"Did you know that the sunlight could weave rainbow paths that lead into other worlds?" asked Jennifer Briteman, tossing a pebble into the foaming waves that lapped the shore.
"No." Allyson Del Mar looked up at the young woman in puzzlement. She had met Jennifer less than a week ago, at the start of her long-awaited vacation at this resort and had not believed her capable of such whimsical musings. Not this beautiful business student who seemed to have no interests other than her appearance and men. But she did have a peculiar way of exclaiming how colorful sunlight was and, one evening, she had described the bonfire as a flaring medley ranging from darkest amethyst to purest diamond. As a young child, Jennifer had assumed that other people saw these things as well. It was this one quirk that had made Allyson wish to befriend her: she herself could touch and smell moonlight, unusual sensations she had learned from experience to keep secret. Maybe Jennifer sensed this as well since she didn't share these observations with any of the other vacationers. "Where did you hear of this?"
"I discovered it for myself." Jennifer lifted her face skyward: the twilight sun melted over her, turning her long hair an even richer gold and gilding her dark tan. "It happened when I was at my parents' house, at the beginning of summer, before I left on this vacation. I was sitting in my garden. The sunlight was warm; it felt comforting. I started to doze off. I'm not sure if it was a dream. Maybe it was. The rainbow rays spun themselves into a path. I climbed onto it and followed it to a land that—how can I describe it? A land that seemed to be a blur of fire and blinding colors. But that was only a glimpse. The image vanished. It was beautiful." Jennifer inhaled deeply, flushed and breathless. "I'd like to see it again and remain longer."
In spite of the warmth of the fragrant air, a chill crept between Allyson's shoulder blades. For a reason that she couldn't understand, fire made her uneasy. She could admire it from a distance but balked at lighting candles and fireplaces. Even cooking was difficult; back home she ate out as much as possible. As a child, she had been terrified of fire.
"Wouldn't such a place be too hot for you to withstand?" Allyson asked as she focused on the faintly warm seawater as it lapped her ankles, the feel of the wet squishy sand between her toes. Jennifer stood a short distance away. Even though the young woman was clad in a bikini top and shorts, she wouldn't come near the water. Allyson had the feeling that she only dressed like that to show off her slender figure. And Allyson noticed that Jennifer avoided participating in any activities that involved water. Both women had come here alone and become friends, even though they had very little in common outside of their peculiarities. But when Allyson wanted to go swimming or water skiing, Jennifer opted to stay ashore and shop or read a book. How could anyone not like to swim? Allyson wondered. The waves whispered all around her, calling to her.
"No. It was comfortably warm, even for the second that I was there I knew I'd be safe in such a place. It was as if an invisible shield of protection was surrounding me."
"I've had a similar experience," Allyson murmured, returning her gaze to the sea, marveling at how the lowering sun shattered its surface in countless dancing shards. "Although my path wasn't made of sunlight but moonsilk. It happened less than a year ago. The moon was full. I was about to go for an evening swim in my pool when I felt the moonlight tugging at me. It twined into silvery cords that formed a braid-pattern over the entire pool but vanished beyond it. I stepped onto it as an experiment and was surprised: the path was real! It felt wet and velvety, like moonlight always does with me."
"A path of moonlight!" Jennifer exclaimed, taking a step forward. She withdrew instantly when a bubbling wave touched her toes. "Did you follow it? Where did it take you?"
Allyson tilted her head back and closed her eyes. A breeze, tinted with the blending fragrances of salt water and exotic island flowers, brushed against her face. She could picture in her mind the vivid images of that surreal, ephemeral place: a sea that seemed to be made of myriads of undulating diamond-dust crystals instead of solid water. The many-layered waves—that extended beyond any horizon, unmarred by the protuberance of rocks and islands—shifted with glowing opalescent colors that grew deeper further out. The entire scene was a spectrum of blinding colors.
"I couldn't follow it into this sea since the path ended beyond my pool." The disappointment of that still weighted her. "But I was still able to view that sea, a sea different than this one or any other. It was more like mist, patterned with rainbows. There were gemlike objects in the black sky, stars perhaps but bigger and brighter than the ones here."
A flush of pride filled Allyson. This was the first time that she'd actually shared this story with anyone, but it had been the inspiration for two of her most successful paintings to date. The first was entitled "Moonweave," the second "Mist World," both painted exactly as she had experienced, and they earned her more money than she had ever dreamed she could make as an artist. To celebrate, she booked this long-anticipated vacation.
Jennifer tossed a pebble into the waves, hard, as if she wished to subdue them. "Why don't we see if we can find these paths again? Maybe this will work longer if we try it together. Tonight is my last night here." Her voice hushed to a whisper. Jennifer's brilliant eyes, which were a richer gold than the twilight, grew shadowy.
"You don't want to go back?"
Jennifer shook her head. "I hate school. I'm only going for my parents…they want me to be a banker like my father, but it just isn't me."
An unexpected conundrum of jealousy mixed with gratitude wormed through Allyson. She, the youngest child of a large but poor family, had worked odd jobs to put herself through college. But even though that had been a struggle, no one had stopped her from pursuing her passion for art.
"What is it that you want to do?"
Jennifer shrugged. "I don't know yet. That's why I decided to take this vacation. I thought that maybe I could figure it out here, away from everything and everyone. But I'm still just as confused as ever."
Allyson reluctantly waded out of the water and approached her companion. "Don't worry about it. You're still quite young. It often takes a while to figure out what you want out of life. Perhaps the sunlight will help you, just as water and moonlight does to me. Let's move further down the beach, where it's quieter, so we can concentrate and see if we can find our paths again."
Jennifer seemed to brighten at that suggestion.
The swishing of waves and the rustling of palm trees gradually overpowered the sounds of laughter, talking, and shouts coming from the resort.
A tiny brown hut stood to one side of this lonely beach. It was a simple dwelling, but a plush garden surrounded it. Neat rows of pineapples were framed by a multitude of flowers; some blossoms were larger than a grown man's hand, others had petals that looked as sleek and shiny as the finest silks. A small forest thickly surrounded this hut, nearly concealing it. The trees were peculiar, almost otherworldly. While a few had thick, wide trunks of reddish hue and leaves that changed colors like the sea, some were slender with moss-green bark and silver-white leaves.
"Who lives there?" asked Jennifer, pointing.
"An old hermit," said Allyson. "Well, that's what some of the waiters at the resort told me. His name is Sam Woods. He comes from the United States and is very secretive. There have been many rumors about him. I'm surprised that you haven't heard any. Some say that he was a general in the Vietnam War and moved here to forget about his experiences. Others—"
"Yes! I have heard those." Jennifer strode toward the garden to get a better look. Allyson broke into a slow run in an effort to keep up with her longer legged companion. "I'd heard that he spent ten years in prison for murdering his wife but never finished out his sentence. He escaped here."
"I've heard that one too. I doubt any of them are true." Still, a shiver trembled across her skin. She had seen Sam at least twice since she had been here, when she wandered to this side of the beach for her evening swims. He had glared at her through iron-chill eyes, the rest of his face masked behind a tangled gray beard. True, the rumors about him varied but one detail was certain: he did know how to grow the oddest and most beautiful plants. He had to have grown them. They certainly weren't indigenous to this island. It seemed as if he had retrieved them from other worlds.
"His garden is beautiful," said Jennifer. "I've traveled a lot with my parents when I was younger, but I've never seen any plants like that. Not even my parents' garden looks like this. I wonder if he realizes what he has here. He could sell these plants and the seeds that would make them grow." Her voice rose in excitement. "Could you imagine the fortune he would make? That's what my father—"
"I don't need any tourist telling me what I ought to do with my garden," said a low, gravelly voice from behind a red tree. Both women jumped. Allyson's heart roared in her ears. "No one will ever discover the secrets of my precious plants. Including you. That magic belongs to me alone."
The man slid out from behind the trunk. He looked the same as usual, dressed in gray and black—his tangled beard was gray-black as well—blending into the shadows, becoming one with them. Allyson found it difficult to believe that he was the one responsible for all that beauty.
Sam looked at Allyson with his prying gaze, a stare he quickly transferred to Jennifer. Allyson saw the girl break into a wide smile that had charmed many of the resort's waiters and young male tourists, but Sam ignored it and simply scowled back at her.
"We're sorry for bothering you," said Allyson, pulling Jennifer back toward the direction of the ocean.
She returned her focus to the waves that wavered in rich shades of blue, green, and gray. Late afternoon gold spilled everywhere: sun patches the color of Jennifer's unusual eyes formed blinding patterns upon the sea's restless surface. The white sands of the beach gleamed like a field of fallow wheat. Even the huge black rocks looming out past the waves like shadow-monoliths were sheened with water and sunlight.
But the sea itself was what fascinated Allyson the most. The damp air brushed against her face like a caress, comforting her. She imagined that she was one of the many seabirds whose piercing cries rose above the churn of the waves.
"He's following us!" Jennifer gasped, clutching her arm.
Allyson turned in disgust, her momentarily pleasant mood broken. Sam strode a few paces behind them, draped in a dark, billowing cloak in spite of the evening's warmth. Allyson had never seen him out in the open, past the wooded shadows of his garden, and his presence startled her. She almost feared that the sunlight would turn him into stone, as if he were a fairy tale gnome. But it didn't seem to bother him. It was sunlight after all, she reminded herself, that made most of his plants grow so beautifully.
"There's another blasted tourist," he mumbled, pointing to a young man who was stirring a dying, smoking fire only a short distance away.
Allyson drew closer, wondering if he was any of the vacationers she had met at the resort. If so, what was he doing out here all by himself? He was wearing dirty jeans, and a bundle of provisions, a sleeping bag, and blanket lay at his side. A small boat, just as shabby as its owner, rested on the shore a few feet away.
Was he a transient? Did he travel here by that boat? Allyson's first instinct was to turn away but a part of her was fascinated.
He looked up at them and smiled. "Hello, there," he said in a cheerful voice. "Come and join me. I've been traveling for a while now and it's been a long time since I've had company. My name's Kai Zephyr."
Allyson could feel Jennifer loosen her grip on her arm as she moved toward the fire, probably enchanted by the wondrous colors that only she could see and could sense cranky Sam behind them. She hesitantly introduced herself and her friend. "We were both on vacation here when we met. Did you come all the way here in that?" She pointed at the boat.
Kai nodded. "Well, I've been touring the islands in it. I flew in from the States. I'm originally from California but after I graduated from college, I figured that I might as well see the world before I settled down at any job. I spent some time hitchhiking through Europe and parts of Asia, working at odd jobs when I needed money."
A subtle wistfulness tugged at Allyson. She had traveled little in her lifetime but had always had the urge to. She wished she could have Kai's confidence. She hesitantly settled between Kai and Jennifer but sat further away from the fire than both of them. Sam still lingered at a distance.
"You must have seen many beautiful places on your travels," said Allyson, attempting to focus on the sea beyond and the moon rising in the east.
"I have. Paris, Rome, Mount Everest…" Kai turned his face upward. The subtle wind toyed with his hair and the wispy tufts of his scant beard. He breathed deeply, as if that breeze was as comforting to him as water and moonlight were to Allyson, fire and sunlight to Jennifer. "But the most beautiful of all were the Northern Lights. They were crackling curtains of rainbow light that glowed against the sky."
"Just like sunlight and fire!" Jennifer exclaimed.
Kai turned his head to stare at her.
"You see color in the sunlight? On my travels I've heard tales of such people…beings of the Fire Realm. The elements of sun and fire fascinate them. Others are sensitive toward water—" Allyson's attention perked— "while still others are very good at coaxing the plants to grow in the earth. I myself enjoy the wind and, at times, if I look closely enough, I can see the motion of the air currants."
"I didn't know others had such perceptions," said Allyson. Tears blurred her vision. "All of my life I could touch moonlight and I loved to swim…I couldn't get enough of the water. One night I caught a glimpse of another world in the moonlight."
"And I saw one in the sunlight," Jennifer chimed in.
"These things are possible," Kai whispered, turning his face once again so that the breeze could bathe it.
Allyson followed his gaze, seaward. She breathed deeply, inhaling the tangy scents of kelp and salt water. Her eyes focused on the glittering sun-sprinkles then lifted skyward. She could see a half moon against the sky. It was just barely beginning to take on its nightly glow and she could feel the light. She closed her eyes and focused: faint, web-like filaments of the finest gauze brushed against her cheeks and eyelids. Perhaps there were others who experienced this tangible sensation, but none that she had ever met. This light would thicken as the sky darkened and the moon became more dominant and the stars appeared. The rich moonbeams, meshing with the starlight, would take on the cool texture of damp velvet and weave a scent like sea spray mixed with lavender.
"We should all try this." Kai's voice jarred Allyson from her thoughts. She opened her eyes but could still feel the wispy moon-threads tickling her face. "Although I have a feeling that I wouldn't be able to find my way through sunlight or moonlight. Air and wind create a stronger feeling within me."
"Maybe these paths differ for everyone," Allyson said. The moon was subtly brightening, thickening its threads into a more silk-like texture. A tinge of euphoria swelled within her chest, mixed with a longing to plunge into the calling waves.
"Nonsense," muttered a gravely voice beside and a little behind her. Allyson nearly jumped. She had practically forgotten about Sam. "There are no pathways to other worlds. This is the only world there is."
"You can't prove that," Kai said, his gray-blue eyes holding a sheen that reminded Allyson of hardened frost. "The elements of our world hold many secrets. We can attempt to prove this if we all concentrate on our individual elements. And all those elements are here. The sun is near setting." Allyson took note of Jennifer's uncomfortable glance toward the western horizon; the sun hung a few degrees over the sea in a solid, reddish sphere. Shadows deepened her eyes to topaz. "If we want to try this today, we shouldn't wait too long."
Kai added more twigs to his fire. Flame tendrils lapped at the fresh wood then sprouted over it and grew. Allyson, feeling a little repelled and uneasy, backed away from it. Flaring orange and yellow…that was all she saw. She tried to imagine the vibrant, opalescent colors that apparently enchanted Jennifer but could not. Water and moonlight were her companions. She turned her head toward the sea and looked skyward, allowing the moon's invisible, silk-tangible fingers to caress her face.
Kai shared his provisions—bread, meat, and cheese—with them and Sam reluctantly produced a few fruits from his many pockets and passed them around. The fruit that Allyson ate resembled an apple, but it had a sleek silver skin. Its flesh, when she bit into it, was dark and juicy and had a tangy taste that tingled upon her tongue. It left her feeling comfortably full, as if she had just devoured a large meal.
"Perhaps we should all join hands to do this," Kai suggested once they had finished eating.
Allyson felt a tremor of excitement shiver through her as she joined hands with her companions: Jennifer's smooth, long-fingered hand on one side, Sam's rough, callused one on the other. Her gaze touched briefly with Kai's. He sat directly across from her with the fire between them. The sea stirred restlessly beyond and wet moonlight was soft on her face. She smiled, content.
"I am doing this only to prove you are all insane." Sam's gruff words deepened Allyson's smile because she found herself unable to believe him. He was just as curious but unable to admit it. Or perhaps the magical feeling that tingled in the air during this time between day and night had reluctantly captured him as well.
Allyson concentrated, watched as the moonsilk filaments became visible to her once again and, like before, they entwined into a shimmering, silvery braid-pattern that led into the sea's direction.
Allyson nearly forgot about the others and let go of the hands she was holding. She caught glimpses of them from the corners of her eyes as she rose to step onto the moonweave. They, too, had left the fireside and were apparently following their own element paths: Jennifer headed toward the setting sun, Kai followed the wind's direction, and Sam still sat on the ground, running sand through his fingers as if willing buried seeds to sprout into plants.
Allyson returned her attention to her own watery moonpath and followed it. The ocean did not transform into a dew-dust sea but vanished altogether. Allyson blinked. The moonpath unraveled and faded away, just as it had done before.
Confused, she looked around. She was in a round chamber that resembled a giant bubble. Its walls were as opaque as foam. Upon a dais at the center stood a strange creature. Spidery tentacles sprouted root-like where its legs should have been. Its midriff was gnarled and wooden like a tree trunk. The arms that extended from it made Allyson think of the legs and claws of a great beast except they appeared to be formed from searing flames. She shivered and forced herself to look at its head. Whether the face belonged to a human or beast, she wasn't certain. Its features were blurred, like those of clouds and the skin was a pale, pale blue that seemed so transparent-thin that light seeped through it. Only the eyes were distinct: silver-gray and humanlike in appearance. A long mane of dazzling white hair topped its head.
Allyson tried to speak but found that all she could do was swallow. She nearly jumped when she discovered that her other three companions now stood beside her. Had they followed her? Or did all of their paths lead to this place? They were as speechless as she as they fixed their gazes upon this creature.
"I am the Weaver of the Paths of Elements," it said without moving its formless lips. The voice that resonated in Allyson's mind was both bell-tinkle soft and overpoweringly loud. "As such, I am the center of all Nature. I contain the four basic elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Each of you is a creature from just one of these elements but you have all lived out your lives thus far trapped in human forms. You were destined to meet: that was the only way in which your paths would mesh and carry you to me."
A giddy feeling overcame Allyson. She could sense how her companions felt without even looking at them: questioning if this were a dream, barely able to believe it if it wasn't.
"I can start each of you on your paths to your own realms but there must be a challenge," the Path Weaver continued. "You must learn to overcome your fear of one another and become more accepting of the different elements. In order to reach your proper world, you must pass through a vast section of the world that is your opposite."
The creature stepped down off the dais, its sea-tendrils grasping the ground in graceful, spider-like movements. It came to stand before Kai. Allyson felt another jolt of surprise. The creature barely reached his chin. While it had stood upon the dais, it had seemed much larger. And it wasn't merely a matter of perception: she had thought it had taken up the entire chamber before.
"You are a creature of Air," it continued. "On the world-of-many-elements into which you had wrongly been born, you were a restless individual who could never settle in any place for very long." Allyson saw Kai slightly nod and lick his lips. "You are brave in many ways, but you do have one fear: that of being enclosed. Therefore, your challenge is to follow a path that leads through the Earth element. You cannot reach Air unless you accept this challenge."
"What you said about me is true," Kai swiftly replied. "I enjoy constant motion and the outdoors. There is little I am afraid of, but caves and enclosed places are my greatest fears. However, I am not one to back away from a challenge. I will accept this one if it is an obstacle I must overcome to reach my world."
The Path Weaver's countenance shifted slightly as it grinned, becoming more bestial than humanlike. "You will keep in mind that if your fear overcomes you, you will be trapped forever in Earth."
Kai swallowed. "If that is what you say, then I will not allow my discomfort to take over."
"Good." The Path Weaver stepped back and raised a fire-claw arm. A portion of the chamber wall vanished, revealing a yawning dark cave. "The thoughts of your companions will be linked to yours so that they, too, may witness your progress. But remember that they can neither help nor hinder you. If you make it through, you will be met by a companion who will draw you into your new world. Proceed."
Kai lifted his head higher and straightened his shoulders as if to resist his inner trembling that Allyson could now feel. The path that formed beneath his feet was one of dirt mixed with sand and sprinkled with pebbles and occasional flowers.
A stifling terror overcame her as Kai disappeared into the cave beyond.
No! I will be buried alive! Kai's thoughts echoed painfully in her head. Rocks are tumbling down on me. This reminds me of a nightmare I used to have when I was very young; that an earthquake or an avalanche buried me, and I'd always awaken screaming.
"Don't give in to your fear," Allyson found herself yelling before realizing that her words could not help him. Kai was somewhere in the depths of Earth…another world from this place, wherever this was.
She could feel the burning strain of his muscles as they lifted rocks and dug away dirt barriers. A subtle light like that of the sun shone from overhead, making her feel pleasantly warm. Through her inner eye she caught glimpses of flowers and shrubs, many that resembled those in Sam's garden. They became larger and more abundant as Kai's initial fear lifted. He stepped off the path into—
Nothingness? No! Allyson focused harder, clearing her mind. Vapor-shimmery, gauzelike islands floated against a sky-blue atmosphere. They drifted like clouds upon wind that she could see. The world of Air? Kai had made it through! Allyson felt like shouting her excitement.
A child flew weightlessly toward Kai and grasped his hand. Her gossamer white hair floated behind her. Her diaphanous blue skin and spindly, fragile appearance revealed to him that she was not from the world where he had been born.
Kai was transforming as he held this child's hand. He, too, became spidery thin and blue-skinned.
"Chase me! Play with me!" the child urged, darting away like a young bird. Allyson noticed that the rapid air currents were distorting her delicate body as if it held no more substance than a cloud. Her nose sharpened into the beginnings of a beak and her slender arms became feathery.
Kai laughed with exhilaration and chased her until they and their world faded from Allyson's mind.
She felt both happy and pensive. A longing to be surrounded by water and moonlight tugged at her. Kai had found his true home. When would she be returned to hers?
The Path Weaver stepped up to Sam. It stood taller than the cloaked man and its blue face now resembled Kai's altered one. "You are a creature of Earth. As a result, you are a loner who, opposed to an Air creature, prefers a solid home. You are gifted in the art of creating your own kinds of plants, vegetables, flower, and trees, or duplicating others. That you will have in abundance if you can face your uneasiness of open spaces as you pass through a portion of Air. Do not rely on the one called Kai to help you. He will be unable to. Nor will the minds of those left behind—" it glanced at Jennifer and Allyson— "though they will be able to witness your progress."
For a second time, the Path Weaver stepped back. The wall-portion, which had grown opaque again after Kai had stepped through, now revealed the ephemeral Air world.
"I don't see why I ought to do this," Sam mumbled as he stepped onto a weave-path that appeared to have been made from windthreads. It stirred uneasily beneath his feet. "I don't care much for people, let alone strange creatures that belong in dreams. I am only dreaming this. That's what it is."
A stabbing fear of falling clutched Allyson's chest as Sam vanished into Air. She felt him flailing in emptiness and wordless panic filled her mind. She didn't like this grumpy hermit, aside from the gentle side of him that must have created that beautiful garden, but his fear paralyzed her, made her sick with pity.
She screamed and clutched Jennifer who was screaming as well. No! Allyson glanced to the Path Weaver but could not read its expression for its face now resembled a featureless cloud. Sam is falling! Does Air have any solid ground? Where will he land?
In her mind she could see wispy creatures and people flying around, weaving through and around their gauzy islands. None seemed to take notice of the dark man—so big and heavy next to their ethereal weightlessness—who plummeted, legs kicking, arms flailing, toward…where? Air seemed to extend forever.
If crashing into solid earth won't kill him, his fear will, Allyson thought, falling to the ground and balling her fist against her chest.
But then Sam's fright subsided. He reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a stick that he began to peel. White fluff that resembled thistledown sprang from it and floated downward. Multitudes of other such puffs flew from this stick. They joined and wove themselves into a fleece upon which Sam clumsily but safely landed.
He lay still for moments, allowing his heart to calm, his breathing to slow.
Gradually Air's vastness diminished and was replaced by surrounding mountains, their sides thickly covered with trees, their crevices flower-filled.
A stocky nearby tree with yellow bark and purple leaves extended a long branch out to Sam. It grasped him around his waist and pulled him up.
The hood of his cloak fell back, revealing his age-hardened face.
"Join me and become like me," the tree said in a wordless voice.
Sam's firmly placed feet melted into roots that extended into the ground. His human body lost its form and petrified into gray wood, his clothes becoming moss-fuzzy bark. He stretched in stature until he was nearly as tall as his sister tree, retaining his stockiness, and violet leaves formed along his sprouting branches.
Uneasiness quickly overcame Allyson's happiness at Sam's success as she returned to her own mind. Just she and Jennifer were left. She fought the nervous feeling that cramped her stomach as the Path Weaver approached Jennifer.
"You are a creature of Fire," it said, its silent voice still unbearably loud in Allyson's head. "Even your eyes reveal it…eyes that react like refracting crystals against firelight and sunlight. Eyes that enable you to see colors against these elements where other people do not. Water has always been your greatest fear. Therefore, like your proceeding companions, you must pass through that which frightens you most to reach your own realm. Fire's entrance exists just beyond Water. Proceed if you wish to reach your world."
The opaque wall faded to reveal the undulating dew-dust sea. A pang of longing pierced Allyson's chest. Please…let me go! she wished to yell but the words would not come. That is the world I want to belong to. Why must this challenge be so unfair?
Jennifer was trembling as she stepped onto Allyson's familiar moonweave. Her face appeared ashen-pale and her eyes took on a blank stare.
It is a beautiful place, Jennifer! Allyson tried to assure her. Look around. Don't you see rainbows in that ocean? Rainbows like those that appear to you in the sunlight? What difference should it make that this world is Water instead of Fire? They both apparently hold beautiful colors.
Jennifer didn't seem to hear her for a harsher terror she had sensed from the other two sent Allyson reeling forward. This was not a gentle ocean of misty water crystals that Jennifer plunged into but an angry, dark sea roiling with storm-thrashed waves. Jennifer was forced under. She tried to scream but swallowed a mouthful of stinging salt water. She emerged briefly, choking and sputtering.
I don't know how to swim! I'll drown! Her silent screams stabbed knifelike into Allyson.
The waves toppled over her again, sent her plunging down…down. She thrashed against chill darkness, her lungs burned.
Jennifer, concentrate! Allyson urged, knowing the young woman could not hear her. She tried to place an image of the ocean she had perceived—one of mist and moonlight—into Jennifer's mind, even though the Path Weaver had claimed that that would never help.
Jennifer surfaced again, weak and pale. She thrashed awkwardly, disorientated and frightened. But there was more. Allyson felt a sour nausea swelling in her stomach.
I cannot cross water without becoming seasick. Jennifer's thoughts burned Allyson's mind, but the intense fear was abating, becoming replaced by self-anger. Dad used to ridicule me in front of others when my family took cruises. I tried so hard to overcome this, but it never worked. I always got so sick. My parents insisted it was all in my head but that didn't help.
Jennifer was knocked under by another wave but this time she fought her way to the surface.
The waves eased into ripples and a gem-colored glow shone above, speckling the water with rainbow puddles. Red, yellow, blue, violet: the colors of the light spectrum. They meshed, forming even more shades of varying hues, and became as blinding as sunlight.
Allyson found herself blinking in reaction to Jennifer's experience.
Jennifer shook the wet hair from her eyes and tossed her head back, lifting it toward the sunlight. There was not only one gem-sun in the sky but three, all spilling down spidery rays of shifting colors.
A lion stepped out of nowhere and approached Jennifer. Allyson focused harder on this beast. She had never seen any lion that looked like this. Its mane and fur were as dazzling as the sunlight and whether it exuded the colors that swayed down its back or if they were from the suns' reflections, she could not tell. Allyson was not blinded by its brilliance but ended up staring, absorbing its majestic beauty. The water rippled into flame-tongues as the beast's great paws—paws that resembled the Path Weaver's hands—touched it.
Allyson did not fear for Jennifer as she sat in a field of lapping, opalescent fire, stroking the fire-lion's mane. The lion purred, a deep rumbling sound, and pressed its muzzle against her now dry hair.
Jennifer, like Kai and Sam, began to alter. The flames blossomed over her, becoming rainbow-sun fur. Her human likeness dissolved, replaced by the form of a sleek, graceful lioness. Only her eyes remained the same, large and golden.
Allyson felt a deep euphoria as she watched Jennifer the lioness follow her companion deeper into Fire.
"That is the world you must enter," said the Path Weaver's resonating yet soundless voice that erased the mental image. "You, who are a creature of Water. The imagined is tangible for you—as you will find out if you ever reach Water—which is why you can touch moonlight and starlight. Go now along the path through Fire."
Allyson stared up at the Path Weaver. It now stood even taller than it had when she'd first entered this chamber, almost serpentine slender, its cloud-shifting head nearly touching the high domed ceiling. The creature slid aside, revealing Fire. But not the colorful world that Jennifer had disappeared into. Red flames spouted higher than mountains and the ground was formed of craggy, molted coals.
"I will die if I enter that!" Allyson protested, looking up at the Path Weaver. "Water is different than fire. A person can swim through it and survive. In fact, we need it for survival."
"Fire is important too," the Path Weaver said unsympathetically. "And water can be just as deadly. If you do not wish to accept the challenge in Fire, then you can return to the world of all elements from which you came."
A subtle temptation nudged her. She could return to her life where she could take evening swims in her pool. It wasn't a bad life. After years of struggle, she was finally becoming a well-known artist. But still there was that longing, that feeling that she didn't belong in that world, something that had plagued her since early childhood. Friendships were often fleeting and she never seemed to be able to remain in a stable relationship. A familiar depression tugged at her.
I have only my art on the world I'm from, she thought. But in Water I would be able to literally live my art. Do I want to spend my life only imagining what worlds the sea and moon-shimmers hold and never getting more than brief glimpses when I'm lucky?
"No. I will take the challenge," Allyson whispered in a trembling voice.
She stepped onto the fireweave, which hurt her eyes with its brilliance. Her feet burned with an unbearable pain that walking quicker did not alleviate. The plunge into Fire was worse. Smoke choked her lungs and stung her eyes. And the burning! Flames licked at her skin, overwhelming her with pain.
This must be Hell, her thoughts wailed. She dropped onto hot coals. It is worse than drowning or falling or being buried. I cannot make it. I wish death would come fast…
Faint shimmers of thought touched her tortured mind. The other three? Were they observing her now as she had them while remaining unable to help? Let them see that I have failed, she thought, hardly caring, and hoping that death's void would take her away from this eternal burning.
Another voice, clear and unmuddled, sprang into her mind.
"Please get up." It sounded youthful and almost bell-like in resonance. "You don't have far to go to Water's border. Once you pass that you can follow me into Water. You wanted to enter it before but couldn't because you were trapped by the limitations of your world."
I…can't. It is too painful. She didn't have the strength to release those words.
"Come and meet me," the voice continued. "My name is Peryyen. You may not be able to enter Water in your present form but when you pass the border and take on a fitting form with the Path Weaver's help, you will be."
Allyson's feverish thoughts fumbled through the memories of her other companions facing their individual challenges. When they overcame their fears, they were able to make it through their proper worlds. Why should she be defeated? Fire used to be frightening to her, but she had forced herself to overcome it.
I have handled fire many times. Why should I let it overwhelm me now?
The pain instantly subsided and the fierce flames diminished to a tiny fire that burned before her as Kai's had earlier on the beach. Allyson sat up, noticing that the ground was now cold and hard, resembling cinders long dead. She studied her hands and arms, glanced down at her body, felt her face. She was whole and unmarred.
Allyson looked around. Beyond her little bonfire stretched the diamond-mist sea. Multiple moons, meshing with the stars, covered the sky. She could feel their colorful light touching her face: cool, damp silk and velvet, which intensified her euphoria.
A slender form appeared against the softly pulsing waves. It was a young man from the waist up, but his skin was an incandescent blue, his hair silver. His legs were multiple tentacles that resembled the fronds of an exotic sea plant and gills slit the sides of his throat. His slender arms were attached to his sides by gauzy appendages that seemed to be wings, or fins. He moved with a subtle grace. Peryyen? "You made it through. Come with me into Water where imagination takes on a solid form just as moonlight does." Allyson rose and hurried to him. The mist-waves lapped at her ankles, dampened her sarong. "Become a Water being like me." Perryen held a hand out to her.
Allyson took it. Her own hand became ice-diaphanous as she did so, a blue-tinged, crystalline transparency that touched the rest of her body. She felt gill slits at her throat, her legs divided into shimmering, flowerlike tendrils, and wing-like appendages formed between her sides and arms. Even her hair changed: it was no longer heavy and black but floated about her waist and shoulders like wisps of iridescent, silver-blue clouds.
Allyson spread her arms and leaped into the air, flying briefly in a graceful arc before plunging back into Water. Peryyen followed her.
Several paces in she came upon a crystal wall. Through it she could see the other three worlds merging with hers: Fire, Air, and Earth. Her three companions in their new forms stood before her, behind that wall: Jennifer the sun-lioness, Sam the tree, and Kai who now held the fleeting likeness of a puffy blue dragon.
No words were spoken between them, only gestures. Kai blew a wind that rustled Sam's leaves and Allyson splashed water onto the base of his trunk, urging his roots to absorb it. The light that Jennifer exuded captured some of the water droplets, forming a rainbow that arced bridge-like across the worlds.
Allyson's companions turned away, vanishing into their realms. She did likewise and leaped after Peryyen who was springing deeper into Water.
Only once did Allyson stop to look back at the rainbow that she and Jennifer had woven. A part of it extended across Water's vivid sky. Mixed with both Fire and Water, it was the most brilliant element that she could see.