned at that long ago visited place, but strangely altered. No, Zapreus corrected herself. Not strangely altered. Just not changed in the same way. For a moment she had unconsciously slipped back into the old way of reckoning, from when she had believed she was one of Those Who Know An End. In those terms, the woman's language was as it had been spoken long ago, preserved only within the patched and reworked fragments in still older and ever more garbled stories of old wars. Not preserved here, but, in yet another place Zapreus had visited for a time.
Now Zapreus knew very well that she was one of Those Who Know A Beginning, and she was trying to remember what sort of people were in the stories that went with the fragments of this strange castaway's language.
Her train of thought was interrupted by the youngish woman on the bed. "Water?" she asked, a bit plaintively, as she struggled to focus her eyes. Unusual eyes for this place, brown.
Reaching for the glass and earthenware pitcher on the side table, Zapreus paused, realizing belatedly the woman couldn't possibly hold the thing herself. She squirmed uncomfortably. Forcing herself to act, she moved to help the other woman sit up a little and drink.
"Thanks." The woman smiled gratefully, hoping her gratitude would ease the other woman's obvious discomfort with the physical contact and bridge the language gap. Language gap or no language gap though, she tried asking anyway, "Please, could you tell me where I am?"
"Yes, and no." Twitching her robes where they rested across her knees, Zapreus considered what to say. She knew careful choices were necessary, because the young woman clearly hadn't seriously expected to be answered in her own language. "This place has no name that your kind knows. My people call it The Place That Is, and the Changing Ones call it the Farlands."
"Wow – it's such a – a – descriptive, name." The woman blushed deeply. To her own lasting astonishment, Zapreus smiled, a real smile, not the pained grimmace she could produce where a smile was expected but difficult to actually come by. Unbeknownst to her, the expression utterly changed her face, made hard and gaunt by years of grief. It wasn't easy to pass through the Changing, to lose everything you had once been or once imagined you would become.
"We have always been here. We belong to this place – it belongs to us. It is us. That is why it is called what it is. Only people who have gone to an utterly new place give other kinds of names than this." Zapreus remembered badgering her Mentor with questions about this answer. She knew it was true, yet how could it be, when she knew she had come from another place? Her Mentor's answer had been infuriating: "You are one of Those That Know A Beginning, not The Beginning."
The woman in the bed frowned. "So, where – where, I come from – we don't use names like that at all – we're, newcomers, there, then?"
"Yes, but wait, it is not right to load you with such ideas when you have had a terrible time and are far from home among strangers. I have forgotten the correct way to treat a guest."
"It's okay, really." The woman played with the edge of the blanket. "I know my name, it's Kadryn. And obviously I remember how to talk and all sorts of basic things – but I can't seem to remember much else." Her voice rose a little with alarm. "How will I get back home if I don't even know where that is? What about my family, what if..."
"Kadryn, Kadryn, stop, stop, you are overexciting yourself!" In a gesture that was almost comical, Zapreus waved her hands over the supine woman's body, clearly wanting to comfort but unsure what was appropriate to do. Luckily, the accidental comedy of the moment made Kadryn giggle in surprise. Seeing the woman had settled down at least a little, Zapreus added hastily, "And we must take problems one at a time." Like the problem that Kadryn could never go home. Nor could she stay here.
"You're right, I know. You, don't spend much time around other people, do you?" Kadryn could have kicked herself when Zapreus' expression grew distant and inward looking, and she cursed mentally, fearing she had offended her strange host.
"It is not that I see few people, although certainly I rarely touch others nowadays. Kadryn, my people are not the same as yours. We are a different sort of living being that thinks."
"Another sort of living being – that thinks. You mean you're not, human?"
"No, I'm afraid not. There are few humans here, and they don't stay long. They find it too strange here, so we help them get home." And hard as it will be to accept when you learn this, you aren't human either. Zapreus frowned, beginning to feel concerned. Panic was coming off of the woman in waves. Why had she put herself in this situation? Her appearance was perhaps the least human-like or pleasant of anyone's here! She wasn't among the ranks of the Mentors for a reason. Taking refuge in the familiar, Zapreus leaned over and picked up an earthenware bowl of fruit from the small table set by the head of the bed, thinking to offer Kadryn some, but her own unease made her move too quickly, and she knocked the bottom of the bowl against the table. The bowl obliged by breaking, and Zapreus moved automatically to catch the pieces, stabbing herself in the hand with one of the fragments.
"Dammit!" she cursed, dropping the lot and struggling not to bleed on everything. The cut wouldn't last, but Anaketis wasn't back with the washbowl. Catching as much of the blood with the edge of her inner robe as she could, Zapreus held the edges of the wound together, and eerily, the cut closed itself, healed and vanished, all in a moment.
"Oh! Phew – now I understand. You're some kind of Goddess! Wow, you really had me going for a moment there. And you've got an accent. You don't usually speak Ellinika?"
"No." Zapreus replied softly, retrieving the fruit and brushing together the fragments of the bowl awkwardly with one foot. She carefully polished an apple, then offered it to Kadryn. "I am called Zapreus." Returning her attention to the bowl, she waved her hand over it, and the pieces drew back together.
"Thanks." Kadryn accepted the apple, struck by the dry warmth of the Goddess' hand. For some reason she had expected her hands to be cold. "So, Zapreus is your name? What does it mean?" With the Goddess explanation in place, instant-healing cuts and magically repaired bowls didn't phase her at all.
"No, I am called Zapreus. My people do not tell our names lightly." The confusion that promptly covered Kadryn's face led to its mirror on Zapreus' own. "What?"
"Er, where I come, from – your name is what you're called." Well, of course it was!
"Oh, yes. Well, I guess – it is difficult, your language doesn't have proper words for what I mean then. I suppose the way to put it then is, I have a name that people I don't know well may call me, and that often even those who know me well call me. But the name that means me, that invokes me, the one my mother gave me, this name is not told to others lightly." Few languages spoken by Those Who Know An End had proper words for this.
"No kidding Ellinika doesn't have words for that." Kadryn agreed. Having finished her apple, she looked around hopefully. Zapreus polished her another one, then got up to call for soup and tea to be brought to the room. "And haul that Anaketis up here too, by the scruff of the neck and one ear if necessary!" The original plan had been to have Anaketis there to greet the young woman when she woke. Anaketis was quite handsome, with a ready, rakish smile and an oval face surrounded by shoulder-length, dark, straight hair. Kadryn had partially woken earlier, and begun thrashing around in confusion, but she relaxed almost immediately at the sight of Anaketis, who seemed to bear a resemblance to someone Kadryn had known and was fond of. And of course, Anaketis was one of the Mentors.
Pausing by the door after closing it again, Zapreus hesitated, fidgeting a little. "You, asked me what my – name, meant?"
"It means – she who is, is, a surprise. Like lightning, like a thunderbolt, like a gift." Stuttering to a stop, Zapreus struggled, unsure what else to say. She had forgotten how difficult translating could be.
"You mean – unexpected?" Kadryn asked.
"Yes, yes – but all kinds of unexpected, even though mostly the good kinds." She could have smacked herself over the head with the now repaired and refilled bowl. What was she thinking, putting it like that?
"Why all kinds? I mean, why would you have a sort of name that could say something, uncomplimentary?" Kadryn found herself caught between honestly wanting to be diplomatic and being desperately curious. Weird as this conversation was, it was a welcome distraction from the facts of her situation. She was lost, amnesiac, and far, far from home. So far, she was among – deities, if Zapreus was any indication. Somehow it seemed to her the deity part should have meant she was dead, yet somehow, the fact she was starving, thirsty, and unable to remember her past didn't seem to go with that, quite. Or at least, Kadryn hoped it didn't. As it happened, her hopes corresponded to the truth.
"It is our practice to choose names that are appropriate to you at many moments, not just the ones where you would be pleased with yourself. It is important to keep in mind that we are not always – complimentable."
"I'm sorry, but there's no way that's a real word." Kadryn grinned.
"It's too late for that, I've already said it." Grinning back unself-consciously, Zapreus was prevented from saying anything else by the arrival of the broth and the tea. She soon excused herself, and left Kadryn to be attended to by those who did such things.
After a few days Kadryn was recovered enough to walk around, and found herself in company with the rakish Anaketis, who as it turned out, was barely seventeen winters old as far as Kadryn could tell. Yet somehow Anaketis seemed familiar. Standing almost a head taller than her, Anaketis possessed of a blazing, toothy smile and striking silvery-green eyes that struck a curious counterpoint to her dark hair. Oddly, it didn't show highlights under sunlight. In fact, Kadryn would have been forced to call them darklights. It was a weird effect that took her some time to get over a tendency to stare at. Nevertheless, Kadryn had taken an immediate liking to the younger woman, and enjoyed Anaketis' irreverent tour of the part of the island they were on.
"The island is many days walk in size, which would be far too much for an afternoon, so let's just go visit where everyone gathers instead," Anaketis warbled breezily when Kadryn declared herself fit enough for more exercise than slow, ridiculously careful perambulations around the woods near the small house she was convalescing in.
The Place That Is was, so far as Kadryn could tell, like no place she had ever seen or heard of. Most of the houses were made of carefully shaped wood. When she touched it, it felt unnervingly alive. Anaketis explained the houses were much like those Kadryn had lived in herself, but every third or fourth house was usually a place of working.
"Like, a smithy, or a cobbler's shop?"
"Yes, and no." Anaketis replied enigmatically.
The island was mountainous and generally, so that many buildings had been created within the living rock. Anaketis referred to those as temples. Kadryn wasn't certain what Anaketis meant the term to mean, but she refrained from asking. The younger woman was admirably patient, still she did tend to get a little impatient when every description was greeted with an avalanche of questions. In any case, Kadryn found it more useful after awhile to focus on keeping up with her companion, and trying not to let on that maybe she had overestimated her strength after all.
It was clear that people were far from indolent on this island. Everywhere Kadryn looked, she saw people bustling around, working at constructing buildings or repairing them, carrying burdens. Gathering various things, weaving, carving, whatever – the weather being nice, most people were working outside. There were even people working in what were unmistakably farmed fields, and Anaketis promised to take Kadryn to see the orchards that were the source of the apples she had eaten with Zapreus.
The Place Where Everyone Gathers – which was actually the way Anaketis had intended the phrase – was reminiscent of an agora, and Kadryn was delighted to remember that the agora was an important fixture where she came from, and what it was like. There were people trading finished and unworked things, buskers and singers, people who were just plain standing together chatting. Then there were a couple of tight groups of people intensely discussing subjects of interest to them. Kadryn was able to determine, thanks to Anaketis' flair for translating, that one group was arguing over whether an individual human could conceivably remain the same person throughout their lifetime, living in the flow of time as they did. This was such a headache causing train of thought Kadryn decided not to try to inquire about these serious-eyed debaters again too soon.
But in general, there was something funny about this place. It took awhile before Kadryn could put her finger on it. "Aren't there any men here?"
"Any what?!" Anaketis blurted incredulously. "Those beings exist only among Those Who Know An End, and there is no person of that kind among the Others."
"But you know what they are?" The Others? poor Kadryn wondered in bewilderment. Who were they?
"I once lived among humans, just as you did. Every now and again a man does wash up here. But we rarely give them a chance to wake up." The look of horror on Kadryn's face made Anaketis wince. "It's not like that – we just take them straight back to the nearest place where their people are when we can. At one time we treated them as we treat you, but well before I was born that had to stop, because the men would wake and after they recovered their strength they would become very strange. The Kepler tells me that in some cases they would become paranoid, and begin screaming accusations, insisting we had killed all the men. In others they would attempt to do injury to us, thinking to make themselves rulers here. It was all together bad for them, and did them harm. There wasn't much they could do to us, or any of the Others."
"You have met her already, she was with you when you woke up completely the first time."
"Zapreus? She's a Kepler? What's that?"
"A Kepler is a sort of, you would call her a priestess, I think. I am her apprentice. It is not usual to meet a Kepler so soon."
They walked on for a few moments without speaking. Kadryn turned her attention back to the beings around her. To her, this whole place seemed to be a sort of Amazon village. Or maybe a better way to put it was, an Amazon village was a sort of version of this place. She wasn't entirely certain how she knew about Amazons and their villages, but with luck she'd be able to sort that out later. Pausing, Kadryn watched a weapons class. The instructor, a burly woman with a crooked nose was demonstrating a series of moves with a weighted staff to a group of very wide eyed girls. The sight made Kadryn's heart ache.
"Can I see her? Even though it's not usual?"
To her credit, Anaketis smoothly picked up on who Kadryn meant based on their conversation, which had trailed off long enough ago she had started watching a very beautiful woman of about her age in almost the complete opposite direction Kadryn was looking in. "Sure, since you've asked and evidently you're comfortable with her. She'll be at the Black Temple."
"Why haven't we gone before?" Kadryn had been wondering about this, feeling somehow a little hurt to think Zapreus had lost interest in her.
"The Kepler meant no unkindness. She is a bit self-conscious about her appearance, and directed me to just show you around and not to bring you to see her unless you asked. She is not equipped to be a Mentor as I am." Anaketis smiled as reassuringly as she could. She had been hard-pressed to keep Kadryn from learning too much about her new circumstances at once today. Kadryn was a shrewd and endlessly curious woman who didn't give up easily.
Following Anaketis' long strides to the Black Temple, wherever that was going to turn out to be, Kadryn tried to puzzle out why Zapreus would be self-conscious about her looks. She was thin, with olive-toned dark skin and masculine-looking to Kadryn's eyes, for lack of a better word. But why would that make her self-conscious? She was still struggling over this when she walked into Anaketis, who had paused to pull open the Temple door. "Sorry." Kadryn muttered.
They stepped inside, and Anaketis lead her into a small anteroom. "We remove our shoes when we enter a Temple." They padded silently through the corridors, and Kadryn found herself feeling a bit overwhelmed by the place in its almost completely unrelieved dark glory. There were torches, but they were apparently as far and few between as possible. Anaketis finally stopped by another door, and after letting Kadryn catch up with her, simply opened it and stated, "Go ahead."
Feeling oddly nervous, Kadryn smoothed her clothing, a knee-length tunic belted at the waist with an ornate braid of leather strips, and winced at the state of her toenails, which were overgrown. She quickly ran her fingers through her hair, then stepped through the door.
The contrast between the room and the corridor was truly astonishing. The floor was covered in rugs, and a bright fire burned in a fireplace with carved mantles to her left. Arranged in front of it were a couple of padded chairs, one big enough for more than one person to sit in. The walls were lined with shelves, and the shelves overflowed with scrolls, books, and curious gadgets. A big desk sat in front of the one window, so that Zapreus could see who was coming in, and the light would prevent a newcomer from seeing her properly. Or at least, so it seemed to Kadryn, sensitized by Anaketis' comment. An inner door to one side of the fireplace, elaborately carved, which Kadryn suspected went to either a bedroom or some kind of bathing room, stood half open. To the right, away from the desk a bit, a stand with broad leaves what looked like hanging braids of some kind held a large book, laying open. A couple of the braids laid across the pages, much to Kadryn's puzzlement.
"So, do you approve of my place? I get the odd complaint about the large number of books and the fact I can't be bothered to put them in alphabetical order."
"Are you kidding? It's wonderful! The scrolls, the books – who cares if they're in alpabetical order? How do you ever manage to leave?"
Smiling, Zapreus rose to her feet and led Kadryn over to one of the chairs by the fire. "You get used to it."
"What are all these things for?" Kadryn asked, watching the next thing Zapreus did, which was hand her a mug of cider and a plate of sandwiches.
"Word of your long day's walk against healer's orders has preceeded you." the gaunt woman commented drily, making Kadryn blush. "I use these things in my work – I am a scribe, a bard, and I measure the time."
"I thought you were a priestess? At least, that's what Anaketis said. And aren't you going to have a few of these?" The pile of sandwiches was absolutely huge.
"Oh – well, I suppose I could." Zapreus sat down beside her, and carefully selected one of the aforementioned items. "Every woman is a priestess here, actually. I think Anaketis was using the closest word in your language she could find for someone who measures the time. I remember – I remember that priestesses and priests used to keep track of when the festivals should happen." She paused, sniffing at the sandwich before she took a bite. "How have you been faring? Anaketis hasn't been taking advantage of your rebelliousness to run you off your feet has she? Or flirting excessively – she's got a knack for getting herself into all sorts of nonsense when it comes to beautiful women."
"No, no. In fact, for someone so young she has quite a knack for motherhenning. Wait, did you just call me beautiful?" Kadryn's eyes widened a little when Zapreus actually blushed, adding an almost feverish burst of colour to her cheeks and forehead.
"Yes, I suppose I did. Too forward of me, I'm sure –"
"No it wasn't, that was awesome. I love getting compliments." This time Kadryn blushed. "I mean – well, that's exactly what I mean, just I don't usually say things quite so bluntly. But, also – it was a very subtle compliment, very slick, and very unexpected, consistent with what you're called."
"Ah." Zapreus chuckled and applied herself to her sandwich for a few moments. "I am a bard after all. Perhaps you are too, having picked up on my weasel talk so quickly." She chuckled self-deprecatingly.
"It's not weasel talk, it's charming." Kadryn declared fiercely. She had absolutely no idea why, but she found herself wanting very much to lift Zapreus' spirits. There was an air of ineffable, heavy sadness about her, and Kadryn simply couldn't believe anyone who could fuss so hilariously over a shipwreck victim and overcome an apparent discomfort with touching a stranger to help her have a drink of water deserved to be so miserable.
Anaketis hurled a stone as hard as she could, and watched with some satisfaction as it sailed out far from shore before arcing down and into the water with an almost inaudible plunk. She picked up another stone. Today was a lousy day. Today was an awful day. Today she had remembered her Ending. Or at least, what would have been her Ending, if she had been one of those who knew such things. So properly speaking, it was her Beginning. The trouble with that remembering was that you didn't just get the Beginning. No, you got everything else too, all the stuff that came ahead of it. She couldn't do anything about that stuff, so what was the point of remembering any of it, she wondered. Angrily, Anaketis hurled the second stone. Its trajectory wasn't as good as the first stone's though, so the stone smacked into the water with a flamboyant splash. The unsatisfactory throw gave Anaketis somewhere to channel her anger, and she leapt forward, seizing another stone.
But it wasn't a stone that was in her hand. Instead, it was the left hand handlebar of her bike, and she was pedaling furiously. She was going to be late. It was bad enough at home as it was, without being late to her shift at the family store on top of everything else. Everything else being that her family had clued in at last, and they were none too impressed to learn that she was gay. They were even less impressed when they discovered that no shrink would throw her in a mental hospital on that basis, and no cop would arrest her either. In the end, her father had decided not to throw her out until she was finished high school – not least because now child and welfare services was looking very hard at his household. If they got the least sense Anaketis was being abused, she would be seized and put in a foster home.
She frowned and tried not to pay too much attention to her cramping calves. Anaketis – that wasn't her name here. What was her name? The question would have to wait. As it was, thanks to the phys-ed teacher demanding extra push ups and laps from his last class of the day – no exceptions! what, did she think she should get out of it because she was a dyke? – she was going to be late. And both her parents knew how to hit where the bruises wouldn't show. Anaketis came to an intersection. The light was against her, and the traffic was too heavy at this time of day to try dodging through the gaps. As she waited, Anaketis considered her options, shaking out her arms in an effort to recover from the extra fifty push ups.
If she took tenth street, it would cut at least ten minutes off of her travel time, and every minute counted. None of these calculations would have been necessary if Anaketis could have taken the bus. She could have taken the bus if she had bus fare, which she did not because she didn't get paid to work in the store. It was a family business. The one time she had asked about wages, with the idea of putting money away for school, the blow to her head had come so fast she couldn't duck and the stars were still dancing behind her eyelids when the next blow came. Somehow she stayed conscious long enough to hear her mother denounce her for being so selfish. That incident had led to a hospital visit. When she came to the next morning in the antiseptic-smelling hospital bed, Anaketis learned that her parents had told the doctors she had been in a fight at school.
Anaketis wanted to take tenth street. Yet she had a funny feeling about it. She'd been getting these funny feelings since she was fifteen, a couple of years after her visit to the hospital thanks to her looking for wages for work at the store. Her friend Melanie mockingly referred to it as her spidey sense. Generally, Anaketis went with it, as it usually kept her out of trouble, oddly enough. Well, today she was caught between two types of trouble. Whatever trouble might be in store for her on tenth street, it couldn't be as bad as the trouble she'd get when she got to work late. So when the light finally changed, Anaketis pedalled hard for tenth street.
Tenth was a ritzy street, lots of expensive boutiques and attendant expensive cars parked along the sidewalks. Anaketis grimaced. She had already learnt to dislike the expensive cars. They were huge, and since they were expensive the drivers firmly believed they owned the road. Anaketis had witnessed several accidents caused by the arrogant obliviousness of such drivers, luckily none of them too serious. That was a good run of luck, and Anaketis wondered whose run it was.
And thinking of large expensive cars driven by idiots, Anaketis thought wryly as she swerved to get out of the way of a middle-aged man driving a Hummer who was running the light. Getting back into her proper lane, Anaketis focused back on pedalling with all her might. If she was only five or ten minutes late, and her father was at the store instead of her mother, maybe she wouldn't get too beat up. Her father had a practical streak. He didn't like to do enough damage to prevent her going straight to work afterwards. Except for one problem. The run of luck, which was in fact hers, had just finished.
The door of a large vehicle, obviously a 'sport utility vehicle' of some kind although she didn't recognize the make, flew open right in front of her. Too close and going too fast to swerve around it Anaketis slammed into it so hard the door flew flat against the vehicle, setting off its airbags and its alarm. For her part, Anaketis hardly noticed these things, being distracted by the collision and the feeling of her backpack slamming into her.
Someone, apparently the one who owned the vehicle came running out and started screaming abuse at her for doing damage to his car. Anaketis was sprawled in a twisted heap, only distantly aware of what he was saying. Something was seriously wrong, she couldn't move.
A new sound joined the car alarm's hysterics, sirens. Anaketis saw a couple of police cars, and then finally the bulky white ambulance. A couple of people leapt out of the ambulance, looking seriously stressed. She wondered why. After all, while it was pretty weird how she couldn't move, Anaketis figured she was probably just dazed, and it seemed like her school bag and her bike must be pinning her down. So it was just awkward, really.
She watched the paramedics curiously. They were seriously going crazy. They had cut apart her backpack to get it off of her, then they had her strapped to an orange coloured back board, with a mask over her nose and mouth. Now they were lifting her onto a gurney and rushing for the ambulance. Watching with an increasing sense of unease as they lifted the gurney into the ambulance, Anaketis wondered for the first time how she could be confusingly both on the gurney and watching herself being loaded into the ambulance. Well, except, suddenly she could only see immediately around herself, but it felt like her eyes were shut. Wow. Must have been some whack on the head.
One of the paramedics stayed in the back working on her while the other paramedic struggled to get them through traffic and to the hospital without putting them into their own accident. Another person sat quietly on the little bench on the opposite side of the ambulance, watching incuriously as the paramedic struggled to stabilize her condition. Anaketis' sense of unease was growing. WHo the hell was that person, and how could there be room for them in here? She gazed intently at her body on the gurney, still feeling weirdly like her eyes were closed. Things looked pretty bad. She had bled a lot from a couple of places,a few of them courtesy of having her head go through the car door window. She could feel that her face was a mass of cuts and bruises, and her body was in an odd position. Then one of the machines the paramedics had hooked her up to started making a terrible racket, and before she knew it Anaketis had fallen backwards and out of the ambulance all together.
Springing to her feet, Anaketis was astonished to discover she wasn't hurt. So she followed the ambulance into the hospital, and then the gurney with her body on it. The paramedics were struggling frantically on, and now there were medical staff swarming around her too. Until one person, evidently the doctor in charge, shouted for everyone to stop. "There's nothing else we can do. Call it."
"Hey kid, come on. It's time to go." The strange woman from the ambulance stepped up behind her. "You don't wanna see the other stuff, it's the sort of foolish thing Those Who Know An End insist on doing." Anaketis turned to look at her. The woman was very strange. Tall, taller than everybody else in the room, with amber-tinted crystalline eyes and dark hair.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Anaketis asked suspiciously. "How can I be standing here?"
"I'm just a Guide, kid. Insofar as I want anything, it's to take you from this place to the Place Between."
"The Place Between? What are you, some kind of nut?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Come on kid, get a grip. You're not stupid, not by a long shot. You're dead as a door nail kid, you're done with this place. It's time to move on."
"No forget it, this is some kind of dream. I'm probably gonna wake up in one of these lame hospital beds with my father waiting to berate me for doing such a terrible thing to the family as getting in an accident and landing in the hospital." That explained everything. Anaketis sighed to herself in disgust. How could she have fallen prey to such a ridiculous bout of wishful thinking? Although, it worried her a bit, to think her wishful thinking involved imagining herself dead. Maybe she wasn't technically an adult, but she was usually far more sensitive than that.
"You're not dreaming. This isn't wishful thinking. Listen, that was an awful collision you had with that car. You were pedalling hard on a downhill gradient, and that means you were going way faster than thirty, kid. You're seriously deceased." The woman sighed. The teenagers were always the hardest. They simply didn't believe in death at that age. "You don't have to take my word for it."
Anaketis watched appalled as one of the nurses pulled a sheet over the head of the appearance of her body on the gurney. She could push objects around, and now her eyes were definitely open. "This is too creepy. I have seriously been watching too much television." She moved closer, wondering how much longer this uncanny dream could go on, and what she could do to wake herself up. Moving to brush by one of the machines around the bed, she was stunned when her shoulder seemed to pass through it, and its readings when haywire at the same time. The nurse looked up in surprise, and then reached out to pick the leads up from the floor. "Must be damp down there." the nurse shook her head sadly. "Poor kid." She peeled off the disposable lead covers, and tossed the wires over the machine to put them out of the way. Then the nurse stood back as a couple of orderlies came to wheel the body out of the room.
For some reason this prospect disturbed Anaketis mightily. "Hey, hey, hey, where do you think you're going!" she shouted. The men ignored her and pushed the gurney right through her, and for a moment, just a moment, she felt her body again on the gurney. It felt cold and still, as if it had seized up. Then the moment was over, and the gurney was out of the room, and Anaketis was staring speechlessly at the window in the door, where her reflection should have been, but wasn't.
"I told you kid, you're not dreaming, you're not asleep. It's time to go." The Guide clasped her hand. "That's just an appearance, if we don't provide the illusion the people here freak out in a terrible way, a way that hurts them."
"Anaketis, Anaketis!" Kadryn shook the younger woman's arm. She had been looking for her young friend for some time, and put her slowly burgeoning language skills to use by asking after her. The other Amazons she was familiar with had directed her to the shore a mile or two from where she had washed up, and now Kadryn found Anaketis standing ankle-deep in the surf, a rock loosely clasped in her left hand, her eyes fixed and unseeing. "Anaketis, please come out of the water, okay?"
"What?" Anaketis turned to look at Kadryn with a baffled expression on her face. "I'm not going anywhere, those creeps just took off with –" she stopped abruptly. "No, wait, that's just a memory." Blowing out a long sigh, Anaketis dropped the rock and wiped at her face. "How long have you been standing here?"
"Not long. Anaketis, are you sure you're all right?" If Kadryn had her way, she was marching Anaketis straight to the healer's. The young woman seemed terribly upset, her face was full of tears.
"Of course I'm all right." Scrubbing roughly at her face with one sleeve, Anaketis continued, "Sometimes remembering is like that. Don't worry about it. I don't know what happened to you, but I can still tell you won't suffer this sort of remembering. Come on, let's get some lunch."
The main doors were carefully barred, and the little cloth sign one of the local kids had woven hung on the outside of the door indicating the temple hall was being cleaned. Zapreus had pulled off her dark, high collared tunic and left it hanging over the lectern with its giant book. Several buckets of water and a bar of odd looking green soap waited to one side of the fire, which was directly behind the lectern. Frowning, Zapreus tried to think where she had set down the scrub brush as she doused several of the torches. She had passed through almost the whole of the Changing, and still she was sensitive to light. Zapreus had just finished with the last torch she intended to put out when she saw the wayward brush.
Bewilderingly, it sat by the always closed doors that blocked off the altar. Zapreus never walked across that space, no one did. There was a pathway between it and the fire, but of course since the altar was closed off, there was no reason to go behind the fire. Looking around uncomfortably, Zapreus sniffed the air. No one there but her. She hesitated, until, with a sense of growing irritation at herself for being unnerved by what was really not much of anything, she walked up to the fire. Pausing by the little ledge where the brush sat, she carefully rubbed the bottoms of her feet against the inside of her rough work pants. Only then did she step onto the smooth stone.
It was warm, of course. The fire burned not far from it all the time. The rest of the floor tended to be much colder. Sighing inwardly – Zapreus tended to suffer from cold feet and knowing about this nice spot would make it hard to stay off of it whenever they were feeling ice-like while she had to stand cantor – she bent down and picked up the brush.
Her head jerked up so fast, Zapreus nearly fell over backwards into the fire. Regeleus was her birth name, but only her parents and her sisters knew it. No one else was in the room. Looking around, Zapreus wiped her sweaty free hand against her pants. Maybe she needed to go have a nap or something.
"Regeleus, come here."
Turning, Zapreus stared at the doors. The voice had come from there. Nowhere else. What could this mean? Was she hallucinating? Such things were rare among her kind, but not all together impossible.
"Regeleus, come here."
Hesitantly, Zapreus reached out with her right hand, just touching the doors. At first they felt just as anyone would expect. Like rock. But then, something changed. One moment she was touching stone, the next Zapreus felt as if she was falling toward a soft, and very comfortable bed. The scrub brush clattered onto the floor beside her.
Smack. Staggering sideways, Zapreus clutched at her face, which had just sharply impacted the heavily ornamented doors.
"Zapreus? Wha – are you okay?" Kadryn rushed toward the other woman, who seemed to be in some kind of fit. This was just great. First Anaketis had come over all strange for a bit, and now Zapreus too?
"MMmmff, yes, just, err, misjudged the distance, it is nothing." Hastily collecting the brush Zapreus hurried around the fire, brushing irritably at a trickle of blood running from a cut over one eye.
"You're bleeding!" Kadryn snatched a bit of cloth out of a pouch on her belt and insistently dabbed at the cut until Zapreus finally sat down and let her clean it. "Not that I don't realize you heal faster than anything, which is almost impossible to get used to practically speaking. It's just, I think you ought to take better care of yourself, Zapreus." Her voice trailed off, and she found herself still carressing the side of Zapreus' face.
I should make her stop. The voice of sensibility nattered away uselessly in the back of Zapreus' mind. It was far from persuasive, almost ludicrously lame. It was far nicer to just lean into the touch, and enjoy it as long as it lasted. How long had it been since anyone had done something like that to her – for her? Zapreus stopped the calculation cold. She didn't want to measure that particular time. And more importantly Zapreus reminded herself, she needed to take better care.
Eventually, she opened her eyes again, and found herself looking into a pair of brown eyes with that always telltale dark circle around the iris and ineffable sparkle. The Others, whether they Knew A Beginning or not, didn't have that sparkle, a part of what made them disturbing to look at to mortals. Their eyes were crystalline looking instead. Reflective, which made their moods difficult to read.
"You know, there's this nagging little voice in the back of my head that keeps telling me I shouldn't be incredibly attracted to you." Kadryn said seriously.
"You should hear what it's cousin says in mine." And it's right. You are in a vulnerable state.
Sitting down abruptly beside the priestess on the bench, Kadryn bit her lip. "How long has it been since I got here? It's so hard to keep count – last night it dawned on me for the first time, there's no Moon here."
"No, there isn't. You have been in The Place That Is for seventeen and a half days and sixteen nights by the count of the World That Changes, that is, the place you came from."
"I've been away from home that long already. And I still don't remember much." A note of stark despair in those words.
"No – yes – I mean –" Zapreus groaned inwardly. She was digging herself a terrible hole, and this sort of talk was Anaketis' job! "We don't travel with time here." That special little sparkle was suddenly looking faded, and Zapreus felt an unfamiliar panic begin to spread through her chest. "There are ways to help you remember if need be, but it's really better to wait until things come together on their own and it's really not so bad here is it? Are you bored? Maybe your room is too small or something, do you want more books, paper, anything?"
"Hey, hey, wait, stop, Zapreus, please, calm down." Grabbing her friend's hands, Kadryn was genuinely shocked to feel they were shaking. Ever since the first day she had gotten Anaketis to show her to Zapreus' office, she had been showing up punctually in the evening after dinner to read scrolls or borrow a book. Usually she ended up staying and chatting over a cup of tea instead of going back to the little house she was bunking in. "Listen, don't you – don't you – are you all alone here, Zapreus?"