A portal materialized, prying the air open as though material, as though felt. An old wiry giant, thrice the size of a man, walked stooping through and fell to the inspection of the ground at the base of the open gateway. A young woman, elaborately dressed in clutters and overlays of trinkets and garments, followed him lithely through the opening. She sliced a lock of her hair with the indifference of habit and tied it around the edge of the portal which sparked and crackled like the edge of a welder’s torch, only blueish-white in hue. As a result, the interdimensional gap lingered mid-air a moment longer as the travellers studied their new reality.
It’s here, she whispered, her mannerisms wisened by the hunt so as to be, at times, completely unrecognizable. He studied her a moment, the phenomenon of her transformation, to his depthless discerning eye, was of the utmost mysterious relevance. For if one could embody both zero and one, there could be nothing more of interest in the world. He gave her a solemn nod, and if there was any uncertainty in his expression, she was beyond the capacity of observing it. In a swift motion, both equanimous and tense, she turned to conceal a widening grin. She loosened the lock tethering the portal and threaded the scorched strands through her fingers. Immediately, the gate began to wind down in ever-diminishing gyrations until, with a last screeching crackle, its circumference collapsed onto itself and vanished. She sighed, resolute as to their new course, and, quietly, she bade farewell to a past she could never revisit. It was an empty gesture, perhaps, but portals bestowed a ceremonial closure upon the incessant forward rush of time, and their symbolism soothed her. Abandoning the known for the unknown was not without its toll upon the psyche, even to a weathered pilgrim such as herself. Such private rituals, even if of mere emotional nature, provided milestones from which to launch oneself into the new, ever-forming present. The shadow of a grin still loitered about her mouth when the giant reached a grotesquely gargantuan hand towards her. Her senses, acute with pent up anticipation and sheer glee for the impending hunt, reacted with lightning agility. She launched herself from a standing position into a brisk Arabian flip onto his outstretched arm, whereupon she ran until reaching the crest of his lowered shoulder. The giant rose to his full height, unfazed by the formidable display of acrobatics. With an equilibrium wrought of familiarity, she held fast her perch on his trapezius. The grace of a giant is a sedate languorous one, and she responded to it as a ship to a rolling wave. She inhaled the air that bristled her voluminous hair.
Yes, she concluded, it’s here. Forward beast!
The porter slung a glance her way that would rival that of a mountain in a storm. She squeaked inaudibly and pretended to steady her gaze on the far horizon. Her face lost its playfulness at the drop of a needle and again he marvelled at the woman, wise beyond her years, that stood august upon him. There was a need there. Within. A voracious necessity to stopper a void. He dragged a bare calloused foot upon the thirty-six furrows marking the ground where the portal had been.
One hundred and forty-four, he voiced in a low drawn-out mumble. Two and seventy-two, where they had arrived. Three and forty-eight. Four and thirty-six, where they presently travelled. Six and twenty-four. Eight and eighteen. Nine and sixteen. Twelve and twelve. The sequence unwound itself rhythmically within his mind. Seven dimensional portals, he thought, no insignificant number. How did she establish the creature’s whereabouts with such implacable certainty? The girl might not possess the analytical mind of an Interpreter, he mused, but her power of intuition develops in momentous leaps and bounds.
Eyes outwards, giant! The huntress’ words rang with command, if not quite with scolding. One may catch a Shaman off-guard but once.
The porter regained, by degrees, awareness of his surroundings. With gentle prods and tugs, the significance of which was past second-nature to the pair, the woman had guided them into a shallow body of water, the far shore of which was just revealing itself on the near horizon. The porter’s redoubtable gait did not even register the resistance as he plowed forth, shin-deep in viscous sediment-rich water. The world’s radiance vanished unexpectedly then, as though stolen. All that was left was a faint glow emanating from the lake itself, illuminating them from below, casting fearsome shadows onto their faces. The pair did not so much as flinch at the transition, they had spent many weeks in this world, if not in this very same dimension. Nevertheless, the giant kept an eye out for the curious and unaccountable phenomenon he had long theorized which pertained to the correlation linking the distance between the multiples, and the observable manifestation of inter-dimensional variations. In this case, four and thirty-six, held an inter-multiple gap of 32 which is non-negligible, especially in comparison, for example, with portals which held an inter-multiple gap of zero such as twelve and twelve, a category of portals which was purported to contain the least amount of variation, if any. The main obstacle to his studying the phenomenon was the complex task of disassociating the phenomenon from the warping of reality that always seemed to accompany the presence of a Shaman in a certain realm.
Giant?, a concern1-laden voice spoke to his ear.
Hmm, he grunted in reply, acknowledging the source of concern. The land appeared to waver in the dim expanse ahead.
Optical illusion, she posited, but even as the words left her mouth, she could no longer cling to their hopeful promise. Solid ground could not be lit from below. One or multiple organisms?, she whispered just loud enough for the giant to hear. The giant carried onwards, knowing that to cease motion would mean giving them away as surely as an abrupt motion. One or multiple organisms, she repeated, one or multiple organisms? One. Above or below? Above or… Below!
Ahead the horizon vanished behind a luminescent tidal wall rising as it sluggishly gathered momentum, occulting the monster from view. The giant reacted first by altering its gait to powerful leaping bounds.
Be discreet, she spoke to his ear, just whatever you do, louder now as her words were carried away by the rushing wind of their speed. Please, she added for good measure. The giant reached a hand for her, and this time she let herself be taken. The massive blundering hands began rough handling her into the shape of a ball and before she could protest, she was airborne, hurtling through the air at blistering speeds. As she reached terminal velocity, she managed to unfurl mid-flight just in time to clear the crest of the towering wave, and, for a naive moment, she thought herself out of harm’s way, when she was met with a wall of glimmering spray. Outraged and soaked to the marrow, she rummaged through her innumerable layers and, for the first time, lay eyes on their assailant.
Where is it, I swear I…, she mumbled to herself. Ah-ha, and she came away holding a thimble-sized wool parcel. Behind the tidal wave lay, ensconced in the now-exposed rock bed, a monstrous tentacled flower. At that, the severity bled away from her features.
A plant!, she scoffed, laughing out loud.
Still careening through the sky, if slowed somewhat by the cloud of spray, she began rubbing the wool lump between her numb hands. The wool had absorbed too much water and was reticent to warm with the friction of her touch. From between her feet, she could see a dark shadow forming at the center of the wave. Growing. And soon, outstretched fingers broke the surface tension. The porter was dwarfed by many orders of magnitude and still, the sight of him filled her with awe. Searing pain in her fingers jolted her attention back to the object nestled in her hands. The relic had scorched most of the wool and was now exposed to her bare skin on many of its facets. The waves of heat emanating from the stone blew her dry in an instant.
That’s better, she exclaimed, much better. Then she aimed her wrath towards the monster below. The monster was in the act of raising a leaden writhing tentacle to swathe her out of the air, when a detonation shot her sideways towards the shore.
Head throbbing, she rose to find herself in a forest. The humidity was stifling. Scattered patches of light from slits in the dense foliage revealed that it was day anew, however long that may last. A thin plume of smoke arose from a hole next to her head where the relic buried its way as it gradually extinguished itself. Careful to pull her sleeve over her skin, she plunged her hand after it, deep into the moss-carpeted forest floor. The limp tip of a tar-black tentacle materialized behind her and landed with a ground-shaking thud. A few creatures took flight. Before the sound had even registered in her ear, she had pushed herself into the air, landing in a crouch a few paces away, ready to pounce.
Oh it’s you. She stood brushing her clothes and tried in vain to rearrange her hair away from her face. Lazily, she walked back over to the hole in the ground. You didn’t fare so well I see, she said slyly. Whatever thin rags the porter was wearing were swollen and water-logged. He stared inexpressibly at her, and she shied away from his gaze. She plunged her hand deep into the narrow, singed opening again, and wrestled with tangled roots and sharp rocks until she finally laid hands on the relic.
You’re mine, she whispered viciously, gazing intently at the recovered stone. No trace of that fiery ember still remained. For the briefest instant, a shadow travelled the breadth of her slender face. From the base of a distant tree, the porter took note. Nothing escaped his keen depthless eyes. Then it was gone. She wrapped the relic in a thick envelope of waxed cloth and returned it to one of the many folds and openings in her mix-matched garb. One could never fathom what all it concealed. Not even she. She regretted the thought as soon as it formed inside her mind. Such thoughts were slippery. In moments of utmost weakness, they could slither through the cracks and make one wonder whether one had lost control. Relics knew a weakness when they felt it. How many did she have? She shivered. Then caught the giant’s eye from the corner of her vision and composed herself, dismissing the folly that came over her to the violent impact of her improvised landing in these woods.
The use of that particular relic always left her feeling ravenous. She sidled over to the pilfered slice of tentacle. She poked at the charred skin, apparently doubting its edibility, until her growling stomach completed the assessment for her. She drew a knife from thin air and eyed her prospective meal with the dispassionate resignation. As was to be expected, the meat was unyielding. As rubbery as a Glout, she thought dismissively, and would probably taste about the same. Despite her show of indignation, she nevertheless carved an ambitious chunk for herself, and fell backwards as it grudgingly broke free from the rest of the limb. Unceremoniously, she began eating exactly where she landed, cross-legged and chewing ravenously well into another light cycle. Until she fell asleep from the exertion.
When, at last, she awoke, she was imbued with a curious sensation. Eyes still cast upon her inner-world, willfully maintaining the heavy breathing pattern of sleep, careful to dull the ardent blaze of consciousness, she waded there in the creamy out-of-focus dream state. Softly suggesting a feeling, a vague sensation, that her unconscious body often registered while she slept. She narrowed her way there, edging in ever-constricting circles. There. Deeply enmeshed within the mossy forest floor, she wrapped her arms around herself in a delicate embrace. Her eyes opened. There was something missing amidst her embrace. Something that seemed to visit her in sleep and evade her in waking. She released her self-embrace with affected dismay. Over time, she had come to visualize many things to fill that emptiness, but she stubbornly refused to, yet again, relinquish the space to the image most often projected by her mind. That of her own self, as a helpless child. The comfort brought about by this image of motherly affection towards her child-self, instilled a profound reflexive revulsion within her. She clambered to her feet clumsily. Only her head protruded from her moss grave. A foggy penumbra veiled the forest so that there was no telling which stage of the light cycle it currently was. She climbed the root walls of her place of rest yawning emphatically. The giant was nowhere in sight. She walked over to the tentacle and noticed that the forest had already begun its cannibalizing claim upon it. The sides of her mouth lowered in disgust.
No thanks, she uttered to no one, as she tried in vain to think of something other than her own ongoing digestion of the creature’s charred limb. With some effort, she pried her eyes from the mesmerizing play of wriggling maggotry upon flesh, and wandered off towards the area of flattened carpet where the giant had sat. The moss did not exude warmth, but the giant never seemed to produce much to begin with. She settled cross-legged and focused. Moments passed before she acquired the frame of mind she needed. A mostly imperceptible sequence of postulation ensued, minute gestures and aura alterations. Then, stillness returned. She was through with her mimicry of the giant. The shadowplay could now begin. The ground shook as she rose to her feet and a rustle high above let loose a shower of needles. With the giant’s idiosyncratic slow grace, she set forth into the forest, letting her senses guide her to him in an odd uncanny dance of exact replication. The motions she embodied increased in stealth as she progressed blindly through the darkness. Almost as suddenly as she had begun, she had wished herself back into her own body, to sense her surroundings with her own mesh of instincts and intuitions. It was a surprise the giant could navigate as he did with such a blind and blundering body. All inner-sensation seemed to pool at his thorax, and what little outer senses he possessed were crude, unsophisticated and numb to anything that was not sound, sight and touch. How could one operate with such limited feedback?, she wandered appalled.
A clearing revealed itself ahead. What one could only call a luminescence if in counterpoint with the oppressive gloom of the dense forest, emanated from it. Two orbs reflected the glow back to her from the periphery of the narrow glade.
Oh, thank worlds, she whispered and with a sigh, she dispelled the trance. A spell of weakness fell upon her as she began the process of repossessing her own body and she stumbled as though intoxicated. All her senses came rushing back in a searing flash and she nearly lost consciousness at the savage turbulence of the transfer. In an instant, the giant had bridged the gap between them to gather her body as it crumbled onto itself, and gently lowered her onto the ground at his side. In an acute cataclysmic moment, she re-entered the cosmic entanglement of her own self. The yokes of life and death broke from their respective realms and merged at the center of her being, in a raw interplay pain and pleasure, suffering and joy. Life was raw, searing, terrifying, and she swam away from its infernal whirlpool, powerless, wishing herself, from the very marrow of her soul, far away into the peaceful realm of death by the time she was thrust back to the darkness into which she had fainted. Air rushed into her lungs, and the darkness split furiously into its component colours in a nauseating swirl of hues to form awareness anew. She doubled over in her mind’s eye and retched dryly, then she did so again, only this time in the world without. The giant eyed her with a harrowing expression of horror, which sprawled itself inelegantly across his face, novel as it was to his features.
Wooo, she exclaimed to herself in disbelief. She doubled over and retched again, her stomach turning itself inside out like an empty pocket. Certainly never felt that before, she said, and managed a brief rebellious chuckle before another retching spell fell upon her. Then she fell backwards onto the muscular lower-leg of the giant. Oh, to experience the peace of a giant again, she thought miserably. She spat unsuccessfully, a thick filament tracing the trajectory of her saliva between her legs. She met the giant’s eye and jerked back at the expression of horror they contained.
Worlds, she exclaimed, you look as though it happened to you!
The giant blinked.
I don’t know what that was all about, she muttered, almost defensively, as though the happenings had nothing to do with her, then, as an after-thought she added, I’m never trying that again!
Trying?, the giants grumbled in disbelief. Could it be?, he thought, dumbstruck. The woman had tracked him down by intuiting some way to possess his past self? He could not even fathom how such a thing could work. And she had, improvised it, on a whim?
Can we change the subject? A semblance of equilibrium was burgeoning within her, gradually countering the influx of stimuli with a blissful dose of numbness. It was too soon for her to envision revisiting the trauma. The expression of her being was a delicate counterbalance, not easily re-established. She knew there was a profound lesson there for her to learn. One she had been avoiding for far too long. One that only an out-of-body perspective could teach. Nonetheless, she shelved the insight, even knowing full well that in doing so, she only added to the burden it was meant to reveal and relieve. If not now, then never. She settled into the sores and vices of her existence. Avoidance then, she thought with contempt and the thought felt deviously comfortable.
For the breadth of her introspective hiatus, the giant’s eyes did not stray, yet his expression had now changed to one of concern. She answered his look with an overbearingly scornful one that contained the extent of her misdirected inner ire, her upper lip curling to reveal teeth. Careful who you pity, beast. The standstill of their wills endured even as an inexplicable iridescence travelled across their faces in sundered bouts. The giant, despite all his indomitableness, was the first to look away. To win a contest of stubbornness is invariably to lose. She snarled with irritation, then looked away. Her vehemence, however ardent, was utterly abated when her sight joined his. A nebulaic cloud glid there amongst the petrified trees, dispelling darkness along its path, casting shadows long and black, shifting like ravens in flight. The cloud assumed varied forms and was never for a moment still as it travelled towards the clearing.
The giant watched on entranced. At his side, the girl was gone. In her stead stood a woman, her features wisened by the returning imminence of the hunt. A mild draft tugged her hair and clothes towards the wandering nebula. She stood her ground firmly, in full possession of her senses anew, and it was a terrifying sight to behold.
Do not intervene, she commanded the giant. And then, she was gone.
The Shaman took shape as it crossed into the starlit clearing. It paused as though surprised at its sudden transformation, and looked up into the sky. Its misshapen face disorganized itself into a scowl and it squinted and growled, setting forth again hunched, mumbling to itself in a gravelly voice that never left its throat. The woman spared no glance for the unravelling phenomenon. For the sanctum of her intricate garments, she had withdrawn a flexible bone wand which now spun between her fingers, the glowing half-relics encrusted at each end forming an uninterrupted circle of violet in the gloom. Her hand lowered to the ground, she set off with such voracious swiftness as to become indistinguishable amongst the trees.
Hya-hya-hya, cackled the Shaman, which, by its nature, was prey to none. If the hunt awakened in her another state, one of pure instinct and wisdom; to be hunted awakened nothing at all in a Shaman but derision. The spinning violet wand had revealed her presence. The ominous creature did not alter its step. It carried on as though gaping the clearing were its only concern. As she reached the three-quarter mark of her arch around the clearing, she spared a glance at the giant concealed somewhere along the rim, but found only darkness in his stead.
Do not intervene, she grunted aloud, emboldened now that her stealth had been betrayed. She did not break stride, confident that she may still seal the perimeter in time. Unable to locate the giant, she returned to studying the creature, searching for any hint that may facilitate its capture. Shamans, although invariably humanoid, were of lost or corrupted humanity. This particular manifestation seemed a hub from which outstretched many smaller demons fastened to it by a myriad of string. Their disheartening wails and whines, though fainter than a whisper, perturbed the air, as they floated to the extent of their freedom and back. The expression of their collective despair seemed to lend an edge to the master of string’s step, a certain superciliousness to its sinister sneer. It walked on hunched, unperturbed, inching ever closer to the edge of the glade. The odd regal stature it assumed created an odd distortion that belied its grotesque malformations and apparent dementia. Look upon me and tremble, its countenance seemed to suggest. And yet, once more, its skeletal frailty so thoroughly betrayed the thinly veiled affectation. Unable still to abstract the intimation that her observations revealed, she focused all her being on covering the ground left.
And in that moment, it dawned on her that she would never make it in time. The Shaman was, by now, but a few strides from the regaining the cover of forest. She knew there would be no other chance. How she repented her admonishment of the giant. For a moment, she thought to call out for his help, but her desperate speed had left her lungs screaming for air. The end of the circle was in sight, when she suddenly came to a halt. The sudden decision surprised even herself. Within a few breaths, she accumulated enough air and yelled.
The ground shook twice and the giant leaped into view within the confines of the clearing.
Face me, the giant challenged in a low drawling bellow.
The Shaman stopped. Partway through its transformation back into its nebulaic form, it just stood there motionless, trapped by the summons.
Of course, whispered the woman, as though finding a long-lost word. Hubris.
The Shaman turned, rematerializing fully as it did so, and faced the giant. Even outsized two to one, the Shaman maintained its self-assured poise and self-same sinister sneer. It stepped forth, unhurried, mumbling obscure conjurations under its breath. The air between them darkened, as though fouled, and the Shaman barked and cackled in mockery and contempt. The giant brought his fist calmly up to his mouth and took an interminable inhalation.
Now, the giant suddenly roared. The gargantuan fist unfurled, palm upwards, revealing a plethora of amassed pebbles, like so much sand in perspective, and the giant blew. The air whistled with tiny projectiles. On her knees still, and panting, she gazed after them as they whizzed, and through unfocused eyes, saw that none hit their mark. Upon realizing this the Shaman laughed every louder into the calm forest night. The giant took a step back in a feint of dismay or fright, thus clearing the outer perimeter, and returning to the shadows of the forest. The woman awoke with a start to the giant’s ruse and vaulted to her feet. As the Shaman basked in its invincibility, she set upon completing the perimeter. The laughter morphed to a despairing shriek as she travelled the last few yards. She glanced sideways in time to see that the lesser demons, upon discovering themselves suddenly untethered, had scurried off in every which direction away from the master of strings. Then, the circle was sealed.
With a flourish of her wand, the clearing was uprooted from the earth with a deafening wrenching roar as it tore free and floated mid-air, weightless and as ethereal as a mere bubble of soap. She sighed with overflowing relief. As she sat watching, the bubble dwindled in size not quite peacefully, as it compressed to immeasurable inner pressures. Finally, it imploded with an unceremonious plop. A handful of dirt fell to the bare earth, where wriggled many unveiled insects and worms. She crawled over to it on her hands and knees and, rummaging through loose dirt, uncovered a queer-looking stone. She held it to the starlight. The stone was a jade-coloured agate. A semi-precious stone, and as she confined it to the many secret recesses of her inner garments, she savoured the irony.
She found the giant sulking at the foot of a nearby tree along the outer edge of the now razed clearing. She sat next to him, as solemnly as she could manage, humbling herself in respect of the giant’s heavy, slow-moving moods. She gazed ahead at the aftermath and devastation.
I guess, technically, it’s still a clearing, she ventured, contemplating the disturbed land, while probing the porter’s disposition. She received her response in the form of a grunt which, all things put in perspective was an overwhelmingly positive response. So, she launched directly into her apology. I was self-sure and let the hunt get the better of me. It’s just, Shamans are delicate work and you, well… The giant growled at this, so she deftly circumnavigated her way back to the main message. Well, today I couldn’t have done it without you. So… So, I’m sorry I dismissed you alright? Are you happy now? This last addition was accidentally imbued with a little too much spite, and as the giant veered its great lumbering head in her direction, she let out a yelp and thereafter held her tongue. He studied her a while and realized that he had not quite caught the moment of her transformation. The experience and wisdom of unknown origin had left her now, and she was a girl anew, and somehow this brought him much solace.
As he watched, she began wriggling about and fumbling through her many layers as though hunting an elusive itch. Then, she sat still and smiled a self-satisfied smile to herself. Then at him.
I got you something. Call it… a token of my appreciation. Then, practically bursting with gleeful triumph, she held out her balled up hands. Reluctantly, he reached out and she deposited a repugnant tousled lesser demon into his hand. The giant lifted the outraged little creature to his eye and grunted appreciatively even as it hurled a slur of obscenities his way. The giant grinned, then ate the indignant plankton where it stood and swallowed it whole.
Now, what do you say we get out of this place?
If the giant heard her, he made no sign of it, content as he was with his present. With much aching protest from her body, she rose to a kneeling position and withdrew the agate, which, despite having just been pocketed, did not readily manifest itself to her hand. It seemed to her unwise to open a world portal at this hour and in the condition she was in, yet, as the agate finally tumbled into her grasp, she could not imagine why in all the worlds and dimensions, she wouldn’t. She became aware, in that instant, of the incommensurate power concealed in the various plies and alcoves of her clothes. A power she alone could wield. Nothing in this or any other world, but she.
As she fell to the complex ritual of gate summoning, she held tight her newfound relic and gradually, almost imperceptibly, as the portal began to materialize, the corners of her mouth twisted in a subtly sinister sneer.