Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:

No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure

by Maggie Gibbs

Illustrations by Emily Ruf

Chapter Fourteen: The Fabric of the Universe

“You could have told me what I was—oof!—getting myself into,” I grump at Nate, trying to keep the panting out of my voice.

“You didn’t ask,” he says cheerfully, and I lift my face from the wood Nate’s been piling up in my arms to give him the stink eye. I barely catch the sparkle in his eye as he turns to grin at me over his shoulder, and did that jerk really just throw me a wink?

He’d asked me for help with something, and after he’d come in so clutch in the marijuana department, how could I refuse? Of course, what he didn’t mention is that this “help” consisted of acting like a pack mule for the rest of the dwindling afternoon.

He hadn’t mentioned how disgustingly humid it was, or how the sweat would pour down my face and attract every fly for miles around, making me not just sore and fucking exhausted but also a little dizzy from using my hair to swat them away, or how disquieting it was in the perpetually murky light of the space under the incredibly dense forest canopy. It looks like it’s almost twilight, even though it’s probably more like four or four thirty.

And when the faint light finally recedes for real, Nate will stop this unrelenting madness, stop picking up the biggest, heaviest logs he can find and piling them into my shaking arms and goading me onward, trudging back and forth, keeping the glow of the fire in sight as we weave through the edge of woods, through the transitional perimeter of forest between firelit comfort and thick, ominous unknown.

“I didn’t think I had to ask,” I grumble, preparing another stink-eye. But this time he doesn’t turn back to me, and only the bulge of his beard tells me he’s grinning.

And because he isn’t looking at me, I let my face spring into the smile it’s been choosing the oddest moments to try to appear. Because I may be miserable, but at least it’s a physical misery, and Nate has piled on the physical misery to such a degree that I’m barely keeping my feet. Earlier, when I dropped a log, I could barely even bend to pick it back up. I’d simply watched as Nate had turned back, picked it up with barely a struggle, and placed it gently—but firmly—back in my arms, ignoring my look of dull frustration.

And that was it, really—something about the physical labor had dulled my frustration by degrees until it was almost manageable. And it isn’t just that. I’m no longer Addie the girl who can’t hold it together, Addie the girl the others can barely trust not to freak out on them.

I’m still those things—we’d need a fucking miracle—but now I’m also Addie the girl who’d done a good amount of work to keep the impending malevolent darkness at bay, and that part of it feels almost as good as the blisters and splinters and overworked muscles I’d acquired feel awful. Now, I’m so beyond exhaustion that I’ve arrived somewhere else entirely. I may be miserable, but I also feel . . . kind of awesome.

“So what’s next?” I ask Nate with a scowl as he hoists his own armful—bigger than mine, but not by a whole lot—and nods us back toward the fire. “When do we”—deep breath—“head out Tristan’s way?”

There’s a pause, and I wonder if Nate has lost the train of our earlier conversation. But then he says, “Tomorrow, early as we can—we want to make as much progress during the daylight as possible.”

I look back over my shoulder into the tangly forest, where the few trees illuminated by our fire are dwarfed in cosmic proportions by the yawning mysteries beyond them, and a shudder I can’t suppress almost dumps my final armload onto the forest floor.

We’ll have to head into it sooner or later, I suppose, but at least it can be sunny and bright when we do, right? Not that much of that light reaches the ground, where the undergrowths writhes in slowly churning battles for the sun. A vision of us schlepping through the oppressive wilderness on the strength of my tiny penlight springs to mind. At least we have a few lighters between us, not that it’s going to help much if real darkness catches up with us again before we find whatever Tristan was looking for.

But I can’t think about that now. Right now, all I can see is the bright flicker of fire ahead and the clearing that’s wide enough to keep the unknown at bay, and all at once I decide waking up tomorrow and greeting the sunny morning is all I want to worry about. Then, we’ll worry about what’s next.

We may be lost in time somewhere, on the dank and tangly edge of some evil Shire bullshit, about to plunge in headfirst toward certain doom—but by now I’m pretty sure, thanks to Nate’s generosity and good cheer and my grudging satisfaction with my own newfound abilities, that I’m ready for whatever happens next. Ready to accept our situation and do my best to contribute.

I hope.

“What we need to do,” Nate is saying, “is figure out where we are and who else might live here, find out anything we can about what happened and anything they might know about it. Hope we learn something that helps us figure out how to get back, and—what is it?”

“Holy shit. I hadn’t even . . . I mean . . . fuck, people must live here. What are they like?” Maybe it’s the anxiety the woods produces in me, but the feeling of being observed has crept over me again, and I stop short, almost dumping my armload.
But something doesn’t quite make sense, and when I realize what it is, I send a confused look at Nate. “What makes you so sure anyone else would know anything about this? I mean, it’s pretty much unheard of that even Tristan did. I can’t even believe what happened, and I’m one of the people it happened to.”

He’d stopped too, watching me, a murky silhouette between me and the fire, his features almost lost in shade, but now Nate takes a few steps toward me again and I can make out a decidedly pointed expression on his shadowed face. “Democritus.”

I suck in a breath. “Right,” I said, feeling stupid. “Democritus.”

Of course—the submissions! Somehow, in all the hubbub, I’d completely forgotten about the secret messages Tristan had received—the ones that had allowed him to build the incredible snow globe of a portal that had brought us here in the first place. The unspoken agreement among all of us—with the possible exception of Duc—had always been that Tristan had been amusing himself, weaving together patterns out of anonymous submissions for the sake of his own fantasies, imagining connections out of mysteries and meaningless coincidence to fit whatever theories he’d convinced himself of. Spinning his own wheels. To the rest of us, there had never really been a Democritus—there had only been Tristan.

But Nate is right: other than Tristan—and, I suppose, the graduate advisor who’d given him the boot—there was at least one other person who knew exactly what those messages meant and who they were meant for. And whether or not there is really a person named Democritus, someone had sent those messages, intentionally or unintentionally sending Tristan down rabbit holes and weaving complex webs of literary intrigue—and somehow, one of those rabbit holes had become an impossible, spiraling, inter-dimensional force that had brought us here.

Of course it makes sense to try to find this Democritus person here, and it’s at least possible that others in this world might be able to explain more about Tristan’s strange mechanical capabilities.

An electric tingle runs through me, as if that final plot point of a delightfully intricate thriller novel has just clicked into place.

I remember my feeling of gleeful weightlessness as I sprinted through the backyard of No Dragons Press toward Tristan, toward the portal—toward this. This time I grip my armload even tighter, hugging it to my chest.

Had Democritus sent us—sent Tristan—here on purpose? And to what end?

“So what do you think happened to us? What did Tristan really do?”

Nate begins walking again, and he doesn’t respond for long moments. I wonder if I’ve broken some sort of code or rule and he’s wondering how I could have asked him such a jerky question.

But when he speaks, his tone is thoughtful, if uncertain. “I think he was somehow able to permeate the fabric separating our universe from another—this chain of his—and whatever he built created some sort of bubble that allowed us to slip between them.”

I blink at his retreating figure, twice, in case it might clear my mind as well as my eyes. It doesn’t. “Permeate the fabric of the universe,” I repeat.

He nods, turning and facing me again, half his face visible.

“A bubble that . . . slipped between them.”

He nods again.

I try to stiffen my face, press my lips together, but it’s no use; a massive, delicious gulp of laugher explodes out of me, bouncing off a dozen trees in a chorus of distorted cackles. Tristan permeated the fabric of the universe with a Fender amp and a toaster oven. Sure. Why the fuck not?

At Nate’s single raised eyebrow, I lose myself in another frenzy of giggles. “You sound like a fucking science professor,” I inform him. Someone has to.

He grins at me, shaking his head in apparent amusement, though it may also be in relief that I haven’t actually gone totally bonkers. He turns back toward the clearing with a smirk. “What can I say, I read a lot of books.”

“But no dragons,” I quip, my mind drifting back to the enigma that is Tristan. How many of his strange talents had we overlooked as nothing more than the quirks and oddities of a guy too clever for his own good? What other secrets might he know, even if he isn’t aware that he knows them?

“No dragons,” Nate confirms, and the weight in his voice tells me that he is thinking of Tristan, too.

“What else did I miss?” I ask in as calm a voice I can muster. Excitement feels somehow indecent, but I’m having a surprising amount of difficulty dampening it. “In the planning session?”

“It wasn’t much of a session,” Nate assures me, possibly misinterpreting my excitement for embarrassment. “Did a bit of brainstorming, and Bradley suggested—”

I snort before I can catch myself, my mood instantly soured. In the place of my momentary weightlessness is a solid, heavy lump. Now I eye the clearing uneasily. Is it possible that I had actually forgotten about Bradley for a while? Well, not anymore. Now he’s foremost on my mind, an even more ominous situation than the imminent nighttime.

Nate pauses. Then: “This can’t be easy for you,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on between the two of you, but it seems like things are a little . . . tense?”

I sigh. I never had gotten around to breaking it off. Certain events had intervened, such as being raided by armed soldiers with big fuck-off guns, followed by being sucked bodily into another universe.

But I also hadn’t exactly explained my break-up plans to Nate in the first place. And now that I have the chance—now that I’m actually here with him, talking about relationships—the dismal details of my total failure to end mine pales in comparison to other much worthier topics we could be addressing right now. Like how to get home, and how to stay alive in the meantime.

“He’s . . . a nice guy,” I say, trying to put into words something that won’t make me sound completely nutty. I’ve about reached my quota for that kind of thing for at least the rest of the week. “I’ve just felt . . . I don’t know, like that isn’t enough. Like . . .”

But I trail off. How can I explain? One second he’s patronizing and aloof and the next he won’t leave me the fuck alone. I never know which guy I’m going to get, and I’m starting to feel like I don’t actually know either of them, not really, and there just doesn’t seem like a good way—or a good reason—to explain this to the lumberjack.

Nate is silent for a long moment, as if he’s choosing his words carefully. But before he can show me which ones he’s selected, I catch the slight widening of his eyes, the shift of his focus. I Clear the final trees and follow his line of sight.

Fuck.

Nate dumps his armload near the neat piles we’ve assembled, ignoring my emphatic visual pleas—demands—as he wipes his hands on the sides of his pants, looking off in the direction of where I can hear Duc and Tristan trudging around with their own tasks.

“Well, I’d better grab one last armload,” he mumbles. And as I stand there still clutching my collection of wood with numb arms, before I can inform him that I’m absolutely coming with him, he offers a curt nod to the boyfriend I can’t seem to escape and heads back out into the darkening forest.

Leaving me alone with Bradley.

Traitor.

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