Choices
Chapter 2

Copyright┬ę 2007 by Alan C. Zumwalt

´╗┐

Kevin followed her to the gate. As she put the key in the padlock, he noticed a metal sign above the entrance. It said "Ai-lara" on it.

"I see you've named your estate," said Kevin, trying to relieve the tension.

Amanda nodded, as she put the proper key in the lock and gave it a twist. "I named it for... an old friend."

Kevin followed Amanda mutely through the gate. The remnants of the old gravel drive were rapidly disappearing under a growth of weeds. In a few years, you'd be hard pressed to know that a drive was ever there. He followed her through the young weeds. In a few weeks they would be waist high.

They rounded the house and walked toward the tree. Underneath it, Kevin looked up, up, up into its many layers of branches. It was amazing that a cottonwood would thrive so far from a river. They usually need lots of moisture to survive. There must be an underground spring feeding it, he mused.

Amanda walked up to the tree trunk, and murmured something that Kevin couldn't make out. She ran her hand over the bark familiarly. Like it was an old friend.

"A truly magnificent tree," Kevin said finally.

Amanda looked up at the tree wistfully. "It was. Come, it's getting late. We don't have much time."

Time for what? he pondered. The sun was hanging orange above the horizon. Possibly she wanted to show him something before it got dark.

Kevin's girlfriend strode purposefully away from house and tree, toward the hills.

Kevin had to jog to keep up.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"It's not far," was all he got in reply.

After about a hundred feet the ground changed. The hard ground now felt spongy. Kevin had to alter his stride to keep balanced.

"The ground feels different," he huffed.

Amanda nodded but didn't slow down. "This is virgin prairie. It's never been tilled. It has never been built on. This land has been undisturbed since the last ice age. You're walking on layer upon layer of dead plants."

"Wow," was all he could think to reply.

"Two hundred years ago, all soil was like this. From Texas to Canada, the Rockies to the Mississippi. When the Europeans came, they saw the sod as nuisance. They destroyed the virgin prairie for agriculture. Now, this is one of the last truly unspoiled areas. I think it's worth preserving." She turned and look back at her beau, "don't you?"

"Well, sure" he gasped. "I think all endangered things should be preserved."

The two walked up one hill, down the other side, and up another. When Amanda reached the top of that hill, she waited for Kevin to catch up.

The sun was completely behind a distant hill, but the sky was still orange and yellow.

Kevin scrambled to the top of the hill, gasping, holding onto a stitch in his side. "And I thought I was in shape," he panted.

When he had recovered slightly, Amanda asked, "do you know what today is?"

Kevin glanced down at his watch. "June the 23rd."

"It's Mid-Summer's Eve."

"What?" he asked, baffled.

"You know 'A Mid-Summer's Night's Dream". Shakespeare."

"Oh! I've never read that one. They made me read 'Macbeth' and 'Romeo and Juliet' in high school. I've also seen the Branaugh's 'Henry V' and 'Much Ado About Nothing.' That's all the Shakespeare I know."

"Pity," said Amanda, "you really ought to read more.

"Did you know that according to legend, that if you went through a gate in an unspoiled field at twilight on the Mid-Summer's Eve, you could enter the Faerie Realm?"

"Fairy Realm? No I didn't. But what does that have to do with..."

Amanda pointed downhill. Kevin looked where she was pointing. At first he didn't see anything in the gathering gloom, but then he saw it. A gate.

The gate had no fence to go with it. All it had was the pole it was mounted on and a pole it was latched to. The gate was obviously hand carved. It had no nails. Everything was fitted together with slots and grooves.

The hinges and latch were not metal either. The hinges were made of leather and the latch was a simple rawhide loop.

Amanda reached down and picked up a leather wineskin and put on a backpack that she had evidently left here earlier. She then took Kevin by the hand. For the first time that evening she smiled at him. "Care to give it a try?"

Before he could answer, she headed down the hill toward the gate, dragging Kevin behind her. She had an unusually strong grip.

"You... You're kidding right?" he cried as he stumbled down the hill.

Amanda didn't answer until she reached the bottom, and stood with him by the gate. "No. Why?"

"Because it's ridiculous! To try and enter some fantasy land by going through some gate at twilight. We're adults, we should have left this kind of nonsense behind years ago."

"Well, if it's nonsense, there should be no harm in trying. Right?"

Kevin didn't answer, but shifted uneasily from foot to foot.

"Come on! Give it a try! It'll be something you can tell your grandchildren about when you're old. Come on, twilight only lasts a few minutes."

The last of the fiery colors of sunset had faded from the sky. The clear sky was a flat gray, darkening gradually into night.

Seeing that this ritual was important to her, Kevin reluctantly nodded his head.

"Great! Now grab my hand and we'll go through together."

The young lawyer grabbed his beloved's hand, as she unlatched the gate.

"Let's cross over on the count of three. Ready? One. Two. Three!"

Together they stepped through the gate.

Kevin must have blinked as he stepped over the threshold, because he didn't see when the landscape changed. Suddenly, he was no longer at the base of a hill. He was at the bottom of a chasm. An impossibly steep and narrow chasm. So narrow, he could barely turn around. The wall rose up above them vertically for hundreds of feet above them. There were ledges above him, that were connected to the walls so precariously, he feared a rockslide any second. Far far above, Kevin caught a glimpse of a twilight gray skies.

"oh crap!... Sorry," she said reflexively. "The canyons, of all places we had to come out at the canyons."

"A-A-Amanda, where are..."

"Not now Kevin!" she snapped urgently. "This is important. Did you bring that pocket knife I gave you."

"Yes, but I..."

"Get it out. Quickly!"

"But I don't under..."

Kevin was interrupted by a loud crude sniffing sound echoing off the chasm walls. He then heard a several loud rumbling voices that seemed to come from all sides. "Humans! I smell humans! Tasty treat!"

"Just do it, okay!" yelled Amanda.

Down from the rim scrambled four gigantic men. They were bald and at least nine feet tall with greenish gray blister-covered skin. They were horribly deformed. Their faces were twisted and it looked like their arms had been broken and then reset at a right angle. Their fingers were unnaturally long, with grimy fingernails like talons. The only clothes they wore were filthy loincloths. They climbed down the chasm at an astonishing rate, putting one foot and one hand on each wall, descending head first. As they got closer, Kevin saw they had multiple rows of razor sharp teeth, like a shark.

With shaking hands, Kevin pull out his pocket knife. He almost dropped it as he hinged out the largest blade. He held it in front of him as a weapon. Might as well wave a toothpick in front of an angry bear, he thought.

The creatures were only twenty feet away, and closing fast. They smelled of filth, decay, and infection. The stench almost caused him to pass out.

"Stop right there!!" bellowed Amanda, with more authority than he had ever heard before. Kevin glanced behind, and saw that Amanda was covering his back. She had popped the cork on the wineskin. Its bladder was nestled securely under her armpit. The spigot was pointed at the nearest predator.

The creatures froze.

"I have water, and he has deathmetal. And we both know how to use them."

A tremor of fear shook through the creatures, shaking the wall. Each took a long loud sniff of the air. Suddenly, all four took off, ascending the sides of the chasm, faster than they had descended. All the way they screamed "Water! Deathmetal! Water! Deathmetal!". Within seconds, they were gone.

As soon as they had disappeared from sight, Kevin dropped to knees shaking. Amanda looked over at him with concern.
"Are you all right?" she asked.

Kevin gasped for air. "I... I don't think... I've ever... ever been... so scared... in all my life!"

"Yeah, I think that's been one of my closest scrapes too."

After a few minutes, Kevin shakily regained his feet, and at least part of his composure. "Amanda, where the hell are we? And what were those creatures?"

She glanced fearfully at the chasm walls. "Look, we need to get out here. Those trolls could be back at any minute with reinforcements. I'll answer all your questions as soon as we get out of here."

Kevin nodded mutely and followed Amanda along the chasm floor.

After what seemed like half a mile, and several twists and turns, the chasm finally ended. The walls abruptly fell away, opening into a broad green field, spangled with fireflies. Further in the distance lay a forest.

Kevin leaned against the cliff that marked the end of the chasm.

Amanda looked around. "I know this area, "she said to herself. "Come on Kevin, honey. There's a good place to rest just a short distance away."

Kevin struggled to his feet and followed her mutely, following the cliffs to the right.

After about ten minutes, they did come to a rest spot; a lovely pool surrounded by smooth stones the height of a bench. Perfect for sitting. Falling off the cliffs into the pool was a little waterfall. The rocks on the falls made the single stream of water split into two separate streams, then remerge, then separate again, before it fell into the pool below.

"Don't drink the water," said Amanda, as if reading his mind. "Not if you ever want to return home."

Kevin looked skeptical, but said nothing.

"Here," she said, tossing him her wineskin, "use mine."

Kevin sat down on one of the rock benches. He slaked his thirst with the primitive canteen, then handed it back. "Thanks."

Amanda sat down next to him and took off her backpack. "Hungry?"

Kevin nodded.

"Here," she said, pulling a ham sandwich out of her backpack, "Eat this. You don't want to eat the food here either."

Kevin ate his food mechanically, his mind racing a mile a minute.

Amanda waited patiently for him to finish. "Feel better?"

He nodded again.

"Now I know you have some questions. Ask them one at a time and I'll answer them for you."

Kevin took a deep breath. "Okay. Question Number One: Where are we?"

"The Faerie Realm."

"The what?"

"The Faerie Realm. Land of the fey folk chronicled in folk lore for centuries. The twilight realm."

Kevin stared at her blankly. "You expect me to believe that?"

Amanda let out a sigh. "Okay. I know you used to be a Trekkie. Think of this as a parallel dimension that can only be reached through completely wild places."

Kevin nodded. That he could accept.

"Question Number Two: What were those things that nearly killed us?"

"Oh, those were trolls. One of the nastier creatures in this place. Most folk here are pretty nice, actually."

"They fled from 'deathmetal'..."

"And water," Amanda interjected.

"And water. Why?"

"All fey folk can be killed by the smallest of cuts by deathmetal. You'd call it cold-forged iron. Very hard to find in normal world. I had to commission a blacksmith in England to make that pocket knife for you, custom. Cost me a pretty penny let me tell you.

"I better keep it hidden on me," said Kevin.

"Good idea. Nothing will make enemies faster than waving deathmetal around."

"And water?"

"Water only hurts the dark fey folk, like trolls and ogres. Burns 'em like acid."

"You know they could have just stoned us to death, then eaten us."

Amanda shrugged, "I said they were nasty. I never said they were bright."

Kevin stared at his girlfriend. "How do you know all this stuff? You've evidently been here before."

"I've only reached the Faerie Realm once before through the gate. Last year. It only seems to work on Mid-Summers Eve. Don't ask me why. I don't know."

"Have you gotten here by ways other than the gate."

Amanda took a deep breath. Here it goes. "I've been visiting the Faerie Realm almost every month for the last eighteen years, with the help of my friend Eugene."

Kevin's mouth gaped open. "What."

"Since I was six, Eugene has visited me every full moon and took me on journeys into the Faerie Realm."

"And who is Eugene, pray tell?"

"A unicorn."

"Ah, I should have known. We've had trolls and fairies, I should have guessed that a unicorn would pop up sooner or later."

Amanda stared at her boyfriend. "You don't believe me."

Kevin put his hand on her shoulder. "Of course I believe you, honey. After what I've seen how could I not. It's just that, I don't know, I feel like I've been thrown into the Brothers Grim's version of the 'The Twilight Zone.'"

"A little disoriented?"

"More than a little. I'll try and keep up, though. So, tell me about Eugene."

Amanda collected her thoughts for a minute, deciding where to begin, and then she told him. Told how she first met Eugene. How Eugene had introduced her to Ai-lara, and how her negligence got Ai-lara killed.

"It's not your fault, you know," said Kevin. "You were just a seven year old kid. You didn't know better."

A tear trickled Amanda's cheek. "That's what I keep telling myself, but it's just not true. Even at seven I knew the seriousness of life and death. Of all Ai-lara told me, the warning against power tools was the only one involving life and death. I should have put special emphasis on that part, not just mentioned it in passing."

"Even if you did that, your Dad might have ignored your warnings as childish prattle, and used the chainsaw anyway."

"That's true," Amanda allowed. "But at least then I would have known that I had done my best."

Kevin didn't know quite what to say to that, and was about to say something that would have been misconstrued as something trite and insensitive, when another voice interrupted him.

"Amanda?" said a smooth and lilting voice "is that you?"

Kevin turned and gaped. Sticking out of the pool was the head of a young woman with light blue skin and white hair. There was no sign of any body under the surface.

Amanda turned around and looked down at the water. "Hyathom! I was wondering if you were going to show yourself."

Rising out of the pond, without a ripple, came the most beautiful woman Kevin had ever seen. She was totally naked, but seemed to think nothing of it.

Kevin sat there slack jawed. He knew he was in love, or at least lust. Who cared that she stood on water, and had unusual skin tone. Who cared that she was transparent, with no apparent organs. This was a woman he had to have.

Amanda stood on the bench and embrace her friend. "How are you? What has it been, three years?"

"At least. I've been well. A school of goldfish moved in a few weeks ago. I've been trying to communicate with them, but you know fish," she said with a sigh.

Suddenly, Hyathom's attention shifted to Kevin. She looked him up and down with blatant interest. "Who's the young hunk."

Amanda turn to her beau. "Hyathom, this is my boyfriend Kevin. Kevin, this is... Kevin? Kevin?"

Kevin didn't respond. He just stared at the beautiful girl, slack jawed, with awe.

"Your boyfriend, huh? You don't mind sharing him do you?"

"Hyathom, cut it out!"

The water maid smiled innocently. "Cut what out? Can I help it if guys find me irresistible?"

"Hyathom!"

"Okay, okay! Sheesh! you don't have to be such a grump about it."

Kevin suddenly felt something loosen its grip on mind. He blinked his eyes and looked around. The beautiful transparent girl was still there, and he still found her very attractive. But she no longer blinded him with lust.

Amanda climbed off the bench and hugged Kevin, who was still seated. "Are you okay, Honey?"

Kevin glanced at Amanda, then looked back at Hyathom. "Sure, sure, I'm fine.

"Who... No, what is that?"

"This is Kevin, this is Hyathom, a nereid. A water nymph, close cousin to the dryads."

The nereid extended a hand to Kevin. "I am so glad to meet you," she said suggestively.

Kevin shook her hand. When he did he felt the tickle of a hundred tiny tongues run over his hand.

"Nymphs have a certain, ahem, 'talent' with men. I'd forgotten about that. You see, you're the first person I've ever taken here."

Kevin drew back his hand, blushing. "Pleased... to meet you."

Amanda grabbed Kevin's arm. "Honey, we need to be going."

"Sure, sure," he said, as he got dragged away into the woods. "See you later Hyathom."

"Make it sooner," she called back.

After losing sight of the pool, Kevin finally turned away. "What a nice girl," he said with a sigh.

"I bet," said Amanda coolly. "I could tell you liked her by the line of drool hanging from your mouth."

"Could I help it?" Kevin challenged. "You said nymphs had a way with men. Could I not help but be attracted to her?"

"No," she admitted grudgingly.

The two walked for a time in silence, following an animal trail.

"Say," said Kevin suddenly, "how are we going to get home? We sure can't go back to the gate."

"No, gates are one way. But there are several ways to get home. The easiest way is to just fall asleep. You'll wake up in the normal world, but the entry point would be random. We could wake up at home, in the Amazon rain forest, in the middle of Antarctica, or one a hundred other wild places."

"Doesn't sound very safe."

"No, it doesn't," she agreed.

"Another way is to find one of the few dryads that can still reach our world. Most of them are palm dryads. We would exit on a small secluded South Seas island."

"Aren't there any closer to Kansas than that?"

"The closest one I know is a pine dryad in the Rockies named Aa-rana. She isn't the most pleasant dryad I know. She likes her seclusion."

"That doesn't sound like the best solution either."

"You're right," she said. "The best option is to find Eugene. We found each other last year, and he got me home, safe and sound."

"Do you know how to find him?"

"No, but don't worry. Coincidence is a common occurrence in the Faerie Realm."

A distant clamor, which they hadn't notice before, was growing louder.

"Speaking of which," Said Amanda, "I do believe we are coming up on the most spectacular sights of all the Faerie Realm. The capital city of Avalon."

"A city?" said Kevin, bewildered. "I thought you said this dimension was allergic to civilized things, like cities."

"This is not your everyday city. Come on, you'll see." Amanda started jogging toward the ruckus.

Kevin picked up his pace, and reluctantly followed.

After about fifty feet, Kevin broke through the underbrush into a clearing. Amanda was waiting for him, but he didn't notice. All he noticed was the sight before him.

It was a grove of at least one hundred of the biggest trees he had ever seen; and he had seen the sequoias in California. Each trunk was at least fifty feet across some as wide as a football field. Like the sequoias, there were no low limbs. The nearest limbs were at least two hundred yards up. The high branches completely blocked out the sky. If it weren't for the millions of fireflies that swarmed around the trees, Avalon would have been in pitch darkness.

In the base of each tree was a hollowed out area, that was used as an inn, tavern, blacksmith, or some other business. Outbuildings were built around many of the hollowed area. On the ground, between each tree, small sturdy wood buildings created the streets and avenues of the city.

"Look up," Amanda whispered in Kevin's ear.

Kevin looked up, and saw that not even half of the city was on the ground. Most of Avalon was far above the ground.

Spiral staircases snaked around the trees, leading from the ground to the branches above. On the lowest branches Kevin saw more buildings hollowed out of the tree, as well as structures built on the giant limbs.

Between the various trees were hundreds of impossibly long and narrow catwalks. Some of the catwalks ran parallel to the ground, but most were slanted at an steep angle, joining two different levels together. The overall affect was that a giant drunken spider had tried build a web in these trees.

The higher Kevin looked, the more catwalks he saw. It seemed that the city rose higher and higher, without end.

"Wow!" was all he could think to say.

Amanda sighed. "I've seen Avalon dozens of times, but each time it never ceases to fill me awe."

"How high does this city go?" asked Kevin.

Amanda shrugged. "A mile, maybe two. I'm not sure. Come on. Let me show you the sights."

Kevin followed, gawking like a tourist.

It turned out that most of the buildings on the forest floor were oriented toward the land based travelers. Livery stables, inns, and the like.

"Amanda, what kind of trees are these?"

"They are called silverwood. They don't exist in our world, at least not any more."

"I can see why they're called that. Half of those leaves up there sparkle like silver."

Amanda smiled. "Actually, they all sparkle. Each leaf is green on one side and covered with a silvery substance on the other, similar to glitter."

The conversation ebbed again, as the two stared at all the strange wares and creatures passing them by.

Over ninety-five percent of the crowd swarming the street were little people, about three feet high, dressed in brown or green, with pointed ears, brown eyes, brown or black hair and tan skin.

About four percent of the crowd also had pointed ears, but they were pale and gaunt, with blonde, silver or white hair. They ranged in height from five feet, to about six foot six.

The remaining one percent were the oddball tourists: satyrs, centaurs, and two humans.

"Honey," Kevin inquired, "I know the short guys are elves, but who are those pasty tall ones."

"The short ones are wood elves," said Amanda. "They are the most common inhabitants of the Faerie Realm. The tall ones are faerie, or high elves. The noblemen of this world. They gradually get taller with age."

"I thought fairies were small with wings."

"Those are pixies and sprites," she corrected. "They're common in the upper reaches of Avalon. Faerie, and the more prosperous wood elves use them as messengers."

"Are the faerie, the rulers here?" Kevin asked.

"I wouldn't call them rulers. The Faerie Realm is more of a benevolent anarchy than anything else.

"The faerie are probably the most respected race, because of their wisdom and power. They also hollowed out the trees and made Avalon."

Kevin frowned. "Hmm. You'd think that a culture that respected trees so much, would not hurt the same trees by hollowing out their insides."

Amanda laughed. "The faerie didn't hollow out the trees. They talked the trees into doing it themselves."

"You can't be serious," he laughed.

"It's true. Faerie have a special way of communicating with silverwood trees. Over the centuries, they instructed the trees how to grow, so they'd grow up with hollow rooms inside. If you went inside one you'd see. The walls inside are lined with bark, just like the outside."

As they were talking, Amanda and Kevin wandered down the street, going farther and farther into the city. In the middle of the city there stood the largest tree of all. It was about two hundred yards wide. No stairs spiraled up the sides. When he looked up, he didn't see any bridges joining with it. There was only one opening leading into the tree, and it was at ground level. The opening was covered with at double gate, guarded by two faerie guards with swords, in silvery gold armor.

"This is the palace of Titania and Oberon, the faerie queen and king." Amanda's voice dropped down to a whisper. "Everyone fears and respects them, but only faerie follow their edicts when they are not around."

"Have you ever met them?" Kevin asked.

She shrugged, "I haven't had any need to. I have heard they are very vain and haughty, and can change moods at the drop of a hat..."

Suddenly, as if cued by something Kevin couldn't hear, Amanda whirled around. "Eugene!" she cried.

Kevin turned to find his girl with her arms around the neck of an unicorn.

Once again, Kevin felt spellbound. But instead of being blinded by lust, he was dazzled by awe. Eugene was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. His ever- changing eyes nearly hypnotized him. This creature radiated freedom, wildness, and serenity all at the same time.

It was Amanda's voice that broke the spell. "Kevin, I'd like you to meet Eugene."

Kevin extended his hand, hoping to shake a hoof or horn. Instead the unicorn took a step back.

"What did he do that for?" he demanded angrily. "Does he think he's too good for me or what?"

"Oh, that's right. You can't hear him."

"And you can?"

Amanda nodded her head. "Sure, it's a type of telepathy."

"Well, what did he say?"

"He said he was glad to meet you, but he could not touch you. And you can not touch him."

"And why not?" Kevin asked angrily.

Amanda blushed slightly. "Well, you are... I guess the only word I can use is 'impure'".

"What do you mean by impure?"

Amanda's blush turned a little deeper. "Not a virgin."

Kevin's mouth opened, as if about to say something. He then closed it. Then opened and closed it again.

"Unicorns can only associate with virgins and fey folk," said Amanda.

"Oh. And I suppose you are a virgin!"

"I am."

Kevin's mouth flopped open again. "You're a virgin? You mean a virgin virgin?"

The young woman nodded her head.

Kevin let out a low whistle. "Well, that explains some things. I just thought you wanted to go slow on our relationship."

Amanda put her left hand on her boyfriend's shoulder, and her right one on the unicorn's neck. "Eugene. Kevin," she shouted over the city noises. "We need to talk. Someplace quieter than here."

The unicorn took off down a road different from one they took coming in. Amanda followed.

Amanda called back to Kevin. "Eugene says he knows the perfect place."

Kevin threw up his hands. "Well who am I to argue with a unicorn!"

Amanda walked back and took his hand. "Come on, Honey, be realistic. Eugene knows more about the Faerie Realm than either of us."

"I know, I know. It's just, as soon as he arrived, I felt like a second banana. Inferior in every way."

"He is a powerful presence, isn't he? But I'm trying to be fair to both of you. Give me a chance."

"Okay," he agreed.

Leaving Avalon was much quicker than entering. Wherever Eugene walked, the crowds parted. Kevin and Amanda just followed in his wake.

After they left the city, Eugene walked to a nearby tree and reclined next to the trunk.

Kevin paused in front of the tree. "Wait a minute. I know this tree... But it's too big."

"It's the faerie version of the cottonwood back home."

A light came on in Kevin's head. "Yeah! That's it."

"This is where Ai-lara used to live," Amanda stated.

"Oh," said Kevin, as he went and sat on a raised root.

"An excellent choice Eugene," she said.

The unicorn nodded his head, acknowledging the compliment.

"Now, we need to get down to business," said Amanda.

"First of all, I want to apologize to you, Kevin."

"To me?" he said, startled.

"Yes, to you.

"When I was thirteen I vowed to stay a virgin all my life. That way I would never lose my best friend, Eugene. The only one who knew me better than I knew myself. And all my other friends, like Hyathom.

"At that time I didn't realize what a chore that would be. During high school, boys, cute boys, would chase after me. I did everything in my power to discourage them. I wore no makeup and baggy clothes. But they still chased me.

"A couple of times I nearly gave in and agreed to go on a date. But my monthly evening with Eugene renewed my resolve."

Kevin cut in. "You know, you can go on a date and not have sex."

"Sure you can. But one thing leads to another. A date is the first step on a path I dared not start down."

Eugene nodded his head in agreement.

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