“Send you home?” said the Green Empress, eyes ablaze. “My dear girl, whyever would I want to do that?”

Anya knelt low in front of the Empress’ throne, pressed down by the shafts of the spears carried by Mister Shiftless and Mister Hopeless, whose loyalties had abruptly shifted back upon their subterranean inception into the fortress. Though they both had said, “Sorry,” she couldn’t really blame them for wanting to curry favor with their old employer.

“Because I am asking nicely,” Anya said, raising her eyes; with the weight on her shoulders, all she could see were the Empress’ knees. Anya’s father the cat miaowed softly behind her; she presumed he was also constrained in some way. She didn’t know where the rabbit and the Turtle had been taken. “Plus,” she said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

The Empress leaned forward. “Do I look like the type of person who tends to do the right thing?” She sighed and continued. “For your kind of request, there is always a price. What can you give me in return for such a great entreaty?”

“I have nothing more than what you see,” Anya said.

“Wrong, girl. You have very much more. I could take your soft palette; you didn’t have one until the surgery when you were six months old, so I’d just be returning you to your original state.”

Anya tongued the roof of her mouth and said nothing.

“Or, even better, I could take your name. Not even your entire name, just one letter, that would suffice.” The Green Empress’ index finger reached down and lightly touched Anya’s middle-forehead, the third eye, the Ajna chakra, Anya-Ajna, and for a brief blinding moment the world flashed indigo and silent, and she felt something removed from her, a strange sensation of losing something she’d never known she’d had.

The weights on her shoulders lifted, and the Green Empress said, “Rise, Ana, and go home.” In the Empress’ cupped right hand was a weak ball of bluish light that pulsed slowly; with her left, she performed a complicated series of gestures and a circular portal of hazy blackness opened in front of Ana. “Step through, and you shall be home.”

A high screeching yowl, and then a small cat, mottled and striped and blotched in patterns of grey, leapt from over Ana’s head and pounced on the Empress’ hand, biting and scratching, a blur of teeth and claws, then it snatched the pulsing bluishness in its teeth and bounded once again into Ana’s arms.

The Empress screamed, “Kill them both!” Without thinking, Ana sprung forward into the fuliginous darkness, falling into the black hole where sight, sound, and everything else were obliterated.

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01: Mini Buddha Jump Over the Wall
02: The World, Under
03: Androcles Again
04: Look Into My Eyes, You’re Under
05: Shiftless, Hopeless
06: Cricetinae’s Paroxysm
07: Wind and Harmony
08: Dragons at Dawn

Jake had been here before. He had held Susan’s hand just like this, right here. More than deja vu–certainty. They crossed the marble floor to examine the cherubim statue, each foot falling in the anticipated place. He knew what Susan was going to say.

“I think we should see other people.”

Wait. That wasn’t right.

He turned to look at her, but she was gone.

Jake had been here before. He and Susan had shared margaritas on this roof deck before. He was talking about minimalism, about what shit it was, and then he realized–they weren’t seeing each other any more. But she was holding his hand…

A man was looking at them. Jake couldn’t make out his face. Shadowed. He walked up to them, took Susan’s hand.

“I think you should see other people,” he said.

Jake had been here before. But Susan had been right there, right next to him, suggesting a gondola ride. Her absence was palpable, as if a bubble had just popped.

He pressed a hand to his temples. A migraine was building. He looked up and, there, looking at him: a man–face shadowed. He was unfamiliar here but Jake recognized him. He pushed into the crowds but the man was gone.

Jake stood in his apartment. Here, familiarity made sense. Except there had been photos of Susan, hadn’t there? He went to her closet. Her clothes were gone. In the kitchen half the fridge was empty. Half its contents erased.

A sound from the living room. He got there in time to see a man’s familiar figure slipping out of the door. He is not quick enough in his pursuit.

Jake stood in a shopping mall. He did not recognize this place. Why would he be in a shopping mall? Why would he have roses in his hand? He had no memory of buying them.

The migraine was intense now, rising like a tidal wave. Blackness rising behind his eyes.

Jake came round on the psi-surgeon’s couch. There was a sharp pain behind his brows.

“The headache should fade in ten minutes or so,” the surgeon said, removing steel apparatus. “It’s perfectly normal.” He sat back from Jake, out of the light, his face lost in shadow.

And despite the pain, Jake smiled. A success. Susan, the relationship, everything, it was already fading. Already it was just a dream.

His eyes are shut, but he’s clicking faster now, he’s in the zone, the trance engendered by playing a repetitive game well mastered. And now the veil parts and he sees the stair, sets foot on the topmost step, begins his descent.
Long time he climbs, ever downward amidst sepulchral gloom, and he can hear the chittering of the ghouls in the vast space below him. He is no longer aware of his hands, clicking the mouse, only of the dreamworld.
The air is colder here, and he puts his hands in his pockets, his breath forming evanescent puffs of white. At length he sees a glimmering in the red-litten mirk, but it does not seem to be the expected buttery yellow lamplight of the charcoal burners’ village, where he will spend the night.
Disturbingly, the light flickers and, as he draws nearer, assumes a distinctly rosy hue. He smells smoke. In the village he finds the charcoal burners scattered, their huts charred. From the smell, some of the charcoal burners remain in the ruins of their dwellings. He searches, following the paths where survivors fled, trampling their gardens of rare black lilies in hasty flight. Under the eaves of the forest stands Hando, gracious host of previous visits to the dream lands.
“Are you all right, old friend? Who did this?” The traveler demands.
Hando shakes his head. “The ghouls, no longer satisfied with their habitual pungent fare, prey upon the living. My whole family.” He cannot go on.
The traveler swears by the bones of his father, resting quietly beneath the groves of lemon trees near Lasturion the Enduring, on the far shore of the inner sea, that he will not rest until a terrible vengeance has been wreaked on the kingdom of the flesh eaters.
“Doctor, he was up here when the power… I called, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t answer.” For a few moments she could not go on. “After a while I came upstairs. I found him slumped over the keyboard, his hand still clicking and moving the mouse. I tried to pry his hand off the horrid thing! I couldn’t. I turned off the computer, but his hand still moves, and he will not wake.”

The day the evil shaman came to the café, Matt could feel her before she walked in the door. The coffee beans were nervous. Being a good shaman himself he began to place protections on the counter—but then she was there, and there was nothing to be done—she was after his soul. Already she was clouding his senses. There was no time. There was no thought. He spotted a croque Monsieur on the order counter. In one breath he sent his soul into the layers of ham and cheese. He could grab it in a moment. She would never suspect.

He turned to face her. They dueled silently. Perhaps no one suspected, not even the Socialist reading the Wall Street Journal.

“Can I help you?” He asked, while searching the Over-Soul for her name.

“Double decaf nonfat latte, please,” she replied (definitely an evil shaman). It’s too late for you to seek my name, you fool!

“For here or to go?” I will never let you have my soul! Who orders decaf espresso?

“For here, I think,” she said, smiling. Me! I’m evil! And you are too weak—I will find it and feed upon it!

“Great. That’ll be up in just a minute at the counter over there.” NEVER!

But suddenly he felt teeth sinking into him. He whirled around, her change still in his hand, and saw a girl sitting by the creamer counter. He was too late! She had taken the first bite of the sandwich that held his soul. He stared at her until she looked up, and then found himself swimming in the Over-Soul of her eyes.
“Never mind, I’ll get it to go,” said the shaman behind him. He didn’t want to stop looking at the girl, but he dragged himself around to face his nemesis. Foiled, but not for long, said her eyes.

“Change the decaf latte to go!” He called to the barista, who called back, “On it!”

He handed her her change, putting a small curse on the dime as he did so.

“Thanks,” she said.

Matt walked out from behind the counter and sat down across from the girl with the sandwich. At the door, the shaman laughed.

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