Endless Hunt Part Six: True Places Never Are
rating: +22+x

Note: This is part six in a multi-part story. It is highly recommended that you read the previous entry here, or start from the beginning here.

Amy couldn’t sleep. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. She lay on the mattress, staring into the void of the night. Starless, moonless, cloudless. Nothing but darkness, surrounding her. Glowing shapes moved through the water, shining too dimly to illuminate her nest. Amy was glad for that. The darkness was like a wall, separating her from the siege of the world

They would be home, soon. And when they were, she would be safe. Rupinder would perform the ritual to mask her from the gaze of the Foundation. She would go home. What would her family think, when she returned? When she was taken, her brother was just starting middle school. Would he be at college, now? As a young boy, all they had been able to get him to talk about was history. He’d devoured books at a rate she would never match, poring over knowledge of Rome, Greece, Egypt. Did he still have that passion?

And her parents. Her mother had been in school, working towards her doctorate in psychology. Dad had been the sole breadwinner, working as an appellate lawyer for the city. It frustrated them, Amy had always thought, for two people like them to have such an un-intellectual daughter. She chuckled. What would they think of all this?

She heard a flapping of wings, felt the air stir, but as soon as the sensation appeared it vanished. Impossible to see where it came from. Whatever creatures made it, they seemed to appear only at night. During the day, she’d seen no life above water.

“What is this place, anyway?”

Once, it was a world that held many prosperous civilizations. Or so it is believed. There are very few historical documents that have been recovered. What has been found indicates that they lived peacefully with each other. What became of the world is unknown. Only small strips of land have been discovered in any expedition. There are remnants of cities, in the shallower waters, but exploring them has proven difficult.

“Who’s the woman, then?”

A particularly dangerous permutation of a particularly dangerous person. One certain dwellers of the Library felt needed to be controlled. Not without justification.

“Are they sisters or something?”

They are two instances of the same person, from two different universes. It is a rare phenomena, for even two identical to exist in different worlds. Of her, there are hundreds. The reason behind it is a mystery.

Amy sighed. She roped a braid of hair around one finger. “You think it was a mistake to let her out.”

I am ambivalent. There are far worse beings than she, unlikely as you are to meet them.

“Right.”

Amy lifted her scarred arm. A dull pain ran through it, even after all these weeks. She’d asked Rupinder about healing it. He’d given a cagey bullshit answer and changed the topic back to overpowering the minds of fish.

With the quick, precise movements that were beginning to become second nature, she dashed off a series of coral-pink runes in the air. They glowed faintly. An insect crawled through the light.
There were three runes, in a combination she hadn’t tried before. The first represented sparks. Rupinder had claimed it was from a hidden civilization beneath the Earth. She wasn’t sure she believed him. The second was simpler, a single, notched-back line indicating movement. For the third, a sign of balance.

The first of the three rules she’d established was a simple one. By resting more than she needed, she could store up energy. Then, when she needed to cast, this store of energy would be the first area tapped to fuel her work. It wasn’t terribly efficient- an hour of deliberate rest would be enough to move a medium-sized box, perhaps- but it was better than having to improvise.

She stared at the rite, thinking. She focused her mind further, and it flared bright enough to illuminate half the deck before disappearing. A second later, a sphere of flame like a miniature sun erupted from the air. It floated in front of her, motionless.

She gritted her teeth and swept her hand to the left. The orb was jerked over, as if tied to the arm. She motioned to the right, and the flame followed.

Amy let herself grin. The ritual was one she’d been tinkering with all day. Summoning the fire was easy enough. Moving it wasn’t much harder. Limiting it to a stable, spherical area was the problem- fire, as a general rule, didn’t enjoy being contained. The more an action lay contrary to an object’s nature, the more difficult it was to attempt. She’d gone through two dozen combination of runes before discovering this one.

As she began to rotate it over the deck, the breeze surged. A spray of mist blew against her face. The fire flickered and disappeared. She looked toward the wind’s source, but with the flame gone it was impossible to see anything through the murk. The wind swept over her, whipping her hair across her face.

She was beginning to draw up a ritual for light when lightning shattered the sky. In the moment of illumination, she saw a swirling mass of clouds. As soon as the first flash disappeared, another bolt struck, and she got another look at the stormfront, the clouds looking like a funnel piercing the waves. Ten seconds later the thunder hit like the sound of a nuclear explosion, loud enough to leave her eardrums ringing. Another bolt struck, and in the light, she swore there was a face in the clouds.

“What the fuck is that?”

It appears to be a godstorm.

“A godstorm,” she said. “Okay. Nothing ominous about that.”

There was the clatter of a door being thrown open, and light flooded the deck. Rupinder, the twin women, and the Nish-Hyet stumbled onto the deck. They stared at Amy, then the ocean. Lighting flashed, and Rupinder sucked in a breath.

“Hurry,” he said. “Fortify the ship. Before it is too late.”


Rupinder set about casting layers of protection around the ship in the form of a swirling, rainbow cover. Like a massive soap bubble. Amy scrambled, doing what she could, but compared to him that wasn’t much. To her surprise, the woman they’d rescued joined in, moving from railing to railing, drawing runes Amy couldn’t make heads or tails of. After the whole perimeter had been marked, she fell back against the rail, gasping with exertion. The Queen helped her to her feet.

They watched as the lightning grew closer, each strike revealing more of the cloud-wall and sending ripples of thunder towards them. Amy looked at her fellow travellers. They stood in silence, expressionless, watching the stormfront. Rupinder stood with his arms crossed, clenching and unclenching a fist.

The wind was threatening to drive her back now. She gripped the rail to keep from falling, gritted her teeth. Raindrops pelted Rupinder’s shields, dissolving into mist as they passed through. Standing in only jeans and a t-shirt, assailed by the wind and water, she cursed the rite that had taken her winter clothes.

Lightning rippled, thunder erupting before the bolt could vanish. The boat rocked with the noise. Amy stumbled, fell to her knees, pulled her way back up. The Sister had been tossed as well. The Queen was pulling her back up. The transformed Nish-Hyet paced back and forth, gnashing their teeth. Their claws raked nervously at their skin. The ship trembled in the wind.The gale swept over her like a river of needles. Mist soaked her skin. Another flash of lightning. The clouds were close now. So close. She turned, saw the Queen say something unintelligible.

And the storm struck.

It was over before it begun. She felt the torrent drive into her. Then she was flying through the air. Her back cracked against something solid and dropped into the water surging across the deck. There was barely time to stand up and see the others, fighting against the gale, before her knees buckled and she fell back into the rapids. The rails slammed against her side. Blindly she felt, grabbed on, held as hard as she could. Rain battered her face, but she managed to squint into the storm. Silhouettes moved on the deck, dozens of them, impossible to discern. Green light flashed. In its brief existence, she saw the Sister and Queen crouched, staring in horror at something outside Amy’s view. The Sister had her arm outstretched, thrusting a spear of color forward. Then it went dark.

Amy screamed, yelled, called for help, but even she couldn’t hear her cries. Her grip was loosening. She could feel her fingers slipping from the metal, the wind pulling at her feet. Desperate, she tried to focus her energy, tried to form any sort of rite, any bit of magic that could save her. But all that came was a sputter of sparks.

Her final thought before being ripped away from the ship was I can’t believe this is happening again.

She fell, and before consciousness faded, saw a light shining through the water.


“Get up.”

Amy groaned. Rough hands grabbed her and yanked her to her feet.

“We don’t have the time to lay around.”

Steadying herself, Amy opened her eyes. The Queen was standing next to her, gripping her shoulder. The woman glared at her. “How long do you intend to stand around like an idiot?”

The beach they stood on looked like it had been plucked from one of those tacky postcards tourists sent back home from vacation, all windex-clean skies and silk-smooth sand and perfectly manicured shoreline. To her right, the beach melded into a jungle so green the color seemed to bleed into the air around it.

She placed a hand on the Queen’s wrist. “Get your fucking hand off me.”

The Queen dropped her hand and turned away. As she began to walk off, Amy called out, “Hey, what the hell is going on?”

The Queen kept walking down the beach, towards a small black backpack.

“Where are we?”

The Queen reached the backpack and knelt to sling it over her shoulders. Looking back at Amy, she said, “Ask your friend.”

Amy gritted her teeth. Well?

We are still in the same universe. After falling unconscious in the water, it seems you instinctively transported yourself and several nearby objects away. Including her.

Awesome, now instead of of drowning I’m only stranded on a deserted island in another universe. Great job, subconscious me. She walked to where the Queen was standing. The woman had taken a grey, cylindrical object from her bag, and was twisting its top half. There was a click a red light flickered to life on the side.

“What’s that?” asked Amy.

“What has the Witness told you?”

Amy scowled. “Uh, not much.”

“Don’t talk to me until you have something useful to say.” She went back to fiddling with the device.

“Hey, how about you-” Amy started, then stopped, sighed. It would probably be more useful to yell at the sand. I thought you said this planet was mostly flooded.

It is, as far has been explored. This area must have escaped notice. It paused, then said, Reality is less stable here. The fabric of the universe around this island is tearing.

That sounds bad.

It can be. It could also be quite beneficial, if one knows how to push it properly. As I do.

She hated when it tried to sound smug. Beneficial enough to not leave us stranded on a tropical island on a different planet?

Possibly.

Amy relayed the information to the other woman.

“And what is it expecting to do that will make walking into an area of unstable ontology a good idea?” said the Queen, frowning.

It is possible you will be able to mold it into a Way.

The Queen had taken a pistol from the backpack. She slid the magazine out, examined it. “I’ve been told that’s impossible.”

In most circumstances, it nearly is. However, when you have the right person, using the right workspace, with the right instructions, it becomes merely unlikely.

The Queen reinserted the magazine. “Too risky. We stay on the beach.”

“And do what?” said Amy. “Make a coconut village?”

“If Rupinder and my Sister are still in this world and alive, they’re more than capable of finding us. We wait.”

“And if they’re not?”

The Queen closed the backpack. “Then we try your suicide mission.” Throwing the bag over one shoulder, she stood. “We need to make camp. I’ll gather supplies. You stay here.” Watching her walk into the forest, Amy felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. The way the Queen spoke, she didn’t seem to favor the odds of being rescued.

Amy began pacing the beach. The tide had lowered since she’d woken up, leaving a strip of damp sand that fizzled slightly as the water left it. Curious, she scooped up a handful. At first, she thought it was ants crawling through it. Looking closer, she realized the grains themselves were moving. She turned her hand over and dumped the sand back into the water

It was beginning to grow dark. For a moment, the only noise was that of waves lapping at the sand like a starved animal. But even that was only a flimsy mask, a vain attempt to hide the silence that settled around her as she stood on the beach. It was the same silence that had filled her cell, late at night, beneath the footsteps of the guards and hum of electricity. The silence that had followed her for years before she ever even heard of the Foundation. It was the silence of being trapped. Of separation. Of knowing that no noise she made would be heard, no plea paid mind.

The sound of clattering wood snapped her back to awareness. The Queen had dumped a pile of logs onto the sand. She wiped her hands, turned back to the forest. Amy watched her walk away. What kind of woman was she? How did someone like her end up giving orders to someone like Rupinder, or being spoken of by the Witness with something that was almost fear? The Sister had been casting spells right alongside Rupinder. Could this one do the same?

But she hadn’t performed any magic while Amy had been around. And there was what she had said of Rupinder and the Sister, that “they would be capable of finding them”, as if she couldn’t do the same. What was the story here?

The Queen arrived with more wood, which she began to arrange into a makeshift shelter. In the middle of the work, she glanced at Amy. “What has Rupinder taught you?”

Amy moved in closer. “A whole bunch of stuff. What do you need?”

Pointing to a spot on the sand, the Queen said “We need a fire. One that won’t burn out.”

Amy nodded, thinking. The spell was simple enough. The problem was cost. She didn’t have an energy saved up after the crash. Normally, that wouldn’t be an issue. On the ship, supplies were more than excessive for such purposes. Here, the only things in excess seemed to be sand and boredom. “What do you have in your bag?”

“Ammo. Some food. Extra clothing. Tape. Water. Rope. Books. Various electronics.” said the Queen, without looking from her work. “You’re not using any of it.”

“I’ve gotta use something.”

“Improvise,” said the Queen. She wrapped a coil of rope between two branches and cinched it tight. A wooden shelter just big enough for a person was beginning to take shape front of her.

Amy looked around. Got any ideas?

Yes. But I am curious to see what you come up with.

She sighed, but an idea was beginning to form. She grabbed a stick from the Queen’s pile (who thankfully didn’t protest) and walked until the Queen was only a thumbnail-sized figure in the distance. Then she began to walk back, this time dragging the stick in the sand. When she reached the Queen (the look of curiosity she gave Amy was infuriatingly satisfying) she turned and, still dragging the stick, returned to her starting point. Once she arrived, she had drawn an oval in the sand some three-hundred meters long and fifty wide.

In the center of it she drew five runes, each as the vertex of a pentagram, that she had memorized weeks ago. Only one was different, a Nordic mark that was part of the system used to indicate cost. When that was finished, she stepped back and focused.

The system she had worked out for performing rituals had been a simple- she would draw out a small circle. She would her inscribe the runes for the magic in the middle, then place inside whatever she wanted to use as a cost. When she cast the spell, the desired objects would disappear, leaving anything outside untouched. The effect would scale with the payment- a small enough offering wouldn’t completely stop a spell from being cast, but it could render its effect so minor as to be meaningless. Pay too much, and it could end up being more than you bargained for.

Meaning the flame half as tall as her erupting from the ground by the Queen was accompanied by the sudden disappearance of fifteen hundred square meters of sand. Amy scrambled back from the newly formed hole, cursing.

“Are you insane?” the Queen yelled. “Watch what you’re doing!”

“Sorry,” said Amy, flushing red. Her stomach grumbled. Not looking up, the Queen said, “Don’t touch the bag. I’ll scout for food in the morning.”

They didn’t speak the rest of the night.


By the time Amy crawled from the shelter into the morning light, the Queen had disappeared. Her bag sat by the still-burning fire, a safe hundred meters from the camp. She rose, felt the crackling in her vertebrae as she unfurled.

The first sun was nearing the tip of the sky, dogged by its a companion a few degrees behind. A herd of small, crab-like animals stampeded towards the sea, forming a path that disappeared into the forest. Amy watched as they scrambled over each other like tumbling stones,, each eager to toss its neighbor aside if it meant seconds saved in the journey to the water. Within a few minutes the rabble had subsided. Only a few creatures remained on the sand, injured, dying, or dead.

There came a rustling from the trees, and the Queen emerged from the brush. In one held she held a knife. In the other she held a clump of uprooted plants. Slung over her shoulder was the carcass of a green, scaled creature. Without a word to Amy, she dropped the gatherings in the sand by camp, and went to work cleaning the corpse.

Amy watched the sea. The waters were calm, empty. If help was on its way, it didn’t seem to be arriving any time soon. She began to walk down the beach, keeping an eye to the horizon. By the time camp disappeared to the curvature of the island, she was reasonably certain she wouldn’t find anything of interest on the shores. By the time she completed another circuit, she was certain. She completed a third for the hell of it, and ran into a knight in shining armor.

It sat on a white horse, lance in hand, shield on arm, staring at her through slitted helm. The horse whinnied, stamped the sand. Amy blinked.

“What the fuck?”

The rider kicked a leg, and the horse trotted forward. Amy took a step back, but the beast slowed, stopped in front of her. The knight stared down, silent. Its silver armor gleamed, rainbows swimming across the plate. Shoulders heaved with the motion of each breath. Once. Twice. Three times. On the fourth beat of an eternity, it lifted the lance. The tip came level with Amy’s throat, stroking her Adam’s apple.

She moved before the dance could continue. Stepping to the side, she place one hand on the lance, shoved, at the same time holding on arm out and muttering a word. As she darted back, mist twisted between her fingertips, coalescing into a ghostly knife. With a crack, the missed dispersed, replaced by a solid blade. Amy gripped it, staring at the knight. It hadn’t reacted to her movement. It stood still, lance hanging in the air, staring at the space she had just abandoned.

The spell for the knife was one she had prepared days earlier. That had been the third rule- by drawing out a rite and playing a multiplied cost, she could save it for use later. The knife wouldn’t do anything. Definitely not against armor. Most likely not against a person either, not one with any training or instinct. It was mostly for show, partly for comfort. At least now she wasn’t fully defenseless. Did it matter if she was? The knight still sat motionless.

It is not real. It is an aspect of the distortion of reality emanating from the island’s center. It possesses solid form, an outer resemblance of thought. But that is all.

“How do I make it uh… go away.”

You do not. Leave it be. Return to camp. Most likely it will dissipate within the hour. The distortion is weak here. Reality will be more quick to right itself.

Amy nodded, to no one in particular, and began the walk back to camp. The Queen was almost done cleaning her kill when she got back, had the knife between the guts and was working loose the organs. Amy tapped her shoulder.

“What do you want?” She didn’t look up from her work.

“For starters,” said Amy, “look at me when I fucking talk to you.”

The Queen set the knife down and turned, so that she could just view Amy from the corner of her eye. Better than nothing. “I hope you didn’t interrupt me just for that.”

“No,” said Amy. “I found something.” She told her of the knight.

The Queen grunted. “Keep an eye out. Tell me if you see anything nearby.”

“You’re not worried?”

“If something happens,” said the Queen, turning back to the carcass, “I’ll worry.”

Amy shrugged and returned to her seat in the sand.

In time, the Queen finished her stripping of the meat. Skewering the cuttings on branches she’d chosen from hours of search, she began to cook them over the fire. Once they were a deep brown, she handed one to Amy.

It tasted salty and gamey, even though she was sure the Queen didn’t have (and probably didn't want) spices to put on it. The single strip was more filling than it looked.

“So,” said Amy, between bites, “how long ‘til they come?”

The Queen had already finished eating. She set the stick on the sand and stared into the fire. “If they were going to, they would have already.”

Amy nodded. “I kinda thought so. We gotta plan, then?”

The Queen didn’t respond.

Amy picked at her teeth. “I kinda thought so.”

“What does the Witness say we need in order to use this break in reality?”

Several theoretical rituals have been outlined that would allow formless reality to be shaped into a Way. I would be able to walk her through one of them.

“And how many of these rituals are useful in practice?”

There have been no recorded successful attempts. However, that does not mean it is impossible.

The Queen snorted. “I’m sure it doesn’t.”

“Have we really got any other options?” said Amy.

The woman sighed and rose to her feet. “No. So let’s not waste time.”

“Wait, right now?”

“Waiting will only delay the inevitable. How far is it to the center?”

Less than six miles.

“Good,” the Queen called back as she walked towards the forest. “We can be there by nightfall, if you don’t fall behind.”

Amy scrambled to her feet. She caught up with the woman at the treeline. “Shouldn’t we make a plan or something? We’ve got no idea what could be in that jungle.”

Pausing, the Queen looked back. “I doubt any amount of planning will save us.”

And she disappeared into the trees.

Cursing to herself, Amy shouldered through the branches. Past the wall of branches and brambles, the interior of the forest was deceptively clear, enough that a car could have comfortably maneuvered the spaces between trees and had room to spare. The sky was hidden behind their wide canopies. The only sign of it was flashes of blue between leaves, and the thin strips of light that danced across the ground. She fell into step behind the Queen, and the two walked in silence.

Amy watched the older woman as they travelled. On the ship, as a figure of silent authority, she had seemed like a figure from a renaissance painting, cold and flawless. Up close was like viewing the portrait’s model, the bags tugging at her eyes, the wrinkles sneaking onto her skin, the hairs split at the tips. The sense of awe had faded. But the aura of fear lingered. A painting wouldn’t kill you. A person could.

And this one seemed to be itching for the chance. She walked as if on coiled springs, ready to snap forward at any target that might present itself. Her focus never wavered from her surroundings- her eyes took in every movement, her ears every noise, assessing for any potential threat. If Amy even registered to her, she didn’t show it. Which was fine with Amy.

As they walked, Amy began to feel an itching on the back of her neck, like someone stroking her skin with a feather. The feeling grew as they continued, spreading to her arms, spooling down her back and legs.

Is this normal?

When one is approaching a wrinkle in the nature of space and time, yes.

Her teeth felt like they were being scraped with a dentist drill. She worked her jaw, hoping motion would reduce the feeling. It didn’t. It only continued to grow.

In time, they come upon a stream flowing from the earth. They stopped as the Queen refilled the water bottles. She handed one to Amy.

“Is it safe to drink?” Amy asked.

“The bottle will filter out any contaminants.”

The water was silty and sour, but after walking through the humid woods for an hour it was like sipping from the fountain of youth. Before she knew it, the bottle was empty.

“How far do you think we’ve gone?” said Amy.

“Two miles. Maybe a bit less.” The Queen had finished her own bottle and was refilling it in the stream. She held out a hand, and Amy tossed hers over. When both were full up, the Queen stood, water dripping from her hands. She replaced the bottles in the backpack.

She moved to stand and froze, staring into the water. Slowly, she reached a hand to her hip and slid the pistol from its holder. Her hand didn’t shake as she aimed the gun into the water and squeezed the trigger.

The crack of gunfire made Amy flinch back. The Queen’s gaze didn’t move from the stream. Curtains of red liquid were rising up from the water, pooling across the surface. The Queen waited until, some unknown curiosity satisfied, she rose and stored the pistol in its holster.

Amy crept over to where she stood. Thin trails of red were flowing down the stream, carried by the current. She glimpsed flashes of blue beneath. As the water cleared, the picture became more became clear. The body of a man lay beneath the water, half-buried in the silt, the right half of his head torn away by a bullet. He wore a blue suit, gold watch, and a briefcase lay beside him in the water. Amy reached for it. The Queen snatched her wrist away.

“Do you know what that is?”

“No,” said Amy, yanking her wrist from the Queen’s grip.

“Then don’t touch it.”

Amy glared at her, but the woman had already turned away. They walked the next half hour in silence. As they walked, the landscape began to change. It was a tree she noticed first- it looked normal, except the bottom meter of its trunk was missing. The rest stood in the air as if nothing was wrong. She picked up a rock and tossed it. It sailed through the empty space and disappeared into the grass. The half-trees grew more frequent as they walked, not just trunks but floating branches, leaves.

The canopy was thinning out- she caught glimpses of a sky, but it wasn’t the sky from the beach. Red and orange and violet bled together like a bruise on the cosmos, framing four moons that loomed accusingly overhead. Specks of light littered the sky. But just as quickly as the canopy had let the sky loose, it swallowed it back up.

She heard growling and snapped her head down, looking for the source of the noise. A blur raced through the shadows of the far of trees and disappeared. A minute later it reappeared, dashing between bushes. On its third appearance, she realized what it was - a massive, black dog, dragging a rusty chain behind it. It didn’t appear after that.

Her vision was beginning to blur. It felt like someone had shoved a wet rag into her mouth. A dribble of spit ran down her chin. She wiped it away. Lifting her arm felt like moving through wet cement. She was vaguely aware of shadows moving around her, but they seemed very far away, mirages in the distance. Something caught her foot, and she stumbled. A hand grabbed her shoulder, steadied her.

“Breath”, said a woman’s voice. Whose? It sounded so familiar. “It can be difficult, the first time. Remember what you know is real.”

What was real. What was real? Her vision swam, looped, doubled-back. Lights flashed across her eyes. Were those real? If she reached out, would she feel them? Would they touch back? She took a stepped, lurched, felt the hand pull her back. The world stuttered, like a stuck film strip.

What was real? She remembered something. A woman. A man. A boy. Sitting a table. Were they waiting for her? Where had they gone? She reached forward, tried to grasp the recollection, but drew back from her touch, faded into mist. Was that all it had been? Mist? Another memory faded in. A place far away, a place she had hated. Cramped. Cold. Cornered like a rat. She remembered fear and pain and writhing in bed, screaming. That had been real. She reached out to touch it, and the memory pushed back.

And this place? These woods? Was this real? The world was drifting around her like smoke, something ethereal and out of reach. The second it brushed her it slipped away. Echoes of sound shuddered around, far away, like stones falling through water. She stumbled, realized she was falling, realized she had no idea where or what she was dropping through. Just void and smoke surrounding her. The pain filled her body. Her body? Was it her body? Or was it something far away, something she had only come to believe was hers? Again, images filled her mind. A metal bed. A white liquid running through a slow drip. Doctors standing above, prodding, talking, observing. A dozen needles exploring her flesh. She raced for the memory, reaching for their reality.

A hand touched her shoulder. Everything snapped into place. She was standing in the woods again, collapsed against a tree, covered in sweat and vomit. She looked up. The Queen was staring down at her, expressionless.

“It’s a struggle, travelling through these places. You’ll get better with practice. Pray you don’t need to.”

Images of the doctors flashed through Amy’s mind. She didn’t respond.

The Queen gestured to the side. “Look.”

They stood at the forest’s end. The trees gave way to thick grass, growing to knee-height. The stalks shuddered in the breeze, and small, brown animals scurried through the cracks in the plain. Red light tinted the world pink.

At first glance, there seemed to be a skyscraper in the center of the field. But no, it wasn’t a building. It was a massive rock, jagged and jet black, embedded in the earth and rising so high she almost had bend backwards to see the top. Looking at it made her eyes burn. It seemed to bend as she looked at it, the surrounding warping like heat waves from concrete. A booming roar like thunder battered the air. Amy clamped her hands over her ears, but it was no use- the noise travelled through her unassailed.

She took a step forward and her leg buckled. She caught herself before she could fall and took another teeth-gritted step. The Queen walked beside her. Amy was shocked to see the woman’s face covered in sweat. She wiped her own face. When she brought her head down, she saw a faint smear of blood.

She heard the Witness’ muddled voice in her head, ignored it. The voice came again, louder. Stop.

Amy grabbed the Queen’s shoulder, and they halted. Even stopping was a chore. It felt like trying to stand beneath a waterfall. Her knees shook just supporting her weight.

Look up. Beside the relic.

The air around the rock was in tatters. The world ahead fluttered like an image printed on a torn curtain, and in between the flaps she caught glimpses of people, houses, dancing shadows. Images running together like frames on a film reel.

The stone is not of this universe. It has torn the space between worlds to arrive here. It is these tears that we will travel through.

Amy nodded, numb, too focused on staying conscious to respond.

You must isolate the destination from the noise. You must… Its words stuttered into a babble of stray syllables before fading to nothing. Amy waited, but it didn’t return.

She stared into the broken air. Her thoughts were coming in fragments, snippets of words and image forming the outline of ideas in her mind. The Witness’ words had stirred something in the back of her mind, but trying to focus on it was like trying to grab a swarm of gnats. A hundred pictures from a hundred worlds strobed in front of her. Isolate the destination from the noise. The phrase blinked into her mind, but she couldn’t attach meaning to it.

Her arm raised itself, driven upward by some subconscious instinct, and her fingers brushed a tear in space. But that wasn’t right. The tears were too far away to touch. And yet she could. She was a hundred yards away. But she was also right next to them. And she was also within them, being pulled down into a thousand universes, tugged in every direction in every world and also standing with her hand against the tears in space and also standing next to the Queen, weeping.

A feeling rose in her stomach like bubbling sludge. Her arm felt like it was being dipped in antarctic slime. She was afraid to look, to see the damage. Blindly she reached, trying to find something something solid, something real, something to keep from falling, felt her hand grasp air. She was tumbling through space now, screaming, surrounded by the web of worlds. Where was it? Where was safety? She scrambled, again finding nothing. Someone was grabbing her arm. Who? She was falling alone.

But she wasn’t falling. She was standing in the field, touching the fabric of the air, and someone was grabbing her arm. Yanking free of the grip, she stumbled forward, fell, pushed herself to her feet, lurched on. It was just ahead of her. She could feel it. They key to escape this place. The space ahead was cracked like glass, each shard showing dozens of angles of dozens of worlds. She needed one of them. Why did she need it? It didn’t matter. She could feel it pulling her in, like a mother beckoning a child. There. She saw it. Reached up. Closed her hands around the glowing object.

And she stopped falling. Stopped seeing the bleed between worlds. Felt the coldness leave her arm. She was standing in the center of a sunny field, the Queen beside her. In front of them a door had opened in the empty air. Behind it, creatures of all shapes and sizes swarmed between tall shelves. Some took brief notice of the two women who had appeared out of thin air. Most ignored it.

“Well,” said the Queen. She was pale, drenched in sweat. “You didn’t kill us. Good work.”

Amy bent over and vomited.

END PART SIX

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