Post Fri Jan 06, 2006 4:03 am

Pinch Me If You're Real

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War of the Oakes was a phenomenal book, mostly because it broke new ground for a whole new genre of fantasy which people started calling Urban Fantasy. The whole idea of the Ring Realms was just beginning to gel with me. I started writing a series of stories where the main characters of the Ring Realms crossed over into present day Earth. The oldest and perhaps most entertaining versions of these stories were punched out on an old electric typewriter. Those versions were done simply for comic effect. For whatever reason I started over with a more serious bent. This is the result...

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There's no such thing as bad luck, only an absence of good fortune!<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—U.L. Murphy</div>
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Prologue


September 6th, Sixteen Hundred and Twelfth Year of our Lord.
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Dearest Minuette,

I have held the universe in my hand only to lose it again. I must recover what I have lost, so this letter is to explain my continued absence. It will be difficult to understand, but remember that I will always love you no matter how much distance is put between us.

On my way home to your loving arms, disaster struck. A thug accosted me in Alexandria and took my case. In that satchel lies a find of unparalleled importance. I must recover it no matter what the cost.

I get ahead of myself. I know you have always had your doubts about my chasing about the world searching for the secret of alchemy. Your tolerance of my passion has been angelic and after a decade of failed research I have finally found proof that the ability does exist-- that and more!

The legends of the philosopher's stone have been the root of my searches and I traced evidence of it to the notes of the mad Egyptian, Seratapis. This priest, who lived five centuries ago, claimed to possess a device that turned iron and bronze into gold. Supposedly, this same item could also create doorways into the realms of the dead.

A hidden map watermarked into one of papyrus pages of his notes led me to a laboratory that Seratapis kept in secret.

There, hidden under inches of dust and a cleverly concealed panel in the floor, I found a blood-colored crystal and what remained of the priest's research. The gemstone disk is a hand-width across and as thick as my thumb. Its surfaces are all incredibly smooth. The top and bottom are cupped as if it once fit between two spherical objects.

My experiments following Seratapis' notes revealed nothing until the I touched the crystal without gloves. Through trial and error I learned that candlelight shined through the curved depressions can be willed into solid objects. I've ascertained that it requires concentrated illumination to make the shaping permanent. Still, it appears that anything can be created from this solidified light. With such power, why did the device stay locked away and hidden? What became of Seratapis? If only I could have studied it more!

The object's origin is a mystery. Seratapis believed it came from somewhere on the western continent across the sea. He concluded that despite its incredible power, it is a fragment of a larger construction, the actual function of which I cannot imagine.

Please understand, my love. You now know the importance of my quest. I must recover what I have worked all these years to find. I will write again as soon as I am able.

—Corbin Jacques Sareux

Letter found among the things<BR>
of the estate of Lady Minuette D'Savette of Paris
.
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What Mortals these fools be...<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—Anonymous Pagan Diety</div>
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Chapter One

<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt; color: white; font-style: italic;">Discovery


The last things Gil Bluepath saw as his bike left the dune two hundred feet above the desert floor were a glint of red and his life flashing before his eyes.

He would have conceived something less cliche' than a flashing life if only there'd been time.

With his borrowed Honda Enduro swan-diving over the edge of a Southern California dustbowl the size of a baseball stadium, Gil didn't have the luxury of being original.

He could only cuss and wish for the ability to fly.

Stomach knotted and heart pounding, Gil's thoughts flickered over a thousand details as the desert floor rushed toward him; like how people wish for stupid things right before dying, the fact that he forgot to feed the cat and that uncle Harold would be really pissed when he found his brand new Honda twisted into a pretzel.

He watched in horror as the little pointy rocks he saw jutting from the bottom of the bowl grew into jagged boulders.

An instant before contact two revelations hit him. First, that even with death approaching, his over-active imagination never let up and that his writing instructor had been correct about horror. What someone imagines is far worse than anything a writer can describe.

Case and point.

Impact.


Pain. It surprised him he could feel anything. His last impressions had been of tumbling, a rending sound, a sudden stop, and blackness. Gil lay face up. The steep sides of the bowl limited his view to a circular patch of sky streaked with mare's tails. He felt hot sand inside his shirt and across his mouth. His shoulder and leg throbbed and he smelled fuel.

Cold. Why did he feel cold? This was the desert. His mouth tasted dry and a peculiar ringing nagged in his ears.

As he looked around he heard the helmet grate against rock. Shouldn't crashing at that speed hurt more?

He tried to sit up then stopped as agony shot through his back. I have to learn not to ask myself stupid questions.

The bike must have hit partway down and pitched him over the handlebars. No other way he could have survived.

He came to the desert to dune ride and enjoy himself. Strange way to have fun-- nose-diving into a pit. One second he was climbing a hill, the next he was falling.

Typical Bluepath luck, nothing was ever simple; always something. Fighting the computer nerd stereotype probably caused it. Gil didn't do zits, pen protectors, nylon slacks, or glasses. He went for sweats, the brightest pullover available, and some high-top Nikes. Short hair and a mustache made him look more like a movie critic than a programmer.

The trouble started when he broke routine to be sociable. Normally, he limited his outdoor endeavors to a paintball field or a game of frisbee golf. The closest to real danger he ever came was in the role of an imaginary character in one the weekly Dungeons and Dragons games.

His vision blurred as perspiration fogged his goggles. Reaching for them with his right hand brought only a shuddering from that part of his body. Thoughts of being crippled flitted through his mind like specters. He pushed the images away. His left arm moved as if it were made of wood. The fingertips felt numb.

As he pulled the goggles back, Gil became aware of a tingling sensation. It was distinct and separate from the searing desert sun that felt like a hot blanket pressing down on him. It was as if ants were crawling all over the right side of his body.

Looking down, he found himself covered, not with insects but thousands of splinters of blood-colored light. A piece of red crystal gleamed in a depression near his foot. A rock sat close by with clods of dirt still stuck to it. The rock had obviously been dislodged by his boot.

The tingle became a burning as if the light bounced off the red material were focused through a magnifying glass.

He tried to rise again. He made it a little further before pain forced him back. Gil pulled himself out of the path of that irritating reflection. The smell of gas grew stronger. Scanning the area, he found the Honda twenty feet up the face of the powdery wall. Fuel trickled through the overflow vents. The bike looked remarkably intact.

Have to get to it before it loses all the fuel. In his condition he'd be stranded. This pit reminded him of what an antlion's sand trap would look like to an ant stuck at the bottom.

The burning tingle returned, now stronger. The reflections from the glass still hit him. What the hell?

He managed to shift again. The crimson light followed him. How the hell is it doing that! If not for the pain he would have been fascinated. He kicked sand over it.

The light didn't diminish.

The sensation became that of being stabbed with needles. Ignoring the agony, Gil pushed himself to a sitting position. Pain meant danger, and whatever the crystal was doing, it couldn't be good. Maybe throwing it far enough away would stop the bombardment.

The torment increased as he moved closer. Light danced through his vision. He reached for the crystal, a circular disk a few inches across. As his fingers closed around it, the sensations crescendoed like the crack of a whip.

White light flared.


Pain. This time Gil lay face down in the sand. He still gripped the odd red crystal. The blood colored material didn't shine any longer. The surface now looked dull and lusterless.

Strange.

He rolled and sat up. Twinges shot through his back but far diminished from the stabs he'd felt earlier.

Gil flexed the fingers of his right hand. Both the leg and arm felt numb as though they'd fallen asleep. With effort he rose to his feet.

Did I dream not being able to move? He swallowed looked up at a gouge running down the side of the dust bowl with his motorcycle and him at the bottom. Several large rocks jutted from the sand where he'd obviously hit. The rocks were discolored with what was obviously dried blood-- his. He shivered and didn't go closer to investigate.

The writer part of him tried to look at the situation objectively, to find a rational explanation. The animal part of him wanted to run away. His hands clenched and loosened. I'm alive. I'm moving. I should be dead. How?

He looked down at the heavy lens shaped object and remembered the light that came from it. The object seemed dormant now. After a moment, he put it in his pocket and went to check the motorcycle.

After coaxing the bike down off the incline and standing it up he found no significant damage.

He vaguely recalled looking up the incline and seeing considerably more damage to the Honda. Now everything looked perfect. The forks weren't even tweaked out of alignment. What in the hell is going on? Did I just dream all that?

Gil looked uphill.

I don't really want to know what happened, do I? Only thing important is that I'm riding away.

Gil collected his goggles, put them on, hit the starter and after several tries the flooded motor growled to life. He revved the big four-banger and listened to the roar; back in the saddle.

Getting out would still be tricky. No way to go straight up a loose wall of sand. To get out he would have to circle the bottom and as he increased his speed, make larger and larger circles until he could shoot out the top.

With the bike rumbling between his legs he felt as if he'd been given a second chance. He couldn't shake the feeling that something very wrong had happened. Perhaps all the hours of writing and gaming had made him overly suspicious of the unusual. Maybe he was simply over dramatizing.

An itchy sensation on the back of his neck made him look around. A scan in all directions found nothing visible. For a moment, it had felt as if someone were watching him.

He gripped the handlebars. I am outta here.

Sand flew as he started circling. It might take a few tries but he would get back to camp. This time his wheels would stay firmly planted on the sand where they belonged...


As he rode back to camp, the numbness in his arm and leg faded. It made the questions in the back of his head more persistent. He refused to speculate until he was sitting in a chair with a cold Coke in his hand.

The motorhome and trailer looked deserted as he rode up. The sand buggy, the ATCs, and the other dirt-bike were all missing.

Sliding off the Honda, he headed to the door of the motorhome and stopped as a wave of dizziness washed over him. His knees felt as though they'd turned into spaghetti. He staggered the last few steps to the coach door.

Hands on hips, wearing a pair of neon pink short-shorts and a stretch top, Dani met him at the opening. His uncle Harold's third wife had a centerfold figure, dark hair and a freckled Jody Foster face. The sight of her almost made him forget his condition. If he died and went to heaven he hoped the angels looked half as good.

"Gil, jeez, where've you been? Everyone's is out searching!" She seemed actually concerned. He never thought Dani gave a damn about much except how she looked in a mirror.

Gil sensed that itchy sensation on the back of his neck again. With the world dancing around and the throb in his skull growing worse, he had no energy to look for the source.

He pulled off the helmet and dropped it by the step. Forming a reply took effort. "I munched the bike and blacked out for a while. Let me lie down--" Gil pushed past and climbed the steps into the stuffy interior of the motorhome. He tripped on the last step and managed to catch himself.

"Oh my God, what happened to your back!?" She took his shoulder to steady him. "Your shirt’s soaked with blood." His heart jolted, hearing how dismayed she sounded. "Get it off and lie down."

With her help, he removed it. The material was stiff and felt gritty. The cloth was stained rusty brown.

Gil's stomach knotted.

He lay down and buried his face in a cushion. He felt her fingernails brush his spine. Gil's skin prickled.

"I don't understand..." Her voice trailed off.

"What?"

"There's so much caked blood here, you must have been split open... But there's no wound-- only a scar."

"A scar?" He wanted to twist to look but his eyelids felt so heavy and the pounding in his temples had grown worse.

"Gil, a rip like this should have killed you, or at least broken your back..."

"Killed..?" Typical Bluepath misfortune all right, nothing was ever simple...




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Lend me your ears—and while you're at it—how about some fingers and toes?<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">——I.M. Hansen</div>
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Chapter Two

<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt; color: white; font-style: italic;">Eye of the Beholder


Gil spiraled toward the rocks. He threw his hands out and braced for impact. A burst of reddish light and pain. A sickening crunch.

Blackness.

Gil spun downward toward jagged stone. Hands out, he steeled himself for the collision. Crimson light flashed. An explosion of sensation and a cracking sound.

Blackness.

Sharp rocks loomed large... Gil screamed.


Gil struggled upward as if through fathoms of hot brackish water. His eyes burned and his limbs trembled. So weak. Where am I?

Tendrils of mist crept across the stone terrace overlooking a jungle covered valley. A sliver of the sun gleamed between the hills, casting long shadows from monuments graven with the images of feathered serpents, sun spirals, and stylized human faces. Networks of vines hung from the ancient columns and statuary now discolored by algae and guano.

How did I get here? He looked down and realized he wore only a tattered leather kilt. Gil's skin prickled as he heard the breeze moaning through the vegetation that embraced the crumbling stonework.

The mists swirled, warm and damp against his skin. The smells of rich earth, flowers, and age blended into an odor that made him dizzy.

A chant became audible in the distance. Slurred consonants and trilling vowels formed a chorus that grew louder. The singing pulled at him. His bare feet made wet slapping sounds as he crossed the damp cobbles.

More voices joined the first. The wind increased. The moaning of the gusts became a counterpoint to the harmony. Drawing closer, he heard a metallic jingling among the other resonances. Tension filled the air. His chest tightened. He tried to stop, but his legs moved of their own accord.

He descended worn steps into a sunken plaza. A half dozen swarthy men and women in red tunics and kilts danced around a black marble dais at the center. Threaded through their hair were strings of jewels, colorful strips of cloth and glinting lengths of gold and silver cord. Tiny metallic spheres jingled on their throats, ankles, and wrists.

A pillar topped with a carved spiral stood at the head of the dais. The dwindling sunlight shone through a red lens placed in spiral's center. As the dancers swayed, crimson shadows fluttered around their bodies.

Gil's heart pounded. The crystal!

A seventh man dressed in white and wearing a cloak of shimmering feathers lay on top of the stone platform. Bright necklaces, bracelets, and rings looked stark against his death-gray skin. Gil guessed he was once a priest of some kind.

The voices of the dancers rose and the rhythms of their lithe bodies increased in tempo. Each man and woman undulated side-to-side, swaying sinuously as though boneless.

What are they doing? Part of Gil knew the answer. The thought made twinges shoot through his back.

Lightning flicked across the valley and the wind grew to a wail. Thunder rattled the stones. Drops of rain pattered on the rock. Gil felt the cool water streaming down his bare skin.

The mists parted and the dying rays of the sun struck the blood-colored lens. A red haze enveloped the dais.

The voices of the dancers became cries and wails. They writhed in pain, their hands outstretched over the body of the man on the platform.

Gil's hands ached from being clenched. His chest tightened as the haze over the platform darkened. Threads of brown spread across the priest's ashen skin. His chest rose then fell.

The light from the crystal winked out and the six dancers collapsed with groans. A rush of panic surged through Gil. This couldn't be real. It must be a dream, a fantasy concocted by his overactive imagination.

The man sat up. His craggy face looked like a replica of the granite visages that stared out of the monuments. His flat black eyes met Gil's.

It felt as if his blood froze in his veins. Gil tried to turn away, but he seemed locked in position. The rain pounded down, soaking the priest's hair and running in rivulets down his stony face. He never blinked.

He reached toward Gil as though to grasp something.

Gil's heart stuttered and began to slow. He struggled as pain shot through his chest. It felt as if a giant hand gripped his ribs. He fought the force holding him in place. His heart seemed to stop.

The dark-eyed man pulled a bronze bladed axe from a sheath on his side. He spoke a word.

The word was in an alien language but Gil understood it's meaning.

Come.

Again his legs disobeyed and carried him forward. Exerting every bit of his will didn't slow him. His stomach knotted as his gaze fixed on the sharp edges of the axe.

Step by agonizing step Gil staggered forward, compelled by that emotionless gaze. He stopped an arm's length from the feathered priest.

The man's thick lips moved again, speaking in that incomprehensible language. The meaning echoed in Gil's head. Life comes not from a vacuum. What is gained, must be taken from elsewhere.

A cold hand gripped Gil's ankle. A bolt of fear shot through him as he looked down and saw an Indian girl her youthful face once brown, now a pasty gray. Her dark eyes pleaded with him.

Gil tried again to break free of the priest's spell. He pulled away from her frightened gaze only to be caught again by the priest's stare. His body trembled. He yelled but nothing came out. The priest raised his axe.

Trapped, my god he's going to--

For one to come into the light, one must be sent into the dark.

The bronze came whistling down.

* * *

"No!" Gil jerked to a sitting position. Blood rushed in his ears and stabs of pain throbbed in his chest. He gasped for air, every breath hurting as though he'd run a long way.

Dreaming, oh god, it was only a dream.

It took him a moment to orient and realize there'd been an answering yell. He rubbed his face. Peering between the spaces between his fingers he saw Dani leaning back against the counter. She looked frozen, dark eyes wide and angular face pale. It reminded him of the terror he'd seen in the eyes of the Indian girl in his dream.

Blood covered her hands.

"Dani?"

"Jesus." She took a few ragged breaths. "Gil, I thought you died!"

She looked at the crimson on her hands. "Oh god, this is too weird. One second I'm stuffing towels in a hole in your back trying to shake you awake, then you're screaming." Her gaze went to a crimson soaked cloth on the carpet. "What the fuck is going on, Gil? You're not even bleeding!"

His heart continued to pound. He reached behind and felt his spine. He detected ridges that must be a large scar and the slickness of blood.

Gil held his breath then let it out slow. He touched the bulge in his pocket that indicated the lens was still there. "Look, I don't know what's going on either. I found this--" He stopped himself.

Dani leaned forward. "Found what?"

I've blown it now. "You have to promise not say anything."

Her brow furrowed. "Why?"

Bad enough you'll think I'm insane. I don't want everyone else to think so too. The dream had been too vivid to be only chance images. Analyzing it would take time. One message was clear. Life comes not from a vacuum. His throat felt dry. He licked his lips, not sure he believed himself. "How many people do you know come back from the dead."

"What?"

"Listen, I found something. I don't know what it is. It affected me somehow. I had this off-the-wall dream and--" He paused. Outside, he heard the sounds of vehicles approaching.

His uncle and the others were back from searching for him. Damn. There wasn't time to explain to Dani the danger the crystal might pose.

If the images in his dream were even partially true, no-one who knew anything about the lens would be safe. He felt his chest again, thinking of the feathered priest and the axe. If any organization heard that an item that could raise the dead existed, spooks would crawl out of the woodwork. Getting killed with an axe would be kind by comparison. Scientists and researchers would pull him apart cell by cell. He shuddered. Nobody associated with the crystal would be safe.

"No time to explain, promise not to tell uncle Harold or the others. It's vital. I fell off the motorcycle and blacked out. That's it. Okay?"

Dani glanced at her bloody hands. Her gaze went to the window. Uncle Harold's rail buggy was sliding to a stop followed by a couple ATC's and a motorcycle. Her hesitation made him edgy.

What if she won't go along? Jeez, if uncle Harold gets this story everyone on the West Coast will hear about it! He clenched his fists praying he didn't have to look for an alternative.

Dani let out a breath. She held a bloody fist under Gil's nose. Her dark eyes flashed. "You better have a good explanation. I don't like any of this." She put her hands in the sink and turned on the water. "Get in the shower fast. I'll hide the towels."

"Thanks."

Dani growled. "Don't thank me yet. I don't like being scared." She frowned. "There'd better be a payback in the planning." She flicked water in his face. "Split, they're almost here."

He stumbled into the rear of the motorhome, shut the accordion door and locked it. Dani agreed to keep his secret too easily. It made him nervous. Did she see something she didn't mention?

The cramped area that formed the rear of the motorhome housed a bed, a toilet alcove and a cramped shower stall that doubled as closet.

He emptied the closet of some jackets, stripped off his pants and turned on the water. The tingle of cold liquid flowing down his back was a welcome sensation after all the pain.

Gil couldn't get the image of that priest out of his head. The way his ebony eyes had bored into him. He wanted my heart.

The images in his mind had been so vivid. The dream city had looked Aztec. Strange, his only glimpses of Central America had been from articles in National Geographic.

He heard Dani meet someone at the coach door. He assumed she took whoever it was outside, because the door closed again muting their conversation. He didn't like being unable to hear what she said. It sounded like his uncle's voice.

Gil shut off the water and ran a wash cloth over his back. He felt hollow inside as if sucked dry of vital energy. He looked at his hands; tan, small for a man, the calluses only moderately hard. They didn't look like the hands of a dead person.

He'd always tried new things and looked for experiences to write about. He hoped someday he'd find the right inspiration that would produce a best seller that could pull him out of the quagmire of the computer business. He tended to play things safe, so nothing particularly noteworthy had ever happened to him.

Having some weird near-death pseudo out-of-body experience was exactly the kind of thing an author could write about. Ironic, now that he was experiencing it, not only did he not feel like writing about it, he simply wanted the nightmare to end.

Except it wouldn't end. Not until he knew what had happened in that dust bowl and what the lens did to him. Where did the dream come from and what did it mean?

Drying off, he pulled on some shorts. He heard his cousin Lydia asking about him outside, and snippets of conversation between Frank and Bert. They all seemed concerned. That made him feel better.

The nagging question was whether to involve anyone in this madness. He couldn't even be certain he was sane. He could be having some concussion induced delusion.

He took the lens out of his pants' pocket and examined it. Inside the material he saw darker areas that looked like the trace patterns seen on a printed circuit board. Could this be some ultra-sophisticated technology?

The idea contradicted his dream images of Aztec priests and ancient resurrection rituals. Which was it, magic or technology? Above that, what was it doing in the middle of the desert under a rock?

There were dozens more questions. He lacked the time to give each one thought. They were expecting him to put in an appearance outside.

For now, best to keep the lens to himself. I should find a place to hide it.

He checked the shower stall and toilet area for a loose panel or a hidden niche where he could conceal it. A section of the toiletry wall gave when he pushed on it.

Curious, he examined the area and found that it moved on a pivot. Inside the opening his hand encountered something metallic. He pulled out the heavy object. Gil let out a breath as he looked at the .357 revolver in his hand. His uncle could still surprise him.

There were probably several more stashed in the motorhome. Gun laws were invented for men like uncle Harold. His idea of gun control was being able to hit your target.

Since Gil had known him, uncle Harold's life had consisted of tall tales. One continuing whopper was Harold's insistence that he was a secret agent. Supposedly, this explained all the guns he owned.

Gil and his friends all privately called him double-oh-fourteen because Harold described himself as twice as good as 007. His uncle's story-telling made him doubly cautious about letting anyone know about the lens. Uncle Harold couldn't keep something confidential if he tried.

He replaced the gun and closed the cubby. Harold might check on his weapons, so hiding the crystal there wouldn't work. After searching a while longer, he found a niche in the overhead cabinets safely out of view. To see it, somebody would be have to know where to look.

As he prepared to go outside, an icy sensation shot through him. He stopped and looked around the tight confines. Twice before, he'd felt this itchy sense of being watched. Gil knelt on the bed and pushed back the curtains to look out. He saw only the line of motorhomes and campsites arranged on hard ground around the dunes of In-ko-pah.

I must be losing it.

The coach door opened and he heard his cousin Lydia's voice. "Gil, you all right?"

He took a moment to answer. "Yeah, I'm putting on some clean clothes."

"Take your time. There's someone outside to see you."

"Huh?"

"A doctor from one of the other campsites."

He unlocked the folding door. Lydia stood on the other side dressed in shorts and a Mickey Mouse tee-shirt. She looked like a rail-thin Merrill Streep with peroxide-blonde hair and blue eyes. Gil always wanted to grab Lydia to make her hold still. Even when she wasn't moving she seemed to vibrate.

She frowned. "Gil, you don't look so good."

He sighed. "I've felt better. What's this about a doctor?"

"Come on." She took him by the hand.

He let her pull him outside where his uncle, Dani, and the others were chatting with a long-haired man in red corduroy shirt and jeans. Gil’s eyes hurt in the bright sun and his head immediately began to ache.

The newcomer was facing away so Gil couldn't make out anything except that he had an athletic build and long black hair that looked oriental.

"There he is now," Harold said pointing toward him. "Joe, this is Gil."

The man turned and Gil's stomach knotted.

"Gil," his uncle continued. "This is Joe Brightfeather."

Joe smiled. The expression looked alien on a seamed face that looked etched from stone.

Gil clenched his hands to keep them from shaking.

Joe was the priest from his dream.




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Red means stop, green is go, yellow means go very fast...<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">———M. Starman</div>
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Chapter Three

<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt; color: white; font-style: italic;">A Crimson Haze


The Indian's gaze paralyzed Gil as it had in the dream. He couldn't move or speak, only sense everything with a surreal intensity. His head ached and his eyes burned. He felt the hot sun and sting of the sand blown against his face by gusts of wind. Heat trails made the long line of vehicles parked by the dunes appear to waver. His friends looked frozen in place like mannikins.

Unreal.

Gil focused on the Indian's face. The man's seamed features, dark eyes and thick lips were identical with the dream. Only the smile and the hand extended in greeting clashed with the image. This is the man who wanted to hack out my heart!

Stomach tight, he only stared at Joe's hand expecting it to go for his throat. No-one said anything, they barely moved. Perhaps they felt the tension. Uncle Harold who was rarely silent for more than fifteen seconds had miraculously run out of subjects. Rangy Frank and skinny Bert simply stared. Dani and Lydia appeared likewise riveted. If not for the high pitched whine of motors in the nearby dunes, Gil and Joe Brightfeather could have been standing alone.

"Gil? I'm Joe. Heard you had an accident." The man spoke in a deep voice, his words clipped in a New York twang.

Joe's accent broke the spell. It sounded nothing like the malign tones of the priest from his dream. Gil blinked. He forced himself to shake with the Indian who grinned with bright even teeth. Joe's hand wrapped around Gil's like tough raw-hide.

Joe looked down then his gaze went back to Gil's face. His jaw stiffened and the smile vanished. "Gil, come sit in the shade." He clapped a leathery hand on Gil's shoulder and led him beneath the canopy of the motorhome.

Harold spoke up behind them. "You think it's serious?" Gil knew his uncle couldn't have stayed silent for much longer. Blonde mustache twitching, Harold lowered his mirrored sun-glasses and peered at them.

Joe glanced back. "It's a bit early to tell."

What is this? You'd think I looked like a zombie or something. The pounding in his forehead worsened and he shielded his eyes from the bright light. Gil wished he could see himself. There must be something different about him. Bert and Frank shuffled their feet in the sand and wouldn't meet his eyes.

He let himself be pushed down into one of the lawn chairs lined up along the side of the big Winnebago. Joe pulled another one up next to him.

Though everything appeared all right on the surface there remained something odd about Joe. Something beyond his appearance.

Dani and Lydia moved closer, standing on the fringes of the shade. Bert, Frank and Harold followed suit. They all remained curiously quiet like visitors at a funeral home.

What the hell is going on? His chest grew tight. He wanted to yell at them. What did Dani say?

Joe turned business-like. He peered into Gil's eyes looking at him from different angles. "You were wearing a helmet, right?"

"Yeah," he answered. "It's right there on the-- step." Gil swallowed. His helmet looked like an egg that had been smacked against the edge of a skillet.

Oh shit. No wonder everyone thinks I've got one foot in the grave. He stared at the crushed ceramic. Hard not to imagine his brains leaking out through a rift that size. Yet, here he was, breathing and talking, being examined by an Indian doctor with a New York accent, who happened to look like the Aztec priest in his dream. Pushing the envelope of believability? Definitely.

"You been dizzy-- faint?" Joe asked, face serious.

"My head hurts."

Lydia giggled, the sound startled everyone. She stopped herself.

"I think its the sunlight in my eyes that hurts more than anything," Gil added.

"Have you felt ill. Want to throw up?"

"No."

"Any floaters-- spots in your vision?"

"Uh uh."

He took Gil's face in his hands and turned his head through the range of motion. He then pushed tenatively on the back of his skull. "Any of that hurt?"

"No."

"You're miraculously lucky. The way that helmet is damaged I expected much worse. The dilated eyes are typical of a concussion. From the lack of other symptoms, a mild one." He looked at others. "Get him to a hospital where they can run some tests and make sure there's no hemorrhaging. Not everyone exhibits the symptoms the same way." He turned his attention back to Gil. "Stay off your feet and don't exert yourself." He narrowed his eyes and spoke in stilted monotone. "Otherwise paleface suffer heap bad medicine. You get me Kemosabee?"

Gil smiled.

Joe clapped him on the shoulder. "No visit complete without the wooden Indian shtick." He sighed. "Eight years at Dartmouth and I'm still talking pidgeon. Go figure."

He stood. "If there's a problem, my trailer's the third one from the end."

Something indecipherable about Joe still bugged Gil. One way to sound him out and learn whether its all a coincidence or not. He cleared his throat. The priest's words were still fresh in his head so it was easy to repeat them. "Life comes not from a vacuum. What is gained, must be taken from elsewhere."

"What?" Joe glanced back at Gil. His eyes narrowed. "Where did you hear that?"

Gil saw the bemused expressions of his uncle and the others. No doubt they felt certain he was off kilter now.

"You tell me."

The doctor folded his arms and scowled. Now he looked more like the priest. "It's a translation of Anasazi ritual words. Some of the greater kivas in the Pueblos in southern New Mexico have it inscribed on the walls. What made you say it? Did you see it out in the desert?" He scanned the dunes.

"Not exactly. I'm not really sure why I said it." That's half-way true. He stomach tightened. It really wasn't just a dream. There is more to it. He put a hand on his forehead. "Don't mind me, I've been saying weird stuff since the accident. Thanks for checking me out."

Joe's lips tightened. He nodded stiffly. Gil saw the man's desire to probe further. He probably didn't want to do it in front of the others. His interest seemed academic in nature. Naturally, Indian lore would interest an Indian. Gil found the mention of the words being enscribed around pueblos intriguing. He'd read articles theorizing that some splinter groups of the Aztecs and Mayans had made their way north into New Mexico and Arizona. That didn't explain how Joe happened to be the spitting image of the priest in the dream.

He didn't know what to make of Joe's reaction. Either he was a marvelous actor or he knew nothing about the situation.

Joe shook hands with Harold and said goodbye to the others before heading down the row of RVs. Gil watched the Indian go, the sand kicked up by heels carried off by the gusts.

"Hey Gil, what was that about the vacuum?" Frank asked. He rubbed at the perpetual five o'clock shadow on his neck.

"Nothing, something I heard, that's all."

"We can talk about it later," Harold pushed the sun-glasses back up on his nose. He wore them so much of the time Gil had come to think of them as a permanent fixture on his face. "You go lay down. If we pack up now we can probably be back in town before nine."

Frank eyed Gil through his thick glasses for a moment, then shrugged. Apparently, he sensed that the answer had been a brush off. It obviously didn't seem important enough to make an issue out of. He strode off to help Harold who was putting the ramps down on the trailer so they could load the buggy and the ATCs.

Gil studied Frank as he walked away. The guy never hurried, quick on the opinion, and slow on the retraction. Every time he saw Frank from a distance he reminded him of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. Frank had long since found his brain though. He practically lived at the University. If anybody would know a professor or a researcher who might be able to tell him about the red crystal it would be Frank. Sharing the information would be so chancy though. The more people who knew about the lens, the more dangerous the situation would get.

"You want help getting inside?" Bert asked.

His voice startled Gil. "No, thanks, I think I'll be okay." Gil rubbed his head. The dizziness from being out in the sun was finally starting to subside.

Lydia patted Gil on the shoulder and smiled at him. She went with Dani inside the motorhome.

Bert's gaze followed his wife but he remained where he was. Running a hand through his sandy hair he smiled his typical cherubic smile. Gil couldn't think of any other way to describe it. At thirty, Bert had a face that belonged on a sixteen-year-old. It took him a year to grow a mustache beyond the peach-fuzz level. Dressed in jeans and a button down he looked like a strong wind would carry him off.

Gil learned long ago not to be fooled by that empty smile. It meant something was on Bert's mind. The man was a puzzle, he talked about everything except what bothered him. Maybe the legal training had warped his brain. Twenty years of friendship and it was still like pulling teeth sometimes to get straight answers out of him.

Gil sighed. "Whazzup, Bert?"

"Curious."

"Curious?" Cryptic as usual. "What's curious?"

"The motorcycle."

Gil turned in the chair to view where Bert was looking. The Honda enduro he'd been riding when he plunged into the dustbowl glinted in the sun-light. "What about it?"

Bert spoke in an off-hand tone. "You've got a concussion. Your helmet should be put in a grave. The bike doesn't have a scratch on it. It might be my imagination," he rubbed his chin. "It looks newer than when it left here this morning."

His stomach tightened. Keeping the crystal secret was going to be a major task. "What's your point?"

"Just an observation, that's all."

Gil fixed Bert with a stare. "You plan on sharing it with anyone?"

Bert's face clouded. "Is it vital that I don't?"

"I think so."

Bert's gaze went from Gil to the motorcycle, the helmet and back. "You going to explain later?"

Gil levered himself to a stand. He wavered a little. His head still ached. "If I can."

His friend narrowed his eyes. "Does it have to do with what you said to Joe?"

He let out a breath. So tired. He wanted to lie down and sleep for a week. "Bert, let it go. I'll tell you-- later."

Bert nodded. "If you change your mind. You know I'll help."

"Yeah, I do." Gil thumped him on the shoulder. "I'm going inside and take the doctor's advice. I'm still really wasted."

"Get some rest." Bert headed to help the Harold and Frank load the equipment on the trailer.

Gil watched the activity around the trailer for a few moments then scanned the dunes. How different they looked to him now from when he arrived 36 hours ago. What he originally saw as a place of recreation had become a land of fear and mystery. He found it hard to envision what the next few days would be like.

He turned and climbed into the motorhome. Lydia and Dani were stowing things and making sure the goods secured for the long drive home.

"Go on and lie down in back," Dani said. "We'll probably be underway in half-hour."

He nodded.

Lydia put a hand on his shoulder. "You going to be okay?"

He put his hand on his cousin's. "Yeah, I'm just a little dizzy."

Lydia walked with him to the rear and helped take off his tennis-shoes. "Try and get some sleep."

"Thanks."

"No problem. Yell if you need anything." She shut the divider.

Gil lay on the mattress. He could hear his heart beating. Taking a deep breath he held it, then let it out long and slow. He wasn't sure he wanted to sleep if his dreams would be like the last one. He studied the cabinets overhead, the crystal's hiding place.

What to do? Dani, Bert, Frank they all knew he was concealing something. Eventually, the confrontation would come. The only thing to do was prepare for the inevitable.

He took another breath, and pulled the spread up over his legs. Maybe he saw this all wrong. Perhaps, the incident with the lens was a freak occurance and there weren't any lasting effects. The dream could simply be some sort of psychic impression picked up from the crystal by his sleeping mind. His family seemed to be sensitive, occasionally glimpsing future and past happenings in dreams. He remembered sitting around one evening discussing things they'd dreamed about that later came true. Nearly all of his relatives described at least one such experience. Scary.

If he tried hard enough, he could rationalize everything away. He'd hide the crystal in a box and forget about it.

The old head in the sand trick.

The easy way to deal with a frightening reality.

Sleep. Sleep would put it in perspective.

He let himself drift off.

The motorhome jarred and groaned. Gil opened his eyes. It seemed as if no time had passed. The buggy trailer creaked in metallic misery as it rattled through ruts. He felt hot and pushed the blanket off. Harold's voice and others discussing the departure, watching clearance and making sure everything stayed secure. He heard his name mentioned a few times.

Gil felt that icy sensation creep up his back again. He closed his eyes and tried to make it go away. The sensation persisted. He rolled over and looked out the back window.

Arms folded, Joe Brightfeather stood in the dust watching them leave. The breeze riffling his hair was the only movement around him. Like a statue, he only stared. Somehow his gaze seemed to find Gil's.

His gut tightened. His heart slowed.

The sensation lessened as the Indian dwindled in the distance.

The lingering pain in his chest told Gil that it wouldn't be long before Brightfeather came hunting for him.

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Paradox Concepts, the breakfast of impossibilities.
Ring Realms Ring Leader & Webmaster
Will Greenway
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