I wake in the forest, alone and naked, lying on a rock by a talkative stream. The heady magical power of the last Place has run from me, and in my mundane stupor I wonder now where I am. With no particular direction to my actions, I stand and dust off, and take a look at my surroundings. The stream flows by to either side of my rock; I am actually in the middle of a small river bed, with a rising face of wooded rock behind and a great forest before me. Someone has stacked stones to make a little bridge across the stream; or maybe the stones were always this way, as I can see no other sign of humans ever treading here.
I look up at the hot sun: it is noon. I wonder what to do with myself. Nobody is here to impart wisdom, there are not even spirits or animals to talk to. The wind is still in the trees and the other elements keep their secrets just as well. It is as if the magic has run from this place; the eery stillness of the physical realm makes me uneasy, without its attendant vibrant energies and hidden fonts of life.
Stymied, I sit down and try to remember the thoughts of two lifetimes ago, when I was a different person, in a place between time and out of space. The cold, dark feeling comes back to me and I remember the place of the Dweller, and what the White Bison told me before swallowing me whole: Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf. It’s all the clue I have in this place.
I squat naked on a rock by the creek’s edge, resting my weight on the heels of my feet, thinking back on my life as I do what little I can to clean the dirt from my skin with handfuls of water. There were days, weeks even, of my life as a child spent naked like this, shivering uncontrollably, wedged between two mounds of trash in some futile effort to escape the tiger gales of Chicago.
Had I made any progress since then? Yes, I had moved forward, had become a better woman. Since those dark days I had found magic, the mask, and some small modicum of wealth. I am a predator now, not like then. I won’t just survive this land—I will rule it.
I scoop some more water over my head and run it through my long black hair, pulling loose strands free and ringing out the rest before looping it into two long braids to keep it out of the way. I get down onto all fours and shift my vision to the astral plane, casting about to get some feel of this place, wary for anything out of the ordinary. It was all I could do to remember that this forest was, in some distant, difficult to recall way, not really real at all.
I concentrate, closing my eyes, and open them again to perceive on the astr… No, I must be weakened from the journey here. I close my eyes again and focus inward, remembering the astral plane and the way it felt in my mind, like the handle of a familiar door or the fit of a tailored shirt. I open my eyes and the same mundane scene sits before me: the rock beneath, the stream in front and behind, the forest before me and rocks to my back. I shake my head and blink once, twice, thrice. Nothing changes.
Panicking, I try to project my spirit outwards, but I am trapped in my own shell, without even the knowledge of my astral form at hand to assure me that I was ever Awakened. I look down at my hands and my body, and know that this place is beyond the reach of even magic, if it can be said that this is a place at all. The only things that move are the water and the steady heaving of my chest as I try to maintain my composure. To be reduced to a sleeping form, burned out without hope of return to the sublime state of oneness with Gaia… The memory of the previous place, of my powers there and the mana fog comes back to me. Was I changed by the Ghost Dance? Did the fog itself burn me out, or was it my contact with the pre-Awakened peoples that robbed me of my powers?
I fight back tears. For me, this is as a scholar losing his sight, a bard losing his tongue, a runner losing his legs. I am mundane, like I was back in Chicago, before Cat. My spirit totem… I choke back the memory, as if recalling that lost piece of myself would be too much to bear. I steel my resolve and look down at my own reflection in the water. ‘It is you, now,’ I say silently. ‘You, and only you. You can survive here. You can pass this test.’
[My Magic rating is reduced to 0.]
I grip my temple, trying to center myself, to remember Cat’s teaching, even if she is lost to me in this strange, dark world. I will need food, and shelter, water and maybe a fire to keep me warm.
But out here there are no dumpsters to trawl, no mattresses to crawl beneath, no untended spigots to sip from, no trash to burn. How does anything survive in the forest? I take stock of what I have. This stream seems clear enough, if I stay near it I will have water. There is wood aplenty if I could only find some way to make a flame. The same may also serve as a shelter, if were to lean them together. I scan the terrain behind me, realizing I might also find a cave if I skirted the crags to my back far enough in one direction.
Still planted on all fours, I arch my back and look up, marking the path of the sun to gauge how many hours I still have in the day. I let what senses I have left linger on my naked skin, trying to feel if the air threatens to chill as it does on a fall night in Chicago, my home.
The sun is at high noon, and the air sits heavy on my shoulders like a shroud, promising a warm night to come. What little breeze there is floats by lightly, and the rock underneath gathers and radiates heat like a living thing. It will be a warm and easy night, by Nature’s standards, but the growling of my stomach reminds me of the pressing, incessant needs with which She has also burdened me.
A nagging, whining question slips itself unbidden into my consciousness. The lessons you have hidden in every stone and leaf… What did the vision of the Sioux chief mean? What did he want me to accomplish, where had Wophe’s path placed my feet—and what would Cat have to say? The thought of the totem’s eyes gazing at me makes me look down at my reflection again in shame. What I see is a marked, disheveled form, and I turn my eyes.
A motion catches my attention: there are fish underneath the surface of the water. Only minnows, large baitfish in truth, but enough to set my mind to the thought of food. I take another look around, searching for something to make into a tool. A pile of skree and large rocks sits at the base of the cliffs behind me. A clutter of kindling-sized sticks and debris is scattered to either side, and the rock rises above in a steep, but not unclimbable, ascent—some 20 feet. Ahead, there are trees aplenty, but they are stout and young, not to be felled easily, even by bending. The greater oaks and old hard woods will not come down with anything short of motors and steel, but perhaps there is a sapling somewhere in there thin enough for me to twist apart. Old, dry leaves litter the forest floor, creating a brown woven mat, and the yellow sunlight turns golden green as it runs like honey through the boughs.
I crouch by the water’s edge, watching the tiny minnows dart neurotically back and forth. Surely a cat shaman can catch a fish. . . .
But no, I think to myself as I turn from the small creek. I am not so weak yet that I have to resort to splashing about for stupid little fish, even without Gaia’s touch. I am a hunter still.
I make for the skree field, keeping my eyes open for straight sticks and sharp rocks, taking careful steps to avoid opening my foot on a stray stone or twig.
I hop down from my granite lillypad, landing on stone shelves made from the fallen faces of the cliff above me. The sun warms the rocks here, making it an ideal place for sunning snakes; I watch my step as I approach the base of the large boulder before me. I poke around in the twigs and loose rocks here, finding nothing. The sticks look to be oak, and acorns are found in the dirt alongside gravel, leaves and lichens.
I take one of the larger rocks in hand, raising it to examine the ground underneath. Dissatisfied, I place the rock back on the ground, and stand to leave. As I rise, something catches my eye and I pause, examining the surface of the stone more carefully.
Stay. There it is, plain as day. I hadn’t noticed before, but the lines and veins on the underside of the rock align and come together to form this one simple word. Stay. I pause in my search to wonder at its meaning.
I cannot help but laugh quietly to myself as I run my fingers across the word. I had not expected Wakantanka to be so literal in its delivery of my prayer. Something like relief tempers my worry as I realize there must still be magic in this place for the stones to carry the Great Mystery’s teaching so plainly.
Curious now, I pick among the rocks and fallen leaves, inspecting every surface for more words. My mind begins to turn the word over, stay, wondering at its meaning. Stay by this creek? Stay in whatever metaplane I had found myself? Or was it part of a longer message?
The rocks around my feet are really no larger than pebbles, but I pick some up and inspect them carefully, just to be sure. They seem to be stones of the natural, non-message-bearing variety. I continue my search around the base of the cliff for larger rocks.
After rummaging through some dirt, bones and debris at the base of a shrub, I pick up a triangular piece of slate and turn it over in my hands, minding the sharp edges which crumble away at my touch. Sure enough, on the back is the White Buffalo’s second clue: white veins of quartz penetrate the rock, marking clear letters in the smooth gray slate. Off. ‘Stay off’? Now definitely on to something, I pick up the pace of my search, eager to unravel the whole message.
My hand falls next on a large boulder, part of the broken bridgeway of stone which juts out into the shady stream. I plant my shoulder on its moss-eaten edge and I lift with my legs; the strong muscles in my back tense as I flip the plate-shaped rock onto its end.
The oblong stone tumbles in the air and falls amongst its brethren, shattering into a dozen pieces. I stare at each in turn, but see nothing; it is only as I leave, turning my head to look back, that the outline of the broken pieces is clearly visible.
It is a strange sentence. Stay Off Bluff. But it has familiarity to it, like the opening to a favorite story, or the voices of family drifting out of the past. The sensation of deja vu hits my brain in a primordial way. ‘I have been in this place before…’
I crouch by the water’s edge, mulling over the message and the distinct sensation that I am hearing voices of my family from some far off place. I have always been an orphan, I think to myself—whoever, or whatever, was trying to influence me has gotten something about me wrong, adding more weight to the notion that I should defy the message. Or had I been here before? Perhaps in another life, as another being, a being with someone to call family. . . . No. It was too preposterous, too improbable, even after all I had recently experienced. Reincarnation was not something the Sioux believed.
In reality, my choice has already been made by the circumstances of my existence. A prohibition to a Cat shaman is the strongest form of seduction. I grip the sharp piece of slate in one hand and leap gracefully across the rocks which lay in the shallow stream, intent on summitting the forbidden bluff.
The sun-baked rocks are hot under my feet as I make my way up the old familiar stream. Crawfish dart out of the way of my shadow as I hop across the rocks and rivulets, and the dappled light licks my bare shoulders as I splash through the shallows of a small pool, careful of my footing on the slick rocks beneath the surface. Only a few hundred meters of travel and I realize I have already reached my destination: a sheer bluff, some forty feet tall, rises from the riverbank on my left. I look at it as though staring at myself in a mirror, and make my way to the base to begin the ascent.
Gripping the nearest good handhold, I bite down on the triangular ‘Off’ slate and start climbing upwards. The going is slow and the rocks sharp, hazardous, and prone to giving way beneath my hands and feet, sending pebbles and skree tumbling downward like acrobats. I steel myself and continue the journey, sweat standing out on my shoulders to slide down my spine and around my naked hips.
I am making good pace, but still the rock stretches before me, high as it ever was. I look down to confirm that I have left the ground behind and am surprised to see only a blanket of gray fog beneath me, where once was a babbling brook teeming with tiny fishes and green with algae. I understand now that the way back is barred to me and to fall at this point in my journey would be my doom. The sense of the Threshold and the Dweller creeps around me like a cloak again, and I shudder inwardly at the thought of the brain-spider and its hideous, hairy, black legs swarming over my flesh. Grimacing around the slate in my mouth, I press on.
Hours pass as I climb, never noticing the summit drawing nearer, never making noticeable progress from the fog below. I start to wonder if this is another test, whether I should simply fall and be done with it, that maybe this is an ordeal I was destined to fail. It seems that this place strains the resolve of mine own spirit, plucking the threads binding the fabric of my being together. My hope of success recedes with tidal inevitability, and the gloaming of my life seems nigh. I prepare to make peace with myself, my ancestors—what little I have—Wophe, and Cat. Cat most of all.
All of a sudden, my fingers brush grass and dirt, and I am hauling myself upwards, over the lip of my destiny, to see sweet freedom and stand on solid ground. I scramble upwards, breathless, and look up.
I stop dead in my tracks.