So Kyri had met up with a strange man...
"Shadestriding," the wizard said, standing on the Great Road, "is a delicate business indeed. For this reason, it is vastly preferred that the one who strides the shades of reality be followed and assisted by those who can watch for the inevitable hazards and both warn of them, and – at least for a time – deal with them."
The head tilted, showing that he was looking at her to verify she understood. Now that he was standing, Kyri realized her new companion was a giant of a man, over a foot taller than she was; it was a disconcerting feeling to be looking so far up at another human being, since usually other people were looking up at her. It was also more disconcerting to realize that somehow the shadow of that strange hat covered his visage even from below. She could not make out his features, only hints of nose, cheeks, chin, and the occasional brilliant glint of a blue eye.
However, he was waiting for a response; she nodded her understanding. The idea that a wizard might need someone else to watch out for them while performing some difficult operation was an obvious one. "So you must maintain concentration at all times?"
"To an extent, yes. It is, however, also something more like controlling a very fractious mount, or perhaps sewing a length of cloth with a most intricate pattern." He lifted his staff, which Kyri could see was capped with a complex, crystalline design that moved and chimed and was composed of a repeating seven-sided star design with other elements. The staff was bound with four thin pieces of metal joining cap to heel, the wooden sides in between worked with runes and symbols almost entirely unfamiliar to her. The multicolored crystals chimed loudly, and a golden light shone softly out, momentarily overwhelming even the dawning sun. "Follow me. You may leave enough space between us for comfort and close combat, but do not stray more than a few tens of feet away."
They began to move along the road; Kyri was quiet, watching the morning-misted greenery to the side and the small roads leading to nearby farms. There didn't seem to be any immediate threats, but she took the magician's words seriously.
After a few moments, the wizard spoke again. "Now we have begun. To clarify, except at certain very crucial stages – such as the beginning of our journey just now – I can converse, walk, and so on, but I cannot simply stop what I am doing to permit the shadestriding; if I do, it would be tantamount to releasing the reins of one's mount when it is in a panic, or leaving the rudder of a ship in a storm. At the least, I must have time to… fix our position and course, one might say."
"I understand. If anything happens, I have to keep whatever it is away from you for long enough to keep a disaster from happening. I've seen a few magicians interrupted at the wrong time – I know what can happen."
He chuckled, the deep voice carrying well through the morning air. "Many things can happen, yes, and most are not good. In this case they would be worse than most. Perhaps not immediately fatal… but it is quite possible that even if we lived, we would never reach our destinations." He glanced back. "As you know, I am going to visit an old, old friend. I was wondering – if I am not prying too far – what brings you to leave Evanwyl to travel so far, and then immediately to turn about and travel much of the distance back?"
Kyri hesitated, stepped over a small crack, looked around as she considered. How much can I afford to tell people – especially a person I don't know? In the long run I'm going to need a completely different name, leave behind my identity entirely. She continued her surveillance of the area. Strange. The farmlands and treeline seem closer. Aren't we still in the middle of the Road?
She felt her brow furrow and a faint, tingling shock of something wrong. They were still walking in the center of the Road, yet it couldn't have been more than twenty-five yards to the edge.
But the Great Roads are one hundred yards across, from Hell's Edge to Dragonkill and all places in between!
She stopped in consternation, turned, looked back. They had been only walking for a few minutes, fifteen or so at the most, yet the waystation they had slept in was nowhere to be seen. The road they were on was unfamiliar. Even the greenery nearby has a subtly different cast to its color and shape.
"Do not fall behind, Kyri Vantage," came the deep voice, and she heard amusement that did not comfort her. "No matter what you may see that puzzles or confounds you, do not fall far behind me."
She ran a few steps to get closer to the mysterious man with his staff. "What in the name of the Balance is this, old man?"
"You have noticed quickly, I see. As to what it is… shadestriding, as I said."
"But what is shadestriding? What do you mean by it, by the 'shades of reality'?"
"You might come to understand by merely watching," the man said. "Watch, and I shall explain in a while, if you have not come to understand yourself."
She watched, but at first was more mystified – and, she had to admit, frightened – than she was enlightened. The road turned, and as they passed the curve it was even smaller, a track half its prior size. Leaves thinned, brightened in their green even as the air cooled, and rustling grasses rippled in a clear cut between the road and the forest which was itself no more than a hundred yards. The surface of the road was cracked and chipped and patched, but in a single turn now was cobblestone and it seemed it had always been so.
Their boots clicked on stone and crunched on gravel, and the pathway led a winding course through a forest that was cool and dim, the sun completely hidden by trees whose needle-thin leaves and aromatic scent she had only seen on the higher slopes of Evanwyl. Small creatures scuttled away, making rattling sounds in the underbrush. Around the next bend and the bark of the trees was a shade darker, the needles longer.
She turned her head and could see that this was the way the whole world looked – but she never actually saw the change. They crested a hill, and she looked back, seeing the forest just as it had been, then looked forward, saw scattered trees with broader leaves of lighter green between the needle-trees, cast a glance backward and saw that, indeed, the same few trees were scattered throughout the forest as though they had always been there.
"Do you begin to understand, Kyri?"
She swallowed. Who… or what… is this? "You… you're changing the world. A little bit here,a little bit there, but each change adds up, so…"
The laugh was hearty, cheerful, and much less threatening than the lowering, gray clouds that she could see now between the branches, in a sky that minutes before had been cloudless blue. "Changing the world? You attribute to me power that is, I am afraid, vastly beyond my capabilities. I suppose I should be flattered.
"I am not creating changes, Kyri. I am… how can I put it… choosing what to see. For most, the world simply is, and has been, and will be. But that is, to me, something of an illusion. There are some truths eternal… but many others are choice and chance, event and consequence. If one has the knowledge, and the training, and the power, one can guide his steps – and the steps of those nearby – to alternatives, worlds that are the same world yet not the same."
Kyri stared at him, nearly tripped over a branch that lay across the faint trail they were now walking on. "I… I don't understand."
"This world – Zahr-a-thana, Zarathan – is a nexus, a crossroads, a focus. It is not even, strictly speaking, a world. It is many worlds, touching upon all possible realities, overlaid upon each other with but a few anchors, a few truths that remain in all realms, in all variations. Most of us are set along one dimension, one track of reality, one shade of color on the palette, one single page in the book of all possibility. But magic, and especially the greatest of magics, the magic of the spirit – that touches upon the fabric of reality, and one who understands this, and can see beyond what is to what might have been… such a one can choose to step to that next page, pass from one tale of the world to another, color the world a different shade that never was, but that could have been… and now, is."
She stared around at the leaf-littered ground and the forest with occasional stumps of freshly-cut trees. "You're saying… I'm not even on Zarathan any more?"
"Not the Zarathan you knew." The stumps were ancient and overgrown, coated with moss; a farmhouse stood not far away,half-collapsing from age, and the forest was quiet. "This is also Zarathan, but it would be quite likely that if we were to stop here and you set out on your own, you might find no more than a handful of names – of places, of people, of creatures and things – that would be familiar, and even the familiar would be also alien."
She sensed a subtle movement, whirled, saw things coming – joint-legged, taloned, armored, like spiders and scorpions and warrior ants but also covered with moss, moving with the whispering, clunking sound of half-rotted wood, eyes flickering in the shadowed gloom with the color of foxfire and glowflies, mandibles showing the gleam of polished wood and shattered crystal. "Old man –"
"I see," he said, voice still calm. "You must keep them from me for a time… or if we survive, we may be stuck in this world forever."
I can't let that happen, she told herself, and even though the horrific things before her caused her heart to race and sweat to break out, she whipped out her sword and prepared to meet them.
At least they're a mob, not an organized assault. There were seven of the things, no one of them quite identical. They seem created from deadwood and other things. May not be actually living, and even if they somehow are, no certainty they have the same vital spots…
She managed a small smile. Well, except the obvious.
Most were converging on her – closer to their ambush – but two seemed more intent on catching her companion. You're first, then. She kept her mind focused on the targets, and kept her fear leashed. At least they aren't people.
The first one tried to pass her , and her greatsword slammed into its leading leg, severing it off, sending the thing skidding sideways. She spun, swinging around and down, and the impact was rewarded with a splintering crunch from within the spider-thing's body; it collapsed like a bridge broken in the center.
A sting whipped into her, the point catching and breaking on her upper armguard but the impact sending her tumbling. She was surrounded with the damp-earth smell of rotting wood and mold and an undertone of festering flesh. If any of these things cuts me, blood poisoning might kill me before we can find a healer!
She spun her body on the ground, extending the sword, cutting off the foot of one creature, forcing the others that had swarmed forward to leap back, giving her just enough time to roll to her feet. One's heading for the old man!
There was only one possible way to deal with the problem, and she took it. She leapt towards the nearest of the things, as high and long as she could; a claw smashed into one boot and she tumbled over in midair, managed to come to a landing that only slightly twisted one ankle, but she was outside of the ring of seven-foot long abominations, and just barely able to chop deep into her target's dead-log abdomen.
The impact didn't seem to hurt it, but it did divert the thing's attention; it whirled around, terrifyingly agile on ten legs, and lunged. She parried, but these limbs didn't break easily. Something like steelwood? The others were closing in as well. She tried to dodge, but something hit her from behind, the pain sudden and shocking, and she went down, blocking as best she could, but the crystal and rusting-metal mandibles were opening—
A deep voice thundered something in a language she had never heard, and a wave of blazing fire flowed over her, around her, enveloping her attackers in a cloak of red and orange; they convulsed, spun, screeched, and then collapsed, burning swiftly to white and gray powdery, flaky ash.
The old man was kneeling by her. "Are you injured, Kyri?"
"They hit me in the back… don't know if it's anything visible." She was shaking all over from the closeness of death. "S…sir, I –"
"Wait. Let me tend you first." She felt the ragged sting of an open wound as he touched her back gently. "Yes, one cut you deeply. A filthy wound, as well. Can you stay still while I cleanse it?"
She nodded and gritted her teeth.
White flame burned its way down her back, then slowly subsided to a dull throb. "Clean. Now, let us see…" There was some rustling and clinking. "Here." She looked over and saw him extending a bottle. "Drink that."
"A healing infusion?"
"Concentrated, yes. Not useful for disease, but I believe I have addressed that." He looked around. "You did very well."
The draught tasted… like nothing she'd ever had before. She wasn't sure if it was one of the best things she'd tasted, or the worst. But the throbbing in her back began to fade, the bruises in her arms faded. "We'd better get moving, sir. Those things… they weren't natural. Something made them, either some really angry spirit of the forest…"
"… or an extremely hostile magician responsible for this area being uninhabited in this world, yes." His massive hand helped her up; she felt a strength in that hand which might match her own, something that was at least as disquieting as it might have been comforting. "I agree entirely." He smiled as they began to move forward. "But I believe you now understand why I had not wished to use this route alone."
She laughed, feeling a lightheaded euphoria of relief with the things defeated and her injuries fading to nothing. "I think we can say that, yes."
"You wield that blade – an astonishing blade, I will say – with considerable skill for one so young. And you show an amazing coordination and focus. Where did you get such training?"
She smiled. "His name was Lythos; he was Sho-ka-taida for Evanwyl, and especially for the Vantages, for quite a long time." The terrain was rougher, hills rising on either side of them, and fewer trees to be seen.
"Sho-ka-taida? An Artan, then." He nodded and smiled. "Those who take up the blade in the name of the Suntree are often tasked to pass that knowledge on, and do so well… but rarely do they choose to do so outside of the Forest Sea and their own brethren."
"You know a lot about the Artan?"
"I suppose that depends on what you mean by 'a lot'," he said, leading them down a narrow canyon with high limestone walls that made her nervous; an ambush here would be very hard to fight off. "But I have visited them in Ar-Tan-Nya, walked the battlements of Nya-Sharee-Hilya, and gazed upon Hali-Shan-Alyin, the Suntree, in the center of the Forest Sea." He glanced back, even as they passed a curve in the canyon and the great high walls curved away into mere foothills, "But of Evanwyl I have heard little. What is it like?"
She felt almost… embarrassed by the question. "Hardly as grand or inspiring as anywhere you've been, I'd say."
But he seemed genuinely interested, so she tried. She talked first about Vantage Fortress, built into and from the living rock of the foothills of the Khalals, and everyone there – her aunt, Vanstell the Master of House, Treidi and Riderin who cared for the grounds (and chased little girls who pulled up flagstones to look underneath them for arrow-worms and glittercurls), Seeker Nayn who travelled the Eyes' houses – and that led of course into talking about the Eyes and the Arms and the Watchland…
They camped in a small, rounded valley with crater-like walls. The air was cold, much colder than she was used to, and the grass here was tough, short, alien. None of the plants looked familiar. The old man walked around and put down small sticks at intervals on the edge. "That will prevent most things from entering here," he said. "Still, one of us must be on watch. I trust you can endure a night or two with less sleep than normal."
She nodded. "I'll take the first watch, then."
The night was dark, even the stars being dimmed and eventually shut away by encroaching clouds. Moon's not out tonight. They had no fire now – and in this moonless blackness, where she couldn't see her hand in front of her face, even the smallest fire would be like a screaming beacon. She decided it was best to simply keep her senses at top pitch. Lythos would approve of not being bound by any one sense, anyway.
Something… felt wrong with the night, suddenly, and after a moment, she knew what it was.
When even the smallest insects and other creatures made no noise, she knew, there was something else afoot. She moved to awaken the old man.
The air became colder, even as the clouds parted above and starlight shimmered faintly down, and suddenly she saw something. It was dark, black as the night; there was a glint of crystal as of teeth and a writhing movement like grasping tendrils about some huge maw, amidst a flowing, amorphous floating ebon substance that glistened and stank like decay and acid.
The wizard awakened at her touch, even as she shouted and dodged from a barely-seen slashing movement that carved a line through the dirt, left the short grass fluttering in half-visible silvery motes of severed stalks.
Her sword was in her hand and she swung, but her edge seemed to get no purchase; there was the faintest resistance, as though her blade trailed its tip through an unseen foul swamp, and the dimness receded, arced around, returned, its presence chilling her far more than either of the monsters she'd faced before, radiating an alien hunger, and she saw the stars above flickering, fading, saw outlined more patches of absolute black with hints of bladed diamond within, and the cold that enveloped her was not the night air but shocked horror as she realized there were more of these things, many more.
The shout echoed across the valley like a great bell, and from the upraised staff burst pure golden light; for a moment she could see the things and closed her eyes, knowing she dared not look for one second longer on something so alien and monstrous. But alien tentacular mouths could scream, and there was a keening of shock as the light continued, blazed higher, and she felt that wrongness weaken, dissipate, flee.
She opened her eyes, to see the staff gently chiming, shimmering now with light of gold and white and green. The mouth beneath its concealing hat was quirked up in a grim smile, and the skin was pale. "I think we should move," he said. "What do you say to continuing on, far from this sheaf of possibilities and nightmares?"
She nodded, mouth too dry to answer.
It seemed a pattern for those few days – conversation, often of Evanwyl or her past, sometimes of places the old man had seen, things he had done, which told her of parts of the world she doubted she would ever visit, punctuated by encounters with things that might roll past them, or attack, or simply regard them curiously. A small flock of glittering spiders, seeming made of glass, that landed and killed everything near where they touched; eyeless black creatures that moved against them in wedges, channeling the power of each into the foremost being with such force that her guide found himself hard-pressed until she began killing them from the rear forward; flat-headed reptilian creatures swimming in a dim and poisonous swamp, who suddenly stopped following them, warning of the immense tentacled monstrosity ahead; in four days she faced nearly a dozen different assaults, and had the old man not also been a healer of considerable skill, she knew she might not have lived through several of them.
But then she realized they walked on a wide road, and around the next turn the road was a hundred yards across, though not quite perfect in its surface, with the clear-cut borders running to the horizon on each side, warm and humid air blowing across them from the direction of the lowering sun, and she laughed. "We're … home again, yes?"
He chuckled. "Back to the Zarathan from whence we came, yes, we are. Look back, along the road."
She looked, and in the distance she saw a bridge she remembered approaching, what seemed half a lifetime ago, when she and Victoria and Urelle were travelling… "We… we're well over the Dalthunian border!" And considerably past the Dalthunian border interrogation posts, which I never want to see again.
"As I said, so I have done. If I understand your intentions, our paths must now part – for you will be following this side of the river Gyre, north and west, while the Straightcut River there," he pointed to the East, where she could see the river the bridge behind them had just crossed, "leads closer to my destination."
She was still stunned. She knew how long that journey had taken her and Victoria and Urelle. Now, five days out from Zarathanton, and she was nearly to Hell's Edge, the Gyre River visible to the west by a smudge of trees along its course. "Yes, I think you're right." She shook herself and bowed. "I thank you."
The mage chuckled and took her hand, shaking it in farewell in a firm grip. "I thank you. Such time saved, and would have been impossible otherwise. Good luck to you, Kyri Vantage." He turned, nodded his head, and walked towards the east and the Straightcut.
She looked to the West again, and realized that she was no longer as scared, as lonely, at the thought of the journey in front of her. Even if I hadn't saved the time… this journey's given me so much experience, in just a few days, of what an Adventurer has to face… of what a Justiciar has to face. I owe him more than just thanks for travel!
At that point it dawned on her, and she turned. "Old man, I never got your name…"
But the grasses before her were empty. Look as she might, there was not a trace of the mysterious old man… not even a footprint in the grass.
Isn't that always the way? Just as you think you're getting to know someone, POOF! They're gone.