Standing in the kitchen of Angie and Diana’s flat, Penny rifles through the various cupboards and drawers, following her nose to somewhere as yet uncertain. She’s tried to explain this to Diana, but presumably inter-dimensional projection’s outside of her experience, so she’s had to settle for a “Just, trust me”. Despite the somewhat bemused expression on her friend’s face, it seems to have been enough.
Penny lays out a series of boxes of tea on the kitchen counter, dividing them up by category: green, black, herbal, and so forth. She starts by trying the black teas, running through Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling and so forth — they’ve got a rather extensive collection, here — until some instinct drives her to move over to the other piles. Before long, she’s found something that feels about right.
She turns to Diana, giving a somewhat apologetic expression.
“I’ll be right back.”
She closes her eyes and inhales, deeply, tiny pieces of floral matter entering her nose and stimulating her senses. Focusing on the sensations, she allows herself to drift away. When she opens her eyes, she finds herself somewhere else.
The sky above the fungal forest is a dull green, this time. It seems like it’s different every time Penny’s here, though green’s probably the most stereotypically “alien” colour it’s been yet. A slightly whimsical part of her is surprised it’s not been this colour already.
At the base of the trees in the forest, familiar skin-sacks have begun to form. The old ones have almost entirely rotted away, leaving only scraps. The replacement growths are about the size of a fist, surrounded by webbing. Penny wonders idly how long they’ll take to reach the same size as before.
The air carries a strange scent. It’s reminiscent of something organic, sort of like the smell of drying pus. It’s not completely unpleasant, but it’s certainly not an odour anyone would choose. Anyone human, at least.
Using her supernatural senses to orient herself, Penny starts to make her way vaguely “westwards” — lots of planes have a west, she jokes to herself — crunching her feet on the strange web-like formations on the ground. They’re more brittle than she expected, and the dissonance between sight and sound is a little unsettling. It takes her about ten minutes to find the place where the entrance to Garl’s cave was the last time she was here.
This time, it appears to be elsewhere. Right.
Standing with her feet firmly on the ground, Penny toys with the coin in the palm of her hand and peers into the weave of this reality. She can see a sort of concentric circular pattern, like a wire-frame sketch of a mouth, in the centre of a rough semicircle of fungal trees. She wonders idly if the formation counts as a copse or a fairy-ring, laughing a little at the contradiction before reminding herself to focus. She walks over to the middle of the mouth and kicks her foot against the ground. The noise it makes is hollow, slightly echoey and completely out of place in the deadened silence of the forest. Moments later, the floor collapses beneath her.
Penny falls, screaming and sliding down mud-slick passages and over jagged rocks that cut at her arms and legs. She can see blood; she tries to imagine it away but focusing right now is more than a little difficult and realities are finicky things at the best of times. There’s a sudden jolt of pain in the upper-left part of her chest, causing her to realise something: she has breasts now. She’d probably feel happier about that under other circumstances, but right now the adrenaline’s rushing too fast in her veins for her to properly enjoy it.
After too many minutes of helpless sliding, Penny lands heap-like in a net at the bottom of the tunnel. The impact seems to trigger something, and moments later she’s suspended about a metre in the air, swinging side to side rather precariously. She checks herself as best she can, and nothing seems to be broken; though, maybe that’s just because it’d be hard to imagine.
Penny sighs, her relief tempered by frustration. She wipes the blood from her arms and legs, finding to mild confusion that there aren’t actually any cuts. Her skin stings, nonetheless. Dream logic applies, she supposes.
Time to get out of the net. Handling the coin’s a bit awkward in this predicament: Penny drops it through the net something like half a dozen times as she tries to build up a rhythm to her movements, each time abusing Diana’s reality-bending retrieval trick to get it back. Eventually she works out the right pattern, working with the momentum of the swing rather than against it. She spins the coin on her wrist, tossing it through a ring formed by her thumb and forefinger, catching it in her other hand just as she reaches apogee and starting the pattern again.
After some time, she’s managed to build up enough potential to twist herself slightly, landing the coin on her left thumb and then letting it fall through the net; her body’s so used to following it at this point that she goes through after it as though the net were little more than vapour. She drops to her knees as she hits the floor, and the coin lands face up in her outstretched palm.
Wait. Face up? That’s strange… She takes the coin in her fingers and turns it over, revealing another head. Then she does it twice more, getting two tails. She repeats the process a few times, each time seeing the same head-head-tail-tail pattern. Apparently, her coin now has four sides. What the hell does that mean?
She shrugs. Dream logic again: it doesn’t have to mean anything. She turns to face the downward slope that continues to Garl’s grotto, coming face to face(?) with a large six-legged creature with teeth and bones in all the wrong places.
“Garl?” she asks. But she’s not sure that it is: Garl has subtle markings around his face, and a different body language altogether. (How does she know that? Surely that’s not something a human would notice?)
The creature bellows suddenly and loudly, interrupting Penny’s train of thought. It’s a guttural sound, somewhere between an old bicycle braking and a pot boiling over. The beast bares several rows of jagged teeth, revealing the remnants of what Penny can only assume was its last meal. It rears up menacingly, and all at once, Penny finds the incentive to act.
She runs: it’s the obvious thing to do. She pulls herself up several layers of slippery rock, holding her coin at the ready as she scrambles away as fast as she can manage. The creature screams again, spraying breath that smells more strange than foul, and she begins to feel faint; she takes a deep breath to calm herself before continuing her climb. From the ominous thuds behind her, she’s sure the creature is pursuing. She doesn’t dare to look.
There’s another inhuman, unutterable utterance from the bottom of the cavern, and the thudding stops. Strange clicks, pops and screeches echo around, as Penny’s assailant conducts some sort of alien dialogue with the newcomer, and after a minute or so, Penny works up the guts to look.
The new creature waves an appendage in Penny’s direction, and she immediately recognises it.
“Garl!” she cries, in desperate relief.
The strange discussion between the two creatures continues for a few more moments, ending with the not-Garl creature walking off almost as though it’s in some sort of mood. Garl straightens itself and waves again.
“Penny!” it says cheerfully, West Country accent leavened with something less familiar. “Welcome back! It’s been a while.” After a moment, it adds thoughtfully: “At least, it has been from my perspective.”
“It’s been a while for me too,” Penny says, smiling weakly. Seconds later, she collapses from exhaustion.
Penny awakes to find herself in Garl’s strange, subterranean tea garden, a warm, floral scent filling her nostrils. The table in front of her holds two green-and-white patterned cups, in great contrast to the usual blue tea set. The cups have no handles — Penny realises a little too late that they’re a lot hotter to the touch because of this — and each is filled to about half a centimetre from the brim with a green-brown liquid lacking the usual clarity of Garl’s tea selection.
“Jasmine tea,” it explains, though Penny expected as much. “Fresh from the Canton province of China.” It pauses. “Do people still get tea from Canton?”
Penny shrugs, making another attempt to pick up her cup. This time, she finds some success by gripping the very top of the cup with her fingertips. She takes a careful sip: it’s good, if a little odd.
“It’s not really from China,” she points out, raising the tone of her voice slightly as though it were almost a question.
“No,” the creature admits, somehow managing to sip the tea even as it’s speaking. “But the falsehoods we tell ourselves are as important as the truths we tell others, the way I see it.”
Penny nods, though she’s not sure she understands. She takes a deep breath, inhaling the jasmine aroma and preparing to speak.
“I… I had something to ask,” she says.
Garl raises something akin to an eyebrow, sipping tea as punctuation.
“Oh? What’s that?” This simple question punctures the dam, and Penny’s entire recent life comes spilling out like so much stagnant water.
Penny talks about everything she can think of — gender, magic, politics, the lot — jumping from topic to topic in the manner you might walk barefoot over hot coals, never staying too long in one place so as not to get burned. She has no idea how much of this is lost on Garl, but at this point that hardly seems pertinent: talking is what’s important here. Being listened to is almost a side benefit. Once she’s finished talking, the ramble and rant having made her throat a little hoarse, there’s a minute or so of silence broken only by the gulping of tea.
Garl speaks first.
“I can’t pretend to understand all of this,” it begins, “though I’m not so sure you expect me to. This human gender thing is rather more complicated than I remember.” It takes a big sip, breaking the flow of its words at the same time. “Not that my memory can always be trusted, mind.”
Penny feels weirdly relieved at this reaction: it’s probably the best she could have expected. She watches as Garl passes its teacup into one of its other appendages with some degree of urgency. Even monsters struggle with hot teacups, then: that’s reassuring too, somehow.
The creature continues. “Now, never minding if I understand all the details,” it says, “it seems to me that this being-a-girl thing is something you want pretty badly. And this Yarn fellow is using that wanting to get you to do something you don’t want to do. Is that about right?”
Penny nods, slightly reluctant to admit her vulnerability. There’s another pause, as her strange friend appears to be considering things. She sips her tea some more, letting it linger in her mouth now that it’s cool enough to do so.
“Back when I visited your world,” Garl says at last, “there were these places called workhouses. If you were too poor to feed yourself, and couldn’t get a job, you could go there and get food and shelter.” There’s a pause, and the creatures expression shifts indecipherably. “Do they still have those places now?”
Penny thinks. “Like, homeless shelters?” she asks, but she’s already almost sure that’s not really what the creature means.
“Trouble was,” it continues, “if you wanted their support, you had to go about things their way, and do their work. If you stepped out of line, they would take away your food, or maybe lock you up. Young boys could be beaten. They had to make it hard, see, so that only those people who truly needed help would seek it.” The beast emits a noise somewhere between a sigh and a spit.
Penny nods solemnly; she thinks she understands what the creature’s trying to say. “You… think I’m being exploited,” she says. “Like the people in the workhouses.”
“Maybe you are,” it says, approximating a shrug, “and maybe you aren’t. But you need to be honest with yourself, either way.” It finishes its tea in one strangely graceful movement, placing the cup carefully on the table. “And you should value your soul. Do what you must to get what you need, but don’t let them take your soul. You only get one.”
Penny looks down at her cup: it’s still half full, and cooling far too quickly. She drinks a rather large gulp of what’s left.
“Do souls really exist?” she finds herself asking, though she’s not sure how relevant a question it is. She’s sceptical, but very little would surprise her at this point.
“Perhaps,” Garl replies. “Or perhaps it’s just a falsehood that I tell myself.” Penny’s half-convinced there’s a smirk on her strange friend’s face.
When she returns to reality, finding herself lying on one of the sofas in Angie’s flat, Penny knows exactly what she has to do.