Everything hurt, and I was most definitely dying.
If waking up after being knocked unconscious merits its own acronym, then waking up after an earthquake-toilet-flush-skydive-rocket-launch-nuclear-bomb combo deserved…well…I couldn’t tell you what it deserved, because I was pretty sure part of my brain was no longer functional. Coming up with some sort of epic palindrome or witty play on words was just waaaaay past what I was capable of right now.
Then again, I considered it a small miracle that I was capable of anything right now. There wasn’t a mental vault big enough to fit the enormity of what I’d just endured. Pain didn’t even begin to describe it. I needed a new word for what had just happened to me.
It’s one thing to know what you’re made of – to understand that if strung out in a straight line, your circulatory system can circumnavigate the equator four times, or to grasp the fact that there are as many microscopic creatures living on you as there are humans living on earth, or that you’re nothing more than the trillions of cells that make up your body and the chemical reactions that take place between them. It’s another thing entirely to know what it feels like to suddenly become aware of each and every one of those cells, and then feel them simultaneously implode.
All 37.2 trillion of them. I would never complain about pain again. Because if I did, it would probably go something like this:
It’s that time of the month, and my cramps are so bad that it feels like my uterus is trying to carve its way out of me.
IT COULD BE WORSE. REMEMBER THAT TIME YOU DISINTEGRATED?
I just broke my arm.
YOUR BROKEN BONE IS NOTHING COMPARED TO FULL-SCALE CELLULAR CARNAGE.
Both of my legs were just torn off by a rabid wendigo. Who is now gnawing on my throat. While his friend nibbles on my fingers. And his other friend tears into my abdomen.
BWAH HA HA! ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW? YOU THINK THAT HURTS? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU GOT PWNED BY THAT GODDESS???
You get the drift.
Casey might have been the genius in the family, but I had spent enough time around her that some of her nerdiness had rubbed off on me. We passed the long, boring winter months stuck inside, buried beneath lake-affect snowstorms. Most of that time we devoted to reading, which is how I knew how many of my cells had just been set on metaphysical fire. This past winter, I had picked up a volume on physics that Casey had left in my room. Only because there was literally nothing else in our house that I hadn’t read multiple times. Learning – or really, trying to learn – about quantum mechanics and the Many Interacting Worlds Theory was a special kind of torture. The author of the book was a Star Trek fanboy – huge shock, I know – and had even talked about the science behind one of his favorite aspects of that show: teleportation. Most of the terms he used were way over my head, but the few he added for his less mathematically inclined readers stuck in my mind. “Subatomic wood chipper” and “total annihilation of self” were the two that drove his point home, because, according to him, in order to upload a person at point B, said person first had to be dematerialized at point A. At the time, I hadn’t even come close to understanding what that would feel like.
I now understood what that felt like.
What I’d just experienced would’ve made the author of that book cream his corduroys. I had felt myself dematerialize. I had felt myself be beamed from point A to point wherever-the-hell-I-now-was. I had felt myself be rebuilt on a cellular level. How was that even possible? Had the brain cells that made up my individual synapses remained close enough together while traveling through what might have been a wormhole that they were able to still send pain signals to each other?
I cut that thought off. Hard. Because If I continued traveling down the “how did that just happen?” path I didn’t think I’d come out of the other side of it able to do much more drool at people.
What I wouldn’t give to be so CACA’d that the memories would forever remain lost to me. Sadly, there was no CACA. I was CACA-less. The memories were all there. And I would never, ever be able to forget what had just happened to me. In fact, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get over what had just happened to me.
For the most part, I thought of myself as a well-adjusted werewolf. Sure, I had that dark corner in my mind reserved for the most horrific things I had seen – like the vampire raid, the chunks o’Matt, and the way that Jake’s ass cheeks had slapped together when he was…nope, not going there – but on the whole, I dealt with my problems in a timely manner. I accepted the things I couldn’t change, changed the things I could, and sought closure with those who had wronged me. Okay, so that closure was a little bloodier than most human therapists might think was healthy, but I wasn’t human. I was a werewolf. Bloodier was a given.
But what I had just been through was a whole new level of FUBAR. All my life I had laughed in the face of danger. I had never been sick, I could heal broken bones in under an hour, and I could outfight elves and out-monster vampires. I was indestructible! At least, that’s how I had always felt. Cailleach, that beantlered nightmare, had just grabbed me by the nape of my neck and forced me to face an ugly truth. I was not indestructible. I could be killed, or worse, dematerialized again.
It kind of made me feel like curling up on my parents’ sofa and staring off into space for…ever. This was why people went catatonic. This was too damn much for someone to deal with alone. What I needed was some kind of preternatural therapist to help me process this. But then again, the memories of what happened would still be there. Maybe I could find someone that could simply magic them from my mind. If I were human, I could look up the nearest friendly neighborhood vampire and have them glamour it away, but sadly, as a werewolf, I was immune to their brand of undead sorcery. I might be able to find a witch to do the job. I’d heard of a bruja in the Bronx that sounded powerful enough to pull it off. And if I lost math along with the memories, so what? That’s what calculators were for.
Remembering Casey’s remark about my melodramatic tendencies, I tried to look on the bright side. At least I wasn’t dead.
Yet, I amended.
From what I could tell, I was no longer encased in roots. Despite the fact that I was so dizzy that I could hardly tell up from down, I felt a pressure along my back that made me think that I was lying on it. Other than that, nothing. I could neither hear, nor smell. Opening my eyes was out of the question. Moving was, too. I thought my synapses must have misaligned when my cells restructured themselves, because no matter how hard I tried to think my eyes open, they remained stubbornly shut, which was probably a good thing seeing as how my body felt like one big gaping flesh wound.
I felt like Wesley from The Princess Bride must have when he was strapped into The Machine and that jackass, Prince Humperdink, cranked it up to 50. Even with my supernatural healing abilities, I didn’t think I’d be capable of doing anything but laying here – wherever here was – for the next, oh, month or so. Plenty of time for me to think up all the fun and interesting ways I might kill Cailleach. And killing she needed. A being capable of teleporting her enemies shouldn’t be suffered to live.
Sure, Casey had said it couldn’t be done, that Cailleach was immortal, but I’d met a few old-as-sin vampires in my time that had claimed the same, and they still burned up real nice when you soaked them in lighter fluid and flicked a lit match at them. One head removal and a heart extraction later, and you had yourself a dead vamp. Maybe no one had gotten creative enough when trying to kill Cailleach. With my anger issues, Casey’s perpetual history boner, and our combined thirst for vengeance, I was pretty sure we’d find a way to get the job done. We just had to find her first. What had she said?
“The roots around you belong to the tree of life, krawn ba-huh. They will take you to where you need to go. Only after you free the others will you find me. Only after you free the others can you free me. Only after you free me can I send you home. And whatever you do, stay away from the dragons.”
I was guessing krawn ba-huh was Gaelic, which meant it was spelled nothing like how it sounded. It was probably spelled crina brehin or something equally confusing. Gaelic, seriously. Ugh.
The tree of life bit was familiar to me, though. We had a tree of life in our own mythology, one that could transport someone from the mortal realm into the lands of the gods. Seeing as how the gods were all sadistic monsters with a taste for mortal flesh, I really hoped that the druidic tree of life was different, and that it had merely transported us to some lesser version of hell. Like New Jersey.
I’d never been great with riddles, which is what the rest of her words seemed like. We had just seen her, so how the hell could she be not only lost, but also be not free? And who were these “others” she spoke of? Then there was that warning about dragons. Right. Easy to avoid, since they were extinct. The fact that she’d told us to stay away from them made me not only question her lucidity, but everything else she had said. Which put me back at square one: stuck in a body that wouldn’t obey me, left for dead, with nothing but my rage to keep me company until Casey and I regained enough strength to figure out where we were and where we needed to go from here.
Oh, shit. Casey.
I had survived, so I assumed that she had as well. Because life without Casey was just not an option. Which meant she had to be alive. She had to be, because if she wasn’t…
Panicking, I redoubled my efforts to open my eyes. Turned out my poor, frazzled brain just wasn’t capable of handling strong emotions or demands to trigger the right nerve endings needed to lift my lids. After a few frantic seconds, I blacked out.
The next time I came to, I still couldn’t open my eyes, but I was, blessedly, in less pain than I had been the last time I’d been quasi-conscious. I managed to stay relatively aware for longer this time too, I think, but I spent all of that time trying to get my body to obey me, and finally my brain got sick of it and shut down again.
The next time I came to, I could smell. I thought I was smelling Cailleach at first, and my resulting anger nearly burned out the few functioning brain cells that remained under my power, but then I realized that no, it wasn’t her. I was really smelling heather and stone, moss and water. My breathing had been shallow and erratic thanks to my fury, but I forced myself to take calmer, slower breaths. I smelled grass, but not my grass – meaning the grass that was common in Upstate New York. I smelled trees, but not my trees. Pine was there, and willow too, but it was all wrong, just like the grass. It was…foreign. The wind shifted, and I caught another batch of scents, familiar ones this time, made up of leather, honey-ale shampoo, coconut lip balm, and the unmistakable musk of a packmate. Casey. She was here with me. A tear trickled from my eye as I lost consciousness.
The next time I came to, I could hear. I heard the wind, and running water, and something burrowing in the ground off to my right. But most importantly, I heard not only my own heartbeat, but another one, just a few feet to my left, and beneath it, the soft inhale and exhale of steady breathing. Casey was here with me, and she was alive.
The next time I came to, I opened my eyes. And looked straight up at the sun. The pain that exploded through my head made me thankful to be swallowed up by the dark again.
I lost track of how many times I gained and lost consciousness throughout the day. Each time I awoke, I spent a good five minutes simply rejoicing in the fact that I was still alive. I spent the next five minutes rejoicing in the fact that I was healing. By the time I watched the sun set from behind the safety of my closed lids, my pain had dulled to the point that I could feel the soft caress of a warm summer breeze as it brushed over my prone form. With careful concentration, I could even manage to twitch a few of my fingers. Progress!
I waited until full dark before plucking up the courage to attempt to open my eyes again. The last thing I wanted was to suffer another mind-melting light-sensitive-induced black out. When I finally managed it, I laid there, dumbstruck, unable to even pop my mouth open in shock because I hadn’t regained control of my jaw yet.
Spread out above me was a night sky so breathtaking that it literally stole my breath away. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. They sparkled like diamonds nestled in the velvety blackness of space, clustered so close together that the only way to distinguish one from another was by how brightly they shone. The Milky Way arced through them as though some wrathful god, jealous of the beauty of the heavens, had taken a blade to the night sky, hoping to disfigure it. That god had failed. Miserably. The center of the knife wound was a murky black made up of billowing tendrils of darkness, while just outside of it the stars were so concentrated that they blazed forth like a solid wall of light.
It was, without a doubt, the most magnificent thing that I had ever seen. No wonder humanity had been obsessed with the heavens from the moment they’d laid eyes upon them.
I hoped Casey was awake to see this. Wherever we were, there was absolutely no light pollution here, which meant wilderness. Absolute wilderness. Our packlands in Upstate New York were pretty untouched, but there were still enough towns and smaller cities around us that this was the first time I had seen the Milky Way. Obviously we weren’t in Jersey. Actually, I was pretty sure that most of the East Coast was out. I was even slightly terrified that all of America was out. Surely if we were still in the good ole U. S. of A. some of the smells that tickled my nose would be familiar.
None were. Well, aside from the ones coming off Casey.
I went back to trying to regain control of my body while I drank in my fill of the night sky. Belatedly, I realized that the light of the moon was nowhere to be seen. Unable to turn my head – ugh, this was getting old – I rolled my eyes in their sockets as I searched for it. It had to be there, somewhere, because it was supposed to be full in two nights. Finally I found it. Actually, I found the outline of it. It was a new moon. Which meant that two weeks had passed since I had last gazed upon it.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit!
We were probably at war with the druids. My brother might be dead. So might my parents after losing both Matt and I. Killing Cailleach no longer seemed important next to my need to get home.
“Chaaarieeeee,” came a disembodied, rasping voice.
I nearly had a heart attack before I realized it was Casey trying to speak my name. For a moment there, I was worried that some ghoulish creature had crept up on us, and we were about to be made a meal of while fully conscious and unable to defend ourselves. If I could move, I would have shuddered at the thought. Now that I understood that I was really going to die some day – probably sooner rather than later at the rate I was going – I wanted my death to be as quick and painless as possible. Death by nomming was anything but.
“Chaaarieeeee,” she repeated.
Show off. Here I was, unable to so much as crack my lips open, and she was already speaking. We’d always been competitive, and I’d had about enough of getting shown up by her. First she had regained consciousness before me in Cailleach’s dungeon, and now this? I didn’t think so. I let my competitive streak run wild, distracting me away from the panic that clawed at the edges of my conscious mind. If I had any hope of getting home, I first had to regain control of myself.
I sharpened my focus and willed my lips open. Ten minutes later, I succeeded in wheezing at her. Well, it was a start, at least. An hour after that, I flopped my head to the left and found her already staring at me. I glared at her, and she smiled back. She looked like she was gloating. We spent the next I-don’t-even-know-how-long trying to one-up each other. My crowning victory came sometime near dawn, when I managed to curl my hand into a fist and then flip her the bird. She barked a laugh in response and then stuck her tongue out at me.
Maybe I didn’t need a therapist. Maybe I didn’t need a bruja. Maybe having someone else to recover with would be enough. Maybe having my best friend beside me would keep me from going feral when we finally made our way home and discovered what was waiting for us there.