It was as usual.
Dame floated in the space he had grown so accustomed to, close enough to the Universe, to the pathway he created as a child, first venturing into the Outside, still unsure of what, exactly it was. It was his umbilical back to himself. He always felt uneasy as he moved away from it, from the tiny prick of light that led back into the Universe.
In the past, even in his search for Wendy, he never strayed very far from this point. It was like a drain, his personal drain, leading back into reality, into normalcy.
This time, he knew he would have venture further away. It was the only way he could save her. He knew it, deep down. Had known it since his first excursion to find her.
He continued to float, allowing himself to adjust to the new laws governing his existence. It was always a shock, to leave what was so familiar, ingrained in his human DNA, and inhabit this Outside.
Everything was black, but of varying shades. His eyes adjusted. His mind calmed and he brought his breathing under control. He reached around, felt his backpack. Good, he thought. It came with him.
On his right, a Star collapsed, pulling everything into it, creating a black hole. Until it wasn’t. In an instant, it exploded outward, sending fragments of light in all directions, racing against each other as they populated the darkness for what seemed like millennia, before they stopped, disappearing before they found anything to illuminate.
Below him, concentric circles of varying colors tumbled, gyroscopically. They held in the middle a volcano, larger than any he’d seen or read about. It smoked and rumbled and shifted, the circles speeding up, blurring the slopes. It became a solid sphere, encapsulating the volcano, shielding it from the rest of the darkness as it erupted. Or perhaps it didn’t erupt.
A presence passed him. Dame contorted himself, looking in every direction. A Thing. It/They knew he was here.
He needed light. He concentrated on a flashlight.
An object took form in front of him, but it wasn’t a flashlight. It was a torch, flame burning, jumping and sparking.
Dame looked around. It was the first time he’d been unable to create what he wanted since he was young.
The torch hung in front of him. It gave off no heat, and seemed to require no fuel. He grabbed it, and felt the light encircle him. He radiated a faint yellow glow.
The Thing moved on. Dame released a long-held breath. It didn’t affect the flame.
He had no idea what to do now. He thought about trying to create Wendy, but in the past, that always led to immense sadness and an unformed presence inside him, reminiscent of Wendy. But that was it. Only a memory, a tug in the pit of his stomach.
The only place he knew where to start was rain. So he thought of rain.
Rain falling in soft whispers. Green leaves and gray skies. The refreshing, damp smell infested his nostrils. Wet wood and moss; composting leaves scattered across a forest floor.
Redwoods sprung up around him, reaching their hundreds of feet into a gray mass above him. Below him, a path through the underbrush. Ferns and moss and boulders populated the forest as he looked first left, then right, as if it created itself only when he looked at it.
Despite the rain, the torch never flickered, never issued that familiar hiss of rain on flame.
He looked up. The canopy wove itself together. The rain grew stronger, more alive. Somewhere, a bird called out.
‘Wendy,’ he whispered, trying to look past the tree trunks.
He felt….something. But it wasn’t that easy. Somewhere, somehow, Dame knew that much. This was only the beginning.
At least he could walk, he thought. Sometimes, in the Outside, Dame was unable to move aside from swimming through the darkness, which wasn’t effective.
The path curved right. He lost sight of it as the forest grew denser, adding more trees and hills and streams, boulders and underbrush. The rain continued, harder.
Soon, there was a stream following him, surrounding his boots, which were not his, but some construction of the perfect hiking boot. The water carried him on. There was no choice but to follow it.
As he walked, Dame realized he’d made the right connection. This was the path he was supposed to be on. He had no idea what it meant, but he knew this was right. How he would find Wendy, on the other hand, was unknown. Perhaps unknowable.
He shivered, the rain intensifying, bringing with it a chill, seeping through his thick wool shirt. The torch began radiating heat, encompassing him in a warm bubble. The rain soaked him, but he was warm.
He realized that he was playing a part. There was something much larger going on. He was not in charge.
In that instant, everything fell away. He was in darkness. There was no torch, no backpack, no rain, no smell, no sound. No up, no down.
He laughed. There was nothing else to do. Of course he was in charge. Only he could help himself. This was a debate he often had with the Calistines: how much were they in charge of what they created, and how much was a divine being in charge. Now he knew.
Rain, he thought. Take me to the rain. The forest sprung up around him, but different. It was older, harsher, more dense. With his torch, he made his way through the vines and overgrowth and fallen trees. He emerged into a clearing.
Standing in the clearing, he heard a lumbering beast. Trees snapped and fell. Leaves rustled. Dame wanted to run, but he couldn’t. Nothing responded.
And then it appeared, a green and brown Stegosaurus, breaking through the vegetation on the other side of the clearing, not fifteen feet away. It munched on branches in its mouth, regarding Dame. It’s tail swung behind it, clearing out anything in its path.
‘Steggy,’ Dame said, before he knew what was happening. The Stegosaurus paused, and appeared to nod.
He had to find the jack-in-the-box.
Without thinking, he crossed the clearing and climbed up Steggy’s tail, careful not to touch the spikes. He settled himself between two of the largest plates on his back. Steggy turned his head to examine him, and winked. Then, Steggy lumbered off into the dense forest, searching for a jack-in-the-box.