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Deal 1095: Dark setting

No one went there. It was darker, and creepy. It was easier to just go around.

Safer too.

Everyone knew that the best poisons came from its fringe. Nightshade and death-cap mushrooms grew in the twilight near the edge, and Hemlock grew just outside the edge. No one remembered a time when it wasn’t there, looming, and yet ignored.

But those few who dared enter found in its depths a grotto, with a clear view of the sky, and just enough sunlight.

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Deal 1038: Exposition, and a Decision is Made

The next day, Sydney realized he was just as stuck in place as if he had succumbed to the trap set by the orchard. He awoke in a bed in a guest room. Gwen’s cave was far more luxurious than he had expected, and the guest wing for humanoids was very well appointed. It was certainly more comfortable than camping rough in the orchard.

The fishing at the lake had been marginally successful. He still had no clue what Gwen was up to, or what she wanted from him. He was no closer to finding a way home, either. They did catch something that looked a lot like a catfish, and it made a decent dinner later breaded and pan fried, and served with fried pickles.

After dinner he was left to entertain himself for the rest of the evening. He explored the guest wing, finding a library, a parlor, and several more guest rooms. None were occupied, and he never encountered any staff. The space was much too large for one person to maintain alone, so there must be some staff out of sight.

After a comfortable, if fitful, sleep Sydney knew he had to assert himself at least a little.

After breakfast (soft boiled eggs, ham, toast) he made an attempt.

“I appreciate the hospitality, but I must continue on my quest,” he began. Gwen just listened. “It has been weeks since I disappeared from my home, I must find my way back. Or at least find a way to communicate.”

Gwen nodded. “Your journey continues, now that you know you need to go. In truth, you have seen several opportunities already to learn what you need, but you turned away from each. I saw your plight, and offered to guide and mentor you. I have done this before.”

Sydney looked startled. “You arranged to meet me?”

“Yes. It was easy enough to bribe the frog to disturb you at the right moments. If I hadn’t bribed him, others might have and you would not like what happened then. There are many forces at play here. I don’t know who is capturing outlanders and dropping them without skills or knowledge, or perhaps more importantly, why they do it. I don’t know if any of us know for sure. Of course, we all have our suspicions, and we all have our own motives for getting involved.”

“Why?”

“Why am I involved? or why did I seek you specifically?”

“Both, actually. But let’s start with why you are involved.”

Gwen sighed. This was the most human she’d appeared to Sydney, her usual aura of aloof perfection broken to reveal she wasn’t entirely sure of something important. “I’m not human. And you know that, and have been polite enough not to press me about it. My people share this world with many other peoples. I suppose that none of us are really human as you understand the word. But some are more so than others. My kind can resemble yours and interact, even passing as human for long periods. But this is not the form I was born to.”

“The dragon.”

“Well yes, that too, but that also isn’t truly the form I was born to. The wings come in handy, as do the nigh invulnerability and the fire. But the dragon is hardly stealthy, and subtlety is difficult in a 100 yard long body.”

“I am human,” began Sydney, but Gwen interrupted. “You were human. Now, we aren’t so sure. The same magic that brought you here changed you so that you would fit it’s intended tale. We aren’t clear on what that tale is supposed to become, your role, your powers, or exactly what sort of near human you currently are.”

“My powers?”

“Surely summoning the archetype of all roosters to wake you conveniently is something you were not able to do wherever it is you come from?”

“Well, no”

“Then there’s one point of interest. You manipulated the Dreamlands and summoned a Power. Even more surprising, he did what you bid. You have powers. They are dangerous to you and to us until you understand their limits and gain at least some control over their use. What if instead of the Rooster you had summoned a Salamander and set the area on fire?”

“I imagine you have some powers in that department.”

“Well, yes I do, and that is really the answer to your question.”

“What?”

“No, why. You asked why I became involved. And that is the answer. You are safe here with me, but more importantly the world is safe from you because it is unlikely you can do something that I can’t control, guide, or contain.”

Sydney sat in thought for a bit, then sat up straighter and spoke more formally. “If I may, my lady Dragon, I would like to continue to impose on your hospitality for a while longer.”

Gwen smiled, in a way that was somehow both predatory and comforting. “It is no imposition, Questor. You are welcome in this place until all agree it is time for you to move onwards.”

“Thank you.”

“There are some rules. You have already recognized one. It is not usually polite to point out another being’s nature so bluntly. I first openly encountered you in another form, then this one. As a stranger, you seemed to already know that asking about my true form was not polite. As your host, I will tell you now that was the right assumption. Many peoples will be able to take forms that nearly pass as human. Even if you recognize this, it is never polite to point it out publicly.

“Also, many conventions of my world will be strange to you. In this place, any who enter to interact with you will know at least that you are not from here and will readily forgive minor transgressions. They may choose to inform you of your errors, and if they do, you should take the caution seriously and seek to not repeat the error.

“While you are my guest, you may not lie to me. You may, however, choose to withhold what you will. While I hope you will feel free to speak, you need not feel obliged.

“Those are the ground rules. Can you abide them, or should I return you to the main road with only a limited recollection of our encounter?”

Sydney considered. It was clear that Gwen was asking for a firm commitment, not just a casual assurance. By committing to her rules, he was choosing to accept her help. She hadn’t spoken of consequences to him should he break the rules, but whatever powers he did have were telling him that he did not want to be her enemy. A the same time, his powers felt sure that should he decide against commitment, she would not treat him ill.

All in all, though, there was only one correct answer.

“Yes. Yes I will abide by the rules as I accept your hospitality, and any guidance you might choose to offer.”

Gwen smiled.

“So it begins. Again.”

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Deal 1029: Trapped in a loop

No matter how far he walked, Sydney did not seem to be getting closer to the distant town. As the road wandered around hills and small woodlots he lost sight of it, but always recovered it eventually. But it was no closer.

This went on for at least nine hours before he also noticed that the sun was still in the same place in the sky. It was as if time was not passing outside of the road he was on.

Then he stubbed his toe on a milestone and realized it was still marked “43”.

Something was definitely strange.

He was on a closed loop of road that was also a closed loop of time. He needed to find the way out.

Since he was at mile “43”, he had a brief snack and a little to drink. Oddly enough, but also handily enough, he still had food to snack on and weak tea to drink.

Beside the road ran a trickle of water, hardly enough to call a creek. The ground was soft and boggy close by, and sitting on a rock in the sun was a large frog. He contemplated the frog, clearly picked out by a sunbeam on a throne-like rock for a bit. Suddenly, he realized why his attention was drawn to the frog. He had to deal with it somehow to break free of his looped path.

“Ribbit”, croaked the frog. But Sydney also heard it saying “It’s about time you noticed me. Sit down. You have a lot to learn.”

By this point, Sydney had given up on his sanity, and was willing to learn from a large sunlit talking frog if that was what it took to get home again.

“The first lesson is that you can’t trust anything I say. Also, trust nothing anyone or anything says. Pretty much, trust no one. Oh, and you might want to take notes. There’s more to tell you, and I don’t want to repeat myself.”

One thing that Syd knew he lacked was a notebook. Or a pen. So he just nodded sheepishly, and listened.

“Have it your way then. Remember, I’m not to be trusted. At all. Except that everything I say was true once. Might still be true. You might even decide to trust me. But don’t. I’m not on your side.”

“The second lesson is that everything is out to get you. There is only you on your side.”

“The third lesson is important. Your goal. Don’t ask why, I’m just the messenger. To get out of this land, you must—”

At that point a giant Raven swooped down from the clear blue sky and snatched the frog, tossing it in the air and eating it as it flew away into the sunset. Perhaps it was the frog that had distorted time and space? Perhaps talking to the frog had been the key to unlock the loop?

He had no real information, but he knew he still needed to find the way out, redemption, revenge, or rebirth. Or perhaps all of those.

Sydney looked around, and saw the fork in the road. There were three paths. One was clearly the loop he had been trapped on. One was very nicely paved and clearly well traveled. The third was barely a cow track.

Sydney took the third path.