...Continuation...

Sweeping Up
By: FragmentFour


Swamp, everywhere swamp. Darvón smelled it before he opened his eyes, the damp soil and stagnant water, but it surprised him nevertheless. Hillocks pushed themselves upward, green-brown moss softened all edges, covered all surfaces, concealed everything below. A soft glow half-illuminated the undulating landscape. Pale blue vapors rose at random, giving the air a heavy atmosphere that he found hard to breathe. Their tendrils obscured everything more than a few steps away in any direction and the whole place seemed saturated in...dreaming.

Beside him, Ricóre put out one hand to forestall any immediate movement. "This is the Realm of the Dead?" he asked.

"Not yet. This is the area of transition. We can go only to its boundaries if we plan to return."

He studied her carefully, looking for any sign of change in her normal appearance, and found none. The black leather and boots and metal hair piece were gone. She was Ricóre, short, stout, with loosely tied gray hair. No more, no less.

"You’re just the same," she answered him. "Exactly as you usually are." He would have felt better if she hadn’t read his mind, but it did answer his question on that score. "What will she look like? And you are sure it’s a she?"

"It’s a she." Ricóre took one testing step forward, then another. "And she will look exactly like what she is. Our problem may be that what we expect her to be is something different."

So it all hinges upon perception. He followed her lead, weaving slowly among the hillocks, stepping gingerly over pools of liquid ink. He was getting vaguely sleepy. "Have you been here very often?"

"Not often. A few times."

"Why?"

"Doing what we’re doing now--looking for someone who had passed one world and was approaching the next."

"To bring them back?"

"To see if they could be brought back."

Cryptic as ever. She wants to make me ask. "And did you bring them back?"

"Once." She paused to survey their location, then chose a tangent line more to their right than their original course. "There was a fishing village on the Chartreuse. A storm blew the boats off shore and a sailor was lost. I reached him before he crossed into the Realm of the Dead. His body was generally healthy, and he managed to survive."

"Anyone else?" He was fully tired now, his legs were beginning to resent walking, and he found himself thinking of sitting down for a while.

"Keep moving," she cautioned. "This is not a place to nap. Yes, there were others through the years. Some I found, some had already crossed the border, some I searched for and never found. Your parents were one pair I never located."

"You searched for my parents?" The thought struck him broadside, pushing away the dullness that was seeping into his joints. "They had to have come here, didn’t they?"

"If they died they did." She stopped again, changed course, and went to the right. "But I never found them."

"So maybe they aren’t dead." He’d always assumed they were.

"That’s possible. How much do you remember about your early childhood?"

"Fighting with Pedrín."

She surprised him by laughing. "Well, that took up a great deal of it, I’ll grant you. But nothing before?"

He hadn’t before, but then he’d never really tried. With his mind occupied in tracing down memories, his feet kept moving, taking him below the branches of ancient trees draped in fluttering moss, and he needed a couple of minutes for that actuality to sink in. "Hey, aren’t these things sort of suspended or something? Do they really exist?"

"They do, in both worlds, if you’re talking about the trees." She stopped again, and tilted her head up to see as much of the monster as was possible. "Their existence is very tenuous in both worlds. It’s hard to tell with plants. But they do not appear in the Realm of the Dead."

"Not at all?" Where would a tree go when it died? She’d moved on, and he had to half-hop over a gigantic root to keep up. Funny, he hadn’t noticed her crossing it.

"Well, let me amend that. I’ve been as far as the border, and there were none that I could see once the line was crossed."

"What was over there?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing? How can that be?"

"I have no idea. The line is a wall with a single door. It’s black and fluid and completely impenetrable to my sight--yours might do better."

He doubted that, but was willing to give it a try. If he stayed awake. And speaking of black... "What’s in the water holes? Do you know how deep they are?"

"No, and stay out of them!" She swung to look directly at him, something moving back behind her eyes.

"Okay, I promise!" He’d no more ruin his boots by wadding in one than... "What prompted that reaction?"

"Experience. We are not the only ones to tread this ground. Half the villages and towns have wizards or witches or spell makers. When a family experiences the death of a member, it is quite common to have them hire someone who will seek the soul."

Really! And of course they’d pay for that service! He began to search the backdrop in earnest, trying to map landmarks. Getting here wasn’t hard, and if there was a likeness of the person to go by...maybe a tracking spell set-for a price-before the death, to make the search a little faster--!

"How many other wizards have you met, Darvón? Do you remember? Or witches other than I?"

"Not that many, actually." He tucked his idea into the storage compartment of his mind for further consideration, still keeping his eyes open to any traceable feature in this sea of bumps and valleys. "What does that have to do with the water holes?"

"I’ve seen them take a few seekers from time to time. Wizards mostly, but witches and simple spell casters too." She went back to moving, shooting him a warning glare over one shoulder. "The village below the valley had a case that worked out so. You might want to check on it the next time you leave the Talos."

"What happened?"

"A young woman died there, apparently by her own design. And a well paid wizard followed after. The bride’s dowry had already been paid, the groom’s family refused to return it."

"And?"

"The wizard found her here, the poison she’d taken had not yet fully done its duty. And he tried to force her into a return."

Well, that would be unfortunate for her, but if he was being paid to return her...business was business after all!

"She slipped into one of those water holes, Darvón. And when he reached for her she drug him into it also."

"Ah." He punched the toe of one boot into a nearby hillock, just to get a feel for the solidarity of the thing. Spongy, of course. No telling what was under it. "And the wizard couldn’t swim."

"If he could, he didn’t. She, of course, crossed right on over."

"And he did what?"

"As far as I know, he stayed right there. When we get back, you might decide for yourself--his body is still in the village. It hasn’t been all that long since it happened, but the girl’s family is getting tired of paying for its storage."

"You mean he’s still alive?"

"More or less. And of course he covered his body with protection wards before he came, so he probably will be for quite some time yet, regardless of how much weather he gets exposed to."

Blast her, she’d sucked him in again! Every time he had an idea that didn’t mesh with what she thought... Anger flashed over him, heating his face and searing his soul. She’d known what he was thinking, she always knew, and she used it to cut at him until...

"Peace, son. I think we’ve found her." Her voice had changed, gone from the mocking, matter-of-fact tone to the soft one that said it was all over.

And just before them sat the child.

"So what do we do next?" he murmured, half afraid of scaring the girl. She was only just past infancy with blond hair that brushed her shoulders in irregular points, and she was picking at the moss in that baby-way kids had of touching everything in sight three hundred times. She couldn’t be more than two, he decided. Ricóre knelt and the little face turned upward but without the smile he had expected. Large brown eyes regarded the witch cautiously while the body itself leaned away. When the witch extended one hand the child slapped at it and made a convulsive backward roll, coming dangerously close to the edge of the moss above the water. "Can you spell her?"

"I could, but it would serve no purpose. She has no wish to return."

"She’s only a baby--how could she know?" Logic collided with reality and he noted that the little girl looked straight forward, not at them, one small fistful of moss going to her mouth. "Should she eat that?"

"This is her soul, not her body. And babies put everything in their mouths. I doubt that there’s one thing here that could harm her more than she’s been already."

Yes, well, babies were not his area of expertise. The feeling of weariness overcame him again and he sank down just behind his mother. "I didn’t get a chance to ask, but what happened to her up there?" He wasn’t sure about the direction, but up seemed appropriate.

"She crawled into the fireplace."

"Huh!" He’d seen the body, briefly, and the pieces began to fall into place. "Do you think she felt it much?"

"I imagine she felt it all. And I don’t think this was the first time." The hard tone was back, promising ill for the two adults he’d lulled into deep sleep after her powder had begun to wear off. "Opinion?"

"Me?" In spite of finding the child, he’d been almost asleep.

"Yes, you. Would you say she needs to be returned to the land of the fully living?"

Something only the child could see made her giggle and she reached for it, digging both her hands deep into the moss between her outstretched legs.

"That’s your decision--this whole trip was your idea," he reminded her.

"No, it’s our decision. We’re both here. And once made we can never change it. Never."

Another wave of exhaustion rolled over him. She was right, of course she was right. But an irrevocable decision on this at the moment was incomprehensible.

"We have to decide now, Darvón." She turned to face him and the lines in her face had deepened into crevasses. "The region holds us. It will do so permanently very shortly."

"This isn’t fair," he protested, recoiling at the weakness in his own voice. "There’s no time to consider the ramifications! Or weigh the possible outcomes!"

"This is the way of life and death. True decisions are never easy and all of them require an instant response."

She was growing more faint by the moment, and he vaguely realized that she’d been fighting the exhaustion as well as he. A spark of anger kindled the fire he’d banked when they found the child, and he struggled to his feet. He was a wizard, and this place would not have him! The child offered no objection when he scooped her up and pulled at Ricóre’s arm. "Come on, we don’t have much time left."

When he thought back on it later, it couldn’t have been much further. He simply hadn’t had the strength to pull them any distance, even if he’d known the way. But as Ricóre said, it loomed above and before him, a single entry embedded in a black wall of nothing he could distinguish except the acrid bite of frigidity. The cold was all that kept him erect. The child in his grasp squealed and held out both arms, hovered for just a moment, and was gone through the gate.

"Search," Ricóre whispered urgently. "Search for Trey’s fire."

And he did.


"What are we going to do with those two?" Pedrín wanted to know. He wanted to know a lot more, but this wasn’t the time to ask. The sight of Darvón and Ricóre actually walking into the fire had given him a case of the jitters which hadn’t been improved by the sight of them staggering back out.

"Burn ‘em," Darvón instructed curtly. He was half-propped up against the wall in a sitting position which was more than Ricóre had managed. She was still prone on the lumpy thing that passed for a bed in this miserable place.

"We can’t just do that," Trey whispered. "We can’t."

"Oh, no? Why not?" the wizard demanded.

"Because tomorrow she’d fry us." Pedrín would very much liked to have torched the entire cabin and everything in it, but there was such a thing as overkill. "Better let her come around first."

Darvón levered himself up, wincing at the pain in his thighs, and decided he’d wait before trying to walk just yet. "How’s she doing, Trey?"

"I think she’s...well...not awake exactly, but--."

"She’s living." Ricóre kept her eyes closed, saving all the energy she could to use in assessing the situation. "Darvón, can you keep an eye out for neighbors? We don’t need any at the moment."

Casting the mental net took nearly everything he had, but he did it. Nothing out there, more than just... "You brought that damned horse!"

"Well, we had to have something!" At the moment, Pedrín wasn’t much concerned with why his brother hated this particular animal. "Just do your wizard thing while we clean up this mess, okay?"

It would take too much effort to explain, and Darvón wasn’t inclined to enlighten them anyway. He concentrated on the net and staying upright against the wall.

"What’s he doing?" Májica hissed at Trey. The wizard didn’t look at all well, and Ricóre looked worse. Why weren’t they getting out of here?

"He’s searching for minds," the elf whispered back. "He hears them or something. I don’t know how to explain it."

Well, it made no sense to her. She turned to Pedrín and found him still looking at the couple out cold on the floor. "What are you going to do with them?" she asked softly.

"He’ll leave them alone," the witch announced. "Come here, Májica."

Getting anywhere near Ricóre was not Májica’s idea of wisdom. The old woman gave her a colossal case of nerves. She sidled a little closer, stopping well out of reach. "Do you need something?"

"To have you stop quaking would be some help." The blue eyes pinned her as surely as if the witch had nailed her in place. "What have you decided about all this?"

Decided? She hadn’t decided anything! What was there to decide? "Aahh...nothing--."

"Yes, you have. But you may not know it yet."

"I--"

"When you have it figured out, come talk to me." Májica found herself summarily dismissed as Ricóre swung her feet to the floor. "All right, let’s get moving. Darvón, do the forget thing on those people."

Forget thing? She watched as the middle brother slowly swung his eyes to the man and woman, wondering how he could possibly be a wizard. Wizards had something sinister about them, and usually some glowing magic signs. This man just looked like...like a man. A little smaller than most maybe, but...

"How far back?" Darvón wanted to know.

"Whatever suits you, but we don’t need a repeat of this in a year or so." She switched her attention to Trey. "How did you get here?"

The elf shrugged. "Thistledown under Májica’s feathers."

Thistledown? No wonder she hadn’t felt the weight!

"Son, at times, thou art pure genius." The witch returned her gaze to Májica. "Feathers?"

"Eagle," she admitted softly.

The smallest hint of humor tugged at Ricóre’s mouth as she turned to confront her eldest. "And you?"

"I rode a horse."

"Rode. You stole one from the inn?"

"Borrowed," he defended firmly. "Borrowed."

"I see. Well, we should return it. It is still here, I hope?"

"Absolutely."

"Then shall we?" She marched straight for the door, stepping over the sleeping man as if he wasn’t there, and opened it. "Pedrín!"

"It works doesn’t it? He wouldn’t stay put!"

"Uh huh. Well, you just get him lose right this minute!"

Now what? Májica crowded out behind Trey to find the gelding braced hard against a slender amber line that held his halter to the broom which hovered at shoulder height from the ground. The dangling reins jerked and fluttered as the animal tugged, but the wooden familiar stayed stubbornly in place.

Pedrín hooked his fingers into the halter, then tapped the broom straw. "Thank you." The tether let go, becoming again part of the heart, and he turned to the horse. "Keep up that pulling and we’ll make it permanent." The gelding’s ears went flat against his skull, but the pulling stopped.

"How’d you do that? You don’t have magic!" the elf hissed in amazement.

"Just like Dora," his brother shrugged. "I asked it to please hold the horse until Ricóre was done. And it did."

"Incredible," the witch whispered. "The single word they never use! Now I’ve got to find a new one!"

Inside, Darvón studied the pair on the floor, sorting his options. Erase as far back as I see fit, and maybe alter a few other things as well. My, my. You two are in for a shock.