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~  2 Eye of the Beholder  ~   3 Possession  ~   4 Red Wool   ~  5 Adalia  ~  6 The Couch  ~  7 Rocks and Foundations

~ 8 Mistletoe ~ 9 TipToe ~ 10 Columbus (age 9 )  ~  11 Tara (Unfinished) 


 

Price of Return
by Marsha Steed


 The wind picked up to an angry gale and the rain spattered on the tinted window panes.  Adalia leaned back and heaved a heavy sigh.  The world seemingly was acting upon the turmoil and confusion within her.  All around lay the collections of a lifetime.  They surrounded, burdened and lifted her all at the same time.  "Some things are best forgotten," she whispered to no one.   The porch light from a single hanging bulb sprinkled like fingertips against the glass, begging to enter, yet forbidden.

 She lifted one document to peer at.  Her thumb caressed it, as if the action could bring back the moment it recorded.  "Adalia Butterfield.  In recognition of . . . "

 It went on, as did the piles of other papers and certificates, trophies and paper accolades from a life that seemed no more a part of her than the rain that pressed on the window outside.

 Her blue-grey eyes turned to the once familiar setting of the old family homestead.  Cracked plaster and peeling paint felt much like she did in her childhood surroundings.  Adalia felt like something once glorious and worthwhile, yet now little more than the abject remains of societal rejection.
**********

 The pounding on the door called her to attention and she turned to stare at the sound.  Her finger moved to the switch and the low whirring sound urged her chair forward.  She reached the door just as the pounding died down.  Footsteps could be heard retreating down the stone steps.  Adalia sighed, not even struggling with the door knob this time.  Her useless legs got in the way of the time worn sofa, and caused her to stick rather uncomfortably in the small entry way as she tried to maneuver back around.

 "Blasted ugly couch anyway.  I always disliked it.  Why didn't you get rid of this long ago?!"  Her wails to the nonexistent listener went unanswered.  A sob clutched at her throat and she angrily pressed it down with a curse.  Putting the chair in reverse, she managed to make it back to the piles of childhood and young adult memories.  With one angry sweep of her arm, most of it fell helter skelter into the large wastebasket below.  One small porcelain figurine went crashing to the ground, splintering into a dozen pieces.  The small head of a lamb hit her lap with a slight thud.  She picked it up, turning the piece around as tears bristled in her eyes.  Sticking out from the decapitated neck was a slip of paper no wider than a finger.  

 Adalia pulled the scrolled slip out, dropping the last shard of memory into the waste can. The head of the little lamb clattered against the metal. The piece of paper was about two inches by four inches with the most curious handwriting she had ever seen.  Rows upon rows of tiny scrolling characters covered the slip of paper till the spaces were almost more legible than the ink.

 "What on Earth?"  The question came out voiced even with no one around to answer it.  She looked around the floor carefully for any other bits of paper or other hints but found none. Smoothing out the thin strip revealed that it was doubled and probably made of vellum or papyrus.

 She had taken an ancient history class, and recognized the writing style as historical, but somehow not a true representation.  Something mixed with a hieroglyphic pattern which almost seemed to be Egyptian in origin.

 Her own memories forgotten, and for the moment, even the hopelessness that usually clung to her like mistletoe on a host, was nonexistent.  She inspected the paper more closely.  Adalia tried to remember where that particular figurine had come from, but it was difficult for that was probably the trinket she had possessed the longest.  All of her youth and her childhood days back she could remember it watched over her.  The little dark-haired shepherd  woman cradling a lamb.  Now the figurine was smashed; the base and the head of the lamb broken off completely, the legs shattered in a hundred pieces.  

           "Uncle Belian, where did you get this?"  Once again speaking as if the dead could answer her inquiry.  "Mom always said you were the one with wanderlust . . .  moving from place to place and never setting down any kind of roots."

 She looked down at the paper again.  With a confused shrug, she refolded it, but the patterns it made required a second examination.  When the paper was folded, the letters of her uncle's name came into view vertically down the seam.  One half of each letter on each side of the paper. Intrigued further, she turned the paper over, and the same phenomena was evidenced on the other side, though the word was unfamiliar. -Nruter-

 "Nruter?  What is a nruter?  Belian you are just a crazy old man, making me wonder about all sorts of impractical things."   She began to crumple up the slip of paper, but couldn't bring herself to actually do it.  She put it instead in the front pocket of her handbag and set about with somewhat heightened spirits as she went through the earthly possessions of her home.

**************

 The sorting took exactly a week.  As the last garage sale shopper paid her his money and turned away, Adalia looked at what remained.  Considering what to do with it, she took a last look amongst the wares and possessions of the two people she had loved more than life.

 "No use thinking about that any longer.  They are gone Addy; they aren't coming back, girl.  Get a grip on reality and do what needs to be done."
            The odd habit of talking to herself since her parents' death was becoming second nature.  She hardly even noticed it anymore. Ever since the strange occurrences of a month ago . . .  had it really been a month?  She had been feeling that there was something not only strange about her parents' exit from this world, but something sinister as well.  Until now, she had been able to chalk it up to the effects of a grief stricken and fevered mind.  However, as things were being taken care of and burdens laid to rest, she found the thought-filled impressions multiplied instead of diminished and being put aside.  

 Adalia tucked the last few dollars into her pocketbook, and the odd slip of paper fluttered toward the cement.  She leaned down to retrieve it from the center of an old Atlas that had been passed over by the garage sale junkies.  Her fingertips brushed along the paper. A country name jumped off the page at her.  If she wasn't a sane individual, she would have sworn the words were audible.  There it was, as big as life.  In the old yellowed atlas, in the city by the Nile, was the word Nruter.  

 "My heavens . . . it is a real place!"  She quickly grabbed up the book and examined the map.  As she did so, the page slipped and she found that it was folded, much like the slip of paper.  On one side, was Ancient Egypt, and a city named Nrubeth and the other . . .  right here, her hometown of Morter, Idaho.  The page falling as it did, made the word Nru-ter.  

 "What sort of tomfoolery is this uncle?  Half notes with letters, now books with folded pages, are we in some odd Alice in Wonderland mood here?"  Slamming the book shut, she attempted to put it out of her mind.

 The word continued to move through her thoughts as she cleaned up and offered the remaining possessions to the Goodwill truck driver.  A chill went down her spine at the sight of the truck, and she winced at the irony of it.  In the brief moment that her eyes closed, she could again see the ominous round headlights bearing down on her.  She felt again the helplessness of that moment right before the accident that had eventually taken her parents, and her mobility.  

 "Is this all, Miss?"  The ruddy faced man with the paunch stopped laughing long enough to address her. 

 Adaila found herself a bit annoyed at his private joke and ended up being a bit shorter with him than she intended.

 "Yes, yes . . .  now please be quick about it.  The house goes up for sell tomorrow and there is still much to be done."  Adalia was somewhat more brusque than she had intended and the driver quickly went about his business.  She felt his eyes on her from time to time until he walked over to take the atlas.  She put her hand on top of his, startling him somewhat.  Even that brief contact with another human was somehow satisfying.  Odd how quickly you can crave something that once seemed so commonplace.  
 
 "I'm sorry Miss, you said everything.  I thought you meant the books too."  He gave her a consternate expression, as if he was trying to do his job as quickly as possible and to get out of there because he had someplace to be. Probably a loving wife and family.  Something she longed for, but would certainly never have now.  He seemed too uncomfortable and the nervous laugh returned as he removed his hand.  She wondered when was the last time she was hugged . . .  or when was the last time anyone had even touched her at all ?  Her body almost ached for it, but she would never ask. Why was it that people always seemed to offer an abundance of what you did not need?  

 "Oh yes, I did, just not this one please."  With a sigh, she hefted the book onto her lap and then raised it to the table.  On the small stand lay the atlas; the slip of paper with writing, a page of hieroglyphics and the broken pieces of the shepherd woman she had gathered up out of the garbage the day after they fell.                                               

 "Now what?"  Adalia muttered to herself.  She realized that this was not going to go away.  She had tried to cast it off as only so much nonsense, but found that it only mulled over and over in her mind like some great cement mixer, ever turning and yet never solidifying.  Her eyes fell on the statuette. The girl's face was intact, as was the bottom of the figurine.  Adalia lifted up the flat oval stand and turned over in her hand.  She was in luck at least here.  There was a maker's mark on the bottom.  Clearly a circle with two vertical lines running through.  Then the signature ‘Abdimin Jerusiphat. ‘  She repeated the name aloud, running her finger over it.  

 "Well Mr. Jerusiphat, if you are amongst the living, what will you tell me?  If I can find you at all."
 
 A dog barking from the neighbor's yard called her back from her sleuthing.  Feeling somewhat sheepish for her interest and how focused she had been in the task, she closed the atlas with a snap and lay it back on the makeshift table.

 The driver of the ‘Goodwill' truck finished, shaking his head slightly.  She imagined his pity at the poor crippled woman who sat amidst the remains of a lifetime of collecting, muttering to herself.  

 "You have a good day there."  He waved to her hurriedly, got in the truck and drove away.  Adalia looked up at the start of the engine, just catching his wave, almost surprised to see he was still around.  She set down the bit of broken glass and picked up the slip of paper once again as the truck disappeared. 

 "Why am I even bothering?  It isn't as if this is going to bring me some great treasure or restore what is lost.  I am a fool's fool, that is for certain. Then again, it isn't as if I have anything else that requires my time and attention."  

 With a shrug, she looked back to the writing.  Unfolding the paper, she tried something else.  Turning the fold back the other way against itself, she looked at the combination of shapes to see if more clues were imbedded into the text.  Sure enough, written longways down the seam were the combinations of letters that were easily distinguishable. 
 

B
U
R
E
A
U
 



B
B
O
N
 
 

 "Bureau Ribbon?"  What was that supposed to mean?  There was an ancient Bureau in Uncle Belian's old room, but it didn't have any sort of ribbons attached.  This was getting worse the more she found out.  Anxious to find out more, she tried refolding the slip of paper different ways, but to no avail.  Unless the lettering meant something independent of that on the opposite side, there was nothing else the rolled paper had to offer her.  She lay it carefully beside the first piece. Drawing her hand over the atlas, she noticed that one of the tiny rivers was labeled Ribonia.  She kept that as obscure information that could be important, or completely frivolous.  

***************

 The next morning dawned cool and crisp.  Adalia was glad that the whole mess was almost at a conclusion.  The phones and electricity were to be turned off today, and the buyers to take possession tomorrow.  She had a cleaning service, the movers and a yard service scheduled for later in the afternoon.  As she lay  in the bed she had slept in as a child, the memories tumbled out as a last ditch effort to purge her past.  She remembered lying there many times thinking about her life, and planning for the millions her talented legs would bring her.  Ever since she could remember, running had been a part of her.  The hair flying out behind her; that was, until she decided it weighed her down and she cut it short.  The wind that blew against her face, and made her feel more alive than even eating or speaking.  

 Then all the trophies, the medals, the accolades and the thrill of being the first.  The first to touch that red ribbon across her chest.  The first to hear the cheers of the crowd and reach a new record. 

 "Oh stop it!"  She angrily smacked the pillow, as if the action would shoo the thoughts out of her head and make the pain go away.  "I guess I simply need to get away from here.  Close this chapter and start anew, with new players and new scenery."

 She struggled out of bed, hating this part of the day more than any other.  The loss of the use of her legs had changed every single part of her life.  Nothing remained the same.  She pulled over the chair with the device her one remaining friend had conjured up from his engineering mind.  It was a hook that was attatched to her bed, and with the press of a button, extended out towards anything that she set it in the direction of.  It had enough strenght to pull her chair, or the dexdeity to clasp a book.  

 The morning ritual took well over two hours every day.  Getting up, cleaning her teeth and dressing; making herself something to eat and even making her bed were all things that she was often grateful for, but unfortunately all the more often, things she took for granted.  It was difficult, and exhausting, but she was grateful for small miracles.  Her association with Gregory made it possible for her to at least function by herself.  His gadgets and ideas were time consuming, but they at least enabled her to do what she could not otherwise.  The long stick, that worked almost like a second pair of hands, allowed her to even tie her own shoe laces. 

 After she was dressed and had eaten something, she made a checklist of what the hours had in store for her.  The day went fairly much according to plan, until the cleaning service showed up.  The tall thin man kept complaining about a place in the carpet that wouldn't lay straight.  Finally exasperated, she went in to investigate.  It was the spare bedroom and the large bureau had been taken from it and placed into the moving truck.  For the first time in probably fifteen years, the carpet was exposed. It was an entirely different color than the rest of the room.   The hollow-eyed man kept tugging and tucking, but it simply would not seem to lay straight.  Finally she suggested that they pull it up, as it looked awful anyway.

 Under the carpet, it was easy to see the difficulty.  The floorboards were uneven just where the bureau had rested.   Three were crossways, but the other two were different widths altogether and lay the opposite direction.  The carpet man looked at her strangely and then shrugged.  "You can't leave it this way, miss, unless you would care for me to adjust it."  

 "Fine, whatever you need to do."  Adalia was getting less and less patient with all the things that seemed to continue to go wrong.  The man pried open the two planks and looked down.  Instead of concrete, there was a black space that extended under the house.  His eyes returned to her, and they seemed as empty and passionless as the hole he had uncovered.  

 "Miss, if I am going to fix this, I'm going to need some supplies, and it's going to cost you more than the original estimate."  

 "I don't care.  Just, please, do what you need to do." Adalia waved her hand dismissively.  The repairman left her sitting there to contemplate the mess.  Addy noticed he had a slight limp when he walked and his shoulders sagged in abject hopelessness.    

 She rolled her chair forward to see better, but was dissatisfied.  She leaned over the hole and thought that she could see something further down.  Reaching did no good, and she looked around for something to help her.  The carpet stretcher bar was on the other side of the hole. She rolled over to snatch it, closing her fingers around the handle.  Poking it into the blackness, she felt a tug as if it had caught on something.  Nudging her way closer, she peered downwards.  A slight glimmer was the only thing visible.  She pulled back on the bar, but found it impossibly lodged in or under something.  With her strength, she yanked, but instead of it coming free, she found herself toppling headlong into the three feet wide hole.  

****************

 
 It seemed that she had only blinked, and yet the next moment found her looking very close into the face of a tall, dark skinned man.   His hair was hidden by the rather stiff material that draped over his forehead and shoulders.  His chest was bare, save three gold chains in graduating length, that swayed just barely above her chin.  She blinked several times to clear her eyes and regain her sanity, but found that nothing changed.  

 "Who are you?"  Her voice startled even herself.  The man drew quickly back, motioning to a companion.  "Good grief, this is like some bad movie.  What's going on?"  She attempted to rise, but found her head thudding dully and her body feeling like a lead weight had been attached to each limb.  She could feel the fear and confusion grasping vice-like at her throat already, she struggled not to simply scream. 

 Addy distracted herself by watching the figure before her.  The man had deliciously dark features, black sparkling eyes and a strong square chin.  He returned to her, slipping a makeshift pillow of folded clothing under her head with one hand, as the other pressed a finger against her lips, urging her to (be) quiet.  His manner was almost tender and she shivered, though she was not cold.  His touch at once tantalized and made her uneasy. 

 "I'll not be quiet, until you tell me where I am, and how I got here and who you are."  Adalia muttered against the finger that did not move away.  Lifting her arm, she attempted to bat it from her.  He didn't seem threatening, exactly, but she was certain that this man knew what he wanted, and how to obtain it.  The companion, a much shorter and more wiry fellow, moved around doing goodness knows what.  He seemed quite intent upon doing whatever it was, his head only appearing within her view from time to time when he muttered something incoherent to the first man.  The taller of the two, (-,)  kept his finger pressed to her lips until the urge to bite him began to drift into her thoughts.  

 Her knee itched mercilessly, and she started to sit up to scratch it.  Suddenly a wave of consciousness came over her.  Her knee itched!  That meant she could feel it.  Whatever had happened, she wasn't at all sure she wanted to know.  The only thing that mattered now was to find out exactly what that meant.  Could she use her legs?  No, the thought seemed too cruel to even imagine.  The man refused to allow her to sit up.  Her arms and legs felt weighted, but sure as she was alive . . .  which she wasn't entirely sure at this point . . .  she could feel the tingle of an itch in her knee.  

 She had heard of odd occurrences like this, missing limbs itching, or hurting, yet she had always written it off as only so much sensationalism.  When it was you, it seemed a great deal more important however, and completely within the scope of reality. After she had lain quiet for some few minutes, she lost patience and was just about to push away the hand from her to see about getting away from here.  The man removed the gentle pressure from her just then, and moved away.  She heard the click of a door or something, and the room went silent.

 Moving only her eyes at first, unsure of what to do, Adalia looked all around herself.  This was like some surealistic painting, at any moment, she expected to awaken slumped in her chair, waiting for the return of the carpet man.   The ceiling, for she was in some sort of room or enclosure, was high and stark white.  There were variations in the wood that made patterns of squares and rectangles intertwined with triangles radiating outward from four points.  Hearing nothing, she attempted once more to sit up.  She was covered with a heavy blanket that seemed to be made of a rough linen.  The patterns on it were colored in rich dyes, magenta and ecru with hints of gold here and there almost playfully darting haphazardly through the weave.  

 When she sat up a gasp escaped her immediately.  Instead of being in a room all alone, as she had thought after it went silent, there were at least ten others in a circle around her.  All of them were dark skinned with painted eyes that watched every movement as if she was a lab rat.  She could not decipher if they were male or female.  It seemed that they were paper-dolls, all connected at the wrist and toes, staring straight at her.  For a moment she wondered if they were alive at all, so still and silent did they remain.  Their attire was identical from one to the next.  Bare-armed and from the thigh down, a short paneled skirt-like bit of apparel ended at the waist.  From there upwards was a thick collar made from rows and rows of colored beads.  The midriff's (-')  were bared and she doubted if anything beside flesh lay beneath the long collar.  It extended to the end of their rib cages, laying against their chests. 

 Adalia only then noticed her own clothing.  Gone were the blue jeans and the soft cotton T-shirt.  She was covered in the same beaded thing that made a hollow sound when she moved.  The door opened with a second click, and her eyes were quickly captive there.  Into the room moved the most singularly interesting sight she believed she had ever witnessed.  Every one of the paper-doll people fell instantly to their knees as one.  The door frame was filled with the largest man she had ever seen.  His girth could have easily made three of her own.  His head scraped the door post even as he ducked.  The skin was darker than any of the others, a rich chocolate brown that seemed to have come from baking in the sun daily for a hundred years.  He wore no expression on his face other than a slightly arched eyebrow.  She could see after a moment the arch was due to a battle scar that ran the length of his eye and along his nose, giving it a pointed appearance.

 Behind the Rhinoceros man was the first man she had seen leaning over her.  His expression was the same as she recalled, peaceful and full of answers that she didn't even think she knew the questions for.  One of this odd pair stood on either side of her.  The large man at her feet, and the familiar one at her head.  A small woman next walked through the door.  For the ceremony of it, she was expecting far more, but she was only disappointed for a hair's breadth, before she recognized the figure before her.  The hair was long and dark, and in her arms was a tiny lamp.  The same robin's egg blue robe wound around the woman and she felt as if she was a friend, beloved and dear and familiar.  

 Her mouth gaped open as she looked at the embodiment of the very same shepherdess that had overseen her sleep for all of her childhood.  This one, in living color.  

 "Hello my dear, you seem to have awakened." The voice of the woman as she calmly petted the fur of the lamb, was stirring and would have been, even under mundane circumstances.  "I see you have found Nruter."  

Adalia blinked, "Nruter?  What are you talking about?  Who are you? How did I get here and what am I doing here!?" The questions flooded out as if the woman's speaking had given her permission to voice all that her thoughts had been processing.  

 "Now, now Adalia, you needn't get into a tizzy about it.  I assure you everything is quite as it should be.  Belian said that you would be following him shortly."  The woman smiled a matronly smile.  Her hand continued to lull and pet the wool of the tiny lamb in her arms.  

 "Uncle Belian? He's been dead for fifteen years!  I don't understand any of this."  She put her face in her hands, shaking her head in confusion.  

 A soft laugh met her from the woman, then the other two men joined and next the ten seemed to come to animation, adding their voices to the sound.  Each head had black hair lying against their scalp curled under around their jaw on each side, with the remaining locks pulled severely back in a tail against their necks that bobbed as they laughed.  They all seemed to be having quite a time at her expense.  

 "It isn't funny.  When do I get answers?"  Adalia was bordering on hysteria as her senses moved into overload.  She gathered up the blanket in her fists, pulling her knees up into a ball.  The laughter faded and stopped as she buried her face in her knees.  

 "Oh my heavens!"  Adalia exclaimed as her hands moved over her legs, and she kicked off the covering.  Her feet were bare, and she  . . . she could feel them.  Her hands moved over and over her legs, savoring each sensation from the ankles to the knees all the way up to her thighs.  They moved and kicked and felt.  She was giddy with joy.  Swinging them over the edge of the table, she jumped off.  No one moved to stop her;  in fact they all seemed to be some odd audience in a theater in the round. Taking first one step and then another, she made herself walk around the flat cot she had been laying on.  

 "I can walk.  I can walk!"  She threw her arms around the large man impulsively, before anyone thought to stop her.  As she touched him, his flesh seemed to sear and to age.  Wrinkles appeared in the circular pattern of her embrace.  The entire front of his body, where she had made contact, grew loose and flabby, much like it had aged years with the contact.   Too much was happening at once.  The ten began to murmur in a low humming sound and her head began to spin.  The familiar man suddenly put his arms around her, keeping her from touching anyone else.  His embrace was strong and insistent though not painful.  He lifted her up as if she was a doll, onto the cot.  Black eyes looked  at her, instructing without a word that she should not venture from the cot again at present.  

 "What have I done?"  Adalia whispered and looked around to each face, searching for one with an answer to anything.  All she was met with were blank stares, until she looked into the eyes of the large man she had touched.  Excruciating pain registered in his eyes like a dying man who seeks the comfort of the living.  He stumbled backwards, reaching out for anything to break his fall.  The circle of ten parted and his great hulking body collapsed into a heap of shuddering flesh.  

 "Sometimes the price is high, Adalia, for what you wish."  The Shepherdess spoke quietly, but with an authority born of her evident position in this strange place.  Even though Addy didn't know the man, a tear choked her at the sorrow of being the cause of what she had seen in his eyes.  

 "What price, what is this place?"  Addy looked at the shepherdess with tears streaming down her cheeks.  She hadn't even noticed she was crying until the voice that came from her was choked with sobs for someone she didn't even know.  

 "You wished for your past back; that was not possible.  However another life is.  Welcome to Nruter, Adalia.  Here you have the chance to do what you feel you have missed the opportunity of doing.  There is a race tomorrow.  Abdimin will train you.   However, as you witnessed," she motioned then to the huge corpse as if he was merely an inconvenience. ". . . if you touch anyone, they will instantly revert to their chronological age.  If that is beyond their mortal capabilities, they will die."  

 She was so matter-of-fact.  How could anyone dismiss such a tragedy with a wave of a hand, and a simple statement of ‘they will die'?  What sort of place was this?  No matter Addy thought, I will run again.  She wasn't altogether sure this wasn't a dream, so she determined to enjoy it to the fullest, figuring that it would all be simply a vague memory when she awoke. 

 "Abdimin, take the lady to her chambers.  Away, all of you!" The woman waved her hand and the ten figures scattered like ants.  Several of them hoisted up the body and carried it out with them through a large door.  

 The dark-eyed man lifted Addy up in his arms and turned from the chambers.  He still had not made a sound, but she could feel the warmth of his body against her and hear the beating of his heart in the silence of the corridors as they walked.  When they had reached a fork in the hallway, he turned to the right and a servant opened a heavy looking metal door.  He brought her into the room and set her on her feet.  Addy looked around her surroundings briefly, too fascinated by this dark man to consider them yet.  She wanted some answers, and he seemed to be the only one who was somewhat normal, except for the fact that he didn't speak.  

 "Can you talk?"  She inquired curiously as he stood before her, unmoving.  He seemed to have no intention of leaving.  

 "Of course I can speak.  As you were informed, I am Abdimin Jerusiphat.  I am to be your companion and trainer, Adalia.  This may be a strange place for you, but you are not without assistance.  There is to be a race on the morrow.  We have all of the day to ready for it.  If you win, the prizes are great.  If you fail . . . " His voice trailed off as he turned and began getting out some weights and bottles of some sort.  

 "No, wait, you said if I fail . . .  If I fail . . . What?"  Addy wasn't content to have her answers nebulous.  He turned slowly, his eyes piercing her own.  The words were offered simply, as everything around her seemed to be taken for emotionless fact.  

 "We will both die."  (who's making the rules in this place, anyhow???)

 She blinked and looked at him incredulously.  "We‘ll die?  This race is that important?" 

 "Of course it is.  It is the race for your life, Adalia.  Perhaps I should explain." 

 "Yes, perhaps you should!"  Addy stood stubbornly, refusing to go any further until she had some inkling of what was happening to her.  Dream or not, she did not want to go into this blindly.  

 "Your uncle, Belian Butterfield, came to us through much the same fashion as you did.  When he asked for what he could not find in your world, he was given it . . ." Abdimin gestured to the room around them.  ". . . here.  However, as Lothira said, everything has its price." 

 He continued, "It is a very long and involved story, Adalia, and you have much work to do before tomorrow.  We will speak later."  His tone was dismissive, and left her without even the hope of continuance.  She sighed and nodded resolutely, intending fully to find out everything and more, before she stepped foot into a race track, promise or no.  

 The next few hours were filled with all the things she remembered.  The training was different from what she was used to, but Abdimin seemed quite suited to his task, and adept at the workings of muscles and joints.  Addy was amazed that her legs seemed to be as strong as ever, as if the truck that had hit their car and taken both her parents and her future had never even crossed her path.  

 Abdimin made her sweat and lift weights, stretch and sprint over and over until she thought she would drop from exhaustion.  He seemed just as intent on her success as she was, and it was no wonder, she mused, if what he had said about both their lives being at stake was true.  Sweat dripped from her body as she stood, with her palms on her thighs, bent over the smooth sand track for the tenth time in an hour.  She panted as her whole body tingled, trying to regain a bit of strength for the next lap that Abdimin demanded.  

 "Come now, there shall be time for rest later.  Two more and we will clean up for the meal."  Strong hands were on her shoulders, massaging out the kinks and strains that screamed for rest.  She was too out of breath to answer, and merely shook her head.  She could not fathom where she would get the energy to even walk to the building, let alone run one more lap around the great oval track.  

 "Please, can't we finish later?  I'm exhausted!"  

 "Sometime the price is high for what we want, " Abdimin spoke softly in her ear, his voice tickling both her flesh and her senses.  His thumb grazed along her cheek, and she felt a tightening in the root of her belly.  

 Adalia moved away from him then.  He reached out and closed his fingers around her upper arm.  She looked to the restraint and then back to him.  "What do you want of me?"

 "Only what you want of yourself.  Nothing more, but nothing less."  Abdimin let go and turned abruptly away.  He walked back to the large marble building as his sandaled feet made prints in the sand. 

 Addy turned around to look about her.  She had hardly noticed anything that wasn't directly related to her training in the last six hours.  Now she took the moment's peace to cast her eyes about.  It was a beautiful place.  Rich earth colors were everywhere.  The sun was just beginning to descend, casting a coral glow over everything.  Seated in the stands was the figure of a man.  He was dressed similarly to the others that wandered in and out of her view, but somehow struck a different chord in her.  He seemed to be watching the whole scene between her and Abdimin.  Addy walked toward him.  

 The man shook back some of the long hair that hung on either side of his face, and smiled at her. 
 "Hello Adalia."  

 "Belian?  Uncle Belian? I don't . . ."  

 He smiled and stood up.  Taking her hands within his own for a brief squeeze and then a release.  "Yes Addy, it's me.  I'm . . .  I'm sorry." 

 She reached out to take him into her embrace, her fingers extended as she longed for the human contact of a family member.  His hand quickly came up to stop her, and a soft shake of his head reminded her what may happen if she selfishly filled her own needs at the expense of his.  

 "You are sorry?  Sorry for what?  That you're alive?  What happened?  I don't understand any of this!"  Addy recoiled, and crossed her aching arms over her own breasts to keep them from reaching out to him again. 

 "No, I suppose you wouldn't understand this place.  Have you enjoyed your stay so far?  It is a beautiful place, isn't it?  Nruter has a hundred, no, a thousand gifts for you, Addy, for me, for anyone daring enough to seek the best in themselves.  Have you been to the river yet?  Ribonia is amazing.  It is  as if you could see every fear within her waters, and yet you are not afraid.  I simply must take you there."  

 "That is all well and good Uncle B, but what I want to know is how long I'll be here, and what exactly I am supposed to be doing!  Abdimin said that if I don't beat my best time ever . . .  He and I will both die.  It makes no sense."  Her eyes implored her uncle's for enlightenment. 

 "Well, you see, not all worlds are chronological.  Here, you move forward only in the ability you have to progress in a talent or intelligence.  If you go backwards, lose ground, you die.  It is a very different place Addy.  Where progression and winning aren't merely goals, but everything.  You see, if you do not beat your best time ever tomorrow, you will die.  That is the end of things.  There is no such thing as failure here.  No second chances beyond the one you are given upon entrance.  You can prove yourself . . .  but you only get one shot.  Each day, each hour, you have to surpass your last accomplishment.  If  you are not learning, you are going backwards.  There is no standing still." 

 Adalia looked at her uncle, wide-eyed at what she was hearing.  Her anxiety rose as she considered the weight of his words.  "What about you?  What are you accomplishing?  How can you stay here?"  

 Belian Butterfield looked at his niece.  He opened his mouth to speak, but Abdimin appeared at her elbow just then.  Cupping it, he urged her towards the building.  She looked back over her shoulder in protest, but Abdimin would have none of it.  He propelled her forward, letting the information gleaned simmer in her potpourri of information.  

************
 

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