Cooperative: The Destination
Intro Text for Book 1
James jumped and looked around at a grizzled, elderly, black, man. “What?”
The man smiled kindly and nodded at the painting. “Spectacular, isn’t it? I think it would look nice on your wall.”
“Yeah. Well, yeah, it is.” James looked back at the painting. “Are you the artist?”
“No. But I know the artist.” The man nodded to the curator. “I’m sure he’d make you a fair deal.”
James looked around the man at the curator. He was busy with another customer, though. Sighing, he returned his attention to the painting. It wasn’t the most spectacular painting in the market, but something about it seemed to pull at him. He leaned forward and instinctively put his finger on the brush strokes. Someone yelled at him and he realized he had made an extremely novice mistake. Don’t touch the paintings. He looked at his hand as he pulled it back, then turned to apologize to the curator and came face to face with…something. He didn’t know it was there. A wax statue? But furry. Female. The largest eyes he could imagine being on a face. He leaned closer to it, positively amazed at the remarkable detail.
Then it said something, and he yelped and stumbled back. She was alive, and she was following him as he backpedaled. He looked around frantically and realized that he was no longer at the market. The forest of the painting was all around him and he spun around, absolutely dumbfounded. The furry girl pulled out a short sword and crouched, looking alert as she tried to stay close to him.
James took another step back, and abruptly fell down. She rushed to him, ever watchful of the forest around them, and spoke to him again. It was an exotic, flowing language that almost sounded like singing. From her tone, it seemed like she was concerned for him.
She grabbed his hand and tried to pull him up, then suddenly let go and jumped back, staring at him in disbelief. She pointed her sword at him and yelled something as her eyes appeared to flash yellow. While the language was alien to him, the gist was clear. Who was he? He grimaced and scooted back until he bumped into a tree as she stepped forward, putting the sword to his neck.
“Wait!” he yelled before he realized it. “I’m not here. I can’t be here. I’m at a market!” He closed his eyes, terrified that she would lean into him with her sword and that would be it. But instead, he felt a hand on his face and suddenly he saw things that he couldn’t explain, yet he still comprehended. Heard unintelligible things, but understood them. It wasn’t speech, but just knowing. Images and experiences, but not his own. He peeked with an eye and looked at her face just inches from his. She appeared enthralled with him as she sifted his memories.
“This has to be a dream. I fell, got hit in the head…something,” he said. Or did he actually say it? He got the impression that she heard it, however.
“You are not my James. How did you get here?” Her lips didn’t move. In fact, those weren’t the actual words she used. Just the words he knew she intended to communicate.
James licked his lips and sat up a bit more. “I’m at a market. Was…” Obviously he wasn’t there anymore. “There was this painting. It was of this place. This forest. That castle on the bluff.” He pointed. She glanced at it then back at him, quizzical. He shrugged. “I touched the painting.”
She shook her head. “James, you have been here for a long time. We’re life-mates.” The thought rang out as something deeper than husband and wife. He gulped and grimaced. It wasn’t the reaction she hoped for and she scowled.
“I’m sorry! A moment ago I was enjoying a weekend browsing the art market in Seattle!”
“I see it. But I don’t understand it.” She up straighter, and a name came to him.
“Aris?” He blinked, not sure where that name came from.
She looked at him sharply and leaned back down closer to him. “You know my name! That’s good!”
“I just…” He looked around, confused. “I don’t know what I know. I’m a systems analyst. Computers.” He rubbed his eyes. It felt so real. Even the cool air of the forest smelled like the rainforests near Seattle. Familiar, but alien at the same time. The rustling sounds of the forest floor as she shifted and knelt down next to him were perfect. Could he possibly dream something that detailed? And the woman, covered with fur, where did that come from in anything he had read or watched?
“This is real,” her thoughts wafted in. He realized she was still touching him.
“You’re thinking to me? Telepathically?” He had just consciously realized it.
She shrugged. A human gesture, which was actually comforting. “It’s what we do.” Aris leaned even closer. Her breath was warm and not a little tantalizing. “It’s what we’ve done for years. Don’t you remember?”
James looked up at her and suddenly felt guilty. But why? This had to be a dream. And yet, he still felt badly for her. Her husband was missing and he was there in his place. “I’m sorry. I just knew your name and don’t even know why.”
She looked at him for an uncomfortable moment then stood up quickly. “The Younger will know what to do.”
“Who is…” he started then stopped. He actually heard her. She had spoken. And he understood.
She stared at him and knelt back down. “Talk again.”
“Uhm…” He tried not to gape. She was actually quite beautiful now that he had a moment to look at her. “Hi? Hello? I’m James? And I think I’m losing my mind?” The actual words sounded familiar, but then, alien.
She covered her mouth and stood back up. “You’re coming back.”
“I never left.” James sat up more and tried to get his feet under him. “I just haven’t been here before.” He looked at the river down below, and the majestic waterfalls in the distance. “I would certainly remember this.”
Aris shook her head. “I don’t know who you were, but who you are is coming back. We must find the Younger immediately.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Take us to the castle.”
“The…take us?” He looked at her, perplexed.
Aris rubbed her eyes. “Can you see the inside of the castle?”
James looked up at the immense castle that dominated the landscape. What was he supposed to see? “I, uh, what?”
“This can’t be happening. Not now,” Aris groaned. She rubbed her temples. He instinctively wanted to reach out to her but kept his hands to himself. She looked at him. “I can still feel us. But it’s like you’re asleep.”
“Our bond. Our impossible bond. Elves and not-Elves aren’t supposed to be able to,” Aris said tearfully. “You don’t even remember that?”
“Sorry.” He looked away, embarrassed for making her cry. She looked so lost all of a sudden. “What’s in the castle?”
“The Younger. You’re her first Gatekeeper,” Aris said glumly as she looked down and wiped her eyes.
James pursed his lips, wondering if he should ask. It seemed like he was supposed to already know what that was. He saw someone riding what looked like a horse down by the wide, meandering river under the falls and pointed. “We could get ride from him.”
“Her,” Aris corrected without looking.
He squinted at the figure and shrugged.
Aris looked at him, an exasperated look clouding her expression, then she turned and started walking towards the castle. After a few steps she looked back. “You coming?”
“Um…” He looked around. He was reluctant to leave that spot. It was where he had arrived, after all.
She walked back to him and grabbed his hand and pulled him after her. “The correct answer is yes.”
“Yes?” he said as he struggled not to lose his step. She was obviously irritated and he could sense it in a way he would not have expected. As if he was irritated, though he wasn’t.
She looked up at the coniferous canopy overhead and scowled as they walked. He could tell she wanted to climb up into the trees and that he was slowing her down. She could travel up there faster than they could run. It perplexed him that he felt guilty for that. He didn’t even know her. But then, he did.
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to come here. I should have known better.”
She glanced back at him. “Known better?”
“It’s rude to touch the paintings,” he said quietly. “I couldn’t help it. The painting seemed alive somehow.”
“Paintings?” Aris cocked her head.
“You know, paintings.” He held his free arm out around him. “Of stuff like this. All of this was in a painting.”
“It apparently wasn’t,” Aris said bitterly. He was about to reply when they suddenly left the forest and stood before a massive, ancient stone stairway that led up the cliff to the castle. He couldn’t help but gape.
“What is this place?”
Aris looked at him sadly. “You really don’t remember? I moved out of the tree because you wanted to be here.”
“Oh. The tree,” he said, not understanding what she was talking about. “It looks like something out of ancient England or something.”
“England?” Aris looked at him with a glimmer of recognition. He felt it as much as saw it. He nodded.
“You said that name before,” Aris said quietly. She started up the stairs with James in tow. He glanced nervously over the edge of the cliff at the deep valley below. She nodded at the castle. “It…this…reminded you of your home.”
“Yeah, no. I live in an apartment in the suburbs of Seattle.” He licked his lips as he looked up at the structure. There was even a bridge over the waterfalls. The place did have a feeling of familiarity about it. “Well, it is the first thing I’ve seen of this place that actually kinda makes sense.”
“You were homesick when we met. Lost,” Aris said.
James saw it in her memories and shook his head. He was having difficulty grasping the fact that his mind was no longer an isolated island. Vertigo threatened to wash over him as they continued up the stairs, and he teetered a little as they walked up rapidly. “Well, I’m pretty lost right now.” He waved dramatically for emphasis and the sense of vertigo hit him strongly at that moment. Suddenly, everything seemed to spin around.
Before James realized it, he was falling and Aris was screaming from above. He blinked as he looked at the cliff flying by and instinctively closed his eyes tightly. It was then that he saw a stone chamber around him. The floor was cold to the touch and there was no longer any wind. He tentatively opened his eyes and looked around, still trembling from the terror of falling. He really was in a stone chamber. He turned around slowly as he stood up. Sunbeams streamed in through the skylights high overhead, making everything appear magical.
James looked around quickly and almost stumbled back, stunned. Another woman. But no fur. Her skin looked like someone had taken colorful paints and splashed her from head to toe. “I was falling. But, I’m not.” He felt dizzy and looked for something to hold on to. As he started to fall, the woman was suddenly at his side, holding him up.
“You don’t belong here.”
“You think?” He gaped at her, surprised but exasperated. How did she get to him so quickly? Part of her skin seemed to chrome over briefly and he tried not to stare.
“We were coming up the steps,” he mumbled.
The colorful woman closed her eyes briefly and suddenly Aris was standing in front of them. She screamed and ran to him, throwing her arms around his shoulders as she sobbed.
“This is getting to be a bit much for me,” he said quietly. “I was just shopping for something to put on my wall. That’s all.”
The colorful woman looked at Aris. “He is not your James. Not yet.”
“Not yet?” He felt a little offended. She was talking to his wife after all. Though, he wasn’t married.
“You need to go back. It’s not time yet.”
“Please, make him well,” Aris begged, clinging to the colorful woman.
“Only he can. But I need a trigger to motivate him.” She looked at him critically.
“Is this the Younger?” He glanced at Aris. He knew the answer already, but it bothered him that he knew it. Aris was an Elf and the Younger was a Selkie goddess. Details were starting to filter in as if he had always known them, but they still didn’t make sense.
“He is there. But then he is not,” the Younger said, looking intently at him. “You arrived here a long time ago, James. But it is too soon for you and you haven’t gone back far enough.”
“Oh. Well, now that you put it that way, it all makes perfect sense.” The sarcasm probably wasn’t warranted, but he just wanted to go back home. “And I’m supposed to be…who?”
The Younger took a breath and glanced at Aris. “You are a Gatekeeper. The only one who did not need to be awakened.” She hesitated. “And you are not connected to time.”
“And there must have been something in that paint.” James looked at his fingers, wondering if this was all a hallucination.
“It will make sense to you when the time is right.”
“Can you bring him back? My James?” Aris pleaded.
James looked at her and felt guilty again. She seemed so familiar, even with her fur and big eyes. And yet she couldn’t be more of a stranger to him. He knew her name, however. And he was talking in a language he had never learned. “How can there be two of me?”
“Because when it comes to time, you are dry. When you go back, this will not have happened yet from your perspective. But it will.” She caressed Aris’s hair as she looked at her thoughtfully. “ Remember this, however. When you arrive again, Aris will never have met you. But she will desperately need you.”
“I’m dry,” he repeated, incredulous.
“You are not immersed in time. There is only one other like you but he has not been born yet,” the Younger clarified.
“Of course.” He looked around numbly, finding the shifting tenses disconcerting. “When am I going to wake up?”
The Younger smiled and suddenly the two of them were high in the sky over the castle. She pulled him close as his breath caught in his throat. He was falling. They were falling. She nodded.
“Are you nuts!?” he yelled over the wind, his knuckles turning white as he grabbed her arms.
“Where were you?” Her thought came through clearly.
Even terrified, he couldn’t help but think of the market. Did she pull that memory out? She nodded again. “Think of it. See it around you.”
James looked down then back up at her, appalled at the idea that he could think of anything but his impending doom. “I’m falling! The rocks!”
She shook her head. “Think!”
Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the raging wind buffeting him and the sickening sense of falling as he saw the market. And the painting.
“Make it real.”
“How?” he thought back. He reached out to touch the painting.
“Hey! Don’t touch that!”
He jerked and fell back, landing hard on his rear. The curator examined the painting and looked at him accusingly. “Stupid! Can’t you read the sign? Don’t touch the paintings!”
James swallowed and looked around then back at the painting. “I’ll take it.”