Chapter 1

"James, please ... That's so naïve. Costume parties are just a chance for chicks to wear the slutty clothes they wish they could wear every day!"

Regrettably, I had to endure this foul assertion from Jeremy at just such an event, in mixed company no less. Oktoberfest girl Jessika, who was posing nearby, gave him an offended whack on the chest.

"Jeremy!" she cried. "You're such a crude asshole!"

Was she really offended? I had not a clue. Her breasts were significantly amplified this evening, so perhaps she was not in the best position to argue her case, though I agreed with her opening statement. Jeremy was a repeat offender in this domain, so lately it had been tedious to watch him get a rise out of the ladies with the stupid shit he said.

"I'm heading out," I announced amid the din of drunkards and stale rap, but if anyone heard me, no one gave a damn. Neither did I, frankly. I wasn't sure of late why I was where I was. My junior year of regimented college life was taking a hard tack towards boredom, and sucking on the teat of sorority parties was a new low for me. It was one thing to have the occasional fling with a cute stand partner in orchestra, since there existed the possibility of a connection. Yes, Joelle was quite ... musical, I had to admit, even if she had moved on quickly. But there was an element of sadness to the scene from which I was currently retiring. Why I'd ever let Jeremy start dragging me out this semester, I will not ever know.

I slipped out the side door of the house, squeezing past significant swathes of bare flesh. Living in a warm clime meant that the costumes could be much more revealing than those that might be worn at the higher latitudes this time of year. There was hardly a chill in the air to goose-bump legs or nip at cleavage, the latter of which was plentiful and sometimes profound.

Hmm, maybe Jeremy did have a point. Half the guys here weren't even dressed up, and yet the girls dangled their bodies around the place clad in all manner of burlesque and baroque outfits. Strategic rips and outright omissions gave the boys a chance to see an extra ten percent of flesh that they might not see the rest of the year, even with the usual prevalence of short skirts and tank tops on campus.

Tiresome. How was someone supposed to cut through the display and talk about anything beyond red plastic cups? Jeremy had promised that the girls were easy. This was an exceptional state of affairs if you were primarily horny, but then what? How many times was 'easy' going to have any meaning? Once, maybe twice. There was always the possibility of being surprised, of course. Jillian was a ballet dancer, but sadly I didn't find that out until well after the morning after.

"James. Leavin' already?"

I shrugged as Jeff emerged from the shadows smoking a thick cigar, with a petite face-painted vixen in checkered tights on his arm. I had no idea what her name was or what she was supposed to be. Jeff had made the slightest of efforts with a lazily placed trilby, or maybe he had simply stolen it from the girl.

"Yeah. Not feeling it tonight."

"Come on, you can't be bored!" he drawled exaggeratedly. "It's Halloween, bro! Look around you. Surely there must be somethin' fun to do?" He turned to his companion. "Any of your friends that might be into hangin' out with my friend here, Julie? He's a world-class fiddler, see, so he's probably real good with his fingers, if you know what I mean!"

I winced as Julie looked me over and grinned.

"I might know a gal," she said. "Depends on how long he's willin' to stay and play! I can introduce ya..."

There's always that moment of physical temptation. What might Julie's friend look like? Would she have that look that I like? Would she challenge me? Would she connect with me in some way that would blow my mind? Would I even be able to tell, with all the masks being worn?

"Don't worry about it," I muttered, deflecting the idea with a wave of my hand. "I'm out. Take care."

"Ya goin' to your aunt's house?" Julie called after me.

I turned and looked at her carefully. The question had been delivered a bit hastily. What did she know or care about my aunt?

"Yes, I am. Why?"

"Give her a howdy from me if ya like. I know her, from ... a long time ago. And maybe ya know this, but you can cut through the woods from here. Much shorter than takin' the way 'round."

"I know how to get home, but thank you all the same. Good night to y'all."

She nodded, and Jeff shrugged at her as I continued on my way. Costume parties. There were simply too many layers of fakery in place to ever find anything hidden within. I struck out along the road and eventually entered the Jeffersons' field, scything through knee-high grass with denim-clad shins. The insects screamed and whizzed continuously, hardly perturbed by my distracted trampling. Surrounded by the hum of nature, I immediately felt more relaxed. The sounds were cacophonous, but there was also a drawn-out melody to it that was beautiful. It was not to be made sense of, but enjoyed for what it was.

Perhaps I was just in a cruel mood this evening. It was unfair to hang my troubles on the underwired push-ups of others. After all, that house had been full of happy faces, expectant that a day of careful primping would lead to a night of reckless excitement. There's nothing wrong with having some fun, I suppose. Beer was guaranteed, and getting or giving some head was high in probability. Some would go further still. I wasn't forced to be there – indeed, I had left – and Jeff, Jessika, Jeremy and the rest would do just fine. That didn't solve my worries, but at least I would not be a burden to anyone tonight.

Ahead, the slivered moon was reclining on the mattress formed by the tree canopy that marked the beginning of my aunt's property. It was a loose boundary since she also owned the land we called Jeffersons', but the latter tended to it, acting as the human interface between poultry, pumpkins and populace since my aunt was too occupied to want that job. The dark forest slowly grew in stature as my uneven and wandering pace brought me closer. To my right, the old rear barn thrust itself up into the black outline of the land, hulking geometrically in front of the fractal mess of the giant corn maze that lay beyond. Many a day and night I'd spent in that hoary reverberant structure, playing the fiddle before it grew up and turned into a violin. A squeaky St. Anne's Reel took years to become Ysaye's obsession, and it had happened mostly in there.

What was that, now? That squeaky sound I'd just heard was too familiar. Was I imagining the young fiddle replaying in my head? Perhaps, but look there: a movement by the barn. A vagrant animal? Something graceful there had slipped out of sight. I stopped in the field, wondering if it was blessing, trouble, or simply run-of-the-mill. It was late for wanderers. The 49th Annual Autumn Festival had concluded hours ago. Next year's auspiciously numbered event was sure to be even bigger and better, but for now it was over. The hoagie truck and fresh-pressed cider van were parked in far away November fields, and the hogs were likely relieved to be out of their obstacle course and wallowing in their mud instead. Mist-dampened girls in short cutoff shorts and tied-up shirts had long since gone home to bed, taking the fantasies of every young guy in the field with them, to say nothing of the thoughts of older men. "Yes, grandpappy, that there was a fourteen-year-old ass cheek you just stared at. Now spit out yer cud in the bucket, friend, 'cause we ain't allowin' no drugs at the festival."

I knew, because I was taking tickets earlier that day. Why? Running the small farm cooperative and the roadside produce stand was within the Jeffersons' domain, but the added work derived from thousands of people windmilling about the farm this month required some extra help. I was glad to oblige and besides, it saved me the hassle of finding a costume for the party. Denim overalls, a five-day beard, and a fedora were enough to authentically man the ticket stand and also do double duty at the sorority party without drawing too much attention on either end.

All manner of folk had come to the grounds that day, but as the heat of the afternoon sun infiltrated my head I'd grown very woozy and delirious. This led to the slightest glimpse of the most remarkable gal I'd seen all day. She was tall and thoughtful, looking at me directly but standing behind a group of folks in such a way that I could only partially make out her face. Her cheek was decorated with a scar that was not enough to mute her palpable beauty, and a thin black ribbon encircled her forehead like the fine shadow of an invisible crown. Her visible eye carried a look that was too deep for her age. There was comfort in there, the real Southern comfort, something I had never known until I'd moved to my aunt's from the place I used to call home in the mountains of New York.

The girl was not real, of course. I'd imagined her, maybe even wished upon her for one moment, but then a man being herded by six rambunctious brats was most put out by my distracted distribution of faulty change. When I looked back but a moment later, she was gone. Another ghost, and instead I found myself staring at a guy waiting on line with a predictably pretty girl in white Keds. She clasped his arm like she might the family Bible, and yet his pseudo-gangster dress was the apparent underpinning of his perpetually challenging look that seemed to scream, "She's mine, bitch!" as if the way to keep her forever was to fend off others with a snarl of fake gold teeth rather than devote himself to her, directly and unconditionally. A decided waste of energy, fool.

On and on they came, trudging impatiently through the bottleneck of the admission gate. I'd stared at everyone that had come in that day and it was assumed that everyone got out. Maybe I was one short on the out-count, though, since the movement up by the barn was unmistakable, at least in my mind.

I liked the Jeffersons enough to alter my route and briefly investigate. The detour around the barn would not be lengthy, and I might even find something amiss and help the old man out. It wasn't a necessary assistance, since I was well past the point of needing to make up for past transgressions with Jakob Jefferson. He was a simple man and supposedly God-fearin', though I wasn't really convinced of that. Regardless, it had been some years since I'd had a bit of an incident with him over one of his lovely daughters. The younger Katie, rather than the older 'Jealous' Jenny as I sometimes called her, and it had happened in this very barn I was now approaching, to be precise. That was not unexpected; this was the most natural place for the two of us to be back in those days. For years we learned and played twin fiddles together, her and I. All manner of musical mountains were surmounted in that old byre. Alas, one day we were caught in a ... misunderstanding of sorts, yes, such that if barns had a back seat, we might have been caught about to climb over the front seat by a gun-wielding father. And God-fearin' my ass. If he truly was, he would have shot me on the spot and then maybe things would have turned out superior for everyone involved.

Wretched memories swiftly and unexpectedly flooded within me. Immediately, she had been forbidden to communicate with me and was sent away to a far-off boarding school, where she was subsequently killed by a drunk driver. The news had been severely devastating, even if I only came to learn it quite some time later through my aunt. Upon hearing of it I paid a visit to Jakob, with both confrontation and consolation on my mind. He blamed us both in equal parts and then told me to get the hell out of his sight, forever. I was not so easily swayed, though, so ever since that day I'd worked hard for him and his wife – June, a real sweetheart – at any job that wouldn't risk a hand injury, of course. Eventually he stopped viewing me as a thorn, and we found some peace, though his other daughter still seemed to have something against me to this day. No matter. I hardly saw her.

My chores included the continuation of my playing the weekly contra-dance in the old barn for them and their friends. Nothing like a bit of fiddlin' and a swig of the old crow for to kick up the dust and forget old miseries. There were some real people at these dances, I might add, costumed in their own way with twirly dresses and decorated hats. There were also the hard-stomping boots with heels that were practically bookmatched to the barn's wooden floor. What a visceral accompaniment it was! But it was lacking something significant ever since the twin fiddles had become one, and with time I fell away from it.

The barn loomed up as the twin-windowed front foreshortened into a towering face. I lightly stepped to the far end and peeked around the corner. The moon was just bright enough to faintly illuminate the clearing, and nothing violated the space here. I was about to continue on my way when I was halted by the mental image of the barn's face I'd seen just a moment ago. The mouth ... It had been open. Backtracking, my fingers quietly confirmed what my eyes had surely imagined, for the darkness of the interior was no gloomier than the ancient black paint of the sliding door. There was a gap, and it was wide enough for something graceful to slide inside. And now it came back to me, of course: that was the squeak I'd heard. The trespasser had fallen victim to the rustic alarm system. Indeed, it was the extra time provided by this very sound that perhaps had saved my life on that day that Jakob was pointing the twin-barrel shotgun at me.

I knew the barn well enough to enter confidently. Unless the Jeffersons had suddenly decided to make new use of it, the floor would be clear and sturdy. I stepped in, hearing my boots click and echo on the wood floor. There was no light to get acclimated to, so I went on sound.

"Hello?"

It was a lark, of course. What troublemaker would ever answer such a call in such a situation?

"Hello..."

Well, her, apparently. The immediate appearance of the calm voice left me thunderstruck for a moment.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Who are you?"

I chuckled. Some wayward teenager was frightened out of her mind and had taken to echoing my words as a childish way to slough off the nerves while she awaited her fate. Then again, the voice did not sound nervous.

"I'm James, if you must know. Are you lost?" I pressed, keeping it simple.

"Certainly not. Found, perhaps."

An odd statement. Her voice was clearly emanating from up in the loft.

"Do you need help, then?" I asked.

"What can you give?"

"Do you need a ride somewhere?" Not that I had a car, but something could surely be arranged.

"Not at all."

"Okay. Are you ... supposed to be here?"

"Are we ever supposed to be anywhere?"

I struggled to make sense of things, feeling suddenly disoriented in the darkness. Who was this person? If my memory served me right, there'd be a flashlight around here ... Probably right over...

"Are you lost, James?" she asked.

"Heh. No, I know this old barn quite well."

"Then why do you need light?"

My hand had just gripped the barrel of the flashlight as she said this. I took a sharp breath, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck rise up. I started to think that the voice was perhaps familiar. Someone had followed me home from the party, probably put up to it by that misogynistic prankster. Ah, of course. Why else would Jeff's new girl – Judy was it? – have inquired about my route home. The silly nymph had tipped their hand with that awkward question. The ruse was up.

"Is this some kind of joke?" I asked.

"Certainly not."

"Let me see you then. I'm turning on the light."

"You can do whatever you like, as can I."

I took up the flashlight and flicked the switch, aiming it before me. A quick scan of the barn revealed nothing, but I didn't have the height to see the far reaches of the loft.

"I'm coming up," I announced. "Is that okay, or is there a crowd of you waiting to scare the shit out of me?"

No answer, though the sliding sounds of someone moving about seemed to tickle my ear. I steeled myself, hoping I wasn't in for an ambush of some kind. Regardless, this was already several orders of magnitude more interesting than the depressing party I had just left. I pocketed the light and carefully climbed the lone ladder that led up to the loft, pausing on each rung, and once calling out to her with no reply. A vague thump made me pause for a little longer than I wanted, but everything remained quiet. As my head crossed the plane of the upper floor, I shined the light around again. Now this was strange. Nothing out of the ordinary to be seen here either.

"Hello?"

Silence. I finished the climb and hurried over to the side window. The pane was open, and I realized I had underestimated my mysterious interlocutor. It was quite a leap to get down, but not prohibitively high. It had to be the method of escape. I looked out over the grounds, but saw no one. She could not have gone far, though. Without further delay, I ran back to the ladder and exited the barn. A few sprints around the exterior left me breathing hard, but no closer to finding the creature I sought.

Perhaps it was all hallucination. Was I that lonely that I was reduced to inventing ghosts? I lived with my aunt, sure, but that was not always guarantee of present company. Janice was even more solitary than I was, a fact that was appreciated when I practiced my music. But withdrawn aunt notwithstanding, I was aware of looking for something that I wasn't finding of late. The resonance of my instrument was lacking somewhat. Practicing and playing had become dull. It had been months – no, I had to admit it, years – since the decline started. And what was the solution? To find another person who wasn't like everyone else, and could hear the world in the odd way I heard it sing to me ... Apparently I was now reduced to hearing voices in my head.

"Hello!"

I shouted several times both within and exterior to the barn. There was no further response, as much as I craved it. I huffed in frustration. If only I had another chance, I wouldn't have been so aggressive. I searched the barn carefully once more with the flashlight, finding an old round of rosin I had formerly discarded in a fit of anger at its poor quality. There was my first bow, hanging from a rusty nail, the horsehairs long since disintegrated into a waterfall of white tendrils. I took it up and felt its brutish balance, all lifelike spring lost when the tension snapped away strand by delicate strand in the desiccating heat of each summer since it became second-string so many years ago.

Ah, and there: the tallies, of course. A mark of how much time I had practiced in this most rural of concert halls. Still lying nearby were the heavy mallet and thick chisel, tools I had used at the end of each session to stamp out the hours on the exposed stud that ran at eye level around the barn. I had even started on the one at waist level when the first had been filled. Inch by inch the crude dents had inexorably marched down the line. That was until I had stopped coming here.

Now that I'd had some time to cast my memory back to before I became a conservatory rat, I realized that ghosts in the barn were not new. Whenever I had practiced in this structure, so solidly built by the Wheeling brothers back in 1811, I would see ... things. They were the gremlins of practice, perhaps, but then again they had never followed me to the studios I now had the opportunity to use. Those studios, which seemed to be sucking the life out of me with their hard, sour walls and stuffy ambience. Two-hundred year old lumber was much more appealing as a critical audience. It's been said that it takes many thousands of hours to become a master, but even if my tally surpassed this unlikely number, a violin master I was not. In fact, the idea of it was steadily slipping away with each year of disenchanted rehearsal. Perhaps it was worth a visit to the old barn with the instrument again, I thought. I had verily put it out of my mind.

But enough! All this was living in the past, and darker, sadder thoughts were welling up that I dared not face in this dusky place. I shut up the doors to the barn, savoring the squeak, and walked around it once more. Finally, I turned an eye up to the side window and wondered where it might have led the shy spirit. The fields were clear and free. This was surely all in my head.

A thought struck me as I was already a hundred paces further on my way home. There was one remaining possibility for escape that she could have taken, the only place she could have reached in the time it took me to climb up to the loft and look out the window. But it seemed such a tedious task...


I hadn't ventured into the massive corn maze for years. This season had been unusually warm and windy, so the stalks were thick and tall, forming impenetrable walls of eight to ten feet in height. I had been in the maze for some time, and now I was standing at yet another junction, barely able to see the choice before me. To the left, perhaps? I set off, only to stumble to the dirt as my feet awkwardly caught in one of the ruts left by the Massey Ferguson in erstwhile mud.

The moon was in bed now, and it was down to thousand-year-old light from giant stars to guide me. I was truly lost. Within a few minutes of entering the corn warren, I had of course realized the futility of my choice to solve this intimidating tangle under such unfavorable conditions. Clearly, the prudent action was to return to the entrance, hoof it to my aunt's, and get some much needed rest in order to shake the persistent visions of my ghost.

However, the way back to the entrance was proving to be ... elusive. Whoever had blazed the pattern was one tricky motherfucker. What to do, what to do ... I finally decided to rip a page from Grimm, tearing an ear of corn from the nearest stalk. I set it in the trail I had just come from, pointing it towards the intersection in question, and then took another ear to mark the direction I was going to go. Right, in this case, so that I might not trip like an imbecile again. This was my approach. Each time I fell victim to a dead end, I tee-ed off the directional ear of corn with a second one. I was not going to make the same mistake twice. Loops got the same treatment. Even a complex system of dead ends and loops would be mercilessly flushed out with minimal retracing and no confusion. And there were a few such systems, as I found. But, I knew that there also was one entrance and one exit. I had no idea which I would reach first, but at least I wouldn't be sleeping in this wretched place.

A wind was just starting to wake up, heralding the eventual approach of some weather system born of the Gulf. The corn forest shushed at me, and every sway of their chartreuse leaves looked my ghost's flower-hemmed dress slipping around the far corner. I didn't trust my eyes enough to follow this devious conspiracy between stars, wind and plant, instead plodding on with my methodical mapping.

At length, I came to an odd sight. My journey had taken me to the back end of the maze, such that I was close to the old forest. Its dark limbs almost canopied the spot at which I stood. But something I had not seen before caught my eye. There was a new path.

Now, I had never been in this particular version of the maze, so I don't make this claim based on some mental map of the thing. (Naturally, or I would have simply walked out hours ago.) But unlike the well-beaten hard-pack dirt of the rest of the labyrinth, this little shunt was very recently cleared of corn stalks. The damp feel and smell of corn sap still fresh on some of the stumps was enough to prove that fact beyond a doubt. Significantly, the straight lane led right into the deep dark woods. Whether emergency exit, mistake, vandalism, or something else, I could not tell. Perhaps it was the farmhands having some fun on the last day of the festival. Who can say what fuels them?

The maze had become quite tiresome, I had to admit, and although this exit point into the woods was a bit obtuse from the direction I wanted to head in order to reach my aunt's house, I decided it was worth the effort of it to avoid the torture of the second half of the maze. Wishing for the flashlight not for the first time, I took the short, fresh path that led from maize to forest, intending to take a hard left once the underbrush thinned enough to become passable.

As the corn gave way to oaks, I was struck by a realization. This was not a careless exit to a random edge of the woodland. After passing through a few protective bushes and trees, I was clearly on a well-trodden path. At first, the thought of a new, endless forest maze was despairing. It was even darker in the woods, and the idea of wandering for hours longer threatened to overwhelm me. But no, it seemed to be a single path. As I followed the way, there appeared no forks or ambiguous decisions, merely the choice to go with the flow or against it. Keeping my senses and wits about me, I quietly padded through the woods. There was an energetic charge to the air, and I had the distinct feeling that whatever happened this evening, I was not going to be able to claim boredom. Insanity? Maybe.


Sometime in between the lighting of the sage and the lightning of the strobe, the masks went on. The flashes were only occasional enough to catch the shape of a canine jowl or feline ear in the haze of the ritual smoke. Like creatures, clawing what remained, they danced around two bonfires as yet unlit. A tall woman produced two torches from thin air, suddenly illuminating the clearing with a golden glow. With characteristic ceremony, she dropped them into each fire pit's navel. The darkness rushed in to smother the flames, and for a moment the act had failed. Even the strobe took a break from its aperiodic flashing. Then the hearts came to life, two small bright flickers that began to spread through the tinder. Smoke began to fill the mounds of dead limbs, snaking out through gaps to join the sage that still hung in the air. The flames grew exponentially, and the twin crowns of wood were soon in the throes of a brutal burn. Dumbeks were slapped and thighs grew slick with sweat as the golden light built up from the blazes.

Such was the scene I stumbled upon deep in the woods behind the corn maze. It had all appeared so suddenly that I practically blundered into the back of another shadowed onlooker. Luckily, I was still unheard and unseen. Safely out of the hemisphere that was illuminated by the fire light, I was now crouched behind a tree, eyes transfixed on the action within.

So perhaps this is where my graceful ghost had slipped off to. What was she on about in the barn though? Perhaps I had surprised her travel to the party with my unexpected walk through the fields. Back at the barn, I had put the probability of her being real at middling odds, but they had increased significantly with the discovery of this secret bacchanal.

I returned my attention to the dancing. The dogs were coupled with the cats, and the dancing was nothing short of sexual. Hands that normally would find the small of back were instead drawn over curve of breast. Hips were pressed close, front to back, gyrating in rhythm with the drummers on the side. As the fires grew, the luminosity expanded to reveal other characters hiding in the shadows of trees. Wispy fairies with airy silken wings floated elegantly beside earthly monks and black-caped apparitions.

"Hello, there..."

I whirled around at the sound of this quiet voice. It was not the voice from earlier, I knew, but perhaps similar. A faint white apparition had approached me from behind, unnoticed. Her long blond hair framed a face that was ageless and hard to focus on. I began to rise and move, but she stepped close and put an arm around my waist.

"Why the hurry?"

"I ... I was just lost..."

She smiled at me. "Ah. How unlikely! And yet how lucky."

"Lucky?"

"For you, and so for another."

Before I could ask what she meant, she whistled softly. Within a moment several more fairy-like creatures had gathered near me. I fought the urge to push through them and run back through the woods.

"I wouldn't consider it. You would not get far." Her tone was serious, though not menacing.

"I'm sorry for being here," I stammered.

The woman ran a hand down my chest. "There's no need for that. You will stay. But there are rules to be followed."

"Rules?"

"You shall understand in due time. Perhaps you might return to watching, as you were."

I took a deep breath, and turned back to the bonfires. The energy had increased significantly as the ritual had progressed, and I was transfixed by the dancing and burning. Then I saw a man lying in the space between fires, while his naked feline mate straddled his middle, punching her arms to the sky and then beating down on his chest. A low hum filled the clearing.

Before I could watch anymore of their primal coupling, a hooded figure in black robes rose before me. It glided closer and placed its lips softly, sensuously on mine. I was further startled when my eyes went dark as a thick cloth was tied around my head. Gentle but firm hands encircled my arms, and soft whispers slithered into both my ears.

"Make it easy..." " ... on yourself..." " ... and let go..." " ... of everything..."

The instinct of fear began to crest, but the hands on my body seemed to know just where to press to push it away, until it could only dully warn me from a distance. The call to let go of everything became stronger. Perhaps I should. What did I have to lose, anyway? I tried to imagine where I was being led. The sound of the dance diminished slightly as the forest pressed in on my senses. The thick smell of burning herbs was replaced by the damp aroma of moss and wet earth, confirmed by the sound of trickling water. A grotto of some sort. The hands worked over my body, and I soon realized I was losing my outer shirt, shoes, socks ... Clad only in a white work shirt and overalls, the fairies kept my body warm against the very slight chill of October's last midnight.

"Do you concede your trespass?" the lead fairy asked me.

"Trespass?"

She repeated the question.

"I don't think I was trespassing. This forest is owned by..."

A hand clasped over my mouth.

"The first rule to learn is that you do not know any soul that is here this evening."

"I ... I don't really think..."

"Do you concede your trespass?" she insisted.

Maybe they would let me go if I played along with their games.

"Yes, I ... concede."

"You must then redeem yourself."

"How?"

"By dying, and then being reborn."

"Dying!"

"Are you capable of death?"

I was starting to tire of the odd questions. This was starting to seem as fake as the other costume party I had been to earlier that night. Enough with the rituals, of any kind!

"I think I want to leave."

"You may not. Some things cannot be unseen."

"And if I walk out?"

"You will have a poorer experience for it."

"All right, then if you want me to do something, just say it and enough."

"Very well. Are you capable of death?"

"Sure."

"And of giving life?"

"Sure."

"And you submit yourself to be tested?"

"Tested?"

"For life and death."

"Okay, whatever."

"Then the test of life. I remind you, Wisps, of the restrictions we agreed to?"

Restrictions? What did she mean? Before I could ask, I felt hands on my chest, undoing the overall straps.

"Whoa, what's this about?" I protested. "Am I being robbed?"

"The test of life. It will not hurt, and nothing will be taken from you. Relax."

The wisps disrobed me fully. I wasn't aroused at this time, but it was inevitable as the feminine hands caressed my legs and belly and butt. The test of life, indeed. It was impossible to fail the test, despite the lack of direct stimulation. The fairies' movements were never urgent, though there were enough of them touching me at any time that I couldn't give a firm number. Certainly the chance to experience a most interesting evening ... Then again, there was still the test of death.

"The test is passed," the lead fairy said simply, and the hands disappeared at once.

I was about to protest at the anti-climactic interruption, but a strange aroma entered my nostrils. Immediately I felt dizzy and a blackness started to spin into my brain. The last thing I heard was the woman speaking again.

"Now the test of death..."


I came awake to some subset of my senses, in an upright position and oppressed by the heat from a fire of some kind. I could see absolutely nothing. Was I blind? Hundreds of hands held my arms, and the sounds of chanting whirled around me. Logs cracked as they split in the heat, their sparked laughter tickling my ears. Sweat was trickling down my face.

"You must seek your soul. She hides from you..."

The words seemed to come from inside my addled head. I had been walking home from ... John's house? And then ... things were foggy. Some spirits must have been consumed. Vague memories of moss and silk and corn flitted through my mind. Who was John? No one that I knew. I was...

"Where am I?"

"The cusp of the living world."

"Am I dead?"

"We all are. Seek her."

"How?"

There was no answer. The hands holding me dissolved away. I was on my own.

The discordant chanting made the earth spin when I moved, so I remained still for some time. Patiently, I absorbed the energy of the flames and listened closely to the harmonies as they clashed against one another. I took a tentative step forward and the chanting sounded different. Notes slid against each other. Some improved their relationships, while previously well-coupled harmonies became divorced. Another step...

Slowly I extracted the threads of each melody by moving through the space before me. Soon I figured out that there would be only one place where all the threads would come together like a multi-dimensional puzzle. The voices waxed and waned as I stepped carefully about. Each time I approached the fire, the voices grew louder in warning, accompanied by the heat of flames.

But no. I had traversed the entirety of the space allowed to me, exploring each subspace of singing, finding its spatial transposition, and concluded that the triangulation of harmony led to one place: the center of the fire. They were not voices of warning. They were voices of excitement.

I had nothing to lose, really, so I turned to the fire and ran.

With a leap, I felt myself pass though the flames, landing unburnt on soft earth inside. A ring of fire, then. The chanting lines now approached each other from all directions as I stepped along the harmonic path. At the moment that they joined in perfect intervallic precision, I felt a presence. A soul. I put a hand out and touched warm flesh, hearing a gasp as the being came to life out of the ether.

"Take her into you..."

I reached out to feel the shape of her torso, finding smooth skin and nothing else. Nothing was bound to her body. She stood facing away from me, curvaceous and trembling. I circled her blindly, listening, the chants reflecting from each side of her body in the different light of disharmony.

Guided by the counterpoint, my fingers travelled down and found the wetness of her sex, and her body tensed at the touch. I moved my fingers deeper into this reluctant yet willing creature. Each rub, each flick seemed to change the balance of discordance that sounded from the onlookers and were redirected off her form.

Slowly, I found the points of harmony. A little moan would escape her lips, floating through the air and tying two chanting voices together into a harmonious contrapuntal bow. Through the levels of arousal she rose and I found each note she made. She was now writhing sinuously as the harmonies fed off of each other to lift her on a chord of pleasure. Her hands were clasped hard around my back, until at last she burst out with a final utterance. The chanting voices had been coerced into unison, holding a pristine note as I remained still against her, drinking her essence. I wanted to find her lips, but I could not.

" ... and you into her..."

At length, she released me from her clutches. The chanted note fell apart into a tumultuous sea of lost voices again. I was guided to lie back on the ground by her gentle hands. The flames became apparent again, and I felt her caressing strokes glide across my legs, tracing the ridges of tendons and bulges of muscles. My thighs tightened as her breath sifted through my leg hairs, warmer than even the fire. She approached.

First with a few fingers she grasped my erection, feeling it and understanding what needed to be done. With care, she sorted my melodies out by touch, as I had hers. My arousal grew with each pressure point she found, gently rubbing and caressing me. Then lips surrounded me, again guided by the sounds that grew close again. She took me in slowly, using her tongue to encircle the tip and taste the preamble to what would become my climax. With some hesitation she worked her way deeper, guided by the voices. She sheathed me completely in her warm mouth, moving the tiny muscles of her jaw and neck, pulling the threads tight within my body, concordant with the harmonic adjustments. She needed no indication from me that I was close to peaking. The last errant note slid higher, thrusting against the unison chorus as I felt the eruption begin within my belly. The swirl of tightness expanded and pushed out and through and then deeply into her. She held me encased until the last pulse of movement subsided.

" ... and both into each other..."

Our hands found each other in the blindness of our state. I remained on the ground, and she gracefully settled onto my middle. Almost floating above me, I felt her relax her muscles ever so slowly. I penetrated her, gasping as she massaged her fingers across my chest. There was no discord now, but two unison notes far apart in register and timbre. As she sank to meet my hips, the interval shimmered and changed. Buried deep within her, I tightened the muscles that would send a pulse of movement straight into her core. She returned the volley with a compression of her own, squeezing up the length of my shaft. In this steady state we explored the minutiae of movement, listening as the unison notes flirted with each other, passing energy back and forth. At last, I started to move from my body, allowing the contrary motion of my hips against hers to enable a rhythmic oscillation.

She began to pant from exertion and pleasure as we pushed and pulled against each other. Sensing an opportunity to finish the deed, she gyrated and bounced on me with increasing abandon, trying for all the world to impale herself on every last unit of measure. Occasionally she paused to shudder at the bottom of her travels, and then resumed the attack.

It was not enough. She was flagging, her leg muscles tiring from the effort. The unison notes were beating slowly as their frequencies approached, but she could push them no closer. With a last gasp, she collapsed against my chest, breathing hard.

Unwilling to fail, I rolled her limp form aside so that she lay on her front. The notes were sliding apart, approaching the first discordant interval again. I straddled her bottom and pushed down into her from behind. A long drawn out moan escaped her throat as I started to pound my hips against hers. Soon each thrust felt like I was penetrating the very earth itself, and the ground began to quiver. Each jolt seemed to vibrate off to some invisible edge only to return, amplified and resonant. For the first time since waking up in this state, shocks of color splashed through my vision, where so far there had only been complete blindness.

She was crying, ecstatic now, and our frequencies were close. The beats became apparent again, starting slow, and then doubling every few seconds, until I felt the gradient of climax steepen past the point of no return. Her body pulled on mine, drawing out of me a series of pulsing spasms. At last, the unison was reached, and I collapsed onto her.

We lay in the ring of fire, a mass of sweat and flesh, yet still unable to see each other. With what wondrous being had I shared this unheard-of magic? There was no energy left to move but a finger. I caressed her face, feeling the smooth transition from temple to cheek. Oddly, there was a long, thin ... Her hand suddenly clasped mine and held it fast as she came down from her high. The unison note held steady in pitch, but faded away ever so slowly until it was just inside of consciousness.

For the rest of this story, you need to Log In or Register