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Eternal
Eternal
Eternal
Ebook646 pages9 hours

Eternal

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"Until death do us part."
It was a solemn oath for them, a promise to be together until the very end.
When the blast reached them, the oath was fulfilled. Death took them, swift, ruthless.
Alexandra Gretchen thought she'd arrive at the gates of heaven.
Aaron Gretchen knew to expect oblivion.
They were wrong.
Death took them, and so began their journey.

ETERNAL is a fantasy novel set in a grim yet wondrous afterlife; an afterlife shared with every other species in the Universe. It's a place where humanity has no shortage of enemies, where thoughts may shape reality and ceasing to exist is a very real possibility. Separated upon arrival, Aaron and Alexandra will strive through it all in the hopes of being reunited...but who could keep hope alive in the realms of the dead?

ETERNAL reads like dark fantasy, but also incorporates science fiction and dystopian elements, exploring themes of faith, the resilience of hope, interspecies relations and the limits of human knowledge. It's a harrowing fight of survival; the unraveling of an ancient conspiracy; a heartwarming love story.

A tale where death only marks a new beginning.

LanguageEnglish
Release dateSep 16, 2014
ISBN9781311626431
Eternal
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Author

Israel Barbuzano

Israel Barbuzano is a pretty OK guy. Learn more about this fabulous person at www.israelbarbuzano.net

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    Eternal - Israel Barbuzano

    1

    Awareness came back in a rush, and then Aaron was falling.

    The ground met his feet before he could brace himself for impact. He landed with a thump and tumbled down the gentle slope as if he’d jumped out of a moving car, seeing only a glimpse of the oncoming wall before his shoulder slammed against it.

    The collision left him groaning on his side, gasping for air through bared teeth. After long moments he labored to sit up against the wall. The floor under his fingertips felt hard and smooth, like polished marble.

    Aaron finally opened his eyes, and a thousand shades of red and magenta crowded his field of vision.

    A tangle of ramps, bridges, tunnels and platforms sprawled in every direction, each one of them colored in the reds and purples of raw flesh. Dozens of contorting paths of every size twisted and turned all around him, ascending, descending, burrowing into each other. They formed a labyrinth of pathways that stretched as far as he could see.

    Aaron gawked as he got to his feet, the pain from his collection of scrapes and bruises temporarily forgotten. He stood on one platform of many. A number of paths of varied widths and viabilities led away from it. A towering wall rose to his left, while the right side ended abruptly and plummeted into the unknown. The floor tilted at a slight incline toward the cliff.

    Every surface seemed to shift subtly, like pulsing to the rhythm of a capricious heartbeat. The lighting, eerily homogeneous, had no obvious point of origin.

    He blinked and stared. A deep sense of unease stirred in his gut.

    What the hell just happened?

    He spun in place, looking everywhere. There was no-one around to answer his question.

    Alright, he thought. Alright, don’t panic. Let’s figure this out.

    His last clear memory was of standing in the back yard. He’d had dinner in the oven. Alex had just finished her workout, called him outside and pointed at the horizon.

    I smile, walk over and pull her close.

    Ew, let go, I’m all sticky.

    You’ll have to make me.

    She doesn’t make me and watches the setting sun. My arm is around her waist. Her hand is in my back pocket.

    It’s a beautiful sunset.

    And then. . . .

    The flash of light. The tremors. The vacuum and horrible heat from the blast. The look in her eyes.

    The certainty.

    They had died.

    No. No, that’s impossible.

    Aaron looked at himself, eyes wide, breath shallow. His hands and arms seemed fine. His wedding band was still there, as were his clothes and glasses. His disheveled mat of blond hair remained firmly attached to his scalp, and his cheeks were rough with a three-day stubble. Veins still stood out under the pale skin of his wrist.

    He felt for a pulse and found it. His heart was merrily pounding away, as if nothing had happened.

    He wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be.

    This is impossible. It’s a hallucination, all of it.

    The thought repeated as his eyes wandered through the grotesque landscape. It was a logical explanation that he would have loved to believe. He’d have been convinced of it, had his senses not told him differently.

    The sensation reminded him of waking from lucid dreaming. His oneiric self would always doubt and wonder, is this still a dream? Am I awake now? He’d worry and fuss and not have a great time at all. Eventually, Aaron would wake up and feel foolish to have missed the obvious difference between dream and reality. The certainty of no longer being asleep would be self-evident.

    The same certainty nagged at him now, which was an impossibility. He should have been a charred husk, unable to feel, ask questions, panic. He wasn’t supposed to be anymore.

    He puzzled at it while watching his hands open and close tentatively. This new sensation, this vibe . . . it felt as if reality itself was different. More authentic and tangible, more crisp and immediate. Aaron felt like he’d been dreaming all along and was finally awake.

    As he allowed the feeling to wash over him, he simply knew, and the knowledge was enough to keep fear at bay.

    He’d landed in the afterlife.

    No freaking way.

    Sudden stabs of pain flared behind his temples. Evidence that death was not the end of his journey through existence jarred everything he believed in. A completely new reality sprawled before his eyes, yet these concerns were but quiet footnotes under the sudden realization that seized him.

    Alex?

    He looked all around again, a knot tightening the pit of his stomach.

    No answer came.

    Alexandra?

    No echo wrapped around her name. It was as if the walls had swallowed up the sound waves instead of letting them bounce off and resonate through space.

    He put his hands around his mouth and inhaled deep.

    Alexandra!

    His voice got lost in the labyrinth.

    Aaron paced the perimeter of the ledge, ignoring awful headache and aching knee. He peered down the cliff, craned his neck around corners and yelled her name repeatedly, eyes frantically searching for a hint of dark skin or short curls. He held motionless and strained to hear a possible call for help, but only ear-ringing silence answered his voice.

    He stood in the middle of his ledge, a haze clouding his sight.

    Alex was gone.

    She’s in Heaven. She went to Heaven and I’m in Hell, just like she feared.

    He knew that such a thought should have brought a bout of panic with it, but his safety didn’t seem all that important at the moment. What if Alexandra’s fears had been well-founded, and they’d been separated forever because he didn’t believe? The concept of eternal punishment for the faithless had seemed absurd to him just ten minutes ago, but he could no longer dismiss it out-of-hand. Aaron forced himself to focus and search the area for telling signs of his fate.

    He wouldn’t have expected Hell to be so empty. He strained to hear approaching footsteps or perhaps a cackling laugh, but the absolute silence that engulfed him remained undisturbed. No demons showed up to stuff him in a boiling pool of lava or stab him with barbed pitchforks.

    Aaron frowned while surveying the area once more. Wasn’t a welcoming party in order here? Some form of guidance? There wasn’t even a lousy sign to tell him where to get his punishment.

    Maybe Hell is eternal waiting.

    Then again, why should anything conform to a certain religious mythology? The afterlife could be something else entirely. He could be in a purgatorial waiting room, a shroud between existences, a dream bubble in the furthest ring, for all he knew. Their separation might have been purely accidental. Best not to make any assumptions.

    The afterlife. . . .

    Aaron shook his head at the words. Questions kept piling up in his head, from the most basic How did I get here? to a primal Am I in danger? and everything in-between. They got soundly trumped by a far more pressing concern.

    Where did Alex go?

    Six different routes would lead him away from his ledge: two clear dead ends, one misshapen bridge, a too-steep tunnel, a path to another platform below, and a gnarled trail up and around the curved wall. He eyed each one, fretful, anxious. None of the paths looked promising.

    Should I even leave this place? What if I take off and she shows up here shortly after?

    Aaron was trying to decide what to do when he noticed the monster flying toward him.

    2

    Newborn!

    The word came from all around her, angry shouts from alien voices. Sound and meaning felt like two separate entities that her brain had arduously linked together.

    Alexandra hadn’t yet opened her eyes when something blunt and heavy struck her shoulders and sent her tumbling forward. She hit the floor with a startled yelp and plunged through a mantle of gravel, sharp edges scoring shallow gashes on her hands, her arms, her brow, jaw and cheek.

    She came to a painful stop shortly after, and by then the single word had become an unintelligible roar. Alexandra had time to gasp for air once, twice—something grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her halfway to her feet, dragging her further across the floor. She cried out, the shock and pain finally jolting her addled mind into action.

    Her vision blurred by blood and tears, her legs struggling to gain footing, Alexandra desperately flailed her arms at the unseen assailant. After a few fruitless swings her fist connected with flesh, barely encountering friction as it punched through.

    Her eyes focused.

    A nightmarish creature ruptured in an explosion of gore as her arm tore through its body like a sledgehammer through gelatin. Its yellowish innards splattered in all directions, splashing onto her face and blinding her momentarily.

    Alexandra quickly crawled away, eyes squeezed shut, face twisted in horror. Whatever that thing had been, there was nothing on Earth like it.

    She tried to wipe her eyes clean but only smeared the viscous fluids further, making the sting worse. The stench burned the inside of her nose like sulfur fumes. Her high-pitched sobs drowned in the screams closing in around her.

    All at once they grabbed her, tough and leathery limbs tightening around her ankle, her elbow, her thigh. They held down her wrists and braced her abdomen. Something slid around her neck and threatened to crush her windpipe.

    Then everything started pulling.

    She thrashed and contorted as hard as she could, but they held fast. She fought to breathe, but her throat was clamped shut. Panic seized Alexandra as their grip tightened and their pull built to an unbearable degree. They were trying to tear her apart.

    The need to get away overwhelmed her. The sense of powerlessness roused a memory, and with the memory everything came crashing back—the anguish, the loathing, the shame and humiliation. Long-healed scars tore wide open, and a voice cried inside her mind, instinctive, outraged, desperate.

    Never again.

    Anger blazed in her chest. Once more she could see their faces, twisted with hatred, shrouded in the despair of the hopeless. Their hands, holding her down, stifling her screams. And the stink, that rancid mixture of mud and dank sweat, lust, human filth. She’d been frail, back then. Scrawny, malnourished, far too young.

    Not anymore.

    The anger fed on the memory of their touch, their eyes, their stench, and it all went up in flames, consumed by Alexandra’s unbound rage. A feral scream made its way through her constricted throat as her arm broke free through sheer brute force. Unable to open her eyes, she saw everything unfold in her mind.

    Her hand grabbed at whatever was around her neck, and pulled, and tore the appendage off its owner. Her legs kicked savagely, her foot smashing into another of the creatures and sending it flying away in a gooey mess. She writhed in their grasp, flailing limbs fighting desperately against the monsters’ pull.

    They let go. Immediately she sprung to her feet and swung her arm backwards at another of her captors. It sliced effortlessly through its midsection like a well-honed scythe, splitting the beast in two. Her arm continued its unwavering arc, inertia spinning her around to face the next creature.

    She screamed as she threw her whole body into a wide hook. Her clenched fist made contact, broke through body tissue and tore a gaping hole in the thing’s side. The monster uttered a gut-wrenching gargle, staggered, and hit the ground with a spattering thud.

    The rest of them fled in terror. Their incoherent shrieks faded in the distance.

    Her eyes remained squeezed shut, the burn from the blinding grime slowly subsiding. She’d felt a sense of detachment in her frenzy, as though watching herself in an out-of-body experience. Now Alexandra saw herself standing there, dark skin covered in muck, muscles tense, chest heaving. Her clothes were drenched in the same disgusting substance, small bits of whatever these things were still clinging to the fabric. She was terribly disappointed to see her favorite sweatpants ruined beyond repair.

    At that moment she still nurtured a small glimmer of hope. Maybe she would open her eyes to find herself in her moonlit bedroom, sheets damp with sweat and the air filled with Aaron’s snoring. She would nudge him gently, he’d turn onto his side, and she’d go back to sleep, never to remember this awful nightmare.

    Alexandra clung to this hope, even as she felt the creatures’ vile juices dripping from her hands, the sting of the gravel under her naked feet, the ache of blooming welts on her limbs.

    Her eyelids could finally part to a squint. After a moment of painful blinking, her vision came into focus.

    She stared at the mangled corpses and yellowish sludge scattered all over the large hallway in which she stood. The unnatural color of their fluids looked more like vomit than blood. Lumps of body parts, innards and unidentifiable chunks of flesh added to the image, all mixing in unsightly mounds. Rather than the result of her desperate battle for survival, the area looked more like the aftermath of some massive monster’s sickly hangover.

    Alexandra stared, struggling to make sense of what had just happened. She glanced at her hands, at the bodies, at the hallway and her own blood, unable to stop looking from one horror to the next.

    You know what these things are, Alex.

    She took a step back. Her eyes surveyed the alien environment with new-found dread. The nascent realization sent a chill through her skin.

    You know what happened to you, what this means.

    "No . . . ."

    She shook her head, lips trembling. The ground spun beneath her feet as the inescapable truth sunk in.

    No no no no no no . . . .

    She staggered back a few more steps, shaky hands seeking purchase. Without even noticing she bumped against one of the pillars that lined the hall.

    You know where you are.

    Alexandra fell to her knees and hugged her arms to her abdomen, breath short and ragged. Deep, mournful sobs seized her throat. Her chest felt as if gripped by unseen fists.

    She squeezed her eyes shut and wept for as long as tears would flow.

    3

    The monster was a leg-less torso with broad shoulders and a multitude of tentacles for arms. It effortlessly swam through the air.

    Long, thick and leathery, the tentacles sprouted from shoulders to waist without much regard for symmetry. More of them lazily rotated and twisted beneath the monster’s generous girth, partially concealing its most alien feature: a bulbous spherical gland that pulsed with faint bursts of light.

    Its face was close to non-existent. The head bulged out in a mound at the top of the torso, with a series of vertical slits at the bottom that looked like gills and a wobbly row of translucent protrusions where a hairline would be expected. They might have been eyes, although there were about fifteen of them, arranged loosely across its forehead.

    The creature halted its slow advance shortly after being sighted. Before Aaron could decide whether to say something or run for dear life, the monster spoke in a deeply apprehensive tone.

    The Unbound honor and guard you, my lord. I travel to the Downpour to record recent shifts. Please allow me passage and I shall trouble you no more.

    The fleshy knobs on its head changed in luminescence and color as it spoke, while a subtle hum wrapped around the words, as if carrying them where they needed to go. Light and sound somehow translated into Aaron’s language.

    The monster’s manifest deference did not escape him.

    Don’t show how ignorant and helpless you are, a voice came through the fog in his mind. Be Dominant. Make it count.

    Uhh, Aaron said.

    The creature took a moment to evaluate the situation. It floated a bit closer, and the shiny gland beneath the tangle of shifting appendages brightened faintly as it moved, yet cast no shadows in the process. The alien raised some of its tentacles in what Aaron interpreted as a placating gesture.

    Have I offended, sir? If so, it was not my intent. I shall use an alternative route, with your leave. The colors were more subdued, unambiguously timid. The ever-shifting hum conveyed bashfulness. Aaron had no idea how he inferred these things.

    He realized that the creature was about to turn around and leave.

    Wait!

    The alien stopped turning at once, giving Aaron its full attention. It appeared wary of what the human might say.

    Um . . . have you seen another of my kind around here? Female, a bit shorter than me, very dark skin, short curly hair?

    The creature simply stared back at him for a few moments, visibly confused. Its lack of actual eyes made the experience particularly unnerving.

    How about a fifty-something lady, blond hair, skinny?

    More eyeless staring.

    A, uh . . . a guy that looks just like me but older? Possibly intoxicated?

    This is ridiculous. He wouldn’t have stayed drunk in the afterlife.

    Or maybe he would, what the heck do I know anymore?

    The monster’s confusion gradually bloomed into understanding. It approached Aaron swiftly, tentacles fluttering.

    You are a newborn, aren’t you?

    For a moment Aaron thought he was about to be smothered by this octopus-monster-thing. He retreated a few steps, his back getting uncomfortably close to the wall.

    Uh—

    You just integrated, it said. You perished, yes? In the Beyond? And then suddenly arrived nearby?

    I . . . y-yeah, I guess. How do you—

    Boundless luck, I knew I’d sensed a Human integration, I knew it! The monster-thing laughed with its weird lights and hums, then displayed a combination of colors that Aaron recognized as an affable grin. It became the default background after every prismatic shift.

    "I know you have many questions, sir. To answer one of them, my name is Queg. You are a Human newborn, and I must ask patience of you now, as there is a certain protocol in place to handle one such as you. If I follow procedure carefully and bring you to the safety of your people without causing you harm, the reward will be quite handsome. If I fail to do so, however, I can smother my gravity gland goodbye.

    "I must be careful, you understand. There are certain things that I must let you know, and certain things that I must leave for you to discuss with the nearest Human link. I urge you not to be afraid of me. I’ve been made aware that you may perceive me as grotesque, but my intentions are far from hostile. I am a friend, you can trust me. In truth, it is in my best interest to keep you safe from all harm. There are those misguided enough to antagonize your kind, but I am not one of them.

    "Our priority is to reach human domains as soon as possible. It is fortunate that you integrated in this region of the Pathways. The journey to Thousand Rivers should be relatively short, though I must update my knowledge of the neighboring ground routes to account for any recent shifts. Ask for directions before you are lost, my people say. . . ."

    The creature continued its speech for a good while, unaware or uncaring of Aaron’s blank stare.

    This is freakin’ nuts, he finally said in a dismayed mutter.

    The alien interrupted its chatter mid-sentence. Aaron could have sworn that he saw the thing blink, lack of eyelids notwithstanding. Feeling self-conscious, he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips to soothe an incipient headache.

    So, uh, he said, there’s a . . . a ‘protocol’ to deal with people like me, I guess?

    That is correct, sir.

    Right. And . . . doesn’t this protocol thing say to take it easy on the newbies? I’m a bit overwhelmed, here.

    The creature twitched uncomfortably. Why, yes, yes it does. I apologize, sir. I’m a bit eager. I have never encountered a Human newborn before. You are a rare and prized find, sir.

    Okay, alright. Prized by whom?

    Why, your kin, of course. Humans have many agendas, and all of them benefit from new recruits, for which they compensate generously. Those that help your kind will earn the Unbound’s favor, while any denizen of the realms caught attacking Human newborns will be hunted down and slaughtered. Hatred for your species runs deep in some places, deep enough to defy the Unbound’s will. As you can see, it is fortunate for us to have encountered one another.

    Um, sure, yes. Sorry if I don’t seem all that grateful, it’s just . . . I have no idea what’s going on right now. What’s an Unbound again?

    The Unbound leads the Human nation, sir.

    Okay. And . . . humans are hated, you said?

    The alien brought up a tentacle and curled it into an elongated letter S. Aaron effortlessly understood it as a placating gesture, a polite refusal.

    Please, sir, it said, I fear I’m explaining too much. I must follow the protocol that’s been instated. Doing so should not only get you where you need to be in the quickest way possible, but also ensure you remain in good health.

    Yeah, good health in death. Makes sense. I just . . . I kinda need a moment? This is a little too much.

    Of course.

    Aaron cradled his head in his hand and rubbed his brow. He gave the weird creature a sidelong glance and suddenly it dawned on him how rude he was acting to the helpful stranger. He tried to tuck the headache away.

    My name is Aaron Gretchen, by the way.

    He thrust his hand forward out of reflex, which the creature regarded with mild curiosity. He awkwardly withdrew it after a while.

    Just call me Aaron, um . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.

    Queg. It came out as a peculiar sound, almost a beep, and a very specific sequence of colors throughout the fleshy knobs on its head.

    Queg? Aaron asked. As in Q-U-E-G?

    Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. My name is a certain unique configuration of my prismatic glands. You perceive it as a combination of colors and a characteristic hum. Then you hear it in your mind. Queg.

    Aaron grimaced. Wow, you aren’t even kidding. I could ask you twenty questions about that sentence alone.

    Queg sighed (it was definitely a sigh, Aaron told himself.) I keep volunteering information that does you no good. I do want to be candid and answer all your questions, but as you can see it only creates more problems. Allow me to take you to Human domains, sir. You will then be able to learn everything you want to know. It paused for a beat. Or so I’ve been told.

    Frowning, Aaron kept silent for a moment. The pain did seem to get worse the more questions he asked.

    Can you at least tell me what might have happened to my wife? Shouldn’t she have come with me? How does it all work?

    I cannot answer any of those questions, sir. My knowledge is limited, and they are sensitive topics best left to be explained by your peers.

    "There’s nothing you can tell me about where she might be? Anything at all."

    Queg swayed subtly from side to side. I apologize. The protocol is inflexible in these matters. I am required to tell you that it would do more harm than good, and that the knowledge you seek will be provided by other Humans, once you reach them. Please allow me to escort you to them, sir.

    Aaron pursed his lips. What if she’s just late or something? Maybe I should wait around for a while and see if she turns up.

    That is unlikely, sir.

    "So you do know something?"

    The alien was all but biting its lip. Please, sir. I have already said too much. The journey to Thousand Rivers will be short. Your questions should be answered there.

    Aaron heaved an exasperated sigh. Alright, well, guess we’ll go with that, then. It’s just frustrating. It’d be nice to at least know how I ended up here. He cast a quick glance at the crazy labyrinth all around him. Wherever ‘here’ is.

    I understand, sir, Queg said. I am at liberty to tell you about your surroundings. Perhaps we could converse as we travel? The alien motioned for Aaron to follow and flew ahead of him. It seemed hopeful.

    He took a good look at the creature that was Queg. After carefully considering the fluttering appendages, shiny gravity gland and shifting prismatic knobs, Aaron entertained the thought of turning tail and running far, far away.

    The urge almost made him chuckle. And where in the world would you go, genius?

    He let out another sigh, hoping Alexandra was better off wherever she might be. Maybe her situation was even weirder than his, but he doubted it.

    Aaron started towards the alien-looking thing that, for all he knew, was leading him straight into its tribe’s cook pot.

    4

    Alexandra could only ask why, over and over and over.

    Had her faith not been strong enough? Had she not been generous enough? Kind enough? What had she done to deserve this? What hadn’t she done?

    She had thought herself to be a genuinely good person, though she made no pretense of having led a virtuous life. She cursed often and spoke the name of the Lord in vain, but a whole generation of teenagers had done that alongside her. She certainly strove not to get any work done on the Sabbath, but this didn’t have nearly as much to do with keeping it holy as it did with being lazy over the weekend. She’d stolen when she was a child, but it was either that or starve to death. She’d coveted plenty too, back then. Who in the world could blame her?

    I don’t deserve this.

    And the Deadly Sins? What were they, but human nature? Who hadn’t ever been angry, or wanted more than what they had? Who could resist indulging in a big meal now and then, after counting calories day after day? Her pride was an adequate fit to her accomplishments. Sloth was sanctioned over the weekend, and even then she’d remain active more often than not. Envy was a thing of the past. And lust . . . well, husband and wife are entitled to certain things, are they not? Lust was backed by love. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

    All you do is make excuses. Did you feel entitled to Heaven? Perhaps pride is your folly.

    She had hated a few times. She’d imagined doing certain less-than-friendly things to a few people, but she’d never acted on it. Had she been judged on her every single thought and desire? Even if that were the case, the good would surely outweigh the bad. Wouldn’t it?

    The Lord works in mysterious ways. Maybe this is the way it must be. Who are you to say?

    Hadn’t there been enough suffering already? Her childhood had been nothing but misery. Even after all the years of normal life, after the promotions, the diplomas, the hard work, the hours and hours of therapy; after learning to trust, to love, to be loved . . . still she cringed at the thought of Kibera. She had wanted to see it all burn, back then: the slums, its people, and all of Nairobi with it. The hatred had persisted long after becoming part of the Sanders family.

    She’d never been able to truly forgive, but she had honestly tried.

    Is this the Justice I deserve? Eternal torment? It isn’t a month, or a year. It isn’t a thousand years. It’s eternity. Eternity. Am I a monster beyond redemption?

    Was it not going to church? She prayed every night at the quiet of her bedside and meant every word. She used to go, but service had grown so tainted by rote, so mired in politics and posturing. Worship was a personal thing for her. A quiet, peaceful thing. How much deeper could faith go?

    I didn’t just pretend my way through life so I could get into Heaven. I was truthful, and honest, and I always tried to do the right thing, even when it hurt.

    I am a good person.

    Was this a test? Yes, the final trial that would reveal what truly lay at the bottom of her soul, that would stir every doubt and question every conviction.

    Her lips curled in distaste at the thought. Was her soul not laid bare at the moment of her death? Was she to be judged not by her deeds in life, but by her resilience after it? Life was the test. Apparently, she had flunked.

    I have done nothing to deserve this. I don’t belong here.

    Her fist clenched, a fistful of gravel digging into her skin. Her shoulders trembled, her jaws tightened.

    It isn’t fair.

    A whole life. A whole life pouring her faith on an entity she thought benevolent, fair and loving. Was there love to be found in this judgment? Was there righteousness in this punishment? Alexandra sneered bitterly. What would Aaron say now?

    Aaron.

    It was like a bolt of lightning piercing through her mind. Her adoring husband; her beloved husband; her charming, goofy, annoying atheist of a husband.

    Oh, Aaron. . . .

    A wave of anxiety overtook the storm gathering within her. If she had ended up in this place for no good reason that she could imagine, what sort of torment was in store for Aaron, an adamant non-believer?

    She’d dreaded the thought in life, though he would always dismiss it with an infuriating chuckle. A just and benevolent god wouldn’t punish a nice guy like me, he’d say with an exaggerated smile. She’d tell him that it wasn’t so simple, and get frustrated with his nonchalance, and drop the issue before it went into off-limits territory. She’d tell herself that there was no sense in worrying about things she couldn’t change, even when it was hard to resist the urge to try.

    But that was then, when the din of everyday life drowned out distant concerns, and death was something that happened to other people. The image of her sweet, harmless Aaron being tortured until the end of time had become every bit as real as the slime covering her hands and staining her clothes. It was as nauseating as the pungent stench of death surrounding her.

    He wound up in Hell too.

    Her eyes flew open.

    Aaron is here.

    She stumbled to her feet. If she could find him, if there was the slightest chance. . . .

    Then what? What could you possibly do if you find him, other than watch him suffer? Do you think you can come and go as you please? Do you really think that you have any choice at all? There is no hope. You might as well lie down and wait for the demons to take you.

    She shook her head violently, irritated at her own bleak thoughts. They would have to work for it, damn it all. What was left for her to lose? Everything that mattered to her had been taken away in an instant, without so much as an explanation, a justification that would at least tell her why.

    The tempest swarmed once more, turbulent, ominous.

    I refuse to go quietly, she whispered to whoever might be listening.

    She cast a quick glance at her surroundings. She was vaguely aware that Hell would be infinitely vast. There would probably be different levels, or dimensions, or circles, or whichever bizarre structure it happened to have. So far she’d only suffered hideous monsters and a splitting headache, but there was no telling what she would find around the corner, the horrors that would surely find her wherever she tried to hide.

    The notion was enough to make her defiance waver. What hope could a lone wandering soul possibly harbor?

    Noises emerged somewhere behind her just then. She became deathly still, trying to listen over the deafening thumps of her heart.

    Feet dragging on gravel. Muffled alien voices.

    They were getting closer.

    Panic-struck, Alexandra looked in the opposite direction, into the unknown. She took off running as fast as her legs could take her.

    Countless pillars flashed past her as she ran, hues of blue overlapping one another in a blur. Alexandra’s bare feet painfully pounded on the gravel in a maddened sprint.

    She’d been running for several minutes. The perfectly straight hallway seemed to go on forever. What would happen once she reached the end? Did she intend to wander aimlessly, hoping for the best?

    She slowed slightly.

    You need a plan. Doesn’t even need to be a good one.

    The questions lining up in her head became harder and harder to fathom. Where in Hell would Aaron be? How could she get there, when she didn’t know where she was or where she was going? Was it possible to travel where she needed to go? What could she do once she got there?

    What if all this was but a cosmic blunder? What if she wasn’t supposed to be there at all?

    An incompetent afterlife. That’s even more depressing.

    The full-speed run had become a mere trot. What was the point, really? Aaron might not even be there at all. If she hadn’t ended up where she’d expected to go, why would he be any different?

    Her jaw set in an almost painful clench. It didn’t matter. She would find him anyway, wherever he was, however long it took. She would give anything, do anything, just to see his face once more, to find comfort in his embrace.

    And that’s all it is, right? Steadfast devotion and undying love. One hour and already you miss him so.

    Such a righteous cause that drives you.

    Her scowl deepened. No, of course that wasn’t all. She could hardly ignore the swelling storm at the pit of her stomach, twisting and surging in unison with her heartbeat, washing her insides with the bile of resentment. She couldn’t take a single step without feeling its poisonous influence.

    She came to a halt at last, and winced in pain as the sharp rock fragments dug mercilessly into the soles of her feet. Panting, she leaned against a pillar and gingerly lifted her right foot to take a look at it.

    She was not surprised at the mess of cuts and scrapes. She would have used her fingertips to carefully feel around them and try to soothe them somehow, but her hands were still covered in filth. They didn’t look like serious wounds, but that didn’t stop them from being terribly painful.

    Eyeing her feet with worry, Alexandra wished she hadn’t spent all those hours scrubbing at them, trying to get rid of the layers upon layers of calluses and rough edges she’d earned over her less fortunate years. There was a time when she’d been able to walk on glass shards as if they were feathers.

    She gritted her teeth as she put the foot down. Stop being a baby. Bloody feet are the least of your worries right now.

    Wait.

    Her feet were bleeding. She looked at the ground she was standing on.

    Ah, crap.

    She turned around and saw a trail of bloody smudges leading directly to her position. They were patently noticeable for as far as her eyes could see.

    I can’t even hide my sorry ass without having an arrow pointing at me the whole time!

    She had to dig her nails into the flesh of her palms to push down the frustrated scream in her throat. She wanted to throw a fit, hiss and scream and flail her arms until all her energy was spent.

    Can’t run forever.

    Can’t hide at all.

    I have to find out where I need to go.

    There was only one source of information that she could think of.

    Alexandra took off running again, her jaw clenched with grim resolve. She did her best to ignore the sharp stabs of pain that came with every stride, and tried to find comfort in the fact that at least this time she knew where she was going.

    All she had to do was follow the trail of blood that her own feet had left behind.

    November 26th, 2011

    Alexandra’s dorm, Seattle State University

    1:36AM

    There’s that guy again!

    I can barely stop myself from yelling. How does he even find me? Does he jump from server to server ‘til my name comes up?

    Audrey looks up from her reader, eyes drooping. What?

    ‘Mouthwash’!

    A small pause. What?

    That’s his username! C’mon, I’ve told you about it before. The dude that keeps showing up on the opposite team?

    Ooh, yeah, yeah. Again, huh?

    My roommate doesn’t sound terribly interested. She doesn’t care much for the games I play. That’s alright, I don’t care much for the smut she reads.

    Third server in a row now. I swear, this guy’s stalking me. What kind of screen name is ‘Mouthwash,’ anyway?

    Don’t you kill this guy, like, every chance you get? There’s a smile in her voice. Maybe you should stop doing that. You’re just egging him on.

    It’s not my fault he’s so terrible! This is starting to creep me out. It’s gonna ruin this game for me.

    You’re so dramatic. Just tell him to back off.

    Yeah, sure, that’ll work. I’d just fuel his sick fantasies. Bet he’s getting off on this.

    You don’t even know if it’s a guy!

    It’s always a guy.

    Yeah, obviously. Look, either send him a message telling him to piss off or stop being such a baby. It’s just a game.

    Hrm.

    She puts down the e-reader, her mouth open in a huge yawn. I stubbornly suppress my own. I’m turning in. You should too, it’s really late.

    Hrm.

    See ya tomorrow. Don’t yell at the computer too much, okay?

    Fine. I’ll just keep glaring at it.

    User [Saudanaishi] has initiated chat with [MoutHwasH] at [01:46:03AM(PDT)]

    [Saudanaishi][01:46:03AM]> hey man, will you stop stalking me already? i'll open a ticket if you don't stop.

    [MoutHwasH][01:47:11AM]> ...

    [Saudanaishi][01:47:32AM]> what you don't think im serious? the mods will have you banned in no time, you creep. bet i'm not the first to have you reported either.

    [MoutHwasH][01:48:11AM]> I'm sorry. You're the best player I've ever seen, was just trying to beat you. I'm usually much better than this... when you're not around to kill me all the time. I was hoping you hadn't noticed I was actively looking for you

    [Saudanaishi][01:48:35AM]> dude, how could i NOT notice? you dont even change your screen name!

    [MoutHwasH][01:48:36AM]> really sorry to bother you, I'll leave you alone

    [Saudanaishi][01:49:20AM]> ... it's ok. it was just getting a bit unsettling, is all.

    [Saudanaishi][01:49:25AM]> I might have overreacted a bit.

    [MoutHwasH][01:49:41AM]> no, no, I can see how you'd be totally creeped out. It was really dumb to think you wouldn't notice

    [MoutHwasH][01:51:12AM]> In my defense, it was out of respect for your mad skillz. And, uh... a bit of jealousy. And wanting to kill you at least *once*, jeez!

    [Saudanaishi][01:51:28AM]> haha, you should really stop trying to get the jump on me. wiping the floor with you is getting ol

    [Saudanaishi][01:51:29AM]> old* =P

    [MoutHwasH][01:51:42AM]> rub salt in the wound, will ya. Well, gloat while you can! I'll beat you one of these days.

    [MoutHwasH][01:51:50AM]> Possibly with a cheap shot.

    [MoutHwasH][01:51:59AM]> You know, when I just so happen to join the same server you're in, completely at random. Yup.

    [Saudanaishi][01:52:02AM]> uh-huh. good luck with that, chum. have fun eating dirt over and over again.

    >> (01:54:51AM) Saudanaishi has obliterated MoutHwasH with a Grenade Launcher <<

    [MoutHwasH][01:54:56AM]> BLARGH

    [Saudanaishi][01:55:04AM]> you're soooooo slow, Mr. Dumb Stalker.

    [MoutHwasH][01:55:12AM]> Great, now on top of getting my ass kicked I get hearty rations of sass to go with it

    [Saudanaishi][01:55:20AM]> you brought it on yourself, shoulda picked an easier target.

    >> (01:57:50AM) Saudanaishi has gunned down MoutHwasH with a Desert Eagle <<

    [Saudanaishi][01:58:04AM]> somehow shooting you to death is so much more satisfying now, who coulda thunk it?

    [MoutHwasH][01:58:19AM]> ...

    [MoutHwasH][01:58:25AM]> I'm so happy for you.

    5

    Queg traveled at arm’s length, leading the way. After countless twists, turns, ups and downs, Aaron finally gave up on memorizing their path.

    There’s no point anyway, I was lost to begin with. Let’s just trust the friendly Lovecraftian monstrosity.

    He looked over at Queg as they went up the umpteenth slope. The guy seemed to know exactly where they were going. Not once had he stopped to consider the next turn.

    Was Queg a he, even?

    So, um, Aaron said. What exactly are you?

    Queg gave a start and slowed down for a moment. Finding the one particular path they were supposed to follow seemed to take up a large chunk of his concentration.

    A fair thing to ask, he said in lights and hums. You would answer such a question with ‘a human being,’ yes?

    The pause was just long enough for Aaron to interject a non-committal grunt.

    In my home realm, my species is called— Queg pronounced it as a deep, rather grandiose sound accompanied by an equally impressive display of colors. It didn’t translate as a specific word in Aaron’s mind, but as a conglomerate of concepts instead: pathway seeker, servant of the gods, fourteenth generation. He let it linger for a little while, then continued. "We are mostly known as scouts and navigators among the Sapients, and we will carry information swiftly and reliably across great distances. Some of us actually broker this information, but it is too risky an enterprise, in my opinion. I belong to the mapping guild, as a matter of fact.

    "Humans will usually refer to my kind as ‘Remoran,’ after the name they have given my home realm, ‘Remora.’ I have also been called ‘squid,’ ‘floater,’ ‘strobe,’ ‘bleeper’ and similar descriptive terms like ‘tentacled abomination.’ Dealing with your kind is challenging—no offense intended, of course. It depends on faction and region, mostly.

    Other Sapients, such as the Fermi, are far more diplomatic toward us, in general. They rely on denizens for long-range navigation, you understand. On the other extreme, the Petrichor will kill us on a proximity basis. My people remind them of a hated, monstrous species from Beyond, unfortunately.

    Questions kept popping up in Aaron’s head after Queg’s every other word, so many that he could hardly keep track of them. He settled on the one thing that had been nagging at him the whole time.

    How come I understand everything you say? I mean, I can even tell which words are capitalized. Somehow I don’t think you’re actually speaking English right now.

    English. Queg mulled over the word for a few seconds, as if trying to figure out what it was supposed to stand for. Ah, yes, language. Another common question, I understand. I have been fortunate enough to be in good standing with a few human contacts, and one such was gracious enough to explain—

    Queg paused abruptly. The trail had taken them under a sinuous tunnel that had gradually narrowed to nearly all of Queg’s considerable girth. Aaron had been so engrossed in the conversation that he had barely noticed they’d gone underground.

    The passage became so short that he had to bend down slightly in order to avoid hitting his head; Queg floated low enough to be almost crawling on his appendages. After a few claustrophobic bends, the tunnel gradually expanded towards an opening big enough to fit a small airliner.

    Queg continued as if there had been no interruption, unfazed by the capricious nature of their path.

    The mechanics of it are unknown to me, but you are understanding me because you wish to do so, and I can understand you because you want me to.

    Aaron stopped walking. Um, what?

    I suppose it is a difficult concept. It is unique to Sapients, obviously.

    Obviously.

    I presume your Human peers will explain in more detail, in due time. You could test it, if you wish. Say something that you do not want me to understand.

    Aaron caught up to the alien, still wondering whether to take the explanation seriously. He would have been more willing to believe that a babelfish had been surreptitiously implanted in his ear.

    Then again, Queg hadn’t made any attempts at humor so far, and Aaron doubted that the creature had suddenly decided to start playing pranks. It didn’t take him long to find something suitable to say.

    I am scared shitless.

    Queg’s laughter made him reconsider: maybe it was a prank after all. He still found it unnerving, the way he could tell that the alien was indeed laughing.

    You understood that, didn’t you.

    "Why, yes, and I cannot say I blame you. You misunderstood me, I think, or perhaps I misspoke. You must make a conscious effort for me not to understand what you are saying. It’s not enough to confess an embarrassing detail that you wouldn’t want me to know. Do try again."

    Ah. Well, alright then.

    Aaron tried to do as he was told and fix in his head the notion of not being understood.

    I do not want you to understand this sentence, he said, and raised a hopeful eyebrow at Queg. The alien was already shaking his head, which is to say uttering a quavering rumble while three of his light nodes lit up in different shades of blue.

    I’m afraid I understood that as well.

    "Well, it’s not so easy! When I talk to somebody in my own language it’s because I want to be understood. It’s like going against instinct."

    He’d actually felt it, somehow—the tug between the inertia of subconscious instinct and his will trying to go against it. It was as if he’d become more aware of the inner workings of his psyche.

    Queg nodded, thoughtful. You are a newborn. Although I can’t claim previous experience in dealing with one such as you, I would not be surprised if it takes a certain amount of practice to learn all the abilities that a Human would normally command. It would explain why the protocol urges that I escort you to safety as soon as possible. Newborns are known to be utterly defenseless when they first appear.

    To be described as utterly defenseless did nothing to improve Aaron’s outlook.

    Alright, he said, just so we’re clear, now. You aren’t dead, are you? That’s just me, right?

    A low-contrast shift let Aaron know that Queg nodded. You are a Sapient, sir. You exist here after having lived, as do all Sapients. I am a denizen, and very much alive.

    That’s an answer, I guess.

    They had cleared the cave to continue down a wide path that sunk in a long downward spiral. Tall walls at both sides of the path prevented Aaron from seeing much else.

    He made a vague gesture at the scenery before them. "So what is this place, anyway?"

    We are in the Pathways, an ever-changing labyrinth that connects to most other realms. Its sheer size belies the amount of traffic it moves at any given time. You can go your entire trip sometimes without encountering any other travelers. Yet some routes are heavily traversed, while they last: Gorgers to Veal, for instance, or the way from the Spire to the Nexus.

    Of course the answer would contain some twenty things to ask about. Aaron picked one almost at random. While they last?

    The ways are alive, after a fashion. They shift constantly, slowly or abruptly. Sometimes in front of you. Sometimes all around you, unfortunately.

    Aaron eyed the way ahead with renewed apprehension. Could everything cave in at any moment? He tried not to think about it and moved on to the next question.

    When you say realms, he said, does that mean, like, kingdoms, other countries, or. . . .

    Realms are . . . realms.

    Noticing Aaron’s befuddled expression, the Remoran made a rueful gesture with some of his appendages. "Forgive me. It is easy to forget that the things

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