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Shay Sheridan - Reality

Chapter 22 - Air

Wolf shivered.

It was impossible to see the sun inside the Swamp; the heavy canopy of trees was an effective umbrella, shadowing the mucky ground with a diffused yellow-green light. But the covering held in the air, causing the Swamp to have a climate of its own, humid, mulchy, thick. Sweat dampened his hair and trickled down his neck as he pushed aside the tangled vines and tree limbs in his way.

Despite that, he shivered.

He didn't like anything about the Swamp. He didn't like the way it looked, the way it felt; he didn't like the smell of it, particularly, a combination of the sweet-sour odor of rotted living things and an unnamable smell that made him think of small, closed spaces, like his prison cell, like an airless closet, like a coffin.

He shuddered at the image of himself being loaded into a casket, nails sealing him shut--

Stop it! Wolf shook himself, head to toe, as if he had just climbed out of the water. It was just the Swamp playing tricks on his mind. Oh, no doubt about it, he was well aware of the pitfalls here. It was only his awareness of them and his single-minded need to save Virginia that had kept him alive the last time he passed this way. Then he'd seen only her face in his mind, and his senses had been so attuned to her that he'd been able to pick up the traces of her scent despite the cloying stench of rot and death. Virginia and Tony hadn't realized how lethal the Swamp could be. He had. He did.

Nevertheless, he sped up his pace as best he could, keeping to the nearly invisible path, trying to avoid the sucking mud and the patches of dead wood that could mask deadly sink holes or lurking unpleasant creatures.

He'd come down the mountain at record pace, following the snow-white flowers until he'd recognized where he was. Then he'd covered the grasslands fairly swiftly, stopping only once at a lonely house for food. The ancient hermit who lived there had been wary of him, but the gold coin Wolf offered in exchange for food had sealed the bargain. Wolf felt better having eaten; moreover, the fact that he'd bought his dinner instead of stealing it made him feel better about himself than he had since before Kissing Town. Civilized people paid for their food, they didn't poach, steal or swindle for it. Maybe he was becoming a better person after all.

Maybe. There still was the unresolved matter of Gigi to address. But his dream encounter with Snow White had bolstered his confidence and given him some hope that his actions were not all in vain. And the way she'd lighted the path for him towards the Swamp... well, there was magic at work, surely, and he hoped it was good magic, magic that would help, not seduce him.

He knew where he was headed; he'd known since Snow White told him what he needed to find. The only dead-yet-alive person he could think of was the dreaded Swamp Witch, Snow White's stepmother, who had crawled away into the Swamp more than a hundred years earlier, never to be seen again. But rumors of her persisted, and after what had happened the last time, with Virginia actually seeing the Swamp Witch, he had no doubt that he was about to make the acquaintance of the walking ghost herself.

The thought made Wolf shiver again, but he squared his shoulders and plowed on.

Now that he was within the Swamp, his sense of direction had almost vanished. This was not a comfortable feeling for him, or for any wolf. Normally like all his species he had an uncanny ability to track, but here all directions seemed alike, and with the sun diffused into an undetectable pattern, he couldn't even tell if he was walking in circles. Wolf stopped. Roaming aimlessly was futile. He closed his eyes and turned slowly, sniffing. It was a technique that usually served him well, but now he wasn't sure what he sought.


Wolf's eyes flew open and he jerked his head back. A tiny figure was floating inches from his nose, and trying to bring it into focus made him cross-eyed. He drew back further and saw what it was.

"A fairy," he growled. "Go away!"

"But you're lost. I can help!" The fairy batted her tiny lashes at him, assuming a coquettish posture in mid-air.

"Riiiight," Wolf drawled. "And what happens then? You help me find what I'm looking for, but when I get there I'm as tiny as an ant, or the house is surrounded by trolls, or once I find it I can't find my way out. I'm no tourist, missy, I've been around the Swamp before! Now buzz off!"

"Very well... " The fairy pouted prettily. "But you'll be sorry!" There was a little burst of light and the fairy disappeared.

"Huh. Good riddance," Wolf commented to himself. He felt pretty smart, having avoided falling into the trap of asking for her help. Fairy magic indeed! But the fact remained he could wander here forever without finding what he sought. There had to be a way...

the road once traveled by

Cripes! He'd almost forgotten the rhyme! What way had he come before? There weren't any landmarks, were there? Think, think--

Sure. He'd found Virginia and her father asleep, covered in vines, near... the Mushroom Island! Virginia had said it was close to the tiny house where the Swamp Witch lay. Well, now that he had a destination, something to focus on, maybe he could...

Wolf closed his eyes again, and thought about mushrooms. True, most everything in the swamp was fungus-coated, but the mushrooms had a particular earthy smell, so maybe if he REALLY concentrated--

There! In the nearly still, thick air, a heavier, more textured aroma, like the smell of a fairy ring, or deep earth, or--


Wolf took off at a jog, following the tiny thread of odor through the mist. He kept a watch on his footing, too, still slipping several times in the soft wet earth, splashing through brackish water once or twice, but following his nose. His feet must have picked up mud, for they began to feel very heavy, getting more so by the moment. The branches and moss seemed much thicker now, and heavier. His arms could hardly rise to push them out of the way. It was such slow going, and he felt so tired.

The smell was getting stronger, though, easier to follow. And now there was something else. Music. He heard music, from the direction he was heading, impossibly soft at first, but growing louder as he pulled himself forward. A song, a familiar song, low under the mist, the sound of many voices in one, all singing the same, familiar song, one he knew well, and there were the words now, barely audible, but he knew the words, he'd heard them many times, and the voice was a sweet voice, a low, velvety croon, the sound of a mother singing to her little child, her little cub.

Go to sleep, sleep little child,
child of mine, child of mine,
mother is with you, have no fear,
nothing can harm you my dear.

The voice continued, humming now, rocking him in her lap, and he was filled with a sense of peace and quiet and calm and

Why was he lying down?

Wolf came to himself with a start. He was lying on a little mound of damp earth, his head cradled in his arms, and hundreds of red and white capped mushrooms surrounded him, poking up between his fingers, one nudging his ear, all vibrating, swaying, all singing, humming in one soothing voice, calling him, trying to kill him. He pulled himself upright, glaring at the little caps, shrinking away from the vines that had already begun to grow around him. He ripped one out that encircled his ankle, and stood up, shaking from his near-death experience.

"Why are you leaving us?" One little mushroom looked up at him, its voice low and kindly, motherly. "We love you, child, stay with us. Lie down again."

With a growl Wolf stamped it into the earth. It gave a little squeak and was still.

"Come back!" the little voices sang.

Wolf shivered yet again. "This is a BAD place!" he muttered to himself, backing away from the little mound.

He turned around, seeking the trail. There it was.

And three hundred yards further on, he found the house.

There was no sign of life in the place. He walked gingerly around the tarnished mirrors that lined the pathway to the house like malignant weeds. At the door he wondered, should he knock? He decided against it. He pushed the door and it creaked open.

Wolf had to stoop a little inside the tiny house, as evidently it had not been built for normal-sized people. He imagined Virginia, tiny, petite Virginia, would nearly scrape the ceiling with her head. The thought of her gave him a little pang. Would this bring him closer to his love? Oh, he hoped so. How he hoped so!

Virginia made him think of Gigi. What was she doing? How was she faring? Was he fated to save her? Wolf's shoulders slumped. He didn't even know where she was. But he had a job to do, something to find, something that keeps a queen from surrendering to death. Whatever that was.

He stepped around the small furniture, wondering how the Swamp Witch had managed to live here. Perhaps, perhaps with her ruined feet she'd had to drag herself around, maybe that was why the furniture was so close to the ground. The thought of her pulling herself like a slug made him feel a little ill.

There was a door, a kind of cellar door, in front of him, and though with all his heart he did not want to open it, he knew he must. The doors opened with a cloud of dust and a rush of fetid air that made him gag and cough. When the dust had settled about him, he saw a cracked stone staircase leading downwards, and, swallowing his fear, started to descend.

The cellar's ceiling was slightly higher than the upstairs room but Wolf still had to crouch a little. He followed a short hallway, more like a tunnel, if the truth be told, which opened into a subterranean chamber lined with mirrors of all shapes and sizes. He didn't like the look of them, no siree! But in the middle of the room was something he liked even less. There, on a bier made of the same stone as the staircase, lay all that was left of the Swamp Witch.

His initial fear subsided. "Is that it?" he wondered aloud. Why, she was DEAD! A corpse! And while he didn't particularly enjoy the company of dead people, he much preferred the idea of a DEAD Swamp Witch to that of a living one.

Maybe this wasn't going to be so hard after all.

He approached the body warily, fearing the smell of it, but found it had no smell at all. This was bad, worse than putrefaction. No smell? Unheard of! Unless it were preserved by magic, evil magic. But perhaps it was an illusion; perhaps it did not really exist. He extended one finger and poked it slightly. Fabric disintegrated at the touch and he grimaced and swallowed. It was real. It--

What do you want?

Wolf jumped so quickly that he bumped his head on the ceiling. His eyes opened wide on alarm, the whites visible all around the iris. The voice hadn't come from the body in front of him. The voice was in his head. And there was a buzzing that accompanied it, a buzzing he knew all too well, the feeling/sound that came with the voice of the evil queen when she'd spoken to him through her reflection. But this voice was different, not seductive like the queen's voice, no, but whispery, dry, horrible. This voice was like death.

Why have you come here?

Wolf said nothing. Better to find what he was after, get out quickly, be gone as soon as possible. He looked around the room. Other than the large mirrors there was nothing in the chamber. Nothing except the body itself.

What was it he was supposed to find? Surely it couldn't be one of the large mirrors --he'd never be able to carry it out of here. No, it had to be something personal to the Swamp Witch... something on her...

Wolf's gorge rose at the thought of touching her, but he moved towards the body.

I know you... you are the one who destroyed my plan

Oh, great. She knows me. This can't be good.

You must be stopped

"Sorry, Witchie, I'm not stopping for nobody. I'm a non-stopping wolf, that's what I am." The comb! Virginia had taken the comb. That must have been what Snow White meant! He scanned the clutching hands and the head--

There was no comb.

"Cripes! What is it, then?" Gingerly he lifted a piece of the witches' dress from one nearly mummified arm. The fabric came away in a puff of dust and the leathery arm underneath rolled slightly away from the body. Wolf thought he was going to be sick.


The word buzzed in his head and he winced. "Trust me, Witch, I am not going to defile you." What was that, a ring? Surely that was the talisman. Fighting his disgust he pulled the ring from the skeletal finger. For a sickening moment he feared the finger would come off, too. But it didn't.

Trespasser! Destroyer! I will not let you take my victory from me!

The voice nearly deafened him, but Wolf was tired of threats. "Oh, yeah? Well you're dead, or almost, and I don't see you leaping up off that stone to smite me, so I'll be on my way--"

Remembrance, bind him fast!

There was a sound, a scraping sound, and Wolf turned, expecting to find someone lurking behind the mirrors, but there was no one, just the mirrors, just a huge, misshapen mirror that was scraping across the floor towards him, all by itself, slowly, inexorably dragging itself as if it were a living thing. Wolf was struck with terror, and he backed up, away from it, but it was between him and the door--

Change, hold him for eternity!

--and now there was another mirror scraping across the stones behind him, a tarnished mirror that was blocking his escape and now the mirrors were parallel, facing each other, moving towards each other, reflecting into each other, and they were making him feel trapped, and the room felt airless, and he began to feel quite dizzy and he heard the hollow voice in his head and a laugh, the laugh of the dead as it said

welcome to infinity

and Infinity took him.

A sound like wind chimes and splintering glass. The very air seemed to ripple and shift, his surroundings undulating in a sickening roll, and he wanted to turn away, be sick, close his eyes. But he couldn't, his eyes were frozen on the greenish glass as it reflected upon itself, showing him, reflecting him over and over and over and over and he was inside it and there was something there, he saw a

Cub. There was a cub... he was a cub, looking up at the world from two feet above the floor, adults huge and imposing but there was his mother, her soft eyes full of laughter when she looked at him, saying his name, he'd forgotten he'd once had a name, no time to remember, her voice filling with alarm now, voices loud at the door, his father's voice, quiet but forceful at first, then rising to growl and threaten ferociously, other people, raised voices, a slammed door, fear in his mother's voice, we have to go, we must leave...

/splinter/, age ten or so, good at games, kicking the inflated pig's bladder with Jorrain and Trevor and Nose and Pips, friends, smart, cutting school, too smart for books, they think, the Master saying I'll show you boys how smart you are, a cane, so what? A whipping, I won't cry but it hurts, oh how it hurts, and what is that? Don't tell them, can't tell them, it's a secret, you're a secret, the boy has a tail! The cry of wolf! Wolf! A chase again, no friends, no school, not again, not ever, and once more moving...

/splinter/ last, at last, a town of wolves, people like him, but not like him, he's not enough like them, tolerated, accepted after a fashion, sulking, moody, all the teasing, the poking, quit it! running away from them, then Dorcas! Only Dorcas, all he could see, his groin throbbing as he scented her, wanting her, passion blinding him, and the kiss nearly undoing him, the men with pitchforks, oh no, they're burning the town, they're burning them, mamma, pappa, oh no, NO! they're BURNING THEM!

Wolf tried to break free, to hold himself, and the scream rose in his throat, my fault! my fault! but there was no sound, no air as

...running, a running figure, he was running, panting, heart beating, sweat in his eyes, blinded by the sun, shouting behind him, stop, sheep blood on his clothes, his hands, his mouth, stop, stop him, stop the wolf, you're just wolf now, no other name, Wolf it is, catch him, escape, glorious! exhilaration, relief, exhaustion, clever, you're too clever, they'll never get you, do it again, and again and

...hands on him, pulling, hitting, punching, don't fight them or they'll --NO! The whip, again and again, his back on fire, throw him in the cell, no trial, no air, no sky, no hope

...voice, her voice, in his head, doing things, bad things, kill the girl, kill the girl, NO!

Wolf moaned, holding his head. He didn't! He hadn't, but--

...blood, blood on his hands, human blood, on his clothes, her lifeless form, her body, throat torn out, limp rag doll on the floor of the barn, full moon in his face, in him, her blood in his mouth--

He folded up, unable to breathe, he hadn't killed her, he loved Virginia, he'd saved her over and over again, this wasn't how it happened! But the mirror, in the mirror

...gone to her, nameless wolf, gone to the queen, her servant, loyal toady, rewarded, she strokes his hair, running her fingers, her gloved fingers, through his tail, now you are mine, now you belong to me, then a swift movement, a scratch, the poison immediate, and he can't breathe, why, my queen, why, why, why? Because you are who you are, darkness, numbness, image fading in the mirrors... /splinter/

The images coming faster now ...cub, a cub, he is the cub, mother screaming it's a monster! Kill it! I don't want it, knife at the cub's throat, pain, darkness
/splinter/ cub, father, in the woods, a silver arrow from nowhere, father falls, dead, before the cub can shriek, a blond man in a large hat, approaching, arrow at the ready, smiling, She said I'd find you here, run, run, but the legs won't work, arrow loosed, a sharp pain, gasp for air, mulch in the face, darkness

/splinter/ mating with Dorcas, pleasure then pain as he is dragged off her, dragged, screaming, half-naked, tied to the stake, Dorcas begging I love him! flames ignite, and he is burning, burning, the smell of his own searing flesh the last thing in his nostrils
/splinter/ Virginia, the queen, he is the king, everyone is bowing, he nods his silver head at his son, the crown prince
/splinter/ the wolves destroy the human village
/splinter/ Gigi, naked in the bed
/splinter/ Virginia naked in the bed, Wendell's bed
/splinter/ Sally Peep dead at his feet, her flesh in his teeth
/splinter/ a pardon for all wolves
/splinter/ death by hanging
/splinter/ death by fever
/splinter/ he is on top of a huge glass building, flying machines overhead, he stares, Virginia in his arms
/splinter/ ancient, doddering, the wolf staggers from the prisoner's mess to collapse in his cell for the last time, no air, no sky, the coffin, airless, they lift his ancient bones to seal him forever in the airless, suffocating, infinity of--

Choking, Wolf fell face forward onto the mirror, his weight knocking it onto the floor on top of him, crashing there, breaking, glass showering him, the scream of the witch in his head, but he didn't hear it any more, didn't feel the razor sharp shards as they cut him. He lay senseless, silent, unmoving, unaware.

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