Like a reacurring dream, Ashe yet again returned to Treeful Village, much to Lance's surprise and wonder. By now, he had come to expect her visits, and he would seek her out at first light every morning, but luckily, she was never hard to find. Somehow, though not of her doing, Ashe always managed to appear in roughly the same spot under the same leafy maples at approximately the same time, as if by clockwork. Even so, Ashe remained doubtful that Lance's world was not just a figment of her mind, which baffled him greatly, so he made it his mission to change this. As he'd promised, Lance took her through everything that Treeful had to offer, where they could occasionally be spotted running down its quiet, rain-sodden paths, their chatter and laughter breaking the common silence. He told her stories, recounted his numerous pranks on Gage, and showed her his favorite places and hangouts. With time and dedication, Lance planned to convince this wayfaring Otherworlder that his home could also be her home.
With each return to Treeful, Ashe's clouded mind began to clear, as she could now recall and remember each dream with vivid distinction, though whether this was due in part to Lance and his heartfelt efforts, or simply perhaps her repetitive visits, remained a mystery.
Today, they walked along a tree-lined overlook that rose out over a much more radical landscape - a vast, endless desert dotted only by the occasional stone, agave, and shrub. And further still was a chain of rugged, barren mountains.
"Tess's brother, Sam, is an Engineer in Serpientes, just east of here. Out in the Great Expanse." Lance pointed out across the desert.
"What about your cousin?" Ashe asked him. "What does he do?" Her question had caught him by surprise.
"Oh-h you mean Gage?" he retorted with a laugh, running his hand through his sun-kissed, golden hair. "Oh geez ... Would you believe me if I told you he was also an Engineer? And really, so's Tess. There were more of them, a long time ago. But not anymore."
"What happened to them, the Engineers?" she inquired curiously.
This he had not anticipated. No one had ever asked him about the fate of the Engineers. In fact, it was something he himself had never actually thought about.
"I'm ... I'm not sure."
Suddenly, Lance was rushed with a flurry of images deep in his mind, something akin to memories. Memories he didn't have, for they had been lost. Taken from him. All he had were glimpses of a sweeping terror. Chaos. Death. Those close to him, lost. Entrapment, and darkness. A voice called out to him.
"Lance? Lance?" Ashe tried to get his attention.
Lance's eyes flickered, and he realized he had been momentarily lost in thought.
"I'm sorry, I don't know," he said curtly. "Tess and Gage don't really identify with it anymore, and Sam is the only one that keeps at it."
He was still confused by what he had just experienced, the likes of which he had never felt or imagined, and he tried to shake it off by changing the subject.
"That's enough about them, though. I want to hear about you! About the Otherworld!"
Ashe took a moment to gather her thoughts. It seemed easier now to recall parts of her own life than it ever was before. At least with Lance around.
"Well, it's really not that different from here," she said. "It's similar ... There are more people. More buildings, and cities. Definitely more cars."
Lance's eyes lit up. "Vehicles? You actually have Vehicles?" His voice grew excited.
"Well, yes. They're everywhere."
Lance fell silent. He could hardly believe that a world such as Ashe's even existed, wherever it was. A world where people like himself flourished, Vehicles were commonplace, and cities were spread far and wide. A world seemingly unoppressed and free. Almost fantasy. His heart panged in longing.
"I told you about Gage's Vehicle, didn't I?" he asked her, after a moment's pause. "His project? Or at least, that's what it used to be. We think it's the last one in the world. Well, besides the Ferryman's bus, but that hardly counts. He can't fix it. We've tried everything. Gage finally gave up, after ... what did he say, five years? He can't even bring himself to talk about it anymore. I mean, after all, he was an Engineer." Lance was quiet once more, and there was a brief silence between them both, before he finally spoke again.
"It meant everything to us," he said softly. "But I just moved on. We all did. There was nothing else." He looked up at Ashe, the glimmer in his eyes now dull and diminished. "They say I used to be like that once, long ago. Just like the rest of them. I wouldn't know. I ... can't remember. I don't know why."
"You don't know what happened?" Ashe asked him, sincerely curious. She had so far only gained tiny fragments of Lance's dismal tale. The pieces of a much larger and altogether more sorrowful puzzle.
"Something years ago that just isn't there," he said as he again ran a hand through his hair. "I've lived here in Treeful a long time, and I've never known any practicing Engineers, except for Sam. Tess and Gage seem to imply that things used to be different, but they've never said a word of it to me, and to be honest, I'm not sure I want to know, either. I think I'm better off for it. I know it's the reason why Gage is so bitter, or at least it's half the reason. I'm sure he sees me as some ignorant, happy fool while he sits there and mulls over whatever it is that's tormented him."
The two looked out through the evergreens and over the subtle hints of the reddened desert that lay just beyond. The sun's rays spilled through the surging clouds and danced across the warmly-colored, bristled terrain, and Ashe found it oddly beautiful, even inviting.
Lance let out a heavy sigh and sat himself down on the cool earth.
"You have to understand that Locals here - and really, it doesn't matter where you go, they're all like this - they all live their lives by this ... 'code of fear.' Fear runs their lives. We're a reclusive, withdrawn, paranoid people because of it. Except for me, that is. I can't live my life like that. And no one understands why, but now everyone around here knows me for it. The Local who just wasn't afraid."
Ashe sat fixated on him as she listened intently, a side of Lance she had never seen before.
"But, is there some part of me that's still afraid?" he continued. "I think so, maybe. That fear runs deep. It runs in the blood of every Local. It's almost the real, true difference between you and me. Seems everyone is too afraid to even step out their front door. And look at me, I can't even stay out of trouble."
The sun shifted behind the clouds, its warm rays replaced by a gentle breeze. Ashe had meant to ask him what it was the Locals were so afraid of, but her thought was lost and instantly forgotten, her attention now turned to the clouded sky. Its creamy-white haze was bright, almost painful to look at, and she realized then that the sky had never looked any different.
"Why is the sky always this color?" she asked. "Why is it never blue?"
"I'm sorry, what?" Lance replied, puzzled.
"The sky. It's always white and cloudy here. Mine is usually blue."
"What do you mean by blue?" he said. "What is that?"
"... The color blue?" Ashe wondered if he might be joking.
"Oh! It's a color?" he piped in surprise. "What shade? What's it look like?"
"You've never seen the color blue?" She couldn't believe it. Maybe he was serious.
"I've never even heard of it."
"You're not ... colorblind, are you?" she asked him carefully.
"What? Of course not!" he laughed. "Now I do know what that is."
Ashe looked around her to find some kind of example. In a place of mostly greens, other colors should generally stand out. But there was absolutely nothing, not even a single object.
But then she remembered her eyes.
"Here, look at my eyes." She brought herself close to his face. "Have you seen a color like this before?"
Lance peered into Ashe's eyes as she was met with his own honeyed-hazel irises. Though typically pale, her eyes were bright and vibrant in the warm light of the sun. Suddenly, he let out a small gasp. His heart began to pound rapidly in his chest and for a moment, he couldn't breathe. Her eyes! Just the mere sight of her eyes! They were a color unlike anything he had seen ever before, or known. A color that did not exist. A color he could not comprehend. It was deep, piercing, and electric. As cool as the water's touch, and as biting as an icy wind. His very sense of perception burned like fire, and his throat tightened as he felt the welling of tears.
He wanted to cry.
At that moment, Lance pulled back and turned away.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Ashe asked in alarm.
"It's ... It's nothing, I'm fine. It's just..."
All at once, he began to laugh and tossed his golden head back into the grass, his eyes closed under the warmth of the sun, and a grin of ecstasy across his face. Ashe could only peer down at him with a quizzical expression.
"Why are you so amazing?" Lance's voice was soft and hushed, almost a whisper. As if perhaps it was intended as a thought, and unintentionally heard.
"Wait, what?" Ashe felt a sudden sting in her face as she started to turn red.
But then Lance flung his eyes open, and he jumped up.
"Come with me!" His eyes were bright with furor as he took Ashe's hand.
"I almost forgot, there's one last thing I want to show you! And I don't know how much longer you're going to last!"
The two ran down wide, sloping streets and through narrow garden pathways, leaving most of the trees and shrubs behind as they entered arid, more open land. There, on the outskirts of the hamlet, just bordering the Great Expanse, stood the very hub of Treeful Village: a massive, sprawling mall.
"What ... is this place?" Ashe asked, taken aback by awe and wonder at the sight of it. The very fact that such a place was standing right outside the confines of a small, forested neighborhood - at the edge of a desert - was the last thing she ever expected.
"Surprise!" beamed Lance. "Welcome to the Olive Mall! Though most people around here just call it the 'Olive. It's the heart and soul of Treeful!"
Built by the Engineers in ages past, this was no ordinary mall. The colossal complex, longer than it was wide, seemed to stretch on for at least two miles. Bearing a large O logo near its top, the mall held three levels that terraced into lush courtyards on its outer walls. All manner of Locals could be seen gracing these outer tiers, and it was obvious that this mall was the favorite gathering place in the area.
"They've got every shop you could ever imagine," Lance continued. "Beautiful indoor courts with water and fountains that come down from these huge columns. Oh and two ... no, three Cinema theaters. We love our Cinema. I personally recommend Cinema Lounge. It's all open auditorium - no walls. They give you headphones, and you can just drop in on a showing. There's always so many people there it's like one, giant Cinema party!"
Ashe continued to gaze at the building in awestruck wonder, still trying to grasp its sheer size and grandness.
"So how 'bout it?" he pestered. "Wanna go have a look?"
"You think it's okay?" Ashe asked with an air of concern.
"What, are you kidding me? Of course it's okay! What's wrong?" His expression was a mix of worry and whimsy.
"I don't know," she replied. "I just had this feeling." It was the only way she could describe the slow onset of unease.
"What kind of feeling?" asked Lance with a wily crook in his brow. "The one where you're about to go poof?"
Ashe laughed. "What do you mean by poof?"
"You know exactly what I mean by poof, and I know you probably don't have much time until you poof on me, so let's see if I can show you anything before that happens."
"Won't people notice if I disappear?" she asked again.
Lance turned to her with his lighthearted smile. "Ashe, there are so many Locals out there doing their own thing, I don't even think they're going to care. They won't be paying attention to that."
Lance realized then, in all his excitement, that he might have been too forceful and harsh. He gently took Ashe's hand. "I mean, do you want to see it? We don't have to if you don't want to."
Ashe took in a nervous breath. "Alright, fine ... show me!"
As the two drew nearer to the mall's main plaza, Ashe spotted several red, yellow, and green tube-like structures with large, open ends projecting out of the concrete. There were four of them together for each tier, and before her were a red pair and a yellow pair. The red pair was labeled "Tier 2" with one labeled "Enter" and the other "Exit". The yellow pair was just the same, but was instead labeled "Tier 3". Each tube featured an opening large enough for a person to fit through. And fit through them they did, as she witnessed many people stepping into them or exiting back out. Lance noticed Ashe ogling them as she tried to study them, and he excitedly ran to the red ones, beckoning her to follow.
"Hop in one!" Lance piped.
"What are they?"
He gave her a look of disbelief. "You've never seen one? It's a Chute!"
"You want me to just ... hop in there?"
"Sure!" he said with a laugh. "It's perfectly safe. Here, I'll take one first, and I'll wait for you."
And with that, Lance stepped inside the Chute and disappeared, the strong suction taking him up at a vacuum speed. Ashe was still not quite sure how real any of this was, and she was afraid. But then, above her on the second tier, Lance peered down at her through the railing, a wide grin he could not hide as he started to laugh.
"Well, what are you waiting for!" he teased down at her.
Ashe inched closer to the Chute, extending her hand to the opening and feeling the slight pull of its vacuum.
"I'll come down there and push you in!" Lance teased again.
Ashe shot a frustrated glance up at him. By now, a few Locals had stopped to watch the scene, and there was no telling what they thought of the stranger before them. She took in a breath, then ran to the Chute's opening, only to stop after seeing a running start and simply throwing herself in was not quite going to work. Then slowly and awkwardly, she stepped into its opening, shutting her eyes in fear.
She let out a shriek as she was sucked down and pulled upward at a lightning speed, and before she could give it any thought, she was shot up through the other end, where a grinning Lance was there to greet her.
"Here it's okay, I gotcha," he said as he took her hand and helped her step out. "Next time cross your ankles, and fold your arms across your chest, you'll feel better. You won't feel so shaken up."
Ashe took a step forward, but nearly fell from dizziness, so she grabbed onto Lance's shoulder, letting escape a small laugh.
"See, I told you, it wasn't so bad," said Lance reassuringly. "A little off-balance, sure, but it's your first one. You really haven't seen one of these? What do you have in the Otherworld?"
Ashe took a moment to let the vertigo fade. "We have malls, but they're nothing like this. At least not this big. And there are elevators and escalators to reach different levels."
"Esca-what?" asked Lance, a crinkle in his nose.
"Escalators. They're like moving stairs. You just stand on them and they move for you."
The odd feeling Ashe had carried with her from the moment they arrived at the Olive Mall had now grown and spread into something far more stronger. It nagged and pulled at her heart, and she could no longer ignore it. It was a deep, anxious feeling that slowly wedged itself into her conscious, like a bitter-cold knife, like the growing of a shadow, and it began to take its hold. Lance took notice of her change in attitude, and was immediately concerned.
"Ashe, are you okay?" he asked perturbingly.
"I ... don't know," she replied, hesitant. "It's just that feeling again. I can't describe it."
The usually carefree, easy-going Lance was suddenly reminded of the thoughts and fears that plagued all of Local-kind. Fears he never thought about or concerned himself with, but there they were, square in his mind. A horrible, sinking feeling set in the pit of his stomach, his eyes dilated, and his blood ran cold.
"You have to try to tell me, Ashe," he said nervously, his voice now shaken and unsteady.
"It's like ... anxiety," she said. "Like an anxious feeling. Like I'm on edge. But it's getting worse."
"We've been out here too long," said Lance as he started to pace, debating whether to stay at the mall or head back. "Why didn't I see this coming ... And you tried to tell me, didn't you ... what was I thinking? I need to take you back—"
"But all those things you said before, about fear?" she interrupted, remembering Lance's words of 'the Local who just wasn't afraid'. "I don't understand, what's wrong?"
Lance could hear it in her words. The way she spoke, and the volume at which she spoke it, the growing franticness in her voice. And he could not get it out of his mind, the fear that was trying to take him. And it had been so long. But now it was real, and he feared more than anything else in all the world of what - or who - might be coming. He took a few breaths to try and maintain his calm, for Ashe's sake.
"Ashe, this is different."
"How?!" she demanded, the tension building in her voice. "Why can't you just tell me what the problem is?!"
"I-it's alright," Lance stammered. "I just need to get you back to Treeful. Everything's fine. Just trust me, Ashe."
He continued on and mistakenly assumed Ashe was right with him, but there was silence. He quickly spun around, only to find her gone.
When she would return - and indeed, she would - things would never be the same again.