Entry Story for 'Dark Angel' Gathering, British Columbia, 2005.

I also wrote the beginning of another story for the 'entry fee' but this is the one I read aloud. With any luck, the other story will start to be posted soon, though I do have two that really need to be finished first… (Looks at the pile of papers beside her.)

This one is set sometime between Virtual Seasons Three and Four, though it doesn't really matter exactly as long as Max and Logan are living together.

I wrote this in 3 hrs. and 50 min. while at work on July 4, 2005, and I have no idea from whence it came. I just buckled up and enjoyed the ride. ;)

October 31, 2005: My thanks to Kyre for the Beta on this weird little story. It is greatly appreciated. :)

Appropriate for All Hallow's Eve, perhaps…

Enjoy!

Echo

By Mouse

1,940 Words

Max woke with a start, a scream climbing her throat and almost breaking free.

Beside her, Logan slept peacefully, unaware of her movements as she slid carefully to the edge of the mattress. Her toes reached the floor, and as she pushed the covers aside, she was immediately aware of a drop in temperature. She shivered slightly. Her head ached and her stomach ached, and she couldn't decide whether she needed to pee or wanted more food.

It wasn't this cold when we went to bed, she thought, puzzled. Perhaps there had been a power failure and the building's generator was down again. She sighed.

Need to clear my head.

She stood and stretched. Tugging at her tank top and adjusting her shorts, Max moved barefoot in the dark room toward the hallway. She decided she would curl up on the couch for a while. She needed to recall as much of her dream as possible and figure out why she had been about to scream.

Bad enough I don't have to sleep much, she thought grumpily, yawning broadly. I can't even get a break when I'm unconscious.

Max soon realized she had yet to reach the door. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. The bedroom was gone, and Logan with it. Only empty darkness remained. She turned in a circle on the spot, looking for anything familiar. Nothing. She chose a direction at random - it was impossible to determine any of the marks on the compass in this nothingness - and was surprised when she felt something cool and wet beneath her feet. Wriggling her toes, she looked down to confirm her suspicions.

Grass.

Why am I standing on grass?

She could smell it now as her toes gripped the damp earth. There was nothing to do but continue to walk. As she did, huge shapes grew around her, black on black, twisted, and reaching. If she had been familiar with the works of the Brothers Grimm, she might have recognized the eerie quality of the forest. As she watched, it shifted to shades of grey and eventually blossomed with shades of green, hushed and still in the darkness.

This place was old, dark and dangerous. She didn't need the fairytale reference to conclude that she was still trapped in her dream, and that there was something very, very wrong.

She tried to identify the trees, or find some constellation in the night sky that would help her navigate. Unfortunately, the brooding forest tucked its cloak tightly around any secrets that might aid in her escape.

Crap. I knew I shouldn't have eaten those spicy Thai rolls before going to bed.

A mushroom that was maybe ten inches tall chose that moment to flip its cap up at the front and regard her with a pair of small, black eyes.

"Who are you?" it asked in a tiny voice that lisped slightly, as if it were a human child of about five years old, still adapting to speech.

Max stopped and stared, unable to find the words.

"You do know who you are, don't you?" The mushroom sounded cross and Max idly wondered if she should just step on it.

Or sauté it in butter, she thought, remembering she was hungry.

"No, no, no!" the mushroom said sharply, as if it could read her mind and was impatient with her silence. "Silly human! You can't eat me and expect to live."

That got her attention. "Say what?"

"You can't eat me," it repeated patiently, "and expect to live."

She snorted. "What, you're indigestible?"

"I know how you can get out of here," it stated proudly. "And trust me, you don't want to stay."

Max crouched down and arched one eyebrow. "Really? And why is that?"

"Something will pick you and sauté you in butter!"

She smiled. "They'd have to catch me first."

"Oh, they can," the mushroom said seriously. Max couldn't figure out how it was speaking, as it didn't appear to have a mouth. "They've been in this place Forever and they know Everything."

"I see." I'm having a conversation with a fungus.

"And I'm taking the time to have a conversation with a silly human. Cats are smart, you know. There's enough cat in you - I'd think some of it would have rubbed off."

"I don't think you have anything I need."

"Oh, but I do."

"And why would you be sharing this with me?"

"Because I don't like them."

"What do you get out of it? What's the catch? I have to slay a dragon first or something?"

Somehow those small, black eyes were able to make her feel ashamed of her sarcasm.

"There is no catch. All things have a purpose, human, but not all of them are bad. Even in this place. I am one of the good sprites. You were right to choose this path, as not all of them have sentinels to guide you."

"I didn't choose this path."

"Oh yes," the mushroom said in a hushed tone. "You did."

Max shivered, uncertain why she felt so uneasy.

Aside from the fact that she was conversing with a mushroom.

"I just kept walking," she responded dismissively.

"You have something to live for. You chose your path."

"Okay, Yoda, is this some kind of Jedi training?"

The mushroom sighed. "Silly human. You waste time."

"Where are we, anyway?" Max looked around in the gloom and was suddenly glad she didn't know what lay beyond her range of vision.

"We're in the forest," the mushroom said brightly. "It can be very nice here, but not for your kind." It paused and said apologetically, "They eat your kind here."

"Why haven't they eaten you?"

"I'm poison to them. And there are rules." How does a mushroom shrug? It managed. "All is fair game when someone new arrives. You found me before they found you."

"Oh-kay." Max hesitated. She decided that, as a dream, it was weird but at least potentially interesting. The sense of foreboding, however, wouldn't leave her. It clung to her in the form of a tender sweat. "Where is the forest?"

"Here."

"Yeah, I know, but where is this forest on a map?"

"Everywhere."

Max poked a finger at the eyes and the mushroom bent backward a little.

"Look you… you toadstool. I've been around, got it? I have never seen or heard of any place like this place, so don't tell me this forest -" She gestured around her with a sweep of her hand. "- is everywhere."

"It exists everywhere," the mushroom insisted. "It is the echo of the wilderness your world destroyed, full of things forgotten. Silly humans sometimes stumble upon it when they sleep, and it's never very happy when they do."

"Oh, yeah? So, this is a dream, right? The forest isn't real and neither are you, and any moment now, I'm gonna wake up and Logan will be calling me into the kitchen for pancakes."

The mushroom looked profoundly sad.

"If we can get you out of here, yes. If the forest gets its roots deep inside your mind, you will enter a flight for your life that you cannot escape. They will catch you and eat you, and you will die in your sleep, like so many silly humans who come here."

Max sat back and considered her options.

"So, how do I get - hey, wait a minute. You said, 'If we can get you out of here.' Who is this 'we'?"

A smaller mushroom that had previously been hidden under a leafy plant flipped its cap up.

"Hello," it said, speaking in a higher voice than the first mushroom.

Several mushrooms nearby followed suit and their caps began to glow faintly. Max could see more appearing farther off, like a beacon of hope.

"Follow the path we've marked and do not stray," the first mushroom instructed her. "That will lead you home."

"Why can't I go back the way I came?"

"That path no longer exists."

Max stood and turned. Behind her the trees loomed where none had been before.

"Oh. Right." She ran a hand through her hair. "Is this how Alice felt?"

"I don't know Alice."

She glanced down at the mushroom. "Yeah. I guess not."

"They can sense you are here. You must hurry."

"Well, all right." What the hell? "Um, thanks."

The mushroom stood very straight. "You are most welcome."

"And, no offense, but I hope we never meet again."

"None taken." It tipped its cap solemnly. "I understand. Go!"

Max bolted through the forest as fast as she dared, ducking under branches and vaulting fallen logs, all the while following the small, glowing mushrooms and being very careful not to step on them.

The forest seemed to find a voice. It gathered behind her, pursuing her with an echo of her own breathing, mocking her efforts to leave. Her pulse pounded to match the impact of her feet.

You have something to live for. You chose your path.

There was sunlight ahead. It was faint, just gentle rays that ghosted over the branches and barely reached the ground. The mushrooms led her in that direction. Max pictured Logan's smile and put on a burst of speed.

The voice was right behind her, getting louder and louder until it seemed to lurch and swarm her, a last effort to prevent her escape. She swatted at it and kept on running. The sunlight was almost within her grasp when the darkness tightened its grip.

Max woke with a start, a scream climbing her throat and almost breaking free.

Logan was beside her, propped up on one elbow, his other arm wrapped around her shoulders as he held her close. A light was shining behind him: the lamp on his side of the bed.

"Max! Max, it's just a dream." There must have been some uncertainty in her expression because he added, "You were having a nightmare. It's over. I've got you." He stroked the back of her neck and it was extremely soothing. She realized her body was tense, ready to defend herself and Logan from the echo that still buzzed faintly in her ears. Her eyes darted around the room. The lamp dispelled enough of the darkness that she started to relax. She was home.

And there were no mushrooms in sight - she checked.

"Thanks," she murmured, curling into his embrace. "That was the weirdest dream." She spoke against the skin of his collarbone and gave it a light kiss. "I was trapped in a forest that was the echo of the forests destroyed by our ancestors, and a mushroom that said it was a sprite helped me escape the things that were going to eat me."

Logan squinted down at her. "Really?"

"Yep." Max yawned. "Creepy." She reached for him and pulled him down for a long, deep kiss. When they parted, slightly breathless, she announced, "I'm hungry." She rolled away and landed on her feet beside the bed, head cocked to one side, a smile tugging at her lips. "Make me pancakes?"

He turned his squint to the alarm clock. "It's four in the morning."

Max pouted. "Feed me?"

Logan sighed. It was a losing battle to try to resist her. "Okay, but I think we're out of flour." He reached for his glasses and yawned. "How about omelets with cheese and mushrooms?"

Max paused in the doorway but didn't turn around. "No mushrooms."

Puzzled, he listened to the echo of her feet as she ran ahead of him to the kitchen, switching on all the lights as she passed.

- End -