A portal materialised, prying the air open as though material, as though felt. An old wiry giant, manifold the size of a man, walked stooping through and fell to the inspection of the ground at the base of the open gateway. A young woman, elaborately dressed in clutters and overlays of trinkets and garments, followed it lithely through the opening. She sliced a lock of her hair with the indifference of habit and tied it around the edge of the portal. Blueish-white in hue, the portal sparked and crackled like the edge of a welder’s torch. Her tether of hair had the curious result of preventing the inter-dimensional gateway from collapsing as the two travellers studied their new reality.
‘It’s here,’ she whispered, her mannerisms enwisened by the hunt so as to be, at times, completely unrecognisable. The giant studied her a moment, the phenomenon of her transformation, to its discerning eye, was of the utmost mysterious relevance. For if one could embody both zero and one, there could be nothing more of interest in the world. The giant gave her a solemn nod, and if there was any uncertainty in its expression, she was beyond the capacity of observing it.
In a swift motion, both graceful and tense, she turned to conceal a widening grin. It’s here, she thought, electric with anticipation. She loosened the lock tethering the portal. The scorched strands of hair stained the air with thin wisps of acrid smoke as she threaded them through her fingers. The gate, as though making up for lost time, wound down in brisk ever-diminishing gyrations. With a last screeching crackle of protest, its circumference collapsed onto itself and the portal vanished altogether. She inhaled the admixture of ozone and burnt hair, and sighed. Quietly, she bade farewell to a past she could never revisit. It was an empty gesture, perhaps, especially considering how insatiable she was in her consumption of worlds and dimensions. She never wondered what she was running from, nor what she ran towards. And so, she obeyed both impulses, indifferent to the excessive combined momentum it could generate.
No, she decided, it is not quite an empty gesture. Abandoning the known for the unknown, time and again, was not without its toll upon the psyche, even to a weathered pilgrim such as herself; and portals bestowed a ceremonial closure upon that incessant forward rush. Milestones, of sorts. And their symbolism soothed her. Such private rituals, even if of mere sentimental nature, provided firm footing from which she could launch herself into the new, ever-forming present.
The shadow of a grin still loitered about her mouth when the giant reached a grotesquely gargantuan hand towards her. Her senses, acute with pent-up anticipation for the impending hunt, reacted with lightning agility. From a standing position, she launched herself into a neat Arabian flip, landed onto his outstretched arm, and ran until she reached the crest of his lowered shoulder. The giant rose to its full height, unfazed by the formidable display of acrobatics. With an equilibrium wrought of familiarity, she held fast her perch in the nook of the giant’s collar bone. The motions of such giants are sedate, languorous; and she responded to it as a ship to a rolling wave. She inhaled the breeze that bristled her hair.
‘Yes,’ she concluded, ‘it’s here. Forward beast!’
The giant slung an eye her way that would rival the eye of a hurricane. She squeaked audibly and pretended to steady her gaze on the far horizon. Perhaps she had gone too far in her epic proclamation. But no, the giant was far too serious. If she did not needle him from time to time, she was convinced that he would turn to stone. And then how would she get around?
As though on cue, her own face abruptly lost its playfulness. The giant’s intimidating eye took in this transformation. Grave and sullen, it marvelled at the sudden disappearance of the playful girl. This phenomenon never failed to upset the giant’s conception of cosmic order. Such a divergence of soul should not be possible. And yet, the woman, wise beyond her years, that now stood august upon its shoulder, bore so little resemblance to the girl. And which of the two was the most frightening, it could not tell. For both seemed to be set upon distinct paths, that only rarely coincided. Both souls with their own cataclysmic destiny. And the giant, somehow, was instrument to both. There was a need to both. A common ground, or at least a commonality of purpose which the giant could only barely conceptualise. What this purpose was, the giant could not tell. Only that when it surface, it took the shape of a voracious need to stopper a void. Which lent the girl-woman an unparalleled recklessness, even if the expression recklessness took wildly different shapes.
‘Hmm,’ the giant grunted, dragging a bare calloused foot upon the thirty-six furrows marking the spot where the portal had disappeared.
‘One hundred and forty-four,’ it said in a low drawn-out mumble. The sequence unwound itself rhythmically within the giant’s mind. Two and seventy-two, where they had arrived. Three and forty-eight. Four and thirty-six, where they were at present. Six and twenty-four. Eight and eighteen. Nine and sixteen. Twelve and twelve.
Seven dimensional portals, it thought, no insignificant number. How did she establish their prey’s whereabouts with such implacable certainty, across so many dimensions? The girl might not possess the analytical mind of an Interpreter, but her intuition develops with frightful speed.
‘Eyes outwards, giant!’ The woman’s words rang with command, if not quite with scolding. ‘One may catch a Shaman off-guard but once.’
The giant regained awareness of its surroundings by degrees. With gentle prods and tugs—the meaning of which was past second-nature to the pair—the woman was guiding them into a shallow body of water. The far shore was just now revealing itself on the near horizon. The giant’s redoubtable gait did not even register the meagre resistance as it ploughed forth, shin-deep in viscous sediment-rich water. The world’s radiance vanished unexpectedly then, as though stolen. What remained was a faint after-glow emanating from the lake itself. Illuminated from below, the pair wore fearsome shadows on their faces. Neither so much as flinched at the transition from light into abrupt darkness. They had spent a long time in this world, after all. If not in this same dimension.
The giant kept an ever watchful eye on the evolution of this phenomenon of inter-dimensional variation. This phenomenon constituted a new frontier in portal lore, and accordingly, the giant was deliberately slow and methodical in its observation.
According to the giant’s hypothesis, their present dimension—four and thirty-six—which holds a sizeable inter-multiple gap of 32; should manifest a wide-range of variations in comparison with their previous dimension. Especially when compared with portals which hold an inter-multiple gap of zero, such as twelve and twelve. This category of portals, according to the giant’s reasoning, should contain the least amount of variation, if any. So, the giant’s hypothesis of inter-dimensional variation dictated that, were one to cross a portal between dimensions twelve and twelve, there should be little to no observable differences. Whereas, were one to cross a portal between dimensions four and thirty-six; even if both dimensions pertain to the same world, there might be little to no similarities between the two dimensions.
Only once had the girl shown interest in the matter of portal lore. Patiently, the giant had explained dimensions to her thus:
‘A world is akin to a theme. Dimensions are potential expressions of a theme. Potential expressions are born when a major event befalls a world. A rift is torn into the world’s continuum. If a phenomenon manifests across different dimensions, one can theorise that the phenomenon is a major defining factor of this world.’
After which, he had found the girl blissfully asleep on his shoulder. The girl’s favoured such subjects above all for their ability to plunge her into the deepest slumber. The giant did not mind.
In her reckless way, the girl was both a source and an interference to the giant’s interpretation of cosmic matters. It was true, the girl’s inexplicable ability to summon portals granted the giant endless material for interpretation. However, the giant’s impossibly slow progress was also due to the girl’s inexplicable ability to hunt Shamans across realms. A shamanic presence could exert such a warping effect on reality that it all but rendered cosmic interpretation useless.
‘Giant?,’ the girl’s concerned voice broke through the giant’s thoughts.
‘Hmm,’ it grunted in reply. A moment later, it recognised the source of the woman’s concern. The land appeared to waver in the dim expanse ahead.
‘Optical illusion,’ the woman posited, but even as the words left her mouth, she could no longer cling to their hopeful promise. Solid ground could not be lit from below.
‘One or multiple organisms?’ she asked, just loud enough for the giant to hear. The giant carried onward, knowing that to cease their constant progress would attract attention.
‘One or multiple organisms,’ she repeated, ‘one or multiple organisms? One. Above or below? Above or… Below!’
As she spoke, the horizon started to vanish. A luminescent tidal wave was rising, gathering momentum towards them. Even from her high vantage point, the girl soon lost sight of the monstrous organism she was observing. The giant reacted immediately, altering its gait to powerful leaping bounds to meet the growing wave.
‘Let me do the talking,’ she said into the giant’s ear, ‘just whatever you do…’ She spoke louder now, as her words were carried away by the rushing wind of their speed.
‘Please,’ she added, for good measure.
The giant reached a hand for her, and this time she let herself be taken. The massive blundering hands began rough-handling her into the shape of a ball. She whined and grunted, but before she could protest, she was airborne, hurtling through the air at blistering speeds. Nauseated, indignant, she bided her time until her acceleration would decrease. She reached terminal velocity without a moment to spare. Managing to unfurl mid-flight, she shifted position just in time to clear the crest of the towering wave. For a naive moment, she thought herself out of harm’s way. Then, she was hit with a thick cloud of spray. Outraged and soaked to the marrow, she rummaged through her innumerable layers.
‘Where is it, I swear I…,’ she mumbled to herself. ‘Ah-ha!’
The girl’s fingers settled around a thimble-sized wool parcel. A miracle she had found it through all her pockets and hidden layers. But then, these things had a way of their own. Behind the tidal wave she still soared. The monstrous organism she had glimpsed against the horizon was now enlarging by the second. Ensconced in the exposed rock-bed, lay a gigantic tentacled flower. Grasping the reality of her foe, all severity bled away from her features. The woman became the girl once again.
‘A plant? A plant?’ she scoffed, laughing out loud. This was no redoubtable Shaman. Just some kind of flora-oddity. ‘Wait till the giant sees this!’
Still careening through the sky at prodigious speeds, if slowed somewhat by the cloud of spray, she began rubbing the woollen lump between her numb hands. The wool had absorbed too much water, it seemed, and was reticent to warm with the friction of her touch. While she worked, she cast a glance backwards. From between her feet, she observed a dark shadow forming at the centre of the distancing wave. The shadow grew and grew until long bony outstretched fingers broke the surface tension. The giant was dwarfed by many orders of magnitude by the tidal wave, and still the sight of it filled her with awe. For all the giant’s rancour at being called a beast, how else could she describe such a monumental show of brunt force.
Her attention jolted back to the woollen lump as a searing pain spread between her fingers. The blazing relic had scorched most of the wool and was now exposed to her bare skin on many of its facets. Fierce waves of heat emanated from the stone. Next thing she knew, she was bone dry once more.
‘That’s better,’ she exclaimed smacking her lips, ‘much better.’ Her tongue felt like old parchment, her eyes stopped watering with the rushing wind. ‘Perhaps too much better.’
Seeking to get rid of the excess energy before it would roast her alive, she aimed her wrath towards the monstrous flower below.
‘Waaa,’ she exclaimed in admiration. A writhing tentacle rose with surprising speed to swathe her out of the air. With bulging eyes, she contemplated the thing as it soared towards her with impeccable aim. She shook the relic, willing it to do something before she would become bug-guts. ‘Don’t fail me now….’
Without warning, the relic exploded of its own accord. The flower blurred out of sight as she was shot sideways towards the shore. The earth shook with the impact of her landing, but her unconscious mind was not there to register it.
Head throbbing, the girl rose to find herself in deep inside a forest. The humidity stifled her breathing. Scattered patches of light flowed through the dense foliage revealing that it was day anew, however long that may last. A thin plume of smoke arose from a hole next to her head. She inspected it suspiciously.
‘The relic?’ she wondered aloud.
Careful to pull her sleeve over her skin, she plunged her hand deep into the moss-carpeted forest floor. Cheek pressed against seared moss, she noticed a few scandalised birds taking flight above. The limp tip of a tar-black tentacle materialised behind her, landing with a ground-shaking thud. Before the sound had even registered in her ear, she had pushed herself into the air, landing in a crouch a few paces away, ready to pounce.
‘Oh it’s you.’ she said, standing, brushing her clothes and trying in vain to rearrange her hair away from her face. With an attempt at nonchalance, she walked over to the hole in the ground to carry on where she’d left off. ‘You didn’t fare so well I see,’ she said, wagging her finger to encompass the thin water-logged rags the giant was wearing. The giant merely glared back at her. She skipped and gave the giant a wide berth, knowing the giant was not the type of kettle that whistles, that warns. She plunged her hand deep into the narrow, singed opening again, wrestling with tangled roots and warm rocks, until she laid hand on the relic.
‘You’re mine,’ she whispered viciously to the recovered stone. No trace of the fiery ember it had been still remained. For the briefest instant, a shadow travelled the breadth of her slender face as she contemplated the relic. Sitting at the base of a nearby tree, the giant took note. Nothing so significant would ever escape its sharp depthless eyes. Then, the shadow was gone. She wrapped the relic in a thick envelope of waxed cloth and returned it to one of the many folds and openings in her mix-matched attire. One could never fathom what all it concealed. Not even she.
Not even she. No sooner had the thought taken shape in her mind, than she regretted thinking it. Such thoughts were slippery. In unpredictable moments of weakness, they could slither through the cracks. They could make one wonder whether one had lost control. Relics knew a weakness when they sensed it. How many relics did she have? She winced inwardly. Then, catching the giant’s perceptive eye from the corner of her vision, she swiftly composed herself.
Mind on other matters, she awoke to the abyss in her stomach. That particular relic always left her feeling ravenous. She sidled over to the pilfered slice of tentacle the giant had brought. It was a question of strict ethics amongst the famished, that everything should be treated equally, that is to say, treated as food, pending further examination. She poked at the charred skin, doubting its edibility, until her growling stomach completed the assessment for her. A serrated knife appeared into her hand from thin air and she eyed her prospective meal with dispassionate resignation. As was to be expected, the meat was unyielding.
‘As rubbery as a Glout,’ she complained as she carved, ‘Will probably taste much the same.’
Despite her show of indignation, she nevertheless hacked an ambitious chunk for herself. Unable to cut through the last bit of though sinew, she made the knife disappear, placed her feet on each sides of her cut, and tugged with all her might. Grudgingly the meat tore free and she was catapulted backwards. She began eating exactly where she had landed, cross-legged and chewing ravenously. Well into another light cycle, she ate. Until, at last, she fell asleep from sheer exertion.
When she awoke again, she was imbued with a curious sensation. Mind’s eye still cast upon her dream-world, she forced herself to maintained the heavy breathing pattern of sleep. Then, careful to dull the ardent blaze of consciousness, she waded there in the creamy out-of-focus dream-state. Softly suggesting a feeling, a vague sensation, that her unconscious body often registered while she slept. She narrowed her way there, edging in ever-constricting circles.
There, she thought. Deeply enmeshed in the mossy forest floor, she wrapped her arms around herself in a delicate embrace. When her hands met around her back, her eyes opened. There was something missing amidst her embrace. Something that seemed to visit her in sleep and evade her in waking. She released her self-embrace with affected dismay. Yawned emphatically.
It was not the first time she had sought to interpret the curious sensation. Over time, she had come to visualise many things to fill that emptiness. The vision that returned with most frequency was that of her own self, as a helpless child. As usual, when the vision came to fill the void, she stubbornly shooed it away. The loving comfort brought about by this image of motherly affection towards her child-self, provoked a reflexive revulsion within her. But if not her own self, then who? What was missing in her embrace?
She clambered to her feet drowsily. During sleep, she had gradually compressed the moss beneath her, so that even standing, only her head protruded from the girl-shaped depression. A foggy penumbra veiled the forest. There was no telling which stage of the light cycle she was currently in. She clambered up the soft walls of her place of rest. The giant was nowhere in sight. If she had sunk a full body-length into the moss, she wondered whether the giant was not perhaps somewhere near the centre of the world by now. She walked over to the tentacle and noticed that the forest had already begun cannibalising it. The sides of her mouth lowered in disgust.
‘No thanks,’ she uttered through her teeth, mindful not to open her mouth to much in case something were to leap out. She tried in vain to think of something other than her own ongoing digestion of the charred tentacle. With some effort, she pried her eyes from the mesmerising play of wriggling maggotry upon flesh, and wandered off towards the area where the giant had sat. Finding only a mild depression there, in the forest floor, she supposed that the giant was not exploring the core of the world after all. The moss had not retained any of the giant’s warmth, but the giant never seemed to produce much to begin with.
Humming and hawing, she, at last, settled herself cross-legged onto the spot and set her mind on the task of finding her companion. Moments passed before she acquired the necessary frame of mind. A mostly imperceptible sequence of postulations ensued. Minute gestures and aura alterations. Then, she was still once more. Her mimicry of the giant’s spirit was complete. The shadow-play could begin. The ground shook as she rose to her feet and a rustle high above let loose a shower of leaves. With the giant’s idiosyncratic slow grace, she set forth into the forest, letting her senses guide her in an uncanny dance of exact replication. The motions she embodied increased in stealth as she progressed blindly through the darkness. What had the giant found? Was it trailing something? Someone?
Almost as suddenly as the shadow-play had begun, she had yearned to be back into her own body, to sense her surroundings with her own, more sophisticated mesh of instincts, intuitions and perceptions. It was a wonder the giant could navigate as well as it did with such a blind and blundering sensory apparatus. All its inner-sensation seemed to pool at its thorax, and what little outer senses it possessed were crude, unsophisticated and numb to anything that was not basic sound, sight and touch inputs.
How can anyone operate with such limited feedback, she wondered, appalled.
A clearing revealed itself through the branches ahead. A feeble luminescence emanated from it, only bright in counterpoint to the oppressive gloom of the forest. There, she saw two orbs reflecting a faint glow back at her. The giant, crouching amongst the tall foliage on the edge of the clearing.
‘Oh, thank worlds,’ she whispered and with a gushing sigh, she dispelled the spiritual possession. A spell of weakness fell upon her as she began the convoluted process of repossessing her own body. The rush of sensations, instincts, intuitions, was overpowering. She began stumbling clumsily, as though intoxicated. All her senses came rushing back in a searing flash and she nearly lost consciousness with the savage turbulence of the transference.
The giant rushed to bridge the gap and gather the girl’s body as it crumbled onto itself. The girl despite being limp, was as a feather to the giant. It lowered her gently onto the ground at its side. In a moment of cataclysmic acuteness, she re-entered the cosmic entanglement of her own self. The yokes of life and death leaked from their respective realms and merged at the centre of her being, in a raw interplay of pain and pleasure, suffering and joy, of love and abandonment. Life was a raw, searing, terrifying thing, and she thrashed and swam away from its infernal whirlpool with every ounce of her resolve. For who would chose to be birthed again after hearing death’s sweet cajoling?
With vicious yearning born in the very marrow of her soul, she wished herself far away into the peaceful realm of death. Alas, the choice was not hers to make. She was thrust back into the chaos of hurt named life. Air rushed into her lungs, and the darkness split furiously into its component colours in a nauseating swirl of hues, to form sight and awareness anew. She doubled over in her mind’s eye and retched drily. Then she did so again, only this time in the world without. The giant eyed her, horrified. The emotion, novel as it was to its usually expressionless features, sprawled itself inelegantly across its face.
‘Woooh,’ she exclaimed to herself in disbelief. She doubled over and retched again, her stomach turning itself inside-out like an empty pocket. ‘Certainly never felt that before,’ she said, and managed a brief rebellious chuckle before another retching spell fell upon her. But it was of no use. Nothing would come out. Her stomach was too greedy to relinquish even a mouthful of the tentacle she had eaten. She tried her best not to try and remember whether the tentacle had had suckers or not, and whether that explained why her dinner was so reluctant to show itself. Depleted, she fell backwards onto the wiry leg of the giant.
Oh, to experience the sensory dullness of a giant again, she thought. She spat unsuccessfully, a thick filament tracing the trajectory of her saliva onto the earth. She met the giant’s cold eyes and jerked back at the expression of horror they contained.
‘Worlds,’ she exclaimed, ‘you look as though it happened to you!’
The giant blinked.
‘I know what you’re thinking…’ she muttered, ‘if you’re even able to think.’ Then, in a plaintive tone, she added, ‘Oh, don’t ask, alright? I’m the victim here… I said don’t ask!’ she insisted, as though pleading for him to insist, which the giant did not. ‘I have no idea what that was all about.’
The giant blinked, if anything, more horrified than before.
‘I’m never trying that again!’ she declared to the universe at large.
‘Trying?’ the giant grumbled in disbelief.
‘Yeah, shadow-play, it’s called.’ the girl answered, trying to hide her satisfaction behind layers of indifference. ‘Or I guess that’s what I think it’s called. Like I said, I never tried it before. It worked though. And good thing too, by the looks of it. Who knows how long you would have been lost if I hadn’t found you. You know, I ought to cut a long strip off one of those tentacles and fashion a leash with it… Or knit you an bright orange hat or something. Are you even listening?’
Shadow-play? The giant could not even fathom how such a thing could work. The girl tracked me down by intuiting some way of possessing my past self? And she had improvised it… on a whim?
‘Yeah, I know. It’s complicated. Can we change the subject?’
A semblance of equilibrium was at last burgeoning within the girl. A gradually countering of the influx of stimuli with a blissful dose of numbness. It was too soon for her to envision revisiting the trauma. Why was the giant insisting?
‘Insensitive brute.’ she muttered.
The expression of her being was a delicate counterbalance, not easily re-established. A noble part of her mind whispered of a profound lesson to be learned from the experience. One she had been avoiding for far too long. One that only an out-of-body perspective could teach. Something about how abnormal her normal had become. The inhumanity of her humanity. Or some such drivel. She garbaged the insight. Like a pig in a bog, she settled into the sores and vices of her existence.
Avoidance it is then, she thought with a pleasing measure of self-contempt. Avoidance always felt deviously comfortable. An acquired taste. And that’s why, she supposed, so few could understand her. So few have it in them to savour the sweet-and-sourness of life.
For the breadth of her introspective hiatus, the giant’s eyes never strayed away from the girl. However, the expression it bore was now one of concern.
‘What?’ she hissed, meeting the giant’s gaze with one of feral acrimony. The extent of her misdirected inner ire on display. ‘Careful who you pity, beast…’ she warned through bared teeth.
The standstill of their wills endured even as an inexplicable iridescence came to life in the deep woods, shifting across their faces in sundered bouts. The giant, despite all its indomitability, was the first to look away, towards the source of the light.
She snarled with irritation. After all, to win a contest of stubbornness, is invariably to lose. Despite her infuriation, she fell quiet when her sight joined that of the giant upon the source of the advancing light.
Together they marvelled in silence at a nebulaic cloud, gliding amongst the petrified trees, dispelling darkness along its path, casting shadows long and black that shifted like ravens in flight. The insubstantial cloud assumed various forms as it drifted towards the clearing, sporadic webs of electricity crackling along its edges.
The giant watched on, entranced. At his side, the girl had disappeared again, and in her stead stood a woman, sharp and calculating. A slight draft tugged her hair and clothes towards the wandering nebula. Nothing in her surrounding, not the giant nor the branches, was subject to that same attraction. She stood her ground firmly, in full possession of her senses, and it was a terrifying sight to behold.
‘Do not intervene,’ she commanded the giant, before vanishing into the night.
The Shaman at last took shape as it crossed into the starlit clearing. It paused as though surprised at its sudden corporeal transformation, and looked up at the sky. Its misshapen face disorganised itself into a scowl and it squinted and growled at the intrusion of light. Setting forth again, hunched, it mumbled to itself in a gravelly voice. The woman spared no glance for the unravelling phenomenon. From the sanctum of her intricate garments, she had withdrawn a wand made of flexible bone. She now spun with blurring dexterity between her fingers. The two glowing half-relics encrusted at each end formed an uninterrupted circle of violet in the gloom. She lowered her wand hand to the ground and set off, swallowing ground with such voracious swiftness that she soon became completely indistinguishable amongst the trees.
‘Hya-hya-hya,’ cackled the Shaman. If the hunt awakened in the girl another state, one of pure instinct and wisdom; to be hunted awakened nothing at all in a Shaman but distilled derision.
The ominous being did not alter its step, even as it glimpsed the spinning violet circle flying amongst the trees on the clearing’s edge. It carried on as though clearing the clearing were its only worldly concern. Perhaps even deliberate in its lack of haste. As crossed the three-quarter mark in her circumference of the clearing’s edge, her eyes searched for the giant concealed somewhere along the rim. But where the giant had been, she found only darkness.
‘Do not intervene,’ she shouted, emboldened now that she was so near to her goal. She did not break stride, confident that she would seal the perimeter in time. Her eyes returned to the Shaman making strides under the open sky. She inspected the Shaman for any hint that may facilitate its capture. Shamans were nefarious beings of lost or wholly corrupted humanity. And it was precisely the nature of their corruption, the heart of their particular evil, that offered a key to their undermining. Through the trees, she studied its unique corporeal manifestation in an attempt at gleaning what lay beyond, what weakness throbbed beneath the surface.
But the twisted body of the Shaman was obscure by something she could not quite place. In an effort to pierce this mystery, she slowed her paced ever so slightly. Then, she saw it. There seemed to be tiny creatures fluttering around the Shaman. Sprites or fairies perhaps, fastened by a length of string to the Shaman’s belt, fluttering back and forth in the empty space around the Shaman’s head. Though fainter than a whisper, she could now hear their disheartening wails and whines, as they sought, in vain, to escape their captor.
The expression of their collective despair seemed to lend an edge to the master of string’s step, a certain superciliousness to its sinister sneer. It walked on, hunched, unperturbed by the girl’s machinations. Inching ever closer to the edge of the clearing, ever farther out of the girl’s grasp. The supreme confidence the Shaman exuded created an odd perceptual distortion. One that almost commanded respect, or authority. And this aura of supremacy, almost successfully camouflaged its grotesque malformations and apparent dementia.
Look upon me and tremble, its countenance seemed to suggest, while its skeletal frailty inspired the exact opposite. Her mind, growing hazy with her prolonged effort to encircle the the evil spirit, became delusional. She could feel the secret of the Shaman’s corruption on the edge of her tired mind, but could not quite grasp it. So, instead, she focused all her being on covering the ground left, and prayed that it would prove sufficient.
The spot where she would seal the circle was in sight now, she could see the violet glow where her wand had cut the ground. And, with one last glance at the Shaman, it dawned on her. She would never make it in time. The Shaman was but a few strides from regaining the cover of forest, from escaping her trap. How reckless to have thought a Shaman so easily captured. She had fallen prey to the excitement of the hunt, and in doing so, had jeopardised their only ticket out of this world. She knew there would not be another chance.
She thought to call out for the giant’s help, but with what air? Her desperate speed had left her lungs screaming for oxygen. Perhaps, if she just pushed a little harder, she might still make it. After all, the end of the circle was in sight. She made her choice, and the suddenness of her decision surprised even her. She tumbled to a stop on the forest floor, and within a few desperate breaths, she accumulated enough air to yell.
The ground shook twice and the giant leapt within the confines of the clearing.
‘Face me,’ the giant challenged in a low drawling bellow.
The Shaman stopped. Partway through its transformation back into its nebulaic form, it just stood there motionless, trapped by the summons.
‘Of course,’ whispered the woman, finding the long-lost word. ‘Hubris.’
The Shaman turned and faced the giant, regaining its full corporeal form as it stepped back into the clearing. Even out-sized two to one, the Shaman maintained its self-assured poise and self-same sinister sneer. It stepped forth, unhurried, mumbling obscure conjurations under its breath. The air between them darkened, as though fouled, and the Shaman barked and cackled in mockery and contempt. The giant brought its fist calmly up to its mouth and took an interminable inhalation.
‘Now,’ the giant suddenly roared. The gargantuan fist unfurled, palm upwards, revealing a plethora of amassed pebbles, like so much sand in perspective to the giant’s size. The giant blew, and the air whistled with tiny projectiles. On her knees still, and panting, she gazed after them as they whizzed. Through unfocused eyes, she saw that none seemed to have hit their mark.
‘Hya-hya-hya,’ the Shaman cackled maniacally into the calm forest night. The giant took a step back in a feigning of dismay, fright; and in doing so, cleared the outer perimeter, returning to the shadows of the forest. The woman awoke with a start to the giant’s ruse and vaulted to her feet. As the Shaman basked in its unquestionable invincibility, she spun the wand and, drawing from an unknown reserve of might, she completed her perimeter of the clearing. The laughter morphed to a despairing shriek as she sealed the last few yards of her trap.
‘Got you!’ she exclaimed, crumpling onto the ground. Smiling, she glanced sideways at the despairing Shaman, only to realise that her trap was not the reason for the outcry. The clever giant had never meant to hit the Shaman with its projectiles. Now, laying on her back, she watched untethered sprites scurrying off in every which direction, away from the master of strings.
With a flourish of her wand, the clearing was uprooted from the earth. It tore free with a deafening wrenching roar and floated mid-air, weightless and ethereal like a bubble of soap. She sighed with overflowing relief and fell to her knees. Her work was done. As she watched, the bubble dwindled in size. Not exactly peacefully. With a sound like warping steel, it compressed itself to a sphere of formidable inner-pressures.
Finally, with an unceremonious plop, it imploded. A handful of steaming dirt fell to the uprooted earth where now wriggled many uncovered insects and worms. She crawled over to it on her hands and knees. Rummaging through the loose dirt, she extracted a queer-looking stone. Holding the relic to the starlight, she collapsed onto her back utterly depleted. The stone was a jade-coloured agate. A semi-precious stone. And, as she confined it to the many secret recesses of her inner garments, she savoured the sweet irony.
Later, she found the giant sulking at the foot of a nearby tree along the outer-edge of the now razed clearing. She sat next to him as solemnly as she could manage, humbling herself in respect of the giant’s heavy, slow-moving moods. She gazed ahead at the aftermath of their struggles, at the devastation.
‘I guess, technically, it’s still a clearing,’ she ventured, contemplating the disturbed land, while covertly probing the giant’s disposition. She received her response in the form of a grunt which, all things put in perspective, was an overwhelmingly positive response. So, she launched directly into her apology. ‘I was self-sure and let the hunt get the better of me. It’s just, Shamans are delicate work and you, well, you…’
The giant growled at this, so she altered course, trying to navigated her way back to the main message.
‘Well, today I couldn’t have done it without you. So… So, I’m sorry I dismissed you alright? Are you happy now?’ This last addition was accidentally imbued with a little too much spite, and as the giant veered its great lumbering head in her direction, she let out a yelp and thereafter held her tongue. The brooding giant studied her a while and realised that it had not quite caught the moment of her transformation. The experience and wisdom of unknown provenance that possessed her during the hunt had left her now, and she was a girl anew. And for some reason, this brought the giant much solace.
As the giant watched, the girl began wriggling about, fumbling through her many layers as though hunting an elusive itch. Then, she sat still, smiling a self-satisfied smile.
‘I got you a little something. Call it… a token of my… appreciation.’ Practically bursting with gleeful triumph, she held out her balled up hands. Reluctantly, the giant reached out and she deposited a repugnant, tousled, sprite into its hand. The giant lifted the outraged little demon to its eye and grunted appreciatively even as the vermin hurled a slur of obscenities its way. The giant grinned, then ingested the indignant plankton whole.
‘Now, what do you say we get out of this place?’
If the giant heard her, it made no sign of it, content as it was with its present. With much aching protest from her body, she rose to a kneeling position and withdrew the agate, which, despite having just been pocketed, did not readily manifest itself to her hand. It seemed to her unwise to open a world portal at this hour. Especially given the condition she was in. And yet, as the agate finally tumbled into her grasp, touching her bare skin, she could not imagine why, in all the worlds and dimensions, she shouldn’t. She became aware, in that instant, of the incommensurate power concealed in the various plies and alcoves of her clothes. A power she alone could wield. Nothing in this or any other world, but she.
As she fell to the complex ritual of portal summoning, she held tight her newfound relic. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, as the portal began to materialise, the corners of her mouth twisted in a subtly sinister sneer.