Tirraga was a beachside paradise in the northernmost island of the Treladines. The buildings flowed with the landscape—tiered promenades and ziggurat malls, thatch huts and treehouse restaurants. On any other day, Eddie would be awed by the beauty.
He stood on the beach, his bandaged right hand gripped tight against his chest. His eyes streamed with unbidden tears. He took in the village and its people, human men and women in bright colors and big smiles. Among them, a few humanoid creatures with dog-like heads mingled in with the morning business of having a good time.
Beyond the village of Tirraga, the thick jungle ran up towards a mountain peak—the same peak Eddie had seen in his dream. But unlike his dream, there was nothing above that peak but open sky.
He staggered through the sand to a flagstone walkway. A line of men and women rushed passed carrying surfboards. One man nearly knocked him down.
Eddie wanted to lie down. He wanted to curl up in a ball in the shade and die. He'd been a fool, traveled halfway across the world, far from his friends, gotten his finger cut off and left on an island that, it appeared, had no answers for the problems he faced.
He stumbled into an open cafe and dropped to a spot at an empty table. He leaned forward and closed his eyes.
"Looks like someone traveled by duck without the gold."
Eddie muttered something inaudible.
"You want something to ease the pain, man?"
"Rum Lightning ought to do the trick."
"Does it cost me a finger?" He sat up and turned.
A black man in an apron stood beside him, arms folded, smiling. "I think a little coin will do."
Eddie moved to retrieve his wallet and winced. He couldn't use his right hand. He reached across with his left. "My account is flagged. They say I'm a criminal."
"Money's money, man." He took the card.
"And bring me some water. Lots of water."
"One water, and one Rum Lightning."
"I'm not much of a drinker," Eddie said.
The man nodded at Eddie's hand. "Today, make an exception."
A minute later, Eddie held a large shot glass in his left hand, his eyes dilated, his head swimming, the pain in his hand reduced to a dull throb.
"That hit the spot, man?"
"Uh," Eddie replied.
"Uh," Eddie said.
"Take that as a yes," the man said and left.
Eddie stared out at the sand. He was vaguely aware of laughter all around him, people having a good time. Here, at least, was a place where snake warriors and joy zombie Simps had not set foot. Eddie almost felt like he should leave before he screwed this place up.
Another shot glass appeared at his left. He hadn't seen the waiter leave it. He took it and held it up to the light. it glowed amber with swirls of darker liquid churning in its depths.
"Here's to the goddamn dwarves and their goddamn duck," he muttered, a lonely toast.
"Here here," said a voice.
A dog-headed man sat to his right. Eddie nearly toppled backwards in his seat. Rum splashed out of his glass.
"You don't want to waste that," the dog said. "It's not cheap."
Eddie stared at the dog. He'd seen that face before.
"Yes, I am. But you've got to be careful what you say."
"So... I'm in the right place?"
"What do I do now?"
"Finish your drink. Get your card. Then, we go for a hike."
* * *
Away from the ocean breeze, the sticky heat of the jungle was oppressive. Eddie was drunk, his hand throbbed, and his clothes clung to his skin. He staggered up the narrow path, led by the dog, swallowing clouds of gnats as he moved. He'd forgotten why he'd come to this God forsaken place.
The dog's name was Lance. He moved like a human, but when Eddie got too far behind, Lance would bark. He'd run back and forth on the path, forging ahead, then backtracking to see why Eddie wasn't faster. After a while, Eddie tuned him out.
When they reached a clearing, Eddie collapsed against a palm tree. He dropped his head.
Lance held out a water skin. "Drink, human."
Eddie took it. "So, we're going to see—"
"Don't speak her name," Lance barked.
Eddie took a drink, coughed, then took another.
"You could have warned me about the dwarves," Eddie muttered.
"Would you have come if I did?"
The dog spread his hands. He didn't have paws like a dog, but his fingers were too short. "Well, there you go."
"This isn't worth losing a finger."
"It is worth everyone's finger."
Lance granted Eddie only two minutes to sit. Then he pulled Eddie up by the left hand and ordered him to march.
"What's the hurry?" Eddie asked.
"Each second delay is another second for disaster to... well, we'll speak of that later."
Hours passed. At every bend in the trail, Eddie would pick a spot and think I can get that far and no further . Somehow, he continued.
When they reached the peak, the sun had passed noon. Eddie stared upwards. "What now? We're at the top."
Lance put a finger to his mouth. He nodded Eddie towards a cluster of trees. Eddie noticed them for the first time—fir trees. They were as foreign to the tropical jungle as he was.
Lance walked into the trees. Eddie followed. At the center of the little grove, the air grew cool, as if this space were air conditioned. A ladder stood against a tree.
"We can speak freely now," Lance said. "Gretchen is up there, waiting for you."
"Why are we in a hurry," Eddie asked. "And why can't we talk out loud."
"It is critical that your false-god friend the Rat Messiah doesn't know where you are. He cannot know of Gretchen's existence."
"Because Gretchen has seen what your friend only glimpsed."
"He's not my friend."
"He's your uncle. Your aunt Lila's husband."
"What has Gretchen seen?"
The dog looked wistful. He held out his arms. "She has seen the core of existence, the light behind the veil. She's touched the eternal and come back carrying the truth."
"If that's true, why is Tim a threat to her?"
"You will understand when you speak to her." Lance gestured at the ladder. "Climb."
"You're not coming with me?"
"My work is done. When the time comes, you can find your own way back to the village."
Eddie approached the ladder. Above, the rungs faded in a blue haze. He couldn't see its top.
His hand remained bandaged. The alcohol had long since left him, but the pain was almost bearable. "I'm not sure I can climb this."
"You only have to climb part way," Lance said. "Gravity will do the rest."
Eddie put his bandaged hand on a rung. His fingers had grown stiff, and bending them sent a shot of lightning pain up his arm. He grimaced as he gripped and climbed.
At first, nothing extraordinary happened. He climbed through the trees, the haze above him always obscuring the ladder ahead. As he reached the tops of the trees, he found the haze was below him now. He could no longer see the ground. He climbed in a blue void, and as he rose, the climb became easier. At first he thought he was getting stronger. Then he realized that the pull of gravity had diminished. Soon, he pulled himself upwards with his left hand only, his right hand and feet hanging free. He floated as if in space.
He pulled himself upwards one last time, drifting. Then a force caught him from above. He accelerated. He tried to stop himself with his left hand, but he couldn't grip the rung. His right hand shot forward involuntarily, and he banged it on a rung. Eddie cried out with pain. Above him, the haze receded. He was falling, not flying. There was grass above him. He braced his arms in front of his face before smashing into the ground.
Eddie groaned. He fell to his side and lay panting on the grass. Above him, the top of the mountain defied gravity, hanging upside down. But the mountain wasn't flying. He lay in shifted gravity, not unlike the way gravity had shifted in Holcomb.
He sat up and checked his hand. The bandage wrap had come loose. He tucked it back together as best he could. He sensed movement and turned.
A woman stood behind him, her arms at her sides, her loose skirt catching a light breeze.
"Welcome Eddie," she said. "I'm Gretchen Atwater. We have much to discuss."