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Dangerous Ways

 

The Books of Winter: Book One

 

R.R. Virdi

 
Copyright R.R. Virdi 2016

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

***

Chapter Two

 

Times Square was dense, thickly populated, and sported a symphony of colors. Old, with an air made up of chemicals and smog. The kind that clings to skin. We had clearly left that behind. One color dominated the scenery around us: green. Unmarred, lush, vibrant green. The air was as thick as the city’s, but richer, more alive—fresher.

Trees and plant life grew to heights unattainable in the mortal world. Lengths of shrubbery, standing well over seven feet, raced ahead to form intricate paths. This was a place untouched by man. It was enough for me to know where we were. Enough for me to regret getting involved.

There was a groan at my feet. I looked down at the source and sucked in a breath.

The hood must have fallen back during our tumble through the Way. Her hair was a shade of red that could have only come from a bottle. It hung past her ears in a layered bob cut. She reached up with a slender hand to remove the bandana obscuring most of her face.

I froze.

Her eyes were the color of fire opals, prismatic reds and oranges flecked with hints of green. They glimmered under the bronzed light falling upon us. The light within them intensified when she rose to her feet, brushing herself off.

“What’s wrong with you, dude? Are you crazy?”

“I’m starting to think so.” I kept my voice neutral as I offered her a hand.

She ignored it, removing her baggy sweatshirt to reveal a rumpled gray shirt. On it was a figure clad in black, armored like a strange samurai. Underneath it in bold white lettering: We Have Cookies. The shirt had seen better days. Its seam around the collar was frayed, and much of it was covered in dust.

She let the hoodie fall to the grass, wrapping her arms around herself as she rubbed them. Even at my age, I could appreciate her figure. It was the sort that could give younger men ideas and issues concentrating. She was a hair shy of five-foot-seven, lean and well proportioned. Her mouth moved to say something, but she cut herself short when she noticed our surroundings. Her eyes widened as she looked from side-to-side, ignoring my presence.

I gave her a moment to come to grips with our situation.

She spoke in hushed tones. “Where are we?”

“You…don’t know?” I fixed her with an oblique stare. One didn’t open a Way and not know where they were going. Something was wrong or she was lying. “You brought us here.”

“Listen, jerkoff, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my life is out of control at the moment. I have no idea what’s going on, where we are, or why it’s happening.” Her voice cracked near the end.

I watched her eyes take on a hollow look. She stood in place, quivering. Bits of grime, sweat and tear stains dulled her fair complexion. Her white and black sneakers were heavily scuffed. Her close-fitting jeans were tattered near the bottom. The knees were torn and stained in a manner indicating they weren’t done for fashion. She had been on the run for quite a while now.

“The only thing I know is…that you shouldn’t have gotten wrapped up in this.”

I silently agreed, but what was done was done. I’d gotten involved. No matter what I did, I was going to face the consequences. I decided it best to follow through. “We’re in the Neravene,” I said.

A blank expression went over her face. “That’s part of the Shire, right?” She gave me a weak smile.

Weariness took hold and I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger, taking a moment to massage my forehead as well.

“Just…stay away from me, man. You wouldn’t believe what’s happening, or the things chasing me.”

“Chasing?” I realized the stupidity of the question after I said it.

She glared at me. “Yes…” Her tone that suggested she believed me to be mentally deficient. “Like what happened in New York. Big guys that turned out not to be guys. Things trying to corner me in an alley.”

“Right.”

“They were monsters—”

“Trolls,” I said.

“Right, trolls, of course. What else would they be?” she spat. “Monsters are chasing me. I don’t know why, or why you stepped into this. I don’t know what to do or where we are!”

“Me either. Because I’m an idiot. We can figure this out. And the Neravene.”

She blinked before she looked to the side and muttered something I managed to hear: “Smartass.”

I ignored the comment, deciding it best to explain what I could, learn what I could and, if possible, find a way out. “The Neravene is the world beside ours.”

She turned to regard me, listening intently.

“It’s the world of many worlds—theoretically, infinite worlds. It’s the home of monsters and magic. Myths and legends. Creatures from stories you heard as a child, and some—if you’re fortunate—that you haven’t. Faeries, gods, dark and forgotten things, all of them have a place here. Some have managed to carve out entire dominions, kingdoms, and have considerable influence. This is a place with rules beyond any on the normal side. Time moves of its own accord here. Manners and knowledge can be more useful than any mortal weapon.”

“My life’s become Once Upon a Time…in a world of magical bullshit,” she mumbled.

“Most people would have a hard time believing any of this.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve been chased by monsters and fallen through openings in the air that have me popping out all over the world—worlds apparently. One time I ended up in France.”

I shrugged. “Not a bad place to be.”

“If you speak French.”

She had a good point.

“So what now?”

“You open another Way and take us some place safe,” I suggested. A gentle breeze stirred the wall of leaves and brambles ahead of us.

“I don’t know how…” The girl looked at the ground as she kicked a tall patch of grass. She hugged herself tighter than before, shutting her eyes and rubbing her palms against them. “It happens by itself sometimes, normally when I’m scared, or stressed, angry.”

“So what happened back there? I saw you open the Way by what looked like your own will.”

“I was freaked out is what happened. I pictured a garden, and wanted to be far away—” She broke off. “I like gardens.” There was something in her voice that made me not press the issue.

“Fair enough. Then we keep things simple. We, at the very least, move from here and keep moving until we find a way out by other sources, or you manage to open another Way.”

She took several steps back, and her body tensed. “Uh, hold up there. You think I’m going to go with you? Look, we just met. Yeah, you tried to save me, and no offense, but you did a shitty job. I don’t even know your name.”

A spasm shot up from my back to the base of my neck. Sharing one’s name in the supernatural world was a dangerous thing. Names are important. But I did it anyways. “John. Jonathan Hawthorne.” I extended a hand.

She wiggled her fingers, debating whether she would take my hand. I remained still, trying not to startle her. Her hand balled into a fist, one she flexed several times, before she forced a smile and mirrored my gesture.

“Cassidy Winters.” The first part of her name came out clipped, forced.

I shook her hand, giving her a reassuring smile. “Is Cassidy your real name?”

She bristled under the question, releasing her grip on my hand. Cassidy turned her head and eyed me askance.

“If you want my help, I’d appreciate some honesty.”

“Who says I need it? I’ve held out fine over the month.”

A month. This young girl had been on the run, with no one else, no support or guidance—from monsters—for a month. Shutting my eyes, I breathed slow and heavy, trying to see if I could shut this away.

Three days. That was what I had, at best, to solve this problem. Three days hence, I would be on trial. Missing that date would lead to two things: hunting me down, and separating my head from my shoulders. There was the option to leave her. One I refused to consider. Three days…Christ.

“Think about it.” I tried to keep my voice level. “You’ve been running for a long time, Cassidy.” She flinched when I said her name. “I know about this world. I’ve been a part of it for a long time. A very long time.”

“How long?” She continued looking at me out of the corners of her eyes.

“I lost track after a hundred years. If I had to guess, I would say I’m around one hundred and eighty.”

Silence.

A hint of her tongue slipped between her lips before she bit down on it and stopped any reply. Cassidy folded her lips, wetting them as she dealt with what I said. “You don’t look over thirty.”

“Technically speaking, I’m not.”

“Say what?”

“This is going to be hard for you to believe, Cassidy—”

“Funny, I could’ve sworn I used that line on you.”

I suppressed a smile. She had attitude. Good. That would help her—us—with whatever lay ahead. “I’m one of the Timeless.”

“Oh, word? Cool. Last time I checked that was a nineties album.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I’m not well versed in popular culture. “The Timeless are men and women who stand outside of time. They’re removed from the passage of it. We stand by and watch, record, observe, and are forbidden to get involved in the affairs of the world—mortal or otherwise.” I waved an arm to everything around us.

“Uh…huh. How’s the ‘not getting involved’ part working out for ya?”

“It would be better if you trusted me a bit more.”

“Give me more reasons.”

“I risked my neck to help you.”

“I noticed. Great job.” She clapped her hands in an exaggerated, slow manner.

“This isn’t my first time getting involved. For someone like me, there are consequences if we do it too many times.”

“How many times?”

“Three.”

“How many times is this?”

“The third.” Another gust of wind rolled by.

She put on an animated and ominous voice, making dramatic gestures with her hands. “What happens if you dick around in the world of mortals too many times?”

I dragged my index finger across my neckline.

“Oh. Thanks.”

I nodded.

“So, you’re in the penalty box, and I’m guessing this is going to make things worse. Death row?”

I nodded again.

Her voice came out rough. “Cassie. My friends—when I had them—called me Cassie.”

I took note of how she said it. It came naturally to her, authentic. The name she really went by. That honest exchange meant a great deal, even if she didn’t know it.

“Okay, Cassie, there’s a lot going on in both our lives. I know a lot about both worlds, and I promise I’ll get you out of here and see if I can get you some help.”

“How?”

“There are members of the Timeless far older than I. Someone might know something to help you.”

“Wait, aren’t these the assholes that are going to Benihana you?”

I stared at her.

She extended her fingers and arm, stiffening them like a weapon. With a turn, she chopped the air. “You know, shink, glurk, good-bye rough, rugged, and handsome mug?”

“I’m too old for you.”

She blinked. “Was that a joke? First off, I’m twenty-one. I’m old enough to do whatever. Drink, drive, and make bad decisions on my own. But props for the wit, Antiques Roadshow.”

This was going to be a long trip.

I stumbled to the side, swinging my arms to fight for balance as the ground trembled. Cassie fell to her rump, wincing when she landed.

“The hell was that?”

A deep, resonating groan emanated from below, and around us at the same time.

“Uh…” Cassie got back to her feet, looking in every direction. She took a few steps towards me. The ground shuddered again. A deep and irritated bellow echoed. The groans continued, each one accentuated by another tremor. “I’ve seen enough Jurassic Park to know this is bad.”

I tuned her out, listening, watching. The ends of the shrub-like pathway stirred. The wind wasn’t blowing.

There are many places within the Neravene. Some of them are pathways, old ones—important ones. They often lead to places of power, or the domains of lords, or worse.

We were in one of them. The Long Gardens. A place far worse than the name suggested. It represented nature in its entirety. Pure nature, untouched by man. A place tied to the old world powers of the Earth. And it had a temper.

Bark creaked. Trees standing higher than any skyscrapers shivered, showering us with leaves. Branches twisted and furled like decrepit fingers stretching from a long rest. A strip of ground rose. The earth protested, and a root thicker than a python burst out.

Soil rained down, and I grabbed Cassie by the shoulder. I shoved her ahead of me. “Run!”

“Yeah.” She took one last look at the tree fighting to uproot itself.

“Move!” I shoved her forwards, pointing to the passageway ahead.

Walls of flora surrounded us, and thunder echoed behind. The tree scuttled across the ground, its many roots moving like the limbs of an octopus. It wasn’t fast, but it didn’t need to be. Leaves peppered us as an invisible force stripped them from their branches. A series of lengthy, slender shadows danced across the ground, closing in on us.

“Duck!” We sank, struggling to move as the tree’s clawed limbs raked the air above us. A sizeable chunk of plant life was gouged out of the wall to our left, only to grow back in seconds. I gave Cassie a quick look. “Are you okay?”

She huffed out an irritated breath. “If I wanted to run, I would’ve taken track in high school!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Netflix!”

“Can it help you now?” I pushed ahead, unable to see her reaction. Given her attitude, I imagined a fiery glare.

The greenery bristled, and my gut sank. Our surroundings burst into life with hostile intent. Thin, reed-like strands arced between the walls to form a thorny web.

“Watch out!” I tucked my head, pulling myself into the safety of my thick coat. Making my profile as large as possible without exposing any vulnerabilities, I tore through the sharpened blockage.

Cassie leaped through. A rogue vine lashed her cheek. She winced but didn’t falter. “Which way?”

“What?”

She pointed ahead. “Look!”

I turned to find the path forked into four paths. Truth be told, I wasn’t fond of any of them. The enraged tree bellowed again, as if frustrated it hadn’t killed us yet. All light within the shrub maze dimmed as a shadow spread over it. The tree fell.

“Left!” I barked.

“There’s two lefts. Which one?”

I let out a low growl then swallowed it. “Far left.”

She nodded.

We hit the corner hard, but not fast enough. I turned and a sharp lance of pain sliced up my thigh. I gritted through it. My fingers closed around Cassie’s shirt and I pulled. She collided with me, and I wrapped my arms around her as we tumbled.

A hellish symphony of cracking wood, breaking brambles, and quaking earth sounded off. The tree crashed. Dust, dirt, pollen, and white petals flew into the air, forming a cloud around us.

I blinked, staring at the gnarled branch that had landed a mere foot from us. Had the tree taken another step, it would’ve accomplished its goal. A gentle weight pushed against me. “Are you all right?”

Cassie coughed, clearing her throat. “You’re a clingy guy, you know that?” She planted a palm against my chest and pushed herself off.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve held a woman in my arms.” I gave her a light smile.

She snorted. “Yeah? You’ll have to keep waiting, buddy.”

Whatever magic compelled the plants to come to life had ended. The shrubbery lost its color, fading to brown as it rotted. Soon, we were no longer walled in, but stood in a field of plain grass. Trees surrounded the outermost edges. We watched the scene unfold in silence.

“So…that just happened.”

“Yes.” I nodded.

“That was bullshit.”

“How so?

“I oughta kick Tolkien’s teeth in. Helpful trees, my ass!”

A gentle fire filled my gut, and I had to wrap my arms around my torso as I rolled over. My laughter filled the field. The muscles in my stomach ached as I laughed harder.

“First reference you got. Ten points to grandpa.”

When I was under control and my laughter died, I said, “I told you, I’m technically thirty.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Tolkien would have appreciated the joke.”

Cassie did a double-take. “You knew Tolkien?”

“We talked, had tea. Nice guy, good listener.”

She arched an eyebrow, silently prompting me to continue.

“I may have told him quite a bit about the supernatural, creatures of myth, and magic.”

She blinked several times, putting it together. “Dude, I hope you’ve got a fat bank account packed with royalties.”

“Yes, to the first. No, to the second. Hundred-plus years of income and interest is a wonderful thing.”

“Don’t suppose you could buy our way out of here?”

I shook my head. My palms were raw, and I had to shut my eyes to help me bear the pain as I pushed off the ground. I offered Cassie my hand. She took it without hesitation. A good sign. She trusted me.

After hauling her to her feet, I reached out to brush the leaves and debris from the back of her shirt. “Come on, we should keep moving.”

“To where?”

“All paths lead somewhere. We just need to stay on this one long enough.”

“Yeah, or like the fortune cookie you just quoted, we get eaten by something.”

“You’re pessimistic.”
“For as long as I can be, but how long will that last?”

I fought to restrain another bout of laughter. “Touché.”

With the walls gone, it felt harder to navigate my way out. The paths offered us some forced direction. Without them, we had nothing. As far as I could see, what lay ahead of us was endless green: plains and small, rolling hills. None of which gave any indication of how to leave the Neravene, except for my original idea—walking.

Adrenaline had run its course, leaving weariness behind. My posture sank, and I stuffed my hands into my pockets, bearing down on them to support myself.

“Hey.”

I didn’t stop moving. Time wasn’t something we could afford.

“John.”

I stopped. She had said my name perfectly, reminiscent of a tone mirroring one person’s alone: my mother’s. I suppressed a shudder. A mother’s tone can always send a tingle down a man’s spine.

“Yes?”

“Look, I know things just got crazy, being chased by Giving Tree back there…but, can we stop?”

I looked at her, giving her a silent response.

“Please? I don’t get much time for rest or breaks with what’s been going on. Especially with people, someone to talk to, someone who—you know—knows things about monsters and magic and all of this.”

“Sure, we can stop. One thing, however: stay vigilant. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Cassie arched an eyebrow, regarding me with a mixture of surprise and appraisal. “I don’t know if you’re being literal or a smartass.”

“Yes.”

Her body shook. She managed to hold out for several seconds before she lost control and burst into a fit of laughter. After a minute, she pulled herself together, coming to rest cross-legged on the ground. Her hands settled on her ankles as she leaned forward, getting comfortable.

I chose to remain standing.

“So,” she said.

“So?”

As she exhaled, Cassie moved her arms back and used them to brace herself as she straightened and leaned back. “What else can you tell me about this place? I’d like to know more about not-so-Wonderland, since I’ve bounced in and out of here before, now that I think about it.”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I raised an eyebrow.

“Hey, I didn’t stay long. Like I said, I don’t have great control over this. It just happens. Sometimes I’ve popped into places that look like they’re out of books or movies, then poof”—she clapped her hands—“I’m back in the normal world…just millions of miles away. The first time it happened, I was in my backyard. I don’t know where I ended up, only that when I got back, I had been missing for eight hours.”

“Time moves at a different rate in the Neravene. Worse, there’s no accurate way to gauge the variances in its passage. Minutes can become hours…hours, days or longer. There are stories of people crossing over and losing years, Cassie.”

She shuddered.

“Do you mind if I ask a question now?”

Cassie stared. Her breathing quieted. “Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“Why are you alone? Where are your parents?” I would have gotten more of a response had I dropped a bucket of ice on her.

She looked at me, unmoving, unblinking, then her stare passed through me. “Mom’s back home, in Baltimore.” She cut herself off, turning to look off in the distance. “It’s not exactly easy to go, ‘Hey, Mom, guess what? I’m falling through weird portals into different places, and even worlds; my life’s crazy.’ I couldn’t bring her into this.” Cassie gripped herself tight, looking at her knees.

I dropped my voice to a soft and reassuring tone. “No, no you couldn’t. But I’m sure after this is all said and done, she would love to see you again.”

There wasn’t a single tear on her face, but she sniffled. “Yeah,” she said, her voice dry. “Then there’s my dad.” She broke off again; I didn’t press it. “He walked out on me and my mom a long time ago. I think I was five.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Her voice was still rough, and the apology passed over her.

“Are…are they both mortal?”

She looked at me like I was speaking gibberish. “No, they’re frickin’ Faeries. Duh, they’re normal. Kind of why I’m losing my shit with all of this.”

“Right, sorry.”

Cassie’s mouth moved, but she didn’t respond.

“Do you mind if I ask one more thing?”

She nodded.

“How do you do it? If you’re mortal, in truth, you shouldn’t be able to open a Way like that. You shouldn’t be able to open one at all.”

Cassie shrugged.

“Is there anything you can tell me? You said it happens when you’re scared. Do you see anything? Feel something? Smell?”

A light breath left her lungs. She blinked several times and swallowed. “Honestly, it’s a lot. It’s kind of like an overload of everything.”

I pursed my lips. That didn’t sound right. From everything I knew about the Ways, opening one consisted of focus, control. There was intent behind opening one, knowing exactly where you wanted to go. It was never random, and there were limits to where one could go, regardless of power. Navigating the Ways was no different than driving on roads. You had to know the streets and where they lead. Without that, you couldn’t access the roads necessary to reach your destination.

Cassidy Winters didn’t seem to have that issue. Passing through and into places she had never laid eyes on, into worlds she knew nothing about.

She was powerful. And dangerous. More than she realized. Both reasons warranted her being hunted.

“What can you tell me? Choose an incident, any of them.”

Her nose twitched, and she ran her tongue over her lips. “Um, when I ended up in France. I panicked. I was being followed by something. It was night. Whoever—whatever—they were, they weren’t big and dumb like the trolls. They were shorter than me, wearing—I swear to God—a cloak. I started running and they followed. Don’t ask me how, but they went urban ninja and were bouncing on the rooftops, watching me from up there. I just wanted to be away, anywhere.

“I’ve thought about France a lot. I wanted to go there once for a summer break. I kept running, and I just knew what to do. It was like hitting your head, a flash of colors, not just the reds you imagine. Red, flashes of lighting, white and blue, green and yellow. Between it all, I saw images of France I’d seen before. Posters, brochures, the occasional travel ad. I remembered a piece of a television show I saw once. I imagined what the beaches would smell like, the streets, and the food. I thought about how Paris would sound with all the people, traffic, and noise.”

“And then?”

“And then I just wanted to be gone. I wanted to tear away everything in front of me and be somewhere else. I wished I could pull the air in front of me away, replace it with another place…and I did.”

All of what she said sounded difficult and, to many a being, it was. Creatures with years of experience in navigating the Ways would struggle to do what she had. And she had done it with more ease than she knew. The Neravene had more rules than I could recount off-hand. Cassidy Winters had broken many of them. You cannot simply tear a Way to a place you’ve never been before. That’s not how it works.

You have to know. Knowing—knowledge—it’s power in this world. A person or creature has to have been to a place before, or have the knowledge of how to get there at least. They cannot simply open a Way and hope for the best. Yet Cassie was doing that on instinct.

One hundred and eighty years and, in all that time, I had never heard of something—someone—like this. The grass below my feet bowed to the side as a breeze flitted through. Nothing seemed out of sorts, but a solid lump formed in my stomach. I cleared my throat. “We should go.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Probably nothing. Just a feeling.”

“Yeah, I can roll with that. A month of playing Carmen Sandiego with monsters makes you trust those feelings.” I offered a hand, which she ignored. Cassie got to her feet without aid. She brushed her shirt with a few quick movements and patted her backside. Minute cracks rang out as she torqued her neck to the side. “Alrighty then, where to?”

“Anywhere but here.” I took several steps, using my long strides to carry me a few feet away from Cassie. A faint glow of pale tangerine hung on the horizon. It seemed like as good a place as any to walk towards.

“Yeah, good point, but it would be nice if anywhere had an address.”

“Addresses are irrelevant. Wherever you go, there you are.”

“I think I heard that once in the school of No Shit, Sherlock.”

“Buckaroo Banzai,” I informed her.

“Well, sure, I guess there’s bound to be some pretty wise strippers out there.”

I breathed through my nose, fighting not to sigh.

The wind increased. Leaves danced, carried within a stream of air rushing by us. Debris from the earlier tree crash mingled with the gust of wind swirling past. Twigs, leaves and earth spun in a small storm. The wreckage whirled like a child’s mobile.

“Okay, that’s a ten on the weirdness meter.”

“And what did the giant tree score?” I asked.

“Shut up.”

The debris grew closer. Odd bits clung together, taking form. Grass rose to dwarf me, bending and widening like a curtain. Within seconds, the earthy material took shape: a bipedal figure. Its visage was masked behind a cloak of grass that spread over its face, as well as the rest of its body. The entirety of the mass was shrouded from sight, save for what I presumed were its eyes.

Pulsating orbs were visible from behind the grassy cowl. They shifted in size and hue. In truth, it looked like they changed material. One moment they were clods of dirt, the next, dancing blades of irradiant grass. I saw every imaginable color and style of gemstone pass by, the color and look of bark, and the orbs continued to morph.

A basso burble formed in its throat. The ground shook. It spoke and I felt pressure, like the world was tightening around me. My body grew weary, and my legs quaked, struggling to hold me upright. I glanced at Cassie. Her body was doubled over. She braced herself on her thighs.

“You are trespassing.” There was no malice or harshness in its voice, only weight.

I worked to clear the invisible blockage in my throat. Spreading my fingers, I raised my hands in the universal gesture of calm and placation.

“You are trespassing. Leave now and no harm will come to you.”

I took a chance and spoke. “Apologies, but we cannot. We stumbled into your domain by chance. We have no ill intent; we are trying to leave—”

“Immaterial. Leave now. This domain will not tolerate the touch of man. I…will not tolerate it,” the being rumbled.

I didn’t know much of the Long Gardens, but I had an inkling of whose domain they belonged to. I wasn’t sure, but it was enough to prompt me to take another risk.

“Cassie,” I whispered.

Her voice rose several octaves, coming out in a near squeak. “Uh…huh…”

“I need you to imagine something for me. Can you do that?”

“Uh…huh…”

The ground trembled. Finger-like cracks spread through the earth. It was like watching glass develop cracks only to have them worsen. Fissures formed around us.

“You are not welcome here. Leave now!”

“Cassie, picture a two-story building. It’s made of brick, something that’s endured for decades and it shows. A green sign with white, flowing lettering. I want you to smell cinnamon, sugar, and baking sweets. Imagine your favorite confectionaries as a child. Two large windows filled with cakes and stacks of brownies.”

“I don’t want to die hungry, John.”

“Just do it,” I hissed. “There’s a yellow fire hydrant just outside, and a payphone.”

“Okay, now what?”

“Be gone!” roared the entity. The ground erupted. Roots leapt from where its arms should have been, twisted and sharp.

“Cassie, I want you to be there, not here. I want you to pull the air away. I want you to be there!”

She trembled. Her face was a tight mask of concentration, but she did as I asked. Cassie swept at the air and it parted. The Way was different than before, a wide maw of the purest glowing white.

I sprinted towards her, praying I’d make it before we were impaled. The roots hissed by as I grabbed Cassie. “Rargh!” My leg faltered as heat enveloped my shin. I kept hold of Cassie and pushed through.

***
End of ARC chapter two

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