A hunter’s super moon. Strange to see one here. Mamma Universe was sure that it had been full sunshine only a moment ago. Was it a moment ago? Had there been the blaze and heat of a star in the sky, or had it always been the cold, reflected light of that moon? And where was ‘here’, exactly? She was sure if she answered the ‘here’ question, she’d get to the bottom of this whole moon/sun thing quickly. She commanded her senses to stop mucking about, and pay attention. They refused.
“Not good,” Mamma Universe said. She was unsure why she had said it out loud. Perhaps she wanted the reassurance of hearing her own voice? If that was what she had wanted, she had failed miserably. Her voice had emerged scratchy and hollow. “Not good,” she said again with more force. Better.
Her senses began to coalesce, and Mamma Universe felt confident that they might be amenable to taking instructions now. She issued the appropriate orders, and began to build up a picture of her surroundings: rocky, cold, gray, somewhere high up. A mountain, she realized. Below her, she could just make out a tree line. Odd. She had expected to see … what? An orchard? A garden? Some weird gazebo? Yes that was it, a combination of those things. Certainly, she did not expect to find herself on a mountain. Or did she?
There was something else she had expected. Something less tangible. A thing heard, but not seen, or not seen in any sort of traditional way – something imagined. A story. Her story. But wait, Mamma Universe thought, that’s not quite right. The story had been finished. Why would she expect to be hearing it? No, she was thinking about the story because there was a clue there, some hidden truth that would help her to piece together her reasons for being on a mountain. Then, she remembered.
She had been in a clearing, and Azeal Braithwaite had just finished reading the story he had written for the occasion. Azeal thought it his finest work; he looked pleased. Mamma Universe couldn’t be sure if it was Azeal’s finest work, yet the story had been very compelling. It had twisted and turned in all the right places. There had been tension, conflict, and elegant character arcs. Best of all, Mamma Universe had been the central character – a complex and finely drawn protagonist: flawed, capable, and beautiful. That alone made the story worth the listen.
Mamma Universe had been about to applaud Azeal – it had been a very good story – but was prevented by what happened next. Specifically, she was prevented by a sudden tide of bees.
They swarmed from the edges of the clearing, and poured themselves into the gazebo where Azeal was standing. Once inside, they then commenced to swarming themselves all over the unfortunate writer, at which point they became a crush. Azeal screamed, but this did not deter the bees from smothering him. They flowed in, and on top of each other, until all the space inside the gazebo writhed an insectoid mass. The mass collapsed inward to become a singularity. Then, it had exploded; a sudden rush of pressure and heat.
In the aftermath there was no Azeal. Nor any sign of bees. Instead, in the place where Azeal had been, there was an unfriendly looking vortex. It crackled and sparked with what Mamma Universe supposed might be electricity. Then again, it could just as easily have been something else; perhaps even the long extinguished fires of burned and desolate cities. It was hard to tell.
“That’ll be your portal,” The Gardener had said, as she rose from the folding chair next to Mamma Universe. “Best get you through it before it burns itself out.”
“Portal, gateway, conveyance back to the living universe. You do remember why we’re doing all of this, right?”
“Yes. But now that I think about it again, I’m starting to feel like this might not be such a good idea.”
“Trust me,” said The Gardener, “this is absolutely a good idea. All you have to do is walk through the portal, and it’ll take you back to Earth. Well, most of the way back, you’ll have to do a little tramping.”
“But, what happened to Azeal? Is he okay?”
“That depends very much on what you mean by okay.”
“I mean, is he alright, or otherwise unharmed?”
“Oh, I see,” said The Gardener. “In that case I’d have to say, no. Primarily, because he’s ceased to exist. It was a necessary, if tragic, sacrifice. We couldn’t to get the job done without it. Anyway, it was a very fine story, and all art requires some sort of sacrifice. Occasionally, that sacrifice just turns out to be fatal.”
“But he was so nice. I had grown quite fond of him.”
“Me too,” said The Gardener. “Still, it couldn’t be helped, and can’t be fixed now.” She patted Mamma Universe’s shoulder in a gesture weighted to comfort. “Let’s get you through that portal. We wouldn’t want Azeal’s necessary – yet probably quite painful – demise to go to waste, would we?”
“I suppose not.”
The two women moved towards the gazebo in silence. There really wasn’t a lot to be said. They ascended the steps, and stopped in front of the portal’s angry looking mouth. Mamma Universe hesitated.
“Problem?” The Gardener didn’t really care if there was, but thought it prudent to ask.
“You said that the portal would only take me most of the way back.”
“And that I’ll have to do some tramping.”
“Good listening skills. What about it?”
“Where will it take me?”
“Right, I probably should have said something about that. You’ll find yourself on a mountain.”
“Absolutely. Only, it won’t really be a mountain.”
“No, it’ll only look like one.”
“What will it be, then?”
“Good question.” The Gardener searched for the right label. “I believe some people refer to it as an Axis Mundi.”
“Do they? And what is that when it’s having a cup of tea?”
“It’s a connection. A sort of link between the physical world, and other, less physical ones. All worlds have them, even the ones where there is not, nor ever has been, life. The one you’ll find yourself on…”
“The one that will look like a mountain, but isn’t?”
“Quite. Anyway, that one is the Axis Mundi for Earth, which is where you need to go. You know, because of the task you have to perform. When you get there, you’ll need to look for a path, or trail, that leads down the mountain’s side, and just follow that. It’ll get you back to the part of Earth that is in the living universe.”
“Yes. It’ll be easy to spot, this path?”
“I’m going to go with, yes.”
Mamma Universe turned back towards the portal. She got the impression that it was grinding fiery teeth in her general direction. “Right,” she said, “here goes.” She didn’t move.
“What is it now?”
“What about it?”
“You never told me what it was.”
“I know,” said The Gardener. “That’s because I can’t.”
“You mean, you don’t know what it is?”
“I know, I’m just not allowed to tell you. It’s against the rules.”
“Absolutely. But you don’t need to worry about that, it’s not important. Anyway, when the time comes, you’ll know what you have to do. It’ll be instinctive. In fact, you were already on the right track before you managed to get yourself killed.”
“Alright. And I’ll be alive again? Once I get to this mountain that only seems like one?”
“Yes. You’ll be reassembled in transit.” The Gardener’s face grew a sympathetic expression, and she placed a compassionate hand on Mamma Universe’s shoulder once more. “I regret to say, that it will be a very unpleasant process.”
“It’ll be wh–.”
But Mamma Universe never got to finish that question. Chiefly because, having grown impatient of questions, The Gardener had slid her hand across Mamma Universe’s shoulder until it reached the center of her back, and given her a forceful push. This action had caused Mamma Universe to tumble, head first, into the portal’s eye.
The sensation of being reassembled had indeed be very unpleasant. That is, if unpleasant meant: ‘having one’s entire body pierced by red hot needles’. Mercifully, it was only a brief unpleasantness, and Mamma Universe had emerged – confused, but alive – under a cold moon, on the ‘not-really-a-mountain’ that she now found herself.
“Well,” Mamma Universe said to the moon, “I guess that solves the puzzle of you.” It also solved the puzzle of why she was in a slightly grumpy mood. “That Gardener really is a wily old bitch.”
Feeling more in command of her faculties, she began her search for the path – or trail – that would lead her back to the living Earth. The search was a quick one, aided by both the bright moonlight, and a sign posted at the path’s entry. The sign read: Follow Me. It also had a handy arrow affixed to it to indicate the right direction. She began her descent.
The Path was rather unremarkable. This disappointed Mamma Universe slightly; she had expected it to be more impressive. Perhaps, she allowed, something carved, or paved in brightly colored bricks. Instead, it was more like a goat trail – a thing worn into the living rock, rather than chiseled out of it. It wound itself downwards in lazy bends towards the tree line that she had just been able to make out from higher up. As she got closer to the trees, she realized that the path did not disappear into them, but did an abrupt turn to follow the forest’s edge, until it disappeared over the crest of a ridge. She felt relieved, forests had always really creeped her out; it was good that she wouldn’t have to descend into one.
When she got to the last bend, the one that would keep her safe from all that evil looking foliage, she stopped. Not because she didn’t know where to go, but because she had heard something. Something big. Perhaps, Mamma Universe’s mind hypothesized, something dangerous and predatory. Now, she thought, might be a good time to start running. But she couldn’t. She was weirdly transfixed; not just from fear, but – and this was the weird part – from curiosity. She wondered what kind of creatures lived on the side of a not-really-a-mountain. Which was really stupid, since the sound spoke of something dangerous, and also suggested that this was not a good time to grow a foolish curiosity.
From within the trees the sound rumbled with the the crack of branches, and the skittering of dislodged rocks. As it came closer, another sound could be heard just underneath it. A sibilant sound, accompanied by whispered chitters. An evil sound. Still Mamma Universe could not bring herself to move.
It was close now, whatever it was. Mamma Universe knew this, because she could see its shadow. Nope, she thought, this is a terrible idea. She turned to run. She almost got away, too. Almost.
END OF PART TWENTY