Ashley walked along the damp, frosty trail, taking in the wintry air. She had halfway expected to grow homesick after relocating away up north with the other two, but somehow her old life of squatting in condemned apartment complexes didn't call back out to her. Isaac had assured her that this change of scenery was temporary, and that they could readily return once the heat was off from the shattered remnants of the military researchers, but she honestly wouldn't mind staying here for quite a while. Colder climates were better, anyhow, and snow was always so pleasant and pretty to watch – at least, when she didn't have to find shelter. A sudden gust prompted her to tighten the orange scarf she wore, and she hurried her pace back to Isaac's somewhat less ostentatious second house.
Once inside, she hung her scarf around a coat rack, then tromped over and sat next to Melancholia on the sofa, leaving a trail of slushy footprints. Isaac, who sat opposite them in an overstuffed armchair, rolled his eyes, then stood and busied himself cleaning the prints with a strategically placed towel near the door. A fire roared in the hearth on the far wall, and Ashley found herself feeling delightfully cozy. A contented smile spread on her face.
“Miss Ashley, might I introduce to you a groundbreaking invention known as the doormat? As it so happens, you neglected one entirely not a minute prior.” He discarded the towel and resumed his seat. “At any rate, while I am loathe to sour your good spirits by mentioning it, Miss Melancholia and I were discussing the matter of your medical condition. More exactly, we were expressing our concerns regarding the utter lack of any potential substantive treatments – even anti-magical cures were discussed, but such things as the vitality boost you were given are strictly temporary, and furthermore lose potency with repeated application.”
“Don't worry, it doesn't bother me to talk about it. What about that spell book?”
Melancholia inclined her head. “What about it?”
“Well, you said that you couldn't do the Nothingness tesseract thing alone, but once you had the spell book, you could. If you can't cure me yourself, then maybe there's some trick or spell in the book that could help?”
“It is unfortunate, but the spell book is more of a technical manual for the mechanics of anti-magic and the structure of the planes of existence. The use of anti-magic for such medicinal purposes as curing diseases constitutes a wide and unrelated field of study. In addition, I was a student of the former school, hence my relative knowledgeability in that area and my ignorance in the latter.”
“More mundanely speaking, Miss Ashley, if there are any manner of medical tests that haven't been conducted on you that could possibly reveal some critical clue about the nature of your state, then it's wholly within my ability to–”
“Don't bother with it, Ike. I was poked and prodded by so-called experts for years, and they ran so many different tests on me that I lost count. At this point, the only thing that'd cure me would be an act of God.”
The room fell silent for a time save for the crackling of the fire, then Melancholia spoke. “That is something that has been piquing my curiosity for the longest time. What is this 'God' that your race keeps mentioning?”
“To those who are religiously inclined in the Christian sense, God is the name of the creator of the Universe, as well as Heaven and Hell – and Purgatory, for the Catholics. Different religions have different names for God or have multiple, completely unrelated gods, but as Christianity is the primary religion in this area, that's the God you presumably would've heard being mentioned, and is the one who was invoked by Miss Ashley just now.”
“Your race thinks that there is an entity that created Existence? What sort of being would have that kind of power? Even if the most talented anti-magicians of the Order all worked in unison, they could not hope to fabricate even a single plane of existence, let alone something resembling the full interplay of the planes and the Nothingness.”
Ashley pulled off her boots and tossed them haphazardly toward the door. “I'm no Christian, but I think the idea is that God's all-powerful. As in, He can literally do anything.”
“What a perplexing notion. Still, how would such an entity arise? From what source or force would it draw the immense volumes of energy necessary for such a feat? It seems that the existence of such an entity would raise more questions than it solved.”
“Do keep in mind that the myriad religions and folktales of our world arose when humanity was much younger as an attempt to explain our contemporarily unclear origins and those of the world around us. Scientific fact played a minimal role in their formulation, if any at all. Surely there were such creation myths in your world as well, yes?”
“Yes, there were, but those who believed in such things were seen as eccentrics and were very few in number. As our understanding of Existence expanded, the majority of the Order updated their world views according to the new developments. I find myself curious, however, as to whether or not this God of your plane exists. I would like to see if we could find this being and communicate with it.”
Ashley giggled to herself. “Hey, if you wanna find God, Mel, I hear they have church groups for that.”
“You may make humor all you want, Ashley, but if we succeed in this endeavor, then would we not then be in contact with a being capable of curing you?”
“While I find your determination and curiosity as admirable as always, Miss Melancholia, our greatest thinkers and holy men have striven to locate the divinity for nearly as long as the existence of religion itself, to no avail. Of course, I daresay none of them had the advantage of having reality-warping anti-magic at their disposal, but by your own admission even that power can't compare to that which would be hypothetically wielded by God and His angels. That is, would your abilities be enough?”
“I cannot know unless I try. In addition to planar studies and medicine, there is a branch of anti-magic dedicated to entity location and summoning conjurations. As I mentioned earlier, my specialization lies with planar travel, so my knowledge– Oh!” Her face lit up. “Jubilant!” She noticed the others' confused staring. “I had a close friend and colleague long prior to the vampire war who insisted that I aid her in inter-plane travel, as she professed that she wished to explore and document all of Existence. Her name was Jubilant, and she was the most adept summoner that the Order had ever produced, to my understanding. If I could get in contact with her, then together we could summon most anything, regardless of its plane of origin.”
“Wasn't everyone in the Order killed off, though?”
“Yes, they were, as our plane of existence was erased, but she left the plane before that point, so she may still be alive somewhere.”
“As promising as that sounds, how in the world could we possibly hope to locate her if she's been bouncing randomly all over the Multiverse for however long? She could be millions of Universes distant from where she started, judging from her ambitious goal of wanting to catalog them in their entirety.”
“Out of respect for the strength of our bond, she devised a pair of incantations that could be used to pinpoint her current plane of residence and her location therein and entrusted them to me and me alone; she had disagreements with the leadership of the Order, and thus she had no intention of being sought out by them and brought back over some political bickering, hence the secrecy. Translocating between planes, however, is a procedure of immense complexity, far more so than linking two points within a single plane using a tesseract. It will take extensive preparations.” She picked up the spell book from an end table and began flipping through it.
“If there's anything that you might require for your preparation, simply ask and I shall readily obtain it for you.”
She thought for a moment. “I will need another empty room, though it should be freestanding, not a part of the same structure as this house.”
“In that case, I'll go empty out the old utility shed.” He stood and walked to the door, tying on his snow boots. “Your assistance would be greatly appreciated, Miss Ashley.”
“Nah, that's OK, you can take care of it.”
Ashley's eyes flickered open. The fire now burned low, and dusk had settled outside. Sitting up and stretching, she noted that neither of the others were present, but someone had lain a blanket over top of her in her sleep. A picture of a gently smiling Melancholia draping the blanket on her popped into her thoughts, tailed quickly by an image of her sleeping in Melancholia's embrace as the two of them lay snuggled up together under a comforter; her face burned a brilliant red, and she was suddenly very grateful that she was the only one in the room. She kicked off the cover and walked over to the fruit bowl sitting on a table in the adjacent room. She snagged a peach and took a bite out of it as she slipped into her boots. She rubbed at the juice leaking from her mouth, wrapped herself in her scarf, and stepped outside.
A light flurry of snow greeted her, sticking invisibly to her hair and noticeably to her dark gray top as she came out from beneath the porch. She followed along the gravel path toward the shed. If they were to end up finding God, would He even be willing to help her? She had been agnostic for years, and before then merely hadn't put enough consideration into it to decide on anything. What's more, from what parts she could remember from the Bible, God never was keen on taking orders from people; if anything, doing something like summoning Him would probably come off as particularly arrogant to Him. On top of that, she could hardly call herself virtuous and upright, so that likely made the odds worse. Clearly, they would need some sort of leverage, but what?
The shed was in front of her, but something rubbed her as being strange about it. After backing up a few steps and squinting, she noticed a faint, blurry distortion in the air, forming a sphere that cut into the ground around the shed. Cautiously, she approached and stuck her arm into the field; nothing felt amiss, though seeing part of her forearm blurred and the rest in clarity unnerved her on some visceral level. She quickly proceeded into the building; Isaac and Melancholia glanced in her direction as she entered. As with the channeling room from Isaac's old mansion, the interior of the room had been covered in various geometric runes, though these were smaller and far more numerous.
“What's with that blurry ball around the shed?” She took another bite from the peach.
“It is part of the preparations that I mentioned. Unlike with the tesseract, this conjuration does not open a gateway through which objects can pass without restriction. Instead, it displaces a volume of mass in the destination plane with an equivalent volume from the source plane. The field that you observed delineates the volume from this plane that will be transposed.”
“With this friend of yours, why did she leave your Universe? I mean, I can understand wanting to explore new places, but weren't there other planets and galaxies and stuff that she hadn't seen?”
“That is a good question. I never quite understood her motivations. She was always a bit… unusual. She had formulated this theory about the existence of planes that possessed consciousness, and that would manifest an entity as a type of avatar. She desired nothing more than to meet one of these avatars. As esoteric as the notion seemed to me in the past, I find that I am now curious as to whether she ever found such a being.” Having paused for this recollection, Melancholia resumed drawing more figures on one of the last few blank sections of wall.
“What're we gonna do about food and water? Or, I guess you could use anti-magic for that, but will the air be safe to breathe?” She chucked the peach pit outside of the shed.
“Actually, I'm able to answer that one, and I'll do so since Miss Melancholia's otherwise preoccupied. She's produced these wondrous belts that project an inertial barrier of air around the wearer; this bubble of atmosphere is of identical composition and pressure to Earth's at sea level, such that respiration in hostile environments won't be at all an issue while wearing it. For that matter, they regulate the air's temperature based on the wearer's internal body heat, therefore that aspect of whatever realm in which we find ourselves also won't be problematic.”
She nodded, looked down at her feet, then back up, blushing slightly. “Hey, uh… Thanks so much for this, you guys. Going to all this trouble to help me out, I mean. I've hardly ever had anyone do anything for me before, but you're willing to go to another Universe just for my sake.” Despite her best efforts, tears welled up in her eyes. “I-It really means a lot.”
“Oh, Ashley, there is no need to thank us. After all, we are friends, are we not?”
“Indeed, our camaraderie overcomes all, be it disease or government, vampire or police!”
They both smiled: Isaac broadly, Melancholia softly. Blushing to her ears, Ashley smiled in return.
“OK, are we completely, absolutely certain that we have everything that we need for this expedition? Somehow, I imagine that we'd have considerable difficulty obtaining supplies after we leave the confines of our Universe, so let's go over everything one last time for the sake of our collective sanity.”
“Come on, Ike, we've been over it a dozen times. You've got your pistol and ammo, I've got my rebar. We have a lantern, a headlamp, and three flashlights each – both hand-crank and battery – along with tons of batteries and bulbs, not to mention enough glow sticks to throw a rave party. We have those water jugs and the MREs just in case, and we have the tents and the sleeping bags plus the foam mats. There's also the literal miles of glow-in-the-dark rope you bought so we can tie ourselves to the shed to not get lost. What else could we possibly need?”
“This, of course.” He held up a video camera. “What could be more unique and valuable than footage – and 4K footage, at that – taken from another Universe? I've a veritable cornucopia of fully charged spare batteries and SD cards, too. It might not be a written document, but I'll find space for it among my collection, never you worry. And best of all” – he held up an elaborate harness – “I've prepared a mount for it such that I'm capable of recording while simultaneously keeping my firearm ready. I've even practiced at the firing range with it fully equipped to ensure its functionality, and it works like a charm.”
“You'll look ridiculous wearing that.”
“That's a minuscule expense for such an invaluable recording in conjunction with my ensured physical safety. At any rate, I believe we're at long last ready.”
Melancholia nodded. “In that case, I request that you put on your atmosphere belts and ensure that they are fastened and firm. Following that, it might be in your best interest to take a seated position, as the transition could be… turbulent.”
“Wait, one last question: You said you had a spell to figure out what Universe your friend is in, but how would you know where exactly in that Universe she'd be?”
“Note that we will not transition to the other plane at first, but will warp into the Nothingness.” At Ashley's distressed expression, she held up a hand consolingly. “Do not worry, as we will not linger there for long. I cannot conduct her customized location query invocation from within a different plane than her current one, but I can from the inter-plane void. That is how we will know where in that plane she will be.”
Ashley picked up her belt, fastening it around her waist as securely as it would fit. Instantly, a cloud of fresh air enveloped her, giving her a pleasant and comforting impression of being shielded on all sides by a dense cushion. With their belts secured, Melancholia, her hands and the walls darkly hissing alike, rapidly traced out the sequence of shapes for the conjuration. The shed began to shake. Ashley's heart raced, and she tightened her trembling grip on the rebar. Isaac – camera mounted and recording, pistol in hand – stood completely still. The light creeping in around the door frame faded away, leaving only the harsh illumination from the battery-powered lantern; Melancholia's casting shifted in pattern.
An expression equal parts confusion and amusement danced across her face, followed by a wistful smile. “Oh, Jube, you are as peculiar as ever.” At this, her gestures accelerated into a blur, and the shaking from before increased in magnitude to a balance-upsetting rumble. Ashley tumbled back onto her rear, though it felt as though she had sat down on a thick, downy comforter. Isaac widened his stance and remained upright. It continued for several minutes, then died down into silence. Melancholia ceased gesturing, and the symbols on the walls powered down. No light was visible from outside.
“We have arrived.”
* * * * *
Ashley poorly attempted to mask her excitement as she opened the shed door. Shining her flashlight out into the shadows, she noticed that a circle of the snowy ground around the building had come along with them; it bordered an unfamiliar dusty black rock of some sort that stretched off out of view into the inky darkness. She adjusted the loop of phosphorescent rope sitting atop her belt, checked that the colossal spool gave slack properly, then trekked outward. Isaac and Melancholia followed closely behind her, the former with a headlamp, the latter empty-handed. On a whim, Ashley flicked her light skyward, revealing a thick, low-hanging blanket of slowly drifting clouds. While still walking, she turned and spoke to the others in a hushed whisper.
“What kind of place is this?”
“We are on a rogue planet deep in the intergalactic space of this plane. Jubilant always had a quaint preference for dim, isolated places such as this.”
“I don't know if 'quaint' is a good word for it…”
“Indeed, and, for that matter, characterizing this locale as merely 'dim' and 'isolated' constitutes a monumental understatement.”
“Is there anything alive here other than us and your friend?”
“I do not think so, but I cannot say for sure, so be careful. We should reach her location before much longer.”
They continued forward. It seemed incredibly strange to Ashley that, in their hunt for the God of Christianity, they ended up in a wholly different Universe. Come to think of it, if He were the driving force behind the creation of all of the Multiverse, then why didn't Christianity or an equivalent to it develop in Melancholia's world? Wouldn't He want to deliver His salvation and whatnot to all of the races he had brought into being? Or, perhaps, was Christianity ultimately all untrue, and their trip across the fringes of space and time pointless? Pointless or not, the situation had been sending thrills up her spine since the moment they'd landed. She had just noticed that she was softly biting her lower lip when a large outcropping of the dusty rock rose up in front of her. A sizable hole yawned in the middle of it, with the cave floor sloping downward beneath ground level.
“This should be it.”
She gazed back toward the shed – now little more than a pinprick of light with a long, glowing tendril wrapped around her – then marched inside. After what may have been hours of descending, a faint light became visible from ahead. Before much longer, they stood facing a metallic door with a curious purple corrosion on it set into the stone wall, flanked by two spherical stones steadily emitting a soft white light.
No handle was present on the door. Melancholia approached it and drew a single symbol on it with shadowed hands, and it opened. She strode into the next room, the other two on her heels; scarcely more than a cave with a flat floor and a desk-like mesa, it overflowed with notebooks, journals, and pads filled with alien scribbles. More unnaturally luminescent globes dotted the walls. Melancholia scanned the room, then called out in a resounding shout a phrase that neither of the other two could make out.
Almost immediately, a tall, light-haired woman in a flowing, electric green dress flew out of an adjacent room and embraced Melancholia. She was ecstatically grinning from ear to ear, and she jabbered away at her in an incomprehensible language as she lifted her in the embrace and spun around in place. Isaac and Ashley gaped in disbelief as this woman set Melancholia down, who responded in the same tongue at first and then faced them.
“Ashley, Isaac, I would like you to meet my dear friend and colleague, Jubilant.”
“There will be a slight delay, as I shall perform a partial mind meld with Jubilant in order for her to learn how to communicate with you in your language. This should not take long.” She looked back to Jubilant and spoke quickly in their tongue, gesturing to the two standing there. Jubilant nodded and gave a short reply. Melancholia inhaled and drew a few figures with her glowing hands, interlocked her hands with Jubilant's likewise hissing hands, then stepped in close to Jubilant and kissed her on the lips. Shock, envy, and distant arousal rocketed through a paralyzed Ashley. She had a vague perception that Isaac had taken interest in a nearby notebook, his face crimson. The two towering women remained lip-locked for a few moments longer, then came apart. A grave demeanor had come over Jubilant.
“So, the whole Anti-Magical Order has…”
“Yes, it is true. Our plane has been destroyed, and the Order along with it.”
“And to think that we used to call ourselves the guardians of our world. I always knew that the administration would draw the rage of the vampires at some point, but even I did not suspect that they would rub out the whole plane just because they were losing the war. What filthy cowards. I am so very glad, though, that you escaped, Mellie.”
“And I am grateful for your inexplicable desire to travel amongst the planes, as is it because of that eccentricity of yours that you are still alive, Jube. At any rate, as pleasant as it is to see you again after so long, you know that I am here for another reason as well.”
“Ah, yes, yes.” Jubilant regarded Ashley curiously, who returned the attention with a distrustful glare. “You are Ashley, the one with the weird health problem, right? It is something that is beyond your people's medicinal ability to cure, and us anti-magicians have been nigh useless to assist you because of our inaccurate skillsets, yes? And now you have shambled out so far away from your home to seek my help in the summoning some arcane creature of impossible power to cure you?”
She then puzzled over Isaac and his camera setup. “I must confess that I am stumped as to why you are here – your name is Isaac, Mellie said? Are you sick as well? What is this contraption attached to you?”
He stuck out a hand, which Jubilant examined with fascination. “Yes, I'm Isaac, and it's an absolute delight to make the acquaintance of any associate of my good friend Miss Melancholia. Fortunately, I'm not sick; I'm a collector of strange and rare books in my Universe – or 'plane', to use your parlance – and I've come here not only to support and accompany my comrades but also to record extra-dimensional video footage by means of this, as you put it, contraption.”
“Ooh, how interesting! In a way, your interest mirrors my own, Isaac, and that is great if I may say so, even if I do not understand in full what 'video footage' is.” She clapped her hands together, and her emerald eyes flashed excitedly. “Either way, it is super to meet you two, just super. I am thinking that this God of your religion might be the planar avatar, in which case I would be able to give you a most enthusiastic hand.”
“Speaking of that matter, Jube, did you ever confirm that theory?”
To Ashley's further irritation, she took Melancholia's hands in her own. “Why, Mellie, you could not have arrived with better timing had you tried, as I am on the verge of confirmation with this very plane!”
Jubilant led them into a back room covered in anti-magical runes, and she rubbed her hands together with unfettered anticipation. She nodded at Isaac. “I believe I shall produce the most – perhaps 'awesome' is the word – batch of that 'video footage' for you, Isaac, should this go as I expect.” She hunched her shoulders as she inhaled, then began an elaborate casting sequence, drawing each figure with deft, halting motions. The trio stood a distance back, observing with intermixed curiosity and apprehension. She finished and relaxed her shoulders, looking around expectantly. The fifth figure in the room appeared so abruptly and silently that it spoke before the others noticed it.
“Two mages and two monkeys walk into a bar. The bartender says, 'Well, this one ought to be good.' ”
“Beautiful! Look, Mellie, look and see! It is the planar avatar, just like I always told you and just like you never believed!”
“Is that… a giant, armor-plated squid? Gross.”
Filling the rear of the room was a massive, dark gray octopus covered in segments of a dull black metal. A disproportionately large yellow eye dominated the center of its head. At her comment, it trained its eye on Ashley.
“Look who's talking. You're the one with a mutated life essence.”
It surveyed their reactions. “Oho, you didn't know? I smelled it as soon as you forced your way in with your antibaryonic magic tricks. Yeah, little girl, your soul's broken. That's why you're dying. But it's not why you're a jackass – that part's all you.”
The bottom of Ashley's stomach dropped out. In a way, it all made sense: The inexplicable changes in the color of her eyes and hair, the inability for any of the specialists to give so much as a plausible guess at a cause, the consistently inconclusive results from each member of the gargantuan battery of medical tests. Were it something physical, these things wouldn't add up, but if the problem had rested within her soul all of this time, then who knows what effects it might've had? Who knows if any mundane scans could've identified it? The prospect of locating a cure suddenly felt extremely unlikely. As her mouth dried up, she heard Melancholia's voice distantly.
“Her life essence is mutated? Her soul is broken? I do not understand. Would you explain to us what you mean by these statements?”
“You would be clueless about that stuff, wouldn't you?” It let out a burbling chuckle. “Alright, so, with planes, you've got awake ones like me and then you've got brain-dead ones. That second category is by far the majority. Should a plane be awake, however, then they can play with their physics however they want. So, if some sucker wanted to, they could give every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth its own genuine soul. For you uninitiated, think of a life essence or a soul as being a consciousness that can think and float around even after its meat suit dies. These things usually have a particular order to them – the soul of Mister Cameraman over there is nice and neat, for example – but hers is all twisted up. Mutated. Broken. You get the picture.”
“Is there a way that we can repair the mutation that afflicts her, and would you perhaps be able to heal her?”
It stared at Ashley for a second. “Whoever made her soul might could fix her, but who knows if she'd be the same afterward? As for me, fat chance, sister. You force your way into my place, wake me up, insult me when I take a form that won't break your minds, and then ask me for favors? You've got moxie, but zero manners. What's more, she's an alien. You ever try to perform brain surgery on an alien? Still, whatever clown set up shop in your home plane is something else, little girl.” It made a gurgling sound, as though laughing. “To think someone would actually use souls. What, does he have an infinite afterlife or something going on over there? Don't die here, you bonobos, or you'll miss out on being bored forever!” It gurgled again.
“Wait, what about Mel and Jubilant?”
“Oh, what, the mages? By your measure, they're soulless. When they die, it'll be lights out. That's the default for brain-dead planes, and it's how I've got it built around here, too. It's better like that, I'd say. Of course, even if they had tickets for the soul train, their plane's been snuffed out, so there'd be no sitting on clouds and playing harps for them, huh?” As it laughed, Melancholia and Jubilant exchanged a confused glance.
“So, let me guess: You're going to scurry back to the home plane of these chimps and try to chat up King Kong like you did me to get her head screwed on right. Am I right?” After a moment, the others nodded. “Then you'll want leverage and protection. I'd bet anything that the guy in charge over there is an arrogant prick. He'd squish you two intruders as soon as look at you – and maybe even you natives as well for being so uppity – unless he had a reason otherwise. He's probably done something else asinine like personify the concept of death and make it equivalent to himself. See if you can't summon and bargain with that, first. Good luck.”
“Hey, wait, one last question: Why are you telling us this?”
“Call it quid pro quo. I pulled a lot of info from your heads, so I figured I'd spill some myself. Besides, as rude as you are, little girl, you've got spunk, and I respect that. Now scram.” The octopus vanished as unceremoniously and noiselessly as it had appeared.
“Thank you, Miss Jubilant. That was a decidedly awesome batch of video footage.”
Melancholia and Ashley walked back toward the shed, the latter coiling up the slack rope around her arm as they went. Jubilant and Isaac were a short ways ahead of them, talking animatedly and carrying Jubilant's notes on her explorations. Though Ashley knew that there was neither a romantic nor a sexual component to the mind meld kiss from earlier, she couldn't push the image from her mind's eye, nor could she disentangle the knot in her stomach.
“You and this Jubilant go way back, huh?”
“Yes. We were in the same student grouping at the Order's primary academy during our training and education. I cannot say how long it has been since I had last seen her before we traveled here. It is pleasant beyond my ability to express to see her again.”
“So, you're just friends, or…?”
Melancholia was nonplussed. “What else would we be? Yes, she and I are friends.”
“And there's nothing going on between you or anything?”
She blinked and tilted her head. “Going on between us? I do not understand.”
“Actually, never mind. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Ashley, are you feeling well? You seem distre–”
“I said never mind!” She stormed off ahead, her frustration boiling over, leaving behind a thoroughly bewildered Melancholia.
The shed shuddered to a rest back in its rightful position in Isaac's yard. Melancholia let her arms fall limp, then slumped forward, exhausted. Ashley found herself yawning hugely, and drowsily removed both rope loop and belt, tossing them to the floor. The cold morning air – they had been gone all night – rushed around her, making her shiver involuntarily and her hair stand on end. Isaac set his camera equipment carefully aside, though he pocketed the SD card. Jubilant readied a stick of graphite and a notepad.
“I do not believe that I have happened upon this plane prior to now in my expeditions.” Her face lit up in a smile as the sky became visible when the others opened the shed door and trudged wearily back toward the house. “Ooh, a cute yellow main sequence star! I was expecting a red one, but this is much better. And the sky is such a charming shade of blue! Your planet here is gorgeous, if perhaps a bit overstimulating.” She trailed after the trio, dutifully scrawling away at the notepad and craning her neck every which way. They assembled in the main room at the front of the house.
“I presume that we're all in need of sleep – I most undoubtedly am – but as you don't visibly appear to share our fatigue, Miss Jubilant, is there anything that you're confident that you'll need for our summoning project? I expect you'd greatly prefer to start working in the meantime rather than merely waiting for us to awaken.”
“All I need is a room where I can sketch all over the walls. Do you have such a room?”
“Due to requiring such a room not too long ago, I prepared one shortly after my friends and I relocated here in the recent past. You'll find it should you follow that hallway, descend the flight of stairs, and pass through the door on the left.” At this, she smiled brightly, produced a marker from her sleeve, and trotted off down the hall.
Ashley promptly fell forward onto the couch and went to sleep immediately.
* * * * *
“I must say, Miss Ashley, this fills me splendidly with nostalgia, the two of us walking together like so. It brings to mind that fateful day when we first encountered one another outside of that underground library, bickering over that vampire book. Good times, yes?”
“You'd stepped on a nail.”
“True as that may be, I'd assert that that day held positivity and fortune for us both – if for no reason other than because the wound on my foot didn't become infected, but of course you understand that there exists a plenitude of other reasons for my saying so. Ah, but forgive me, as I've already digressed even though we've barely started on our jaunt. I believe you mentioned wanting to discuss in confidence a serious matter?”
She nodded, then blushed until her ears were red. “W-Well, it's just that I, um, kinda have this c-crush on Mel…”
“Goodness! Well, I concur that Miss Melancholia certainly is a statuesque woman.”
“I-It's just so frustrating because I want to cut the crap already and tell her, but I get all embarrassed whenever I think about it. Plus, when I try to drop hints, they all go over her head. I guess it makes sense because they don't have any romance or anything in her society, but telling myself that doesn't make the crush go away or make this any less of a pain in the ass to deal with. I don't know what to do.”
“This is indeed a conundrum. My suggestion to you, however, would be to approach her and discuss this matter openly, regardless of her aromanticism and asexuality. Barring anything else, venting out your feelings should ease the strain on your mind, and there's no downside since none of that standard messy awkwardness will ensue thanks to her not being a typical disinterested human.”
“But I don't want just a non-awkward understanding. I want…” Her face reddened yet further. “I-I want her!”
“You've my deepest sympathies, Miss Ashley, but Miss Melancholia's mental and biological construction diverges fundamentally from ours, and consequently our familiar concepts of romantic love and relationships are wholly foreign to her. I'm tremendously sorry, but outside of encouraging you to communicate with her I lack any meaningful advice.”
“It's OK. I guess I'll talk to her once this 'searching for God' thing ends. I just wish emotions weren't so stupid.”
“Miss Melancholia, Miss Jubilant, I admire your dedication to this endeavor, and I highly respect the time and effort that you've both uncomplainingly devoted to it, but I've considerable concerns about this next phase of the operation.” Melancholia, having just completed drawing the last of the symbols on the walls, capped her marker and descended the step ladder she had been using. Jubilant, who was lying on her back on a work table, let her head dangle off the end and spoke to Isaac from her upside-down perspective.
“What ever could be concerning you, Isaac?”
“You're intending to call forth Death and you honestly expect that he'll simply go along with our demand that he threaten to kill God should the latter refuse to cure Miss Ashley? In all likelihood, he'd reap us merely because we disrupted him.”
“Oh, you are still going on about that old plan? We have concocted a scheme that is far more – oh, what would be the colloquialism – 'tight'. You see, we could not think of a solution for that exact issue, so we decided that that plan was trash.” She flipped over onto her stomach. “Instead, we were thinking of dragging this God into the Nothingness, where it will have no power, and making our demands there.”
“Is that possible? If God is the consciousness of our Universe, then how could we extract Him from it into the surrounding void? Would that adversely affect our Universe?”
Melancholia chimed in. “Be forewarned that this is all in theory – there had been no concrete confirmation of plane consciousnesses at all until we ourselves observed one on Jubilant's rogue planet, let alone any validation of techniques to manipulate them. With that said, if we choose a portion of the Nothingness that is in near-overlapping proximity with this plane, and if we coax the plane's consciousness into manifesting a physical avatar, then we should be able to entrap that avatar inside that portion of the Nothingness. To my knowledge, that should not affect the state of the plane itself.”
“How will you get the jump on God?” Ashley, who had been loitering at the entrance, walked into the room, chewing on an apple. “He can see everything in the Universe, right? I doubt you'll be able to catch Him off guard to stick Him through a portal.”
They mulled it over in silence, then Jubilant spoke. “Based on the structure of my summoning incantation, if the plane has a consciousness of any sort, then it is compelled to piece together a material body for its avatar upon the completion of the spell. When that helpful planar avatar from earlier showed itself, it took a brief time before it appeared, yes? I know it is almost always a bad idea, Mellie, but maybe we could snag it if we bubbled up and popped as soon as I finished my spell?”
“Yes, perhaps that could work, though I am not at all pleased by the notion of inflicting permanent damage on their plane.”
A chill shot up Ashley's spine. “Bubble up and pop?”
“Jube is referring to a conjuration where a fragment of a plane is sealed off from the surrounding plane, then the dimensional barrier between this isolated fragment and the Nothingness is dissolved in full. This is irreversible, resulting in the segment becoming an extension of the Nothingness.