The Transmundane, Episode 3: Back on Solid Ground

Ashlyn flung out her hands as she fell, landing with a breathless half-cry on the dirt and gravel of the trail; Seitetsu tripped over her leg and crashed down on top of her. Terrified, he froze perfectly still, listening desperately for any pursuit.

He flinched violently at the rapid pounding of... his own pulse, and nothing else. No stony feet drumming on the hard ground, no earthquakes or landslides, or sinkholes opening up beneath him.

Ashlyn shoved him off tumbling onto the ground and sat up hugging herself. "Ow, ow shit." Her half-bare chest and completely unprotected arms were mottled and streaked with abrasions from the rocky ground.

"Ashlyn! Are you okay?" He grabbed her hands and dragged her to her feet, brushing awkwardly at the dirt ground into her wounds. "I'm sorry, I..." He realized that the soft skin under his fingers was curved up into a firm, heaving mound and guiltily yanked his hand away, but she caught hold of it and pulled him to her.

He held her gently, careful of her scrapes, but still felt the rapid motion of her chest, and the growing shivers as the night air chilled her sweaty skin. He was beginning to think of her again as a beautiful half-naked girl instead of a fellow escapee from God knew what when she lifted her cheek from his temple and drew in a shaky but controlled breath.

"You okay?" he asked again.

"I'm going to need about a gallon of peroxide, but yah." She shuddered. "Better than whatever that troll wanted to do with me."

"Troll?"

She shrugged and continued picking pebbles and grit out of her skin. "Big, strong, lives in a cave, made of rocks, likes to abduct human maidens..."

He remembered the crack of its thumb coming off, and the sickening feel of its back giving way beneath his foot. "Not rock; too crunchy."

"Crunchy? I just about broke my elbow on its face! She held up the bloody joint in demonstration.

"Geez, that looks terrible! Here!" He tried to peel out of his T-shirt one-handed and only then realized that the fingers of his left hand were still cramped tight around the troll's thumb. Holy shit. There goes the hallucination theory.

She stared at in shock at the stony lump on his black-smeared palm. "But... I hit it! Even being a guy and sports and all, you couldn't rip the thumb off a person, and it was way tougher than that." She wobbled and clutched at him for support. "This doesn't make any sense."

He gently lowered her to the ground and knelt beside her. "I know, but it happened anyway. You could have banged your elbow on a rock, but where'd this come from?" He deposited the thumb, still oozing a bit of black slime from the break, in her palm, to free his hands for tearing up his shirt.

Trying to tear up my shirt, anyway! Serves me right for buying good clothes! Finally he got the seams to part, and used the whole back panel to tie the wadded sleeve against her wound. She winced once or twice during the process, but was occupied by the thumb, turning it over and over and holding it up to her eyes for a better look.

"This isn't just a rock; look, it's got a bone, and you can sort of see the skin and muscle." She held it up for him to see, but in the darkness it was was just a blob to him.

"I can't see anything... There, that should hold until we get back to camp."

"Huh? It's perfectly obvious; see the pale part there, and how the outer crust is darker and not so reddish?"

He groped around for the flashlight before remembering he had stuck it in his pocket, and covered the end with his hand before turning it on. Not until he parted his fingers to let a sliver of unfiltered light fall on Ashlyn's hand could he see the differentiation, and then only because he knew what he was looking for. "You sure have better eyes than I do. I can't see anything out here."

"Tetsu, are you sure you're okay? It's not that dark... Did you get hit on the head?" Her voice was suddenly nervous, and he felt her soft touch at his temple.

A lump formed in the pit of his stomach: not the fight-or-flight panic the troll had provoked, but the terror of feeling the edge of the world crumble under your feet. "How's it not dark? We're half a mile from camp and there's no moon. Are you sure you're okay?"

"I can see just fine!" she protested. "Even if there's... no..." When she recovered her voice, it shook with the same fear gnawing at him. "It is dark. It's just as dark as you say. But I can see anyway."

Or she thinks she can. Shit, what do I do for a concussion?

He must have been quiet too long, because she insisted shrilly, "I can! I can see fine!"

He held up the back of his hand facing her, and two fingers from his other hand against it so to him -- or any human -- there was only a single pale blob in the darkness. "How many fingers?"

"Two."

"VALEROSO! ALFLATT!"

"Oh shit, it's--"

"Frigarsen," she finished. "So do we tell her?"

"We're so busted," he moaned, staring at her half-naked form. "My mom's going to kill me."

"Better her than a troll," she pointed out muffledly as she pulled on the sweatshirt that had somehow stayed tied around her waist through the entire fight and flight. With her good hand she awkwardly flipped the mass of her pale hair out of the back of the sweatshirt and fingercombed it away from her face. "Anyway, isn't it my family you're supposed to be worried about?"

"Only if they get to me first." He eyed the remaining rag of his T-shirt, and tossed it aside. "I'm sorry, Ashlyn. I didn't mean to get you almost kidnapped or busted by Frigarsen."

"I said yes, didn't I?" She plucked the remaining scrap of her own shirt from the waistband of her shorts and started to discard it, then used it to tie her hair back. "There, how do I look?"

Like some guy dragged you out into the woods, tore your clothes off, and had his way with you, he didn't say, but she read it on his face.

"Still pretty ravished? Oh well. So, do we tell her about the troll?"

Another shout came from nearer, and now even he could see the glow of Ms Frigarsen's flashlight. "No," he decided. "You fell down and whacked your elbow on a rock, I tore up my shirt to make you a bandage, you never had a shirt on under that sweatshirt, we really meant to be back by dark but we got lost, please don't kill us ma'am."

"Okay. Here, you better take this; you have bigger pockets." She handed him the thumb and wiped her hand on her sweatshirt with a grimace. "Troll blood, yick. I hope it wasn't rabid."

He retrieved his shirt, tore off a sleeve to wrap the thumb in, and stuffed the package into his pocket. "If it was really made out of rock, I think we're probably safe."

"If it was really made of rock, I don't think what we learned in Bio 1 matters. MS FRIGARSEN! OVER HERE!"

Seitetsu winced as the teacher altered her course toward them, crunching through the brush, but turned on his own light and pointed it in her direction for the few moments it took for Ms Frigarsen's narrow form to appear before them. Not wanting to antagonize her further, he clicked it off. Though really, a quick death is the most I can hope for.

"Sorry, Ms Frigarsen, we got lost!" Ashlyn said with a quiver in her voice.

"Lost? Is that what you kids call it now?" Frigarsen's flashlight beam shone accusingly on Tetsu's naked chest, then flicked away as though disgusted. "Or do you really expect me to believe you couldn't figure out the lights over there are the campground?"

"Sure, from here. It's not as easy to see them from back there." He waved vaguely in the direction they had come from. "We would have been back in another twenty minutes."

"Twenty minutes after you finished, I'm sure."

"Ms Frigarsen!" they protested simultaneously.

She glared at them. "What you do on your own time is your parents' business, and possibly the police's, but while you are under my care you will act like civilized human beings, not irresponsible children. Back to camp, now, with not one more word out of either of you, and maybe you won't be suspended."

Ashlyn glared right back, the very picture of insulted virtue, but stalked past the teacher without a word. Tetsu trailed behind, clutching the troll's thumb as though it might evaporate like an hallucination and thinking nastily, she's just being a bitch because she was never half as pretty or half as smart as Ashlyn, and never got any.

Ashlyn led the way unerringly back to the main path -- not the one they had followed outward -- and back to camp, moving as surely as though it were broad daylight while Seitetsu and Ms Frigarsen, even with the flashlight, stumbled on roots and caught on branches. Fortunately cursing at vegetation did not seem to violate Frigarsen's edict of silence.

She could have guessed on the fingers, but this proves she really can see in the dark. How? She didn't say the troll did anything; it didn't have time anyway. Her eyes don't look any different, not like a cat's or anything. This doesn't make any sense. He remembered a quotation from somewhere, and snickered. I guess that proves we're not making this up; if we were, it would make more sense!

"Is something funny, Valeroso? Putting one over on the old fossil?"

"No, Ms Frigarsen."

She snorted.

The camp was quiet and almost dark when they arrived, the lights turned down low except at the restrooms. Frigarsen led them to the edge of the boys' campsite and flicked her light meaningfully.

From out of Frigarsen's sight, Ashlyn blew him a kiss. Pinned in the light of authority, he couldn't respond except by blushing, and she didn't quite stifle a giggle.

"That's enough out of you, Alflatt," Frigersen snapped. "Valeroso, get to your sleeping bag, and stay there. By yourself." She kept the light on him while he picked his way over his sleeping classmates, peeled off his socks, and slid into the cold nylon embrace of his sleeping bag, and only then turned away to deliver Ashlyn to the girl's camp.

Now that he was out of danger and no longer moving, fatigue descended on him as immobilizing as the cave-in of the troll's tunnel.

"Dude, you got so busted," Mikey Hong hissed from his adjacent sleeping position. "I hope she gave you all three holes."

"Shut up, Mikey." I'll kill him tomorrow.

Mikey had long ago mastered the art of sneering in a whisper. "Or what, you'll kick my ass for offending your lady's honor?"

Seitetsu remembered the feel of stony flesh crushing beneath his foot, and shuddered violently. He didn't answer, and Mikey didn't taunt him any further, but it was quite a while before he slept.

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This file was last modified at 2158 on 08Jan04 by trip@idiom.com.