September 17, 2016 by katmcdaniel
Synkroniciti presents the third Chapter of Beloved’s Journey, a serial novel. To read earlier chapters, please click here.
Chapter 3, Welcome to the Inside
“How do you know my name?”
Veracity laughs–a peculiar dry sound, like sticks rubbing together. “It’s written on the soles of your shoes.” He winks, and his eyes twinkle with amusement.
I drop heavily against the trunk of a graceful white cypress, staring at my feet as if they, too, are strangers. I dare not tell my new acquaintances that I do not remember my own name. I’m not even sure I have one.
Sable pierces me with her gaze, pinning me to the tall cypress like some rare moth or butterfly, and kneels down beside me. Her voice is soft, like velvet over iron. “I have always known the Beloved would come.” Dots slide nearer her narrowed eyes. “You’re smaller and softer than I expected, and almost as pale as he is.” She jerks her head toward Veracity while keeping her eyes locked on mine. “I suppose that you will do.”
Veracity studies my reaction warily before lowering himself onto the river bank and removing his worn and dirty sandals. He plunges his feet underwater with satisfaction, as if to celebrate his triumph over the stream and subjugate it for his own use. “We’ve been following you for days. You seem lost. Perhaps we can help?” His smile is full of neat white teeth.
In the absence of any other alternative it seems a decent gamble to trust them. “I don’t remember seeing anyone until today. I ran from the wind and the night until I reached the tower.” In retrospect, my own behavior strikes me as illogical. Had I tried to outrun time itself? “Or maybe the tower reached me. There I met a guardsman, a strange fellow with a high-pitched voice and four fingers on each hand.”
“Ah-ha! You’ve met Proteus, then! No one has seen him for years. How is the old fellow?”
“Not well. When I left him, he was dead.”
Veracity snorts. “Not likely, I’m afraid, although plenty of folks would like to get their hands on him. Did you kill him?”
“No. Someone had beaten him badly. It’s a wonder he survived. His skin had the look and feel of embroidery.”
At this, Sable stands abruptly and Veracity pulls his feet from the water. “You… you touched the salamander? Disgusting.” Sable wrinkles her nose in distaste and adds, “What was it like?”
“Sable!” Veracity hisses.
“Moist, waxy, cold. Extremely cold.” The pieces fall together neatly in my mind. “He was cold long before he died. A salamander? Not a man, then?”
The laughter of dry sticks returns. “Not by a long shot. You are new here, aren’t you?”
My companions look at each other, the pattern of dots on Sable’s face twitching.
“Well? I assume you know where you are?”
Sable sits down again with a sigh. “It’s complicated,” Veracity whispers, raising his hands as if to ward off a blow. He looks briefly at Sable, pleading. She turns away from him, her face still as stone. He grimaces and says simply, “Welcome to the Inside.”
“The inside of what?”
“No,” he shakes his head. “Just the Inside. We are all Insiders here. Except for you.”
I stare at him blankly. “So where do I belong?”
“Well, Outside of course!” Sable and Veracity explode into giggles, shaking with laughter at what they must regard as my extreme stupidity.
I grin sheepishly. “So how did I get here?”
“You are here because you are required,” snaps Sable.
Veracity scowls at her, then answers pedantically, “You have always been here, but on the Outside.” I can’t get my head around what he is trying to say.
“Can you get me back outside?”
“No.” Sable is agitated. “No Insider has ever been Outside. We can’t go there, but sometimes we can see Outside.”
“Like a window?”
“Yes, like a window.”
“Can’t you open the window?” I get no response save two disgusted stares. “Is there at least a map for this place?”
Glad to change the subject, Veracity regains his authority. “Places Inside are not fixed and shift location. We do have names for those places, but maps are useless. That tower you entered is known as Babel, and this river is Lethe.” At the name Babel, my mind drifts inexplicably to the ruins of another tower, lying toppled in the midst of a desert.
At the same moment, the cypresses along the river bed shimmer and we are lying upon sand, a red sun glaring at us from overhead. Sable grabs my shoulders and shakes me vigorously. “Watch it, you can kill us like that. Change it back!”
“But I didn’t…” A camel next to me lowers its head and begins to pick at the bindings around my feet with its lower teeth, its upper lip caressing my ankles. The sensation is less than pleasant and I dread being bitten.
“No! No, you don’t.” Sable slaps her hands together and the camel becomes a tiny desert rodent, running away across the sands, squawking loudly. She turns back to me, bristling with fury. “Why did you bring us here?”
Veracity’s eyes are wide and he grasps his own head with both hands, as if he is afraid it will fly off. “Stop it, stop it now, you bloody women! It’s bad enough without witchery! Sable, can’t you see she doesn’t know who she is.” He looks up at me hopefully. “It was an accident, wasn’t it, Beloved?”
I nod hesitantly. “I was thinking of an illustration from a children’s storybook. Did I move us?”
He looks me dead in the eye for the first time. “I don’t know. Remember Lethe. Can you visualize the riverbank?”
I try to recall the grove of white cypress trees and the stream, but the image is hazy. I think for a precious second that the desert is starting to shimmer and change, but it is only the heat on the sand. Sable kicks me in the side ruthlessly. “Try harder.” The image flies from my mind completely, shredding into strips that I cannot sew back together.
“I think you are fighting us, who come to you for help. But the the desert is my home.” Rising with dignity, she walks away from us.
Veracity follows her, jumping like a grasshopper on the hot sand, shoeless. “Sable, come back. If we die out here, everything ends.”
She turns to face us. “You won’t die.” Before our eyes she changes shape, growing long, low and feline. And then she is gone.