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Deal 1039: Interlude

Tired after the day spent sparring in the gym, Sydney had little choice but to drop into a deep sleep.

chaotic dreamlands
sleep prince relax digest learn
wander aimlessly

The magic sword shows potential, but its wielder is lacking in form, strength, knowledge, and strategy. This would be pathetic if the sword weren’t also his only surviving link to his home.

shiny sharp slicer
sincere survival symbol 
swish slash so touché

Sydney has much to stew about. Strangers are beginning to arrive at Gwen’s cavern, ostensibly to see Gwen, but clearly with an ulterior motive. So far, all have been on Gwen’s side, to the extent that she has a side. But she keeps reminding Sydney that her side is at heart a weak alliance. One that could break apart at the seams if the wrong things are dropped into conversation.

metropolis lost
cats rule all, no harm
kitties all staring

His sleep is deep but fitful. He won’t awake rested this time.

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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 1037: Breakfasted

Six cups of strong coffee later, Sydney was feeling rather more able to face the day. Of course, the coffee was punctuated by refills of his plate. He felt like he hadn’t eaten in days, so a chance to sleep, eat, and enjoy some coffee was certainly welcome.

When he surfaced from the first plate, Gwen was sitting opposite him and smirking a little. As before, there was a hint of smoke about her, and a faint hint of scales to her complexion. Her eyes were not the least bit human despite all appearances. Sydney had the impression somehow that others would not see as much of the dragon showing through her current guise when they looked, but wasn’t sure why.

“I hear you met the rooster? He’s rather infamous in these parts.”

“He was kind enough to break a fugue. I was at least seven layers deep in dreams within dreams when I happened on him.”

“Infamous but not always welcome. He and I have not always seen the world the same way.”

“I can respect that. But your orchard is a powerful place of its own. It tried to own me, and I resisted using what I could find at hand. I did have to seek him out.”

“Like you sought me out?”

“I—”

Sydney suddenly realised that this conversation was built on a foundation of quicksand.

“I seek the wisdom to find my way home. I hope sincerely that my mission did not interrupt your business. I’m quite sure that you are not the one responsible for my inter-universe transference.”

“Well, I knew that. Next step, lake, and fish. Several fish, actually.”

They made their way to a little lake, and spent the rest of the day fishing, with exactly as much success as you would imagine.

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Deal 1036: Awaken awake wake ake a

Despite the narrative complexity, Sydney was resting rather comfortably. He was getting enough dreaming done to last him a month.

seven worried thoughts
calm costumed clumsy chicken
left alone to dream

But he had the nagging feeling that waking would be wise before he got too comfortable. Lacking formal training in walking among the dreamlands, he had to improvise. He needed a way to disrupt the calm, but not so much that it would cause him trouble later.

Then it hit him. The perfect solution.

He imagined he’d find it just behind the next tree. Concentrating, he moved cautiously around the large trunk under the branches laden with fragrant apple blossoms.

And there it was.

A magnificent rooster, sound asleep in a sunbeam.

He snuck up on the rooster, and picked it up. To his surprise, it just snorted a little in its sleep, and ignored him as he carried it off.

Back at his campsite, he set the rooster down near his sleeping form.

Then he prodded it awake, hoping it would crow loudly in surprise.

“Arwwk?” it grumbled. “Why am I under the wrong tree?”

Sydney stepped back. The rooster was talking. “I’m sorry. I was hoping you would be startled enough to wake me from several layers of dream.”

“I suppose. What is in it for me?”

“Satisfaction? I don’t really have anything to offer you, other than this pocket I suddenly notice is full of corn.”

“One pocket of well dreamt corn sounds fair enough. You can leave the corn here. One never knows for sure which of you will wake up or what will happen next. I imagine I’ll enjoy my snack and return to my slumber, though.”

“Certainly.” Sydney emptied his pockets of corn, and even found a pocket full or worms. The dreamlands are an uncertain place, and not for the squeamish.

The rooster nodded in satisfaction, then stretched himself out, ruffled his magnificent plumage, and took a deep breath.

“squrrk”

It was just about the quietest noise Sydney had ever heard come out of a rooster that large. The rooster looked chagrined, shook himself, and tried again.

“COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO!”

This time the noise shook the trees, the ground, and the very sky.

Sydney felt a lurch as his point of view suddenly snapped to his sleeping form. Then it lurched again. And again.

In time, he settled down and found the orchard looking much like it had when he had settled down to rest after tea with Gwen. Looking around, the formal garden was a few hundred feet away, with its roses in neat rows and the little table groaning under a breakfast spread. There was no sign of the rooster other than a faint echo and one large tailfeather falling slowly to the ground.

Sydney pocketed the feather and wandered back into the garden to see what had become of Gwen.

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Deal 1035: Meta dream worlds

In his dream, Sydney watched himself dream.

The dream of the orchard where he lay was clear and intense. The trees were inviting, one in particular seemed to positively glow. On that tree, one apple was glowing. After considering it for five minutes, he picked it, took two bites, and fell into a deep sleep.

He dreamed a dream of dreaming.

He dreamed he was standing in a magical orchard, holding a glowing axe. The head seemed eager for him to walk amongst the trees, and pulled him towards a particularly old tree that glowed faintly like all the rest of the trees. Except for a single limb that was black at its tip, with some sort of creeping sickness working its way up the branch toward the trunk. He understood that chopping off the dying branch to save the healthy tree was necessary.

He swung the axe with all his strength, removing a small chip from the bark at the base of the branch. The blackness moved a little closer. He swung again, the black moved again. He settled into a rhythm, taking chips out of the branch on both sides and from below with each blow. Finally after he had weakened it enough, he began to cut into the top side of the branch. It began to feel like it was going to be a close thing. Could he sever the branch before the black reached where he was cutting?

A final blow brought the now nearly completely blackened branch down.

He knew it needed to be burned to prevent the infection from spreading to the other trees. He also knew he shouldn’t handle the blackened areas himself, and that cutting into the black area with the axe might spread contaminated chips and make containment even more difficult. He surveyed the area and spotted a fire pit nearby with a fire set and ready to light. He lit it with a thought and gesture, and let the blaze become established as he worked out how to drag the branch to the fire without touching the black areas.

Finally, he fed the blackened branch into the fire.

As it burned, the flames changed colors wildly. He could almost see the disease burning up, and fighting for its survival the whole time.

Watching the flames was somewhat hypnotic, and he drifted off into a trance.

He dreamed a dream of dreaming a dream.

He was dressed in typical business day casual, and sitting in a large office, at the desk. In the distance, an old fashioned crank wound gramophone was sitting, and playing The Liberty Bell in vibrant but scratchy tones.

The music was soothing, and soon he drifted off into a nap.

He dreamed a dream of dreaming of dreaming of dreaming….

Sydney is caught in a different and more insidious loop.

Will he escape?

Will he be sane?

Is he actually dreaming the whole thing from an old warehouse in LA?

He has no idea.

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Deal 1034: To sleep, perchance

Sydney fell asleep.

Perhaps that would be better said as Sydney fell, asleep.

He had just sat down under a tree to contemplate his circumstance when he dozed off. The next thing he knew, he was in a very lucid dream. The orchard was still around him, but the trees were more present than before. A frog ran past him muttering obscure theorems from set theory. A crow ran the other way muttering something about being afraid to fly. He took a step in the direction the frog had gone and stepped in a hole he hadn’t seen before and fell.

As he fell, he looked around. The sides of the hole were smooth. He couldn’t see the bottom, and looking up couldn’t see where he’d stepped in. He realized he was holding an axe. After wondering what strange message his subconscious was trying to send him, he took a wild swing at the passing wall. It popped, and he was back in the orchard, watching himself sleep.

He looked around. Everything was still in that hyperreal form that indicated he was dreaming.

The fruits of the trees were practically glowing. He picked an apple. It had a message written on its skin: “How boring. Try again.” He shrugged and went to look at the pears. He picked a particularly ripe yellow pear and ate it without triggering any strange additional loops.

He walked back to his campsite, stepping carefully around the large hole he’d missed earlier. He failed to see the large frog smirking from under a tree nearby, though. It didn’t seem concerned about him otherwise, though.

As he sat and watched himself sleep, he wondered why he hadn’t noticed the lack of music. Back in the real world, he had always been uninterested in music while everyone around him obsessed about it and its performance. Here, he hadn’t noticed any yet, nor had he noticed anyone obsessed about it. It struck him as important. But that still might have been the dream talking.

He also noticed that a certain dragon hadn’t appear yet. He decided that was probably just as well, for his continued health.

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Deal 1033: Much to learn.

“He was just going to lie to you, you know” explained Gwen after chasing the talking frog away.

“I know. He’s been popping up now and then. He told me he was lying. Which could have been a lie. But he’s just a frog, isn’t he?”

“Sydney, you have a lot to learn about this place.”

“I know.”

As we look away for a while, Gwen and Sydney chatted for about many things that Sydney would need to know. Gwen didn’t give him many direct answers, just told him things he should seek to learn more about. And suggested ways to do that. By this point, it was getting on towards sundown.

“You should camp in the orchard for the night” offered Gwen. “I need to change, and attend to a few things for a while. The orchard and this garden are under my protection, so you will be safe here tonight. We’ll talk more in the morning.” Gwen disappeared in a swirl of skirts, leaving Sydney somewhat overwhelmed.

He decided that his best course of action was to do as she suggested. She hadn’t quite come out and said that she was the dragon he met earlier, but he wasn’t stupid either. He was a guest in her domain, and she might very well be the most powerful entity he had met so far.

The orchard was just beyond the garden, with a clear space suitable for camping surrounded by fruit trees. It extended as far as he could see in this part of the valley. He made himself comfortable near a grand old apple tree and settled in to contemplate all he’d learned.

He really hoped that he’d wake up a little wiser.