by Xenophon Hendrix
Around 6:00 am, I woke up to vaguely remembered bad dreams and went upstairs. No one else was stirring yet, so after using the bathroom, I got myself a bowl of cereal and took it back downstairs with me. I still didn't feel much like eating, so I again forced myself to do so under the influence of manna.
How long can this nausea go on? I asked after I had the cereal down.
You've been traumatized, Ursus said. It will take a while. Don't be surprised if it takes a year or two to feel normal again.
A year? Arthur repeated. Or two? I felt guilt starting to mix with despair.
Keep a grip, Arthur, Ursus said. That's how long it might take until one day we realize that we feel OK. But it steadily will get better, day-by-day, so slowly that we won't notice it.
Can you ever get used to hurting people? I asked.
Ursus's memories remained riddled with holes, but he thought back to some of the times he had participated in wars or otherwise had to cause harm. I've never been able to get used to it. Even after I've done everything that I can to depersonalize the enemy in my mind, I still remember that they are human beings, or other sapient creatures. Nevertheless, you can learn to experience a feeling of grim necessity rather than guilt.
It's my fault that we feel guilty, isn't it? Arthur asked.
We have three minds in one brain, Ursus thought. That is my fault. We have a difference in judgment about an important issue. Applying the word "fault" to such a circumstance isn't useful.
But my guilt is making us feel sick, Arthur said.
Yes, primarily, Ursus said, but for now, you honestly feel as though you've done something wrong.
You two aren't going to let me confess, so what can I do to make it stop? Arthur asked.
I assure you that your mind will change about the wrongness of our actions. In the meantime, it best not to dwell on such things, Ursus said.
Let's test our memory amulet, I said.
All the facets of my mind could agree on that. We had some reading and outlining homework for social studies to do over Christmas break, so that was as good an experimental item as any. I dug out the textbook and read a page with the amulet on, then one with it off, then on, and then off.
I then tried writing an outline of the four pages from memory. Once finished, I checked it over using the book. The outline for the two pages I had read with the amulet on was nigh perfect. The outline for the other two pages included the high points but missed some of the details. The difference in results could have been caused by my expectations, but I didn't believe it. As far as I was concerned, the amulet worked. I redid the outline and then did the rest of the reading and outlining due after break.
By that time, people were moving around upstairs. I removed the memory amulet so that I wouldn't remember a bunch of trivialities. I took my cereal bowl and went upstairs. Mom and Dad were up, but none of my siblings were. Dad was reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, and eating toast. Mom was drinking coffee. As I rinsed the bowl in the sink, Mom asked, "What are you doing out of bed?"
"I went to bed early, and I had bad dreams."
"You looked worried sick last night. Guilty conscience?"
"I suppose that's part of it."
"The little son of a bitch had it coming to him." Mom, of course, didn't know about Guzman, only Carol.
"I don't feel good about it."
"Some people only learn things the hard way," Mom said. "It's not your fault."
Dad could become entranced by the paper, but he must have been listening to us that morning, because he said, "Your mother's right, Art. You made an invaluable contribution to the young imbecile's education."
Mom sometimes had an almost silent laugh. "Better you now, Artie, than some cop's billy club five years from now."
"That's an optimistic way of putting it," I said. I went back downstairs and did fifteen minutes of picking exercises on my acoustic guitar.
We should practice scrying, Ursus said. There will be more things to see during the morning.
We cast and purified a circle and set up our scrying pan. It didn't take us that long to achieve trance. Arthur and I immediately directed our gaze toward the Prestor's house. You little voyeurs are trying to see the girls next door, Ursus accused.
There wasn't any point in denying it. Yes! I shouted internally.
Do you even remember puberty? Arthur thought.
Puberty isn't something one can forget, no matter how much one might want to, Ursus thought, but we must observe some limits.
Did you, when you were first learning how to scry? Arthur asked.
Ursus didn't respond directly to the question, but we could feel the answer.
A ha! Arthur said.
C'mon, I said. Let's just check out the showers. Who'll be hurt?
A struggle ensued with Arthur and me on one side and Ursus on the other. Alas, experience prevailed over youthful enthusiasm, and the internal fight broke our scrying trance. We sat at the old kitchen table mentally glowering at each other.
Spoilsport! said Arthur. Shriveled up old spoilsport!
I assure you that I've never been shriveled up, Ursus said. How would you like it if you found out that someone was, say, spying on you while you were jerking off?
I considered for a second. Is she hot?
Not a hot female. Some old homosexual pedophile lusting after your young body.
Ew. You win this round, I thought.
We settled back down and again achieved trance. We saw Dad heading out to his car. This will be a good exercise, Ursus said. See if we can stay with the car. Dad opened the garage door and pulled out. By concentrating on the car, we managed to follow him all the way to his business four miles away.
Dad was a mechanical engineer and partner in a consulting firm that did a lot of automotive work. I noticed that the desk for the receptionist was still empty as Dad passed by it on the way to his office. Your father puts in long hours, Ursus observed.
We heard Dad say good morning to one of his partners. I know he works hard, thought Arthur. I sometimes feel guilty about it.
Your father became a family man voluntarily, and it's hardly your decision how he chooses to spend his time, Ursus thought.
We spent a few minutes looking around Dad's office, and then we went back outside and picked a random car heading north to follow. How do you control the espionage in a culture where scrying is common? I asked Ursus.
Magicians make a lot of money protecting buildings, people, files, and the like. This node appears to be almost unprotected.
Wizards cause the problem, and other wizards fix it, I said.
That sums it up. We share that characteristic with lawyers.
We could make a ton of money spying, thought Arthur.
And if your government ever finds out what we can do, we will doubtless be apprehended as a simultaneous threat and asset to national security.
I'm never going to brag about our ability to government officials, I thought, but why don't more people on this node have it?
I don't know, Ursus replied. From what we've found in the library and recognize from Arthur's study of myths, we know that this node once had a tradition of magic. Now it appears, at least to our present knowledge, to be almost defunct. I'm speculating freely, but perhaps the supply of available manna went down at some time in the past and has only recently returned to relatively usable levels.
Can that happen? I asked.
I've never seen it myself, but I've heard half-substantiated rumors that it has occurred, always on nodes far away from the one I happen to be on at the time. I do know that manna isn't a conventional natural resource that disappears with use. I also have no idea where it comes from. That's why I translated its name to "manna" when I woke up in Arthur's head. It's something that just happens to be there, free for the taking.
And we are one of the few people around here who know how to take it, Arthur said.
Indeed, Ursus said. It's a big responsibility. As our strength grows, imagine the damage we could do if we aren't careful.
That was a sobering thought. We dropped the car we were following as it turned and instead rode along with a young woman drinking coffee and eating an egg sandwich from a fast-food place.
How is she steering? Arthur asked.
I don't think she is, I said.
Your automobile culture is insane, Ursus thought.
I'm beginning to agree with you, I said. She's pretty hot, though.
Crazy and stupid lowers my subjective rating of attractiveness, Ursus said.
Does it happen often? Arthur asked, retrieving the subject. Someone able to do magic going from one node to another node where people don't have much skill in it?
I don't know it I'd use the term "often," but it happens. The result can look similar to what happened on this node when a culture with a higher technology met one with a lower--conquest, exploitation, sometimes merely the accumulation of great wealth. We shared in some of Ursus's memories.
We stopped tracking the car as it passed the vacant lot we called "The Field" and turned our gaze back home. As our gaze passed the Prestor's house, Arthur and I made another attempt to see Mike and Terry's sisters naked, but Ursus firmly steered us home. We broke trance.
Excellent, thought Ursus, this body's skills are increasing at a fine rate. Now, the last time we tried scrying the nearby metaphorical dimensions, I was under the influence of adolescent hormones. (That, at least, is going to be the official story.) I want to start exploring them again, but this time in a more controlled and cautious way. Do you feel up to it?
Now he was talking. I knew that scrying the metaphorical dimensions was inherently more dangerous than the physical dimensions, but they were also far more interesting. Let's do it.
We replenished our supply of magical energy by playing our guitar and then eased our way back into trance. Remember, no fighting for control when we're scrying the Abstruse World, Ursus said. I don't care if we find Aphrodite herself bathing in a forest pool with nymphs. If I try to do something, I want you two young deviants to help me do it.
Understood, I said.
Might we find Aphrodite? Arthur asked.
Bog knows, Ursus thought. We'll use our closet door. Doorways, arches, and the like are all in-between places. Metaphorically, they are closer to the other realms.
I studied my closet door with my scrying pan rather than look over at it directly. We zoomed in until we saw it from the point of view of someone standing just before the door. Ursus willed us to see the closest metaphorical dimension that was on the other side. What the twist of mind actually felt like is impossible to describe in any language that I know.
After what seemed like a few minutes, the interior of the closet disappeared. We were looking at a nighttime scene that was hard to discern. Another minute of concentration allowed us to invoke dream light. Immediately outside my closet door was an arbor covered with climbing roses. Slowly, straining to hear and see, Ursus urged our perspective to move so that it was under the arch. We could smell the roses, and Ursus felt pleased over the vividness of our perception.
Through the archway, we could see across a short expanse of lawn to a gazebo made from living trees. Eight of them grew in a circle, and their interwoven branches formed the roof. Were benches growing right out of the trunks? I wanted a closer look, and my perspective shifted so that it seemed as if I was standing in the center of the garden pavilion.
Damn it! Ursus said. We need to be careful.
Oops. Sorry, I didn't mean to take control like that.
Slow. Care. Watch. Listen. Think.
We looked around the inside of the gazebo. The benches were growing out of the tree trunks. Cool. A rose arbor stood every ninety degrees around the gazebo. On the other side of the roses was a tall hedge that surrounded the circular expanse of lawn. Gaps in the hedge lined up with the arbors. What we were probably seeing dawned on me.
I bet we are in the center of a garden labyrinth, I said. I had read about them in a fantasy novel.
I believe you are right, Ursus said.
With what felt like agonizing slowness to Arthur and me, Ursus moved our subjective presence over to one of the gaps in the hedge. We looked down the gap and saw paths going to the left and right. It looks like it could be a maze, Ursus thought. I'm disinclined to explore it today. We moved away, closer to the center of the lawn and looked up. In the sky back home, I could recognize the Plough, also known as the Big Dipper, and use it to find the North Star, but with Ursus slowly rotating our gaze, I couldn't see anything in the night sky that looked familiar.
Could we use one of these rose arbors for scrying, just like we're using the closet door? Arthur asked.
Neither our strength nor our equipment are all that powerful yet, Ursus replied, but we might be able to do it. I suspect, though, that we would have better luck if we took an imaginary journey to this place rather than merely scried it.
Are we going to try that? I asked.
Someday, I hope to do so. The danger is greater, but so are the potential rewards, including interaction with whoever lives here. Someday, I even hope to enter the metaphorical dimensions with our physical body.
Travel between the nodes, for one, Ursus replied. Now, I'm not sure which arbor we used to send our vision through. Did either of you notice when Bear so suddenly shifted our point of view to the gazebo?
No, we both replied.
If we had been taking an imaginary journey rather than scrying, we would now be a little lost, Ursus said. As it is, as a last resort, we merely have to come out of our trance. That, however, is inelegant. Let's see if we can find our entry point.
We moved our perception point to one of the rose arbors and went underneath. We concentrated on bringing up a vision or our bedroom. Nothing happened. After what felt like a few minutes, we tried each of the other three arbors in turn. This is annoying, I thought.
All right, we'll break our trance, Ursus thought. We tried. Nothing happened.
OK, we will release our collected manna. We tried. Nothing happened.
I started to feel scared. We aren't in that much danger, Ursus said. Your family will sooner or later check on us, if nothing else breaks the trance. Or our manna will eventually run out, even if we can't let it go voluntarily. Still, this is an interesting problem. We spent some time thinking about it, and then I felt the thrill of realization.
Our perception is in the center of a maze, Ursus said. Metaphorically, a maze is a fine place to trap things. Methinks someone has used the garden labyrinth to anchor an anti-scrying spell.
Hmmm, what should we do? we all thought simultaneously.
The wise thing to do would be to wait it out, Ursus said, assuming that this pretty little trap is the extent of our problems. We "reached out" with our sense for magic. We weren't there, however, in either a physical or metaphorical manner, just our perceptions were, as directed by the scrying ritual. Our sense for magic was weakened by our lack of presence, and we didn't feel much of anything with it.
Maybe we could get into a good argument with each other and break our concentration indirectly, I said.
The maze is the anchor of the trap, Arthur said. If we solve the maze, won't we also work our way out of the trap?
Frigging around in the labyrinth could be dangerous, Ursus said. Catching our perceptions here isn't exactly a friendly act.
It doesn't feel all that hostile, though, I said. After all, we're the ones who are snooping around. Maybe it's just someone guarding their privacy.
Maybe this is meant to be a warning, Ursus said, and if we go messing around further we'll just get people angry.
If they really are hostile, Arthur said, just waiting could be bad, too.
I guess we'll try the argument option, Ursus said. Arthur, hanging around with Danny Lukowski is eventually going to get us in trouble. Kirsten Kennedy makes me feel like a pedophile. And you need a haircut.
The two of you are just as curious as I am, Arthur said. I can feel it.
I'm trying to be a responsible adult, Ursus said.
If you weren't in my head, worried about me being a kid, what would you do?
I don't know.
I want to try going through the labyrinth, Arthur said.
I don't believe that is our best choice, Ursus said.
Do I have any say in how my brain gets used, Arthur asked, or am I just your vessel?
Bog! That hurt. That's damn rough, Art, Ursus said.
Sorry, Arthur said. Now he felt guilty. Our body's emotions were getting whipsawed.
It's OK, Ursus said. You've made your point. You have rights, too, and while this is against my better judgment, it's not so much against it that I'm going to try to force you to do it my way. We'll try yours.