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Arenia & The Golden Key

 

 

 

 

ARENIA

&

The Golden Key

by Gizem Mut

ARENIA

& The Golden Key

Copyright © 2016 by Gizem Mut

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, introduced into a retrieval system, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including without limitation photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. The scanning, uploading, and/or distribution of this document via the internet or via any other means without the permission from the author is illegal and is punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials.

ISBN-13: 978-15228-0859-6

ISBN-10: 1-522-80859-0

Cover art by Olga Kosheleva, Gizem Mut

Edited by Zachary Kerschberg, Lucy Anderton

Interior design by Gizem Mut

www.areniathebook.com

For more information, please contact the author at:

[email protected]

First Edition

Printed in the U.S.A

I dedicate

this book

to you,

for

becoming

a part of

Arenia’s[* ]world[.*]

Contents

Author’s Preface

01-The Wake-Up Call

02-X-Corp

03-The Pitch

04-Like Fish in the Sea

05-The Train of Thoughts

06-The Blue Jay

07-As the Inner, so Is the Outer

08-The Dark Waters of the Unknown

09-The Golden Key

10-The Legend of Apocalypse

11-Celebration of the Existence of the Non-Existent

12-The Journal: Life of a Pariah

13-The Blessing of the Mermaids

14-The Training

15-Lucy

16-Dumping the Old

17-Hanska’s Sword

18-Truth is a Reward

19-The Wildflower

20-The Tree of Life

21-The Black Panther

22-The Spirit of a Hunter

23-The Blink of an Eye

24-The Magical Forest

25-We Are Made of Stardust

26-On Peacock Time

27-Fish in a Bowl

28-The Scale Man

29-The Floating Boat

30-A Noble Purpose

31-The Resurrectionists

Message from the Author

What happens next?

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Author’s Preface

Who am I? What gifts and talents do I have? What is my purpose in this world? As I struggled with the challenges of pursuing an acting career, I realized that I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I had spent my life trying to fit in. There was always a huge gap between who I was and who I thought I should be. When my discontent became unbearable, I withdrew into myself to gain a deeper understanding of my self, realizing that at some point in my life I had stopped being fully me. So I began tearing down the walls of who I was not—in search of the truth.

Soon, I found that countless friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers were going through similar struggles. It seems to be one of the greatest human conflicts of our time—we all want to be extraordinary and stand out. Yet, we also just want to be accepted and fit in. More than ever, we are preoccupied with expressing our individuality. What makes us stand out and recognizable—or even unforgettable and irreplaceable? The “I” is our product, our brand. In an ongoing state of optimization, we mold our lives around our own brands, the “I.” The “I” is no longer timeless, but must be constantly adjusted according to what is in demand. It must be a flexible, changeable, and thus a multiple “I.” Our careers, our partners, our fashion, our bodies, the music we listen to, the city we live in, who we surround ourselves with, our social activities, what we put out on social media—with every detail we make a statement. We have only one life and it has to be perfect. It is our grand work of art.

The problem with perfection? It can never be achieved.

Have you ever seen a beautiful piece of art that you didn’t feel any connection to? It didn’t touch you. When that happens, we usually say something like, “It lacks soul.” Webster dictionary defines the word “soul” as: “the immaterial essence; animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life; a person’s total self; the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment.”

I came to understand that an authentic connection to my self and to others only happens when I stop worrying about how I should be and instead just be. In one moment I might be shy, in another, I might be wise. I might be frightened or I might be brave. I might be funny or I might be wild. I might be loud or I might be quiet. But no matter what I will be, it will not define who I am. It will just be an expression of who I am in a momentary snap—like a photograph.

Why worry about who we are? Why put labels on ourselves that define us and profoundly limit our identity? Instead, we could accept each other and ourselves for who we are, moment by moment. Embrace the unknowingness, and allow our vast potential to seek expression in infinite ways. This is when the magic happens. The gaping hole of discontent that lies within slowly dissolves, and a gem surfaces that was buried deep. This is the unique gift that each and every one of us was born with to share with the world. We become who we are destined to be. We live our life’s purpose.

My journey of self-discovery and transformation inspired me to share my experiences and everything that has helped me throughout the process. How could I offer others these insights, while also giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves if and when they wanted to hear about this?

I have always believed that fantastical stories have a unique power to let us explore in childlike wonder and curiosity. They have the power to move us in very subtle and innocent, yet very profound ways. Thus, the idea for ARENIA & The Golden Key was born. This book lets you dive into a wondrous world while at the same time facing real-life challenges through the main character, Arenia. At its heart, it is the exploration of the inward journey. I hope you enjoy it!

Gizem Mut      

Lower East Side, New York

January 2016

“Reality is merely an illusion,

albeit a very persistent one.”

— Albert Einstein

1

The Wake-Up Call

“Areeniaaa . . . ” His whisper is haunting.

The young woman opens her eyes to a bare, white, light-flooded room. The sun shines warmly through the empty window frames, and the sheer white curtains dance in the gentle breeze. She doesn’t know how she ended up there and her heart is racing. She searches the room for clues. She’s never been here before, but it feels unsettlingly familiar. She reaches slowly for the closed door’s elaborate bronze doorknob. She’s scared of what’s behind the door, but her curiosity is greater.

The door creaks as she slowly opens it. A burst of cold, damp air presses against her body. A shiver runs down her spine. She steps into a dark corridor that ends with a wooden staircase spiraling downward. Her head is spinning and her stomach churns.

“Areeniaaa . . . ” Again the strange yet familiar voice gently whispers her name, but she sees no one.

His voice is hypnotizing. It draws her forward. She steps down the narrow staircase. There’s no railing and she struggles to keep her balance. As she moves further and further down, it gets darker and more difficult to see. Finally, she reaches the ground floor.

There’s a sudden movement in the darkness ahead. She freezes. The figure stops too. Arenia holds her breath, her heart pounding and her knees weak. The figure silently turns towards Arenia and gazes at her. A black panther. Terrified, Arenia turns back. But the stairs have disappeared. She faces forward again, and the panther slowly dissolves into tiny glowing particles, quickly scattering like fireflies and illuminating the space where she’s standing. The walls are flanked with mirrors. Bewildered, she stares at her reflection, her hands reaching for her face. The flickering lights infinitely reflect in the endless depth of the mirrors and create a spectacular, enchanting world wrapping her in wonder. When the lights slowly dim and disappear, Arenia again feels anxious as the darkness grows.

Flames flicker up from a distant torch hanging on a stone wall. She quickly walks towards it down a narrow hallway of black stone walls. She reaches for the torch, but the moment she tries to pull it off the wall, the ground beneath her feet disappears. She screams, dropping into a deep tunnel. As she grapples with paralyzing fear, she looks down into the abyssal darkness sucking her deeper into its bottomless pit. Frantically, she scratches about, searching for anything to grab onto—nothing. The cold air is fierce as she rushes through it. An impact is inevitable and she closes her eyes, waiting. Suddenly, she becomes lighter and her fall slows. She opens her eyes. She’s hovering above a large room.

[_I’m flying! _]She peers cautiously down at the marble floor. In the back of the room, a young man sits on an elaborate golden throne crested with shimmering gemstones, flanked by two armored guards, each holding a sword and a lance. He’s talking to a servant who eagerly writes notes into a large red book.

Arenia carefully waves her arms to propel herself to a nearby column. From behind the column, she glances out again. The room looks like the throne rooms in countless movies, embodying royal splendor and elegance. The throne sits on a raised platform from which marble stairs descend to the ground. Numerous intricately carved columns support the lavishly frescoed ceiling. Large golden mirrors and dramatic paintings from different eras hang from the marble gilded walls. Most of the paintings depict triumphant war scenes, imposing portraits of a particular young prince, and barely covered women.

Stacks of souvenirs from all over the world are piled throughout the room—historical artifacts, carpets, golden chests, wooden trunks, weapons, bundles of different currencies, gold bars, more paintings, and animals in cages of various colors and species. A beautiful crested bird with a plumage in multiple shades of bright blue catches Arenia’s attention. The bird turns to look at her. Arenia recognizes it—a blue jay. Fastened around one of its legs is a gleaming golden ring. Directly next to it is an elegant, small, wooden sailboat; a full-sized car from the 1920s; and even bars of chocolate and packs of soda cans. [_This man has good taste. _]Arenia giggles.

The two guards freeze. They whip around, searching for the source of the sound. The young man on the throne looks at them. Arenia’s hand flies to her mouth. [_Oh no! They can hear me! _]She darts back behind the column. After a long search, the guards return to their posts and the young man resumes talking to his servant. Arenia exhales. A moment later, she peeks out again and stares down at the young man.

He’s the prince from the paintings! He’s unbearably pale, as if he hasn’t seen the sun in years. Suddenly, 12 men of different sizes and shapes enter through two doors on opposite sides behind the throne. Each wears a beige hooded robe with a bulky leather belt around his waist, each with a different roman numeral and a snake engraving on the metal buckle. Arenia slides back behind the column. But she needn’t worry—their expressions show them to be too buried in thought to notice her.

“Gentlemen, the Great Council isn’t until the end of the week.”

“Tartarus, my Lord,” Wise Man 7 addresses the prince, “we apologize for our sudden interruption of—”

“We are in the middle of the gift assessment,” the prince cuts him off. “We still have a substantial amount of work here.”

“We have a matter of great urgency to discuss with you,” Wise Man 7 responds.

“What is so urgent that it can’t wait a few days?” Tartarus snaps.

Speechless, the Wise Men look at each other. Arenia feels that something is about to happen.

Tartarus sighs. “You shall be dismissed for now,” he addresses his servant, who quickly disappears behind the heavy closed doors. “There better be a good reason for your disturbance, Wise Men,” the prince says, glaring.

“Tartarus, an alarming number of Gaians are awakening,” Wise Man 2 starts in after a hanging moment of silence. “The amount of energy we’re harvesting is not enough to sustain the growing number of Wendigos. Unrest and turmoil is spreading among them.”

“I don’t understand. Didn’t we optimize the energy reaping? We now feed the Gaians with extremely individualized negative thoughts, which create even more energy.”

“Yes, sir, but . . . ”

“We have more Wendigos and Gaian collaborators controlling the masses than ever before. Their efficiency is at its highest point,” Tartarus continues. “What causes the energy deficiency and their unrest? The Wendigos should be thankful for what I offer them!”

Wise Man 8 humbly steps forward. “The problem we are facing with Gaians right now is that the more negative thoughts we feed them, the more they search for liberation. By searching and questioning their own minds, some develop awareness.”

“They have begun to monitor themselves,” adds Wise Man 4.

“So, plant more thoughts in them! Induce more fear!” Tartarus commands.

“That’s what we have done, but the suicide rate has increased and the mental hospitals are overcrowded. The Gaians can’t handle the increased amount of negative thoughts. Many develop mental illnesses and addictions. On the one hand, this development is excellent because they cause the Gaians around them even more pain, which means more energy for us. But some also appear to be developing immunity. The more we attack them, the more they seek awareness,” says Wise Man 7.

“Then manipulate their relatives!” Tartarus barks.

“We did. We manipulated those closest to them. For some it works and they fall back asleep, but many seem to have understood our patterns and no longer react,” Wise Man 3 says.

The room falls silent. The Wise Men glance at each other.

Wise Man 8 steps forward decisively. “Tartarus, please forgive us, but out of desperation we consulted the One Who Sees.” His decisiveness disappears at the sight of the prince’s wrathful face.

Tartarus leaps from his throne and strides over to Wise Man 8. “You must ask my permission before you consult the One Who Sees! Are you questioning my authority, my capacity to govern? I have brought all of us this far!” His words roll out like thunder and his flying hair morphs into hissing serpents. From behind the throne glides an enormous yellow snake. The two guards assume hostile and ready positions.

The Wise Men look desperate. Arenia gasps. She cowers behind the column, frantically searching the room for the best possible exit.

“My Lord, we don’t question your strength. But you must hear what the One Who Sees has said about you,” Wise Man 8 frantically explains.

“What did she say about me?!” Tartarus bellows.

“She said that the greatest threat to your sovereignty is not energy. The greatest threat comes from a Gaian woman who will soon descend to Underworld, slay you—the Ruler of Darkness—and destroy Underworld. Just as the legend predicts. She said that you must kill the woman before she kills you!”

Tartarus barks out an angry, ridiculing laugh, and then abruptly stops. His face freezes. His eyes rage with fire. He wags his finger at Wise Man 8. “How dare you come to me with outrageous news about an ordinary Gaian woman defeating me, the most powerful man in this realm. Me, who has reawakened and profoundly expanded the nearly non-existent Land of the Dead and its territories over the past centuries! You, Wise Man 8, have gone too far! Guards! Get him out of my sight!”

The Wise Men look at each other, appalled, as the two guards grab Wise Man 8.

“For your betrayal, I hereby sentence you to a slow death!”

Wise Man 8 struggles against the guards, pleading, “My Lord, I beg you for mercy! I only did this to save you—to save us! You are the emperor of all! It is entirely the fault of the One Who Sees. These words don’t come from me. Ask the others who were with me. Wise Man 1, Wise Man 2—say something! Wise Man 7!”

The other Wise Men look away, bewilderedly.

“I swear they were with me. We together decided to consult her. The One Who Sees even mentioned the Gaian’s name!” Before Wise Man 8 disappears behind the gates, he screams, “ARENIA! HER NAME IS ARENIA!”

The gates slam close. Tartarus stands glowing, as if struck by lightning. Arenia cannot breathe. Her heart pounds so loudly, it seems to echo throughout the utterly silent chamber. Even the animals are silent.

I have to get out of here now! All of the tall windows are closed. The only doors are behind the throne and behind her. She thinks she’ll faint. [Calm down, _]she tells herself[. Don’t panic! How did you fall in here? Is there a secret door in the ceiling?_] But the ceiling is solid. Her only chance is to sneak out when one of the doors opens again, or to wait until the room is empty.

While debating which strategy to choose, she spots the giant yellow snake sliding up the column towards her. Panic-struck, she spins around to escape—only to face its tail. She’s fenced in. The snake quickly coils around her legs. The more she tries to get away, the tighter it squeezes. Sweat pours down her face. She swallows her pain so as not to make a sound.

“Tarrrtarusssss . . . loookkk who we have hereeeeee,” the snake hisses.

Everyone looks up.

[_The snake talks! _]Arenia shudders with fear. [_How did I end up here? I never should’ve gone down the stairs! _]

“Good Lord!” Wise Man 1 blurts out.

The Wise Men, thankful for the change of subject, all begin to speak at once.

“Who are you?” demands Wise Man 3, “and how did you enter this room?”

“How is it possible that she bends reality?” Wise Man 9 whispers to Wise Man 10.

“Yes! How does she fly?” gasps Wise Man 2.

“BRING HER HERE!” Tartarus screams.

The snake spirals down the column and slithers to the throne, pulling Arenia with it.

“No, no! I haven’t done anything. I just want to go home. Please, let me go!” Arenia pleads, struggling to escape.

“Silence!” Tartarus roars.

Arenia quiets, barely able to breathe from the pressure of the enormous snake.

“Release her!”

The yellow snake unravels and slides to the side, monitoring her closely with its sizzling tongue. The moment she’s free, Arenia runs for the gates.

“Catch her!”

The snake catches up with her, and she runs on, fighting it off with her arms. The hallway to the gate grows longer and longer, moving the gate further and further away, as if she were just running in place. Time slows. The snake crawls around her right arm and bites her forefinger. Arenia’s struck by a wave of fire and shock. Her scream is so loud that the echo hurts her ears. This can’t be real! This must be a dream! Please, let this be a dream! I want to wake up! Wake up! Wake up! The sight of the room fades to black.

2

X-Corp

“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up,” sings the alarm clock.

Arenia jolts up and gasps for air. Immediately, she turns the dreadful alarm off. She glances around her bedroom, heaving a great sigh of relief. It was just a dream. She looks at the time—11:11 a.m.

Oh no! Mr. Raven! His sarcastic smile flashes through her mind as she leaps out of bed. She runs to the kitchen, grabs her cell phone, and pushes a button—only to discover it’s just 7:15 a.m.

Arenia shakes her head. [_Not only is the alarm hideous, but the clock doesn’t even work right. _]

Lately, it’s been hard to sleep. After reading that cell phone radiation disturbs sleep, she’s decided to keep her phone in the kitchen at night and use the old digital clock. Her grandmother dug it out of the attic’s dustiest corner and told her how Arenia’s parents used it when Arenia was a child. It’s useless.[_ _]She throws it in the trash, dresses her fragile figure in a rather unflattering ensemble of gray pants and a white blouse, and walks out of her brownstone apartment building, crossing her quiet street to her favorite café.

After picking up a chocolate croissant and a coffee, which she pours into her thermos, she gets on her bike and heads to work with the sun warming her up. The summer breeze caresses her body. That’s the best part of waking up early, she thinks. [Feeling the magical morning bliss. _]She soaks in the air’s stillness and peace, and then turns the corner to slide into the hum of the traffic.[ _]The well-rested city is glowing in the golden sunlight. Birds call to one another in melodic tunes. Arenia thinks about the handsome young man she’s been seeing at the café almost every morning and how she wishes she could find the courage to talk to him.

[Every time it’s the same. I can’t wait to see him—then, when I do, I get totally uncomfortable and I can’t get out of there fast enough. Why do I get so shy? It’s so embarrassing. I don’t know what to do with myself, where to look, how to put my arms. _]Just thinking about it makes her uncomfortable.[ He definitely sees it—he must think I’m weird. . . . But maybe he thinks it’s cute. ]Arenia stops at a red light and takes a hopeful sip of coffee. Life hasn’t been the same since she discovered her dairy intolerance. Coffee without milk tastes bitter, and she can’t drink too much because it burns her stomach. But she doesn’t mind. She loves the ritual. [_No, he totally thinks I’m weird. _]Light green, she starts cycling again.[ Does he even notice me? Umm, he looked extra cute today. _]A short while later, she pulls up to a colossal modern office building.

Work. Arenia sits at her computer at a long shared table in a massive, open office space. Even though the design is supposed to be airy and open, she finds it oppressive. She still isn’t used to the lack of privacy. Her every little move—every cough, restroom break, arrival, and departure—is observed by at least 17 pairs of mostly judgmental eyes.

There’s a daily ongoing conversation across the table from morning until day’s end. At the beginning, Arenia tried to participate. But she soon discovered that she never got her work done on time. Now, she hides in the haven of her headphones. While she’s much more efficient this way, she’s also much more isolated. And her co-workers don’t hide their disapproval.

Arenia surfs the Internet while listening to low-volume alternative pop. Most of the open tabs are work related, but she does have her personal social media account up. She watches for passing co-workers so she can change the tabs if someone looks.

A friend has posted an article that piques her curiosity: “Parallel Universes—Is There Another You Out There in Another Dimension?”[_ _]She scrolls down the page. [_I already have more than enough to do with myself in this dimension. _]As she moves down the timeline, foggy memories of the prince and the yellow snake flash through her mind. Arenia impulsively goes back and clicks on the article. As she falls deeply into the scientific explanation of the multiverse theory, she forgets her surroundings. She doesn’t notice co-workers passing by and glancing at her screen. The article absorbs her whole being.

The shrill tone of her phone rings. She snaps out of her trance-like state and pulls off her headphones. Before she answers, she takes a moment. As her hand reaches for the receiver, her eyes pass over the time on her computer screen.

It’s 11:11 a.m.

Arenia startles. “Hello?” she manages, confused.

“Arenia, how many times have I told you not to answer the phone like you do at home? Please remind me of how professionals answer!”

“X-Corp’s Lifestyle Magazine, this is Arenia speaking. How may I help you?” Arenia reddens with embarrassment.

“With that tone, nobody will want to be helped by you,” her boss insists. “Once again—but this time please manage to sound less like a corpse.”

“X-Corp’s Lifestyle Magazine, this is Arenia speaking. How may I help you?” Arenia is much more animated—forced, but certainly animated.

“It can’t be that hard to follow this rather simple rule, can it?”

“It won’t happen again.” The other side of the line is quiet. “I’m sorry, Mr. Raven,” she adds, a bit intimidated. “Mr. Raven?”

“Uh, yes. Don’t forget the meeting in an hour with Professor Basel. I hope this time you can prove that you understand what this company is all about and win this pitch. While his theories are currently traveling the globe, Professor Basel hasn’t given an interview to any media outlet in years. We’re lucky that a mutual acquaintance owed me a favor and was able to set up an informal meeting with him. If you nail this, you’ll have officially made it into the company. If not . . . well, let’s not think about that possibility. He’s an introvert, just like you. I see a chance you two speak the same language.” Click. Gone.

Shoot! Arenia swallows. She totally forgot about the meeting and hasn’t even started with her preparations. [_Ugh, where is my head these days? Why can’t I just focus on getting things done? _]Panic follows anger. She turns away from her co-workers who are staring at her again, whispering and giggling to each other.

Why do I waste my time reading irrelevant stuff? This here is reality. I have bills to pay and work to do. I have to prove myself in this new job. And, so far, Mr. Raven isn’t much impressed. She’s lucky she inherited her parents’ apartment after graduation. The thought of the city’s high rent twists her stomach.

All right—first things first. She takes a long breath. The brochure. She starts creating a brochure, the one every potential client gets. It’s a collection of glossy pictures with inflated, self-complimenting, and boring information about X-Corp and Lifestyle Magazine, along with a photo of Mr. Raven’s big round head and his big fake grin exposing his big, too-white, shiny teeth.

Am I really an introvert? And even if I am, is it a synonym for weird? Does Mr. Raven think I’m weird? Arenia sighs. [Focus. The brochure is done. Professor Basel. What’s he known for? _]She types his name into the search engine[. ]Thousands of results overwhelm her with information. _Wow. Impressive. The first article carries the caption, “Synchronicity—A Glitch in our Reality” by Professor Basel, Ph.D. Arenia props her elbows on the table and buries her face in her hands. Promptly, she pulls herself together and begins reading and annotating.

-3-

The Pitch

Mr. Raven and Arenia wait, seated in a booth in Robin’s Diner. They’re both equally nervous. Ten minutes pass. Finally, Professor Basel walks in. Mr. Raven stands and stretches out his hand. Basel doesn’t reciprocate. Instead, he mumbles something close to, “Yes, hello, hello.” He takes a seat on the opposite side of the table.

Arenia begins to introduce herself, without offering a handshake. “My name is Aren—”

Mr. Raven interrupts her. “Professor Basel, it’s an honor to meet you. What an excellent choice of location.” His lips pull back to show his infamous wide grin of large teeth.

Arenia ignores that Mr. Raven was complaining about the diner’s hideousness just moments before. Basel still doesn’t react. Instead, he lifts the menu and stares at his options, blocking his face from them. An awkward silence ensues.

Embarrassed by Mr. Raven, Arenia also feels helpless about communicating with this cold and distant Professor Basel. Mr. Raven clearly doesn’t speak his language. This man obviously doesn’t care about titles, flummeries, or being buttered up. Perfect—those are not part of my strengths anyway. She realizes she might be the only person who could get him to open up.[_ _]But she doesn’t want to think as far as collaboration yet. Making him speak is her first goal.

“Professor Basel.” She clears her throat. “We’d love to feature you in our Lifestyle Magazine.

Basel shows no sign of acknowledgement.

Arenia glances at Mr. Raven, and then resumes. “Lifestyle Magazine has a circulation of almost two million. Our target group consists of educated, career-oriented, male and female professionals in the age range of 20 to 40 who are opinion leaders among their peers.”

Mr. Raven nods approvingly and gazes at Basel for a reaction. But Basel is brutally engrossed in the menu.

Arenia continues, desperate to reach him. “We think our readers would love to hear about the extraordinary theories of multiverses you’ve developed.”

Nothing.

“Professor Basel? I would really appreciate it if we could get some sort of communication going.”

Silence. Arenia feels helpless. Then he speaks.

Lifestyle Magazine does not sound like a scientific magazine, Ms. . . . ?” He doesn’t move the menu an inch.

Glad that he said something, Arenia clears her throat once again. “It’s Arenia. And, yes, you are right, Professor Basel. [_Lifestyle _]is a magazine that reports on more than one genre. In fact, we cover many different subjects—politics, health, economy, business, and science. Even celebrity news. Our readers like to read and educate themselves in many areas, not just one. We’re able to meet their needs with a single publication. That’s what’s so special about our magazine.”

Basel finally places down the menu and skeptically inspects Arenia, who tries not to avert her gaze. Luckily, a waitress interrupts. Basel asks for the breakfast special with black tea. Arenia and Mr. Raven order coffee.

“Arenia, I am assuming you consider yourself to be one of your magazine’s readers. Young and educated, an opinion leader interested in different areas?”

Arenia doesn’t like where this is going. This pitch is not about her, and she feels like a tricky question will follow.

“Yes, I do,” she answers, even though she definitely does not consider herself to be an opinion leader. She laughs silently at herself.

“So, how much do you, Arenia, know about multiverses already, or why would it interest you to read about them? Mr. Raven, you are more than welcome to answer these questions as well.”

The waitress serves the coffees and tea. Arenia can feel Mr. Raven’s thorough irritation as he adds milk and dumps in a spoonful of sugar. His strategy of chewing up some article he read a while ago and pretending to be an expert on it would definitely not work with this highly intelligent and difficult old man. Mr. Raven is probably already imagining himself back at the company blaming the loss of the pitch on me . . . no, this one is on me.

She knows her answer will determine if Professor Basel takes her and the magazine seriously or not. She waits a moment before she answers, making Mr. Raven even more nervous, his wrinkles deepening. Then Raven glares at her as if to say: Not speaking is the worst thing you can do right now! Say something!

“Well,” Arenia begins, “I always felt it would be ignorant to assume our world holds the only living beings, considering the incomprehensible vastness of our universe. I understand it’s frustrating that we’re unable to detect life beyond our planet—despite our highly developed technologies. The only two ways I can explain that fact to myself is that either our technology hasn’t reached far enough into the known universe yet, or other beings live in other dimensions that our senses and our technology are simply not able to detect. That’s why I would like to learn more about your theory of multiverses.”

Arenia is not used to exposing her thoughts about life and the universe to strangers, especially not in front of her boss, who is now definitely convinced of her weirdness.

Professor Basel looks at her with a touch of interest. “How do you educate yourself on cosmic matters? And on what do you base your beliefs?”

“I read magazines and articles on the net, but I also read a lot about spiritual and philosophical teachings.”

“There’s a lot of contradictory and often inaccurate information out there. How do you filter the truth from what is false?”

Arenia takes a moment to think. “I guess with my gut. Usually, a feeling in me tells me if something sounds right or wrong.”

Mr. Raven follows the conversation like a Ping-Pong game, his head popping from left to right.

“Hmm.” Professor Basel smiles. Then his smile turns into laughter.

People at the nearby tables turn their heads in the direction of his loud guffaws. Arenia’s cheeks burn. Oh, Arenia, what did you just say to one of the greatest scientists of our time?

Mr. Raven attempts to save the situation. “Professor Basel, this is exactly why we need to educate young people about science, and teach them that proven theories are the right sources to base knowledge and beliefs on, and not . . . not their ‘guts.’ ”

Arenia wishes she could just crawl under the table.

Basel stops laughing. His expression gets very serious. “Mr. Raven. I would like to continue this conversation with Arenia, alone.”

Arenia can’t fathom what’s happening. [_Did I miss something? _]She hopes Mr. Raven doesn’t agree to this.

Mr. Raven is visibly irritated and feeling unappreciated. He tries to keep his composure. “Of course.” Utterly perplexed, he stands and pulls on his jacket. “Thank you again for the meeting, Professor Basel. Have a good day. Arenia, I’ll see you at the office.”

Arenia’s eyes follow Mr. Raven out of the diner. His abandoned coffee cup stares at her. She’s certain she’ll get fired after this. Not only did she question science’s credibility—Professor Basel’s very background—but she also humiliated Mr. Raven and X-Corp. I deserve to be fired.

“He’ll get over it,” Professor Basel says in a fatherly way, noting Arenia’s concern. “The only thing he cares about is getting the interview. Let me tell you one thing. If I agree to do this, it’s not because of him. I don’t collaborate with people like him, people who only see numbers—numbers of readers and numbers of dollars. People who take on any popular opinion and never question anything, even if it’s scientifically proven.” The waitress brings his breakfast, and he dives in—scrambled eggs with bacon, potatoes, and toast. He speaks between mouthfuls.

“Do you know how many times scientists have had to revise their theories? Is there any proof that our current theories are correct? Yes, we have mathematical formulas that work. But who invented these formulas? Humankind. There are a lot of cosmic truths out there that science alone cannot and probably will never be able to fully explain. How could we? Only when our minds are ready to fully comprehend the cosmic truths will we be ready to explain them.”

Arenia listens keenly. His wrinkled, tired—yet sharp—brown eyes look back at her in a friendly and humble way. Wispy, white, uncombed hair. A bushy white mustache streaked with gray on the bottom. Big round nose. [_He’s so much like Albert Einstein. _]Just his presence helps her calm down and focus on her goal of trying to find a common base with him. She takes her first sip of her coffee. [_Not bad at all.      _]

4

Like Fish in the Sea

“Imagine the fish in the sea,” Professor Basel continues. “How do you expect them to ever truly grasp that there’s another livable world or habitat out there beyond the water? From their point of view, we could say there’s another dimension where millions and millions of other organisms live. Now, imagine the scientists among the fish gathering and debating whether there are other life forms outside the sea, when in fact there are countless life forms so close by. They devise theories and calculate mathematical formulas about how life underwater would compare to life outside of water, finally declaring the land inhabitable. Isn’t it a ludicrous notion?” Basel laughs wholeheartedly and digs into his plate again.

Arenia is confused. But the thought of fish wearing white uniforms and discussing the possibility of life on land is indeed entertaining. She laughs. Maybe Mr. Raven was right. Maybe we do speak the same language.

“I sometimes wonder to what degree the animals or plants that share our living space are even aware of us,” she remarks.

“It’s a very interesting thought,” Basel answers, taking a careful sip of tea. “Obviously, most of them are ‘aware’ of our existence, as it is vital to their survival. But let’s take a closer look at the birds in the sky, the bees on the flower petals, and the ants marching down the same streets as we do. They certainly have no clue about the way we live or about our science and technology. They don’t have the capacity to do so to begin with.”

Professor Basel slurps his cup of tea and utters pleased sounds. Then he continues, “We, on the other hand, know almost everything about them. We’ve studied them, their evolution, their diets, their mating preferences, sleep patterns, what motivates them . . . in short, almost everything about them. Our brains allow us to observe, study, analyze, question, and conclude. Our awareness is higher than theirs. Their habitats could theoretically be seen as different dimensions that we can actually perceive. But, of course, we don’t talk about them like dimensions, because animals and plants are integral parts of our lives. But what if we are like animals or plants to other species of beings? What if we’re an integral part of some other life form—one that is far higher in intelligence and awareness, and perhaps has even studied us? Just give that a thought. It doesn’t seem so far off, does it?”

“Yeah, somehow it doesn’t,” Arenia admits.

“As a matter of fact, we might even be sharing the same living space with them right now.”

He pushes away his empty plate, wipes his mouth with the paper napkin, and resumes. “But I don’t think we’ll be able to detect other-dimensional life forms any time soon. That is, unless these higher life forms for some reason want to be discovered.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Because they know that the first thing our governments would do is start a war against them. The thought of more powerful beings frightens our institutions.”

“But why wouldn’t we perceive them if they might even share the same space?”

“If I have to guess—just like the fish in the sea—our senses and our brains may not be evolved enough to perceive what lays probably just in front of us.”

“Huh. That kind of makes me uncomfortable,” Arenia says.

Professor Basel nods in compliance, while scrutinizing Arenia’s ring finger.

“What an interesting ring you have.” It’s a silver panther head with light-green eyes. Its extended neck wraps around her finger like a tail and finishes back on the side of the panther head. Her grandmother found it in the attic alongside the broken alarm clock Arenia threw away this morning. Arenia had thought that the slightly thicker ending of the tail looked like a snakehead.

“Oh, thanks, it’s my mother’s,” she quickly responds.

Basel peers into Arenia’s face, making her uneasy. “Well, that’s a beautiful gift. What’s she doing?”

“My parents passed away many years ago,” Arenia answers, indifferently. She tries her best to give him the most genuine smile and hopes he’ll stop asking about her parents. She averts her eyes to a painting on the wall—in it, a young woman is eating a pomegranate.

“Déjà vu!” she exclaims.

“Pardon me?”

“The painting,” she explains. “I saw almost the exact same one in my dream last night—a woman holding a pomegranate. What a crazy coincidence!” The thought of last night’s nightmare sends a shiver down her spine.

“Well, strictly speaking it’s not a déjà vu, then, as you say you have indeed seen this painting in your dream and it’s not merely a strong sense of familiarity.” Basel studies the painting. “Do you know who the woman represents?”

“No. Who?”

“I assume it’s intended to be a modern interpretation of Persephone, the mythical Greek goddess,” Basel replies.

“What’s she known for?”

“For being an extraordinarily beautiful and innocent young woman. According to the myth, one sunny day she bent down to pluck a narcissus flower from a field of wildflowers when the ground split and Hades abducted her. He was the God of Underworld, which is a place of death and darkness. He made her his wife. Time passed by. Part of her missed her old life on Earth, but another part of her grew to love Hades. Eventually, she began learning the rules of her new world, and even relished her new role as Queen of Underworld, guiding the dead who had lost their way while traveling there from Earth.”

“Wow. She must have been a very strong woman,” Arenia concludes.

“Well, not from the beginning. She grew into a strong woman,” Basel notes.

Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Arenia sees a small, dark insect creeping along the wall just inches from her. It’s a black spider with a big body and hairy legs. Instantly, she is petrified.

“You know, I come here often, and I’ve never noticed the painting before,” Professor Basel mumbles to himself. “Maybe it’s not a coincidence.”

His words ring in Arenia’s ears—maybe it’s not a coincidence—while[_ _]she watches the spider crawl up the wall and battles an overwhelming desire to shriek and run hysterically out of the diner. She barely manages to nod and focus on the professor’s face. She breaks into a sweat and her hands begin to shake. She can’t handle it any longer. She abruptly stands up and moves slightly away from the table.

“Professor Basel, I . . . I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Unfortunately, I have to leave. I would be sincerely grateful if we could continue another time, should you agree to do the interview with us. And if you have any thoughts or doubts, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

“Sure,” Basel says, hesitantly, surprised at Arenia’s sudden change of heart. “However you prefer to proceed.” He searches for the reason in her eyes. “It was my pleasure meeting you, Ms.?”

“Kennan, Arenia Kennan. It was my pleasure too.” Arenia hastily signals the waitress for the check. She pulls on her jacket while watching the spider disappear below the tabletop. At least I don’t see it anymore. But not knowing its whereabouts horrifies her even more.

When the waitress places the check on the table, Arenia opens her purse. Her eyes wander to the check and back to her wallet. She staggers. Professor Basel notices her reaction and stares closely at her. She stares at the check in sheer bafflement.

The amount is $11.11.

“I’ve got it, don’t worry about it, Arenia. My treat,” he reassures her.

“Oh no . . . it was just . . . ” Arenia stops herself, thinking of the spider under the tabletop. “Thank you very much. It was my pleasure meeting you, Professor Basel. I hope to continue our conversation soon. Have a good day.”

“You too, Arenia. It was my pleasure.” Basel, deep in thought, watches her leave. As the door closes behind her, he picks up his phone and writes an email to Mr. Raven and Arenia:

Ms. Kennan, Mr. Raven,

 

I am pleased to announce my willingness to give an interview with the contingency that Ms. Arenia Kennan conducts it. Ms. Kennan, please contact me to set up a time for a meeting.

 

Best regards,

Professor Basel

Back at work, Arenia doesn’t even reach her desk before Mr. Raven cuts her off with a dubious smirk.

“Have you checked your emails yet, Arenia?”

“No, I haven’t had time. Why?” Arenia can’t quite read his face. Is it good news or bad news?

“I don’t know how you convinced that bitter old man. And I actually don’t care. He’s willing to do the interview with the contingency that it is you who does it with him.”

Arenia suppresses her urge to jump with joy and smiles a very composed little smile. “Oh, really? That’s very nice of him.”

Mr. Raven squints at Arenia. “Don’t mess it up. He has a rather difficult personality. I’m counting on you.”

Arenia’s excitement gradually turns into worry. The real challenge still lies ahead. He’s right. Professor Basel is a man who could change his mind at any minute. Mr. Raven turns around to leave. He suddenly stops and turns to Arenia with a wide grin spreading across his face.

“I knew you two would speak the same language.” He walks off, chuckling.

Arenia gets to her desk and sinks into her chair, miserable. Did Mr. Raven just insult me?

-5-

The Train of Thoughts

Heavy summer rain drenches Arenia when she walks out of her office building. She has to leave her bike and take the train instead. She runs to the nearby subway station, ducking and jumping from side to side to avoid the army of umbrellas. While she waits to cross a busy street, a yellow cab drives at full speed through a deep puddle and soaks her with dirty rainwater. [_Ugh, nooo! _]

As she’d feared, the station is packed. Arenia doesn’t like the subway, especially in the summer—odors hanging heavy in the hot sticky air, perspiring people rubbing against each other in the sardine-packed cars, the blasting air conditioner. She waits near the platform edge and peers into the black tunnel. Soon, two glowing red lights approach. Arenia steps back.

Entering the train car, she spots a magically free seat in the corner. She ascertains its cleanliness and happily sits down. At the next stop, a couple sitting across from her catches her attention. What a beautiful couple. [_So well dressed. They must have great careers and make a lot of money. They probably don’t have to deal with annoying bosses like Mr. Raven. Ugh. Just the thought of him makes me sick. He’s the epitome of the type of person I can’t stand. _]

Arenia’s chest tightens.[_ Why can’t I have a handsome guy by my side to conquer the world with? Well, maybe because you’re too insecure to interest a guy in the first place . . . maybe, but also I really can’t spend much money on clothes right now, since I don’t even know if I’ll be able to keep this job or not.] _And to impress guys, I need to dress better to feel more confident.

As her thoughts run aimlessly, her eyes wander. But when they accidentally meet the handsome man’s intense, ice-blue eyes with suffocating black pupils, a cold creeps up her body, leaving her toes and fingers numb. It’s as if he can see into the darkest corners of her soul. Arenia quickly glances over to his girlfriend. She, too, is coldly staring at Arenia. Arenia averts her eyes. [_Why are they staring at me like that? Ugh! They must have noticed my awkwardness . . . it’s probably just a coincidence . . . great! Now I can’t even look up anymore. _]

She stares at her fidgeting fingers. [Get over it, Arenia! _]But when she attempts to look up, she can’t. [_Ugh, you’re so awkward! _]Soon, her frozen stiff muscles begin to ache. She can barely move. _It must be the AC and my wet clothes.

I still have to answer Professor Basel. I really hope I’ll be able to do this project well. He seems to be a difficult man. Memories of last night’s nightmare suddenly flash through her mind[. _]Her heart beats faster and her stomach knots.[ The day didn’t start off well. That dream threw me off. And the pouring rain outside? Tomorrow I’ll have to walk to work to save money. No, today is not a good day. _]The woman sitting next to the beautiful couple interrupts Arenia’s stream of thoughts with a shout. She begins to yell at an invisible person next to her.

“I won’t give you any money! It’s MY money! All you ever wanted is my money! I trusted you! You betrayed me! I HATE you!”

A stifling wave of negative energy fills up the car. Most passengers stare at the woman and change cars at the following stop. Arenia isn’t sure if the woman even notices them leaving. [_That must add to her pain, too—being continuously judged and rejected. On the other hand, it’s so difficult to show someone like that compassion or acceptance, much less unconditional love. It’s a vicious cycle . . . life just seems so unfair sometimes. _]She decides to stay in the car.

The beautiful couple sitting beside the woman seems undisturbed. The woman screams louder and more viciously. Poor her, she must have gone through some trauma. Sounds like her husband cheated on her and then took all her money. _]The woman’s anger completely distorts her face. Her eyes are filled with pulsing rage. Arenia feels increasingly uncomfortable. She imagines the woman lunging at her with a sharp knife pulled from beneath her heavy black coat. [_Thank goodness the next stop’s mine. The beautiful couple stands. They follow her to the door.

Suddenly, the crazy woman’s voice changes from raging anger to agonizing pain. “Please stop torturing me. Please stop putting me down. You’re killing me. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’m begging you! I don’t deserve this. Why are you treating me so bad? What did I do to you?”

Arenia cringes. The woman’s torment is unbearable for her to witness. She has to leave the train as soon as possible. Still, she can’t resist taking a last glimpse—floods of tears roll down the woman’s bitter, defeated face. Her eyes are small and swollen. They look clouded, as if her soul is suffocating behind them.

When the car doors open, Arenia quickly exits the train with the couple still close behind her. On the platform, she takes a deep breath. Suddenly, the crazy woman stops screaming. She must be exhausted.

Outside, the rain is still falling. The city lights reflect on the wet roads. Arenia runs across the avenue and rushes down a side street. She reaches her apartment building. Inside, she picks up her mail and sorts it while waiting for the elevator.

“Ding!” The doors open.

She enters and pushes the button: 11th[_ floor_]. Upstairs, she unlocks her apartment door, walks in, turns on the light, and locks the door behind her.

Home sweet home. Today is one of those days she’s glad the day is over and she can cocoon herself in her cozy apartment. Arenia knows well how lucky she is to have a relatively spacious home without having to worry about paying the ever-skyrocketing city rent. Her parents found a good opportunity to invest when she was a kid and bought the place to gift it to Arenia upon her university graduation. The apartment, for her, is the epitome of her parents—warm and protective. [Thank you, Mom and Dad. _]She sighs[ _]as she puts the envelopes, her keys, and her cell phone on the entry table.

Arenia is especially proud of the exposed brick walls that give the one-bedroom apartment a warm industrial feeling. The interior furnishings are comprised of soothing pastel colors, woods, metals, leathers, wools, and cottons. Instead of buying cheap stuff to quickly fill the place, she took her time. Everything’s a mix of unique, charming pieces she purchased at bargain prices with the small sum her grandmother gave her for graduation.

As she closes the thick beige curtains, she thinks of how ambiguous she feels about the large windows. Sometimes she loves how much sunlight they let in and how easily she can look out on the street and people watch. But other days she hates how close the buildings opposite are, and she feels invaded, especially in the evenings when it’s dark out and her lights are on.

As she climbs out of her damp clothes in the bathroom, she thinks about the crazy woman from the train. She was so unaware of her actions and her surroundings. How can she not notice the others? Doesn’t she care? I feel bad for her.

“I hope I never end up like her,” Arenia says out loud, shaking her head.

There’s a knock at her front door. She freezes. I’m not expecting anyone. She pulls on her robe. At the door, she peeks through the peephole. She leaps back. It’s the couple from the train. What are they doing here? Did they follow me? What do they want?

She takes another look. An ice-blue eyeball fills the peephole. Appalled, she jumps back, grabs her phone, and waits—frozen. Her heart’s pounding. Her short, hasty breaths make her feel faint. She strains to hear anything. A short while after, she hears the “ding” of the elevator arriving and the doors opening and closing. She presses her ear against the door. After a moment of hesitation, she looks through the peephole. Nothing. She sighs in relief. The telephone blasts through the air, making her jump.

She timidly answers.

“Hello?”

“Helloooo,” a sinister voice whispers. Arenia’s hair stands on end.

Loud laughter follows.

“Arrggghhhh Fey! Whyyyy?!”

Arenia’s best friend roars with laughter. “Ba ha ha ha!! Your hello sounded so anxious I just had to ha ha ha ha! I’m downstairs. Apparently your buzzer still doesn’t work! I’ve got sushi! Let me in!”

“You’re the best. Give me a minute. I’ll come get you.”

Fey and Arenia sit on the carpet and eat off the wooden coffee table. Arenia still feels tense.

“So? Did you finally talk to Mr. Man?” Fey smirks, while skillfully maneuvering a maki roll with her chopsticks.

“No,” Arenia sighs through a mouthful of rice. She swallows and pauses. “I don’t know how to, really. Usually, he just drinks his coffee, totally into his book, or whatever—as if the outside world doesn’t exist. I can’t just interrupt him and be like, ‘um ‘scuse me,’ you know?”

“Yes! You can!”

“No, you could, but not me. I would just blush, get awkward, stutter, and start sweating. It would be a disaster. I just can’t be myself in those moments,” Arenia mumbles, a lump growing in her throat.

To deflect Fey’s knowing gaze, Arenia turns on the TV and stares at the screen. After a minute, Fey slowly turns to the TV as well. She keeps eating. Arenia silently sighs. She usually doesn’t hide anything from her best friend, but today she doesn’t want to talk about herself and her problems.

[_As usual, she would just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve given a guy a real chance, and that I always find excuses to avoid commitment when I do meet someone. Then, after analyzing my miserable love life, she’d come to the conclusion that it’s all Tom’s fault. That he took the sparkle from my eye. No, not today, Fey. I can’t deal with your pity right now. _]

Instead, she wants to talk about her very strange day—her dream, Professor Basel, the subway woman, the couple. But right when she’s about to open her mouth, she stops herself. She’ll probably think it was all just an unlucky chain of bad events, which is probably true . . . I need to think about it alone first.

Arenia flips through the channels until she finds the local news.

“Yes! Leave it here. Everybody was talking about this today.” Fey, unaware of Arenia’s distress, fixates on the news.

[I love Fey. _]Arenia dabs wasabi on her rolls.[ But it’s easy for her to pinpoint my problems, especially with guys. She’s always been everyone’s favorite. First the boys loved her and now the men. She has such a great natural coolness and confidence. And such a strong character. She’s not afraid to speak up. She’s always just herself, and that’s just fine with her, even if not a lot of people get along with her. They say she’s difficult. But I know who she truly is—an honest and loyal friend who can come off a little rude and selfish at times because of her insensitivity._]

She picks up a roll with her chopsticks, dips it into the soy sauce, and eats it in one bite. Sushi’s so good! And who needs sensitivity anyway? I have way too much of it.

-6-

The Blue Jay

Arenia wakes the next morning to a tapping sound on her windowpane. She fumbles through sleep for her phone on her nightstand. It’s 6:15 a.m. Just one more hour. Again, there are the taps. Startled, she gets up and timidly pulls the curtains to the side. A bird with strikingly beautiful hues of blue feathers sits on her windowsill and peers at her. A blue jay! Arenia gasps. She carefully opens the window. The blue jay flies in and perches on her hand.

“Well, hello little bird,” Arenia murmurs, confused.

A golden ring is wrapped around the bird’s leg, right above its foot. “Let’s see who you belong to.”

She turns her wrist to read the engraving—a tiny drawing of a snake. Arenia winces. She recalls the blue jay with the golden ring in her nightmare of the prince. It was in a cage among the other souvenirs.

Suddenly, her right forefinger burns, and, immediately, the bird flies out of the window and disappears. Arenia lets out a muffled cry and instinctively clutches her burning finger in agony. Then she looks at it. Two short vertical blisters not far from each other. [_No, no, no! NO! It can’t be! That was just a dream! But where did the blisters come from?! They’re exactly where the snake bit me. Why?! Where did this bird come from? What about the snake engraving that was also on the Wise Men’s belts? _]

Arenia tries to remember if she dreamed last night. An overwhelming sense of apprehension is growing. And what about the painting that I saw in the diner yesterday? Why do all the clocks read 11:11? This is crazy! There are way too many coincidences. And why did that couple follow me? Who were they?

Questions bombard her mind. Fear spreads through her muscles. She can’t stay at home—she doesn’t feel safe alone. Arenia closes the window, wraps a Band-Aid around her finger, dresses, and rushes out of her apartment. In the elevator, she remembers that she left her bike at work.

A bike ride would’ve been the best right now, ugh. _]Arenia looks at the time. [_It’s too early to go to work. She decides to go to the café near the subway station—her second favorite in the neighborhood. Last thing I need right now is a nervous breakdown in front of the guy.

Arenia orders her usual coffee along with a toasted bagel with butter and jam. The tables are mostly empty, and she takes a seat next to the window facing the busy street. She opens her laptop and looks at her email while eating her bagel. Seeing the email from Professor Basel reminds her to respond.

Dear Professor Basel,

 

Thank you for your faith in our magazine and in me. I’ll do my best to write an article that you’ll like. If you have time today, I’d love to meet and discuss an outline of the interview. Please let me know when you’re available.

 

Best,

Arenia

 

PS: I also hope you can explain to me what your comment about the diner’s painting and my dream meant—that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. I’ve been having quite a number of those coincidences. And, honestly, they’re driving me crazy.

Arenia rereads the email and deletes the PS part. Too unprofessional. I’ll ask him in person. She sends the email. She sips her coffee and looks out the window. Commuters enter and exit the subway station across the street, all in a hurry to get to work. Arenia’s glad she at least gets to enjoy the fresh morning a little. It’s sunny. Birds hop along the scattered city tree branches. The “bing” of an incoming email pulls her attention back to her laptop. Professor Basel.

How about in 30 minutes in my office at 237 5th Avenue Suite #302?

Arenia immediately responds:

 

See you in 30 minutes.

She pushes her laptop into her old leather bag, grabs her coffee and bagel, and heads towards the subway.

When she walks into the professor’s office, the first thing that strikes Arenia is the amount of books crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Professor Basel looks up from an article.

“Welcome, Arenia.” He rises from a carved, upholstered, wooden armchair behind a large wooden desk.

Arenia glances around. Behind him is a big blackboard covered in writing. Stacks of magazines and papers spread over his desk and trail down onto the well-worn sofa. The room is filled with antique furnishings, and the open windows let plenty of sunlight into the high-ceiled room. His crowded office might be overbearing for some, but Arenia feels like she’s stealing a glimpse into the professor’s mysterious world. She’s thrilled and excited, as if she’s about to discover something truly magical.

“Have you read all of these?” she asks.

“Yes, indeed.” He smiles.

Arenia eyes a section of religious books—the Quran, Bible, Torah, Bhagavad-Gita, and Tao-Te-Ching. Arenia turns to Professor Basel in surprise.

He confides, “You’re not the only one searching for answers that science can’t yet provide.” He chuckles. “Please, take a seat.” He clears off one of the leather chairs and returns to his chair.

As Arenia sits down, she studies his clothes. Just like yesterday, he’s wearing a conservative yet comfortable ensemble—a simple, beige, cotton sweater over a collared shirt and woolen moss-green trousers. She wonders if he’s hot, since it’s warm outside.

“Professor Basel, I want to thank you again for agreeing to do this interview with me. It means a lot to me, and I’m excited to journey into the world of your thoughts.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Professor Basel assures. “I would like to apologize for my harsh demeanor yesterday. I did not mean to direct it towards you, Arenia.”

“Oh, it’s alright.” Arenia smiles.

“No, it’s not alright. I put you into the same category as Mr. Raven at first, which would be a crime. You’re a bright young woman driven by curiosity for truth. He, on the other hand, is just a corrupt man driven by greed.”

Arenia doesn’t know what to say, especially as she agrees with him. But she doesn’t want to speak ill of Mr. Raven.

Professor Basel sighs. “It seems like Mr. Raven does not recall, but there was a time at the beginning of my academic career when he wrote a crushing and very personal article, ridiculing my mentor, who I was helping conduct some very unique research. Mr. Raven gained himself a lot of press and exposure through that article. As it usually goes, all the other media outlets wanted to be part of the global discussion. The snowball effect took off, and the whole thing turned into propaganda that defamed my mentor. Soon after, the funding for our research project was cancelled. My mentor was discredited. He fell into deep depression and never recovered.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. I didn’t know,” Arenia says. But she’s not surprised that Mr. Raven is capable of such a thing.

“What was his research about?” she asks.

“Exactly about what we’re here to discuss—dimensions and multiverses. Isn’t that ironic?”

“Yes! It is. Why did you even agree to meet Mr. Raven?”

“A very dear friend of mine who owed Mr. Raven a favor has been pursuing me for months. He said that if I would just agree to meet Mr. Raven, his debt would be paid. Eventually, I gave in. My friend disclosed that Mr. Raven hated diners. I love them. There’s something very nostalgic, authentic, and homey about them. That’s why I chose my beloved Robin’s Diner.” Professor Basel chuckles.

His revelation puts Arenia at ease. He’s actually really nice. Maybe I can do this.

“Professor Basel, I’m very excited and a bit nervous at the same time. I’m certain our readers will be delighted about the insights.”

He nods. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll do just fine.”

Arenia opens her bag and fishes for the voice recorder. As she turns it on, her forgotten Band-Aid-wrapped finger reminds her of her distress. Thank goodness it doesn’t burn anymore. She places the recorder on the table.

Professor Basel eyes the recorder. “Arenia, it is my pleasure to help you with your ambitions. But my willingness to give an interview is subject to compliance with one—well, actually, two—conditions.”

Oh no.

“The first one you already know,” Professor Basel continues. “I will only give the interview to you, and only you will edit and compose the final print version. The second condition is that rather than have you just ask me questions, I want you to truly understand the matter. I don’t want you to record my voice. I will give you all the information you need and even more. I will point you to resources. You can take notes. But, most importantly, I want you to think. I don’t want you to just write down what I say.”

Arenia feels a lump rising in her throat.

“I want you to develop your own knowledge and opinion,” he continues. “You will be my filter and communicator to the outside world. I believe you will protect and reflect my ideas the best way you can to the outside world through the magazine. Do you agree to these terms?”

Arenia is dazed by the amount of work and responsibility. [What if I don’t understand his teachings? Mr. Raven will be furious—and, more importantly, I’ll disappoint Professor Basel, who’s putting so much trust and belief in me. I was terrible at physics. But if I refuse to do it, I’ll still fail, and it’ll cost me my job. _]She clenches her fists.[ Stop it! Don’t think about whether or not you can do it. Just say yes! You’ll figure it out! _]

“OK, yes! That’s fine with me,” she states.

“Great! Let’s dive straight into the topic then!” Professor Basel is suddenly raring to go. “Synchronistic events—do you know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“In the 1920s, a Swiss psychologist named Carl Jung first described the concept of synchronistic events as such: The concept of Synchronicities is based on the principle that life not only consists of random, causal, and linear events, but is rather part of a deeper cosmic order.”

Arenia takes notes. Carl Jung: Synchronicities.

“Synchronistic events happen all the time, but most people only recognize them as such when an event is coincidental to such an extent that one’s mind seeks a deeper meaning or explanation. Jung describes these meaningful coincidental events as ‘Synchronicities.’ ”

Arenia doesn’t understand. Professor Basel can tell.

“Our night dreams mirror, in a synchronistic manner, our psyche. Likewise, synchronistic events reflect our inner worlds in our outer worlds—our unconscious in our conscious. The best example I can give you right now is how the diner’s painting of Persephone and the pomegranate first occurred in your dream.”

OK. I think I understand.

“Other examples would be when you meet someone you know unexpectedly, at the most random time and place, just after the person crossed your mind or appeared in a dream. Sometimes a song in your head suddenly plays on the radio, or a song happens to perfectly describe what you’re thinking about or experiencing at that moment. Or missing a train leads to randomly meeting a long-lost contact who offers you a job opportunity that you’ve always wanted. Or continuously seeing the same number sequence, which, for mysterious reasons, strikes a cord deep inside of you. Such as 11.11.” Professor Basel pauses and glances at Arenia ambiguously.

Arenia looks down. He noticed . . . but what does it mean? Why does it happen? What does it say about my unconscious?

“So, if synchronistic events happen all the time,” she repeats, slowly, “and if, in fact, my outer world is a reflection of my inner world, does that mean that my life is merely a product of my unconscious?”

“Good question.” Professor Basel smiles. “Yes. And no. Let’s take a quick look at your mind first. You have consciousness, which is everything you are hopefully aware of right now—my speaking, your external physical reality, and so on. I say ‘hopefully’ because you could be also seeing me speak—even hearing me speak—but be somewhere else with your mind and thoughts, thus not very attentive.”

“So, perception cannot be equaled with consciousness then?”

“Yes, correct!” He’s delighted. “Consciousness is beyond mere perception of object, subject—beyond reasoning, beyond physical actions and reactions, thoughts and instincts. It is the direct experience of all of these. We could say that consciousness is the neutral witness of the present moment. It is a waking state of alertness. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I think I do.”

“Good. Then we have the subconscious, which contains information you have accumulated and can access when needed—your phone number, knowledge about math, memories of your past, and so on.”

Arenia tries to keep up while writing. “OK.”

“Then there’s the unconscious, which contains information for all of your body functions, but also holds experiences, emotions, and traumas from the past that you have no access to. The unconscious also contains information that all of humanity shares as a collective and is inherited.”

Professor Basel pauses.

“Now, since most people bring very little consciousness into their lives, their unconscious is more or less dictating their reality.”

“How is that possible?” Arenia asks.

“The human brain has an automated response system that filters through the vast amounts of sensory information it receives every day. Based on patterns of past experiences, the brain filters this massive amount of sensory information as relevant or irrelevant. It discards the irrelevant information and interprets the rest as physical reality. This connection shows us the direct link between one’s thought patterns and one’s perceived reality. Do you follow me so far?”

“I think I understand it in theory, but I can’t really imagine how it would work in reality.”

“Alright. Let’s try an experiment. I want you to search this room for brown objects.”

Arenia examines the room.

“Good. Close your eyes and tell me which ones you have categorized as brown,” Basel says.

“Your table, our chairs, the shelves, countless books, the curtains, and a few patterns on the carpet.”

Basel nods. “Alright. Now tell me, without looking, which objects are green?”

Arenia searches her memory. She sees blurry images of a few books. “Some books?” she answers, knowing there’s a good chance that there are at least a few green books among the countless others.

“Well, let’s take a look.”

She opens her eyes.

“If we’re precise, we can see that the color of the table, the chair, the shelves, and the books range from beige to mahogany red. Do you see how many objects you counted as brown only because you’d set your focus on finding the color brown? Take a second, and look at the curtains, for example.”

“Well, but . . . ” She’s baffled. She attempts to defend her perception, but she can’t. He’s right. The curtains are undeniably dark orange.

“Now show me the green books you saw.”

She gets up and studies the shelves from top to bottom. To her sheer bewilderment, there is not a single green book. Instead, there is a huge green lamp in the middle of the room and green ornaments on the carpet.

“Isn’t it disturbing to know that just by setting a focus and filter, your perception of this room’s reality changed? Not only did you categorize other colors as brown, but you also lost sight of all the other colors that exist in this room.”

“I get your point.” She sits back down. Wow, this is creepy.

Professor Basel walks over to an antique serving cart. “Can I offer you some coffee and homemade walnut cake?”

“Yes, please.” She hadn’t even noticed how thirsty she was.

While the professor pours the coffee, she studies the chalkboard. It’s full of mathematical formulas and lengthy writings. His handwriting is cursive, very fluid, homogenous, and clear. The neatness contrasts with his messy office. The letters are generously spaced and stretch horizontally, making them look pressed. She struggles to decipher his writing.

Professor Basel serves two simple white coffee cups, jars of sugar and milk, and two white plates that hold silver forks and generous cuts of cakes.

“Thank you.” It looks absolutely delicious.

-7-

As the Inner, so Is the Outer

“The internal focus that your unconscious sets for you has an even greater power over your perception of reality,” Professor Basel summarizes, as he sits back behind his desk. “As the inner, so is the outer. Both are one continuum. However, because the unconsciousness cannot be understood conceptually, it lives through images and speaks in symbols, which are ambiguous and often paradoxical by nature. Similar to dream symbols, they hold messages, waiting to be unlocked and understood.”

Professor Basel stops. He takes a big forkful of cake, and sips from his steaming coffee cup. The vibrant aroma rises into Arenia’s nose. She follows his lead. [_This cake is amazing. _]She sips the coffee. For the thousandth time she wonders why coffee always smells so much better than it tastes.

Arenia pulls her focus back to Professor Basel. She tries to grasp what he has just said. I do sometimes look up the meaning of symbols or actions I keep seeing in my dreams—like water, spiders, snakes, or even flying. But I never give them too much importance. And how is it supposed to work in waking life? What does it mean that I saw the painting in my dream and then in the diner?

“What kinds of messages?” she asks.

“Well, that’s for everyone to find out. It depends on the person. The messages basically reveal what dictates your life. Once you understand the messages and recognize them for what they are, you pull them out of your unconscious into your conscious. This way, they lose their grip on you and can’t shape your reality as much anymore. But just as most of us don’t know how to read and understand our dream symbols, we are also blind to reading and understanding the symbols that appear in our waking lives.”

Professor Basel opens a book, [Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle _]by Carl Jung. His elegant strong hands with their long fingers resemble those of an artist. She glances at her own hands and spreads her fingers for a comparison. _Similar, but a bit smaller.

“Let me read you a very graphic example. It is an astonishing experience Carl Jung once had with a patient. He was having difficulty psychologically accessing one particular patient because she resisted seeing any connecting principles between her inner and outer worlds. Jung patiently waited for an event that would penetrate the intellectual walls she’d constructed. Then one day . . . ”

He finds his bookmark and quotes Jung: “ ‘A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned around and saw a flying insect knocking against the windowpane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which, contrary to its usual habits, had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.’ ”

Professor Basel then shows Arenia a picture of a golden scarab and a golden rose chafer.

“Incredible.” Arenia recalls the blue jay in her dream and on her windowsill this morning. “But one could argue it’s merely a coincidence, right?”

He nods. “Yes, of course. One could also argue that the statistical probability for these events happening is one in a million. Yet, they happen all the time. Do you know what a scarab symbolizes? The ancient Egyptians saw the scarab as a symbol of transformation and rebirth. Fascinatingly enough, with this experience, Jung’s patient had a breakthrough moment in her treatment. Her perception shifted from solely the outer world to the integration of her inner world.”

Arenia is excited. I have to look up the meaning of the blue jay tonight.

Professor Basel continues. “Let’s go back to the painting you saw in the diner and in your dream: Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. According to the myth, she functioned as a mediator between the Upperworld and Underworld—also symbolic for the conscious and the unconscious. I find it rather striking and thought provoking that she literally lifted the border between your unconscious and your conscious, between dream and waking reality, by appearing in both. Have you had any other synchronistic moments or meaningful coincidences lately?”

“I’ve actually been having a number of coincidental experiences. I’ve been seeing the number sequence 11.11 a lot, for example.”

Professor Basel beams. “Doesn’t it just give you a thrilling feeling the moment you see those numbers? I find it fascinating. It doesn’t seem logical that all of a sudden you see ones everywhere. Even weirder is that it causes a stir in you. What is it? What does it stand for? Why has the repetitive appearance of this particular number sequence been reported by so many people from all around the world?” He pauses.

“It has? Really?” Arenia breaks into his silence. “Do you know the answers to these questions?”

“Yes, it has. And, no, I don’t know exactly what they stand for. Some say the code activates a part of the DNA that triggers a series of synchronicities aiming towards a gradual shift in the perception of physical reality. I also believe it’s a type of synchronicity—a fissure or a glitch, so to speak. Something from outside this world making its way into this world and eradicating the border for a split second—thus, blending both worlds and making the unknown known.”

Arenia’s even more confused.

After diving deep into his thoughts again, he resumes. “Don’t you find it almost too coincidental that right when you started to become aware of synchronistic events in your life, you met me—someone who can explain this phenomenon to you?”

“Well . . . ” He is right—but it just doesn’t make sense. “So is the inner world or the unconscious world merely something in the mind, like a dream—or is it also a physical world?”

“Excellent question!” Basel almost jumps up. “Obviously, nothing is proven—yet. But if you ask me for my personal opinion, I would say both!”

“But how could you ever prove whether this theory is right or not?”

“That, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I can’t prove any of my ideas—yet. We’re looking into quantum entanglement as an explanation. But, as I said, we are like fish in water wondering if there are other worlds out there. But if we go back to our first assumption that our outer world is a reflective manifestation of our inner world, it would mean that the hidden dimension is not separate from us, but rather, part of us. And as long as we don’t fully discover and understand our inner, we won’t understand the outer—because, ultimately, it is one and the same.”

Basel sees the big question mark on Arenia’s face. “I know this is difficult to grasp. We’ll talk about it more in depth later. I think you’ve had enough for today.” He smiles.

“I’m very curious to hear more, but you might be right. I need to digest the information you’ve given me. When would you like to meet again?”

“Tomorrow I have the ICC to attend in Boston, the annual International Cosmosophy Conference. I’ll be there for the next three days.” Basel goes through his calendar, and then he halts and looks up. “Why don’t you just meet me there? I think it could be very interesting for you, as well.”

“In Boston? I’m not sure I’m allowed to. I’d have to ask Mr. Raven. But Professor Basel, are you sure I wouldn’t be a burden to you?”

“You’re a grown woman, Arenia, why would you be a burden to me? And don’t worry about Mr. Raven. I’ll email him. He’ll understand the importance of your attendance.” He grins.

“In that case—sure, I’d love to come.” Arenia smiles hesitantly, not knowing how Mr. Raven will react, and not knowing what awaits her in Boston.

Faced with this new information, and the prospect of having to catch a 5:30 a.m. train the next morning, Arenia struggles to fall asleep that night. Laying in the dark, she recaps the day. As promised, Professor Basel wrote Mr. Raven, who had no option but to give Arenia permission. She grins.

As the inner, so is the outer. Basel’s words echo in her mind. [_I wonder what my unconscious looks like. If he’s right, I should be able to understand it once I learn to read the symbols of my waking life. But then again, it’s kind of scary just to think about it. I’m not even sure I really want to know. _]

Arenia thinks about the parallels between the blue jay and the scarab, and the fact that Basel told her the story. She thinks about 11,11, then about Persephone. Arenia feels unexplainably close to her. She grabs her phone from the nightstand and searches the Internet for more about Persephone’s myth. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was furious when she learned that Zeus helped in his daughter’s abduction, and Zeus eventually had to consent to Persephone’s return. But because Persephone had eaten a handful of pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades right before her departure, she had to forever spend a part of each year in Underworld. It’s a subject of mystery and debate whether Persephone knew or didn’t know the consequences as she ate the seeds.

Arenia then recalls the blue jay and starts a new search. “The blue jay stands for discovery and development of personal power. The word ‘jay’ finds it origin in the Latin word ‘gaea,’ or ‘gaia,’ which, in Greek mythology, has associations to Mother Earth. This symbolizes the blue jay’s immanent power, which grants you access to higher knowledge and greater cosmic truth. The crown on top of the blue jay’s head reflects the tremendous potential that lies within. The blue crest is also a reminder that the true mastership of this potential requires sheer dedication, committed development, and responsibility.

The blue jay can help you to gain access to memories long forgotten, and can teach you how to integrate them into your awareness. It will aid in the discovery of truth and clarity of thought. It will help you find courage and fearlessness against your enemies.”

[_Well, that sounds promising. _]She double-checks that the alarm is set, puts her phone on the nightstand, and drops off to sleep.      

-8-

The Dark Waters of the Unknown

Arenia sits breathless in the moving train. She had to rush to the station because she was running late. The sound of an incoming email rings. She checks her phone. Professor Basel.

 

Arenia,

 

Referring to yesterday’s conversation, I would like to share with you a wisdom that has been my own experience in life:

When you do what your intuition urges you to do and follow your life’s purpose—your one true path—all kinds of synchronicities occur, making you meet the right people at the right time and opening doors for you. Life becomes miraculous.

 

I’ll see you here in Boston.

Basel

Beautiful. Arenia yawns. She is too tired to contemplate his words. Happy to have the group seats all for herself, she spreads out. It’s still fairly dark. With barely four hours of sleep, her eyes droop and close.

A sudden movement startles her awake. She bolts up. Sitting right across from her is the beautiful couple from the subway.

“Hello, Arenia.” The woman’s voice is soft and gentle, but ominous. A shiver shoots down Arenia’s spine.

“How do you know my name?” Arenia stammers. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”

“You’re going to places you shouldn’t go. Life is good the way it is. Your curiosity will get you into trouble.” The man’s tone is impassive and cold.

He has a gold ring on his finger—with a snake engraving. Ice runs through her blood. The blisters on her finger burn. Her heart drums faster. Arenia, leave! Now!

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything!” Arenia struggles to hide her fear. She tries to stand.

“Ssssit down!”

The man’s words are like an electric bolt. Arenia is instantly paralyzed, unable to move a muscle. Something invisible presses heavily on her chest, crushing the breath out of her. She’s struck with horror. Her mind keeps trying to run away, but her body cannot follow. “What are you doing to me? Who are you?” she whispers.

“We are the Guardians of the Realm. We know everything about you—your past, your present, and your future. We know all of your greatest fears, Arenia. You have witnessed things you shouldn’t have. We don’t know how you crossed the border, but you did. Either you work with us and tell us your secret—or you work against us. Of course, the latter option comes with consequences.”

“Arenia, you’re an intelligent woman. I know you’ll make the right choice,” purrs the woman.

“What . . . what you are talking about? What secret? Which border? Which realms?” Arenia tries with all her strength to move her arms and legs—in vain. She strains to speak—no sound comes out. Evil thoughts whisper through her mind: [_I like being needy. I am needy! It gives me love and attention. It gives others the feeling of importance when they take care of me. I feel loved and important when they love me. I am a victim. _]

[Who is this talking? That’s not me! _]Panicking, Arenia struggles against the flush of evil thoughts, but they drum unceasingly:[ Everybody wrongs me and misunderstands me all the time. I like dedicating my energy to others. I don’t need a life. I’m afraid of myself. I don’t know what I would do or be if I didn’t focus on others. I prefer to make myself need someone. Oh, how clever I am! I give up responsibility. I’m running away from my life—from responsibility and independence. It’s great! My life just seems to comply with my wishes and puts me in situations where I’m dependent on others! I secretly even want to suffer! _]

Please stop! This is unfair! I’m not like this! Stop doing this to me! Arenia is trapped in her own mind. Her heart is pounding its way out of her chest. At the same time, the invisible weight pushes down even more, crushing her lungs. Terrified that she’s suffocating, she takes rapid short gasps for air. I’m going crazy! [_Please! Let this stop! _]

The evil whispers grow louder and more vicious:[_ I’m happy with my dependent self. It’s convenient. It keeps me small! Success? I don’t even know what it feels like! I was never really successful at anything anyway. I faked my way through everything and did a hell of a good job! Ha ha ha ha!_]

That’s not true! I can be successful!

[_But I don’t want you to! _]

Why?!

Because you don’t deserve it! You have too much [_potential and are threatening to me. You’re going to kill me! I know it! You’ll betray me! _]

[No, I won’t! Please! Who are you?! What do you want from _]me[?!!!_]

Liar! You don’t want to be with me anymore. You want to get rid of me! I’m not going to allow that! I’ll do everything in my power to keep you dependent because you need me!!! I need you! No! You need me! If necessary, I’ll kill you! I’ll punish you for wanting to leave me! Who the hell do you think you are? I’ll wait for your weakest moment. You’re nothing without me! I don’t care if I die with you! As long as you die!

She’s drained, empty. She feels small and extremely vulnerable—like an abused child. Her only wish is that this moment ends—to die, if that’s the only way to escape these thoughts and feelings.

This must be a nightmare! This can’t be true. [_I want to wake up, wake up! WAKE UP! _]She screams in her mind. Nothing happens.

Suddenly, she can move again. But she can’t get up. Her body feels as if it doesn’t belong to her. It feels cold and dense. She’s shivering.

“What did you do to me?!” she gasps.

“We didn’t do anything. You did that to yourself.” The woman smiles.

She’s trembling and weak. She screams for help. The passengers on the train don’t react. It’s as if she doesn’t exist.

“They can’t hear or see you, Arenia. Calm down and start cooperating with us!” the woman snaps.

Arenia’s only exhausted thought is escape. The bathroom!

“I need a minute. Can I go to the restroom?”

As the man opens his mouth to answer, the woman turns to him, touches his arm, and nods approvingly.

He hesitates, and then bares his teeth at Arenia in an artificial smile. “Remember, Arenia. Nobody can hear or see you. There is no way out.”

As Arenia stumbles down the aisle, she tries to make eye contact with the passengers. Nobody notices her. She clears her throat to catch their attention. Still no reaction. She gives up. In the restroom, she silently panics. [What can I do? Who are these people? What do they want? What did I do? This must be a nightmare! Did I fall asleep on the train? Is that what it is? How do I wake up? _]She pinches her arm. She splashes cold water on her face. Nothing happens. _What do I do? She buries her face in her hands. She tries to calm down by slowly inhaling and exhaling.

[_I can’t go back! Those people are dangerous. Who knows what they’ll do to me! _]Frantically, she searches the restroom for exits. There’s no other way out than the door.

Suddenly, she has an idea. She silently cracks the door open and peeks her head out. Certain the coast is clear, she tiptoes towards the car doors, away from where the couple is sitting. She slowly opens the door and steps outside onto the metal bridge between the cars, her lungs and heart pumping wildly.

The first rays of sun are breaking across the purple sky. The wind rushes by, like the ground beneath her feet. To her left, steel steps lead up to the roof. Arenia glances back before she takes hold of the shaking ladder and climbs up to the train’s roof. She doesn’t look down once, even as her head spins at the thought of the height and the speed of the train. She pulls herself up onto the roof, lies flat for a second, and then pulls herself to a crouch and waits, utterly terrified. Pure panic rifles her exhausted body. Her mind is spinning with anxious thoughts. As the frigid wind smashes against her face, she can barely hold onto the cold steel ladder rods. Please let me arrive at the next station before they find me. Trees. The train passes nothing but trees.

Then, the car doors screech open and close. Fear and adrenaline hijack Arenia’s body. She hears dull steps, and then another door opens. Please let it be to the connecting car! But she doesn’t hear it close. Her heart is on the point of exploding. Her sweaty hands slowly slip off the steel rod. She grips it tighter. Finally, the doors close. She gasps from relief, but then she hears steps starting up the ladder. OH NO!!!

Before Arenia can snap out of her panic and decide what to do, the muzzle of a gun appears, followed directly by the man’s face.

“Here you are. I didn’t know we were playing hide and seek.”

He points his gun right at her. He’s smirking. And much less handsome.

“Lookie, lookie. I’ve brought my friend. Friend, meet Arenia. Arenia, meet Friend.”

Oh no! Oh no! What do I do?! This can’t be real!

“He’s so excited to meet you. He’d really like to get to know you better. Sadly, it won’t be this time. What do you think, Arenia?”

“Please, I haven’t done anything!”

“Are you willing to cooperate yet?” he snaps.

Arenia is lost. “I’m coming down.”

Suddenly, a harsh bird call rings out to her left, pulling her attention away from the man. Extraordinarily, she sees a bird—a blue jay!—jet straight into the lake below, plunging down into the dark water. She realizes the train is crossing a narrow bridge. Without a moment’s thought, she leaps from the train with all her strength.

She falls endlessly through the air, pure terror rushing through her body. Then she hits the icy water and is swallowed up. She scrambles to swim back to the surface, but gravity sucks her deeper and deeper down.

Looking up, she spies a few rays of light piercing the surface and reflecting in the rising bubbles. Her lungs burn. She falls deeper and the sunlight dims. Near the bottom of the lake, long thick strands of seaweed wrap around her feet. Despite struggling, she can’t free herself. Every cell of her body is desperate for oxygen. She has to take a breath. She can’t help it. Her instinct takes full control. She opens her mouth and inhales. Her body sucks in the water and floods her lungs. The pain plunging into her is a hot knife.

Then, after a moment of extraordinary suffering, her perception muddles. Her mind feels wobbly. She loses orientation. She loses pain. She loses the terror of death. Time slows down as she floats motionless, gently swaying with the strands of seaweed. Suddenly, hauntingly beautiful and luring voices of singing women begin to echo through the water. The crystalline clear notes of a hypnotic, mysterious language lull Arenia.

Through her half-open eyes, she sees a blurry vision of two mermaids approaching. Their whispers pierce the enchanting vocals. The mermaids cut her from the clasps of the strands of seaweed. Something golden sparkles. This has to be a dream.

She drifts in and out of consciousness as the mermaids pull her body deeper into the water, which turns into a dark underwater landscape with trees and hills and eerie shadows floating around them. Beneath them, the sand opens up to a vortex circling downwards. The mermaids drop her into it. Arenia’s limp body spirals down the long tunnel into a bottomless abyss as she loses consciousness completely.

9

The Golden Key

Arenia’s eyes flutter open as she gasps for air and violently coughs up water. She quickly shuts them against the blinding sunlight. Shading her eyes with her arm, she opens them to the shock of two pairs of large curious eyes closely inspecting her. She immediately lifts herself onto her elbows and looks at the young boy and girl. She’s on a sandy stretch bordering the lake. Water covers her like a sheet. But she’s dry as a bone.

“Where am I? Is this a dream? Who are you?” She looks around, distraught.

The children speak at the same time. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Arenia slowly slips out from beneath the sheet of water and stands. “I’m Arenia Kennan.” She reaches for her wallet—it’s soaking wet. She hands her ID down to them. Why’d you do that? They’re kids! You’re confused!

“What is this?” The two inspect her ID. “Is this supposed to say who you are? A photo with your name under it?” They break into laughter, falling on their backs, clutching their stomachs.

Arenia feels helpless and drained.

“Please, help me. I don’t know where I am,” she pleads.

Back on their feet again, the twins look at each other. “She does not belong to the Blue Men, also not to the Faceless. To the Animal Heads? Hmm, not quite. She is too short. The Trolls? Too tall. The Shadows? No, she is too . . . too colorful.”

Suddenly, the twins gasp. “Maybe the Royals?” They look concerned. “What to do? We should leave her here.”

Arenia shrieks, “No! Please, help me! I’m lost!”

A golden key bouncing against Arenia’s chest suddenly captures their attention. “What is this? Is this . . . ?” They gaze in wonderment.

As they draw closer to scrutinize the golden key, Arenia grabs at the necklace in surprise and inspects it. From a thin golden chain hangs a masterfully crafted golden key, shining brightly in the sunlight. The key head displays two mermaids finely engraved on shell and framed with the purest yellow gold. The mermaids. Then she sees that her mother’s ring is missing from her finger. It’s not on her other hand, either. Oh noo! Grief sweeps over her.

“Yess, it isssss!” The twins clap their hands hysterically.

As they admire the key’s beauty, they heatedly debate. “We must bring her to Pariah! But we are not allowed to bring Non-Pariahs. What if she is a spy? But she has the[_ _]Golden Key!” They simultaneously decide, “We will bring her to Pariah.” Then they declare, “This, we do not need,” and throw her ID far into the lake. “It does not say anything about you.”

Aghast, Arenia watches her ID disappear. Clearly, she has no choice but to follow the twins.

The three walk for what feels like hours through an opulent forest of old majestic trees. [Where am I? Did they talk about Trolls? Royals? Bluefaced? Am I dreaming? Am I dead? Is this real? _]She searches her surrounding for clues. The trees are much taller and larger than the one she knows from home. The colors of the leaves, bushes, and flowers are much more vibrant and saturated than she has ever seen. But then again, how much has she seen in her life? _Not much. The golden sunlight that barely makes its way through the dense canopy is much brighter then in the city. That could be normal, too. There are hollow echoes of humming insects, chirping birds, flapping wings, snapping twigs, and rustling leaves.

Arenia gazes up at the singing birds. She spots a colorful medium-sized bird flying from one tree to the other. Wow! How magnificent! Arenia has never seen a species like that. It has a pomegranate-red, plush plumage with elongated, elaborate, rose and yellow feathers extending from its tail and wings; a half moss-green and half lime-green head; and an azure-blue beak. Suddenly, she sees many more birds hidden up high in the trees, each one more fantastical than the next. Their plumages display a cacophony of colors—yellow, blue, red, green, orange, black—with elongated, dramatically shaped feathers and cascading plumes. Others shimmer in gold with feathers spreading around their heads like giant handheld fans. Incredible! Where am I?

As they walk through the forest, Arenia watches the twins frolic down the winding path. It’s hard to guess their ages, as their small heights, innocent-looking faces, and playful characters might be misleading. She would guess that they are eight. [_But who would allow these kids to wander alone through the forest? _]The boy’s brown spiky hair frames his round and very naive-looking face. His collared beige shirt covers his short neck and stretches around his waist, pulling at the buttonholes and exposing parts of his chubby belly. His brown cotton shorts cover almost all of his short legs. The girl is remarkably similar to the boy, with an equally round face, and rosy cheeks that glow every time she smiles. Dressed identically like the boy, her two long braids rest on her short shoulders.

The twins are always gleefully smiling or laughing about something—watching birds chase each other, finding a colorful flower, playing hopscotch or tag, or following a plush white rabbit bounding through the bushes. It’s not easy to keep up with them. Sometimes they sprint, sometimes they skip, other times they slow down or stop in awe. Their overwhelmingly adorable, large, brown eyes take in the forest in all of its glory. Arenia can’t help but grow fond of them, even though she doesn’t know anything about them. She’s amazed by their ingenuousness, unselfconsciousness, and joy. They don’t see each other as “the boy” or as “the girl.” _They treat each other as equals. _

As she’s deep in thought, the twins stop abruptly yet again—this time, in front of an old majestic tree. Its trunk alone is wider than a car, and it has a beautiful and complex texture. Arenia gently runs her fingertips over the deep furrows and thick ridges of the wrinkled bark. She looks up in awe. She can’t see the towering top. The branches reach skywards, each one curling up farther than the next. Colorful butterflies of various shapes and sizes dance around them. Beautiful birds find rest in the protective shades. Leaves rustle with every soft breath of wind. Sunrays find cracks in the dense leafy canopy and stream through.

The twins look around carefully. Then they knock on the tree in a specific rhythm and simultaneously sing, “Home is neither here nor there. Home is within, or nowhere at all.” Didn’t Herman Hesse say that?

The two raise their thumbs up and giggle. They take Arenia by the hand and excitedly pull her forward. “Follow us.”

“But—.” Before she can finish her sentence, they drag her through the solid-looking bark as if it were a curtain of dark-brown light. Inside, she gazes around speechless. They are in what appears to be a small room in the hollow tree trunk. A warm light casts their shadows onto the wrinkled bark. The twins giggle at her incredulous expression. A panel rises up from the ground, displaying two buttons that indicate up and down. The twins push the “down” button. The platform they stand on starts to descend. Arenia loses her balance for a moment. An elevator!

As it moves downwards, they pass by tunnels that expose different worlds—a jungle with colorful strange-looking animals; a treacherous river; mountains; a breathtaking underwater world with exotic fish; endless stairs; dark dungeons; and a giant snake with its wide-open jaw lunging after them. Arenia steps back. The tunnels appear to be three-dimensional and animated, but there seems to be an invisible wall separating them from the elevator shaft.

The twins chuckle. “Numen taught us they are not real. They are just two-dimensional pictures. The elevator’s movement makes them come alive. If we stood still, the pictures would stand still, too. Touch them.”

She reaches out carefully. Her hand pushes against a solid wall.[_ Surreal. _]Her eyes ache from the delusion. She feels dizzy.

Countless broken watches and clocks start to cover the shaft walls between the tunnels. Some are missing hands, some numbers, and some both. Others melt like butter dripping down the walls.

“What happened to the watches?”

“Here in Pariah, having watches or clocks and tracking time is strictly forbidden. Everyone who enters our land is instructed to destroy any watches or clocks they carry with them in a ceremonial celebration.” Both twins simultaneously examine Arenia’s wrists. “Oh, yes! She does have a watch! Celebration time!” They clap their hands and jump with joy.

Arenia looks at her wrist. Both watch hands speed in opposite directions. [_This must be a dream. _]The elevator stops. The doors open. The brightness is blinding. She blocks the light with her hand as her eyes slowly adapt.

“Welcome to Pariah,” the twins announce.

What’s in front of her takes her breath away—a dreamlike world with the most radiant and vibrant colors she has ever seen. Flowers of all sizes and shapes are in bloom. Scents of citrus, jasmine, tuberose, and fresh damp soil enrich the air. The trees are so vigorous and majestic that dwellings have been built around them and in them. Thin layers of clouds flavor the crystal blue sky. The sun shines brightly. Crickets and birds sing along the ripple of a river that flows gently through the village. Arenia is amazed to find that her senses perceive even the subtlest stimulus, one by one.

The chatter of a crowd of people rises in a lively marketplace full of carts that overflow with the freshest vegetables and fruits Arenia has ever set eyes on. Other carts are loaded with gold, metal, and bronze plates; carpets; fabrics; clothes; spices; jewelry; wine; spirits; and beer. Gradually, the villagers notice her arrival, stopping to stare at her. Within moments, the village is completely silent. Even the birds and crickets have stopped making sounds. Arenia looks at the river in disbelief—it has halted.

She waves half-heartedly. “Hello, I’m Arenia.”

Nobody reacts.

Someone shouts, “Who did you bring, twins?”

Other people nod. “Yes, who is this?”

“We do not know yet,” the twins answer. “She does not know either. We need to bring her to Numen. But she has the mermaids’ Golden Key.”

The crowd gasps. Then a loud whisper sweeps through them. Every expression changes from disapproval and suspicion to curiosity and excitement. The twins lead the way as the crowd splits and turns, closing again behind Arenia. Together, they reach a tree house with green awnings. The twins simultaneously raise their arms to knock on the door. But before their knuckles can touch it, a man’s voice calls them in.

Following the twins, Arenia enters a large, round, wooden room. Numen sits at his desk with his head buried in a book. He doesn’t bother to look up.

-10-

The Legend of Apocalypse

Everywhere Arenia looks tower stacks of book.

Without lifting his head, Numen speaks. “Who is this young lady?”

“We do not know who she is. She does not know who she is either. We found her unconscious, washed up by the coast of Lake Somnus,” the twins respond.

“I know full well who I am! Sir, my name is Arenia, Arenia Kennan. I don’t know how I got here. I was on the train when two people threatened me, so I climbed up on the train roof, and I jumped off the train into the lake. Otherwise, they would’ve killed me. The last thing I remember is that I was drowning and mermaids were helping me.” This sounds crazy! She pauses.

Numen closes his book, looks up, and studies Arenia from his chair. Arenia steps back. His face is shockingly similar to Professor Basel’s face. How is that possible?!

“Please, continue,” he prompts, while she still stares at him.

After a moment of pulling herself together, she continues. “Then I must have fainted. Then somehow I landed on this coast, where the twins found me. They threw my ID into the lake, which could’ve proved who I am and where I come from. I’m sorry. I’m not even sure if I’m dreaming or . . . if I’m dead. Where am I? Who are you? Who are these people?” She falls silent. Exhausted.

Numen gazes at her.

“I’m talking too much. I’m sorry. It’s just . . . this trip has been more than I can handle. I feel like I’m losing my mind. The only thing that would prove who I am is gone. And now, for whatever reason, everyone’s angry that I’m here. But this golden key is the one thing that interests everyone. You can have it if you want. Just please help me get back to where I was.”

Numen remains quiet. He gets up and circles her. He halts in front of her and looks closely at the necklace, all the while smoking his pipe. Arenia coughs. She still can’t believe how similar Numen is to Professor Basel. The only difference Arenia can see is the way they dress and that Numen seems much more youthful and agile. He wears a cream-colored, linen, long-sleeved tunic with a gold-stitched brocade collar. Under the knee-length and side-slit tunic, he wears loose pants of the same linen. His sleeveless, dark-brown, long leather vest is belted by cord. His small round glasses sit carefully on the tip of his big round nose. His long, wispy, white hair has a few gray strands and dances all over his head. His bushy mustache practically covers his thin lips. His brown eyes are sharp, but look tired.

“Thank you, twins. You have done a good job. You can leave now. And please, close the door behind you.” He nods respectfully at the children.

The twins look disenchanted, but they nod before they leave. Numen steps to the windows and closes the curtains, shutting out the curious crowd. A loud moan signals everyone’s disappointment.

“Please, take a seat . . . Arenia?”

“Yes, thank you.” Arenia cautiously sits on a velvet green stool.

“Frankly,” he begins, as he takes a seat behind his table, “I do not know how you got here, so I do not know how to get you back.”

Tears well up in Arenia’s eyes.

“I am sorry to disappoint you. Really, I am. I see that you are distressed, and I hope you will excuse my inappropriateness, but I need to ask you one important question.”

Arenia nods.

Numen’s voice drops to a whisper. “Do you have a birth scar on the center of your stomach?”

“What do you mean?” Arenia is baffled. “What kind of birth scar?” Is this man even in his right mind?

“Ssssshhhh!” Numen presses his finger to his lips.

Arenia whispers, “I still don’t know what you mean.”

“A round scar on your stomach, sometimes indented.”

“You mean a navel?” Arenia asks in disbelief. “Yes, of course I do. Don’t we all? Don’t you?”

Numen’s jaw drops. His pipe falls from his mouth. “Come with me,” he orders, rising briskly. He opens a door and strides down a long hall, Arenia close behind him. He then snaps his fingers and light immediately fills and illuminates a large round room, exposing columns of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Three tables, leather armchairs, and lamps invite one to linger and study.

Arenia can’t see where the light is coming from. There are no candles, light bulbs, or lamps. Numen closes the door behind them. “To answer your question, Arenia, no, we do not. We may look the same, but nobody amongst us has a [_navel _]here. What a beautiful word to describe this scar, by the way. I do not know how, but it looks like you have traveled here from another world. Thank Almighty the twins found you. It is a very dangerous world out there—especially for you.”

“What do you mean, ‘another world’? And why is it dangerous for me?”

“Give me a moment. I will answer all of your questions.” Numen climbs from ladder to ladder, leaning on bookshelves and pulling out one book after another in search.

What’s he looking for? This is too surreal. It can’t be true. Why does all this happen to me? Why me? What is wrong with me?

“Found it!” Numen sings from across the room. He slides down the ladder. He opens up a dusty red book with the golden title, Apocalypse. The yellow pages flutter by themselves. Arenia sneezes. The pages fall still. “Rising of the Goddess—A Night Sea Journey,” the chapter heading reads. Beneath the title is a drawing of a young woman stabbing a man through the heart. Beneath the drawing, Arenia reads:

There will be Victory of Good over Evil when the Goddess returns and demands her righteous place. For that, she must awaken from her worldly slumber and initiate a Night Sea Journey into the Dark Waters of the Unknown to find the Pearl of the Ocean. A birth scar marking her abdomen will be her curse and pull her to the Land of the Dead, and yet it is also her salvation in disguise. For it is the Golden Key to the Gate of the Kingdom of Divine. She will lose her Self to find her Self by lifting the Veil of the Unknown. For her Self was never lost, but merely hidden. Like a Phoenix, she will rise from her ashes, merging the worlds of Darkness and Light, as one could not be without the other.

“It is you, Arenia.” Numen beams with exuberant joy at Arenia. “You are the Goddess from the Legend—the One who will defeat the Ruler of Darkness and bring peace to our world—Underworld. With your help, we Pariahs hopefully will no longer have to live hidden under a tree.”

“What?” Arenia shakes her head violently. “No, no, no, no! NO! You’re mixing me up with someone else. This is definitely not me! She,” Arenia points to the drawing, “is not me! I’m not her! I can’t even fight! I’m actually strictly against violence! I’m sorry if I disappoint you, but I can’t! I won’t!”

Numen continues, unfazed. “You have come a long way. You need to rest. You have a strenuous journey ahead of you. If you are who I think you are, the Goddess from the Legend who has the power to change the course of our history, then we need to protect you. Outside Pariah there are people who are violently opposed to change. They will try to kill you once they learn you are the Legend. It is a life or death matter.”

“I’m not that woman!” Arenia shouts. “Look at me! I . . . I’m scattered! I’m weak! I’m too anxious, too sensitive to be fighting anybody, let alone change anyone’s course of history!”

“Well, I do think we have a lot of work ahead of us until you grow in power. But still, I believe that you are the Legend, Arenia.” He smiles calmly.

“How can you believe in this piece of text? It’s just a legend! It might just be folklore, a myth, a tale, superstition!”

“Legends, myths, and tales were the metaphorical language of our ancestors. They were created to record and spread their complex observations by simple people through word of mouth. It was the only way truth could be preserved without being obstructed by the mind.”

Arenia can’t stop shaking her head.

“Do yourself a favor,” Numen continues. “Do not tell anyone that you are not from Underworld. Hide your scar. We must burn any of your belongings that could disclose your true origin. We do not want to cause an unnecessary turmoil. We will tell everybody that you do not remember where you come from and how you landed on the coast of Lake Somnus, which is somewhat true.”

“But what about the twins? They know my story.”

“Do not worry about them. They are kind-hearted people. When I tell them you cannot remember where you came from, they will trust my word.”

Arenia’s head hangs. [_I haven’t gotten one real answer. I don’t know what to do. I’m exhausted. _]The golden shimmer of her necklace distracts her. She picks up the key. “What about this key is so special?” she asks, flatly.

Numen thinks for a moment. “The Golden Key is to remind you that the mermaids have helped you to survive the Realm of the Dead and return to life. But know this—you will never be the same again. Once one has crossed the border of life and death, one has access to ancient wisdom and powers otherwise hidden. With that access comes responsibility. It can enable transformation and rebirth, or it can cause destruction and death—the nature of duality. Hence, the Golden Key to remind you to always use your power wisely.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t feel like I’m wiser or more powerful. If anything, I’ve only gained access to your world. How can I make sure to use the key wisely? Can’t I just put it away, if it’s that risky?”

“The key only symbolizes your access. The door will remain open forever. You can certainly turn your back against it and give up the key, and, thus, the responsibility that comes with it. But in time, the knocking on that door will become louder and louder, like war drums, until they numb your ears, and you cannot help but turn back and face that which is behind the door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Soon you will, my dear. When that day comes, you will remember my words.” Numen pats her shoulder.

Arenia fingers the key, confused, torn between disbelief, excitement, and anxiety. “So, do I need to protect it? Will others want to steal it from me?”

“Others may try to steal the key, but it will only bring them destruction and annihilation, as it was specifically given to you.”

He places the red book on his desk. “Enough talking. I will make sure someone gives you room and board and teaches you our ways and our rules, so you stop attracting attention. But, first things first: I see you have a watch. There is no use for that in Pariah. Tonight, we will commemorate the acknowledgement of the existence of that which is non-existent—time.” He laughs heartily.

Arenia is tired of being confused and asking questions. She feels helpless and misunderstood, but somehow she also feels a sparkle of excitement. She clings to the hope of waking up soon. Until then, she feels bound to yield to her fate. Underworld.

-11-

Celebration of the Existence of the Non-Existent

Later that night, the empty marketplace is filled with long rows of tables clad in white tablecloths and adorned with vases of beautiful wildflowers. In the center of the square, among the tables, is a dance floor. In the center of the dance floor sits a heavy flat rock with a bulky hammer resting on it. Lamps float like glow worms overhead. The villagers sit on the benches around the tables, drinking wine and beer and cheerfully singing along to a small band strumming and fiddling away. A few people dance. Numen is among them. When he sees Arenia approaching in the robe he gave her earlier that day, he looks mesmerized. He kisses the hand of his dancing partner, and goes to meet Arenia.

“You look beautiful.” He smiles.

Arenia blushes. “Thank you.”

But she is unsure of how she looks, as there was no mirror available while she dressed. The robe is very simple and light, but it’s revealing due to its many cutouts. It reminds her of the togas worn by women of ancient Greece—white linen, secured with leather bands along the shoulders, and girded around the waist, reaching down to her ankles. She was going to wear one of the many pairs of leather and cotton pants that Numen also gave her, along with a plain linen shirt. But when he explained that most of the women would be clothed in festive gowns, she opted for this, as, more than anything, she didn’t want to stick out.

Numen raises his hand. The music ceases. He addresses the crowd. “Fellow Pariahs. As most of you know, we have a new guest in our community. Arenia. Please, bid her welcome.”

“Welcome! Welcome, Arenia!” the crowd cheers, enthusiastically.

“Unfortunately, Arenia does not remember how she came to be stranded on the coast of Lake Somnus, nor where she originates from.” There rises a restless murmur. “I have the feeling the Traitor may be behind this. Arenia might have fallen victim to his manipulations and then somehow fought her way free of his influence. Let us all help her to regain her consciousness and remember who she is.”

This possible link between the Traitor and Arenia doesn’t seem to make the villagers happy. On the contrary, suspicion and mistrust flashes across some of their faces.

“What if she is one of the Traitor’s spies?” someone asks.

“Yes, what if?” another demands.

“My fellow Pariahs. I understand your concerns. I ask you to trust my judgment.” Numen smiles. “I do not think she is a spy, but a young woman with a good heart. Having received the Golden Key from the mermaids gives me even greater reason to believe in her. She must have a special purpose here. Let us help her find it. Let us demonstrate to Arenia one of our core values: welcoming everyone with open arms—regardless of their size, appearance, color, origin, intellect, or past. We show respect, open-mindedness, and compassion—and we assist wherever and whenever we can.”

Although the tension is a bit nerve wracking, Arenia also feels the loyalty and support of Numen. She is moved by his blind trust. How could he, though?

More and more cheers of understanding and compliance arise from the crowd. “Yes, we do!”

“Yes, let us help her!”

“We trust you, Numen.”

Numen turns to Arenia. “By all means, we expect you, Arenia, to perpetuate the same traits.”

“Of course,” Arenia stammers, in a state of disbelief and dissociation.

“Wonderful! Now! Our tradition demands that every person who enters our doors leaves time behind. We ceremoniously sacrifice any watches carried by new members and guests. Please step forward and place your timepiece on the rock.” Numen indicates the center of the dance floor.

Arenia complies. The watch isn’t working, anyways.

“Please take hold of the hammer—the rest will follow,” Numen instructs.

Arenia wants to ask what he means, but she figures it’s easier to follow his instructions and see for herself.[_ ]The sheer silence, the dozens of pairs of eyes directed at her—it all makes her intensely nervous. [_I hope I don’t mess this up! I can’t miss!] The crowd begins to slowly and quietly chant in a rhythmical chorus accompanied by the beating of drums.

“E-mi-ton! E-mi-ton!”

Their chant grows louder and faster as the drumbeats rise in power. It sounds like a war chant, or even worse—a sacrificial chant. She grabs the hammer. But when she tries to raise it, the hammer lifts independent of her efforts, takes a wide swing, and smashes down on the watch with full force—all as Arenia hangs on for dear life. Arenia gasps as her watch shatters into pieces.

Goodness gracious! _]Utterly dazed, but relieved it’s over, she does what she can not to laugh. [_What a crazy world! I can’t wait to tell Fey about this. She’ll never believe me!

Numen raises his glass and shouts, “Because the time is always now!”

“Because the time is always now!” the crowd rejoices.

Fireworks light up the sky. Music erupts. People flood the dance floor.

Numen turns to Arenia. “Welcome, Arenia. I hope you will enjoy yourself here. Please join the feast. Our chef is famous for his delightfully tender and juicy roasted crabbit.” He pushes her gently towards the tables.

Crabbit? She looks around and finds an empty spot in the back at the end of a table. As she passes, the inhabitants raise their glasses, toasting her. She takes a seat. The table is laden with a large tray carrying a roasted animal garnished with colorful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Of course! [_A crabbit! The body of a rabbit and the head and claws of a crab. _]She shakes her head uneasily. [_If I’m not dreaming, I seriously have to question my sanity. _]

Arenia gazes into space, heaving a long sigh. The crowd’s movements slow. The music and chants dull, but amplify as if underwater. For the first time, Arenia feels as if time has truly stood still. She wonders if she’ll ever find her way back.

“Hey, you are not dancing?”

She snaps out of her trance.

“This party is for you,” smiles a young friendly looking man standing in front of her. Like most men at the party, he’s wearing a white, band-collared, slightly unbuttoned, knit cotton shirt over loose-fitting, beige, cotton pants. Leather suspenders peek out from beneath his dark-gray wool vest.

Arenia smiles. “I’m really tired. Thank you, though.”

The young man is disappointed. The longer she gazes at him, the more familiar his face looks. But she can’t put a finger on why.

As he turns away, she says, “I’m Arenia, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Pium,” he answers, with a broad smile. “May I?” He indicates the seat opposite her.

“Please.” Arenia smiles.

“So, how do you like it here in Pariah so far?”

“I haven’t had the chance to see much of it. But it’s very beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” he says proudly. He eyes her empty plate.

“Have you tried the crabbit?”

“No,” Arenia admits. She’s hungry, but doubtful.

“Oh, you have to at least try it! It is one of our most delicious signature dishes. It is so tender and juicy—it will fall apart in your mouth.”

“That’s quite a description.” She smiles. “I’ll try it!”

Arenia watches Pium cut a big piece of brown meat from the crabbit’s back, pushing his hair again and again out of his eyes. She can’t decide if she finds his soft features attractive or not. Fey would totally be into him! He serves the meat alongside roasted vegetables she knows—like potatoes, zucchini, peppers—and some she’s never seen.

“Do not worry. If you do not like it, I will finish yours,” Pium laughs. “Wine?”

“Yes, please.”

Pium serves himself some crabbit and red wine, too. He then lifts his glass. “To you, Arenia. Welcome to Pariah.”

“Thank you very much.”

Their glasses clink. Hmmh . . . great wine—so smooth and full. She cuts into the meat. Juices flow out. To her surprise, she doesn’t need the knife, as the meat falls apart immediately. She takes a small bite. Wow! He was right! The meat is absolutely delicious! Lightly spicy, the taste reminds her of lamb, but with a twist.

“Great, right?”

“Uh-huh!” Arenia nods through her chews.

They dig into the feast, exchanging nods and smiles between mouthfuls, even picking up the bones and gnawing them free of their meat.

“Can I ask you something?” asks Arenia, her hunger finally sated.

“Sure.”

“Why do you live under a tree? What’s out there that’s so dangerous?”

“Wow, you really do not remember anything about Underworld, do you?” Pium asks.

Arenia shakes her head, embarrassed. Technically, it’s not a lie. I really don’t know anything about this place.

“Well . . . would you like the long or short explanation?”

“I’m in no hurry. I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands,” Arenia quips. They laugh. Arenia feels herself loosening up. She isn’t sure if it’s the wine or Pium’s easy manner. Either way, she’s glad she’s found a person to relate to in this strange land.

“The history goes back hundreds of years,” he begins. “The leader of the Land of the Dead was once a citizen of the Land of Light, as were all of our ancestors. He was a gifted student and studied with the best mentors. He was a trusted and respected member of the community—until the former Queen of the Land of the Dead lured him to their side. She had heard that he was an exceptional Master of the Cosmic Principles, and she used his desire for power, fortune, and fame to persuade him.”

Arenia does a quick mental review. So, Pariah is the village I’m in right now. Then there’s the Land of the Dead, formerly governed by an evil Queen who lured in its current leader from the Land of Light.

“Back then, the Land of the Dead was a fraction of the size it is today. It was a forgotten part of Underworld that nobody dared enter. Legends say it was inhabited by soulless beings neither dead nor alive, hiding there in the darkness and desolation of the land, too afraid of light. It was governed by the crazy Queen Uroboro, and the soulless beings worshipped her like she was a divine mother. She was said to have a close relationship to death, and was considered to be a force of pain, death, and destruction. Every soul she fixed her eyes on, she seduced, poisoned, and devoured—just as she did with the Traitor.”

Arenia tries to imagine this powerful woman devouring all she encounters. [_Certainly, she’d have to have raven-black hair. _]

“When the Traitor came to power with her help,” Pium continues, “he used all of our knowledge against us. He trained the soulless inhabitants of the Land of the Dead with his weapons and expanded their number epidemically. But the very greed for power the queen instilled in him turned against her when the Traitor asked for freedom and independence. When she refused to grant his request, she mysteriously disappeared overnight. Some say he killed her, others say she fled. But her corpse remains unfound.”

“Incredible. It sounds like a myth,” Arenia says.

“Yes,” Pium agrees. “Now the Land of Light is scattered in pieces. It is a shadow of itself. Each tribe is hungry for power and dominance. The Traitor bewitched their leaders and convinced each one of them that they were better than the others. He played them against each other and still does so—the Blue Men against the Animal Heads, the Strings Attached against the Trolls, and so on. They are now called the Lands of Tears.”

Arenia is totally absorbed. This world intimidates and threatens her, but she’s also curious and attracted to it.

Pium sighs as he watches the Pariahs celebrating. “We were once a united land. We all looked and acted differently, but we always had a sense of equality, a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Now, we live hidden from the outside world, just like the Shadows once did.”

Arenia hears his sadness and helplessness. “How did he bewitch your leaders?”

“According to the books, the Traitor came from a different world. In the image of his own world’s society, he aroused in a select few the need for great power and wealth. The select few gradually gathered more wealth and power than the rest. To protect their power, they kept the others oppressed by creating fear and insecurity. In an effort to satisfy the growing sense of insecurity, greed and greater fear arose in the population, resulting in restlessness and dissatisfaction. This caused an even greater sense of anxiety and insecurity. It became a self-feeding cycle, splitting the Land of Light into a powerful few who controlled the masses.” Pium shakes his head. “But I cannot blame this solely on the Traitor and his followers. Our people are equally guilty for surrendering themselves to the oppression.”

Loud shouts and claps of glee force them to pause. The carefree, jubilant faces of the Pariahs fill Arenia’s heart with joy. She sees that Pium is wrapped in pure love and pride for his people. He’s what? A bit older than I am? Maybe 26? He turns back to catch her looking. Before she can avert her eyes, a sincere and sweet smile spreads across his face. A surge of warmth runs through her. She smiles shyly back. There is something mesmerizing about him. Maybe it’s his beautiful smile. Or maybe the sense of peace, safety, and connection she feels when she looks into his brown eyes. She feels he understands her. [_He looks so familiar. But like who? _]

She breaks eye contact and turns towards the dance floor. “Do you really believe there is such a thing as voluntarily surrendering yourself to oppression?” she asks.

Pium answers without hesitation. “Yes, I do. I have thought about this. You see, the Traitor and his people did not force our people when they first introduced these changes. They tricked our people. But everyone had a choice—just as we Pariahs did. They voluntarily followed the idea of separation to gain advantages over others. To this day, most of the people still idolize the wealth and power of the very few who live in extreme luxury, even though[_ _]those same few people are responsible for placing them into poverty and mental slavery. This structure only works because the people make it work. Some of them are gradually coming to the realization of what they have brought upon themselves. But now, violence and rigid control make it difficult to change.”

“Why didn’t the Pariahs try to warn the others?”

“We did, but they would not listen. The tribal leaders became too addicted to power. Danger to the system meant danger to their power. The ones who were against the system were denounced as insurgents. Most of our own people still see the Pariahs as separatists and traitors. Before long, everyone who stood up against the new system was killed. We had to flee. And this is where we ended up.”

Arenia’s image of the outside world is painted with fear. She imagines the Traitor to be a barbaric man. “Are you allowed to move freely outside Pariah despite the danger? How come the twins were roaming freely?”

“It depends. The further north you go, the closer you get to the bewitched Land of the Dead, and the more illusionary, surreal, and dangerous it becomes. Pariah is in the south of Underworld. We can move freely, more or less, south of Pariah, where Lake Somnus is. There is still danger and deception, but to a much less-perilous degree. The Traitor’s power does not fully reach there yet. Being able to go in or out of Pariah requires the key to enter the Tree of Life. For that, you would need to gain Numen’s trust. He is the sole key holder. Or you would need another Pariah to accompany you.”

“The twins said something to the tree. Is that the key?”

“Yes. But just knowing the code is not enough. The tree is highly intelligent and only recognizes official code recipients by their unique voices. If you are not one of them, you will not be granted access. To avoid endangering the whole community, the tree will not even let official code recipients in if their voices indicate fear or stress.”

“I see.” Arenia sits deep in thought. “And why are watches forbidden?”

“You must come from a place where there is time, I assume.”

Yes. But I’m not supposed to remember! She just shrugs her shoulders.

“Well, it is not about the clocks—or even time itself. It is the notion of time we reject. Of course, there is a practicality that comes with time. Time allows us to evolve, learn from our past experiences, plan, set goals, and work towards them. But there is a difference between natural time and psychological time. Through the Traitor’s manipulations, the people of the Land of Light developed an obsession—compulsively anticipating and worrying about the future, and grieving and dwelling in the past. In their minds, they are constantly somewhere else. They have forgotten to truly be in the now. The irony is that the present moment is the only time when one can actually learn from past experiences or work towards future goals. Nobody has ever worried himself out of a problem.”

[Nobody has ever worried himself out of a problem. _]His words strike a cord in Arenia. _How true.

“How do you know so much about the Lands of Tears if the Pariahs have lived cut off from the rest of Underworld for centuries?”

“When I was still a child, Numen used to travel to the Lands of Tears regularly to meet with our collaborators who decided to stay—until Numen’s apprentice was exposed by traitors, arrested, and condemned to death when he would not disclose Pariah’s location. To avoid endangering others, Numen decided to stop traveling there.”

“That’s terrible!” Living a lifetime underground is unfathomable to Arenia. Yes, Pariah is a beautiful land, but just the thought of not being able to move freely and without danger is suffocating. What if my life is like this until the day I die? What if I never find my way back? She doesn’t want to give those questions a second thought. There has to be a way!

“Presence,” Pium continues, “was the one thing our land was most proud of and was our greatest strength. The Traitor knew this, and destroyed it without much effort. As an act of silent protest and a reminder for us to continuously be in the now, we abolished the tracking of time and ceremoniously celebrate it on every occasion.”

Perplexed and saddened, Arenia looks around. Happy, peaceful people dance and laugh. Our own people still see us as separatists and traitors. Pium’s words reverberate in her mind.

“So, all of these people are considered separatists and traitors?”

“Yes, because all of us reject the system. Because we yearn for a true sense of belonging, independent of how we look or behave. The true separatists are the Traitor, his followers, and our own people.”

“The way you speak, it sounds like the Traitor is still alive and in power?”

“He is.”

“How is that possible? You said this has been going on for centuries!”

“They say he drank the blood of the dead and is immortal.”       

“How old does a person get here?”

“Here in Pariah, we live an average of 120 years. In the Lands of Tears, it is between 80 to 100 years, due to their stressful lives. Numen is mortal just like everybody else, but he has mastered the art of remembrance.”

“What’s that?”

“He is able to tap into the knowledge of his previous lives. None of us have been able to do that so far.”

Pium pauses, and then lowers his voice.

“Rumors say that he was one of the Masters who taught the Traitor our ways and techniques. But who knows?”

“You mean in one of his previous lives?”

Pium nods.

Arenia smiles nervously. When she looks over at Numen, she sees him sitting alone at a table with a jar of beer, watching the cheerful crowd.

“But enough seriousness, let us not think about yesterday or tomorrow. Let us dance!” Pium drags Arenia out onto the dance floor.

-12-

The Journal: Life of a Pariah

The next morning finds Arenia opening her eyes in a very comfortable bed in her own little tree house. Rays of sunlight splash through the gaps around the curtains. Stretching through the fresh white sheets that emit a subtle fragrance of spring flowers, she glances around the large room that makes up most of the house. The furniture is made out of hard wood—her small bed, a nightstand with a green antique-looking lamp, an armoire, a drawer cabinet, a small dinner table with two chairs, a mustard-yellow cushioned sofa, and a small open kitchenette. The walls are exposed logs. Next to the kitchen, an open door leads to a small bathroom. She feels wrapped in warmth and comfort. Or is it the fluffy comforter and pillow? She buries herself deeper into the delicious sheets.

But in a flash, she recalls where she was supposed to be by this time. Boston! _]She leaps out of bed. [_Professor Basel! He’ll be so disappointed! What time is it? How long did I sleep? What time is it in Boston? How much time has passed since I got here? She frantically searches for a clock, only to remember a moment later—Ugh, they don’t track time here!

She paces up and down the creaky wood floor. [_Think, Arenia! Think! How can you find your way back home? If not even Numen can help me, I need to find a way to get out of here and search for help elsewhere. But where do I go? What if it’s as dangerous as it’s supposed to be out there? What if they kill me when they find out I’m not from here? _]It slowly dawns on her yet again that she’s stuck in a world she knows nothing about.

What if I’m still asleep? She turns the faucet on in the kitchen and splashes water on her face. She pinches her arm—in vain. What if I’m dead? Horrified, she looks for a mirror, but there’s none to be found. She scrutinizes her hands, her fingers, prods her face and her body. Feels solid and alive. She searches the house for any evidence that she might be dreaming or even dead. But what would that evidence look like? _]She sits down on her sofa and tries to calm down. [_Going insane won’t get you anywhere. Calm down, Arenia. But what if I’m insane already? She takes another breath. She doesn’t want to think about that thought. One step at a time. Get ready first.

She goes through the stack of clothes that Numen gave her. Amazingly, there are a lot of mostly leather and cotton pants, linen dresses, plain blouses, and T-shirts in Arenia’s size.[_ _]She selects a pair of rugged, dark-brown, leather pants and a plain, black, cotton shirt. She’s not used to wearing tight clothes and feels uncomfortable, especially since the shape of her belly button might push through. But there’s no other choice. The blouses look sheer and would expose her stomach even more. Last night, Numen destroyed her own clothes, together with her wallet.

“To erase any evidence of your descent,” he explained.

There’s a knock on the door. Arenia instinctively tugs her shirt down before she answers.

“Good morning, neighbor!” Pium’s house is right next to hers, and when Numen suggested that Pium be Arenia’s host, he seemed as happy as she was to accept.

“Good morning! What’s the plan for today?” Arenia feels awkward in her tight clothes.

“Numen would like you to understand our way of life. The best way to do that is by walking around, observing, and participating. You can ask me any questions that cross your mind. I am happy to answer.” Pium smiles.

“OK, great.”

“Before I forget, I would like to give you something.” Pium pulls out a package from behind his back with a proud, if slightly embarrassed, grin.

“Oh . . . what is it?” She takes the bundle and unwraps the cotton cloth.

“Nothing big. It helps me organize and clear my mind. I thought it might help you during your time here.”

Arenia uncovers a leather-bound journal with a pocket sleeve in the back. “Pium, this is wonderful. Did you make this?”

Pium beams. “Yes, I did. I bind books and journals for a living. Do you like it?”

“Do I like it? It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Thank you so much!” Arenia hugs him. “I will definitely make good use of it.”

The thought of her belly button getting exposed interrupts her happiness. She quickly steps back and clumsily tugs the bottom of her shirt again.

“Great! Oh, and . . . a journal has no function without—” Pium digs deep into his pocket and fishes out a pencil.

Arenia takes it, delighted.

“Now, let us get something to eat at the market,” he suggests.

As the two walk through the clean and irregularly cobble-stoned streets of Pariah, they pass by dozens of wooden tree houses—both big and small. They’re built around and in the majestic green trees. Pium explains that the Land of the Pariahs stretches for miles, but only a small space is inhabited, due to the relatively small population.

“How many people live in Pariah?”

“Since yesterday, 5687—after the Lemu family bore a son.”

Arenia takes in the wondrous sight of the pristine Land of the Pariahs. The intensity, brilliance, and golden shimmer of the colors everywhere are striking—the azure sky, the rainbow-colored butterflies and birds peacefully fluttering about, the delicate flowers scattered all around the streets, and the crystal-blue water of the River Bliss that meanders elegantly through lusciously green hills and valleys.

“How is it possible for the Land of the Pariahs to see the sky and have fully blooming trees, plants, and animals if it’s underground?” Arenia asks.

“Our ancestors developed the technology ages ago. It channels natural sunlight with collectors built into the countless tree leaves above ground, and transports it below ground through tubes built into the branches and trunks, and reflects it on a mirror-clad dome above us. This way, natural photosynthesis enables us to foster and nourish plant growth in Pariah. The trees also have circuits that encode the visual information from the sky and project it onto the dome.”

“Incredible! What about rain?”

“When it rains, the trees and plants absorb part of the rain water and pipe it down to sprinklers installed in the dome, which make it rain.”

“This is amazing.” Arenia wonders when this technology might arrive back home. She can already see the underground cities being built in the overpopulated megacities.

Arenia and Pium walk by friendly Pariahs cultivating their beautiful gardens, napping under trees, sitting on benches, and engaging in lively conversations. Others wave out of their charming shops that mostly occupy the bottom floors of the houses, while children play ball, marbles, hopscotch, and tag, just as the twins did on their way to Pariah. It’s not only nature that has a natural glow to it, but also the Pariahs themselves beam vibrantly. Their sparkling eyes express profound contentment, love, and happiness.

“Why do you call yourselves Pariahs?”

“The Traitor labeled us as such first,” Pium replies. “Our ancestors did not see it as an insult, but rather as the truth—we were outcasts. They took the name over as a reminder of history.”

Arenia shakes her head in disbelief.

The Pariahs greet Arenia very warmheartedly and welcome her once again to their land, offering their help in anything she needs. Some hand the two freshly harvested vegetables and fruits from their gardens—some foods that Arenia knows from home and others she hasn’t seen before. They also give them pieces of home-baked pies, goat milk, and sandwiches. The freshness of the food in Pariah is staggering. Arenia can’t get enough. The goat milk tastes a bit too strong for her, but the homemade cheeses wrapped in fresh bread with tomato and green pepper are incredible.

“Wow! This is so simple, yet so good!” she marvels through a mouthful of food.

Pium is enjoying her enjoyment—as are the fellow Pariahs.

Arenia tries to discern if the Pariahs look any different than her. Not really. At least not from what I can see. They have the same facial and body features, and are a similar height. Well, maybe slightly taller . . . but they don’t have navels! It’s so odd to see flashes of these flat, almost unmarked bellies under the women’s revealing tops. But they do have a dent there . . . that makes their bellies look less strange.[_ _]Instinctively, she tugs her shirt down and quickly glances at her own belly.

The two stroll down the market lanes and weave through the dense flow of people. One could easily get lost in the labyrinth of the winding streets. Pium chats here and there with the friendly stallholders. Everyone knows each other by name. Arenia takes in the colors, aromas, and chattering. The stalls are filled with spice piles; woven baskets full of fruits and vegetables; dried meats hanging from the roofs; baked goods; hand-painted ceramics; carpets; fabric embroidered with animal, flower, and vine details; jewelry made of gemstones, bones, woods, gold, and silver; brass; wooden furniture; and leather goods like bags, books, and clothing.

Arenia is overwhelmed. She would buy so many things if she could. Pium shows her the copper coins that the Pariahs use as a payment method, and explains that they handle these coins very consciously, and use them only as tools so that they don’t have to worry about how much each owes the other.

“We do not allow individuals to accumulate great amounts of money as they do in the Lands of Tears. We do not feel the need to do so to begin with, and these coins do not have much of a value anyway,” he explains. “In a compassionate and loving environment, there is no need for anybody to possess more than the other.”

Arenia wonders if that would be possible where she comes from—to have no need of putting oneself above others. Maybe . . . difficult though.

They sit in one of the eating houses and watch the crowds stroll by while enjoying a cup of herbal tea with a baked sesame-coated dough ball stuffed with goat cheese and a blue vegetable that Pium calls apia. It tastes like parsley. As she soaks in the atmosphere, Arenia decides to enjoy her stay in Pariah as much as possible. I’ve no other option right now. And it’s lovely here, after all.

Later that night in bed, Arenia opens her new journal. She stares at a blank page for a while. She used to write in a journal when she was younger. Why did I stop? Then she remembers. After the death of her parents, the pages were filled only with heartbreak and sorrow. Her journal became the epitome of her grief. She reached a point where she didn’t want to open it anymore, and stowed it in one of the storage boxes in her closet.

The blank page stares back at her. She doesn’t know if it’s the handcrafted leather cover, the thick white pages, or the charming twig pencil that inspires her to write. But she feels like she can’t put the journal away without inscribing it. She headlines the first page with “Pariah,” and draws two short vertical marks to represent the days she’s been gone from her own world. On the second page, she begins:

Journal

[_I don’t even know where to start. It’s weird to write my thoughts and feelings on white pages again. Just yesterday I was home. Now I’m sitting here in a strange bed in a land I know nothing about. Home seems so far away. _]

[_Pium took me to the market place today. It seems to be the center of village life where everybody gathers, meets, and buys and sells goods. As we walked through the market, I got so loaded down with gifts from the shop owners that both of us were practically staggering—vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meats, and handcrafted goods. My fridge is full, and so is my stomach! Pium and I cooked a thick vegetable stew—his grandmother’s recipe. It was absolutely delicious. _]

[_I hoped to find a clue about where I am and how I could find home. I thought maybe the Pariahs had the answers to all my questions and they were just waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth to me. But I think they know just as much as I do—nothing. _]

They say it’s dangerous outside, but sitting and waiting in Pariah won’t get me anywhere. At the end of the day, I’m by myself. I feel lost and lonely. I don’t belong here. I doubt my own mind and perceptions. Not knowing how and why I got here is driving me crazy. I’m beginning to doubt my sanity.

[_Then I have this thought that I don’t even dare to contemplate—is it possible that I’ve landed in another dimension? It can’t be a coincidence that I ended up here right after I met Professor Basel. What if this world is the hidden world he was talking about? Is this what my unconscious looks like? What would that tell me? What should I do? But that can’t be possible. Can it? The thought is just too absurd. My brain feels wobbly when I try to even think about the possibility. _]

[_How on earth did I manage to get here? How?! If I made it here, I should be able to find my way back! Arenia, you need to remember exactly what happened! I don’t know! Think! OK. Things started getting weird after the dream of the prince and the snake. But if I had to think of a moment when I’m not sure if I “traveled” to another dimension, it would be in the train after the couple woke me up and paralyzed my mind and body. But that could also be a sign that this whole thing is only a dream and not real. It could be sleep paralysis. I’ve read about that. _]

But that would mean I’m still stuck in a nightmare that I don’t know how to wake up from! How much do we know about what dreams really are anyway? Are they merely part of my imagination? Are they real? What does “real” mean? At the same time, it’s been way too long for a normal dream. What about the lake? Did I jump dimensions there? Did the mermaids help me? Mermaids!! Do they even exist?! Am I crazy!!??

Everything is so surreal. I can’t hold one clear thought. I’m afraid I’m losing my mind. I’m tired of thinking. More and more, I feel like life is happening to me and I have no control over it—as if someone else is sitting behind the wheel and I’m in the passenger seat, just watching everything go by. Right now, my only option seems to be waiting and seeing. Maybe if I keep track of what I’m experiencing here, I’ll not only keep my sanity but also may find clues about my whereabouts. Maybe one day the answer will come to me. I hope so. I can’t get rid of the feeling that Numen might know more than what he’s telling me. I have to talk to him!

~~~

Arenia startles up in her bed. The nightmare was intense. Her trembling body is bathed in sweat as her heart bangs in her chest. Her eyes dart around the room as she tries to remember where she is. Pariah. The journal is next to her on the bed, where it dropped when she fell asleep while writing. The early morning light barely illuminates the small house. She takes a deep breath and falls backward onto the mattress, turning and burying her face in the pillow. The images of her dream still cling to her mind. She sees the giant yellow snake surrounded by a fiery glow, fiercely fighting the black panther, surrounded by glowing deep blue smoke—the same two animals in her earlier dream. It was an intense epic fight in a completely dark room. But she doesn’t remember how it ended.

She tosses left and right in bed, trying to fall back asleep. But her mind races. The last time she dreamed about those two animals, a chain of derailing events was triggered and she ended up in Pariah. Unease and worry swell up in her. Is it an omen? Is it going to get worse? I can’t just sit here and wait any longer. I have to find out how to get back. I have to talk to Numen. Now!

[
__]

[_ _]-13-

The Blessing of the Mermaids

Arenia arrives at Numen’s home. Before her raised hand can knock on his door, he invites her in. How does he do that?

“Numen,” she says, as the door closes behind her, “I need to talk to you about something.”

“Certainly. What is it?”

“I’m very grateful for everyone’s hospitality. I really like it here. But not knowing how I got here, how long I’ll stay, and if I’ll magically find my way back to my own world one day is driving me crazy. I miss my home. I was wondering if maybe the mermaids could help me get back. What do you think?”

“The mermaids did not actually bring you here, Arenia. You did it yourself. They merely protected you. Lake Somnus is full of evil spirits. Only a few people have emerged alive from its waters. It is the outlet from the River Odium, which separates the Land of the Dead from the rest of Underworld.”

“But why did they protect me?”

“Let me show you something. Follow me.” He heads down the hall to the library. There, he pulls down a large, heavy, blue book—Oceanus.

“Please, have a seat,” he says.

He’s so enthusiastic that Arenia becomes excited, but also nervous. She sits, watching him as he opens the book on the floor.

Bright streams of light shoot from the pages, beaming straight up to the ceiling. Arenia shuts her eyes to keep from being blinded. As she slowly opens them, her jaw drops. Above her, a mesmerizingly beautiful mermaid swims gracefully through the air, her long hair sensually floating behind her.

“How’s that possible?” Arenia can barely speak.

The same enchanting, crystal-clear vocals she heard in the lake echo through the library.

“Think of it as a holographic projection,” Numen explains.

“So, it’s not real? Why is she reacting to us then?” Arenia watches the mermaid smiling at her.

“She is just as real as you and I are,” Numen says, cryptically. “Mermaids are the rulers of the element water, which is a symbol of duality. It is a source of life and transformation—of purification, regeneration, and abundance. Mermaids are very sensitive creatures. They appreciate beauty and long for peace. Their high sensitivity also makes them greatly empathetic for the pain and suffering of others. For centuries, they guided and saved many ships and sailors in the vast oceans of Gaia. That is what we call your world. The survivors would receive the Golden Key of the mermaids as a reminder.”

Gaia . . . Arenia suddenly recalls researching the symbolism of the blue jay the night before leaving for Boston. The word “jay” originates from “gaia,” which is linked in Greek mythology to Mother Earth. Of course!

Astonished, she watches the mermaid save a group of drowning men. Suddenly, the mermaid looks worried as she gazes off into the distance. She quickly swims away into deeper, darker waters.

“However, water also symbolizes floods, drowning, destruction, and death. Mermaids embody this dualistic nature of water,” Numen continues.

Swooooosh! A burning arrow pierces the water surface only inches from the mermaid. She swims faster towards a group of lifeless mermaids who were not so lucky. Their blood pours out, reddening the water. The mermaids’ beautiful vocals turn into a haunting mourning cry that slowly begins to sound like a battle chant.

“Some surviving Gaians boasted about the otherworldly beauty of the mermaids. The Golden Key became a trophy. Not because of its true meaning, which was quickly forgotten, but because of its enormous rarity. Gaians embarked on a brutal search for the Golden Keys. Thousands of mermaids were hunted. When they would not give away their keys, they were burned in public ceremonies.”

Numen’s empathy is tangible. Arenia is drawn back to the holograph. The mermaids’ chants grow louder and more violent. A large group of mermaids gather and synchronously flap their heavy tails through the waters in the direction of the ship that launched the burning arrows. The waters begin to churn and then turn into a vicious storm, its giant waves rocking the ship from side to side. The chants of the mermaids are so pervasive and violent, Arenia feels tense. Eventually, the ship can’t withstand the rogue wrath of the ocean, and the vessel capsizes. The men abandon ship, struggling for survival in the clutches of the frigid waters. The mermaids gravely observe them from afar. They don’t help. One by one, the humans submit, losing their last traces of energy and sinking below the surface. The violent sounds of the mermaids transform into calm, mourning, almost prayer-like vocals.

“The more they fought back against the cruelty, the more they were stigmatized as witches. They were barbarically slaughtered, almost to extinction. The surviving mermaids were traumatized and felt deeply wronged. They could no longer stand the aggression and cruelty. They yearned for a safe and peaceful place and found their new habitat in deep waters that Gaians could not reach—a place between Underworld and Gaia. They have not shown themselves again. And no one has since received a Golden Key.”

Numen closes the book and pauses.

“Until you.” He looks into Arenia’s eyes. “For some reason, the mermaids took the risk to reemerge in the shallow waters of Gaia, despite the danger. You must have a special purpose here. That is the only reason they protected you.”

Arenia feels humbled by the selflessness of the mermaids. She wishes she could’ve thanked them. This is absurd, though. What could my purpose be here?

“I have observed you,” Numen says. “You have a very kind and sensitive heart—yet it is also very strong. You are far from tapping into your true power, but you can. I believe in you. I believe that is why you have been granted access to our world and were brought to me. I have the wisdom and knowledge that is able to unlock your true power, and I think it is time that I share it with you.”

Arenia looks down, lost in thought.

“Has Pium told you yet why we live hidden under the Tree of Life?” Numen seems hesitant.

She looks up. “Yes. He did.” Is he going to talk about the Traitor?

“Their leader used to be one of us. Until his betrayal.”

“Is it true that he was your student?” Arenia can’t contain her need to know.

Numen is silent. Then he says, heavily, “Yes, it is true. I made a mistake when I chose to trust him.”

“How could you have known?” Arenia jumps to his defense.

“I should have been more careful and listened to the warning signals. What many people do not know is that he had a birth scar on his stomach—just like you.”

“He’s from my world?!”

“He came from your world, yes.”

“How did he get here? Did the mermaids help him, too?”

“He did not receive the Golden Key like you did, but the mermaids helped him as well—for an unknown reason. Now he has somehow mastered the secret to dimension traveling and has opened up a gate between both worlds. And this gate is entirely under his control. He reaps energy and other resources from your world. That helps him build his extensive army. And that is where lies the origin of his true power, something I did not teach him.”

A distant memory swims into Arenia’s mind. Suddenly, she’s overcome by a question that she doesn’t want to hear answered.

“What . . . what is his name?”

“The people do not speak his name. They believe that saying his name aloud will make their minds susceptible to his manipulations and that a spell could be cast upon them. That is why many refer to him as the Traitor. His name is Tartarus.”

“Tartarus!” Arenia leaps to her feet. The dark prince in her dream. Her face freezes and turns chalk white. Her knees buckle. She reels backwards. Numen catches her and helps her to a chair.

“Is everything alright?”

Arenia nods, staring unblinkingly.

“I did not know his name would have such a strong effect.” He smiles to ease the situation. Then he notices the two burning blisters on Arenia’s finger. His expression turns to concern. He finds a blanket and spreads it over Arenia, and then disappears into an adjacent chamber. Within moments, he returns with a piece of cloth and a small glass jar, and takes a seat on a stool next to her. He applies some ointment from the jar onto the cloth and wraps it around Arenia’s finger.

Slowly, she starts to feel more present.

“I applied ayani water to the blisters on your finger,” Numen says. “It should help.”

“Thank you,” Arenia mumbles. She drinks from the glass of water he hands her. “Numen, I never got the chance to tell you what happened before I ended up here in your world. I was working with a professor, a wise man like you, on synchronicities. It’s a term used to define glitches, portals between different dimensions, worlds, or realities—however you want to call it. You probably already know about it. During that time, I also had a dream where I fell into a throne room. There was a leader of some sort, like a prince. He had 12 men around him. He called them Wise Men. The leader’s name,” she swallows, “was Tartarus.”

Numen’s eyes narrow. He nods enthusiastically, indicating that she continue.

“The men were talking about a shortage of energy supply from Gaia. They’d consulted the One Who Sees, or something like that, about what to do. Apparently, this person or thing foresaw that there was a bigger problem they needed to take care of first. A Gaian woman would descend to Underworld soon and would kill Tartarus if he didn’t kill her first. They said that the One Who Sees also mentioned the Gaian woman’s name.” Arenia stops. She can’t continue—can’t bear to say it out loud.

Numen waits. She takes a deep, deep breath.

“The One Who Sees said her name was Arenia.”

She stops. She looks up at Numen, who has jumped up and is pacing. His eyes are glistening with excitement. “I knew it from the moment you walked into my home!”

“There’s more,” she continues. “I was terrified. I was trying to find my way out of the room, when a huge yellow snake spied me and hunted me down.”

“His animal totem,” Numen nods.

“It bit me and I woke up with this wound . . . what’s an animal totem?”

“It is a spirit animal that acts as your main guardian spirit for the duration of your life. Everyone is born with at least one. It acts as a mirror reflecting your own characteristics and hidden qualities.”

“How do I discover my animal totem?”

“Your spirit animal will appear to you when you are ready.”

“Then what do I with it?”

“When it appears, the key is to be perceptive and observant. Learn about the animal and discover its qualities. It is there to offer you power, wisdom, and guidance so that you may achieve your life’s purpose.” Numen pauses. “But we can talk about this later in more detail if you are interested. Please continue.”

“Well . . . after that, strange things started to happen.” Arenia then recounts the chain of events that preceded her arrival in Pariah, ending with her description of leaping into the lake and seeing the mermaids. All the while, Numen smokes his pipe, his gaze fixed on her. She suddenly springs to her feet. “Tartarus knows how to travel to my world! He could show me the way back! I must talk to him!”

“Arenia, once Tartarus discovers that you are here in Underworld, the first thing he will do is hunt you. Especially now that the One Who Sees has acknowledged the forthcoming danger to him. No, no, no.” Numen shakes his head violently. “Do not expect him to invite you to tea. He will be anything but welcoming. The only way you can face him is as an opponent. You must go after him before he comes for you.”

“OK.” Arenia’s bewildered. “How do I get to the Land of the Dead?”

“That is not so easy. Beyond the Tree of Life lies the Magical Forest, full of wild beasts and illusory traps. After a long, dangerous, and strenuous walk through an ever-changing landscape, you will have to cross the former Land of Light, which is now the Lands of Tears. Their people are bewitched. It will be difficult not to get caught in the mind games of Tartarus.”

“What mind games?”

“If anybody discovers that you are Gaian, you will be in immediate danger. Tartarus has spies everywhere—the people, trees, plants, and animals. They will know that you are different. I pray to the Almighty that none of his people saw you arrive.”

With every word, Arenia loses hope.

“Even if you do emerge from the Lands of Tears, you will have to cross River Odium.” Numen shakes his head. “The evil spirits will do everything to lure you underwater and drown you. Then you have the Land of the Dead—inhabited by lost souls. They say that not even the sun goes there because it is afraid of being trapped. You will be confronted by many tests of mind, body, and soul. Only then will you be able to enter the inner core of the Land of the Dead. And this is where Tartarus reigns—the City of the Royals. His guards will be eagerly awaiting you, and they know no mercy. And if, for some reason, Tartarus has the sadistic need to personally fight you, you will be facing the most powerful man in Underworld. Not only is he a superb fighter, but he has also unlocked the secret to mind manipulation and he can distort your perception of reality. He can make you believe whatever he wishes.”

Arenia can barely keep her eyes open, she feels so drained of hope. “It doesn’t sound like I have the slightest chance. The only person who knows my way back home is the most powerful and dangerous person in Underworld—and he wants me dead. How could you possibly believe that I am the woman from your Legend?”

“Do I believe you can defeat him right now? Not in the slightest,” Numen replies. “You would not even make it out of the Magical Forest. But I see something in you. I see a hidden gem. We need to bring that power to the surface. First, you must remember who you truly are.”

“What do you mean, remember who I truly am? I am who I am. I know who I am. Why does everyone insist that I don’t?” Arenia snaps in distress.

“It simply means that you have not discovered and tapped into your full potential. I understand it sounds confusing and disheartening. I ask for your trust in me. Soon, we will work through the walls of fear and illusions you have built around your powerful core. I will guide you there.” Numen lays a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Arenia is torn. She can’t believe him, but intuitively she does. She pictures herself growing in strength and self-confidence. That would be amazing . . . but—.

“But isn’t Tartarus supposed to be immortal? If he is, how could I ever do him any harm? He seems untouchable.”

“Yes, he is apparently immortal. But remember what the Legend says.” Numen turns to a blackboard resting against the wall behind him, and slowly scribes part of the Legend: _A birth scar marking her abdomen will be her curse and pull her to the Land of the Dead, and yet, it is also her salvation in disguise. _

“What does that mean?” Numen asks, and then continues. “Something pulled you into Underworld and keeps pulling you toward the Land of the Dead. We do not know what it is, but it must have to do with your origin—Gaia. You want to find your way back to Gaia, and it appears that Tartarus is the only one who might know how. But it also seems like your origin is not only what brought you here, but it will also be your salvation—maybe your way out of Underworld. Can you follow me so far?”

“I think so.”

“Good.” Numen turns back to the blackboard and continues to write: For it is the Golden Key to the Gate of the Kingdom of Divine.[_ “_]The Kingdom of Divine is not necessarily a physical place. Many historical books point to it as a divine power that rests within you, needing to be awakened. It seems like your origin—Gaia—is what will allow you to discover that place within you.” Numen pauses and looks down, clearly lost in thought. Suddenly, he lifts his head, and swiftly turns to Arenia, his eyes glistening. “If you remember the symbolic meaning of the mermaids’ Golden Key, you will notice that it could be regarded as a physical manifestation of the Golden Key to the Kingdom of Divine! I do not believe this to be a coincidence! So, there are three elements and ways in which I think you could break through his immortality and defeat him—your origin as a Gaian, the Golden Key, and your ability to enter the Kingdom of Divine with it.”

Arenia follows Numen’s explanation sentence by sentence. It all makes sense. But when she tries to remember and go back to what he said, her thoughts cloud.[_ _]

“But aren’t you afraid the evil spirits might corrupt me, like they did Tartarus?”

“No, I am not,” Numen asserts. “You have something that Tartarus was missing: a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. I am willing to take the risk, if that is the only thing that will bring peace into our world again. I will teach you everything I taught him.”

There is a long moment of silence. Finally, Arenia looks up. “Please teach me everything you know, Numen.”

“I will. But do not forget. In the end, it will be you alone facing Tartarus,” he says, gravely. “I can only prepare you. I cannot fight for you.”

Arenia nods, staring at her injured finger.

“Your blisters should be gone.” He gently unwraps the damp cloth. Her finger is completely healed. Not the slightest scar. Arenia sighs heavily. Maybe he does know what he’s talking about.

Journal

[_What a day. This morning I woke from a nightmare and rushed to Numen to see if there’s any way he can help me get home. And there might be a tiny possibility! I can train as hard as possible and grow into an opponent who’s strong enough to face Tartarus and not get killed the moment he sees me. Like I said—a tiny possibility. It’s so ironic that Tartarus is the only one who may know how I can get home. Out of everyone in all the worlds, the one who wants me dead and who I am apparently supposed to kill is my only salvation. The task is daunting and absolutely overwhelming. I can’t even start thinking about what I’m getting into because it’ll stop me right there. So, I’ll focus on the present and go through life moment to moment, just as Numen suggests. _]

After talking with Numen, I met up with Pium who showed me around some more. Pariah isn’t big, and we did some of the things that we did yesterday. The land is heavenly—serene and beautiful. Everyone’s so genuinely warm and welcoming. It never got boring. We chatted with people, ate at someone’s home, enjoyed music and theater in the evening, and strolled into the fields that were abundant with life. I just realized that I’ve been drinking milk and eating cheeses since getting here! How could I forget my milk intolerance? But strangely enough, I haven’t suffered one bit of the symptoms that I usually do. My tummy feels fine. No outbreaks on my skin, yet . . . maybe it’s the freshness of the milk? I don’t know.

[_Life in Pariah feels easy and peaceful. Stress and restlessness seem to have vanished. The Pariahs love to eat, sleep, talk, cook, and create things. They just seem to love life. They have a very simple philosophy: live in peace, with respect, appreciation, and love for themselves and others equally—from fellow Pariahs to animals, plants, trees, water, and even inanimate things like furniture, pots, and pans. They take time to contemplate the beauty of nature, and they talk to each other when they meet on the streets and exchange thoughts about their day. _]

They don’t seem to worry about money or having more than other people. Everyone has a particular skill—from handcrafts like goldsmithing or blacksmithing, to tailoring, bookbinding, brewing, carpentering, farming, teaching, healing, cooking, baking, pottery making, cleaning, or selling goods. It’s so weird for me to see people actually enjoying their work. Maybe it’s because their professions are not just means to an end, as they don’t have financial insecurities. According to Pium, if people don’t have enough food or clothes, others help them. Their enthusiasm for their work makes me think about my anxieties and conflicts with Mr. Raven and our company policies. I guess the business side of my job made me forget how much I love writing.

Numen seems to be the most respected member of the community. I assume that’s because he’s the most knowledgeable and the wisest—and probably, most importantly, because he’s caring, compassionate, kind, helpful, and trustworthy in such a natural way. He seems to be mostly interested in helping fellow Pariahs and improving everyone’s lives. When he’s not advising or helping someone in the streets, he’s in his library studying his books or contemplating in silence.

Still, I get the feeling that he’s lonely. Or maybe I just think that because he doesn’t seem to be attached to things and people the way everyone else is. I sometimes catch him watching me. I wonder what he’s thinking. Did he really educate the Traitor? Is it really possible that he remembers his previous lives? Is there even such a thing as previous lives? How could someone betray Numen? Poor man—his heart must’ve broken when his student deserted him and caused so much pain and suffering to his own people. Tomorrow’s my first day of training with him. I have no clue what to expect. I’m nervous and excited at the same time. Nothing to do but jump in.

-14-

The Training

DAY 4

At sunrise the next morning, there’s a sharp knock on the door. Arenia yanks open her eyes. Numen.

“Coming!” In seconds, she’s out of bed and dressed in green cargo pants and a black tank top.

“Good morning.” Numen smiles, as she opens the door.

“Good morning,” Arenia answers, sheepishly.

“I see that you are ready for the training.”

“Yes. Almost.” She scratches her neck.

“Before we go, I must give you this.” He hands her a small wooden box.

Arenia opens it. “What’s this?” The box contains a thick layer of skin-like tissue. She doesn’t dare to touch it. It’s repulsive.

“It is artificially grown, natural skin. I have noticed your discomfort with the scar on your abdomen. We do not want you to be distracted—not during training, and also not in your everyday life. This skin will help you to move and act freely, just as if you were one of us.”

“What do I do with it?”

“Just place it right on top of your scar. It will adhere to your skin and blend in naturally.”

Arenia carefully removes the skin and applies it over her belly button. To her surprise, the transition from the artificial skin to her own skin is so smooth that she can’t even tell where it is. Even the skin tone matches perfectly.

“Can I move? Or do I have to wait?”

“You can move.” Numen smiles.

She sucks her stomach in, cautiously. The skin moves with her in a very natural way. Huh!

“It is very sturdy, and flexible at the same time,” Numen explains. “You can train with it, shower with it, and follow your daily routine. You never have to reapply it. We use this skin when we undergo damages to our skin tissues.”

“But my belly button will still be there when I take it off, right?”

“Yes,” Numen chuckles, “you will not lose your, um, belly button.”

“Thank you so much!” Arenia feels like a huge weight has been lifted. Before they set out, she disappears to wash her face, brush her teeth, and tie up her hair. She grabs the leather backpack she received as a gift at the market, and drops her journal and pen into it. I might need them. She also takes an apple to eat on the way.

They walk past the market square, enter the Tree of Life, and take the elevator up. It opens into the Magical Forest. Arenia feels liberated to finally leave Pariah. She inhales the fresh scent of damp soil and trees. She gazes up into the dense canopy, where a few openings in the leaves reveal dim rays of dawn scattering away the night’s darkness. In silence, they start to hike southeast to Mountain Ida at Lake Somnus, taking a different path than the one she took when she first came to Pariah. She follows Numen closely through the tightly knit forest, stepping, dodging, leaping, and climbing over a path of rocks, branches, thick roots, winding creaks, and rotting trees.

The last part of the path to Mountain Ida is a rocky trail. Then the steep incline up the mountain leaves Arenia gasping for breath. But the captivating beauty that unfolds before her eyes from the top of the mountain is worth the struggle. They stand on a jutting rocky cliff that’s covered in thick patches of emerald-green grass. Yellow, red, pink, violet, and blue wildflowers bend and sway with every gentle gust of wind. This must be heaven on earth.

The celestial flower field of Mountain Ida soars above the vast wet expanse of Lake Somnus. The sun is just rising and already it warms the new day. Bright rays of fiery red and orange pour out to paint the gray-blue and purple horizon. Snowy-white birds sail on their wide wings across the boundless sky, basking in the sun’s heat. Arenia marvels at the glowing reflection on the lake. The rippling water sparkles in the sunlight.

Numen sits crossed-legged near the edge of the cliff and faces the vast lake. He invites Arenia to do the same. She sits and takes her journal out of her backpack to distract herself from her rising fear of the dizzying height.

“If one learns to listen to nature, one learns the truth about life,” Numen says. “Whenever you feel swamped in life’s upheavals, or if you simply wish to take in the magnificence of nature, you can come back to this place to recharge.” He falls silent and gazes out over the expanse.

Arenia tries to do the same.

After a moment, he continues. “The battle against Tartarus will be of both a physical and psychological nature. The purpose of your training is to strengthen your body, your mind, and your soul. You will learn the way each part of that triangle functions, and how the three parts can either stand in your way or lift you up to reach your full potential.”

Arenia takes notes in her journal, excited. Imagining herself growing in strength and power to hopefully return home as a new person thrills her.

“Today you will learn how to let go of thoughts and start the day with an empty mind. The purpose of this practice is to allow awareness to rise, as that is the fundamental requirement if you wish to tap into your full potential and achieve greatness in any endeavor—small or large.”

“It’s so difficult, though,” Arenia admits. “Whenever I try to not think or try to control my thoughts, they just keep popping up.”

“People are obsessed with controlling things—themselves, their thoughts, others, nature,” Numen agrees. “Rarely do they learn that some things are not meant to be controlled. We must allow thoughts to be, without giving in to them. If a thought pops into your mind, simply do not follow it.”

“But why is it so bad to have thoughts? Most of them are important.”

“There are two types of thinking, Arenia,” Numen explains. “There is the active use of thoughts. This is when you consciously take the time to actively solve a problem, to plan, or to attempt to comprehend something. Then there is the compulsive thinking that happens to you almost involuntarily in the back of your mind while you are doing something else. This happens to you as you eat, sit, and walk around—or even as you speak. Like a loose leaf drifting directionless with every gust of wind, you are left at the mercy of your thoughts—drifting away aimless and without intention.”

Arenia understands the difference between active and passive thoughts—though she doesn’t see the problem in having passive thoughts. In fact, she’s very familiar with trains of thoughts constantly running through her mind. Many mornings, she’s woken up remembering how she even kept thinking in her dreams. She’s sometimes even woken up to a random song playing in her head. She’s come to accept her hyperactive mind—she’s even proud of it, believing it makes her a quick thinker.

“What do you mean by aimless?” she asks.

“Let us look at an example,” Numen proposes. “Imagine that a thought comes up about yesterday’s dinner—which you found delightful, or maybe even dreadful—and you start indulging in that thought. Much of the time, a chain of thoughts will follow—about the friend you were with, why he was in a bad mood, if the wine you served was good enough, how the weather was too cold to sit outside, winter is coming, you are not looking forward to snow, you need a winter coat, and so on. Endlessly. It is a domino effect.”

Arenia wonders if Numen can read her mind, as those are the exact kinds of thoughts she could have, and probably has had in the past. But she still doesn’t understand why it’s so bad to think about these matters. Some of them are actually relevant questions.

Numen reads the doubt in her face and continues. “You might[_ think _]these thoughts are important and follow them, but they do not serve any meaningful purpose. This is because you are not usually even aware of your thought processes, meaning there is no effective problem-solving happening. The only thing that compulsive thoughts do is distract you from being fully present. They lead you to dwell in the past or anticipate the future, and so you forget about the now. If you want to truly change or achieve something, you can only do so if you fully focus on the present moment.”

“But I thought my thoughts are already working together with the present moment—to make the most out of it. I get that they might be bad if they themselves are bad or discouraging. But what if they’re just contemplating, commenting, or even encouraging?”

“Very good question. To be clear, we are not talking about the thoughts that actively form in your mind in collaboration with awareness. We are talking about the thoughts that you are mostly not even aware of and that happen to you. You see, as with everything else, thoughts are also two-sided. Sometimes they encourage you. Sometimes they discourage you. Sometimes they tell you the truth. And sometimes they deceive you. Humans are creatures of habit. If you blindly listen to these thoughts when they encourage you and tell you the truth, chances are, you will also believe them when they lie to you. That is why it is important to maintain awareness at all times.”

Arenia tries to think of what sorts of thoughts usually occupy her mind. Disturbingly, she does not know.

“I know it is difficult to follow. Just begin observing your thoughts and you will see,” Numen suggests.

“But you talk about thoughts as if they were something separate from me,” Arenia says. “Aren’t my thoughts me?”

“Your thoughts are not you. Your thoughts are part of you. You are the space, the awareness that enables thinking to happen. If there were nothing but thoughts in you, you would not even know that you were thinking. Like a dreamer, you would not know that you were dreaming.”

“That sounds so abstract.”

Opening his leather bag, Numen pulls out a clay tobacco pipe and a little glass bottle filled with liquid. He twists open the bottle and carefully fills the bowl of the pipe with the liquid.

“Imagine the air to be the awareness, the vast space that allows thoughts to be.” He then gently blows into the pipe’s mouthpiece.

Arenia watches as soap bubbles rise from the bowl and dance in the air, rays of light reflecting off of them in rainbow colors.

“The soap bubbles are the thoughts that rise. Without the air, the bubbles would not have the space to exist. In fact, they could not even come into existence. Because their very essence—the breath of life in them—is the air. It is the infinite source of life. But these bubbles have the foolish tendencies to see themselves as separate from that source. They forget that this source not only sustains them, but also contains them and thus ultimately connects them with one another.”

Arenia stares at the bubbles. One bursts.

“And when a bubble bursts,” Numen continues, “its essence returns to its infinite source. We could go a step further and compare the bubbles to individual humans. But that lesson we will keep for another time.”

“I think I understand this.”

“Excellent. You are now far ahead of most of the people who live outside of Pariah. They walk like sleepwalkers through their dreamlike lives, entirely caught up in the flashy surfaces of their bubble existences and unaware that there is a much vaster and much more powerful part in each of them that connects them to everyone else. So, our task, your task, is to discover that part. I call it the awareness or the consciousness,[_ ]and sometimes, _the Almighty. Others call it Lord. Know, they all point to the same—the infinite source of all creation. You must become aware of the awareness in you. Awaken to your divine essence and become lucid in the waking dream.”

“How do I do that?” Arenia is bewildered by the irony of her current situation. She still isn’t sure that Underworld is not part of a dream. [_Maybe this is how I find my way back? If I’m dreaming, I may have to find a way to wake up to my true self, which, in reality, is still back home. _]The thought fills her with enthusiasm.

“It is a process that takes time and repeated commitment. Whenever a thought comes up, try to develop an awareness mechanism—observe the thought. Be the space. Do not identify with the thought and limit yourself to the existence of a bubble. Do not judge the thoughts. Do not take them personally. The moment you become aware of a thought, it usually fades away—bursts, so to speak. Then another stronger thought might come up and try to distract you. You will have to repeat the practice of awareness every moment. One day, it will become an automatic process. Until then, you must discipline yourself.”

After sitting there for what feels like hours, Numen leads her back to Pariah. On the way, Arenia’s stomach rumbles so loudly that even Numen hears it.

“Someone forgot to pack lunch?’

Arenia smiles sheepishly. Numen hands her a sandwich filled with avocado, tomato, and egg. Arenia happily accepts, enjoying it in big bites.

They arrive back in Pariah, and walk a short distance from the center of the village to arrive at a wide field bordering Pariah’s dense forest. A young woman is training there, alone. Arenia is struck by the power and speed of her movements. When the woman sees Numen and Arenia approaching, she stops.

“Hello, Lucy. This is Arenia. Arenia, Lucy. She will be your main training partner.”

“Nice to meet you.” Arenia smiles, hoping they’ll be friends.

They shake hands. Lucy nods, sternly. Her strong strict presence intimidates Arenia. Or maybe it’s the way her handshake crushes Arenia’s hand. She is tall and beautiful with a muscular physique. Her long blonde hair is tied up into a tight ponytail, which accentuates her high cheekbones and pronounced nose. Her eyes are steel blue and filled with sheer focus and determination.

“Today, you will be introduced to the basics of combat. Lucy is our best fighter,” Numen remarks. “Even if she encounters opponents who are physically stronger, she can usually beat them. When mastering fighting techniques, as in life, the art of presence and the harnessing of energy flows are much more important than physical strength.”

Arenia glances at Lucy standing next to her, but Lucy is motionless, her eyes on Numen. How can she fight in those tight leather pants and that armor? The cargo pants she chose are comfortable and flexible. She’s braided her hair into a French braid to keep it out of her face. Her grandmother taught her how when she was a teenager because ponytails would hurt her head and give her headaches.

Arenia turns her attention back to Numen, who continues with his introduction to the training area. Different sites scattered across the field are designed to practice different skills: an obstacle course, and sites to practice archery, knife throwing, and sword fighting. The combat site marks the center. He explains that the large wooden building behind him houses further training equipment, a lecture room, a changing room, and an indoor training room for bad-weather days.

According to Numen, the field serves as the training ground where Pariahs learn and hone their combat skills for the “inevitable day.” He explains, “On that day, the day the location of the Land of the Pariahs is disclosed, we will no longer be safe. To remain unprepared for that day would be reckless and place our lives in danger. Pariahs start combat as children, and pursue it into old age, as they swear by its health benefits.”

I guess that might be one of the reasons why the Pariahs look so youthful and fit, even the older ones. Arenia saw the fighting technique performed by a group of Pariah fighters in the market square. It was a form of martial art, almost like kung fu mixed with capoeira. She was surprised to see the peaceful Pariahs practicing martial arts.

Numen compares fighting to a dance with the opponent. “You move with your opponent’s body and rhythm. Yield to her energy and direct it past your body, or[_ ]redirect her energy back[ _]toward her instead of attempting to stop it. This way she cannot do any harm to you. Her attack will lose its power.”

To demonstrate what he means, he asks Arenia to push Lucy as forcefully as she can. Arenia is hesitant. When she sees Lucy’s condescending and impatient look, she pushes at her, but weakly. Lucy laughs, annoyed, barely shifting in her stance.

“Harder,” Numen prompts.

Arenia silences her doubts and fears. [_They are from my past. _]She rams the heels of her palms into Lucy’s chest, this time, with all of her might. But Lucy doesn’t resist the surge of power coming from her push. Instead, she smoothly bounces back, causing Arenia to continue forward, lose stability, and fall to her knees.

“Do you see the importance of flowing with energies and not resisting them?” Numen asks.

“I do,” Arenia answers, red-faced, as she stands back up. When she glances at Lucy, she sees nothing but contempt in her eyes.

“The fighting stance is the most fundamental position in combat. A proper fight stance allows strong, effortless movement and easier flow of energy from your feet to your fingertips. It is your home base, where you find stability, security, and strength. You start here and return here whenever you can, and as quickly as possible.”

Numen instructs Arenia to place her feet slightly wider than her hips, to distribute her weight equally between both feet, and to slightly angle her knees, facing them in the same direction as her feet. He then pushes her tight shoulders down until they are relaxed.

With Lucy’s help, he slowly and precisely demonstrates and explains each body movement for basic front and side punches, as well as front kicks, back kicks, and sidekicks. He highlights the proper flow of breath, and the proper placement of hips, shoulders, fists, and legs—as well as the dynamics behind each. He instructs Arenia to first watch and then imitate each of Lucy’s movements. Arenia feels like a kid learning how to walk again, as Numen constantly tilts and angles her fists, arms, shoulders, head, hips, feet, legs, and ankles to their correct positions.

Then, he asks Lucy to demonstrate each kick and punch in quick, powerful movements.

“In and out,” he says, repeatedly, pointing out the importance of speed.

Arenia realizes she was right to be intimidated by Lucy. She could kill me!

After repeating each technique for three hours, he says, “Blocking a kick or a punch does not only give you the chance to redirect your opponent’s attack, it also provides an opportunity to counterattack. A solid block requires great energy drawn up from the ground through the stance. Keeping the feet firmly on the ground is important.”

Again, he first explains the blocking techniques, and then asks Lucy to demonstrate before asking Arenia to slowly apply each technique on Lucy. As Lucy throws slow punches and kicks, Arenia blocks and redirects them. Then, they switch, and Lucy deflects and redirects Arenia’s attacks, repeatedly causing Arenia to become unstable and hit the ground. They continue training until Arenia’s arms and legs tremble from exhaustion. She starts to fade and lose concentration. When Numen finally stops them, she drops to the ground and sits there for a while, panting.

“That is it for today, Arenia. I think you have learned a lot. Your body needs to process this information. Get some rest. I will meet you here tomorrow morning with the rising of the sun.” He smiles.

Thank goodness. All she can think about is showering, eating, and falling asleep. She hurries home and climbs out of her filthy, sweaty clothes. She showers and carefully cleans her skinned knees, wincing as the soap burns her wounds. When she’s done, she pats herself dry, and covers the wounds with some cream and bandages Numen gave her.

After dressing for bed, she makes a sandwich with walnut butter and fig jam, and falls into a chair at the kitchen table. The sandwich hasn’t a chance. Within moments, she shovels the last corner into her mouth and licks the sticky walnut butter and fig spread from her fingers before heading to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

She throws herself into the bed’s soft comforter and fluffy pillows, and peers out of the window at the open sky. She tries to guess the time as the last fiery rays of sun drain away, leaving clouds of mauve behind. She’s still not accustomed to not knowing the exact time. It makes her uncomfortable. [_Maybe 9 p.m.? Or even 10? Who knows . . . _]She turns and sees the journal on her nightstand. [_I should write. _]She reaches over.

*Journal *

I totally embarrassed myself today in front of Numen and Lucy. I was incompetent, clumsy, and awkward. I hate the beginning of a learning process and feeling the pressure of having so much catching up to do. What does Numen think of me? Does he still have hope that I can be the Legend? Does he still see the amazing potential in me that I just do not see? Or did the reality of my mediocrity finally make him doubt his decision?

All afternoon, I wondered how I was ever going to reach the average Pariah’s level of fighting proficiency. I mean, they’ve been honing their skills since childhood. Even if I did learn everything unnaturally quickly, it would take time to perfect the techniques. And I don’t have time! Right now, I can’t even imagine ever becoming as good as Lucy—how can we be aiming even higher? How can I even think about daring to face the most dangerous and powerful man in this world? It’s crazy! The whole thing makes me feel hopeless and absolutely unmotivated.

[_But then again, I found the first part of today very enlightening. The comparison of consciousness containing thoughts with air and floating soap bubbles helped me to truly grasp the concept for the first time. We sat in silence and let our thoughts “bubble up” with the intention to be the space and observe them. I noticed how busy my mind actually was. I constantly had thoughts running through my head. I sort of knew about this already, but I didn’t think my mind would be that busy. I guess I stopped monitoring my thoughts a very long time ago. Or was I ever truly aware of them? I don’t know. I’m so used to them now, I often don’t even “hear” them anymore. _]

[_Most of my thoughts today were about things from the past, or what I anticipated from the future—about how much I missed my apartment, the routine of going to the café and seeing the cute guy, worrying about if my bike is OK, fearing how Mr. Raven will probably fire me, wondering what date it is back home, thinking about my grandmother who must be so worried about not hearing from me . . . but if I’m in a dream, time back home more or less has stood still, and I’ll probably just return home sooner rather than later by waking up. Right? _]

_I was thinking about Pium, Numen, the magnificent white bird with elongated feathers that just sailed across the brilliant blue sky, the fresh wind that blew against my cheek, the sound of the waves that started to build as the sun rose from the horizon towards the center of the sky. That it was noon soon and time passed by so quickly, yet so slowly at the same time . . . that I was getting restless from sitting without exchanging a word with Numen . . . my back hurt from sitting on tiny rocks . . . _

[_I noticed how often one thought had not much of a connection to the other. Numen was right. The thoughts didn’t have any real purpose in that moment. I struggled to stay aware and not get caught up in any of them. It was very difficult and kind of tiring. I really hope what Numen says is true—that staying aware will become my primary state of mind at some point. Until then, I’ll try my best to monitor my thoughts more . . . my eyes are heavy. I am so exhausted . . . I need to sleep . . . _]

-15-

Lucy

DAY 5

A rooster crows. Arenia opens her eyes. It’s still dark outside. Training! I have to make lunch. I can’t go another day without food. She stretches and yawns. Her muscles are sore, but not as bad as she thought they’d be. Pretty quickly, she’s up on her feet. She washes up, dresses in another clean pair of cargo pants and a tank top, and brushes out her knotted hair and braids it up.

Her thoughts drift to her grandmother. She’s probably gardening or reading the newspapers on her veranda with a cup of coffee. When she closes her eyes, Arenia can smell the aroma of coffee mixing with the sweet fragrance of the blooming flowers in her grandmother’s garden. She’d give anything to be with her right now. Her grandmother’s presence has always been so calming and peaceful, as if all was right with the world. Will I ever see her again? _]Thinking about home makes her heart ache. Her hope to magically wake up in her own world is vanishing as the days go by. She pushes the thought out of her mind. [_I’m not there. I have to focus on the now.

Her stomach feels too sensitive to eat so early, so she just drinks a glass of water. Ugh. [_Coffee!! Goodness, I want some coffee!! _]When she asked Pium about coffee, he had no idea what she was talking about. She picks out some fruits, fills a breakfast roll with goat cheese and spinach, and packs it all with a bottle of water into her backpack.

She heads out towards the training field. The first rays of sun lighten up her way in subtle hues of purple and pink, bringing warmth to the cool morning air. Some of the homes have lights on already. The cobblestones and plants are covered in morning dew. Arenia takes a deep breath. The air is rich with the smell of damp soil. The first birds chirp away her last bit of sleepiness. It is strikingly still and peaceful. She slept well and feels recharged. There are fewer tree houses the further she walks. Soon, she passes through a short forest strip before she finally reaches the training field, where Pium is placing two freestanding punching bags in the combat site.

“Good morning,” he says, with a wide grin.

“Good morning.” Arenia smiles back. She’s happy to see him, but also worried about him witnessing her miserable performance.

“How was it yesterday? I wanted to come by in the evening, but your lights were off. I figured you were sleeping.”

“Yes, I was. It was good . . . I guess. Exhausting, but good. I have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Well, you are training with the best of the best. You will get there. I am here if you, you know, want to train after hours . . . or want to talk.”

Before she can answer, Numen walks up with Lucy at his side. “Thank you for your help, Pium. Will you stay for meditation?”

Pium nods. After meditating with them for a while, he silently gets up and leaves for work. Arenia is relieved, but can’t stop thinking about the punching bag at the same time. She shudders at the thought of hitting the hard surface.

Right after meditation, Lucy demonstrates a whirlwind of powerful blows and kicks to the bag. Her strength is formidable. The heavy dummy swings from front to back, side to side. Lucy’s hands and feet don’t suffer a single scratch.

Numen points at Arenia. She understands, rises. She forms a fist with her right hand . . . and strikes the bag. She hits it hard. The dummy does not budge. Instead, her knuckles turn white and cold, then red and hot. Through her gritted teeth, she lets out a muffled cry and shakes her hand. Lucy smirks and rolls her eyes.

What is her problem? Arenia’s pride pushes her to hit even harder. She focuses on taking a proper fight stance, and then throws another punch, despite her pain. Again, the dummy barely moves, not even after Arenia flings a series of left and right punches at it.

Finally, Numen stops her. Then, he insists that she meticulously repeat each kick, punch, and block that she learned the day before. But this time, on the dummy. For hours. He says that the power behind her punches will increase with time and practice. She should instead put her focus on perfecting the techniques. Numen watches like a hawk and continuously adjusts her. He stresses the importance of focusing on each individual movement, with each blow landing on the exact intended spot, always repositioning to a solid fight stance.

By midday, Arenia has figured out how to keep a stable stance and perform proper attacks and defenses without constantly being corrected by Numen.

“We need to strengthen your body and work on your endurance,” he notes, gazing at Arenia’s untrained and exhausted body. He announces lunchtime.

Arenia grabs her backpack and drops down on the grass. She stretches out her fingers and massages her hands. Her knuckles burn. She’s determined to ignore the pain and stay strong. She fishes out her sandwich and bottle of water. She’s starving. As she searches for the perfect corner to bite first, Lucy sits down near her. She twists off the top of a jar full of raw vegetables and starts to eat them. Her crunching is annoying.

Arenia tries to start a conversation with her. “How long have you been training?”

“Since I was six,” Lucy answers, coldly, eyes on the horizon.

“Wow! That’s such a long time. Thanks for helping me out. I really appreciate it.”

Lucy shows no reaction. [_Maybe she doesn’t want to talk about training. _]Arenia tries again.

“It’s very beautiful here, and the weather is perfect. Not too warm. Not too cold.”

Lucy sighs scornfully and looks the other way. [_Or maybe she actually doesn’t like me. But why? She doesn’t even know me. Is it because I’m so terrible at this? _]Some of Lucy’s characteristics and mannerisms remind Arenia of Fey when they first met.

As she eats her sandwich, her mind drifts off to how Fey confessed well into their friendship that she couldn’t stand her at the beginning because she thought Arenia was weak.

“I’m allergic to weak people,” she announced. “I don’t like them around me.”

“That’s such a mean thing to say! Why did you think I was weak?! Because I was quiet?” Arenia was appalled.

“Well, yes. Quiet, creepily observant, shy, introverted . . . you know, all of those typical traits of a weak personality. And weak personalities tend to be dishonest—lying and cheating,” Fey stated.

“I completely disagree. I’m friends with some quiet people who you’d probably label as weak, and they’re some of the most compassionate and loyal people I know. They’re just highly sensitive beings. They don’t blast their opinions out because they don’t want to hurt anybody who might not share their perspectives. They overthink and contemplate before every action they take so they’re sure not to hurt anybody. They don’t like the spotlight because they don’t want to make anybody else feel inferior!”

“Listen. I’m not saying you are weak. I think you’re just . . . a little strange sometimes, but that’s it.” Fey’s condescending laughter still rings in her ears.

“I’m kidding, Arenia, relax,” Fey replied to Arenia’s incredulous stare. “You’re really sensitive today. Why do you take it so personally, anyway? I’m not talking about you.”

Fey simply wouldn’t take back her opinion. Arenia was so angry that she didn’t talk to Fey for two weeks, the longest period of silence they’d had since becoming friends. She took her opinion very personally. It occupied her mind for a long time. Why is it that some people seem to be more sensitive than others? Does being sensitive mean being weak?

When she did some research on the net, she found out that, by birth, some people perceive sensory information more deeply and intensely than the average person does, which can be emotionally draining. These sensitive people not only sense other people’s thoughts and feelings, but they also experience their own responses at the same time. That’s why they tend to withdraw into themselves, and are often quiet and contemplative. Whereas sensitivity often comes by birth, it isn’t to be confused with shyness, which is a result of anxiety and fear of judgment. Shyness is learned and can be unlearned. Highly sensitive people can be prone to shyness, but they aren’t necessarily shy. After hours of research, Arenia knew that she belonged to at least one of these groups, but she wasn’t sure which. Maybe both?

Maybe Lucy’s like Fey. Sooner or later, she’ll see that I can be a good friend.

After lunch, Numen instructs Arenia and Lucy. “I want you to practice the kicks, punches, and blocks with each other in a very precise and slow way. I repeat, hitting in full force is not permitted yet. We are concentrating on proper technique.”

Thank goodness! I don’t stand the slightest chance.

Both engage in a dancelike combat. Lucy moves effortlessly and agilely. Clearly, she’s been doing this for a very long time, as every small movement of her body seems to be automatic, yet still thoroughly precise. Arenia is so unchallenging to her that Lucy has Arenia spinning around her in countless circles as Arenia tries to throw strikes at her. Lucy continuously dodges, blocks, and deflects Arenia’s attacks. The newcomer ends up bent over and out of breath, covered in bruises from falling to the ground over and over again. She can’t help but get frustrated, especially in the face of Lucy’s open gloating.

After two hours with a short break, Arenia is too tired to stay focused, and it’s visible in her performance. Numen dismisses Lucy and makes Arenia run 50 laps around the field. To overcome her troubles with balance, Numen makes her walk on narrow ledges, then leap up high and land solidly on both feet. She struggles her way through a few sessions of push-ups and crunches. Numen asks her to do some of the push-ups on her fingertips and knuckles, too.

“The strengthening of your fingers and wrists is essential not only for combat, but also for sword fighting, arrow shooting, and knife throwing,” he notes.

She can barely do a single knuckle push-up, and her throbbing arms buckle when she tries to do another. At that, Numen announces stretching to end the training, which Arenia drags herself through. She just wants to go home.

For the entire walk back to the village, she can’t catch her breath. Every inch of her muscles is giving in to gravity. She feels like the beaten-up, heavy punching bag. Just outside her house, she runs into Pium.

“How did it go?”

“All I want to do is eat and sleep,” Arenia sighs, trying to slip into her house as quickly as possible.

“No chance. I am kidnapping you for a sports night.”

“Pium, I’m really exhausted. There’s no way.”

“I understand. It will not take too long, and you will enjoy it. Promise!”

Arenia hesitates.

“Come on!” he insists. “It will take your mind off the training. And there is dinner!”

[_He’s not going to give in. _]“Alright. I’ll come,” she says. She’s always had a hard time saying no, especially to a good friend. “Just give me time to take a shower and change clothes.”

“Great!” Pium punches the air.

Arenia takes a quick shower. As she puts on yet another pair of tight but comfortable cargo pants with a white shirt, she gazes at where her navel used to be. She strokes the area with her fingers. Feels odd. She leaves her wet hair down to dry, and meets Pium outside his house.

“Wow, you have long hair!” Pium remarks.

Arenia blushes. “Oh . . . thanks? . . . So, where are we going?”

“To Pariah Stadium, a little outside the village. We are seeing a game of Cueball. I’ll tell you more about it once we arrive.”

As they walk over, Pium says, “I hope Lucy is treating you right.” He sees her downtrodden expression and laughs.

Arenia is relieved that she doesn’t have to pretend with him. Maybe Lucy just hates everyone.

“Well . . . I’m trying to keep my spirits up,” she responds. “It’s tough, though. Lucy’s difficult. She’s worlds ahead of me. And I’m in a lot of pain. Look at my knuckles.” She extends her hands. “My knees look even worse.”

Pium takes her hand and inspects it. Arenia feels a weird rush of emotion.

“Did you wash the wounds and apply a disinfecting cream?”

“Yes, I did.” She pulls her hand away.

“Be patient. Through the injuries, your skin and bones will get thicker and more resistant. One day, you will reap the rewards for your hard work.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for.”

They arrive at the stadium. As they enter, Arenia sees that the playing field is the size of a tennis court, and it’s surrounded by a large amphitheater-style seating structure. The walls vibrate. The place is packed with an energetic and amazingly loud crowd. One half is dressed in red, the other in green. The atmosphere is electric.

“Wow, this is huge! How many people fit in here?”

“Just over 5000,” Pium says, proudly, leading her to two empty seats in the middle rows on the green team’s side. “Yes. I am a longtime fan of Green Harmony. The Red Heats are very big rivals,” he reveals, cheerfully. “Cueball is played in a league by members of the Cueball Club. Two teams with six players, men and women, play against each other. Do you see the six holes along the railed borders? The fifteen balls in the rack will be pocketed with a white cue ball and a putter. Seven balls are colored in green, the other seven in red, and one is black.”

Sounds like a mix of golfing, croquet, and pool.

The player’s red and green knee-length, cotton jerseys remind her of medieval tunics. Underneath, they wear tight cotton pants and knee-high, strapped leather boots. Two players step onto the field and hit the pool-sized balls with long wooden clubs that have thick round blocks of rubber on their ends. The rest of the team members, along with their coaches, sit on wooden benches on both sides of the court.

“For each play, the most suitable player of a team can be appointed, depending on if it is a long- or short-distanced shot, angled shot, obstacle shot, and so on. The team that first pockets all of its competitor’s balls—and the black ball at the end—wins.”

Arenia has never been a big fan of any particular sports team, and she is completely exhausted and starving. But the excitement and passion shared by the crowd—the clapping, shouting, and screaming—she has always found fascinating and very contagious.

The atmosphere is especially gripping. The two teams’ scores are very close, and the game picks up in intensity. Every shot becomes critical. When a player from the green team is about to take a shot, suddenly every single Green Harmony fan—including Pium—starts to chant in unison, “Har-mo-ny! Har-mo-ny!” [_Incredible! _]It gives her goose bumps. Young or old, the sport truly brings generations together. Even if only a spectator, she feels completely drawn into this very unifying experience.

“The first team to win two rounds wins,” Pium explains, happily.

The Green Harmony team wins the first game. During the break, Arenia and Pium walk out of the stadium to the food stalls. Arenia’s focused on the medley of vegetable fries served with thick cream dips on the side.

“Let me get it,” Pium insists.

“OK. Thanks! I’ll get the ale.” Arenia is deeply thankful to Numen for the coins he gave her at the start of her training.

“I can’t accept this,” she told Numen at first, knowing in the back of her mind that she had no other choice. Sure, the Pariahs would have kept giving her things for free. But she was feeling in debt.

“Please,” Numen insisted. “See it as an advance for your hard work and commitment to your training. You are doing this for you. But you are also doing this for us.”

So, she took the money.

With the fries and the big cups of ale in hand, they head back and take their seats again, just in time for the bell signaling the start of the second game.

Journal

Day 5. Crazy how time flies. Pium took me to a game of Cueball today. His team won, and we sang and chanted with the crowd all the way back to the village. It was a lot of fun, and it’s true that it took my mind off training. But the reality of my situation hits me again now that I’m alone. The only things I want to do are sleep and forget. I’m so exhausted. My whole body’s sore. Numen hasn’t even allowed Lucy to hit me with full force yet. Ugh . . . I’m terrified. But it’s fine. It has to be fine. I will fight through this. But now, if I don’t sleep, I will die.

-16-

Dumping the Old

DAY 6

Walking over to the training field the next morning, Arenia can’t stop yawning and thinking about the sleep she’s left behind. When she arrives, Numen’s filling a large rack with at least a hundred knives. Thank goodness I don’t have to fight Lucy.[_ Last thing I need today is another condescending look. _]

She can barely stay awake during meditation, and is relieved when Numen finally announces, “Today, you will learn how to throw knives.” He takes 10 knives and positions himself in the center of the 10 target boards that are arranged in a crescent shape. Arenia stands behind him.

“Among other things, the knife can be useful for warding off beasts in close vicinity and hunting food.” He picks up a knife by the handle, lifts his hand, pulls his elbow back, and throws the knife at the target board. It hits the bull’s eye. He then throws the other nine knives in his hand, one after another, each hitting the center of the nine target boards. Arenia is surprised by Numen’s agility and strength. He then demonstrates in slow motion the importance of maintaining proper stance—the correct usage of the shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, fingers, and weight distribution while keeping the eyes focused on the target.

“Treat the knife as an extension of your arm,” he suggests, and hands her a knife.

Arenia stares at the weapon in her hand. It’s heavy with a sharp blade that’s as long as her open palm and reflects the morning sunlight. The ribbon-wrapped handle promises a firm grip.

“Try,” Numen prompts.

Arenia positions her left foot in front of her right, wraps her hand around the handle like Numen demonstrated, lifts her hand, pulls her elbow back, and throws—way off.

“Do not aim at the general board,” Numen warns, “but at one specific point. For example, try for an irregularity in the grain of the wood. Keep your eye on the target. Stiffen your wrist. It offers maximum impact and control.”

She throws knife after knife and watches them spinning blade over handle. None of them even comes close to the board. Concentrate, Arenia! Come on! You can do this! After 14 tries, she finally hits the target board. A surge of adrenaline runs through her body. Yes! She badly needed a small moment of success. She throws more rounds, perfecting her technique and gaining consistency. Most of the knives she throws now land on the board, ever closer to the center.

When her right arm starts to feel like it’s going to drop off, Numen makes her stop immediately. He doesn’t want her to adopt poor throwing habits.

“It is better that you keep working on your endurance.”

And that’s what they do. After sessions of running, push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, and jumping, Numen finally announces lunch. Arenia drops down on the grass and doesn’t move for 10 minutes, panting, her heart pumping. Once she catches her breath, she gets her lunch from her backpack and plops down on the side of the field.

While she’s eating, she sees Lucy approaching. Oh no, I have to fight her again?

“Today, we will have a real fight,” Numen declares.

Arenia’s eyes widen in horror.

“Lucy, please refrain from being too hard on Arenia.”

Lucy smirks.

Cold sweat rushes down Arenia’s neck to her back. She falls silent.

Lunch over, she faces Lucy in a fight stance. She’s trembling. She already sees herself slammed into the ground. She considers giving up right now. But that would be an even greater humiliation. The arrogance and hostility in Lucy’s eyes heightens her fear. [_Maybe I can let her hit me once and then give up so I don’t look like a complete loser. _]She wipes her sweaty palms on her pants. Panic takes over. [_I don’t stand a chance! What am I doing here? I never should’ve agreed to this! Why doesn’t she just punch me right now? Why does she keep stalking me? I can’t stand this. I know she’s doing it on purpose. I’m going to faint! What if I faint? How humiliating! Please just start! _]

She snaps back to her senses when Lucy knocks her to the ground with one mighty sidekick. Arenia clutches at her ribs. Her body wavers as she stands and tries to find her stance. She punches at Lucy again and again, but her opponent effortlessly dodges. Then, Lucy’s left fist flies towards her face. Arenia barely manages to block it, when Lucy’s right fist rams into her midriff, right between her ribs. Arenia doubles over, clutching her stomach, unable to breathe.

When she was a kid, she succumbed to her friends’ peer pressure and jumped from the three-meter diving board at the local swimming pool. As she fell through the air for what felt like eternity, she couldn’t stop staring at the approaching water. She landed on her stomach with a boom. It was like hitting concrete, and she couldn’t breathe as she flailed about, struggling to reach the pool edge. At the same time, the other kids didn’t realize she was in trouble. They were busy staring at the next kid up on the board. Just when she thought she was about to pass out and drown, she was able to gasp for air. Exactly how I feel right now.

“Fighting goes beyond physicality,” Numen’s saying. “It is a fight of the minds, especially beyond the boundaries of Pariah. You must recognize your opponent’s patterns—the patterns of her movements, her fighting style, and her weaponry. This is the best way to best counter and overcome her attacks. Keep your eyes peeled for her weak spots. Frequent separation whenever possible offers you a break and an opportunity to modify your fighting strategy, or even manipulate your opponent with mind games.”

Arenia hears Numen’s words, but they don’t register. Panic and pain have her in such a firm grip that she can’t remember how to stand, attack, or defend. All she can think about is bringing this moment to an end. At the same time, she’s too afraid of judgment to give up.

Lucy launches a few more blows, before finally pinning Arenia to the ground, pressing her face into the grass. Get up! GET! UP! She pushes herself up to her knees. Warm blood is trickling from her nose. She wipes it away with the back of her hand, smearing it over her lips.

“That is enough for today. Good job, both of you,” Numen declares.

Arenia limps home, pain shooting through her body. [_Where did my consciousness go during the fight? _]She doesn’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Home is all she can think about. When she opens the door, a tantalizing savory aroma hits her nose. [_Oh my goodness! _]Her dining table is laden with plates of food. She closes the door behind her, drops her bag, and picks up the note on the table:

 

Numen asked me to prepare something while you were at training. I hope you like cabbage and apia salad, spicy rice with dried nuts and fruits, and braised chicken breast. Enjoy!

Pium

 

[He must be the nicest person on this planet. _]Her stomach rumbles at the smell of the musky spices. _First things first. She drags herself to the bathroom, turns on the shower, and strips off her clothes. Steam fills the room. Carefully, she steps under the stream of hot water. She closes her eyes as it pours down over her. Heaven. She takes a deep breath and exhales. She’s always loved the comfort of being wrapped in hot water. It calms her. The stream gently massages her skull and shoulders. Her tension dissolves and her muscles relax. It feels so private. She massages shampoo into her hair. Then she softly rubs her bruise-covered skin with the foamy sponge before rinsing herself.

Wrapped in a large white towel, she walks into the living area. She takes a seat at the dining table and methodically forks down each plate. The chicken and rice is comfortingly warm. Hmm. [_So good. Exactly what I needed. _]When she’s done, she gently applies cream to her bruises. She puts on her sleeping shirt, brushes her wet hair, cleans her teeth, and crawls under the delicious comforter. She’s sore. And she’s humiliated. Her overwhelming defeat is degrading, wiping away the little self-esteem she had. She desperately needs to sleep, to heal, but her mind won’t stop running. She sighs and turns to the nightstand where her journal is waiting.

Journal

So it happened. We fought. My body is a huge aching bruise. My muscles are stiff and sore. My skin doesn’t want to be touched. My bones are sizzling. My face will probably be blue tomorrow. I don’t even have a mirror to see! It’s better that way.

[_I don’t know what happened. The fights were so quick. I didn’t even have the chance to think quickly enough . . . I’m starting to doubt if it was a good idea to agree to this training. Why do I have to fight the strongest fighter in the whole village right away? I have to trust Numen’s judgment! What choice do I have? But why should I trust him? Based on what? I don’t know him! At all! _]

[I don’t know . . . maybe _]because[ I have no choice? Not only that. I just somehow do trust him. I’ve always had good intuition about who to trust . . . oh, man. I have to get some sleep._]

DAY 7

Training begins with silent meditation—allowing thoughts to pass by. Arenia can’t help but try to stop the thoughts by cutting them off. But it doesn’t work. When she does, they’re replaced by stronger thoughts that distract her even more.

“Why is it that I can’t just cut off my thoughts?”

“You have learned an essential lesson all by yourself.” Numen smiles. “If you violently silence one thought, two more will take its place. You must allow the thought to be and neither resist it nor give into it. Like fire, it must burn itself out and thus extinguish itself at the root.”

She takes his words to heart as she keeps meditating. There are some moments when she follows a thought, but then she catches herself. Other moments she stays aware for a long time without giving in to a thought. Then, sometimes she gets bored and restless. Her legs and her back hurt. She doesn’t want to sit anymore[. Can’t we just start training? _]Then she reminds herself.[ This is part of the training—remember?_]

They meditate for another hour before Numen announces, “Today, you will begin to learn the art of sword fighting.”

The pain dominating her body is suddenly replaced by a surge of excitement. This, I can do!!

“Do not see it as another discipline you are learning,” Numen says, “but as a technique that perfectly complements all of the other lessons you have had so far. The art of sword fighting utilizes many of the same movements used in knife throwing and unarmed combat. It requires a balance between a tight grip, a stiff wrist, and a flexible hand.”

Arenia nods, but her mind is drifting off to when she was eight years old at summer camp. She had to choose a sport. She was too shy, too small, and too fragile for volleyball and basketball—the other girls literally ran her over. So, she chose archery, which she continued for two years. It was the perfect discipline because it only involved her, the bow, the arrow, and the target board.

After two years of archery, she wanted to try something new. When her parents worked late into the night, she would spend many evenings with her grandmother watching classic, black and white, Hollywood films. In one of those movies, she saw a beautiful actress in a sword fight with a man. She was fascinated and inspired by the woman’s strength, elegance, and heroism. She wanted to be just like her, and begged her parents to sign her up for sword fighting class.

Coincidentally, there was a fencing academy not too far from where she lived. She’ll never forget the moment she first walked into the training ground and saw the students at work. Their masks looked like knights’ helmets and the fencing gear looked like armor. She felt like she’d landed back in medieval times and was witnessing a very old and noble tradition. From the first training session, she was hooked. Her legs and arms were sore for days, she felt clumsy and awkward, but she didn’t care. Behind the mask, she felt like a powerful warrior—as if everything was possible. She felt like this could be her sport.

With the help and support of her parents, she felt like she could overcome any obstacle. Without fail, they drove her to every training session and competition, motivating her when she was down. Looking back, she realized that the intense bonding experience with them might’ve been the best part about fencing.

For a year, she suffered disheartening defeat after defeat, but she didn’t quit. The small moments of success and progress gave her such a high that she kept pushing. The adrenaline rush she got every time she made smart choices and perfectly executed the techniques made her feel alive. With years of training, she learned that fencing was so much more than athleticism and technique. It was about figuring out how to overcome each individual opponent, as everyone fenced differently. It was about tactics and strategies, as well as reading your opponents’ minds and behavior. She became so good that she won many regional championships.

Arenia was training for the national championship when her parents died. Her grandmother pushed her to keep fencing for another six months, but it was hopeless. Fencing and her parents were completely linked for her. She was suffering too much grief to keep her head straight. Before, fencing helped her to get her mind off of things and overcome hurdles, whether physical or mental. But she could not overcome the brutal loss of her parents.

“For safety reasons, we will first practice with a wooden sword.”

Arenia’s attention snaps back to Numen. She takes the wooden sword he hands her, and feels transported back in years. Feelings of sadness, excitement, nostalgia, happiness, bliss, frustration, exhaustion, and struggle wash over her. She swings the sword left and right. She attacks and defends.

“I see you are not a stranger to sword fighting.” Numen’s eyebrows are raised.

“I took classes a long time ago. But I’m a little rusty,” Arenia says, offhandedly.

“Excellent! Then let us see what you can do.”

Numen goes into a fight stance. So does Arenia. As they engage in swordplay, dancing from side to side, Arenia realizes she hasn’t forgotten one bit of what she learned. Her mind is fuzzy, but her body is razor sharp. They practice all morning, and she falls deeply into her old flow. She recalls how it feels to be skilled and successful at a discipline. Again, it makes her feel alive. Numen is clearly impressed.

During lunch, he reminds her that all weapons should only be used when they’re absolutely vital for survival.

“Does anybody use firearms here?” she asks, chewing her fruit salad. “Guns or bombs would easily dominate these traditional fighting methods.”

“I have heard that these deadly weapons exist in Gaia.”

“How did you hear about them?” Arenia is astonished.

“I still have a few informants in the Lands of Tears who have access to the inner circle of Tartarus. Twice yearly, we exchange reports to keep each other informed without endangering each other. Apparently, firearms were one of the few evil resources Tartarus discussed with his Wise Men but did not introduce to Underworld. He felt them to be weapons that could create an unfair allocation of power and dominance.”

“So, basically, he’s afraid that others would use them against him,” Arenia concludes. He’s either a very clever man or a coward.

Arenia spends the rest of the day repeating each combat technique she’s learned, drilling the correct movements and mechanisms until they feel more and more natural. Motivated by the sword fighting, she puts her heart and soul into it.

To her dismay, Lucy joins her later, and, as expected, their fights are quick and painful. A few hard blocks and powerful hits deliver Arenia to the ground again and again. But she doesn’t quit. She forces herself up over and over. And Lucy’s aggression grows with Arenia’s persistence. Finally, Lucy ends things with a mighty kick to Arenia’s stomach that sends her flying back across the field to slam face down into the ground. Arenia’s head spins. She feels sick. Then, her stomach contracts so sharply that one violent heave empties her lunch out onto the grass. When she heaves again, only liquid comes out.

Lucy stalks off, disgusted. Numen arranges the knives without comment, taking them into the training building. The sour smell of vomit rises into Arenia’s nose. Tears roll down her cheeks. She manages to stand, and stares blankly around, not knowing what to do. She tries to wipe away the tears with the back of her hand, but they won’t stop falling. Numen comes over with a clean towel, a bottle of water, and a glass full of water. He hands her the towel and asks her to follow him to the nearby bench. She quietly obeys and sits.

He calmly looks at her. “The water in this glass is from yesterday. But I would like to fill it with fresh water for you to enjoy. What can I do?”

Arenia can barely meet his eyes, she’s so ashamed.

“What do I need to do?” he repeats.

“I don’t know,” she mumbles. She clears her throat. “Pour out the old water?”

“Yes. We first need to get rid of the old water. Why? Because if I just add new water, it will be polluted by the old. So, the glass not only has to first suffer the loss of the old and known, but it also has to undergo complete emptiness for a certain amount of time until it can be slowly filled back up again with the fresh and new.” He turns over the glass, pouring the water out onto the grass. He then fills the glass with fresh water from the bottle, and hands it to her with a comforting smile.

“So, I guess I just emptied out the old,” Arenia feebly jokes.

Numen laughs wholeheartedly. “Indeed you did, my dear. Indeed you did.” After a pause, he places a hand on her shoulder. “Do not see this as a defeat, Arenia. See it as one step closer to your goal.”

She nods and takes a sip from the glass. Numen sits with her on the bench in silence until she feels better. Then he walks back to the village with her.

She disappears into her house as quickly as possible. She doesn’t want to see anyone, not even Pium. In the shower, the steaming water washes away her pain. She tries to cry, but no tears will come. Not even in the safety of her bed. Her pain and sorrow is so unbearable that her body is numb. She turns from side to side, but she can’t escape into sleep’s oblivion. She switches on the lamp, sits up, and opens her journal.

Journal

I’m so frustrated!!! I want to master the techniques as fast as possible and I hate the fact that I have so much catching up to do!! I want to be done with learning and find Tartarus so I can get back home! NOW!

How can I make this all go faster? Lucy’s light years ahead of me! It’s so unfair! There’s no way I can make up for all of the training I’ve missed!! Ugh! I constantly feel like time’s running out. Who knows if I’ll ever reach the level of brilliance Numen sees in me! What if I’m not the woman from the Legend? What if I never even had the chance to defeat Tartarus to begin with?! What if it’s all impossible?! What if I’m wasting my time?! And what if there’s an easier and quicker way to get back home?!!

I can’t let myself get distracted. I have to focus! Anything that delays me is unacceptable! I hate being stuck here in Pariah having to go through all of this training just to never get home. Yes, I know my mind is constantly drifting and anticipating the future and despising the present moment, but I can’t help it! Why is everything I do in life always filled with unyielding obstacles?!!!

-17-

Hanska’s Sword

DAY 8

“I have a surprise for you.”

Numen leads her inside the training building. On the table lies a long object wrapped in brown leather. Arenia’s heart beats faster.

“Open it.”

Wrapped in the leather is the most beautiful sword she has ever seen. It leaves her breathless. She takes it into her hands and gazes along the perfectly polished full-length blade.

“It is made of steel, tempered for strength and flexibility,” Numen comments.

The blade is mounted onto a solid steel cross guard featuring two panthers among vine and flower motifs. The Panther! The grip is wrapped in leather straps, and riveted within the pommel lays a green gemstone that resembles an eye.

“Our sword master, Hanska, created this sword specifically for you,” Numen says. “As you can see, not only is he an exceptional craftsman, but he also has an impeccable eye for creating the perfect weapon for its future owner.”

“Why did he choose panthers?”

“Hanska works very intuitively. He must have either seen panther features in your personality, or he may have thought that the panther could help you tap into panther powers.”

Arenia hears Numen’s words but shrugs them off. [_I’m nothing like a panther. _]She can’t believe the beauty and elegance of the sword. She cautiously swings it around. With its secure grip, the weapon is exceptionally easy to maneuver.

“This is beautiful, Numen.” She turns to him. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so very much. It’s perfect.”

“You are quite welcome. Because of your mastery, we will train with a real sword going forward. Please go into the changing room. Your armor is waiting.”

“My what?” Arenia almost jumps for joy.

Numen nods with a smile. Arenia rushes into the changing room, feeling like a kid. There it is, hanging on the cabinet doors—her black, full-body armor suit.

The chest piece is molded to the natural breast shape. The abdominal piece, shoulders, knees, and shins are supported by relatively thick pads that have been sown into the suit. Arenia doesn’t recognize the material. It looks like elastic black leather. It’s flexible, yet it sounds very sturdy when she knocks on it. She takes off her cargo pants and climbs into the surprisingly lightweight suit, zipping it closed. It fits her flawlessly. She moves from left to right, squats, and jumps to test its flexibility. It’s perfect. She then steps into the pair of black knee-high boots, and straps around her waist the heavy belt equipped with pockets for her weaponry.

Arenia can’t help but feel like a true warrior. Hours of practice pass without her even noticing them. The suit’s extreme breathability adds to her comfort. But during lunch, her mood rapidly changes to dread when she remembers combat training with Lucy. Numen notices and talks to her about the danger of comparing oneself to others, and the danger of focusing on results—whether those results involve hitting a target or beating an opponent.

“Anticipating or worrying about the result—a result which lies in the future—takes away your true power: the power of full presence and full commitment to each step of the process,” he insists.

“It’s tough not to compare myself with her, though,” Arenia retorts. “Back home, that’s all we do. You’re always and only measured in comparison to others. Nobody gives you credit for progress or congratulates you for working towards a goal . . . I’m just as guilty. It’s engrained into my brain. Success is the only thing that counts.”

“At least you are aware of it now. Remain aware that continuously comparing yourself to others drains you of power and removes the chance of effective improvement.”

“I just can’t help but find it so unfair that Lucy is literally years ahead of me. I don’t see myself ever beating her.”

Numen chuckles with compassion. “Is that so? Let us review which advantage you might have that she may not have.”

“I don’t see any,” Arenia retorts, a little defiantly.

“I see at least one important one. You have been gifted with the Golden Key. Whether you want it or not, you have been granted access to divine power and insight to truth. What may take others many years of self-exploration may take you only a single moment of enlightenment—provided you decide to open that door, of course.”

The Golden Key. Arenia had pushed away the thought of the key after Numen told her about the heavy burden that came with it. Too afraid of not knowing how to use it correctly, she’d stowed it into her nightstand drawer. Maybe one day I’ll be ready. But not now.

At combat training, Arenia and Lucy stand across from each other. Lucy eyes Arenia’s new gear resentfully. As always, Lucy makes the first moves. This time, Arenia somehow manages to repeatedly dart out of her way. It’s like the armor is giving her a tiny push of power. As Lucy throws punches and kicks, Arenia blocks, ducks, and pulls away relentlessly, getting increasingly better at defending herself. The fights last longer. But, eventually, Lucy always manages to slip past her defenses and land a blow. Arenia repeatedly scrambles back up to her feet, even if each time takes her longer.

She hears Numen’s voice in her head instructing her to watch for Lucy’s weaknesses, but she can’t find any. She’s too good! She blocks Lucy’s next punch with her forearm, and then tries a sidekick. But Lucy moves into it and sweeps Arenia’s standing foot out from under her, slamming her to the ground. Arenia lies on her back, motionless, her eyes closed. Numen and Lucy stare at her, waiting. Nothing. No breath. No signs of life. Just when Numen moves to check her, Arenia opens her eyes and gasps for air. Dazed, she rolls to the side and curls into a ball.

She then slowly peels herself off the ground and faces Lucy. Their eyes meet. Lucy’s smirk has vanished. Arenia isn’t sure, but she thinks she sees a slight look of surprise on her face. It doesn’t matter. In a jerk, Lucy launches a roundhouse kick that connects with Arenia’s face.

Arenia lurches to one side. Bent over, she fumbles about for her senses. Blood runs down the side of her lip. Within a blink of an eye, she feels Lucy’s elbow stab her back and knock her to the ground. Arenia tries to push herself up with her arms, but she collapses and falls flat on her face. Lucy’s feet stand there in her blurry vision. She watches them turn and walk away as her vision fades to darkness.

When she opens her eyes, she’s laying in her bed, tucked beneath her comforter. Crushing pain pulses through her skull. Her eyes water from the headache. Her neck is excruciatingly stiff, and her body feels sore when she moves. She hears the sound of a page turning to her left, and slowly looks over to see Pium reading a book at her dining table.

He looks up at her and smiles. “How do you feel?”

“As if I’ve been on a bad date with Lucy’s foot.” She tries to crack a smile. Pain shoots through her left cheek. She lets out a cry.

Pium chuckles.      

“I won’t be wining and dining that foot again,” she mumbles, touching her swollen cheek.

“Well, at least you have not lost your sense of humor.”

“I guess,” Arenia sighs. “How did I get here?”      

“Lucy carried you home.”

“Really?!”

Pium grins.

“I’m surprised she didn’t spend the night. Seems like she enjoyed our date.” She shuts her eyes.

Pium hands her a cup filled with thick green liquid. “Here. This will soothe your pain.”

“What is it?”

“An herbal mixture—one of Numen’s recipes. The twins collected the plants from the Magical Forest for you.”

“How long was I out?!” Arenia strains to see out of the window. It’s dark outside.

“All afternoon and early evening.”

Arenia reads the note stuck on the glass:

Dearest Arenia,

This, too, shall pass.

Your twins.

“Seems like you have made yourself some friends.” Pium smiles.

Arenia rests the cup on her heart, moved by the loving attention. She then lifts it to her lips and drinks the green liquid in one gulp. It’s bitter.

“My mother brought over a stew. It is still warm. Are you hungry?” Pium asks.

“When am I not hungry?” she quips, feebly.

He brings over a tray carrying a bowl full of stew, a few slices of bread, a glass of water, a spoon, and a napkin.

Arenia’s mouth waters. “That’s so nice. Please tell her I said thank you.”

“I will.”

“What’s in it?” She spins her spoon in the bowl.

“It is made of crabbit meat with dried vegetables in a thick, spicy, crabbit broth.”

Arenia stuffs spoonful after spoonful into her mouth without saying a word. It’s delicious, and Pium only needs to look to see how she feels. No need for small talk.

Journal

[_The excitement about my purpose is fading pretty fast. I’m tired of writing about how much my body aches, but it does. I feel like I’ll never get used to feeling pain throughout my entire body. On top of that, I’ve been struggling a lot with my own doubts and fears. I frequently have thoughts like: _]

[_You’ll never be as good as Lucy. _]

[_You’ve never succeeded at anything. _]

_Better give up now before you disappoint Numen. _

[_At the beginning, I was excited to have Lucy as a companion. Hah! She’s a nightmare! Her arrogance and hostility are awful. But often I’m even more tired of fighting with these hostile voices in my head. I don’t know where they come from. Why are they trying to make me give up? Have I always had these kinds of discouraging thoughts? Have I just never been aware of them? _]

Numen, however, doesn’t get tired of reminding me that these thoughts have no substance and that I should just let them float away. There’s nothing wrong with feeling afraid or insecure, he keeps stressing. Feel the fear—and do it anyway. Don’t empower these fearful thoughts by listening to them. Acknowledge them and keep going . . . keep going. It sounds so much easier than it is. How can you not believe those evil, disempowering voices if they’re constantly there? Some days, I feel like I can conquer the world and I’m the master of myself. Other days, I want to crawl into my bed, and pray that I’ll wake up from this nightmare.

I asked Numen if it’ll ever get easier. He said it will. He said:

“The moment you cease to think about it.”

I wish there was a switch to turn my brain on and off.

-18-

Truth is a Reward

DAY 9

As Numen has suggested that she wear her new armor for all her training, Arenia carries it with her to the training site. It totally empowers her, so she’s happy to wear it. She doesn’t even care how formfitting it is. Plus, it’s easy to clean—just run water through it for a while and let it dry overnight.

As usual, they start the day with meditation, and Numen instructs Arenia to focus her attention on feeling her entire body from head to toe.

“It will help you to stay rooted in the present moment.”

“How do you do that?” Arenia asks. “How do you feel your own body?”

“Do not forget that your body is made up of matter as well as energy, and that you can feel that energy if you focus on it. It flows in and out, through every cell of your body from head to toe. Because the average person’s attention is directed to their thoughts, most of their body energy is concentrated around their head. The more you feel the energy throughout your body, the more it protects you from harmful energies. Like a shield.”

After meditation, Arenia changes into her armor and trains for fitness, knife throwing, sword fighting, and combat. Lucy joins them after lunch, just as Numen is introducing Arenia to archery. This shouldn’t be too hard. Thank goodness for my camp classes.

Numen lets Lucy demonstrate first, then instructs Arenia to try. Arenia picks from the rack a wooden bow and a quiver filled with arrows and positions herself facing the target. As she pulls back the bowstring, she realizes how long it’s been since she’s shot an arrow. I hope I don’t miss . . . come on, Arenia! You can do this! She recalls how her dad used to encourage her on the archery field.

She loved archery from the get go. It was calming, challenging, and rewarding all at once. She loved the twang of the bow, the sharp flight of the arrow, and the thunk! it made hitting the target. She got a weird feeling in her stomach and a surge of adrenaline whenever she hit the center, knowing that her practice paid off. Nothing beat a perfectly executed shot.

Now she takes a deep breath and releases the bowstring. The arrow shoots forward and misses the target board entirely. From the corner of her eye, Arenia sees Lucy sneer. She takes another deep breath and exhales. Presence. She slots another arrow into the string and pulls it back. She takes her time to get a feeling for the arrow, the bow, her positioning, and the distance to the target board. She keeps her eyes fixed on the tiny crack in the bull’s eye. She releases the string. The arrow flies forward—and hits dead center. Silence. Swiftly, she grabs another arrow, targets another board from a different angle, and shoots. Bull’s eye! Then another. And another. Now Lucy looks disturbed. Numen nods, smiling.

“Another lovely surprise,” he says. “Apparently, there is not much I can teach you here. Practice some more before we return to combat.”

Lucy’s face lights up.[_ Oh no._]

After another exhausting day of severe beatdowns, Arenia drags herself home, showers, dresses in a tan blouse and brown leather pants, and decides to head over to Pium’s house.

“Hey,” she says, when he opens the door.

Pium stares at her. “Your hair looks beautiful down like that. Come in.”

“Oh.” Arenia scratches the back of her head. “Thanks.” She walks in and looks around. It’s her first time in his house.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“It’s lovely!”

His house is exactly how Arenia imagined. The layout is identical to her house, and it’s very organized, clean, and tastefully furnished. At first glance, she notes an old antique typewriter on a large desk covered with papers, shelves filled to the brim with leather-bound books, a big comfortable reading chair, and a large colorful carpet in the center of the floor. Above his bed hangs a map painted on animal skin. She goes over and peers at it.

“Is this Underworld?”

“Yes, it is. As far as we know it to be.”

Underworld is sketched as a grouping of islands surrounded by blue water. In the south lies Lake Somnus, bordered by the Magical Forest, which occupies the largest amount of land in Underworld. Close to Lake Somnus is a tiny red dot nestled deeply in the forest. Pariah. Further up are six islands that lie in the shape of a half-moon. They are marked Lands of Tears. Between the Magical Forest and the Lands of Tears is a thick patch of land with no inscription. North of the Lands of Tears there is nothing but water, and then there’s a small inscription, “River Odium,” near the border of another giant patch of land named The Land of the Dead. In the midst of The Land of the Dead is a blue patch, and another island lies within that blue—City of the Royals.

“As you can see, the map is not even close to being finished and it is very nebulous.”

“Still. This is fascinating.” For the first time, she feels as if she has some sort of understanding of her whereabouts.

“I was actually about to come over to ask you to join me and my parents for dinner. They have been wanting to meet you for a long time,” Pium says.

“Do you think I’ll make a good impression?” Arenia grins, pointing at her bruised face.

“I did not even notice.” Pium’s face would break if his smile were any bigger.

Arenia smiles back, thankful for his generosity.

“It is really not as bad as you think. Besides, you should be proud of your bruises. You are a warrior.”

Arenia laughs. “Alright, alright. Yes, sure. I would love to go.”

As they walk over, they discuss Arenia’s training.

“I’ve more or less figured out sword fighting, archery, and knife throwing,” she says. “I’m actually pretty good at them, especially the sword. Interestingly, Lucy never practices sword fighting with me.”

“Yeah, that is not one of her strengths. But that stays between us.” He smiles.

“Ah hah!” So, she’s not so perfect!

“And how is combat going?”

“Not so good,” Arenia admits. “Lucy’s amazing. I’m not progressing fast enough. At this pace, it’ll take me a lifetime to reach her level—if ever. Her arrogance and hostility intimidate me. I just can’t help but be affected by her.”

“Interesting,” he muses.

“Why?”

“Well, I firmly believe that one’s attitude and behavior on the combat field reveal a lot about one’s character.”

“How?”

“For example, your attitude towards adversity on the combat field mirrors the way you face challenges, adversities, and defeats in life. During training, the strengths and weaknesses that have either been helping or crippling you in the past come to surface in a very condensed form.”

Arenia is silent. She thinks about how defeated she feels during combat training. Sure, she tries to overcome her psychological and physical challenges—but it’s very hard. It’s like there’s an ever-growing, unbridgeable gap between where her fighting skills are and where they’re supposed to be. And he’s right, most of the time she doesn’t feel differently in her everyday life. She feels defeated by her circumstances and like she’s trailing far behind everyone else. Her cheeks begin to burn with shame. She doesn’t look at Pium. She doesn’t like him knowing this about her.

But he presses on. “What would you do if nobody were here to motivate you or guide you? What would your usual reaction be?”

“I’d probably give up pretty quick,” Arenia whispers.

“Because . . .?”

Arenia stops walking and turns to face him. “I don’t see how I’ll ever fulfill the potential that Numen sees in me. I don’t see what he sees. Sure, sometimes I see glimpses, but most of the time I’m in the dark. I do have a sense of fulfillment, and I do think I progress a little every day, but who can tell me that I’ll ever reach my goal? What if this is all for nothing and I’ll never be as good as . . . as Lucy?” She stops herself. She doesn’t want to talk about Tartarus and getting home.

Pium gazes at her, compassion in his eyes.

“The learning process is just too painful and long for a payoff that may never come, you know?” she finishes. “I know it’s not a noble thing to say, and you’ll probably tell me that the journey is the reward, but still. I can’t deny these doubts—they’re my constant companions.”

Pium nods. After a moment, he says, “But greatness can only be achieved through growth. Correct?”

“I suppose.” Arenia starts walking again.

“And to grow, you must step out of your previous comfort and safety zones and step into the discomfort of uncertainty.” Pium walks with her. “In order to achieve something you have never achieved, you must change the way you do things. Does that make sense?”

She nods.

“And in order to change, you must know what it is that you do. So,” he concludes quietly, “growth then comes hand in hand with self-reflection and self-exploration. Do not run away from what you see. Face it. The lessons you will learn from your pursuit of greatness are life lessons. They are worth far more than immediate rewards.”

Arenia can’t believe that it’s Pium who’s sharing all this wisdom with her, and not Numen. “How can you possibly know so much about life? And please don’t say it’s through books!”

Pium laughs. “I have had my fair share of experiences and life lessons outside the library. But, yes, the books gave me the insight to fully grasp and process my experiences after the fact.”

They arrive at his parents’ home and knock below the floral wreath that adorns the wooden front door. Pium’s mother opens the door, and Arenia immediately sees Pium’s soft and sympathetic features in her face. Close behind her, Pium’s father has her friend’s tall and athletic stature. The couple welcomes the young people with open arms.

“It is so nice to finally meet you, Arenia. Pium has been talking about you incessantly.” His father smiles, warmly.

Pium reddens.

“I am Adair, and this is my wife, Shima.”

“Nice to meet you.” Arenia smiles, shyly.

“Nice to meet you, my dear,” Shima says. “Pium, please show Arenia around while we finish the preparations.” Shima grabs Adair’s hand and disappears with him into the kitchen.

Pium rolls his eyes as Arenia grins at him. “Parents,” he sighs.

At the word, Arenia feels a sharp pinch in her heart. She pushes aside the feeling and breathes in the spicy aroma. “It smells delicious!”

“My mom is the best cook,” Pium declares. He then gives Arenia a brief overview of the house, with its living room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms. The living room where they’re standing is much bigger than her entire house. The wood walls are covered in large paintings with serene nature motifs. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with books. [_Goodness, there are a ton of books in Pariah! This place really is heaven! _]Lovely, worn, handmade wooden furniture, warm-yellow curtains, and potted plants complete the homey and comfortable atmosphere.

Pium sits down at the long wooden dining table, and invites her to sit next to him. Arenia can’t take her eyes off the table, which is clothed in white linen, and laden with delicacies—olives, pickled vegetables, a salad, cheeses, bread, and butter. The four white linen placemats are patterned with elegant floral designs. The polished silver cutlery is heavy to her hand and shines brightly in the warm light of the artful lamp hanging over the table.

Arenia’s stomach rumbles as Shima carries out a large ceramic pot that holds a steaming beef and bean stew. The rich aroma is mouthwatering. Shima and Adair take their seats across from them, and Arenia smiles as Shima fills her guest’s plate with a generous portion of stew.

“I hope you enjoy the food,” Shima says.

“I’m sure I will. Thank you. Bon appétit.”

“Pardon me?” Shima looks puzzled.

Arenia gulps. “Oh.” Her heart beats faster. “I meant to say . . . bone . . . and . . . tea! It smells like bone and tea . . . hmmm. Absolutely delightful.”

“Oh.” Shima looks confused. She smiles. “Well, then. Enjoy!”

Pium and his parents start eating. Arenia follows their lead, relieved. That was close! She bites into the tender beef and beans soaked in warm tomato sauce, and closes her eyes in surrender. Delicious!

“Arenia, please tell me—how do you like being in Pariah? I hope everyone is treating you well,” says Adair.

Arenia swallows her mouthful. “Oh, yes. Everybody has been incredibly nice to me.”

“I have heard how hard you have been training with Numen and Lucy. I deeply admire you for that,” Shima says. “It takes great courage and discipline to follow through the rigorous training. Numen seems to have an unshakable belief in you and your abilities. You must truly be someone special.”

Arenia blushes. “Thank you for your kind words . . . and what do you two do for a living?” she asks to get the attention off of herself. Ugh, why did you have to ask that? It’s so superficial.

“I am a teacher and Adair is a bookbinder, like Pium,” Shima answers.

“Pium must have learned bookbinding from you, then.”

“Yes, he did. And he is already better than I ever was.” Adair smiles proudly across at Pium, who blushes.

“Arenia, please help yourself to some salad.” Shima hands her the glass bowl filled with pomegranate, kale, and pecans.

“Thank you.” Arenia fills her side bowl. She reaches for the olives and adds a spoonful to her salad. “I’m curious, actually, about what the children learn at school here,” she says to Shima, as she digs into the scrumptious salad.

“Oh, we have a wide array of classes. For example, in biology the children learn about the plants and animals that are both inside and outside of Pariah. We offer history class, which teaches about the history of Pariah and Underworld as a whole. They gain insights about the differences between all the lands of Underworld.”

Arenia nods as she picks out a slice of soft bread from the bread basket. She spreads soft golden butter on it and takes a bite. Too good.

“We discuss legends and myths. Then we have philosophy and cosmology classes, where the students study different perspectives on life and the cosmic principles. An awareness class is entirely dedicated to the practice and exploration of awareness. A class called ‘Re-allusion’ delves into the topics of that which is real and that which is illusion. And, of course, we have combat training, which you are learning about already.” Shima laughs.

“I think I would’ve loved going to school here.”

“It is quite fun,” Pium says.

“What are your teachings based on?” Arenia asks, taking a sip of wine. “Who wrote all the books you use for their education?”

“Well, in the past, even after the division of the Land of Light, the Pariahs maintained a close relationship with the Lands of Tears and fostered an exchange of knowledge and resources,” Shima says. “Our ancestors neatly documented everything, whether facts or tales. Then, one day, the Traitor began burning all of the books in the Lands of Tears that he considered to be against his dogma. Historical, philosophical, cosmological—some of them had been preserved, written, and documented since the ancient time. Those that are here in Pariah are all that remain in the Underworld.”

“That’s awful!”

Shima nods glumly.

Adair chimes in with a heavy sigh, “Yes, it is. So much information was lost forever. With time, more and more inhabitants of the Lands of Tears turned against us Pariahs as we were increasingly declared to be rebels and separatists. Others became too afraid of being persecuted by the Traitor’s people. They broke all relationship with us. Up until a long time ago, Numen and his assistant regularly traveled to the Lands of Tears. But they were the only ones, and even that got too dangerous. Now, once in a while, the Pariahs send animal messengers to a handful of collaborators in the Lands of Tears to receive updates about the state of affairs. But nobody goes there physically anymore.”

The main course finished, Shima serves everyone bowls of sweet cherries topped with crème fraiche. Arenia’s always had a weakness for sweets. The combination of sweet and sour cherries coupled with melting crème fraiche opens a whole new heavenly pleasure.

“Would you like more?” Shima smiles as Arenia scrapes her spoon across the bottom of her bowl.

“Oh no. Thank you, though. It was absolutely delicious.” Arenia knows that more will make her training even tougher.

“How do you know which gathered information is true and which may be fabricated or wrong?” she asks.

“Nobody really knows how much of our knowledge is true,” Shima answers. “Not even Numen. But one of the most important founding principles of our school is to teach every student to never merely accept teachings that are offered as the ultimate truth.”

Shima gets up from the table and removes a framed quote from the wall near the front door.

“This hangs in all of our classrooms. Please, read it aloud.” She hands the frame to Arenia.

“Truth should never be imposed on anybody as a doctrine, but should be the result of individual understanding and intuition,” Arenia reads. “Rooted in knowledge and individual experience—rather than enforcement—truth is a reward for every individual to seek.” The quote moves Arenia. It’s like it was written for me.

“I have to write this down,” she says.

Later, lying in her bed—full, happy, and tired to the bone—she goes over the evening. Inspired, she reaches for her journal.

Journal

Everyone in Pariah is very nice and welcoming (except Lucy!). But if it weren’t for Pium, I’d be lonely. I have great conversations with other Pariahs as well, but I feel a strange connection to Pium . . . I’m comfortable with him. Usually, I care too much about what others think of me—the way I talk, act, and look. But with him . . . it’s so natural. I don’t feel like I have to be anything other than myself when I’m with him. And I don’t sit there watching myself, either. AND I don’t try to interpret each and every one of his actions and reactions towards me. I simply just am.

[_Maybe it’s because Pium is so at ease—maybe that’s what allows others around him to just be themselves. I don’t know. He’s almost childlike, yet still very mature. And he’s so smart and knowledgeable! It was great eating at his parents’ house tonight. They both have big hearts. Pium pretty much has a picture-perfect family. I envied them tonight. That kind of love and affection must’ve helped him to grow that unshakable self-confidence he has. I could see their love and pride reflected in their eyes whenever they looked at him. It’s beautiful to see how strongly he’s rooted in the unconditional love and trust that you can only get from parents. _]

Pium seems surrounded by boundless knowledge and wisdom—he also helps Numen in his studies. The other day, he told me that he aspires to be like Numen. He’s certainly on the right path. He reads so much! He has an answer for all of my questions. It’s impressive how much knowledge he’s accumulated—and yet he’s so humble. He truly is someone special.

-19-

The Wildflower

DAY 10

On the training field, Lucy toys with Arenia like a cat plays with a mouse. She deliberately hits Arenia with only enough force to knock her down—but not so much that she can’t keep standing back up to fight again. Arenia grows exhausted. She’s furious that Lucy effortlessly evades her attacks and laughs at her. [_It’s like she gets actual joy from this! Look at her eyes! They’re rabid! She just wants to torment me as long as she can! _]

When Arenia shoots her fist towards Lucy’s face, the blonde smoothly goes with the momentum, grabs her hand, and twists it, forcing Arenia to the ground. She twists it again, making Arenia coil up in the soil and cry out in excruciating pain. Sweat runs down her face. Lucy pulls her up into a chokehold. Arenia thrashes around, trying to kick and punch back at her—in vain. Her face turns scarlet as she fights for oxygen. Her opponent finally lets go of her. Arenia drops to the ground and curls into a ball.

Numen looks on soberly. He walks over to Arenia and says clearly, “You have three choices now. You can stay down and pity yourself, feeling victimized and indulging in your pain. Or, you can let your feelings of anger, humiliation, revenge, and hatred define you and then counterattack until you have used up your last drop of energy—thereby risking your life, were this a real fight. Or, you can get up, learn from the fight, and practice even harder, so that one day you will face her as a worthy opponent. The choice is yours.”

Still on the ground, Arenia is too ashamed and too angry to look Numen in the eye. He offers her his hand. But she stands up by herself and dusts off her clothes.

“I’m ready to go home,” she says, her voice shaking and her eyes fixed on the ground.

“I respect your decision,” Numen answers, and turns to Lucy. “Thank you for your work, Lucy. I will see you tomorrow.”

As Lucy walks off, he faces Arenia again. “Please write the following down in your journal. Today, the only thing I am asking you to do is to contemplate it.”

Journal out, she starts to take his slow dictation: “The moment you decide to live your life’s purpose and set out to achieve greatness, you will begin encountering relentless competitors, cruel haters, harsh critics, two-faced traitors, and the most ruthless bawlers and bashers of your life.”

Exactly! That is how I feel right now!

“They will all come from within you.”

Arenia stops writing and stares at him. From inside of me? What does that even mean?

“Arenia, no one will lay more stones in your way than you will. No one will ever doubt you as much as you will doubt yourself. No one will ever condemn you as much as you will condemn yourself. And no one will ever be as unforgiving as you will be to yourself.”

Her rage and frustration bubbles right below the surface. The last thing she wants to hear is that she is the reason for all of her failure.

Numen calmly continues. “You will face your strongest opponents in your deepest and darkest fears—they have been crippling you for your entire life. They will stand up all at once and fight against you with all their might. The day you begin to step into your greatness is the day you begin fumigating the dark holes where they are hiding, leaving them no other choice but to reveal themselves to you. When they do, it is your choice whether to face them or run from them. It is a life or death situation. And no one can fight this fight for you but yourself.”

Is this supposed to make me feel better? Her chest tightens and her stomach twists. All she wants to do is escape her skin. _]Suddenly, she has a realization. [_He’s right. I can’t even stand myself. How am I ever supposed to achieve greatness in anything? I don’t even feel at home in my own skin.

Numen pauses. Arenia stares at him impatiently. She knows she’s being silly and childish, but she can’t help it. She is overcome by defiance.

“Would you mind telling me how you feel right now?” he asks, gently.

Arenia wants to yell, “No! Why do you even care?!”

Instead, she whispers, “I . . . feel lost.” She clears her throat.

“Why do you think you feel lost?” He looks thoughtful.

Arenia has to think before she answers. “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore . . . and it makes me angry . . . I worked so hard to get to the point where I was more or less happy with myself. And now all I’m doing is erasing all of my hard work. I’m nothing right now. And I hate that feeling!”

“Just like the empty glass before it is filled with fresh water,” Numen remarks. “It is a place of uncertainty.” He allows a moment of silence before he says, “Remember the Legend’s words: She will lose her Self to find her Self by lifting the Veil of the Unknown. For her Self was never lost, but merely hidden in the Unknown. Like a Phoenix, she will rise from her ashes.”

“But if I’ve never met the real me, how can I ever find it?! I . . . I’m everyone and no one! I have multiple personalities . . . I play the personality each person expects me to play. I become a reflection of what they want to see in me! I am NOT the Legend, Numen!” she finally shouts. “I am just a no one!”

Numen continues gazing at her, but he does not react. She has no other choice but to burn in her own rage until it slowly fades. Tears roll down her face.

“You cannot know your true being. Knowing yourself would only be a mental concept of who you think you are. It would limit the vastness of the potential you carry within you. You can only live and experience the boundless potential of who you truly are. And I am here to keep helping you access that experience,” Numen says, gently.

“But what if I turn out to be a horrible, unlovable, talentless person?” she sobs.

“Then I shall help you understand that the real you can never be any of those things,” he assures.

Arenia just cannot deal with Numen’s unwavering belief in her. How?! Why?! She’s too tired to ask him. It just makes her feel worse. Life would be so much easier if he would just stop believing in her. I am NOT special!

“That is all for today, my dear. Thank you for your good work. Do not forget to think about the quote. Have a restful day.”

Arenia nods abruptly. She rushes home, trapped in the darkness of her mind. Her vision is blurry, unable to reach sunlight. Everything and everyone appears as a threat. She’s barely able to close the door behind her before tears flood down her cheeks. She slumps to the floor. Suddenly, Pium is at the door calling her name.[_ Oh no! He must’ve seen me._]

“Arenia! Is everything OK?”

Silence.

“Arenia, I know you are there. I saw you running in. Please open the door.”

Arenia’s frozen. Please give up and leave me alone!

“Alright. I will leave you alone. But I am here if you need me.”

Arenia strains her ears. Silence. A sob bursts out of her. She quickly covers her mouth. She pushes herself off the floor, pulling off her clothes and slinging them to the side. Then she throws herself onto her bed and buries her head in her pillow. She cannot stop crying. Within moments, the pillowcase is soaked. She’s so sick of her tears. Her pain. Her suffering. She is sick, sick, SICK of her weakness.

*Journal *

All my life I’ve felt different than other people. That’s why I’ve tried so hard to adapt. I just wanted to feel loved and accepted—not different. And now I’m supposed to be this woman in the Legend and able to defeat the strongest man in this world—how ironic is that! I’ve been sitting here staring at Numen’s quote for a long time. I hate to admit it, but I know it’s true, even though the voices in my head want to deny it: I am my greatest enemy. I have never allowed myself to truly be me.

But what’s next? What can I do? Is knowing the truth enough? Is practicing awareness really all I can do? Because if that’s all I can do, it’s extremely frustrating, grueling, and torturous to watch myself burn in my own flame of self-sabotage. I hate it!

Lucy humiliated me so badly in our fight today. She totally misused her power and beat me even though I was on the floor. What is her problem?! Worst of all, Numen did nothing! How can he do that?! How can he not say anything? Why am I doing this? I’m so mad at Lucy—and especially at Numen . . . I feel so betrayed . . . I can’t do this anymore. It’ll break me, physically and mentally.

DAY 11

Arenia’s eyes are still swollen the next morning. She’s accustomed to the bruises all over her body—she’s had them for the whole week. But today, her skin, her muscles, and her bones are all protesting against her.

Countless nights worrying about the training, about home, about Tartarus, and about disappointing Numen—all have deprived her of sleep and recovery. Now it’s all taken its toll. This is how it feels to be burned out.[_ _]She struggles to get out of bed. She just wants to escape life and close her eyes and drift into oblivion. She’s too tired to get up, make breakfast, and eat. She closes her eyes and lets sleep take her back.

There’s a knock at her door. It must be either Numen or Pium wondering why I didn’t show up for training. She’s ashamed, but her need to be alone and invisible is greater. And her shame and guilt make her want to hide even more. [_I have to answer the door. Come on. Get up. _]She doesn’t move.

Another knock.

“Arenia? Are you home?” Pium says through the door.

She forces herself up out of bed, shrugs a robe on, smooths her hair, and opens the door.

“Is everything all right? I was worried,” Pium examines her from head to toe, and then glances over her shoulder into the dimness of her house.

“I’m fine. I . . . I just don’t feel well today,” Arenia says, sheepishly.

Pium gazes deep into her eyes. Arenia instantly looks down. She feels exposed, as if he’s able to read her soul. Without a word, he gently pushes the door open, walks past her to the windows, and opens the curtains. “If you keep the curtains closed, you do not allow the sunlight to come in.”

His comment immediately cracks Arenia’s hard shell. Of course he sees I’m not doing well. She starts to struggle with whether she’s going to open up to him, but then she simply can’t keep it together. She sits down on her bed and bursts into tears.

“I feel so lost, Pium,” she sobs. “I don’t understand what’s going on, who I am, and what I’m doing here. It’s all just so difficult right now. I just can’t handle it anymore.”

Pium pulls up a chair, sits in front of her, and listens to her, a compassionate look on his face.

“And I feel like I’m being so unthankful to you, Numen, and everyone by feeling all of these things, when you’re all being so incredibly nice and helpful to me. I feel so guilty and ashamed. It’s just so unfair that I have to go through all of this, when all I want is to get my normal life back, you know?”

Arenia pauses, sniffling. Pium hands her a handkerchief, which she uses gratefully.

“I understand your feelings and concerns,” Pium says. “I would probably feel the exact same way. It is OK that you feel the way you feel. I do not think you are being unthankful to me, and, without a doubt, I know Numen does not feel that way, either. I am so deeply happy and thankful that you have appeared in our lives—in my life, Arenia. You have brought life and inspiration to us.”

This makes Arenia feel even worse about herself.

“How can you all be so nice and understanding to me? I’m not even this nice to myself!” Tears break out again. She’s embarrassed, but she also feels safe with Pium.

“Arenia, the day you arrived here, I knew you were special. Your outer shell might distort the real you, but I can see your true inner being. You are full of life—so beautiful, so delicate and fragile, yet so powerful. You are a beacon of light, unusually graceful and strong . . . just like a wildflower. You dare to grow against all odds, and even in the face of forceful changes. You offer an example of how to transform your own grief into the relentless and courageous fight to fulfill your life’s purpose. Deeply rooted into the earth, you shoot high into the sky, reaching for the stars. You might think you are a victim of your circumstances, but I know that you came here knowingly, and with a purpose. Your intuition—the true you—is what brought you here. And I can see the true you. I see you, Arenia.”

Arenia stares at Pium, totally dumbfounded. Her mind’s swirling, her heart’s beating fast and loud. Never has anyone told her such beautiful things. She looks down, in search of words, before glancing up to meet his eyes. She realizes everything she would say right now would sound clumsy compared to his eloquence.

“Pium, I . . . I mean,” is all she can manage before he interrupts her.

“It is OK. You do not need to say anything.”

Arenia stares at him through teary eyes and a weak smile. She opens her arms. Pium gets up, sits next to her on the bed, wraps his arms around her, and pulls her close. His body feels surprisingly firm and defined beneath his loose shirt. Instantly, she feels safe and protected. As she buries her head in his chest, she hears his heart beating in a soothing rhythm. She closes her eyes. She breathes in his distinct scent—fresh and slightly musky. The world and all of her worries begin to melt away. But when she feels him gently stroking her hair, she quickly pulls back, filled with anxiety.

She attempts a smile and puts her hand on his thigh, before clumsily pulling it away. “Pium, you’re a wonderful friend. I’d never be able to go through all of this without you. Thank you for being there for me.”

He smiles back at her. She isn’t sure, but she thinks she sees disappointment in his eyes. [_Please don’t! I really like you! _]She sighs heavily.

“Look, for some reason you landed here in Underworld. You can curse, reject, protest, and resist the situation you are in as much as you want, but know that it will not change the fact that you landed here. On the other hand, you may have the chance to find out why you are here—what it is that brought you here—if you listen to your intuition.”

“I’m not convinced! What could possibly have brought me here? What if there’s no reason? Maybe our minds are just accustomed and addicted to trying to make sense of things.”

“I do not know the answer either,” Pium says. “That, you have to find out for yourself. But I do know one thing. Everything happens so that we can learn about ourselves and about life. It is part of the divine order. Nothing happens by accident. Every experience offers us knowledge and tools that we can use to face the challenges that lie ahead. And it will all eventually lead to a final test to see if we have learned our lessons. If we have not, we will have to go through the same experiences again, just in different packaging—until we finally understand the experiences’ messages.”

“That’s where part of me rebels, though. Why do we need to go through these tests? Why can’t we just be born with all the knowledge we need to know and enjoy life?”

“Do you remember the quote about truth that hangs on my parents’ wall?”

“Yes, I do.”

“ ‘Truth should never be imposed on anybody as a doctrine, but should be the result of individual understanding and intuition,’ ” Pium quotes.

“ ‘Rooted in knowledge and individual experience—rather than in enforcement—truth is a reward for every individual to seek,’ ” Arenia finishes. “I know.”

“Exactly. You can view life as a prison or as a school. It can be a downward spiral or an upward spiral. It is always your choice whether or not you want to align yourself with life. If you do, not only will life flow more easily, but it will also give you peace and joy. You will start living your life’s true purpose.”

Silence.

“The thought of some sort of a divine power creating situations in my life for me to learn and grow is frightening and empowering at the same time,” Arenia admits.

“Why?”

“It’s frightening because it suggests I can’t fully control my own life,” she explains. “At the same time, it’s empowering because I can stop worrying and just trust that everything is how it is supposed to be.”

“You forget that the divine power is not something external—it is part of you,” Pium remarks. “It is you. So, the only part of you that is afraid of not being in charge of controlling your life is the part of your mind that feels disconnected from the divine power—and that is the part in you that is busy protesting, resisting, keeping you small, and wanting to relive the same experiences over and over.”

Suddenly, Arenia feels a heavy weight lift from her chest.

“I will let you rest,” Pium says. “I am right next door if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Pium. I feel much better now.”

He stands and heads towards the door. Before he opens it, he stops and turns back to Arenia. “Maybe you are now ready to take on the Golden Key and open the door to the divine power and wisdom you were granted access to.”

When the door closes, Arenia stares into space. The Golden Key. She jumps off the bed and opens her nightstand drawer. There it is—the mesmerizing golden necklace. She stares at it for a while. Then she carefully hangs it back around her neck.

-20-

The Tree of Life

DAY 12

The next morning, Arenia meets Numen at his home.

“Please, take a seat. How are you today?” he asks, glancing at her necklace with a look of surprise. “Pium told me you were not too well yesterday.”

“Oh . . . I’m much better. I’m sorry I didn’t show up.”

“My dear. Just as it is important to discipline your mind and body and push your boundaries, it is also very important to know when it is time to stop and rest. I am sure you made the right decision.” Numen smiles warmly.

[He’s not disappointed or mad . . . it was just me, judging myself. _]Arenia sighs heavily. _I have so much to learn.

“Today, I would like to give your body a break and focus on your mind. Let us discuss the illusionary nature of the perception of reality.”

“Sure!” Anything for a rest! Arenia takes out her journal.

“When you overcome the limitations of your belief system and reorganize the way you believe reality works, you will be ready to shape your own reality. Did you know that what our eyes perceive to be solid is in truth 99 percent empty space?”

Arenia learned at school about atoms and the vast empty space they contain, but she’s never thought about what it meant for the perception of reality. She shakes her head.

“If we removed all of the empty space from the atoms, Underworld would fit into a grain of salt. So, what your eyes perceive and your mind creates is an illusory solid picture of reality.” He pauses. “However, that empty space in the atoms is not really empty. It is an energy field filled with information that has existed since our universe came into being. It is billions of years old. It flows through everything we see, including you and me. You are connected to everything, just as everything is connected to you.”

Arenia closes her eyes, trying to grasp this extraordinary information. “So, basically it’s the same principal as the soap bubble?”

“Precisely.” Numen nods enthusiastically. “Thus the physical reality, as we experience it, is merely a construct of the brain. And the brain only perceives what it is trained to perceive.”

Arenia remembers the color test Professor Basel made her do in his office. I only saw the colors I wanted to see. [My focus changed my perception. _]The vivid memories of her meeting with Basel quickly fade away, and she finds herself back in front of Numen, in his library. Once again she is reminded of Numen’s and Basel’s bewilderingly similar characteristics.[ Crazy!_]

Numen interrupts her train of thought. “And therein lies Tartarus’s true power. He manipulates your perception. That is also why it is essential to practice awareness—to expose the distortions of your perceptions. Society outside of Pariah reduces you exclusively to your mind and body—your thingness, so to speak. However, your mind and body make up only 1 percent of who you are. Little do most people know that everyone’s true power lies in the other 99 percent—the space, or the consciousness, as I like to call it. There is always going to be someone else who is inferior or superior to you when it comes to your thingness—the soap bubble that contains the air. In other words, there will always be someone stronger, more beautiful, funnier, or more intelligent. But in our nothingness—outside of our thingness—everyone is equal.”

“But where is this nothingness? Why can’t I perceive it? How do I know it exists?”

“You cannot know its existence. You can only experience it. It is difficult for the soap bubble to[_ know_] what air is because air is all there really is. The bubble is filled with air and it is surrounded by air.”

Arenia struggles to take notes and process all of the information at the same time. Bubbles, is all she can think of right now. She chuckles to herself at the realization.

Numen is determined to get his point across. “If there were nothing more than your perception, you would not be aware of it. Just as if there was no darkness, you would never know what light is, and without silence, you would not know what sound is. In the same way, the nothingness needs the thingness to perceive itself.”

He pauses and gazes at Arenia’s befuddled face. “Let us walk,” he declares.

They walk through Pariah to the Tree of Life. As they take the elevator up, Arenia spots her broken watch nailed to the wall among all the other broken timepieces. A strange feeling stirs in her—perhaps because the watch is the only object that remains from her old life. She feels like a lot has changed since she arrived. Fundamentally, she has changed.

Today, the elevator trip is different than usual. Numen simultaneously pushes the up and down buttons on the panel to stop the elevator in front of an exotic underwater scene.

“Do not move,” Numen instructs Arenia. “Do not even breathe.”

She obeys. Suddenly, the scene freezes too. The colorful corals stop swinging from side to side. The fish pause and hang in the water, motionless. How can this be? It was alive just a second ago!

“You may move now.”

And she does. Instantly, the underwater world comes alive again. She’s never been so deceived by her perception—at least not that she is aware of. When she touches the surface, it’s solid—almost like an aquarium.

Numen watches her reaction. “These are two-dimensional pictures that trick your mind into the perception of a three-dimensional tunnel. Once one interacts with the tunnel, moves with it, it appears to come alive. Reality outside Pariah is, in principle, very similar to this. Nothing is as it seems. That is why the landscape can change in a heartbeat.”

Arenia fumbles with this new information. “So should I simply not react then when I’m in danger?” she asks.

“Unfortunately, it is not that easy,” Numen says. “To live in the illusionary world means we become a part of its reality, whether we like it or not. To find Tartarus, you have to go out there and interact with the illusionary world. Thus, you will become part of its reality, which makes the danger real as well.”

They ride up to another tunnel, which opens to a canyon landscape. At the end of the tunnel is the lip of the canyon.

“Please enter the tunnel,” Numen says.

Oh no, he must have noticed my fear of heights. “I can’t. The surface is solid,” she objects.

“Try!” he insists.

She carefully touches the front of the entrance.

“Huh!” She feels her heart sinking. The entrance isn’t solid anymore. She even feels a breeze on her hand. This is absurd! She steps through the entrance. She’s starting to get dizzy.

Her stomach knots. A lump catches in her throat. She pauses. Am I risking my life to impress Numen? Can I trust him? She takes another step. She feels like she might faint and tumble into the abyss. Then she remembers Numen’s teaching to not let her fears control her. To let them be. She takes a firm hold of the Golden Key and slowly continues forward.

Soon, she stands at the edge of the cliff gazing down into the profound abyss. Stone crumbles beneath her shoes, catapulting down the cliff and disappearing from sight. A gust of wind nearly knocks her off her feet. She reaches backwards to clutch at the wall of the tunnel. This is insane!

“Now, walk over to the next rock spur,” Numen calls to her from back in the elevator.

“What?! Through the air?! Why?! How?! I can’t! I’ll fall!” He’s nuts!! No one can do that!!

“Arenia. Trust me. You will be safe. Make the decision and walk,” Numen says, calmly.

“I CAN’T! Don’t ask me to, I can’t!!!” Arenia gasps.

Something lands at her feet behind her. She turns to see a rope extending along the tunnel floor back to the elevator where the end is attached to the thick pipe that holds the elevator panel. Fumbling, she squats down, grabs the rope, and ties it tightly around her waist. Numen gazes back at her unrelentingly. She pulls the rope. Then, when she’s sure the knots will hold, she turns back to the emptiness that awaits her footsteps.

Hesitantly, she puts one foot forward into what appears to be thin air. She shifts her weight slowly forward to discover to her sheer bafflement that the abyss feels solid. She takes a second step. Little by little, she starts to feel braver. She even begins enjoying the thrill it gives her. I can do this!

A minute later, she reaches the rocky ridge. She turns back to Numen, beaming.

“Excellent. Now, please, walk a bit further,” he calls.

Hah! Piece of cake! She faces forward and jauntily puts her foot out to take another step on the rock surface. She shifts her weight onto her foot.

WOOOSH!!!!

Arenia plummets like a boulder into the dark depth of the canyon. The rock, in fact, is a yawning nothingness. Freefalling in terror, she grabs about for the rope. She can’t even scream. Finally, the rope catches her fall with a violent jolt. She’s dangling like a worm between the canyon walls.

“You lied to me!” Arenia yells up. “You told me that I wouldn’t fall!” Rage and terror are pouring out of her.

Numen hoists her back up to the tunnel. She scrambles through the opening on her knees, glaring at him.

“I never said you would not fall,” he says. “I only promised you would be safe.”

Arenia is speechless in the face of his calm. Fury smolders through her veins at his betrayal.

“Never forget: nothing—no thing—is as it seems. I am sorry I had to take drastic measures to teach you this lesson. It is only for your own good. I installed these tunnels to remind every Pariah of the danger that is lurking out there. What you have experienced here is nothing compared to what you will see outside. You must be prepared.”

“But how could I have been prepared? Not in a million years would I have known the rock wasn’t solid,” Arenia snaps, her knees still weak.

“The point is not to know everything that lays ahead of you. The point is to practice being intensely alert so that you can react as quickly as possible.”

Back in Pariah, they walk to Numen’s home.

“How does Tartarus manipulate a person’s perception of reality?” Arenia asks, still completely unsettled.

“The mind works just like everything else in a two-sided reality,” Numen explains. “It can bring you either salvation or destruction. Destruction—if one identifies solely with the mind and the thoughts, feelings, and actions the mind creates. Salvation—if one allows consciousness to enter and work in alignment with the mind in the creation of inspired thoughts, feelings, and actions. The mind can either make you a prisoner or set you free.”

“And Tartarus uses the mind like a prison?”

“Precisely. And he uses the Wendigos, his most powerful servants, as prison guards.”

“What are Wendigos?” Arenia remembers them being mentioned in her dream.

“Wendigos are soulless beings, neither dead nor alive. They have an insatiable hunger—a craving for human energy—that must be satisfied if they are to survive. They thrive on devastating despair and paralyzing fear, and are drawn to those humans who can feed them the most. They usually hover in the air—invisible to the ordinary eye.”

“How can they be invisible?” Arenia looks quickly around her.

“They hide in another dimension that the untrained eye cannot see.”

“Can you see them? Are there any in Pariah?!”

“Yes, I can see them,” Numen says, calmly. “And, no, thankfully they have no access to Pariah.”

“Thank goodness! How do they look? What do they do?”

“When they hover overhead, hostless, the Wendigos are no more than a dark mist in the air that resembles a human form. When they have found a victim, they seep down upon him, spread throughout every cell of his body, and stay there until they have studied him and have condensed into his misty shape—in his worst decayed form. As the Wendigos are invisible to the ordinary human, their victims remain entirely unaware of what is happening to them. They are drained of energy and body heat, often left with a sense of bitter coldness. The mere presence of the Wendigos unleashes a wave of panic—terrorizing thoughts and images rush through their victims. They bring their hosts’ worst fears and traumas to life in their minds, increasingly suffocating their souls in darkness.”

“That’s horrifying! How do they access people’s minds?” Arenia’s face is gray with fear.

“Tartarus has taught them to swiftly read every individual’s deepest fears, traumas, and doubts, and to continuously arouse and perpetuate these by feeding them with angst-inducing thoughts. If a person is not conscious enough to catch these thoughts and recognize them for what they are—fictitious and imaginary—the mind misinterprets them as actual reality. It then responds accordingly by speeding the heart rate, pumping blood to the muscles, and releasing a burst of energy to prepare for a fight, flight, or freeze response. All the while, the individual may be tucked safely into a warm bed facing no imminent danger.”

“That’s another reason why it’s so important to always stay present and aware,” Arenia muses.

“Correct.” Numen nods. “These evil spirits know that their greatest enemy is the present moment—the golden gate for consciousness to enter this world. By distracting and engaging their hosts with useless and destructive thoughts, the Wendigos keep them from being fully aware. Since the fearful thoughts are only fictitious and there is no actual and real need for the individual to run away or to attack, the built-up energy is not spent. The Wendigos use this energy to feed and strengthen themselves so they can instill more fearful thoughts.”

“Unbelievable!” gasps Arenia with an incredulous stare.

“Their ultimate goal is to take over the minds and bodies of their hosts,” Numen continues, his voice strained, “as that would ensure them a limitless energy supply—at least until their hosts die. Once they are strong enough, they can split into fragments, which can grow into fully developed Wendigos. This way, they can divide and multiply without limit—just like parasites.”

“Can they physically harm their hosts?”

“No, not directly. But they can cause their hosts to hurt themselves if they have enough control over them. Sometimes the host’s mind and body cannot endure the psychological torture for too long and suffers from severe mental and physical illnesses. Of course, the Wendigos do not understand that this will ultimately result in the destruction and death of the human they inhabit, which will then result in their own deaths, if they cannot find a substitute quickly enough.”

Arenia can’t stop shaking her head. “It is inexplicable to me how someone can be as intelligent and clever as Tartarus but not use that intelligence for a higher cause. I can understand his hunger for power. Who doesn’t want to be powerful—but at the expense of so many lives? At the cause of so much suffering? How does he reconcile the consequences of his actions with his conscience? Does he have one?”

“Unfortunately, I do not have the answer to those questions.”

Journal

[_I’ve just been thinking about the thoughts that streamed uncontrollably through my mind during my encounter with the couple on the train. I’ve realized that those thoughts were not entirely the result of their influence. Those thoughts were actually quite familiar to me. They’ve been following me for a very long time. Maybe that’s why they had such a paralyzing effect on me. Maybe they not only paralyzed me in that moment, but also throughout my life in less obvious ways . . . the quote that Numen dictated earlier makes so much more sense to me now. It’s true! My harshest critics and strongest opponents are inside me—inside my head! _]

[_Today, I learned about the thingness and the nothingness in me. More and more, I feel like there’s a place in me that connects me to something greater than my self. It’s difficult to put it into words. Maybe that’s why so many different cultures and religions describe that divine power in so many different ways. Maybe it doesn’t want to be distorted by logic, because it goes beyond anything our minds can truly make “sense” of. _]

I’ll never know if anything Numen teaches me is really true. Nobody knows. What I have realized, though, is that I cannot solely rely on my mind and perceptions anymore.

[_I’m learning to trust my intuition more and more. _]

[_I’m learning to stop running away from myself. _]

It feels right.

-21-

The Black Panther

As the days pass, Arenia devotes herself to training with an open mind. She makes rapid progress,[* *]repeating each discipline and each technique—alone, or with Numen, Lucy, and even Pium—until the correct body movements and mechanisms feel natural.

“This is where we use the power of the unconscious mind,” Numen tells her one day before training. “During a fast-paced fight, your mind does not have the capacity nor the time to think about technique, correct positioning, movement, breath, and energy flow, [_while _]at the same time being fully aware of every little movement your opponent makes. We are conditioning your unconscious mind so that it can take over the technical part while you remain fully present.”

“And I thought that consciousness was all that mattered,” Arenia admits.

“Not exactly. Only when you have deeply internalized the technical part of fighting and you do not have to actively think about it anymore, can you fully use the power of presence and heightened awareness to process information coming from your opponent.”

“I understand.” Arenia nods.

“And then there is your intuition,” Numen concludes. “It is what is born when your unconscious mind and your conscious mind work in alignment. It is the third part that springs from the perfect balance of the other two parts. It is your personal and unique voice. The ultimate goal in the art of fighting—as in life—is to learn how to listen to that voice. It is your most valuable asset in this world.”

Arenia masters knife throwing, archery, and sword fighting in a very short time. Combat remains her weakness. The days when she is most present and flows moment to moment with Lucy’s energy are the days when she’s at her best. She feels the progress she’s making. But no matter what she tries, she still has great difficulty handling Lucy’s aggressive fighting style. Day after day, Lucy hammers her down. No matter how often she tries to overcome Lucy’s attacks, Arenia always ends up beaten and on the ground. Lucy’s so quick that Arenia doesn’t even see the attacks coming most of the time. Though she never stops trying, it’s almost impossible for her to gain solid ground and stay rooted and present, let alone discover any of Lucy’s weak spots.

“Everything happens so quickly,” she tells Pium one night over dinner. “I can’t just say ‘let’s pause’ to dump my paralyzing fear of pain. My body completely tenses up when it sees her coming at me. It doesn’t seem to listen to me anymore.”

“Remember—the way you are on the combat field also reveals a lot about your character,” Pium answers.

Arenia nods, wondering which of her flaws Pium will expose this time.

“There are three types of natural response mechanisms that usually come into play: flight, fight, or freeze. It seems that you are conditioned to freeze when you face hostile forces.”

“Maybe.” She thinks for a moment. “So what should I do?”

“Only when you learn to stay relaxed and rooted to the ground in the face of the approaching threat will you be able to move with the flow of energy. You can then redirect or escape the force. But do not resist it. It may sound difficult, but the only way to stop tensing up and resisting is to diligently remind yourself to stay calm. Practice awareness. Find your breath. Feel your body. As you do so, you will continue to just take her attacks until your mind and body reprogram themselves.”

Arenia isn’t sure how to stay calm and practice awareness while Lucy’s fists are flying in like jackhammers. She begins by trying to accept that she’ll be thrown around and bruised for a long time. Non-resistance, she keeps repeating to herself during the fights. Find your breath and feel your body. She tries her best to stay rooted to the ground and to avert Lucy’s attacks, but more often, she ends up getting smashed. Night after night, she limps home from training. Night after night, she aches all over. It feels unnatural and strange to just let herself get beaten up by Lucy. It’s very difficult not to drown in feelings of dread, utter anger, and revenge.

“Those are feelings of resistance,” Pium notes.

Then, after two weeks, she notices a curious change. As she realizes that she’s getting physically stronger and her body can actually withstand Lucy’s blows, she starts to lose her paralyzing fear of their impact. Her body doesn’t reflexively cramp up anymore when an attack comes in. Instead, her muscles and limbs stay calm and receptive, which allows her to move with the energy. Lucy’s movements even seem to slow down in her mind—it’s as if she’s watching Lucy’s fists and legs surge towards her in slow motion.

With this, Arenia’s swiftness and skill increases, edging a lot closer to Lucy’s abilities and effortlessness. Now, instead of the short beatdowns of the beginning, the fights become more lengthy exchanges of punches, kicks, blocks, and dodges. Arenia has more and more moments of being purely present and free of thoughts.[* *]She asks Numen if he thinks the necklace gives her the extra strength and wisdom to internalize the teachings this fast.

“Or is it your decision to wear the necklace that empowers you?” he responds.

Arenia doesn’t know, but one thing is certain. She won’t take the necklace off. It’s clearly her lucky charm.

As Arenia steadily improves, Lucy’s fighting style becomes more aggressive and hostile. Not only does she attack Arenia mercilessly, but she also often continues long after Arenia is down on the ground calling it quits. She has also started to loudly voice her mistrust and resentment of Arenia, relentlessly questioning Arenia’s talent and sincerity.

“Giving up already?! You are wasting my time! If it were not for Numen, I would not be here babysitting you. Who do you think you are showing up out of nowhere and gaining everyone’s favor? Only a lying, two-faced traitor can do that so quickly. I do not trust you! I think you do remember exactly where you come from! You are on a mission. I still do not know what it is, but I know that you are! I have my eye on you, Arenia. One wrong move, and I will break you down! I still do not understand why Numen gives you this much trust! You, out of everyone in Pariah! If I would not be questioning Numen’s mental clarity, I would say that you have bewitched him! You are a witch!”

Arenia can’t help but be infuriated by Lucy’s foul play. And she hates that Numen doesn’t intervene and take Lucy to task.

“I don’t know what to do,” she admits to Numen. “I try my hardest to stay unprovoked, but I can’t help it. Once I get caught up in the anger, it’s a downward spiral. Foul play and unfairness are two things I really can’t abide.”

“I understand,” he says, “but look at it like this. If not anger, it will be fear, exhaustion, anticipation, or other emotions that will at times rise in you and try to overpower you. Do not strive for perfection. Learn to work with the reality of your imperfections. Learn to turn them to your advantage.”

“That’s easier said than done.”

“But you can do it. Stop denying and repressing the existence of your emotions. Learn how to burn them to sharpen your focus. Use that additional boost of energy to perfect your senses and reach a heightened state of awareness.”

He looks off for a while into the forest that borders the training field before turning back to her.

“Imagine dolphins. Instead of being scared of tree-high waves, they ride them. They even pick up speed and play with them. Instead of getting swamped by the waves of your emotions, ride them as if you were a dolphin. Use the waves of emotion to your advantage. That is how you will increase your tolerance for turmoil. Then, anger and self-protectiveness can no longer control you. Instead, they will fuel your creativity.”

Arenia likes Numen’s suggestion. The idea of actually being able to thrive in the midst of turmoil even excites her. She knows it’ll take hard work, but she’s willing to slog through it because while Lucy’s hostility throws her off, it also fuels her ambition to train even harder. I guess I’m using my emotions to my advantage already.

Over the next weeks, she makes her training more intense and strenuous. She spends most of her days and nights on the field—attacking, defending, blocking, redirecting, exercising, falling, balancing, and self-exploring. With Pium’s help, she breaks down the precise components of the body movements that make up each technique, perfecting every motion until they grow in power, speed, and subtlety. She practices staying calm and relaxed so that she can regain her physical and psychological balance in the midst of turbulence. Like an ocean, she learns how to stay connected to the still and peaceful depths within. While a storm rages above—she rides the waves. She learns to move her breath harmoniously with her mind and body, inspiring action out of pure stillness. Strangely enough, as Arenia’s ability increases, Lucy joins her less and less for combat training.

“I am busy,” she says, when Arenia questions her.

*Journal *

[_Incredible. I just figured out how long I’ve been here in Pariah. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 51 days. I can barely remember my old life. I feel as if this is my real life and back home was merely a dream. _]

It’s been weeks of intense practice. After training sessions, I’m usually so exhausted that I can hardly manage to take a shower, eat something, and go straight to bed. Good thing Pium is so involved in this and lives right next to me. He keeps me company. He’s my best friend here. It feels good to be able to share my experiences with him. He gives me a sense of security I can fall back on. His incredible mind and generous heart open up new perspectives for me. I don’t think I’ve ever trusted someone as quickly as I trusted Pium. I share my uncensored thoughts and feelings with him. We train together, and we discuss fighting styles, strategies, techniques, and philosophical principles . . . it’s funny—he’s improving in all of the disciplines, too. And I’m closing in on his level already.

[_Sometimes, he pushes me to get out of the house to unwind—to take a walk, or join other Pariahs who gather in the square to eat, drink, talk, and dance together for no other reason than the pleasure of each other’s company. Or, we sit outside at night and listen to the crickets serenade us and the river babble by. We watch the sky with its millions and millions of glistening stars—just like we did tonight. I’ve never seen that many stars back home. It was breathtaking. Magical. Once in a while, a shooting star blazed across the sky. And I made a wish . . . _]

Even though the training exhausts me to the bone, it deeply fulfills me. Having a goal—facing Tartarus—and relentlessly working towards it gives me a purpose, a new meaning for life. It’s unfathomable to me now—the lack of discipline I had over my mind and body before Pariah. Back home, I’m infamous for my impatience. Now, I realize that I used impatience as an excuse to keep beginning new tasks without finishing the old. It’s not only Numen’s firm belief in me that keeps me going when I feel like I can’t get up. It’s also that quiet inner voice that says that I’m on the right path—my intuition. I’m determined to keep listening to it.

[_I still have days of utter exhaustion, struggle, and confusion—and I get overwhelmed. But the sense of accomplishment I have from moments of success completely outweighs the negatives. Finally executing clean kicks, hitting the targets dead on, making the right strategic decisions, and staying alertly present—it all gives me a priceless sense of satisfaction that I only glimpsed when I fenced as a kid. I now enjoy learning new things—understanding the deeper levels of all the disciplines I’m trying to master. Often, I don’t even notice my exhaustion because I’m too involved, mentally. _]

[_I’m very aware of my rapid progress. It often leaves me speechless and steeped in infinite gratitude. What would take others years of hard training, I’m starting to profoundly internalize and master in an extremely short amount of time. I don’t know if it’s because of my brand-new commitment and openness to my training, or if the Golden Key is truly helping me to understand and apply the principles much quicker than anyone would expect. Either way, I feel very thankful for whatever’s going on right now. _]

I’m still athletically way behind Lucy, but that just makes me train even harder and keep looking for ways to defeat her. Even my shape has changed. I can see muscles that I’ve never seen in my arms, stomach, hips, and legs. I’m starting to feel increasingly comfortable in my body. My posture’s changed. I walk straight.

If I ever wake up from this, I really hope that I’ll remember everything I’ve learned here about myself. And if it’s not a dream, I hope I’ll continue growing this way once I get back home.

DAY 52

“I can’t figure out how to control the direction of the battle. Sometimes, I manage to get past Lucy’s defense and land a blow. But she’s still always pacing and controlling the direction of our fights. I’m basically kept busy fending her off—she’s not leaving me many chances to counterattack. That’s one of her greatest strengths.” Arenia is eating dinner with Pium at her house. They’re both so sweaty and exhausted that the pasta leftovers from the dinner they cooked the night before are delicious.

“I think it is time we find your unique fighting expression,” Pium says. “Numen always says that one of the reasons it is so important to direct the battle’s tone is so you can move the battle towards your strengths. What are your strengths?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Arenia admits.

“Let us think. What are your advantages over Lucy?”

Arenia thinks hard. “Well, if anything, I feel like Lucy hasn’t quite internalized all of Numen’s teachings. Her forceful and hateful approach on the field tells me that she might not be as much a master of herself as she thinks she is. Maybe the way I can defeat her is not by making the fight about technique, speed, and power. Maybe I need to make it a battle of the minds, just like Numen says. Maybe I can use her aggression to my advantage.”

“Yes! How could you exploit her aggression?”

“Well,” Arenia is hesitant, but excited. “I think that Lucy has such huge self-confidence because she’s used to being unbeatable. Maybe if I managed to land one mighty blow and then kept pressing her, she would get caught up in a psychological downward spiral—like how I got caught up at the beginning. Maybe that would make her get increasingly aggressive and lose presence . . . but still! How do I get past her defenses whenever I want to?”

They both fall silent in thought.

“You know, most of us Pariahs use our spirit animals to uncover our strengths and weaknesses. We turn to them for guidance. Maybe you could find your unique fighting style by working with your spirit animal,” Pium suggests.

“But I don’t know what my spirit animal is.” Arenia looks glum.

“Well . . . you know which animal I see in you?”

“Which one?”

“The panther! Your personality, your behavior, your black armor, your sword. It is no coincidence that Hanska chose to emblazon that animal on your sword.”

“What do you mean, my personality and behavior?” Arenia’s heart beats faster. Out [_of all the animals, why the panther? Why does it keep appearing in my life? Could it be my spirit animal? _]

“Panthers stalk their prey in utter silence and invisibility, waiting for their victims’ weakest moments,” Pium says. “They usually kill with a single blow. They are so powerful that they can take down much larger and stronger animals. From what I have seen, you are just like a panther—you are a very skilled observer, sensitive to the smallest piece of information that remains invisible to the untrained eye. You read your opponent quickly, and you have a strong intuition and awareness for weak spots. Focus on that more. Stalk Lucy until you see the perfect moment to attack—just like a panther does. Let her remain in the illusion that she is in control of the fight. It will only strengthen her confidence and cause her to take bigger risks.”

“You might be right! I’ll work on that!” Arenia’s practically prancing, she’s so eager to start practicing. “What’s your spirit animal?”

“The fox.”

Yeah, that makes total sense—even in his fighting style. This might actually help me!

Arenia practices with Pium for the next three days and nights. She explores her skill by observing him, patiently waiting for the right moment, then quickly launching an attack when she finally spies an opening. She learns how to intuitively read his intentions and shut him down before he can even begin the movement. The more she remains present, the more she becomes aware of his flaws. On the second day, she begins to dictate the directions of the battles—on the third, she has him on the floor, defeated.

-22-

The Spirit of a Hunter

DAY 56

[_If one learns to listen to nature, one learns the truth about life. _]Arenia repeats Numen’s words to herself as she meditates next to Pium in the celestial flower field of Mountain Ida. She marvels at the golden sun’s sparkling reflection on the rippling water of Lake Somnus.

Time has no place here. There’s no anxiety, no hurry—there’s just a feeling of peace and sheer stillness that’s inherent in the lake, the mountain, and the forest. It’s a knowingness that life is not a sprint, but a marathon, and that only those who stay in the moment and move in harmony with the changes will flourish. There’s a sense of trust that there’s only one purpose of life: to just be. Sitting on the mountain cliff watching the day unfold, a thrilling feeling of awe overcomes Arenia. She can’t help but wish to melt in with her natural surroundings.

A young man named Atsa meets them on Mountain Ida. He belongs to a group of hunters who take turns providing meat for the community. Pium suggested that they accompany him on one of his hunting trips. Atsa is dressed in a cut-off canvas shirt, leather pants, and leather boots, and his athletic stature is evidence of his acute fitness. His skin is darker than Pium’s skin, and his long dark hair is tied up into a knot. Armed with knives on his belt and a bow and bag of arrows on his back, he leads the two down the mountain and up a trail, snaking around vine-covered trees and heading deep into the Magical Forest.

Pium points out some edible plants and shares his knowledge about every animal they encounter. The Magical Forest is a lush paradise, home to a wide diversity of staggering flora and fauna. Arenia knows some from home, but most of them she’s never seen before. The trees are larger and the leaves are strangely shaped.

“If you are familiar with what you are surrounded by, you can appreciate it more,” Pium says.

He’s right. She’s proud to now know about the azura, a graceful flower that only blooms when a person admires its magnificence. And then there are the fluffiest cutest animals she’s ever seen—the onios. Their eyes are so big, they remind her of loris from back home. Their small bodies are a mix of chick and baby rabbit.

Atsa suddenly halts and signals for silence. He points to his left and quietly steps in that direction. What is it? Arenia and Pium follow close behind. Through the bush, they see a herd of wild horses drinking from a creek. Arenia is enchanted by the animals’ mesmerizingly shiny coats that look like spun gold in the sun. Their long, thick, golden manes and tails bounce with every move they make. She takes a step closer, and a twig snaps beneath her foot. The horses’ heads jerk in her direction. Arenia freezes. Their nostrils blow as they try to catch a scent. But they can’t spot her. Nevertheless, they grow restless. They begin to wade through the water to the other side of the creek, the foals protected in the heart of the herd. Atsa slowly and soundlessly steps backwards, and they carry on deeper into the forest.

“Atsa doesn’t talk much,” Arenia whispers to Pium.

“He does not want to disturb the silence of nature.”

“But it’s not exactly quiet here,” she says, even though she knows what he means. “Should we be quiet as well?”

“Usually I would say that it is better to listen to the sound of nature. But the whole purpose of your presence here is to discover more about our land. Naturally, you will have questions. And I will happily answer them.”

As they wind through the dense forest, a flock of colorful birds with elongated feathers takes flight all at once, painting the sky with a burst of rainbow colors. Arenia stares, mouth agape. She stumbles into Pium when he abruptly stops, hand up. Then she sees Atsa frozen in place, his right arm extending to the side. There stands a fanned lizard as big as an alligator—glowing in fiery colors and staring at them with fierce curiosity. Atsa stares deep into the beast’s yellow eyes. The lizard’s tongue keeps flashing in and out of its mouth. Arenia is nerve-ridden. She can feel the men’s tension.

Suddenly, with a menacing hiss, the lizard thrusts its head towards the three, its jaws ripping wide open and displaying rows of razor-sharp fangs. The hairs on the back of Arenia’s neck stand on end. Her heart drums against her chest. [_Run for your life! Run!! _]But she remains frozen, eyes jumping between Atsa, Pium, and the enormous lizard.

Atsa remains utterly still, his gaze fixed on the predator’s eyes. After a moment that feels like eternity, the animal retracts its head. Then it emits a short whistle. The bush next to them begins to shake vigorously. Oh no! There’s more? Just then, two little baby lizard heads poke out of the bush, followed by another adult lizard. All together, the family calmly scurries across the path and disappears into the bushes. Only after another moment passes does Atsa bring his arm down and start walking again.

Soon, he kneels to examine fresh footprints in the dirt. The small, heart-shaped, sharp-edged tracks remind Arenia of deer tracks. Atsa inspects them closely and then picks up a bit of the dirt to sniff it. He peers to the right and points in the direction that the prints are going in. We must be on the right track. She quietly creeps right behind Atsa through the undergrowth until he halts. Through the screen of leaves, Arenia sees an animal that resembles a deer. But it has long rabbit-like ears, a very long tail, and no horns.

“It is an awi,” Pium whispers in her ear. Arenia jumps a little. She hadn’t noticed him next to her.

Atsa quietly positions himself, fits an arrow into his bowstring, and draws it back. The animal’s ears stiffen and it jerks its head around, sensing the danger. Atsa remains stock-still and intensely focused, keeping his prey in sight. Just when the animal starts to chew grass again, Atsa shoots into its chest with stunning precision. The awi drops to its knees. Atsa quickly runs to the crying beast, recites a short prayer, and slits its throat.

Arenia can’t watch. Her stomach turns. She feels so bad for the animal as it thrashes on the ground before finally slowing and coming to a dead halt. Pium helps Atsa bind the awi’s legs and tie it to a branch.

“Do you hunt?” Arenia asks Pium, as they head back to Pariah.

“No. Out of respect for the animals, only those who learn the art of hunting are allowed to kill them. The hunters in Pariah must first learn about every single animal and plant in the forest, and understand the ecological balance that exists in nature. And then they learn how to kill the animals as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

“But if you have so much respect and love for the animals, why aren’t you vegetarians?” She hopes he has a good reason because she loves eating meat and sometimes feels guilty about it—especially today.

“To have a varied diet,” Pium responds. “We only hunt as much as we need. The animals must have passed a certain age in order to have lived a relatively full and free life in nature. We do not hunt the females, either, as this could adversely affect the population. That is also why we do not believe in growing animals in cages, which is something that the people in the Lands of Tears do in great masses. We greatly respect the animals, and thank them for their sacrifices, and we use every part of the animal, right down to the last bone.”

Arenia sighs. _I really wish we would do this back home. _

As they walk, Atsa suddenly stops yet again. Curious, Arenia quietly approaches him from behind. Atsa signals Pium to put down the prey, and then drops to a knee. It’s a trail of large footprints. They’re bigger than any of the other footprints Arenia has seen in the forest, resembling big human feet, but with four sharp claws. The depth of the print suggests that the animal is heavy. The rear feet are larger than the front feet, and the prints are spaced far from each other, indicating the great size of the animal. Atsa points out an oily film on the soil. When he touches it, his fingers turn deep red. He suddenly looks deeply concerned.

“We must go,” Atsa says, clearly.

Pium nods and they start off.

“What’s happened? What animal is it? Are we in danger?” Arenia struggles to keep up with their brisk pace.

“I will tell you later,” Pium says, his eyes darting in all directions.

As the daylight slowly drains away, the silhouetted trees melt more and more into one big patch of dark green. The first sounds of nocturnal animals pierce the air. A cool gust of wind brushes the leaves. Arenia is uneasily peering around, paranoid.

Only when they step into the Tree of Life do Pium and Atsa relax.

“The footprints looked like they belonged to the Morts—the Traitor’s foot soldiers.” Pium is clearly perturbed.

“It is highly unusual for them to be this deep in the Magical Forest. They are regrettably close to Pariah,” says Atsa. “This area is not in the Traitor’s territory. I am not sure what they are doing here.”

“We have to tell Numen,” says Pium.

Atsa nods. Arenia’s anxiety grows.

“What are Morts?” she asks, as they exit the elevator and head towards Atsa’s butcher shop.

“Former human beings,” Pium answers. “They are now possessed by the demonic Wendigos who have turned them into ferocious beasts. Just as the Wendigos need human energy to stay alive, the Morts are said to have an insatiable hunger for human flesh that they need in order to survive.”

Arenia is horrified. “But I thought Wendigos couldn’t physically harm their hosts. How does a person turn into a Mort?”

“Well, again—we are not entirely certain. But according to the books, it does not happen frequently,” Pium answers. “It is believed that the moment a person dies, his life essence separates from his physical body. With the help of a sorcerer, this essence can be trapped so it cannot depart completely. The person remains in a state of in-between—neither dead nor alive, waiting in limbo. It is the most vulnerable, vegetative state a person can be forced into. Any Wendigo can then inhabit the human body and turn into a Mort. In this way, the Wendigo gains an actual physical body. But they say the Traitor prohibits them from turning into Morts without his permission.”

“Why would he do that?”

“We are not sure. Our guess is that the Traitor is only interested in keeping control over the human beings’ minds—so they can keep creating his desired reality. He does this with the help of the Wendigos. In return, he keeps the Wendigos content by making the humans susceptible to the Wendigos and allowing these entities to feed off of human energy. Only some privileged Wendigos who pledge their allegiance are allowed to turn themselves into Morts. The Traitor uses them as yet another tool of intimidation and control. But, as brutal as he is, I do not think he wants to live in a world full of savage beasts that he probably would not even be able to control. He needs the humans to be able to stay in his power position. That is the irony of it all,” Atsa explains.

Arenia is chilled to the bone. More and more, she understands the dangers the Pariahs always talk about when referring to the outside world. “What if the Wendigos and Morts stop following the Traitor’s orders?”

“I prefer not to think about that,” Atsa says, solemnly. “The Wendigos know that without the Traitor, their population would never have reached the enormous size and strength that it has. They would have remained weak and hidden in the darkest corner of the Land of the Dead. They owe him a great deal. But these spirits are too corrupt to forever stay thankful for past deeds. So, the Traitor not only has to keep feeding them, but he also has to use fear and intimidation to keep them in line.”

“How does he do that?”

“He supposedly threatens to close the gates to Gaia, which would substantially cut off the amount of energy the Wendigos could reap,” says Pium. “There are not enough humans in Underworld for all Wendigos to turn into Morts—there are not even enough humans to keep the Wendigos alive. Those Wendigos who turn into Morts without the Traitor’s approval are viewed as rebels and are executed, mostly by their own kind—by the ones who swore their loyalty to the Traitor.”

They arrive at Atsa’s butcher shop and lift the awi onto a table.

“Thank you,” says the hunter. “I will take it from here.”

“I am so impressed by how informed all of you are even though most of you have never even been anywhere else but south of Underworld before,” Arenia says, as she walks home with Pium.

“We owe a lot to our informants,” Pium answers. “With their help, we have been meticulously tracking the Traitor’s actions and the developments outside of Pariah. It is important that we do not forget about the existence of the outside world. Even if it is illusive by nature, it is still part of reality.”

“When do you think you’ll be able to leave Pariah?”

“When our people in the Lands of Tears awaken from their slumber and begin to defend themselves against the Traitor’s manipulations.”

Arenia nods as he speaks. She can’t stop thinking about the Morts. “How does the Traitor feed the Morts?”

“We have heard that he feeds them with animals and prisoners in his dungeons.”

“Terrifying!” Arenia gasps. The image of bloodcurdling beasts ravenously attacking helpless prisoners is more than she can stand.

“Alright.” Pium stops. “I have to go this way. My dad needs help with the books. What about you?”

“I’m going to train.”

“Great. Do not forget the panther. Lucy will be shocked.” Pium smirks. “I actually wish I could witness this. You will have to tell me how it went.”

“We’ll see. I’ll meet you later.” Arenia smiles.

Combat training. With the panther pacing through her mind, Arenia stands across from Lucy on the training field. As usual, Lucy launches an explosive attack. Arenia blocks, hops, dodges, and redirects Lucy’s hits. As she manages to stay present, Lucy’s movements slow down in her mind. With every fiber in her being, Arenia looks for the smallest opening in Lucy’s body structure. That is her territory. That’s what she’s familiar with, as she’s been doing it all her life—meticulously observing others in an extremely intuitive way and quickly picking up on psychological and physical patterns, strengths, and flaws.

Lucy lands a blow. Arenia quickly recovers.

“Do you need a break?” Lucy sneers. “Or are you going to cry like you do every night?”

Lucy is particularly evil today. Her eyes burn with rage. It’s clear that she really wants to hurt Arenia. From the corner of her eye, Arenia can see Numen quietly watching, still as a statue. Arenia’s anger and resistance bubble up in her. She breathes, and allows the feelings to just be. She knows Lucy is trying to get under her skin. Little does Lucy know that Arenia has been practicing relentlessly for exactly this situation.

Again, Lucy attacks. Arenia notices that Lucy’s impatience grows as the fights lengthen. Because of that, Lucy starts to take bigger risks in her attacks, trusting her physical ability to grant her a fast recovery if Arenia catches her. After weeks of going through each component of every body movement, Arenia knows that when the body gets into position to attack, its structure becomes vulnerable, even if for a millisecond. The bigger the attack, the bigger the vulnerability. That’s her weak spot! Arenia almost hops with joy at the realization. Then she settles down to patiently wait for the next big opening in Lucy’s structure.

She senses Lucy’s intentions before the blonde even begins to move. Arenia reflexively responds to Lucy’s incoming fist with a powerful block. Then, she redirects the incoming force using its momentum. Stunned, Arenia watches as Lucy flies to the ground. For a moment, Lucy shakes her head, flustered. She immediately tries to stand, but struggles to find her balance.

Then she turns to look at Arenia. Her eyes are filled with fury.

Arenia takes a deep breath, exhales, and feels the adrenaline rushing through her body. Her senses sharpen up as Lucy explodes into a ferocious attack, her fists, legs, elbows, and knees flying towards Arenia from all angles. Arenia sees Lucy’s movements surging towards her in slow motion, and, one by one, she fends them off.

Lucy is thrown even more off balance by her own outrage. It’s working! She’s been sucked into the downward spiral. Now Arenia paces the game, just as she intended to. She turns Lucy’s aggression back on her. Lucy’s entire state of control crumbles. She lunges at Arenia with even more brutality. While fighting her off, Arenia keeps her eyes wide open for openings in Lucy’s body.

Arenia bends her upper body backwards nearly to the floor when Lucy’s right leg sweeps across her face like a helicopter’s blade, almost grazing her face. She quickly bounces back up. Lucy immediately shoots her right fist like a bullet at Arenia’s right shoulder. Arenia smoothly moves her shoulder away before the force hits her. This is the moment, and Arenia knows it. Lucy’s rooting back foot must be slightly lifted from the ground. As Lucy’s fist flies by her, Arenia catches her by the wrist and the elbow. With a twist, she flips her in the air. Lucy slams to the ground again, on her back.

Arenia remains in her fighter’s stance, focused. Is she done? Did I win? [_Will she get up? _]But Lucy stays on the ground, barely moving.

Arenia approaches her. “Are you OK?” she asks, offering her hand.

Lucy ignores her hand. Instead, she rolls over onto her side, slowly scrambles to her feet, and quietly departs. Numen walks up to Arenia and pats her shoulder.

“Congratulations, Arenia. That was a beautiful fight. It seems we are finished for today.”

Arenia beams. This has to be the happiest moment of her life.

Journal

I DID IT!!!

[_I BEAT HER!!!! _]

[_I BEAT LUCY!!!! _]

[_I am the happiest person alive! It felt so good! All this training, sweat, and tears paid off! I can’t believe it! I’m incredibly proud of myself! I offered to help her up—she wouldn’t accept. I’d hoped to win her respect and acceptance once I reached her level, but that’s clearly not going to happen. _]

[_BUT I DO NOT CARE! I couldn’t stop jumping for joy once I got home. I wanted to share my happiness with Pium so bad, but he wasn’t home. He’s probably still helping his dad. _]

I CAN’T WAIT TO TELL HIM!!!

-23-

The Blink of an Eye

DAY 57

Arenia trains all morning alone, running through each discipline. Numen and Lucy join her in the afternoon. Huddled, they murmur to each other while watching Arenia. They’re talking about me. Something’s up! But training proceeds as normal.

Interestingly, Lucy takes her time with her attack today. Arenia doesn’t let it confuse her or make her impatient. The panther still ingrained in her fighting technique, she patiently stalks Lucy with heightened awareness. As expected, Lucy eventually erupts into an attack, first with her right fist, and then with a roundhouse kick. Arenia dodges easily. Lucy retreats and paces around her, arrogantly staring at her with dominance. Oh, she doesn’t want to lose this fight!

Lucy launches another brutal attack. Arenia realizes in an instant that the priority for Lucy is not landing a punch or a kick. No, she wants to dominate me—have power over me. She wants to get in my head and control my actions. This is truly a battle of the minds!

“I do not have time today for both of your games,” Numen suddenly shouts, his face filled with anger. “Lucy, please bring this to an end as quickly as possible.”

Arenia is furious. Even if this is a test, Numen’s words shake her to the bone. She loses her balance. Immediately, Lucy pins her to the ground.

“Get up, you coward!!” Numen shouts, saliva spitting from between his teeth. “Who do you think you are?! Just because I told you the Golden Key meant something, you believed it? How naïve! You thought you were special? It was all a lie! You are nothing! You are nothing without me!”

It’s like electric bolts are flying through her body. Totally bewildered, Arenia stands on shaky legs. Lucy rushes in and sweeps her feet out from under her. Arenia slams onto the ground again.

“You love being weak!” Numen growls. “You love staying on the ground and feeling pitiful! Look at you! You were right all along! You never deserved my trust and belief in you!”

Hearing her own vicious thoughts and fears shouted by Numen—being exposed to them publicly—paralyzes Arenia. She can’t move. Lucy keeps kicking her mercilessly. Her body is so numb that she can’t even feel the blows. It’s like she’s left her body and is standing on the outside, watching Lucy brutalize her.

In a flash, she recalls how she’d stayed in that same position after Lucy had beaten her down at the very beginning of her training. The same pitiful and fearful thoughts arise. [_How could Numen betray me like this? How could he be so horrible to me? Is this a test? _]All of her training, all that she has learned, unfolds like a film before her eyes. She sees her pain, her struggles, her progress, and her accomplishments over the past weeks.

Then it hits her like a lightening bolt.

No! My change is not Numen’s work. He gave me the tools, but I learned how to use them. I worked to get where I am, and I’m not going to let him diminish my achievements! I must find my way back into my body!!

She takes a deep breath, feels her body energy, and finds presence again. With Lucy still kicking at her, Arenia flips back onto her feet and begins to fight back. The extra amount of energy that still surges through her muscles from the shock gives her senses and movements an additional sharpness. Time slows down. She sees every kick and punch approaching her in slow motion. She effortlessly blocks Lucy’s attacks, as she harmoniously moves with the energetic flow. Deaf to the insults Numen keeps bombarding her with, she roundly counterattacks Lucy.

The less that Numen’s attacks affect Arenia, the more agitated Lucy becomes. She keeps pressing in as Arenia keeps warding her off and dodging one punch after another. But Lucy does not stop coming after her. She attacks Arenia from all angles, her vast power running through every fiber of her muscular body. Arenia feels exhaustion creeping into her own body—and with it, a touch of anxiety. In a flash, she’s hit the ground.

Arenia clasps her ribs, coughing, desperately trying to gasp for air. What happened? She recalls Lucy’s foot hitting her chest like a steel brick. She remembers all the times the wind’s been knocked out of her. Patience. You’ll get out of this soon. Slowly, she starts to breathe again. Numen has fallen silent. As Lucy stalks her from a distance, Arenia remains fixed on her. _I must have lost awareness in the blink of an eye. _

Right at that moment, she notices Lucy blinking. Of course! The blink of an eye! Like a camera, she zooms in on Lucy’s face and meticulously observes her blinking in slow motion. She discovers that before each blink, the muscles on top of Lucy’s cheekbones twitch.

That’s when she is most vulnerable! When her eyes are closed!

Arenia gets to her feet and takes a fight stance. She fixes her focus on Lucy’s cheekbones. Both fighters quickly engage in a dance, moving from side to side. Arenia stays strongly rooted in pure presence this time, with no thoughts. She watches Lucy’s eyes and tries to predict each blink before it happens. On the forth blink, she is spot on. The fifth, sixth, and the seventh blinks follow. She senses them all. She waits . . . waits . . . waits for that next blink. Not a thought in her mind.

There it is—the twitch of her cheeks.

Arenia instantly launches a powerful kick—and sends Lucy hurtling. Arenia does it two more times, each hit harder than the last. After the third time, Lucy’s flat on her back, struggling to get up.

Arenia’s mind is alertly blank from all the adrenaline that’s pumping through her body. She sees Lucy on the ground, shattered and filled with self-loathing, avoiding any eye contact. Then Arenia sees Numen gazing at her with pride and knowing. His evil expression has vanished, replaced by the kindness she knows him for. His eyes are filled with so much pride and appreciation, that she’s reminded of how her father used to look at her.

And then it dawns on her. She did it! She’s defeated Lucy—once and for all. It wasn’t a lucky win. It was well deserved. She has succeeded!

“YES!” she screams, her fist pumping the air. “YES!!!!”

Lucy pushes herself to her feet, wiping away the blood and sweat. “I knew you could not be trusted!” she screams. “You are a liar! Nobody learns to fight so fast! You are an imposter! A manipulator!” She spits in Arenia’s direction, then turns and limps away.

Numen places his hands on Arenia’s shoulders and looks into her eyes. “You know that not one bit of what I said to you reflects any of my real thoughts about you, right?”

Arenia nods.

“I am so very proud of you—of all you have accomplished and of how much determination you have shown since you have been here. Congratulations. You deserve it.”

Pium opens his door to Arenia’s banging. Before he can say anything, she leaps on him. “I did it, Pium! We did it! I beat her! Not once, but twice!”

She jumps off him and runs around his house in glee. Pium stares at her. “Are you serious? Already?”

“Yes!”

Pium grabs her, lifts her up, and spins her. “We must celebrate!”

“Yes! Let’s go!”

“But after I finish some work for my father. We have a deadline tomorrow. How about we meet later at the market square? It is the night of the full-moon celebration!”

“Great! I can’t wait!” Arenia can’t stop beaming.

At home, she takes an extra-long shower. Whenever she thinks about her day, boundless joy courses through her body.

Wrapped in a towel, she stands in front of her clothes, unsure of what to wear. A dress, sure, she knows that by now. [_But which one? _]She tries on three different dresses, and opts for a long, black, flowing dress with thin, braided, black and gold, leather shoulder straps.

She brushes her hair and clips each side to the top of her head. Her wispy baby hair curls up as usual. The rest of her long hair waves down over her shoulders. She picks up a pair of long earrings that she purchased at the market a few weeks ago. They’re made of brass with pale green stones. She’s never worn them, but today she feels festive and slips them gently through her earlobes. I wish I had a mirror. She smiles as she touches the Golden Key hanging around her neck.

She burns a clove in a candle flame. Then, with the back of a soup spoon serving as a tiny mirror, she uses the kohl powder on the burned end of the clove as eyeliner. She pinches her lips and cheeks to give them a rosy color. Her grandmother taught her these tricks. “You never know when you’ll need them,” she’d told her.

The square is alive with a band blasting happy tavern music on bagpipes, flute, accordion, fiddle, and tambourine. Pariahs of all ages dance, cheer, drink beer and wine, chat, and laugh. Kids chase after the fireflies that swarm all around them and create a wondrous atmosphere.

Numen smokes his pipe and chats gleefully with fellow Pariahs. Pium’s parents are happily drinking with another couple. Even Atsa is there and taking care of the awi roasting on the spit. But where’s Pium? She sees the twins frolicking on the dance floor. When they spot her, they sprint over and throw themselves at her, hugging her.

“You beat Lucy! We knew you were special! You had the Golden Key after all!” They cheer and laugh so hard, their eyes tear up.

“Oh, thank you, sweet, sweet twins!” Arenia is overwhelmed. “Without you two, none of this would have happened!”

“That is right! We found you! Yes, we diiid!” They dance about her, clapping.

Arenia laughs with them. Someone grabs her hand. It’s Pium.

“Excuse us, dear twins. But I have to kidnap this young lady.” He pulls her towards the dance floor. “Come and dance!”

Still exuberant from her victory, she ignores the memories of self-consciousness from the last time Pium dragged her off to dance. She willingly follows him to the center of the floor. The twins applaud. Arenia begins to move to the music the way she does at home. Pium lets himself go, just as the other Pariahs do. He’s absolutely fearless—ecstatic and joyous as he becomes one with the music. It seems like every part of his body is moving so perfectly.

Soon, Arenia can’t help but dance more and more freely, daring to make bigger moves, take more space, and let herself be swept away by the music. They both laugh and cheer. The music gets louder and faster. They swirl all around the dance floor through the dancing crowd, but they only have eyes for each other. The people around them seem to disappear. It’s just Pium and Arenia on the dance floor. Arenia trembles with excitement.

The music ends with a big bang and then switches into a mellow tune. The two of them drop into seats at a table, panting.

“You are quite a talented dancer!” Pium gasps. “I knew there was much more in you.”

“Well, I wanted to keep my talent under wraps to let you have your moment.” Arenia grins.

“So, that is why! You are full of surprises, Arenia.” Pium beams at her. “Beer?” He points to the nearby barrel.

“Yes, please!”

Pium serves up two large jars, filled to the brim. Arenia, thirsty and carefree, polishes off her whole beer in one big draught and finishes with a loud involuntary belch. She then bursts into laughter with Pium.

“I am impressed, milady. Challenge accepted.” Pium chugs down his beer and lets loose with a long and hearty belch.

They’re both laughing hysterically, giddy from the rush. Arenia can’t remember the last time she’s felt this free and happy. But in a moment, they fall quiet. Pium’s eyes glisten. They are so profound that Arenia feels she’ll fall into them. Her cheeks redden with arousal. She gazes at his lips. Her heart pounds. She knows that if she delves deeper into him, she won’t find her way back again. Pium stares at her lips and then into her eyes as well. His look is full of longing.

A sudden bang interrupts the electricity between them. Both look up to watch the magnificent fireworks breaking open the sky with light and color. Suddenly, worries about facing the Traitor and finding her way back home deflate Arenia’s arousal like a burst balloon slowly drifting to the ground. I can’t do this. This is not my world. I don’t belong here. I can’t. She stands.

“I have to get some sleep.” She doesn’t look at him.

“I will walk you home.”

“Oh, no. Please enjoy yourself. Don’t let me interrupt you. I can get home alone,” she retorts, flatly.

Pium looks rattled by her sudden change of mood. “OK . . . goodnight, then. I will see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight,” she replies with a sad smile, awkwardly waving before turning to walk away.

The next morning, Arenia meets Numen at his house. Sitting at his desk, he launches into a speech.

“Arenia, you have proven yourself to have an extraordinary ability to grasp and apply my teachings. I have given you tools to defend yourself and to find your way through the foggy illusions of the mind—these illusions are the weapon through which Tartarus finds his greatest power. The final step of your journey is to apply my teachings out in the world. You are now ready to take that final step.”

Arenia is stunned. She’s worked hard to get to this point, and she’s eager to start the next stage of her journey. But the thought of actually leaving the comfort and safety of Pariah is completely unnerving.

“Am I going alone?”

“I have assigned Lucy and Pium to accompany you. Pium is very knowledgeable. He will explain the dynamics of each land to you. Lucy’s strong rationality and instincts will guide you through the confusions of Underworld. She will warn you and help you when in danger. And I think that she will benefit from this well-deserved exploration outside of Pariah. For their own protection, I will tell them that the purpose of your trip is to study the citizens of the Lands of Tears, which would not be a lie. You must spend some time observing and understanding firsthand how Tartarus manipulates the people’s minds so that you can better protect yourself. From there, it is up to you if you want to tell Lucy and Pium the true purpose of your quest—or if you want to proceed alone.”

“Do you know anybody in the Lands of Tears or the City of the Royals who we can trust and ask for help?”

“Unfortunately, I cannot give you names. I have to respect my friends’ demands to remain undercover.” Numen lights his pipe. “Once you arrive in the Lands of Tears, you have to win the trust of the right people and gain their help to track down a secret underground group that might be able to assist you. This group is called The Resurrectionists. I wish I could tell them about your visit, but, regrettably, I cannot. In order to keep each other out of danger, we are not allowed to make contact apart from the designated times when we exchange information about the latest developments of each land. You also cannot come right out and ask about them by name—you cannot even ask those who you think you trust. The Resurrectionists are considered rebels and public enemies. They face the grimmest of punishments—imprisonment or death.”

“Why don’t you come with us?” Arenia pleads.

“Because my mere presence would attract Tartarus and his spies,” Numen explains. “He has been trying to catch me since the beginning of his reign. He wants to find the Land of the Pariahs so that he can destroy it—and he considers me the key holder. Pariah is the only place in Underworld that is not under his influence. Our autonomy is a thorn in his side.”

“How will we find the Land of the Dead? Is there a map?”

“Unfortunately, a map would not help you because the landscape around the Lands of Tears is forever changing as a result of Tartarus’s manipulations—just like in a dream. It would be absurd to try putting Underworld on a map. As you have seen, even with his depth of research, Pium only has been able to do a rough rendition with no specific detail. You must learn to read signs and symbols—they will show you the right path. Lucy will help you with that.”

Numen looks at her gravely. “Let me remind you that reality in Underworld is nothing like the reality you know in Pariah or your world. Everything is obscured and subject to change in a heartbeat, just like in a dream. Open your mind like a child. Question everything around you. The illusions are a reflection of Tartarus’s skills and techniques. Observe, study, and learn from them—and you will find wisdom in the madness.”

That night, Arenia can’t fall asleep. She’s packed her backpack with the help of Pium. Excitement, anticipation, fear, and thrill overcome her. She realizes that over the weeks of preparation for her trip to the Land of the Dead, she didn’t spend much thought on the kinds of challenges awaiting them. How is it in the Lands of Tears? Is it full of crazy people? Is the Magical Forest full of vicious beasts that’ll try to kill me before I even get the chance to confront Tartarus? What about the Land of Death? Is it full of swamps? Icy lakes? Fiery lands? Deserts?

She can’t stop imagining how it’ll be to face this world’s most dangerous person. Does he know I’m here? Will he be surprised when he sees me? Will he remember me from our first encounter in my dream? Will he try to kill me the moment he sees me? How can I get him to tell me how to get home?

After tossing and turning for hours, she finally falls asleep.

-24-

The Magical Forest

The Pariahs have gathered in the marketplace. They bid Arenia, Pium, and Lucy farewell, and provide them with more gifts than they can carry. The three promise to accept their gifts once they’ve returned, and the crowd looks pleased at the prospect of their homecoming. Arenia glances at Pium. He’s geared up in his fox-brown leather armor, with his weapons attached to both his belt and his large canvas backpack. His parents give him a last tight embrace. His mother wipes away her tears. His father masks his fears with pride and admiration. Arenia looks over at Lucy, who’s also wearing her brown armor, her weapons, and a backpack. She finishes talking to Numen with an awkward embrace, and stands by the side, ready to leave. Arenia wonders where her family is.

Numen approaches Arenia. He gives her a hug. Arenia doesn’t want to think about the possibility of finding her way home without first returning to Pariah. She’s never been good with goodbyes.

“Numen, thank you so much for everything. Without you, this wouldn’t have been possible. I hope to see you again soon.”

“As do I, Arenia. Be safe. Remember my words and trust your intuition—it is your greatest asset. It will show you the right path.” He hands Arenia a leather pouch. “You will encounter beings whose souls you cannot appeal to because their light has burned out. However, you will still need their assistance. This will help to make them your allies. Use it wisely.”

Arenia’s throat knots, her heart pulsing. The adventure is beginning—for better or worse. Part of her wants to turn back while she can. Another part of her knows that this journey is her purpose. She takes a deep breath and thanks Numen, then she stores the pouch safely in her backpack. Determinedly, she zips up her armor, adjusts her belt, and slings her backpack over her shoulders. She is ready.

“Do you know the way to the Lands of Tears?” Arenia asks Lucy, who’s been leading the way since they walked out of the Tree of Life.

“I know which way not to take,” Lucy says, abruptly.

Arenia falls quiet. Great. Wonderful. Better not to talk to her at all. She then thinks about the map of Underworld in Pium’s house. We must be heading north. When she glances over at Pium, she feels a pinch in her heart. He was a little distant when he helped her pack yesterday. [_Is it because I left so suddenly the other night? _]This whole time, he’s been the embodiment of safety and comfort for her, and now it all just feels awkward.

She walks on, determined to stay present. She takes in her surroundings. The forest air is dank with the musky scent of moist soil and decomposing leaves. The trees have strong, wide trunks, and their crowns proudly reach up, striving to touch the sky. Their boughs curl and twist in competition with each other for space, and they sprout leaves in various shades of lush green, which sparkle in golden sunlight. Most of the sky vanishes behind the dense canopy, leaving only a few scattered patches of blue. So far, this part of the forest looks similar to the southern part where Arenia has been. It’s only slightly more tangled and dense. She watches a couple of red and blue birds chase each other in a continuous dance between light and shadow, until they fly out of her view.

All around them resonates a hauntingly beautiful song of the woods, beckoning the three into its enchanting heart. Some birds use sharp, piercing sounds to call each other. Others seem to tweet longer ballads from their hiding places in the trees. Branches creak and leaves rustle whenever the wind whistles through. Hostile animal screeches break the harmonious forest sounds. Every now and then, the humming of insects come so close to her ears that Arenia instinctively dodges.

Some tree roots are so thick and long that they curl up from the soil in search of freedom to stretch out. The three either climb over or duck under these roots, as well as the fallen trees that infrequently block their path. Time after time, they push branches out of the way and stumble through bushes that scratch at their boots and armor. Arenia admires the richly colored autumnal leaves scattered across the moss-covered forest floor.

“Is it fall?” Arenia asks Pium, looking up at the brilliant green leaves on the trees.

“Because of the colorful leaves on the floor? No.” He smiles. “I read that those are animals. They do not belong to trees.”

At that exact moment, a leaf that Arenia’s about to step on lifts up onto its two feet and scurries away. Arenia hops back, confused.

Pium laughs. “Stay close to us and try to avoid contact with plants whenever possible. Many are not what they seem. I have read that the distortion of reality gets stronger and stronger as we get closer to the Lands of Tears.”

They travel for hours up and down small hills, following the winding paths, intent on moving forward. Arenia’s backpack gets heavier and heavier. The energy boost she got from eating her lunch earlier as they walked is wearing off already.

“How long are we going to continue?” she asks, carefully.

“Until we find a safe place to sleep,” Lucy says, flatly.

“Do you think it’s dangerous here?” Arenia’s nervous. Her imagination suddenly runs wild with Wendigos, Morts, and wild beasts lurking behind the bushes. The beauty of the forest made her forget about the dangers. She senses the presence of other forces, but hasn’t spotted anything unusual yet.

“If you observed the signs, you would not ask such a foolish question,” Lucy snaps.

Arenia quietly asks Pium what signs she’s talking about. He tells her to examine each tree more thoroughly. She tries, but cannot detect anything irregular.

“Focus on one spot,” Pium instructs.

Arenia gives it another try. With a steady gaze, her eyes sharpen and pick out flashes of movement in the dense, green maze and flaky, thick tree barks. She notices mysterious creatures—some resembling hawks, others like frogs—camouflaged perfectly by their surroundings, sitting on the trees and hidden in plain sight. Her throat locks and stomach twists when she sees insects and spiders the size of her fist crawl across the trees. When she discovers that their abdomens are eyeballs that move and gaze at them, she trembles. Some even seem to be following them.

“Are these creatures following us?” she whispers to Pium, aghast.

“Some are. They are curious. They want to know who finds the courage or foolishness to enter their magical land. They are trying to assess if we mean danger to them. Some are also the Traitor’s spies.”

Presence, Arenia. Presence. They pose no real danger. Yet. They’re not even that close to you. Just keep walking. Part of her imagines them jumping on her all at once—crawling across her with their hairy feet and slimy eyeball bodies to shred her into bloody pieces with their razor-sharp fangs. [_One breath at a time. _]She decisively focuses on staying aware.

As the sunlight slowly drains away, the greens melt into gray, blending into the spreading gloom. Bone-chilling coils of vaporous mist begin to wrap around the trees like ghosts, clinging to every surface. The colors of the plants and trees fade into the growing darkness. The pairs of eyes that have been watching them start to glisten, blinking occasionally. There’s a sudden movement, and a loud crack rings out through the air. Lucy, Arenia, and Pium freeze. Lucy soundlessly extracts her sword and goes into a fighter’s stance. Arenia and Pium follow her lead. The mist quickly thickens into an impenetrable fog, suffocating every tree and bush.

Arenia’s senses are so heightened that every snap of a twig and rustle of a leaf makes her increasingly paranoid. Her heart races. Not knowing what to expect makes this moment unbearable. She feels so much more confident on the combat field. At least there, she can face her opponent and more or less estimate the incoming danger.

When a crabbit suddenly darts out of the bushes right in front of them, Arenia’s heart leaps. A moment passes, and then Lucy puts away her weapon and gives an all-clear signal. They start walking again as the heavy fog slowly dissolves. Arenia is thankful for the relief, but her muscles are still frozen.

“I have heard that the nights in the Magical Forest are the most magical things one will ever see.” Pium tries to ease the tension.

Suddenly, swarms of fireflies stream out of hollow tree trunks and spread throughout the air. Countless stars start to lighten up the deep blue sky. Plants, trees, and animals also start glowing in shades of blue, green, purple, red, orange, and yellow. Delicate birds and butterflies gracefully flutter around like gleaming fairies. Mysterious sounds of nocturnal animals rise through the air. It’s a wondrous sight. Arenia stops in awe. Pium almost bumps into her because he’s gazing around as well.

“Wow,” he murmurs. “This is far more magical than any book ever described.”

“Yeah,” Arenia whispers.

Apparently unimpressed, Lucy briskly leads the way. The other two try to catch up with her.

“Do you hear that?” Arenia asks Pium.

“You mean the trickling brook? Yes.”

Arenia and Pium try to locate the source of the hypnotic sound, peeking through the bushes, stepping a little ways off the path.

Suddenly, Arenia plummets with a splash, disappearing beneath the surface of what appears to be a solid, shimmering bed of moss.

“Arenia!” She hears Pium’s muffled scream again: “ARENIA!!”

[_NO, NO, NO, NO!!! Not again! _]As she falls, she hysterically thrashes around for something to grab onto. She can’t see anything through the darkness, and she’s fighting not to inhale. As her speed increases, she sees what look like glowing jellyfish gracefully floating about in the distance. Then, the water gradually lightens and turns into a bright haze. She feels as if she’s falling slower, before she gently lands on what must be the softest giant cotton ball. It’s hanging loosely like a cloud in what appears to be the sky. Curiously, she peeks over the edge. About 100 feet beneath her is a large green field dotted with what look like white flowers. She’s bone-dry, but she’s befuddled as to whether water or air surrounds her. She cautiously inhales. Air. Relieved, she gasps down oxygen. [_Where am I?! Where’s Pium?! _]

Looking up, she sees no sign of either the Magical Forest or her friends. She searches her surroundings, feeling increasingly foggy. There’s nothing but sky. A little further down, she spots a swing hanging off the cloud she’s sitting on.

The cloud-swing! Arenia is suddenly filled with utter excitement. On a sunny day during a childhood picnic with her parents, she stared up into the blue sky, watching the little clusters of fluffy clouds. She wished so bad that she could be up there, standing on one. Her parents had just taught her that clouds were not solid. It was one of the great disappointments of her young life. Staring up at those clouds, she imagined attaching a swing to one and whooshing back and forth on it. [_That must be the closest thing to flying, _]she thought. This was before her fear of heights crept into her life years later.

Without hesitation, Arenia climbs down the cloud to reach the swing. Each of her movements is weirdly slow and delayed. When she almost topples down the side of the cloud, she notices that she is floating in the sky. Huh! Today must be my lucky day! She carefully swims down to the swing, takes a seat, and swings back and forth, higher and higher. She could explode with happiness.

“Arenia! What are you doing?! We need to get out of here!”

Arenia jumps, almost falling off the swing. She looks up to see Pium swimming towards her, attached to a rope that reaches far up into the sky.

“Pium! I’m so happy to see you! I couldn’t find my way back to the forest. You have to see this. You’ll never experience anything like this again. Get over here!”

“No, you do not understand!” Pium warns, staring at Arenia’s bemused expression. “This is one of the Traitor’s creations. He is playing with your mind. He dictates your perception. We need to leave. The calmness of this place can be deceiving. Look around you. You cannot even see where the forest is anymore. This sky was water just moments ago.”

Just at that moment, they see something approaching them in the sky from afar. It moves smoothly, almost like a giant fish.

“What’s that?” Arenia asks, smiling dazedly.

Pium hastily swims over to Arenia and grabs her wrist. “We need to go! Now! Hold on to the rope!” Pium yanks the rope.

Slowly, the rope starts pulling them upwards.

“Faster, Lucy, please pull faster,” Pium prays.

“What is it, Pium?” Arenia asks, surprised at his nervousness. She gazes into the distance, trying to recognize the approaching beast. “It looks like a . . . but that’s impossible . . . ” She peers around her. Suddenly, she snaps back to her senses. “IT’S A SHARK!”

“Pull yourself up!” Pium yells. He yanks on the rope, pushing Lucy to speed up. The shark is almost upon them. Its powerful jaws yawn open to reveal sharp, blood-drenched, serrated teeth. Pium pulls out his bow, slots in an arrow, and aims. The sky darkens.

“Pium, swim up!” Arenia yells.

“You go! I will cover you! Help Lucy pull me up!” he shouts.

Arenia scrambles up the rope. The sky increasingly darkens around her and she passes the glowing jellyfish. Faster, Arenia! Faster! She steals a quick glimpse back, and sees Pium desperately trying to fight off the shark. When she turns back and looks up, she sees the rope’s end disappear in a murky cloud. The puddle! She climbs even faster. As her head finally slips through the puddle, Lucy grabs her hand and heaves her out.

“Where is Pium?!” Lucy looks frantic.

“Keep pulling!” Arenia shouts, leaping to her feet. They pull the rope as fast as they can. It gets lighter and lighter. The end of the rope pops out of the puddle. No Pium.

“NO!” Arenia knots the rope around her waist, grabs her bow and arrows, and dives back into the puddle. Down in the sky, the shark’s circling Pium, who’s swinging his sword wildly as he aimlessly floats in the sky. A stream of blood flows out of his leg. Arenia spies a shiver of sharks rapidly approaching from the distance.

“PIUM!!”

Arenia attacks the shark with flying arrows. But their points just bounce off the beast’s thick skin. Then she aims an arrow at the shark’s eye—and hits. Yes! The shark writhes and thrashes in agony. Its moan resounds like thunder. Rain starts to pour down. While the shark flails about, frantic and disoriented, Arenia swims over and grabs Pium, and then scrambles upward while tugging the rope. Dazzling bolts of lightning thread through the sky, passing very close to them. The rope is hauling them up. [_Faster, Lucy! _]The other sharks are closing in on them. Finally, their heads break through the surface of the puddle, and they pull themselves out just as a shark’s head lunges out after Pium. They fall panting to the ground.

“Are you alright?” Lucy presses.

They nod, gasping.

“Do not ever stop or walk off the path again!” Lucy says, furiously. “These are distractions designed to bewitch you and put you in danger. Do you understand?! I have to be able to rely upon you!”

Arenia nods guiltily. She turns to Pium. “How’s your leg?”

“Fine. It is just a scratch.”

“Let me see,” Arenia insists.

“You need to cover it. The smell of blood will only attract more beasts and leave a trail behind us,” Lucy says.

Arenia rips pieces of cloth from a shirt in her bag and presses one onto Pium’s wound. She ties another portion around the first piece.

“Hopefully this will stop the bleeding,” she says. Then she whispers, “Thank you.”

Pium reddens and smiles at her.

“We need to find the rocky edge of the forest to sleep. It should not be too far from here. Pium, can you walk?” Lucy asks.

“Yes, I am alright.”

“Good, we will go, then.”

-25-

We Are Made of Stardust

The three continue on through the dramatic landscape for a couple of hours, exhausted but determined to find a safe spot for the night. The Magical Forest increasingly resembles a tropical underwater scene, gleaming in a breathtaking spectrum of colors. It’s as if each plant and animal is equipped with an interior lamp that illuminates its vivid colors and patterns. Some plants are barely ankle height, while others reach high up into the sky. The three walk by a cluster of anemone-like plants with white fluffy tentacles. Arenia’s hand unconsciously moves towards them, eager to feel their plush.

“Stop.” Pium interrupts her dreamy thought.

Arenia abruptly pulls her hand back.

“That plant uses those tentacles to catch prey. They are so poisonous that they paralyze you upon contact. Then, the plant slowly swallows you alive,” he states. “I warned you to not touch anything.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t even realize my hand was reaching for it.” Arenia shudders at how hypnotized she felt for a moment.

Right then, a delicate purple butterfly lands on one of the plants. The wings instantly freeze mid-flutter. Oh no! Arenia watches the insect slowly sink into the heart of the plant as if into quicksand. Aghast, she faces forward, being sure to keep her distance from the predator plants.

Bushy, scarlet corals that look downy to the touch, emerald-colored anemones, intensely yellow and orange plants with feathery leaves, and many other botanical beings shimmer in bright hues against the indigo, green, and violet trees, and the dark night sky. Grass-like tentacles gently sway as if through water, and a stunning display of birds, butterflies, seahorses, schools of small fish, and crabs hide and slip among them. The dramatic landscape is unlike anything she has ever seen.

Finally, the trees begin to open, revealing more and more of the dark sky. They reach the edge of the forest. A colossal flat rock extends outward, hanging over an endless green field that lies deep in a valley below. The giant crater-covered moon highlights the vastness of the landscape. Each gust of wind brushes over the shimmering grassy field to create ocean-like waves. A glittering stream cuts sharply through the green, completing the enchanting vision.

“We will sleep here tonight.” Lucy puts down her backpack. “We cannot build a fire. It would attract too much attention. Dry food should be sufficient for those who are hungry.” She unrolls a blanket in front of her backpack and lies down on her improvised bed. Arenia and Pium do the same, creating a triangle. Arenia shares her dried fruits with Pium. She’s too afraid to ask Lucy if she wants any.

The night silence is suddenly pierced by a bloodcurdling scream. The three freeze, peering towards the Magical Forest. Lucy looks horrified. She signals for quiet. Another ear-splitting series of screeches rip the night sky. What is that?! It’s the most terrifying sound Arenia’s ever heard. She holds her breath. The hairs bristle on her neck. A roar of trampling animals approaches. Her heart beats out of control, gushing blood through her veins. Are they coming at us?! Adrenaline surges through her system. Ready to flee, Arenia stares at Lucy and Pium for some sign, but they’re stock-still. Both have their eyes wide open and fixed on the dark forest. Arenia can see their chests rapidly rising and falling. _]As the roar of the trampling approaches, Lucy quickly moves her hand towards her sword. The other two follow suit. [_We’re cornered! Please don’t let them find us! Arenia inhales and exhales, trying to calm her nerves. [_How many are they?! I should use my bow first! _]

Suddenly, the thundering is gone.

The night has fallen into stillness.

Only when they silently lie back down a short time afterwards is Arenia able to unclench her stiff muscles.

But she can’t fall sleep. Adrenaline still surges through her body. What was that?! She wants to ask, but she’s too afraid to disrupt the silence. She takes another deep breath and tries to take in her surroundings. Myriad stars sparkle like diamonds against the night sky. An orchestra of crickets sings a summer night symphony. In the distance, an owl hoots along. The croaks of frogs trail in from afar. A faint breeze slides through the dark trees, rustling their leaves. The sounds are in perfect harmony. Arenia turns her head. [_The Magical Forest is so dark when you’re outside it. _]None of the luminous magic is visible from where she is laying. Like a shuttered house, the Magical Forest buries all of its secrets within itself.

Arenia stealthily glances over at the others. Lucy looks like she’s sleeping. Pium is staring up at the sky. Why do I find him so compelling? It goes beyond his good looks. His intellect, independence, and strength are all reflected in his curiosity and excitement. He is utterly alluring. His simplicity and light-heartedness come with a deep understanding of her own complex emotional world. He’s so compassionate and non-judgmental—and he always finds the right things to say. [He sees through all the facades. _]Arenia sighs softly.[ He simply just is. _]

“Did you know that nearly all of our body mass is supposed to be made of stardust?” Pium suddenly whispers, still staring into the night.

“No,” Arenia replies quietly and awkwardly—embarrassed that he caught her gazing at him.

“Legend says that long ago an explosion of a giant star scattered stardust across the universe, and that stardust now makes up almost every element on our planet, including you and me. Mind-boggling.”

Lucy turns her back to them with an annoyed sigh. Arenia and Pium fall quiet. But still, despite her utter exhaustion, Arenia can’t fall asleep. She thinks about Pium’s words. She wishes she could tell him that where she comes from it has actually been scientifically proven that they’re made of stardust. Her heart aches. Hopefully one day.

She gazes into the starlit sky and thinks about the extraordinary vastness of the universe. She remembers the moment her very funny and knowledgeable physics teacher, Mr. Walther, revealed that most of the stars in the sky were suns orbited by their very own planets. He asked the students to dare imagine how many different worlds could be out there—all with their very own different habitats, species, ways of lives, and so on. And then he asked them to imagine how many different universes there could be, each with its own distinct laws of physics. That day, Arenia’s imagination ran wild. [_Too many to grasp, _]she’d concluded.

Mr. Walther then disclosed that no habitable planet and no otherworldly being had been discovered yet. Ten years later, nothing’s changed. Arenia recalls her conversation with Professor Basel. [_What if he was right and we’re too narrow-minded in the way we think about habitable planets and what they have to be like? What if other species have figured out how to flourish in those so-called inhabitable spaces? These living organisms might look completely different than humans. They might not need air to breathe, food to eat, or water to drink. Maybe they don’t even have physical bodies in the way that we think of bodies. Yet, still, they might have much more complex brains and much higher intelligence and awareness than we do. They might’ve studied us, just as Professor Basel suggested, living in different dimensions that we can’t perceive. Just like the Wendigos—they supposedly know everything about us, and we can’t even see them. _]She tries to stop thinking about the Wendigos.

One thing Arenia has learned—the brain seems to be wired to survive. It needs to process floods of information as fast as possible. That means drawing results from a minimum amount of information—often filling in the gaps, making up facts, and creating a false picture of reality. This process also strongly limits the perception of the physical world. More and more, Arenia is grasping how it can be possible for different worlds to occupy the same space.

What if we’re limiting ourselves too much to our physical existence? What if the interior, the soul, plays a role that’s just as important—or maybe even greater? What if otherworldly life won’t be discovered through physical voyaging, but through traveling with the soul? That would also finally unite the contradictory and fragmented conception of our material and immaterial existence. [_You would have to go within to reach the without. _]She takes a moment to let it all sink in.

Persephone, the Queen of Underworld. The myth suddenly crosses her mind. Underworld, Professor Basel explained, also stood for the unconscious world. Arenia gazes around the dark landscape. [What if this is my unconscious world? _]The thought doesn’t seem that impossible to her anymore.[ _]She remembers the professor saying that the unconscious contained dynamics that secretly shaped one’s reality, and that these dynamics would lose their grip if one brought them into the spotlight of the conscious.

That is exactly what Arenia has been doing over the past weeks: facing her inner demons. Never before has she had such a profound understanding of her inner self. It’s allowing her to grow into a strong and confident woman, just as Persephone did. As the inner, so is the outer. She takes a deep breath and exhales. Her eyes feel heavy. At peace with her newfound insights, she falls asleep within moments.

A clicking, whistling sound wakes her in the middle of the night. She turns to Pium and Lucy—they shrug, clearly clueless. Suddenly, the sky that stretches over the vast grassy land beyond the rocky cliff lights up. [_What?! _]A pod of luminescent whales, large and small, float across the sky as if they were in water. With the massive moon hanging behind them, the scene is strikingly magical. The ground underfoot sparkles like water and mirrors the ravishing glow from the sky. Quietly, the three rise and approach the edge of the rock to absorb the entrancing sight.

“Wow!” Arenia whispers.

Pium looks equally dazzled. Even Lucy seems intrigued.

“How can such an evil person create such beautiful things?” Arenia wonders, after a minute.

“He knows how to get to you. It is all calculated. Just a means to an end,” Lucy retorts. “We have to get going soon. Let us get some rest.” She walks back to her sleeping spot.

“Why is she so . . . rigid?” Arenia quietly asks Pium.

“She has always been like that. I do not really know her. I do not think anybody really does, except for Numen.”

“What’s her relationship with Numen? Where are her parents?”

“She never talks about herself, so I am not certain if what I have heard is true, but they say she was born in the Lands of Tears,” he whispers, making sure Lucy is out of earshot. “Apparently, the Traitor’s followers killed her parents.”

“Why?” Arenia asks, horrified.

“Because they openly stood against him. When Lucy was a child, her mother supposedly hid her in the closet in the middle of the night when the Traitor’s men knocked on the door. They brutally executed both of her parents. Lucy witnessed everything through a crack in the closet door. Numen was a good family friend, and he was in the Lands of Tears at the time. When he heard what had happened, he hurried to their house. He found Lucy in the darkness of the closet, silently sobbing in a puddle of her parents’ blood. He brought her to Pariah.”

Arenia looks over at Lucy lying on the ground, staring into the sky. She knows exactly how devastating it is to lose both parents, especially at such a young age. I can’t imagine what she went through, though. Seeing it happen. Horrific. I feel so bad about how I’ve been feeling about her.

“Do not mention anything about her past, though,” Pium warns. “She hates being seen as a victim. She hates pity.”

Arenia can only nod.

-26-

On Peacock Time

Arenia wakes to the sound of Lucy packing up. A loom of fiery sunlight chases away the vanishing night sky.

“We need to get down there.” Lucy points down the mountain.

Within moments, Arenia and Pium have packed their bags and are perched on the edge of the cliff, gazing down. The glistening stream Arenia saw the night before is now a long narrow bridge, and the vast green field is a roaring ocean. [_Huh . . . _]Bewildered, she tries to figure out if the landscape changed or if her perception had been wrong.

“It is too steep to descend this cliff face. We have to go down through the forest to reach the bridge,” Pium concludes.

They retreat into the depths of the forest.[_ Despite the hard ground, I slept great.] Arenia stretches the last bit of sleepiness out of her body. Her muscles feel recovered. As they walk, she snacks on a goat cheese biscuit and takes little sips of water, noticing how the forest grows in complexity. Miniature lush islands hover in the air, tiny flowers and plants trailing off the sides. Butterflies flutter from one island to another. Their silky wings are embellished with animal patterns—tiger, leopard, cow, zebra, and snake scales. A variety of fish, winged seahorses, and small jellyfish linger about. Every now and then, the three are surprised by small, colorful animal hybrids darting out of the bushes and trees—gecko-frogs, squirrel-tigers, humming bird-elephants, fox-owls, hamster-monkeys, and cat-turtles. [_It’s a playground for surrealist painters!]

“What was that gruesome sound last night?” Arenia asks. “It made my hair stand on end.”

“The Morts.” Pium is clearly tense.

Lucy nods, ashen-faced.

A chill spirals down Arenia’s back. [_Morts?! _]The horrific image of human-flesh-devouring beasts terrifies her. Seeing Lucy stricken with fear makes her feel even more distraught.

Out of the corner of her eye, Arenia notices a strange movement. Alarmed, she turns towards it, only to discover gigantic flowers that have two eye-like holes in their heads. She’s disturbed, but her relief is stronger. [_At least it’s not a Mort. _]

“Yeah, I noticed them observing us,” Pium comments.

Too much talk of Morts. Time to get back to awareness! She takes a deep breath and focuses on finding presence again.

After an hour of hiking down the forest side of the mountain, they finally reach the narrow bridge that leads across the fierce ocean. When Arenia looks back up the mountain, she discovers that the rock spur they slept on is shaped like a hand with its forefinger pointing in the direction they’re headed. This must be the sort of sign Numen was talking about—guiding us to the Land of the Dead. Waterfalls cascade down the sides of the mountain and into the ocean. Birds flutter and glide through the fine mist of water that rises up and creates spectacular rainbows.

The three step onto the slender stone bridge that’s supported by multiple arches rising from the waters. Its narrowness forces them to walk in single file. Waves rear up from far back in the ocean before furiously smashing against the bridge, and spraying their faces with a cool mist. They stumble, but continue forwards. The end of the bridge is nowhere to be seen. In the distance, a vortex of thick white clouds spirals around the bridge with the sun burning in its center. The sight is spellbinding. Lucy warns Arenia and Pium not to get distracted. [She’s right. _]Arenia pays closer attention to what she’s doing. _One step at a time . . .

Suddenly, the swell of the ocean surface simmers down until the water lies utterly still, like a mirror reflecting the spectacle above. The clouds clear up, exposing a wide, deserted, ochre and burnt-gold landscape of sand. There’s the end of the bridge! [_Just a few more steps. _]She fixes her eyes on the bridge again. When their feet finally touch solid ground, Arenia exhales in relief, only to have a brutally hot and dry gust of air knock her breath away. Instantly, she is soaked in sweat and forced to unzip her armor. She’s wearing a black tank top underneath, and she pulls her arms out of the suit and lets the sleeves hang down from her waist. Pium follows her example and unzips his fox-brown armor. Lucy seems determined to defy the torturous heat, just like the slender thick-skinned trees that are dotted across the desert. Arenia turns back to look at the ocean. The flat waters mirror the sun’s fire.

“I am not sure which direction to take,” Lucy admits, glancing around. “We cannot orient ourselves by the sun anymore. It has begun to follow us.”

Arenia and Pium are just as clueless as Lucy. I didn’t even know we were following the sun in the first place. They decide to keep walking away from the ocean in hopes of finding a sign that will guide them to the right route. But every direction looks the same.

Then, next to a dry branch lodged in the sand, Arenia spots a curious glass bottle. She picks it up, and within it, she sees a few floating islands surrounding a single island in the center. There are tiny strange beings frantically rushing around while they repeatedly glance at their watches.

“What is this?” Arenia shows the bottle to the others.

Pium’s eyes glisten with curiosity and excitement. “It is a miniature version of the Lands of Tears, the former Land of Light.”

Lucy points to the imprint the bottle left in the sand, indicating the direction the bottleneck print points to. “That must be our direction.”

Arenia can see Pium wants to take the bottle with him. But he glumly puts it back in its place, knowing the danger. They head in the new direction. Suddenly, from behind a skinny nearby tree emerges a large school of small bizarre fish that heads towards them. Arenia instinctively ducks and pulls out her sword, just as Pium and Lucy do. Where did they come from? There’s no way they were all in that little tree! As the fish peacefully swim through the air between and around them, the three stand upright and cautiously start walking again, their weapons still in their hands. Images of sharks and other blood-curdling creatures leap into Arenia’s mind. Presence!

The fiery hot air she’s breathing dries out her nostrils and throat. She longs for fresh, ice-cold water. There’s not even a cool breeze to give them slight relief from the oppressive heat. Another school of medium-sized fish swims by and disappears in the distance. Arenia imagines following them and discovering an abundant stream of the freshest water she’s ever tasted. She vigorously shakes her head. You’re starting to hallucinate. Just when she feels she might faint, Pium suggests they take a break in the shadow of a large boulder. He immediately starts a fire with tree branches he’s collected along the way, while Lucy and Arenia hunt for fish in the sky.

Soon, they’re grilling fish on sticks in the flickering flames. Arenia’s stomach rumbles in anticipation. The skin of the grilled fish turns brown and slowly begins to pull away. Her mouth waters from the scent.

Finally, the first fish are done. Arenia cautiously bites through the crusty skin into the juicy and flavorful meat. It is still hot, but so tender it flakes off the stick. Arenia quickly finishes off three fish and takes a sip of water from her bottle. She shakes it. Good thing I have two more. I have to ration better. Who knows how long it’ll take us to get to the Lands of Tears.[_ It feels like we’ve been on the road for so much longer than we have. ]She looks around at the landscape. [_Funny how the surrealness of this world doesn’t surprise me as much anymore.]

“So, you do not remember where you are from?” Lucy interrupts Arenia’s stream of thought.

“That’s right.” Arenia’s taken aback by the sudden question.

“How is that possible? You do not remember anything? You know your name, after all.” Lucy stares at her.

Arenia tries to hide her nervousness. She never was able to come up with a good answer to that question because none of the Pariahs ever questioned her about her past. Pium listens curiously.

“I really don’t have any memory of my past. The last thing I remember is waking up on the coast of Lake Somnus.” Arenia feels awful about lying. She takes comfort in Numen’s warning not to disclose her true origin to anybody. “And I only know my name because I had a document on me. Luckily, it had my picture and my name on it. But then the twins threw it into the lake.”

“It must be very disturbing to not know about your past, but somehow it must also be liberating, I imagine,” Pium muses, trying to redirect Lucy’s interrogation. He turns his attention back to the fire, which is slowly dwindling into red glistening ashes.

“It’s disturbingly uprooting. But I’m also deeply grateful to Numen and you all for accepting me into your community. I owe you a great deal.”

Lucy is clearly not satisfied with her answers. Arenia tries to avoid her eyes. She feels as if Lucy can see through her lie. Pium, on the other hand, seems to have accepted her story, which makes Arenia feel even worse.

After eating, they continue to walk through the blazing desert, passing by a few abandoned shipwrecks lodged into the sandy waves. Arenia wonders in silence if there was water here at one time. Not necessarily. [_It is Tartarus’s world, after all. _]The heat is increasingly oppressive. The shimmering sand sifts beneath their feet, making it very difficult to walk. The smell of sweat fills Arenia’s nostrils.

She peers into the far distance. Unfortunately, the desert doesn’t seem to have an end, nor can she see any trees or rocks where they can get shelter from the mercilessly searing sun. Hot wind whooshes in her ears and blows sand into her face. The dryness of the air makes it painful to breath. She wants to pull out her bottle, but she reminds herself to discipline her body. Pium and Lucy seem to be suffering just as much. Lucy will sweat out too much water if she keeps her armor on.

Eventually, Lucy does succumb to the heat and unties her armor. Arenia watches her pick up an object on the ground. Sunglasses! I wished I had some. Lucy’s great sigh of relief when she puts them on is enviable. Arenia glumly gazes forward again.

Suddenly, Lucy cries out in terror. Before Arenia can react, Lucy yanks off the glasses and hurls them down. The lenses shatter into fine dust with a loud explosion as soon as they hit the ground.

Pium spins around, his face aghast when he sees the empty frame and crystalline powder spread on the ground. “NO!! Those must be the watchful eyes of the Traitor!”

The sound of bursting glass echoes far into the distance before it slowly dies away. Alarmed, they pull their armor back on, take out their swords, and search their surroundings.

“What happened?!” Arenia asks Lucy, greatly perturbed.

“I have no idea!” Lucy’s thoroughly shaken. “When I put the glasses on, the sand began to swell and curve. Then, I saw desiccated mummies crawling out of the sand and reaching for me! Scorpions, spiders, larvae, and snakes crept out of their bodies in swarms and scuttled up my legs!” She shudders in disgust.

They continue walking at a faster pace, while warily looking out for the slightest change. There’s no danger in sight, but Arenia knows better by now than to trust only her senses. This may be the calm before the storm. She wishes she could erase from her mind the horrifying image that Lucy painted.

Suddenly, a strange shadow grows along the horizon and slowly creeps up on them. A massive, eight-legged beast emerges from the shadows. It’s at least three times as tall as Arenia.

“A spider! RUN!” Lucy shouts.

OH NO, NO NO NO!! Arenia lets loose a scream of sheer horror, and runs for her life, Pium and Lucy close behind. The gigantic spider clicks its mandibles hungrily and emits a series of screeches before it leaps across the burning desert, shooting webs after them. As it comes perilously close, the sensation of thousands of spiders crawling up her legs comes over Arenia. She is swamped by anxiety that cripples any possibility of a clear thought. Frantically, she shakes her head. Her stomach turns as she sprints away.

A web sticks to Lucy and pins her down. She struggles and fails to break free from it. The spider closes in. Pium races back to help. As the spider towers over Pium, he wildly swings his sword, eventually landing a blow on the thick, red-brown legs. His blade cuts deep into the beast’s flesh. The spider screeches and tries to shred him with its saliva-drenched fangs. Its sticky, feathery legs stomp down around him. Pium dodges and darts, barely escaping the saber-like claws at the end of them.

Arenia’s still sprinting. She’s on autopilot, and everything around her is a blur. The sounds of fighting are muffled and growing distant.

“ARENIA! HELP!” Pium’s scream reaches her, snapping her back to her senses.

She turns back, panting. Her heart’s beating so fast, she feels it’ll explode and rip her chest wide open.

They need my help! Arenia, they need you! But I can’t! I just can’t! It’s too horrific!! _]She feels like she’s going to throw up. [_Calm! Down! Breathe!

Pium screams again. His desperate cry strikes straight into her heart and sobers her up. Suddenly, she is overcome by presence.

I won’t let my fears control me! [_I WON’T!!! _]

She sprints back towards the spider.

As she approaches, she knots a rope to her knife. She launches the knife right into the spider’s neck—the only body part that’s not covered by its thick shell. The spider hisses and writhes wildly in pain. Arenia, still hanging onto the rope, flies through the air, smashing against the spider’s hairy legs. She can’t take it. To be this close to her biggest phobia is too much. Flying back through the air, she loses her grip and is hurled skywards before slamming into the sand on her back.

“Arenia! Arenia!” Pium manages to shout, while desperately fighting off the spider’s attacks.

Slowly, Arenia regains her senses. “I’m fine!” she shouts, still dizzy.

She pulls herself back up and runs as fast as she can, targeting the loose rope dangling from the spider’s neck. Arenia jumps up and grabs the flying rope. This time, she quickly climbs up the rope and pulls out her sword. She stabs at the spider’s neck again and again. With every wound, the spider hisses and thrashes around, trying to shake her off. Arenia grips for dear life. Die, spider, DIE!!!

Pium reaches Lucy and cuts the thick web imprisoning her. The spider begins to slow, finally buckling to its knees. Arenia lets go and jumps off, leaving the spider to its death.

“Lucy, are you alright?” She arrives at her side, panting.

“Are you alright?” Pium is clearly impressed.

“I am fine,” Lucy answers Arenia, dusting herself off. “Thanks, Arenia.”

Arenia nods at her with a smile.

Amazingly, Lucy cracks the smallest of smiles.

Her sides still heaving, Arenia pulls out her water bottle and sits on her bag in the fiery sand. She takes a large gulp of water. Pium and Lucy join her with their bottles.

“I do not know what came over me.” Lucy stares out over the landscape with a bewildered expression. “I should have known better than to pick up those glasses.”

“It’s fine. Look, we made it. We’re alive,” Arenia says.

Pium nods. “The Traitor’s eyes are everywhere. I do not know how, but he is said to create circumstances that aim at our weaknesses. You momentarily fell for his games. We just need to be more careful and watch out for each other.”

[He creates circumstances that aim at our weaknesses. How does he do that? _]The memory of the towering spider makes her cringe. She turns to look at the lifeless beast. [_I did it though. I killed it. I’m so proud of myself. _]A small smile spreads across her face.[ And it doesn’t look that atrocious after all. Well . . . OK . . . it does. _]She turns back to her friends.

“Shall we?” asks Pium.

The three pack up, sling their backpacks on, and start off. As the landscape changes from desert to sandy dirt, the vicious heat lessens. They spot a group of huge round objects in the distance.

“What are those?” Arenia squints at the objects.

“I am not sure.” Lucy strains her eyes.

“Me neither,” says Pium.

They cautiously approach. The round shapes are giant transparent heads—almost like bubbles—of Trolls, Blue Men, Animal Heads, and a few other creatures. Inside the giant heads are people with the exact same faces. They are contained in replicas of their own heads.

“This must be one of the mental institutions the Traitor built for those accused of endangering the system,” Pium says, sadly. “These prisoners do not react to the Wendigo’s manipulations and need more radical measures. These places are called Institutions for Adjustment of Mental Health. Apparently, they aim at nothing less than breaking the prisoners’ wills and making them slaves to their own minds—and, consequently, slaves to the Traitor’s manipulations.”

Most of the prisoners look disheveled and deranged. They’re dirty and their clothes are ragged. They talk furiously to themselves. Some are frantically throwing stuff at the walls and even trying to punch themselves. Others wail and shiver. One person is ripping out her hair.

“Are these citizens of the Lands of Tears?” Arenia is aghast.

“Yes, they are—as well as a few citizens from the City of Royals.” Pium looks close to tears.

“Terrible! Does this work?” Arenia asks.

“Supposedly it does,” Pium responds. “These prison heads are reconstructed worlds of each prisoner’s deepest fears and doubts, which they get flooded with all day, every day. Most of the patients lose their minds. In the next stage, they receive medicine, which calms them, but also blocks the body’s natural response mechanism, thereby making them more receptive to manipulations. This way, the Traitor’s doctors can give them new personalities. When the patient is ready, the doctors reintegrate him or her into society.”

“That’s a nightmare!” The idea of being bombarded with her greatest fears all day, every day, utterly horrifies Arenia.

“It is,” Pium agrees.

Lucy nods, as she looks at the prison heads.

“Can’t we do anything for them? Can they see us?” Arenia feels like she can feel their excruciation.

“No, they cannot see us. The walls inside the heads reflect each person’s world,” says Lucy. “We cannot help them, either. Supposedly, nobody has ever broken in or out.”

Pium shakes his head, looking utterly despondent. “But, they do indicate that we are not too far from the Lands of Tears.”

Arenia feels devastated and powerless in the face of Tartarus’s brutality. Anxiety begins to fill her. That’s exactly what Tartarus intends. I will not fall for his trap. She tries to focus on the road ahead. They walk through the dirt for another hour. After they pass the last head, the landscape starts to change again.

The dominant dark yellow is starting to shift. On the horizon, fields of wheat and barley line up in neat rows. A flowing white dress a little ways off chases after a scarf drifting in the wind. They gaze at the bizarre sight, until it disappears, as if through an invisible door. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an elephant-sized peacock of stunning blue and green plumage appears in front of them. They pull up abruptly. The peacock looks down at them suspiciously. It circles around them, inspecting them from all sides, before it halts and majestically opens its long feathers into a huge fan. Arenia, Pium, and Lucy are stunned. The eyes on the peacock’s feathers are clocks that tick so loudly it hurts their ears.

Then the peacock speaks in a voice filled with despair. “I have been trying to find out what time it is. Whenever I turn around, my tail follows me. I am exhausted from chasing after it.” The peacock demonstrates by spinning in dizzying circles.

“Wait! Let us help you,” says Arenia. “It’s . . . ” She tries to read the clocks, but each one shows a different time.

Pium holds her back. “The time is always then.”

Arenia looks at him. Does he know what he’s doing?

The peacock becomes more distressed. “You’re right. I knew it!” The bird closes its tail and staggers away, mumbling, “The time is always then. The time is always then . . . ”

“How did you know what to say?” Arenia asks. “All the watches showed different times. Some were even running both forwards and backwards.”

“We learned it at school. Pium was right,” Lucy says. “In the same way we Pariahs like to commemorate ‘the time is always now,’ the people of the Lands of Tears remind each other that ‘the time is always then.’ ”

-27-

Fish in a Bowl

After trekking for another hour over slopes covered in sandy dirt and scattered scrubs, and still no habitations in sight, they finally come across a tree with an almost perfectly rounded, lusciously green top. Just when Arenia thought nothing more could shock her, she sees beneath the tree a black chess knight sitting at a wooden table across from a white chess knight. The small group cautiously approaches the table, their hands on their weapons. The knights are playing chess with animated, miniature inhabitants of the Lands of Tears. Arenia recognizes them from the prison heads. Two giant stopwatches hang from each half of the tree, timing their game. One stopwatch is black, the other is white, and both of their hands are pointing at 11. 11:11. Again, the stirring sensation of time slowing down takes her breath away. We must be on the right path.

“Excuse me,” Pium addresses the knights, “but would you be so kind as to tell us how to get to the Lands of Tears?”

The knights ignore him. Lucy also tries to get their attention—without any luck. Just when the three start to walk away, a chess piece shrieks from the board, “Follow the tears!” before it’s shoved off the board, hitting the ground and shattering into pieces.

“Checkmate!” the black Knight bellows, and laughs loudly.

The three wait for a second, but when no other information comes, they turn and walk on.

“What did he mean, ‘follow the tears’?” Lucy asks.

“I am not sure,” says Pium.

Shortly after, they come upon a group of lofty bushes bordering a serene pond.

“Shall we break?” Lucy asks.

“Yes, please!”

Pium and Lucy sit by the pond and eat dried meats and nuts. Arenia approaches the water. She looks at her reflection in the water’s surface. [_I haven’t seen myself in a long time. I look quite different. I’m not sure what it is . . . _]

A gentle breeze brushes over the water’s surface, causing tiny ripples that rupture her reflection.

Pium says, “Be careful not to fall into the water like Narcissus.”

Arenia starts, embarrassed. “Oh, I was just looking . . . who’s Narcissus?”

“You do not know the myth?”

“No, I don’t.” Arenia sits next to Pium and starts to eat.

“It is about a beautiful young man named Narcissus who sat by a pond day after day, gazing for hours at his reflection in the water. Until one day, when he fell in and drowned. Where he fell, a flower bloomed, which came to be called Narcissus,” Pium explains. “Look, one stands there.” He points to a majestic flower with white petals and a yellow crown. It is right where Arenia was standing.

“Oh! It’s lovely,” she says.

“I found a captivating book in Numen’s library. It told the story of what happened after Narcissus drowned,” Pium continues.

“What happened?” Lucy asks.

“Afterwards, the goddess of the nearby forest found the pond weeping. She asked the pond why. It said it was weeping because of the death of Narcissus. The goddess said that she understood its grief, for she had heard of the beauty of Narcissus. The pond answered that it did not know if Narcissus was beautiful or not. It explained that it wept because it could no longer see its own beauty reflected in his eyes.”

“Wow, what an ending,” says Arenia. “So, what’s the moral of the story? Does it mean the pond used Narcissus’s admiration like a mirror for its own egotistical self-reflection, and that it derived its self-worth from it—which then drowned with Narcissus?”

“Or, did the pond see its own essence reflected in and through Narcissus’s eyes because, deep down, we are all one?” asks Pium. “It depends on which perspective you choose.”

Arenia and Lucy are silent. Pium suddenly gets up, steps back, and tilts his head to the side.

“Incredible! This pond is in the shape of an eye. Look!”

Lucy and Arenia stand to look. The pond truly does resemble the shape of an eye. The long bushes on the upper half curve backwards like eyelashes. The bushes on the bottom lid are shorter. The reflection of the sun lands right in the center of the pond—just like a pupil. While the three marvel at the sight, something suddenly leaps out of the water, making them jump back. When they see it’s just a croaking little frog with big eyes, they break out in laughter. Little rings start to ripple on the water surface, radiating outwards in ever-growing waves. The sun is still reflected in the center. Now it looks even more like an eye. The waves make water slop out of the corner of the pond.

“The pond is crying,” Lucy murmurs. She looks at the water running out. “Remember what the chess figure said? Follow the tears!”

“You are right!” exclaims Pium.

“What does that mean, though?” says Arenia. “The tears flow in the direction we came from.”

“Or, if you follow them back to where they emanate from,” muses Lucy.

“We need to go into the water,” Pium declares.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Last time we dove into unknown water, we were almost eaten by a shark,” Arenia warns.

“True,” Lucy agrees.

They comb their surroundings. Everywhere they look, they see just an infinite flat expanse of emptiness—not a single tree or rock. Did the landscape just change? Of course it did. The yawning void seems to reinforce the idea that the only way to proceed is into the pond.

Suddenly, dark clouds begin to obscure the sun. Howling gusts of wind race through the deserted land, sweeping dust into mini tornados. They can barely keep their eyes open. In the distance, an incandescent, jagged bolt of lightening splits the gray sky for a second and streaks to the ground.

“What’s happening?’ Arenia shouts through the noise.

“I do not know,” Lucy shouts back.

There’s a loud clap of thunder. The ground lurches up, causing the three to lose their balance and fall. Heavy drops of rain begin to pelt the ground like stones. In horror, Arenia notices the pond closing up.

“The eye’s closing! What should we do?!” she yells.

A second round of lightning and thunder hits. Suddenly, the thick sand storm whooshes hundreds of meters into the sky, forming a huge wall of fiery-colored dust. Sand and pebbles are blowing into their faces. Arenia covers her face with her arms and tries to breathe. Squinting, she sees an army of colossal desiccated men forming out of the dust wall. Their mouths wide open, they reach out for them with bony hands. They are quickly closing in on them from both sides. The pond has almost closed.

“JUMP!” Pium shouts through the chaos.

Arenia nods vehemently.

“OK!!” Lucy grabs her backpack and dives in.

Pium grasps Arenia’s hand. They grab their bags and leap down through the tight slit of the eye.

Arenia opens her eyes. They’re underwater and it’s pitch black, except for the light created by an enormous school of giant shining goldfish that are swimming swiftly around them. In a second, Arenia sees that the fish are on one side of a round glass wall, and they are on the other. Then it dawns on her. [_We’re in a fish bowl!! _]

Overhead, the earth has closed. There is nowhere to get air. Pium and Lucy desperately search for exits, when Arenia feels something touch her shoulder. She swings around to see the pale, bloated face of a waterlogged corpse glowering menacingly at her through wide-open eyes just inches from her face. Arenia shrieks, letting out a stream of air bubbles. She frantically swims away.

Her heart is pounding. Her lungs are burning. She begins to lose control over her mind and body.[_ Air!] [_I need air!] Like a fish on land, she thrashes around in excruciating pain. Pium scours the glass bowl frantically, pushing against it, trying for an exit. Arenia’s about to lose consciousness, when Pium suddenly spots a red door outside the glass bowl. He gets Lucy’s attention, and bangs against the glass. Nothing. Lucy swims to the glass wall and kicks it with all her might. It cracks. She kicks it again. The glass breaks. Arenia can’t help it. She gulps for air. Soon, her sheer suffering is replaced by drowsiness and her movements slow down. Her eyes shut. [_Maybe I’ll wake up back home. _]She’s filled with a surge of peace and stillness.

Blurry pictures of home and Pariah flash through her mind. She sees the twins whimsically wandering in the Magical Forest near the Tree of Life. Suddenly, a pack of snarling, yelping beasts surrounds them, baring their razor-sharp, saliva-drenched canines through rotting lips. Half human, half hyena, they growl bloodcurdlingly as they close in on the trembling, pleading children.

Two of the beasts pin the twins down. Suddenly, Numen appears. He fights the barbaric creatures off one by one, but when the beasts threaten to behead the twins, he surrenders. His sword tumbles to the ground and the beasts snatch him up. He begs the pack to let the twins go, but the beasts laugh maniacally. In an instant, they attack the two children. Blood gushes in every direction. Numen’s agonized cry fades into the screech of a white owl. Sated and covered in blood, the beasts race off, Numen in their grip.

“NUMEN!” Arenia cries out, sitting bolt upright, pushing over Pium who was trying to resuscitate her. Water erupts from her mouth as she collapses in a violent coughing fit. “Where am I!” Arenia gasps between coughs.

“Relax! Please!” Lucy is clearly relieved. “We got out! You blacked out just as the water pulled us through that red door.”

“Numen’s in danger! We need to save him and the twins!” Arenia tries to jump up, but collapses back onto her knees.

“What are you talking about?” Pium asks, confused.

Arenia quickly tells them about her vision.

“It was just a vision. We do not know if it has actually happened,” says Pium.

“No! It happened. The vision was too vivid,” Arenia insists. It was just as real as the dream that started this whole thing!

“What did the beasts look like?” Pium asks.

“They were half man and half hyena with gray, spotted, rotting skin—a whole pack of them. They made the same gruesome sounds we heard the other night in the Magical Forest. They all had a giant snake shape burned into their chests.”

Pium jumps up. “The Morts! They have all been branded with the Traitor’s spirit animal!”

“The snake!” cries Lucy.

“You see! I’ve never seen a Mort! How could I know that?!” Arenia insists. “What’s Tartarus going to do with Numen?”

“Numen is worth more alive than dead. If it is true that the Traitor has captured Numen, he will not kill him—at least not immediately. The Traitor will try to extract his knowledge of Pariah. He has been after our location since the beginning. And Numen is the key holder,” says Pium.

“If your visions are true, we must go to the Land of the Dead to save Numen. But first, we need to reach the Lands of Tears. Maybe we can find help there,” says Lucy.

Arenia nods vaguely. She’s overwhelmed by guilt. Numen’s kidnapping has a lot to do with her presence in Pariah. The image of the dead twins tortures her. No! Why them?! Anger, grief, and helplessness bubble up in her chest. She fights back her tears. [_It’s my fault! _]Her hands clamp into fists.

She shakes her head and takes a deep breath. I won’t fall into the trap of guilt! It won’t change the situation! I have a mission to accomplish! I must free Numen and save Pariah from Tartarus’s invasion!

She turns to the other two. “Let’s go!”      

-28-

The Scale Man

On a marble pedestal at the beginning of a paved road stands a large, imposing, iron statue of a man. His head is bowed. His arms are spread open. From each hand hang three metal chains that hold a metal plate. The heavier weight of the right plate tips the man’s torso to the right.

“I think we have made it.” Pium stops in front of the statue. “This must be the famous Scale Man. The Traitor gave it to the Lands of Tears as a gift.”

The three study the engraving on the marble pedestal.

“Cogito ergo sum,” Arenia reads.

“What does it mean?” asks Lucy.

“ ‘I think, therefore I am.’[_ ]A famous philosopher named Descartes said it,” Arenia replies. Lucy and Pium look at her, confused. [_Shoot! I wasn’t supposed to remember!] “Numen told me so,” she quickly adds. “He had one of Descartes’ books in the library.”

Casually, she continues. “Descartes more or less equated one’s existence and identity with thinking. Hundreds of years later, another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, rethought this saying and postulated that if you were nothing else but your thoughts, you wouldn’t even notice that you were thinking. He reasoned that there must be another part of you that allows thinking to happen and is aware of it—your consciousness. He reversed this premise to be ‘I am, therefore I think.’ ”

“I am not surprised the Traitor uses this quote for his purposes,” Pium comments.

“Yes,” agrees Lucy. She looks at the path ahead. “I know I should be careful when saying this, but part of me is glad that we have a path to follow.”

“Me too,” says Arenia, surprised at Lucy’s candor. She’s been noticing a change in Lucy’s attitude. Maybe she realizes she can rely on us. After all, you can only face death so many times with a person before you start to feel a bond.

Narrow canals run along both sides of the road, bordering beautiful open fields scattered with trees under a brilliant blue sky. As they walk, they pass statues that represent the different tribes of the Lands of Tears, which Pium explains to them, one by one.

“This figure represents the Blue Men. Their skin is fair and their clothes and hair are mandatorily and exclusively of blue and white colors. Since they do not count white as a color, they do not acknowledge it in their tribal name. They are considered to be very beautiful and ethereal people. They are very protective of their community and do not let any outsiders into their land.”

Arenia listens carefully. She wants to be as prepared as possible.

At the next statue, he says, “These are the Trolls. Fed up with being treated as second-class citizens for being considered to be short, ugly, and lazy, they founded their own tribe.”

“They’re adorable. Their eyes are so big.” Arenia can’t stop staring at their huge feet, hands, and ears.

“They actually have a reputation for being warm-hearted and fun-loving people. And they are considered to be the most peaceful amongst all the tribes. But they do not trust anybody outside their tribe because of the discrimination they suffered in the past. Not all of the tribes treated them badly, but the Trolls hold grudges against them as well, because none of them stood up for them,” says Pium.

They keep walking, and Pium points to the next statue. “Those are the Faceless. They are born with very simple bodies and no faces. They can change the way any part of their bodies looks at any time. They can alter the length of their hair and the form of their eyebrows, lips, noses, ears, legs, fingers—everything except for the color and shape of their eyes. Like with clothes, they can change their appearance whenever they want, according to the current fashion.”

“That sounds like fun.” Arenia smiles.

“Yes, it does. However, the quality of the parts they choose depends on the price they are able to pay. The looks that are highest in demand are the most expensive ones—and they deteriorate relatively quickly. Only the rich Faceless can afford to change their looks frequently and purchase the best items. They can stay young and beautiful. The poor can only afford to buy so many parts. They mostly obtain second-hand parts that often do not even match. That is why they look comical, and even disturbing at times.

“How sad,” Arenia says.

“It is quite,” agrees Pium. “That is why the Faceless who are poor do not feel comfortable in their own skins. They long for consistent identities that continuously evade them. Inside, they are very unhappy people, even though they would never show it on the outside. They literally put on happy faces.”

“Where do they buy the parts? How do they change their looks?”

“From merchants. They plug themselves into machines that morph their bodies.”

“There is the Animal Heads statue,” interrupts Lucy. “I always wondered if they were animals with human bodies or humans with animal faces.”

“Good question. I do not know,” Pium says. “When the Traitor came to power, he manipulated the beings of the Land of Light into living out their individuality. This sounds liberating. But the Traitor’s goal was not to liberate the people. Quite the contrary, his intention was to plant the thought that every inhabitant is different. They began looking for their differences instead of focusing on commonalities. We all know that once you look for distinctions, you will find many—looks, personalities, behavior, culture, and so on. All of these are superficial factors.”

“So true,” agrees Arenia.

“Based on this premise, the more one is different from others, the more that being is unique, and thus has more value, so to speak. And if you cannot find anything that naturally makes you different, then you make something up. You pretend to be something else than what you are. With the Traitor’s manipulation of reality, everything is possible. That is how our land split into seven official lands and seven peoples, including the Land of the Dead with the Royals. After the split, the strongest individuals took power and control. Everyone had to adapt or flee—the Pariahs left.”

“What do you mean by ‘official lands’?” Arenia asks.

“Well, Pariah would make it eight lands. But since we have been living hidden for so many centuries, the others now consider Pariah to be nothing more than a myth—a fictitious place that does not exist.”

“But if most of the Pariahs are former citizens of the Lands of Tears. Why do they look like unaltered humans, like you two?” asks Arenia.

“The Traitor’s distortion of reality does not work in our land,” says Lucy. “Because the Traitor cannot locate Pariah, he cannot manipulate it. The distortions you see are illusionary, merely a creation of his. Numen taught our people to find their essence and to stay rooted in it. Besides, most of our people came to Pariah and recovered from the Traitor’s manipulations generations ago.”

They walk a bit farther and come to an empty pedestal. Arenia points to it. “The statue’s missing here, but there’s a shadow. Weird.”

“That must be the statue of the Shadows,” says Lucy.

Pium nods. “They are also a separate tribe,” he explains. “The inhabitants of the former Land of Light began to dislike their own shadows because they would not reflect what their owners wanted them to, but instead often mirrored what they disliked about themselves. The inhabitants literally stored all their undesired traits in their own shadows. Eventually, the shadows accumulated so much suppressed energy that they fully disconnected from their owners and founded their own tribe. Now they live in a dark corner of the Lands of Tears, occasionally creeping up on the other tribes and inducing fear in them.”

“So the inhabitants of the Lands of Tears never cast any shadows?” asks Arenia.

“Correct.” Pium points to another statue. “This one represents the Strings Attached. These people could not decide which tribe to belong to. They liked the idea of safety and wished for a higher power to lead their lives for them so they could be safe and secure. Little did they know that having someone else make all their decisions and protect them would feel like being in a lifelong prison. The strings not only make important decisions for them, but they also decide the simple day-to-day affairs, like what to drink, eat, do, where to go, and so on. The strings dictate their lives.”

“But they don’t have real strings attached to their bodies, do they?” Arenia asks.

“No. They do not,” says Pium. “Yet, they still move like puppets—as if they were remotely operated. They have knobs that control them on their palms, arms, legs, feet, and on top of their heads.”

“This all sounds so surreal.” Arenia shakes her head. She can’t picture the Lands of Tears.

After a steep hike upwards, they come to the edge of a cliff. Extending out of the cliff is a wooden bridge that leads to an island teeming with citizens of the Lands of Tears. Arenia peers out from the verge, and then gasps. The island’s hanging freely in the air.

“That must be the famous marketplace, where all of the tribes buy and sell goods and services,” Lucy remarks.

“Yes, it is.” Pium’s eyes glow with curiosity.

“I thought they didn’t get along with each other,” is all Arenia can say, still dumbfounded by the sight.

“They usually do not,” replies Lucy. “See those six surrounding islands?”

Arenia gazes into the distance. She spots vague, giant, dark shapes behind some white clouds. Suddenly, as if at the push of a button, the fluffy whiteness evaporates to reveal the remote islands.

“Each tribe governs its own island,” says Lucy, “but they interact in the marketplace to obtain things their tribes do not have or to get things done that they cannot do well.”

All of the islands have ships and boats docked along their coastlines, floating loosely in the air as if it were water. Guards patrol bridges that connect the islands. Some islands have waterfalls cascading down the sides into the open sky. Jellyfish, tortoises, and shoals of fish swim through the air. On the largest island, to the left of the marketplace, extremely tall buildings reach hundreds of feet up. Curious objects fly between the high-rise towers, speeding off in all directions. It looks very chaotic. The dominant blue and white colors indicate that this must be the Land of the Blue Men.

“How should we go about this, Pium? Will they not wonder why we look different from them?” Lucy asks.

“I thought of this before. In case they do ask, we can tell them we come from the City of the Royals. The Royals are supposed to look just like us, and they come to the marketplace quite often, so the people here should be accustomed to seeing people like us.”

Lucy and Arenia agree, albeit a bit skeptically. Arenia can’t help but gaze down at her armor. She tries to dust herself off and neaten up her hair. But I’m filthy! Lucy seems just as concerned. The three start over the bridge.

-29-

The Floating Boat

Lucy, Pium, and Arenia walk to a water fountain in the middle of the marketplace. The fountain is crowned with a large clock facing in all four directions. The three sit down and try to orient themselves. The inhabitants are all very peculiar looking with weird mannerisms. Arenia notices that every being wears at least one watch, and often times, many—on their necklaces, their wrists, as pocket watches, as rings, or as jacket buttons. This is crazy! They’re truly obsessed with time! She is relieved to see, though, that everybody wears different kinds of clothes. We might not exactly fit in with our armor, but at least we don’t stick out too much.

“How should we approach these people? What do we do to avoid attracting attention?” Arenia remembers Numen’s instructions that they should find The Resurrectionists, but to be very cautious about searching for them.

“We have to try to find a trustworthy person,” says Lucy.

“But how do we know who is trustworthy?” Pium wonders.

They glance around. Every person looks more outlandish than the next.

“Can we walk around a bit and find something to eat first? How about that?” Pium proposes.

First, they pass the Animal Heads’ market stall. They see all sorts of different meats—worm, cricket, horse, goat, lamb, and cow—but also many of the odd animal hybrids they saw in the Magical Forest. The smell is outrageously good and fuels their appetite. Arenia’s dying for some roast lamb. In the back, the stall displays framed pictures of deer-headed, meerkat-headed, and fox-headed hunters with bows, arrows, and knives. Nailed beneath the pictures is a certificate that says: We herewith certify that we exclusively hunt for animals that don’t live in compliance with our civilized society in the Lands of Tears and thus pose a threat to our safety. It is our birth-given right to protect our land by all means necessary. Arenia shakes her head. [_What nonsense! Who needs protection from whom? People can truly justify everything according to their needs. _]Even though they want a juicy piece of meat, they can’t, in good conscience, reconcile buying a piece of lamb from a Lamb Head hunter.

The Blue Men have two market stalls. The smaller one has all sorts of creams, soaps, oils, shampoos, and many other care products, mostly in blue and white—but no food. Butterflies glowing in various shades of blue flutter around the stand like delicate flowers. Pium can’t take his eyes off the beautiful fairy-like women with skin as smooth as powder, and blue hair that accentuates their sparkling blue eyes. As captivating as their stall is, care products are not what the three are searching for. The bigger stall is led by male Blue Men and is full of electronic devices that Arenia has never seen before and cannot identify. Hungry, they continue their search.

The Strings Attached and the Faceless, on the other hand, are so awkward standing in their stalls that the three don’t feel comfortable enough to investigate their offerings. Towards the end of the marketplace, the shape-shifting Shadows only offer fortune telling. One after another, citizens of the various tribes emerge from the closed cabins—some with smiles on their faces, others devastated.

Arenia notices that many of the inhabitants covertly scrutinize the three outsiders from head to toe, refusing to meet their gazes. They must think we’re from the Land of the Dead. Why else would they look intimidated by us?

In the farthest corner of the marketplace, they see a group of small beings cheerfully laughing and chatting with each other. The Trolls. Pium, Lucy, and Arenia approach their stall. They can’t see much of it, as it is hidden behind the joyful crowd of Trolls who are so busy with each other that they don’t even notice their guests. Only when Pium hails them do they become aware of the small group. They all turn as one and stare at them in surprised silence.

A middle-aged male Troll in brown leather overalls finally speaks. “Good day,” he stammers. He clears his throat. “How can we help you?”

“Hello. We would like to look at your food.” Arenia puts on her best smile.

The Trolls look confused yet excited about potential customers. They happily step away from their tables so the three can examine their food.

“Yes! This is exactly what I was craving!” Pium announces, triumphantly.

Wow! The Trolls certainly know good food!

The stand is overflowing with the freshest fruits and vegetables in the most vibrant colors. On each side, beer, wine, and fresh juices flow from small fountains. Cured beef, lamb legs, and countless strings of sausages hang from the stall’s roof. Pungent cheeses spread their sharp odors and mix with the smell of the colorful spices brimming from small woven baskets. Fresh breads with crisp brown crusts and soft interiors lie stacked next to a big jar of golden butter.

The three are led to wooden benches lined around a table in the back. The furniture is cut for the Trolls and is a bit too small for them. The oldest of the Trolls comes back and apologizes for the inconvenience. “You are the first non-Trolls we’ve had as guests since . . . since . . .,” he says, scratching the top of his head. “Well . . . for a long time.”

Arenia, Pium, and Lucy fill their empty stomachs. Some Trolls join them, while others simply watch them with joy.

“How is it possible that no one else comes here? You have the best food in the entire market!” Arenia says, her mouth full.

The Trolls look jubilant.

“This must be your first time in the marketplace,” comments one Troll.

“Why?” asks Arenia, nervously.

“Because otherwise you’d know that they don’t see anything about us as being worthy of acknowledgement.”

“Where are you from?” asks another Troll.

Pium answers quickly, “From beyond the Magical Forest.”

Why did he change his answer? The Trolls look somewhat suspicious. Arenia feels the mood changing from cheerful to precarious. Her mind races for something smart to say.

“All right, then. You must have had a long journey. I’m sure you’re very tired,” the oldest Troll adds quickly, before she can come up with something. “It would be our pleasure to provide you with a warm shelter!”

With the Elder’s words, all the other Trolls loosen up again.

“That would help us tremendously. But how can we return the favor? We don’t have much money,” Arenia replies.

“You’re already paying us by treating us as equals and not looking down on us. We haven’t had other beings near our stall for many years. For your open-heartedness, you shall be rewarded. Your mere presence is a pleasure. Maybe you can entertain us with stories about living beyond our borders, as none of us has ever left the Lands of Tears,” the Elder suggests.

The three nod. “We gladly will!”

After dinner, the Elder asks a Troll named Bimisi to accommodate them, as he has the only house with an attached guesthouse built for taller beings. Bimisi agrees, and they gather their things and walk with him to a sailboat docked at a nearby harbor. They carefully board the boat as it rocks from side to side in the air. While Lucy makes herself comfortable, Arenia and Pium study the surrealness of their surroundings in sheer astonishment. Arenia peers over the edge of the boat to see an endless sky that eventually is swallowed up by darkness. Terrified, she moves back to the middle of the boat and stares at the mast.

“There are no sails,” she whispers to Lucy and Pium.

Before they can reply, Bimisi whistles sharply. “Don’t worry,” he says. “They’ll be here any moment.”

Across the sky, glide a dozen giant butterflies to land on the masts.

“Let’s go, dearlings!” the Troll commands.

The magnificent butterflies simultaneously flap their wings, which are adorned with dazzling patterns of brilliant blue, purple, red, orange, pink, and black. The boat sets out toward the colorful island a little ways off. Arenia, Lucy, and Pium are fascinated. The fiery sun descends, melting into lavish cascades of light that color the sky in shades of orange and red. Soon the blue night sky emerges. The moon peeks out. They sail by swarms of fish, tortoises, and jellyfish. In the distance, they see more boats and ships leaving traces in the sky.

“Magical,” Arenia murmurs.

They dock at the gate of the Trolls’ island.

“Welcome to our land.” Bimisi smiles proudly as they disembark, one by one. He opens the gate for them with a flourish.

They enter the Land of the Trolls. Its greenery and the houses built in and around trees remind Arenia of Pariah. Of course, the Trolls’ houses are much smaller, but most of them have gardens that boast colorful vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Trolls peer curiously out of their windows and from their gardens. Bimisi is very proud to have been assigned with hosting, and gladly introduces them to his people.

“This is our humble little land. I hope you enjoy it—and that it is not too primitive compared to where you come from.”

“It’s beautiful here,” Arenia assures him.

Bimisi smiles from ear to ear. “Oh, thank you! If you ever get the chance to go to the other lands, you will see they consider themselves to be much more . . . sophisticated.” He snorts with laughter. “They wear elaborate clothes, use a lot of technology, and live so-called nobler, more intellectual lives. They are proud of that. They look down on us because we are simple people. They insult us as if we were animals.” Bimisi is suddenly overcome by sadness, which quickly turns into bitterness. “According to them, all we do is sleep, eat, and drink. They say the Almighty created us so short so we would use as little space as possible.”

Arenia is surprised by his sudden mood change. She’d imagined the Trolls to be perpetually happy. She watches as his big eyes squint up. His shaggy hair bounces with each jerk of his head. He gestures wildly with his big hands and short fingers as he speaks. His pale-green cotton overalls are held together with big wooden buttons, and are slightly too big for him. But they’re probably comfortable like that.

“After the . . . the One came to power, we were the first to be banished from society and from the Land of Light. To this day, they say it was we who separated from them, when, in reality, it was they who cast us out. We weren’t even given the chance to speak for ourselves!” The pitch of Bimisi’s voice starts to rise.

Arenia stares at the small dark cloud accumulating just above his head. Surreal!

“Our needs were not considered to be important! We bore the rejection! And the humiliation! For decades!” Bimisi is brimming with rage, so much so that Pium and Lucy move their hands closer to their weapons.

“We weren’t good enough! The others all chose to split in compliance!” Just as quickly as anger overtook him, his face now lights into a big grin. “Oh well, it’s only for the better,” he says, his eyes wide open and shining bright. “Our curse turned out to be our blessing. Since then, we’ve been able to live in accordance with our own rules, and nobody shames us for our culture. We’re happy like this. We sing, eat, drink, dance, and sleep all day long—and nobody cares!” He frolics from side to side up the undulating road. Then he stops in front of a house. “This is my humble guesthouse, my friends. Welcome.” His long eyelashes flutter up and down before they stop for a moment so he can take in his guests’ reactions.

Arenia glances at the house, which is horribly rundown. Clearly, there haven’t been any guests for many years. The door hangs loosely on its hinges. When they enter, the floor creaks and sinks slightly. Bimisi picks up a gas lamp and blows off the coat of thick dust. Arenia and Lucy sneeze.

“Blessings, my dears,” he says, and lights the lamp.

It illuminates the room in a warm bright light. Bimisi places the lamp above the fireplace. On the left and right sides of the room stand two simple bunk beds. In the center is a wooden table and chairs.

“Let’s get this place warm and cozy!” Bimisi whips up a fire in the fireplace. Soon vigorous flames warm the room and cast dancing shadows on the walls. Bimisi gazes hopefully at his guests. “I know it’s a bit dusty and old in here. I wasn’t expecting guests. I promise I’ll get it fixed up by tonight if you like the place and would like to stay here.”

“Bimisi, this place is great. We would be very thankful if we could stay here,” says Arenia.

“Yes, I like it.” Lucy nods, vigorously.

“Me too!” Pium smiles.

Bimisi beams and invites them to take a seat, which he wipes off with a cotton napkin that he takes from his pocket. “I’d like to ask you for a moment of patience. I’ll call my wife and children for help. That way, you can meet them as well.” He walks out.

The three look at each other, touched by his immense politeness and generosity.

“Why did you tell them we were from beyond the Magical Forest?” Lucy asks.

“Yes, why? I was just about to say we were from the City of the Royals,” Arenia presses.

“I still think that that would have been the safer answer with every other tribe, but if we want to ask for their help, it would be better if they do not associate us with the very people who snub them—the Royals or the other tribes. The Trolls usually never leave their lands and are generally not very knowledgeable about the rest of Underworld. So I was hoping that we could get away with a vague answer. It seems we did.”

Bimisi comes back with one child in his arm and another one holding his wife’s hand. All of them stare at their new guests with pure joyful curiosity. He introduces his wife, Elan, and his children, Elki and Histu. Everyone shakes hands until they laugh. What an adorable family!

“Please, have a seat. We’ll be done in no time,” Elan says, tenderly.

Arenia, Pium, Lucy, and the two kids sit at the round table and check each other out while Bimisi and Elan fix the place up. They move so fast that the group at the table only sees two whirlwinds swirling around them. Pium makes the kids laugh with funny faces. Arenia starts to notice how sore she is and how much heavier her muscles feel with every passing moment. A sudden wave of fatigue sweeps over her. Her eyes are drooping. Every movement of her limbs requires additional effort. She peers over at the bunk beds. Now they look like luxury beds.

“Done!” Bimisi’s cheerful voice snaps Arenia into the moment. The house is unrecognizable, beaming in the warm light.

“Wow, how did you do this so fast?” Pium marvels.

Arenia and Lucy can’t believe their eyes. The two kids laugh and clap their hands jubilantly. Bimisi and Elan are happy to see their excitement. Bimisi picks up his kids and wishes his guests a good night.

“If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to knock on my door. Have a good rest. I know you need it,” he says, smiling at Arenia and closing the door behind him.

-30-

A Noble Purpose

Arenia is the first to wake the next morning. She quietly walks outside, and spots a wooden bench that resembles driftwood. When she sits down, the wood groans. She runs her fingers over the rippled grainy surface as her eyes are drawn to the sun rising majestically on the horizon, slowly spreading a generous golden light over the landscape. From the top of the hill where the house sits, the view over the Land of the Trolls is sublime. Arenia closes her eyes and takes in the comforting warmth of the sun. A gentle breeze carries subtle scents of meadows, wildflowers, and mountains. The rustling sounds of the flowers, grass, and trees lulls her mind. _What a beautiful day. _

“Good morning, Arenia,” says Bimisi, smiling as he approaches. “Would you like some tea and freshly baked scones?”

Arenia nods, delighted. “Yes, that would be wonderful. Did Elan make them?”

“She did. She’s a fantastic cook. She also collected the flowers and herbs for the tea from the fields in those mountains. The taste will take you on a luscious journey.”

Before long, Elan carries out a serving tray filled with a tea service and a big plate of scones with jars of butter and jam. Arenia thanks her, and admires the white teapot and the two small cups that are painted with tiny butterflies and flowers.

“It’s so peaceful here,” she sighs. “No wonder you love your land so much.”

“Isn’t it?” Elan smiles, and goes back into the house.

Arenia takes a small sip of the steaming cup of tea. The subtle scent of wildflowers perfectly rounds up the earthy aroma. She dips her scone into the amber liquid for a millisecond and takes a bite. The warm scone immediately crumbles in her mouth. [_Hmmm . . . delicious. Just how grandma bakes them. _]She hasn’t thought about her grandmother in a while. She realizes how much she’s missed her, and sighs heavily.

“Arenia, excuse me for being direct.” Bimisi interrupts her thoughts. “What is the intention of your journey? I might not look very intelligent, but I can tell that your group has been put together. You’re carrying weapons and wearing armor. You’re not being precise about your origins. And you haven’t revealed your destination. You must be on a mission.”

Surprised, Arenia’s mind races as she tries to decide if she should tell him the truth. She remembers his hesitation when he called Tartarus “the One.”[_ Telling him the truth might put the whole quest at risk. But telling a lie plays with his trust, the only thing we have right now in this strange land.] _We need to find collaborators. Maybe he can help us. She decides to go with her intuition.

“Bimisi, we do come from beyond the Magical Forest. We come from the Land of the Pariahs.”

His eyes open wide. “Pariah?” He covers her mouth and his own mouth at the same time, shocked that he just repeated the word. “Shhhhhh! You can’t talk about that here.” He looks around in alarm, then back at her. “So it’s true? There’s still a Land of the . . . ?”

“Yes. It’s true. And we need to go to the Land of the Dead.”

Bimisi shivers. “Why would you want to go there? Nobody’s ever returned. If you aren’t a Royal, you aren’t allowed in.”

“Their leader has kidnapped our leader—my mentor.”

Bimisi looks stunned. “How do you know he isn’t dead yet?”

“Death would be too easy and not of value for the One. My mentor has too much knowledge that he wants to gain access to—most importantly, information about Pa . . . our land.”

“But why would you risk your life for your mentor? That is unheard of.”

Arenia takes a moment to think. “Have you ever had someone who believes in you—in your power, your abilities, your uniqueness? Someone who would literally risk death for you?”

Bimisi shakes his head. “No. Well . . . my mother.” He smiles brightly. “She always tells me how special I am.”

“Would you not do anything for her?”

Bimisi slowly nods.

“No one ever believed in my specialness. I didn’t even believe in my own specialness. At school, my teachers said I was average, at best. And, in fact, whatever I endeavored to do, I performed averagely. Until I met my mentor. He believed in me more than I ever believed in myself. This man believed in me entirely—he spent extensive time and effort teaching me everything he knew. Every day he trained me, regardless of my poor performances. He trusted me. He trusted my abilities. He put himself in danger. I owe him—well, I owe him everything.”

Bimisi places his hand on her shoulder, tears in his eyes. “Oh, Arenia, I am so sorry for your loss. It seems he is a great man. But, he will surely be dead soon, if he isn’t already.”

“No, I don’t believe he’s dead,” she declares. “I think the Traitor will do everything to access his knowledge and the key to our land so that he can finally destroy it.”

Bimisi starts to tremble. “Oh, then you shouldn’t stay here. You’re bringing a tail of danger with you, Arenia. We’ve been living in peace for so long because we don’t stand in his way.”

“I understand your concern. But I’m looking for people I can trust, who can help us.”

“You have a noble purpose, but nobody here can help you.”

“Do you know who else I can talk to?” Arenia feels her frustration growing.

Bimisi hesitates. He gets up and paces, murmuring frantically to himself. Suddenly, he stops and says, “I’ll be back. I have to consult with someone.” He disappears, as Pium and Lucy walk out of the guesthouse.

A short while later, Bimisi returns with the Elder who welcomed them at the market. Like yesterday, he’s wearing a cream-colored canvas tunic that reaches his ankles. He walks with a wooden stick. His wispy, long, white hair and mustache make him look very wise.

The three visitors have been nervously discussing what happened with Bimisi, and they fall quiet when the Elder approaches. Right as Arenia moves to speak, the Elder silences her with a hand gesture. The three glance at each other. The Elder quietly scrutinizes each one of them. Without a word, he walks to the guesthouse with Bimisi following him close behind. He opens the door and looks back at the three of them, raising his bushy eyebrows. Arenia, Lucy, and Pium get up and follow him inside. They take a seat at the table. Bimisi closes the door behind them.

“I knew you were from Pariah the moment you said you were from beyond the Magical Forest,” the Elder says, quietly. “We all know there’s nothing beyond the Magical Forest. You’re either very lucky or very smart to have approached us Trolls, as your minds seem to be far too uncorrupted to properly deal with the inhabitants of the Lands of Tears. You could’ve gotten yourselves into a great deal of trouble.”

“We had planned to first say we were from the City of the Royals, but we figured you Trolls would have rejected us,” Pium explains, reddening slightly.

“You are right. We would have. And you couldn’t even pass as a Royal,” he says, pointing at Pium. “Besides the obvious difference in your clothing, the way you look, smile, talk, walk, and behave is far too free. Everybody would discern the differences sooner or later. Maybe you could pass as a Royal,” he says to Lucy, “but then maybe not.” The Elder then addresses Arenia suspiciously. “I’m not certain what your story is, young lady, but you could be one of them. You could be a Royal.”

“Why?!” Arenia is confused. A part of her immediately feels flattered to be associated with Royals. Another part of her is repelled by the comparison and criticizes herself for still not being as free as Pium and Lucy. Arenia hopes that Lucy’s suspicion about her origin isn’t rekindled as she feels her probing gaze. Just when I thought I’d won her trust.

“Perhaps it’s your mannerisms,” the Elder remarks. “Either way. Bimisi told me about your quest.”

“Yes,” Arenia replies, glad to change the subject.

“You need help.”

“Yes. We do,” she confirms.

“We can’t help you fight your fight. We know how powerful the One is, and we know the limits of our own powers,” says the Elder.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you. He only has power over you because you allow him to,” Arenia objects.

“What do you expect us to do? To rebel? To send our men to fight against beings who are far superior to hundreds of our people?”

“No, certainly not. But what about bringing the Lands of Tears together to collaborate again? Together, you are strong!”

“Arenia, I admire you and your friends for your noble purpose. You’re kindhearted and you reserve judgment. But out there, it’s different. The other tribes want to be different. They’re proud to be different, because that’s what they derive their identity from. The other tribes betrayed us for the sake of power. I wouldn’t trust them for a single moment. I know we live under the illusion of a freedom that we’ve carefully built for ourselves, and I know that illusion is fragile. But even if we agreed to risk the little freedom we have in order to fight for justice and peace, we wouldn’t fight side by side with the other tribes.”

“I understand your resentment,” Arenia says, gravely, “but we have heard that Tartarus is expanding his army of Wendigos at a rapid rate—and he strengthens his army with resources drawn from other worlds. How long can he feed them and keep them content while their population grows exponentially? How long until even the most powerful man in Underworld might lose control over his Wendigos? How long until all of them want to turn into mortals? What if one day Tartarus has no choice but to destroy this beautiful land and feed your men, women, daughters, and sons to his Morts? Will you wait until it’s too late? Maybe it’s time to reconcile. This goes not only for you, but also for the other tribes. They need you just as much as you need them.”

The Elder frowns and falls deep into thought.

Arenia, Lucy, and Pium don’t take their eyes off of him.

His face deadly serious, the Elder finally says, “There is a secret meeting held by those who still resist the One’s dark deeds. They call themselves The Resurrectionists.”

Arenia’s eyes glisten with joy. Yes! I can’t believe it! And so quick!!

He continues, “They are the only ones who still talk about resistance, unification, and a counter strike, but they are a very closed group and exceptionally suspicious of new members, as it would cost them their lives—or, even worse, imprisonment in the prison heads—if they were discovered. If you succeed in convincing them of your sincere motivation, they might help you.”

He stands, and says with finality, “An introduction to The Resurrectionists is the most I can do for you.”

-31-

The Resurrectionists

That night, the Elder knocks on the door of the guesthouse. The three are packed and ready to leave. The Elder nods wordlessly to them and indicates they should follow him. The moonlight barely trickles through the thickly clouded, charcoal-black sky. The Land of the Trolls sleeps under a heavy blanket of fog. Barely able to see, the group sticks together as they cautiously walk around to the back of the guesthouse. The humidity sticks to their skin, making the air colder than it is. A sudden croaking sound angrily pierces the eerie stillness. They search for the source of the cry—a raven, glistening in the faint moonlight, sits on a tree branch and monitors them closely with its glowing yellow eyes. It utters another series of angry cries. The Elder vigorously hushes the bird. It stops immediately and tilts its head suspiciously.

The Elder leads the group to a horse-drawn cart that waits for them on the road. A hooded person, clothed in a black long robe, sits in the front. Arenia tries to see his face, but the large hood is dark inside.

“Yiska is a dear friend of mine. He will take you to the place you need to go to. Good luck.” The three climb into the cart. The Elder gives the horse a pat on the rump and turns to leave as the cart heads off towards the dark woods. Arenia, Pium, and Lucy watch him slowly disappear behind a hill.

The fog gradually seeps away as they travel through the forest. The bumpy road curves around countless black tree trunks that have branches spiking into the sky. Arenia can’t help but nervously listen to the horse’s hooves rhythmically breaking the silence of the sinister night. Lucy and Pium are alert and on the lookout for anything suspicious. The raven follows them, flying silently. Arenia notices how Yiska turns his head periodically to look at the bird. Then, without warning, Yiska pulls out a sharp knife and pitches it. With a stifled croak, the bird drops to the ground. [_It must’ve been one of Tartarus’s spies! _]

Finally, they stop near a large boulder. Yiska indicates that they should get down. Still hooded, he leads the way to the boulder and rhythmically knocks out a pattern on its surface. Nothing happens. He tries again. Still nothing moves. Arenia looks at Pium and Lucy. He knocks yet again—this time in a slightly different rhythm. Suddenly, an Animal Head in the form of a dog emerges out of the rock face[_. _]He looks at the three and then at Yiska. He sniffs the air in a peculiar way.

“Who are these people, Yiska?”

Arenia stares at him in awe. He must be a Dalmatian Head! He wears a white collared shirt and a dotted red tie under a gray woolen suit.

“I don’t know, sir,” rasps a deep voice from within the hood. “I’m just following instructions. I’m looking for the Troll Delsin.”

“Why?”

“I have a letter for him from the Elder of the Trolls.”

Arenia, Lucy, and Pium are silent. The Dog Head disappears inside the rock. The door must work like the one for the Tree of Life. Just when it seems he won’t return, the Dog Head emerges with another Troll.

“Who asked for me?” inquires the Troll.

“I did, sir. I’m a servant of your tribe’s Elder. He ordered me to bring these three people to you. He told me to give you this letter.” Yiska hands over a wax-stamped envelope.

Delsin inspects the face of the envelope, and then scrutinizes Arenia, Lucy, and Pium. He turns to Yiska. “Thank you for your services. Your task is complete. I’ll take care of them.”

Yiska bows and walks backwards to his cart. He climbs up and rides off into the darkness.

All the while, Yiska didn’t once show his face. [_Not very trustworthy. _]Arenia turns back to Delsin and the Dog Head.

“Mr. Delsin, we’ve been told that your gathering has a specific purpose that interests us. Is it possible to go to a safe place where we can speak?” she asks.

Delsin nods. Accepting his invitation, the three follow Delsin into the rock, the Dog Head bringing up the rear. Inside, Delsin takes a torch from the wall and together they walk wordlessly through a long narrow tunnel. They emerge from the tunnel into an enormous, splendidly constructed cave. There’s a large dining table, a library, a spacious cooking area, and a cozy living area—everything that anyone would want. Giant chandeliers light up the vast cave. Wooden stairs lead up to variously colored doors in the walls. Arenia peeks through an open door to discover a room with bunk beds inside.

Several Animal Heads, Blue Men, Faceless, Trolls, Strings Attached, and even Shadows are scattered in the room. A Ram Head occupying a red chair appears to be the leader of the group. He wears an old-fashioned, dark-green hunting jacket. Next to him sits another Dog Head wearing glasses and a brown-beige suit jacket, and an elegantly dressed Cat Head smokes on a green velvet sofa while chatting with an adorable male Troll dressed in brown leather overalls. Two little Monkey Head children play with a Strings Attached child to the side. A male Strings Attached stands by the seated group next to the fireplace. A brown leather sofa is filled with two female and one male Blue Men. Their beauty captivates Arenia. The Blue Men females wear geometrically cut, tight white dresses. The male wears tight white pants and a shirt with blue straps. The three have blue hair of slightly different shades.

A couple of male and female Faceless sit on chairs. They look funny. The woman’s lips are proportionally too big for her tiny nose. Her ears are invisible beneath her long blonde hair that reaches down to sweep the floor. Her dress is too tight. When Arenia’s gaze moves to the male, the first thing she notices is his very big and bushy black mustache. He has a large nose and big brown eyes. His blonde wavy hair is perfectly combed to the side. His clothes look like they stepped out of the 1850s. [_It’s like I’m in a movie! What I wouldn’t give for a camera! _]

Three gloomy Shadows move ceaselessly from the floor to the walls to the ceiling and back. Arenia can’t take her eyes off of them. They look like black smoke, constantly shape shifting from human to animal to a piece of furniture and back to shapeless smoke. Everyone in the room stops what they’re doing when the Shadows attach themselves to Pium, Arenia, and Lucy. The Shadows begin to impersonate them. Pium’s Shadow reads a book and secretly blows a kiss to Arenia’s Shadow. Lucy’s Shadow crosses its arms, sits down, and turns its back to the others—the next moment, rising to shoot arrows.

Arenia’s Shadow moves about madly, forming unrecognizable shapes. All of a sudden, it stands still, forming an exact copy of Arenia—scratching its forehead embarrassedly, looking around, and then pausing. The Shadow steadily grows in size, covering the living area and reaching the wall. Arenia feels uncomfortable.[+ +]

“Please, stop,” she demands.

The Shadow halts for a moment, and then shrinks back to its original size, then even smaller, slowly disappearing. Arenia turns around to see where it went. But it’s gone. When she turns back around, she finds the Shadow standing next to the Ram Head, whispering in his ear. He’s just finished reading Delsin’s letter.

The Ram Head lifts his gaze from the letter and fixes it on the three. “Arenia, Pium, and Lucy—welcome. You are here to ask for help?”

“Yes.” Arenia nods, firmly.

“You want to fight Tartarus and free someone important to you and your friends. A very noble purpose.”

“That is why we are here.” Arenia glances at her friends, who nod, encouragingly.

“But,” the Ram Head pauses as he folds away the letter, “you also have a few secrets you haven’t shared with anyone yet.” The Ram Head gazes at Arenia piercingly. “For some reason, that captured friend of yours seems to care a great deal about your well-being. Would you like to tell us why?”

Arenia glances nervously at her friends. They look back at her in confusion.

“What is he talking about?” Pium whispers.

Arenia knees weaken. They’ll hate me if I tell the truth. But if I don’t and they find out later, it’ll be even worse. I’m tired of hiding who I really am. I have to be honest . . . but what if it puts us in danger?

The Ram Head promptly adds, “Remember, if you expect trust from us it needs to be reciprocated. As a great man once said, ‘He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted.’ Do you understand?”

Arenia can no longer look at Pium and Lucy. She’s ashamed of her lies and afraid of their reactions, but she doesn’t want to carry the burden of secrets anymore. I have to tell the truth.

“Yes, you are right,” she stumbles. She clears her throat, stalling.

Then she takes a deep breath. _Find presence. _

“Have you ever heard about the Legend of the Apocalypse?” she asks, unwaveringly.

“Of course I have. Why do you ask?” the Ram Head retorts.

“The person who was kidnapped by Tartarus believes that I am the woman from the Legend.”

A murmur spreads throughout the room.

Pium and Lucy stare at her, mouths agape.

“Quiet!” commands the Ram Head.

Silence falls.

“And why does he believe you, of all people, are the person who has the ability to destroy Tartarus? Not even you seem to believe in this nonsense,” says the Ram Head provocatively.

Mutters of agreement arise.

“There have been signs,” Arenia states. “I have received the mermaids’ Golden Key.”

The crowd gasps as she pulls the necklace out from within her armor.

Arenia turns to face Pium and Lucy. They look like they might fall over from shock. “I’m sorry I had to hide this, but Numen told me to. He said it was safer for the Pariahs if they didn’t know about my origin.” She turns back around to the Ram Head and announces, “I am Gaian. I have a birthmark on my stomach.” She lifts her shirt and pulls half of the artificial skin up to expose her navel.

The room explodes in noise. A mix of excitement, fear, and confusion rushes throughout. Pium and Lucy shake their heads in disbelief.

“How could you hide that from me? I thought we trusted each other!” Pium insists, bitterly.

“I’m so sorry, Pium. It had nothing to do with you—or with you, Lucy. Numen wanted to protect you and me.”

“From who?” Lucy retorts. “Us? Does he not trust us? You are the reason the twins are dead! You are the reason Numen is in danger! I knew you were a liar from the beginning!”

Tears begin to well in Arenia’s eyes as she reapplies the skin onto her navel. But she stands firm. She knows the truth had to come out. She just wishes it had been under different circumstances. Guilty thoughts and feelings about Numen and the twins rush through her mind. She allows them to happen, but is determined not to give into them. She knows the truth—and will hold onto it—no matter what.

“You are right,” Arenia turns to the Ram Head. “I have a hard time believing that I’m the one who is able to destroy the most powerful man. I know I’m not ready yet, but I’m a lot closer. Just a few months ago, I was consumed by my own doubts and fears. For the first time in my life, I’ve started to refute the voices in my head. I’m sure you know of these thoughts all too well, since they are one of Tartarus’s favorite weapons. I’ve discovered an untouched place in myself that is powerful. I’m not yet a master of that power, but I know I can be. And I trust that my journey is bringing me closer to that source. I trust that wherever life takes me is exactly where I’m supposed to be. And this is where I stand right now. In front of you.”

The Ram Head nods, but remains quiet. The crowd looks at her with respect and admiration.

Hearing these words coming out of her mouth boosts Arenia’s self-confidence. The Ram Head shushes the excited whispering of the crowd once again.

“Arenia,” he says, “you did what you had to do. I don’t believe you hid this from your friends for any other reason than for their and your own safety. I’m sure your friends will discern the truth and forgive you for your secrecy. It was important for me to see your reaction in a high-pressure situation—to see if you would move towards truth or towards comfort. You have proven your will power and strength of heart. Not many Gaians have traveled to Underworld without being killed almost immediately. You have survived. Not only that, you have also been given the Golden Key, which is only reserved for very special individuals who have very special purposes.”

Arenia nods, solemnly.

“You have gained the respect and trust of Numen and the Elder, whom I both highly respect and dearly regard,” adds the Ram Head. “Not too long ago, Numen used to come here regularly to participate in our meetings—until it became too dangerous for him. I received the news about his regrettable kidnapping from my informant in the City of the Royals. I’m deeply concerned about his abduction, and I grieve with you the terrible loss of your two young friends.”

Arenia’s heart wrenches at the confirmation of her vision. She’d had a slight hope that it wasn’t true. Pium and Lucy also look shattered.

The Ram Head continues, “Now that all secrecies have been lifted—how can we help you?”

“I need to study the way your people’s minds work,” says Arenia. “I have to understand how Tartarus was able to pull the Land of Light apart into different tribes. I have to understand what he knows and understands about the mind so I don’t fall for his manipulations—so I can protect myself. As you know, the closer we get to the Land of the Dead, the more we will be exposed to his dark powers. His collaborators will do everything to lure us in and amplify our deepest fears. We need to build an awareness mechanism. But we don’t have much time, as the situation is urgent. We need to save Numen. Once we’re ready to continue on our journey, it would also be tremendously helpful if someone could guide us to the Land of the Dead.”

A female Blue Man rises from the sofa. “Arenia, Numen was a dear friend of my parents. I will do everything in my power to help you and guide you. I will personally ensure you can move freely in our land. You may stay at my house. I will provide you with everything you need. But I ask two things in return. The first is that you behave inconspicuously and unobtrusively so as not to place any of our fellow landsmen or us in danger. My second wish is for you to share with us the knowledge you gather, as we have also been trying to understand Tartarus’s strategies. Perhaps you can enlighten us with your foreign perspective.”

The Ram Head turns to Arenia. “I think these are very fair demands. Does everybody comply with these requirements or wish to add something?”

Everyone in the room consents.

The Ram Head turns back to the female Blue Man. “We must hide her real motivation and identity. As she looks like she could belong to the Royals, I propose we reinforce that notion. Our tribes love to feel important, so we can say that our lands have been praised for their cultural diversity, and that the Royals have sent her to make a case study. Since you offered your hospitality already, Cyan, why don’t we start with you? Can you introduce her to the way Blue Men live?”

“It would be my pleasure.” Cyan smiles.

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Message from the Author

Dear Reader,

I hope I was able to take you on an adventurous journey into Arenia’s fantastical world. If I have given you moments of entertainment and inspiration, I have succeeded. Thank you for spending time with me and thank you for purchasing my book, ARENIA & The Golden Key.

I’d love to hear from you. What did you enjoy? What didn’t you like? Send me an email. If you think your friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers would enjoy reading this book, please share it with them. Write an honest review on Goodreads and Amazon so others may benefit from your personal experience. Reviews are critical to the success of a book. You, the reader, have the power to make or break Arenia & The Golden Key. Every single voice—your voice—matters.

Thank you very much for your support.

Gizem Mut

www.areniathebook.com

Email: [email protected]

Amazon: Arenia & The Golden Key

Goodreads: Arenia & The Golden Key

Twitter: @areniathebook

Facebook: Arenia the Book

Instagram: Gizem Mut

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What happens next?

Will Arenia and her friends survive the illusive Lands of Tears?

Is Numen still alive? If so, will Arenia save him?

Will she finally face Tartarus?

Will she prove to be the Legend, defeat the Lord of Darkness, and find her way back home?

How will her relationship with Pium develop?

Be the first to know when Arenia’s adventures continue and sign up to the newsletter by clicking here.

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Acknowledgements

I am deeply thankful to my wonderful fiance Johnathan Webster, whose humor, love and support brighten my day.

My heartfelt gratitude to my precious brother and sister, Gökan Mut and Güzin Mut, for their vital contribution to this book with their review of the manuscript and their valuable input.

I am also very thankful to Zachary Kerschberg and Lucy Anderton for their essential part in turning my story into a book with their editing expertise.

My appreciation to Ali Ceyhanlı who kindly reviewed the early manuscript and provided thoughtful feedback.

Warmest thanks to my beloved friends Livia Hentschel, Viktoria Günes and Silvia Günes, as well as my brilliant friends in New York, whose continuous encouragement I treasure.

Lastly I would like to express my sincere gratitude for my mother and my father, Raziye Mut and Ertugrul Mut, whose love and support remain my source of strength.

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About the Author

Gizem Mut was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, to Turkish parents. She has lived in New York City since 2010. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Berlin School of Economics and Law, she worked in the consulting business for renewable energies before switching over to acting. While she studied the art of acting in NYC and worked on several film projects, she also intensified her studies of the human condition. In this book, she combines her passion for storytelling with her great curiosity about the human mind and soul.

 


Arenia & The Golden Key

Arenia is a shy, young woman troubled with fears and insecurities living an ordinary life in a big city. All that is about to change when she falls into a fantastical, dreamlike world. As she searches for a way back home, she embarks on a journey encountering bizarre and deadly creatures at every turn. Arenia must distinguish between what is reality and what is an illusion if she is to survive. She must learn to make choices between fear and courage, between risk and comfort . . . or someone else will make them for her.

  • Author: Gizem Mut
  • Published: 2016-04-18 02:35:22
  • Words: 80648
Arenia & The Golden Key Arenia & The Golden Key