Zenith Part 2: The Ascent

Sep 16th, 2012
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  1. Part 2: The Ascent
  3. Ding dong.
  5. “Mrmph...”
  7. Ding dong!
  9. “Nhh, go awehh...”
  11. Ding. Dong!!
  13. “Argh, fine... Be Right There!”
  15. Modding your doorbell to get louder with each subsequent press seemed like such a good idea on paper...
  17. You slowly roll out of bed in your sweats and a t-shirt, trudging your way to the door. It’s -way- too early to get people trying to talk to you. Better not be someone trying to sell you magazines...
  19. You unbolt and open the front door.
  21. “Good morning sir, package for you. Please sign here.”
  23. Oh, it was just Zēnith delivering the mail. He hovers a quill and parchment out of his saddle bags, holding them out to you, enveloped in a light blue aura of magic.
  25. “Hey, morning to you too Zēnith.”
  27. You mutter sleepily, yawning. You blearily sign the proffered parchment, and both it and the quill disappear back into the bags, and out comes a small wooden crate.
  29. “Here you go, have a good day!”
  31. He hovers the crate over to you, and turns away, trotting back down the driveway.
  33. “Thanks, you too,” you reply, taking the crate and turning back inside.
  35. Well that turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s always nice getting something in the mail, even if it was early. And the something is beeping. Wait— beeping?
  37. The small crate in your hands is indeed beeping, softly at first, but louder and louder with each passing second. Oh-God-What-If-It’s-A-Bomb?! You quickly put the crate on the floor, careful not to jar it, and back away. Ahh, the beeping is still getting louder!!
  39. Uh, uh, quick, what to do in case of bomb? Right: Stop, drop, hammer time! You drop and roll into the kitchen and grab the sledgehammer from its normal place in the freezer, but trying to run back to the crate is proving more tricky than you expected. Your foot now hurts quite badly, and the floor seems to be made of ice. The beeping seems to be reaching a crescendo, and you’re in full panic mode!
  41. You slip and slide, managing to get into position over to the crate, raise the hammer mightily, and bring it down with an ever so satisfying crunch on the incessantly wailing box.
  43. You’re laying in bed, covered in cold sweat, hand resting firmly on the large snooze button atop your now silent alarm clock. Its digital face glows an even 5am, and its light illuminates the dark outline of the Zēnith plushie lying next to you.
  45. What. The hell. Brain. Your crazy dreams aren't usually -that- crazy.
  47. Heart rate returning to normal, you sit up and swing out of bed, walking straight to the shower. You stand beneath the shower head and crank the water all the way on, not even waiting for it to warm up. AH! Ah! Cold! Okay, awake now! You kind of wish you had waited, it’s like liquid ice on your bare skin; clawed tendrils of winter rending the heat from your very flesh!
  49. You sit and shiver, and after a few torturous moments the hot water finishes its journey from the heater to the shower.
  51. Glorious warmth inches its way back into your frosted bones, and you regain control of your furiously shivering muscles. You take a minute to relax, then reach out and grab the shampoo, measuring a dose into your hand, then lather up your scalp. Man, sure is nice to have relatively short hair, it’s so easy to take care of. You rinse, shave using the small mirror suction cupped to the tile, and take a minute to relax under the water before shutting it off and stepping out onto the floor mat.
  53. You towel off and stretch slightly, why were you so sore this morning? Going back to your room you toss on your lightweight hiking clothes and a thick jacket over them, it would be cold out this early, but you knew it wouldn’t stay that way all day. Be prepared: Dress in layers. That’s what they taught in boy scouts, wasn’t it?
  55. You eat a bowl of cereal with the last of your milk and lace up your boots, munching on a granola bar as you heft your backpack into the back of your muddy red honda SUV.
  57. What that old brute of a car of yours lacked in luxury it made up for in stubborn refusal to die. It had gotten you through some tricky mountain passes, and kept right on going, so it was fine by you.
  59. All prepped to leave, you go back inside to lock up and turn off the lights. As you’re setting the bar in the track of your bedroom window you spy Zēnith lying on your pillow.
  61. “Oh man, wouldn’t want you to miss out on this trip, would we?”
  63. Despite the mysterious circumstances of his arrival you had grown somewhat fond of him. Perhaps it was a mix of the appreciation of effort that went into making him and the free-spiritedness that he represented. Whatever the reason, you tuck him into your jacket pocket, and finish battening down the hatches.
  65. You finally climb behind the wheel of the car and pull out of the driveway, headlights illuminating the road and trees as early morning glow rises slowly over the eastern horizon.
  67. It’s almost 5:45 when you pull into the parking lot of the local market. Good thing about rural communities, especially farming ones, is that they are up -early-. You grab your bear canister from the back, tucking it under your arm, and head inside. Your breath steams in the valleys morning chill as you pocket your hands in an attempt to keep them from freezing. You absently rub the soft plushie there, its stuffing returning a comfortable warmth.
  69. “Morning Joe, sure is cold out.”
  71. “Sure is.”
  73. Joe was never one for words.
  75. You grab the food you need, mostly dehydrated veggies, beans, and fruits, along with a sizeable bag of jerky, and another of granola mix. Considering it for a moment you also grab some packs of various dry pastas. Joe silently checks your items while you pack them into the bear canister.
  77. “Takin’ a walk?”
  79. “Yeah, got a good week till my order gets here, so I’m heading up to the falls.”
  81. “Have a good one then.”
  83. “Thanks, will do.”
  85. At least he was pleasant.
  87. You pay in cash and heft the now full bear can back to the car. You secure it to your pack and get behind the wheel, ready to make the somewhat long drive up to the trailhead.
  89. The drive is mostly uneventful, but the view is pleasant as the warm sunrise fills the sky with pretty hues of pink and blue, soon fading to a nice, if partially cloudy, day. Traffic is light, so it’s only about 7:30 by the time you get to the trailhead.You pull past the empty kiosk and into the similarly vacant parking lot.
  91. Finally free of the car you take a moment to stretch in the brisk mountain air, breath still summoning little clouds of vapor to dance in the morning sunbeams streaming down between the trees. You can’t wait to get out onto the trail and get properly warmed up!
  93. You strip off your jacket — shivering from the chill, but knowing the discomfort would prove temporary — and deposit your trip itinerary in the drop box by the rangers kiosk. Your jacket finds a home back in your pack — and Zēnith, one of his own in a side pocket. You zip the pocket up over his face, stare at it for a moment in indecision, then unzip it again. You relocate him to an empty water bottle pocket, his front legs and head perching over its side.
  95. “There we go. Wouldn't be much of an adventure if the explorer couldn’t see where we’re going.”
  97. After a final check of its straps you heave your pack up onto your back, securing the buckles around you, and face off with the trailhead. Its old, tilting, wooden sign displays the text “Summit Lake 18 mi” You set off down the trail, two snowy peaks stand tall in the distance, the white line of the falls crashing down between them.
  99. ☽▐▓▒░☼░▒▓▌☾
  101. The smell of pine trees, and of soft earth warming in the morning sun surrounds you, and you feel the relaxing rhythm of your footfalls carry you away into that special state of zen that trekking brings. The forest breathes around you, alive with sounds: the birds chirp and twitter in the treetops, the wind glides softly between the towering trunks, and even the occasional squirrel or chipmunk can be seen darting across the trail, or up a tree, as they go about their business.
  103. You make your way along the tread-worn path, the foliage becoming thicker as you descend into the river valley. Overgrown grasses tug at your laces, their seeds trying to secure themselves to you in hope of being sown far and wide. Your legs seem to be taking longer to warm up then they normally do, and ache slightly with each step.
  105. You finally reach the valley floor, and soon after the river can be heard through the trees ahead. A short stop seems welcoming, so when you emerge from the underbrush to the signature sight of the smooth stone of a glacial river valley, and the babble of a series of small waterfalls you know you’ve found the spot. You set down your pack and notice the wide, shallow, pool of crystal clear water between two of the falls, the stones that dot it make it an easy ford, while providing convenient access to the water as well.
  107. You grab a wide brimmed hat from your pack and — straddling one of the large stones in the river — reach down to douse it in the water, placing it wetly onto your head. Zēnith seems to eye you from his perch ashore, and you return his seemingly sardonic grin, giving a shiver as the first few drops go down your back and soak your lightweight shirt.
  109. You legs have started feeling better now, and you don’t fancy the idea of dallying too long lest they start cooling down, so you saddle yourself once more and quickly set off down the trail. The sopping hat keeps you cool from the sun — now overhead — as you climb up-valley, along the river. You look back over your shoulder to Zēnith in his pocket, a few drops from your hat landing on his head.
  111. “See, good idea eh? You can stay cool too.”
  113. The river burbles and splashes over its rocks as you move up the valley, the deep pools inviting you to stop and swim as the sun climbs higher. Fish can be seen swimming in their depths, and at one a dear on the far side of the river abruptly stops drinking to stare at you, immobile, as you pass.
  115. By 1pm you are thoroughly ready for lunch; your body aches far more than it should for this strenuous of a hike, and your legs are burning with the strain of lifting you up the large rocks that were scattered by the valley’s long melted glacial sculptor.
  117. You knew that trying to get all the way to the lake today would be rough, but whew, maybe it had been a bit too long since your last hike.
  119. You break out some dried fruits and jerky and set up your hand pump purifier in a river pool to refill your water bottles.
  121. “Maybe I should be getting more exercise between trips, huh Zēnith?”
  123. He stares off in the vague direction of the small waterfall that feeds the pool you’re seated by.
  125. Heh, talking to yourself again? People gonna think you’re crazy if you keep that up. Good thing you haven’t seen another soul all day on this trail. You’ll probably have the lake all to yourself tonight, if you can make it up there.
  127. You grab another handful of food and readjust your position next to the pool, making sure to keep the purifier tube underwater as you pump.
  129. Man your legs hurt... that last three km up from the bottom of the falls to the lake are gonna be a killer.
  131. You finish filling your water bottles, put away your food and pump, and take off your footwear. Seated on a rock near the pools edge, you roll up your pants and dip your legs into the cool water.
  133. Ooh! That’s definitely high sierra snow runoff, no doubt!
  135. The cold helps to relieve some of the aches, and you sit like that for about ten minutes, enjoying the scenery, before you start getting seriously chilled. Moving to the sun-warmed stone riverbank, you let yourself dry off before pulling your socks and boots back on. You eye the position of the sun and check your watch.
  137. Welp, it’s just past two, so you guess it’s time to get moving again.
  139. You recheck the straps and make sure Zēnith isn’t in danger of falling out before lifting the pack once again to its place on your back. The trees have started to thin out considerably since you first reached the river, the altitude and rocky ground finally starting to impede their ability to grow.
  141. You feel bad for those poor trees... if only they could be just a bit more hardy you wouldn’t be hiking under the hottest sun of the day with no freaking shade! Stops to wet your hat in the river become more and more frequent as the heat climbs, but even so you find yourself soaked with as much sweat as river water.
  143. You trudge up a particularly steep, barren, and rocky section of trail with the sun blazing down on you, panting, body on fire with the exertion. Your legs and feet hurting you could understand, but the burning ache of protests from everything else, that was starting to get you worried. You’d love to dip your hat again, maybe soak in the cool water for a minute or two, but the river’s out of reach below you by about 30 feet of hillside.
  145. As you zone out into auto pilot, taking brief breaks to pant and rest, you start to hear a faint sort of white noise in the background. It almost sounds like wind in the trees leaves, but with so few trees you realize it couldn’t be. You near the top of the climb and the sound becomes a dull roar, a very welcoming breeze washing over you — and better still — tiny flecks of moisture blowing against your face! Could it be?!
  147. You hasten your pace, invigorated by hope, and upon rounding the next turn your dream comes true: before you stands a vast stone cliff face, several hundred feet tall, and down its middle a mighty torrent of water slams off mammoth boulder after mammoth boulder, cascading downward before crashing with a mighty roar into a wide, frothing, pool.
  149. Spray from the falls is carried by the heavy downdrafts it creates forward and down the valley, creating a small area of lush coolness in which trees, ferns, mosses, and flowers grow, and in which you now bask, thankful for the break from the oppressive heat.
  151. You sit on a rock by the pools edge with your eyes closed, pack propped against another nearby, and try to let your burning muscles relax, reveling in the wonderfully cool mist between wafts of warm air. After a moment you switch to laying down in the mossy grass and lift your legs to rest on the rock. While you watch wisps of mist dance with the sunbeams in the branches overhead you contemplate your bodies unusual aches.
  153. The fact that your condition was worsening is starting to get troubling. If you couldn't make it up to the lake tonight, so what? But the fact that you hurt this much wasn’t normal. It was like you had been run through a washing machine on ‘Heavy’ a few times and just never noticed. You slowly stretch your arms and back, popping a few joints. Why did your arms even hurt? It’s not like you were walking with them!
  155. “Okay, okay, under 5 or over 30.” The old hiking mantra dictating the length of stops sprung to mind automatically. If you took more than five minutes the muscles would start to cool down, and if you then didn't wait at least half an hour all the lactic acid they would normally release would just lock into them as you tried to warm them back up.
  157. You check your watch and gauge the sun for how much time it would take it to dip behind the high western ridge. Only another two hours or so of daylight, then maybe a few more of twilight from the sun reflecting off the eastern wall, if you’re lucky... Then again, it’s only another three km; a quick pop up over the hill, as it were. Maybe a quick nap, and then you’d be feeling right as rain.
  159. You set your watch’s alarm for half an hour, and pull your jacket from its place in your pack over yourself, the little plushie falling from its pocket as you do so. Picking him up and brushing the moisture from his coat you snuggle him under your makeshift blanket with you, and relaxing in the blend of warm sunbeams and cool breeze.
  161. “Sorry about that, you can nap with me. Don’t let me *yaawn* oversleep...”
  163. ☽▐▓▒░☼░▒▓▌☾
  165. Bee-Beep! Bee-Beep! Bee-Beep! Bee-Be—
  167. You let your hand fall away from the snooze button of your watch and roll over under your jacket, willing the wakefulness away.
  169. “Come on, stand up, it’s late enough as it is already. Your watch says it’s nearing 5 o’clock, and with the valley sundown will be all too soon.”
  171. You groan as you uncurl painfully, rolling your joints and stretching stiffly; trying to free yourself from sleep’s grasp.
  173. Wait. Was someone talking to you just now?
  175. You’re suddenly much more awake.
  177. You scramble to a ready stance, managing to catch a boot on your pack in the process and throwing gear everywhere, but when you scan the clearing you see only what you brought with you, and what was there already there. You think about calling out to the voice you thought you heard, but decide it would be too cliché — not to mention creep-inducing — and chalk it up to the last remnants of dreamland.
  179. Shaking the idea from your head you stand up straight and stretch again, properly this time. Your legs may not be burning anymore, but -everything- ached, maybe worse than before.
  181. By the rapidly setting sun, this is about as lame as lame gets! Still though, whether the nap was helpful or not, if you want to get to the lake tonight it’s time to hit the trail.
  183. Note to self: Work out more. Seriously.
  185. You gather your panic-strewn gear and systematically pack it away, but when you’re nearly done you notice little Zēnith isn’t in your pile.
  187. You check the ground around you increasingly frantically, scared that you’d lost him.
  189. “Dangit! ‘Never take anything you’re not prepared to lose’,” you quote to yourself in frustration as you search.
  191. You’re almost ready to start checking the bushes to see if he’d been tossed in your startled awakening when you suddenly notice him sitting on his tiny haunches on the rock you first sat down on, watching you.
  193. You freeze, locking your eyes on his as you stare at each other.
  195. You blink.
  197. No, wait, right, he couldn’t be watching you. Stuffed. Right... You must have absentmindedly put him there when you were picking up.
  199. You slowly reach out and scoop him up, placing him back in his pocket, careful to draw the neck of it just a little tighter around him so he couldn’t fall out.
  201. You stand and regard him silently for a moment. You really don’t remember picking him up off the ground...
  203. Shaking your head again you get your mind back on getting to the lake before what little light you have left disappears completely, and don your pack.
  205. The first few steps after a break were always groan-worthy, and this time was no exception. You force your limbs into movement, powering though the muscular distress with not much more than sheer strength of will, and plod one step at a time along the darkening trail towards the nearly sheer cliff face and its infernal switchbacks.
  207. ☽▐▓▒░☼░▒▓▌☾
  209. How fucking tall -is- this hill?!
  211. The path stretches away from you as it curves around the cliff that leads up to the falls’ crest. The tread of the trail’s only about two feet wide, and the steep drop off on your left only gets a little longer with each step. The shadow of the western ridge rests over the pool at the bottom where you had your nap, and is slowly making to chase you up the cliff as the sun nears the horizon on your left.
  213. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot.
  215. God your legs hurt, sweat’s pouring off you, and your stomach turns over and over. Last time you checked you weren’t out of shape, out of practice maybe, but not the tottering mess your body was currently proving you to be!
  217. The crawl up the trail all runs together, one plodding footfall bleeding into the next. At some point you notice the ridges shadow has caught you; the sun is setting.
  219. Doesn't matter. Just need to get to flat land. Need a place to eat. Need a place to sleep.
  221. “Some explorer.. I turned... out to.. be... huh Zēnith?”
  223. You say between heavy breaths. You don’t dare turn to look at him, not with the drop off that close and your head as fuzzy as it was, but even so you can feel his gaze. He’d never let a stupid hill get the better of him! He’d plow right up that damn thing, hell, he’d take notes on it, not wheeze like some pansy!
  225. You grab a water bottle from a belt loop and drain what was left of it, jamming it back into the loop and steeling your gaze on the trail ahead. The bottle misses it’s catch and clatters to the ground, rolling over the side of the cliff unnoticed.
  227. You feel an angry clarity come over you; a grimly focused resolve. You draw your breath from deeper in your chest, making sure to use of your diaphragm. You straighten your posture, stepping more evenly and with purpose. Your pace quickens, and a look of determination builds across your face. Your arms, legs — and generally every other part of your body — complain loudly, but all are met with a solid wall of endorphins as you set your jaw and zero your eyes in on the trail ahead of you.
  229. “Screw the pain, screw this queasiness, and Screw! This! HILL!”
  231. From barely being able to get one foot in front of the other you accelerate to a respectable hiking pace, then faster, and faster. Your strides lengthen, carrying you faster still. Going about 7 or 8 km per hour without actually jogging isn’t easy, but jogging take too much energy with the weight of a pack, and even through the haze of your endorphin high you remember the basics.
  233. You can nearly hear Libera Me from Hell playing in the back of your head as you match your rhythm to its own, using it as fuel for your fire, your ‘left foot, right foot’ mantra fading to a repeated “row, row, fight the power’.
  235. “Do the —
  237. Ground is eaten up beneath your feet; the cliff bottom dropping away, and the lake drawing ever nearer. The crest of the falls comes into view over a hill in the trail. Wait, that's not just a hill, that's the top!
  239. You charge ahead — your legs on full stage three burn — surmounting the peak in the trail and beginning the sweet descent toward that sapphire blue jewel of water, the last rays of sun reflecting golden light off of it onto the surrounding rocks and flowered slopes. The clouds in the sky are awash with a reds and golds between the two peaks that mark the top of the valley. Combined with the golden light gleaming divinely off the lake, only one thought crosses your mind as you finally reach the shore.
  241. “Zēnith, our’s is the drill that has pierced the heavens!”
  243. And with that you collapse backwards into a patch of thick grasses, out like a light.
  245. ☽▐▓▒░☼░▒▓▌☾
  247. “Owww...”
  249. Slowly waking, you find yourself sore beyond belief, shivering madly from cold, and huddled over in a fetal position out of instinct.
  251. The sweat from your previous exertion had done its job in lowering your body temperature, along with help from the lack of sun, and the cold nocturnal sierra breeze. You ache down to your very bones, and your joints pop and snap painfully as you arduously uncurl and sit up, unclasping your pack from you.
  253. Your jittering hands fumble with the buckles, eventually digging out your first aid pack. You rip the pack open and grab the mylar space blanket, its thin plastic capable of reflecting almost all of someone’s body heat back to them. You wrap the sheet around you, tucking into it as best as your stiffened body will allow.
  255. Crouching there, shivering in the dark, hurting all over, and suddenly quite hungry, you have a hard time remembering why you thought this place was so heavenly.
  257. You look over at your pack, and at Zēnith lying near it in the dewy grass. For a moment you almost seem to grasp some sort of connection between the tiny unicorn and all the weird events of the past day and a half — but as quickly as it came it blinks away again, back into your subconscious as you’re overcome by a raw wire of pain down your left side.
  259. The droplets on his horn and eyes catch the meager moonlight and seem to twinkle at you in sympathy and comfort as you gasp, the pain receding. Well, if you ever needed sympathy and comfort now would be the time. You reach out and grab him, huddling with him beneath the slowly warming blanket.
  261. You eventually get your shivering under control, the tiny fabric form clutched to your chest radiating warmth — at least it feels like it to your still freezing skin. You gather your sleeping bag and bedroll from the mess you pulled out of your pack, along with your stove, fuel, and bear can. You lay out the bedroll, and try to make yourself comfy in the sleeping bag atop it, pulling the space blanket in with you for extra warmth.
  263. “ah- aH- aCHoo!”
  265. Your nose runs, and your head throbs painfully from the sneeze. Freaking great, as if you didn’t have enough problems. You set up the stove and fumble with the lighter, eventually getting it lit.
  267. Ahhh yes, warm hands, that really rocks right about now.
  269. You dump half a water bottle into the pot, toss in a random pack of dehydrated food, and add a handful of jerky. While it heats you retreat back into your layers of clothing, feeling feverish. It’ll be okay, you can just eat and go to sleep; you’ll have plenty of days to get better, and everything you need it right here. In the morning you can —
  271. “Arhhgh-!”
  273. You grunt and clench your teeth, gasping and doubled over in pain as it shoots through you; lancing from nerve to nerve. It was similar to what your felt earlier, but this time it sent after shocks branching outward, the pain fuzzing out into a burning that seems to fill every part of you at least once as it washes through your huddled form in waves. It ebbs gradually, the last ripples slothfully calming to a dull throb in your skull.
  275. Fevers normally give you horribly sharp, bone searing, full body pains, right? Right? It’s nothing, it’ll all be better by morning, you just need some food, and some rest, that’s all.
  277. You shakily reach out your arm, the muscles stiffly resisting, and the bones seeming to creak, but you nevertheless manage to lift the lid of your cooking pot. You lean forward, smelling deeply of the delicious mea-
  279. Oh god that reeks! Even through your stuffed nose you can tell that something in that pot is rancid! You heave dryly, but get it under control before you puke out whatever you -do- have in you. You move the pot off the stove, setting it on an out of the way rock where it won’t get tipped over, and reach out to grab the jerky bag, and sniff lightly. Oh, yep, definitely the jerky, dammit. You almost heave one more time before tossing the bag off to the side in frustration — overeager to be rid of it — but the sudden tension across your back causes it to seize up in the worst muscle cramp you ever remember.
  281. “FUAAAHHHHH-!!!”
  284. You are pulled backwards into an arch as the muscles along your back do their best to free themselves from their bone and ligament prison.
  286. “Fuck fuck fuck, owwww!”
  288. Okay, things might not be as good as you keep telling yourself. The cramp calms down as you lie on your back, panting, but things may very well get -much- worse. Was this some kind of seizure?! Was there a self-test for that?
  290. “Quick, Zēnith, am I speaking in gibberish?!”
  292. Fuck, right: plushie, okay.
  294. Maybe I’m just going insane, maybe it’s not some chest-burster bone parasite!
  296. Or what if it’s both?! No one in their right mind would believe a story like that, and I’d be too crazy to convince them!!
  298. “You’re breathing too fast...”
  300. Oh god and then they’d get a face full of alien wing-wong, and it’d reproduce, and we’d all be screwed — AAH, Okay! What is that thumping in my chest?!?
  302. “Too fast. Calm down...”
  304. Oh Please, No!! Ahh! AAH!!
  306. “You’re hyperventilating now...”
  308. AHH, No! Not Like This!!
  310. “Relax. I’m warning you...”
  312. You feel your senses sharpen, your lungs hauling great gulps of air in and out, your whole body tensing in fight or flight. You feel torn between the instincts, equal parts terrified and hopeless, as both options hold little promise of salvation, and the urge to act driving at you relentlessly.
  314. Calm.
  316. Suddenly... utterly... bewilderingly... calm.
  318. “Why am I calm?”
  320. “Because you just went into shock,” Zēnith replies matter-of-factly, poking his head out from your sleeping bag.
  322. You look down your torso at the unusually animate plushie, and your neck hardly even complains from the movement.
  324. “You were hyperventilating, and tense, and in general that’s not healthy for your condition.”
  326. He’s fixing you with a rather annoyed look, like he had to clean up your mess.
  328. “Oh. Okay, um, is that also why I just heard you speak?”
  330. “No, that’s signifies your tentative grip on what you humorously call your ‘perception’ of the nature of reality slipping from your psyche.”
  332. He climbs all the way out and sits down on your lower chest, looking up at you in sympathy and contemplation.
  334. “Oh... Well. Impoliteness aside, does that mean everything -isn’t- going to be better in the morning?”
  336. “Depends on your definition of ‘better’. Things are about to get... interesting.”
  338. “Define ‘Interesting’.”
  340. He puts a fuzzy little hoof to his chin with an expression of mock thought. If you weren’t so unstable you’d find it wholly over-adorable.
  342. “An adjective meaning ‘arousing of curiosity or attention’, ‘difficult or involved’ — as of a problem, or a conversational term used to ‘avoid admitting inattention, express indifference, or for no reason whatsoever‘.”
  344. “Ah huh... what about ‘Oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die’?”
  346. ”Ehhhhh...?” He raised his brows with a guilty grimace, not looking terribly sure either way.
  348. “...Ah. Okay. One second.”
  350. You dig around in the remains of your first aid kit until you locate a small cellphone sized device, the words “Emergency Personal Locator Beacon” stenciled on the side in bold red letters. You undo the latch and flip open the front cover to reveal a single thumb sized red button simply labeled “ON”.
  352. You press and hold the button, and three seconds later the device beeps loudly, then lets out a building whine that ends a second later with a flash from the strobe light on top. The audible whine and flash repeat as you set down the device and pick up a bag of granola. You slowly chew a handful. Zēnith looks up at you, expression pensive.
  354. “Forry, chou wvant shome?” you say, mouth full.
  356. “Sure, thanks,” he replies, tail seeming to wave happily a few times at the offer.
  358. You pour out a small pile in front of him, and you both eat for a few minutes — you watching him, and he with his eyes closed, legs folded beneath him. You wonder how he’s eating, since as far as you know his mouth didn’t even open, let alone connect to a digestive tract. But then again it was already established you were going insane, so you suppose that’s a fine explanation for this as well...
  360. All your muscles seem to be trying to wiggle oddly, and joints all over your body are making disquieting pops whenever you move.
  362. “Umm, Zēnith? I think I’m going to lay down for a bit now, maybe take a quick nap. I’ve been feeling unbelievably under the weather lately.”
  364. “Alright. Remember, human: tomorrow will be a new day, full of exploration and adventure.”
  366. His outline fades and blurs, slowly filling your vision with oranges and blues. Your body moves as if of its own accord, laying you down on your side, the shifting sounds and feelings from within you being pressed from your mind as something else blooms in their place.
  368. It slips in around your mind, an unknown thought surrounding you, filling your entire perception with its nature. Your link to the outside world, to your body, is slowly severed as you’re wrapped in its caress. You waltz with it, laying your head against the warmth of its core, melting into its welcoming embrace.
  370. It’s so happy, and kind, and understanding. Its strength offers you reprieve from the cold, and the pain, and the uncertainty. All you could ever need, provided, and in turn you provide for it, giving whatever you can, knowing the unconditional warmth of companionship in its truest form.
  372. You soar with elation, sublimating into the delightful dance of such an intelligible and efficacious concept as this.
  374. ‘What are you?’, you query through your phantasmical thrall, holding yourself tight against the dreambound nebulae.
  376. Suddenly, as if awoken from its slumber by your request, a darkness sweeps over your periphery, darkening the corners where once there was but light.
  378. The warmth holds you lovingly, soothing your fear with its presence, settling you into its grasp. As the shadows draw near you can hear their chatter; chittering clicks and tones that spread their cold sovereignty ever closer.
  380. You quaver, pushing further into your protector, supplicating yourself for sanctuary. Yet, it does not shield you as it did before. Adoration flows from it, but it’s sliced with heartache. Its touch means serenity, its breath gentle repose, and you drink of it with faith, trusting it would not lie.
  382. The umbral spectators gather before it, echoing chirps probing you, dissecting you with scrutiny. Their cold tendrils creep over you, but you look instead to your seraphic guardian, imploring it to give you its name, to protect you. It rests an olive branch against your lips, and swirls with ire at the unrepentant shades, its warning of silence implicit.
  384. The gelid antennae withdraw, and from the mass of forms around you a boreal wind arises, swelling as it prepares to strike. With the resilience of your nameless keeper at your back you dauntlessly meet your assailants charge, bearing its incursion into your soul without fear.
  386. The forbidding gale is within and without, but even as you feel your spirit wane, a warm breath against the back of your neck drifts to your heart, giving you happy peace as it resounds with a single echoing whisper.
  388. “I am... Magic.”
  390. Sleep comes for you, cold and fast, like a wraith on darkened wings.
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