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Ryou stopped the car alongside the curb and reviewed. So far so good. There'd been no signs of anything unusual happening in the hospital as he'd made his way out. He'd handed back the badge to the nurse near reception, and chatted about his health for a minute. He felt confident that she'd later testify that his attitude had been perfectly normal (only Yuki and Ryou's parents would know that Ryou chatting about his health was anything but normal right there). There was still a lot that was going to link him to tonight's escapade, but nothing solid enough to stand up in court which, thanks to that barbarian's handling of the situation with the policeman, was where this was now going to end up. There was still a chance this might all blow over as long as Ryou could get the man out of the reach of the Tokyo Metro police and back where he belonged. Ryou glanced at his watch for the third time, tilting his wrist to catch the light of the streetlamp without releasing his tight grip on the steering wheel.
Movement at the periphery of his vision caught his attention. Hands had grasped the top railing circling the hospital's brick perimeter, which was fortunately more decorative than formidable.
The foreigner hauled himself up, swung over the rail and landed on his feet on the other side. He straightened up slowly and leaned back against the wall, arms clasping his side. Idiot, thought Ryou, jerking off his seatbelt; he should not have believed the man wouldn't need help.
By the time he got the driver's door open, the stranger was at the passenger side and approaching the problem of the handle via the 'twist it everyway until it gives' method.
"Are you okay?" Ryou asked, fastening his seat belt again out of habit.
"The bell didn't ring," said the stranger, settling down into the seat of the rental with a grimace of pain.
It took Ryou a second to figure out what he was talking about. "Oh? Our building's fire exit is wired to an alarm, so I thought-" but maybe the hospital's alarm was silent. Even if there wasn't any, there was no need to linger. Ryou started the car and pulled away from the curb quickly, making his passenger clutch at the door and side of his seat in alarm.
One street away, Ryou was back in traffic and heading away from the hospital. The background noise of engines, brakes and a distant honk was staggeringly prosaic in this context. Ryou found himself glancing to the left to make sure he still had some foreign fighter from another world in his passenger seat. Then he gave his head a sharp shake. The sheer volume of things he did not know could easily overwhelm him if he let it, so he’d decided yesterday, while organizing this insanity, that he was going to stick to the steps of his plan, concentrating first and foremost on anything pertinent to his family’s safety and getting this man home.
"I'm going to drive you back to where I've found you. Unless you think that thing is still waiting for you?"
"The Rajin? No, it will have wandered off. Of course, that doesn't mean we might not wander right into it either. Do you have a weapon I can use?"
"No," said Ryou shortly.
"Let's hope it went chasing the moon, then," said the stranger, putting his hands behind his head in a casual stretch. Then he dropped his arms back down and clasped his side. Ryou noticed a small stain of blood seeping through the hospital top.
"You have a bag at your feet. There's clothes in there," he said.
The foreigner grunted and picked up the bag. He stared at the zip for a few seconds. Fortunately a stoplight turned red up ahead and Ryou was able to reach over and get his sport's bag open before anything violent happened to it.
His passenger fingered the grey material of the sweatshirt with an air of surprise before pulling it on carefully. Ryou debated the wisdom of discussing seatbelts, and then decided to drive extra carefully rather than work his way through that.
The man beside him made a startled noise. Ryou glanced away from the road to see his passenger lift the two wrist guards from the bag.
"I thought I'd lost them," the man said softly.
"No. I had to throw away the rest of your armour while you were unconscious, sorry. But you came to when I took those off and you got very agitated, you wouldn't let go of them. Then you passed out again. I, ah, put them in my briefcase." God knows what he'd have told the police if they'd decided to search his things. It hadn't been very wise, but seeing the desperation in the glazed eyes, the weakened fingers plucking helplessly at his hand to stop him from removing the bracer he'd been untying...Ryou couldn't just leave them in a dumpster.
The stranger was silent for the length of a few streetlamps.
"My brother gave me these. He had them made specifically. They mean a lot to me. I thank you." It was a tone far removed from the one he'd used until now. Ryou glanced at him discreetly, but his face was in the shadows.
"It was nothing, please, do not-"
"They'll get me on my feet faster, too," added the man in a more practical tone, pointing at the signs etched into the metal. "Your Inland ointments and draughts are quite good, but these were made in the Temple of Hygeia itself; Her sigils will insure my wound stays clean and heals fast and true."
"Good," said Ryou, dropping the entirety of that sentence to the bottom of his priority list because he wasn't sure where else to put it right now, and he didn't need another headache.
The stranger fastened on the bracers. They covered him from the wrist halfway up the forearm, two articulated half-cylinders perforated on the edges where a leather thong laced them shut. Ryou had studied them last night, when he'd remembered them and fetched them from out of his briefcase. Their outer design was simple, copper colour with an edge of lighter yellow, each decorated with a circle of beaten yellow metal divided by a crescent line, the picture of a moon both waxing and full. The inner face had been more heavily decorated with engraved lines in concentric circles enclosing etched symbols; Ryou had thought it odd at the time that the inside of the pieces of armour were more decorated than the outside, but apparently there was some, ah, religious significance to that.
Their owner tightened the bracers, fitting them into place with a gesture that seemed to satisfy him with its familiarity. Then he fished around the bag some more, and Ryou realized he was going to have to explain the concept of sneakers.
They turned out to be two sizes too big despite Ryou's best estimates. This was going to just be one of those evenings.
"They're better than those ridiculous slippers at any rate," said the stranger with a shrug. Then he poked curiously at the rubber sole. "You Inlanders do have some odd things. I'd heard of these vehicles that ride by themselves, and the towers made of windows. But even ordinary things like shoes are extraordinary here. I've never seen leather like this before, is it covered in some kind of resin?"
"No. It's a-...it's...a material like plastic. You probably won’t know what it is." Neither did Ryou, exactly, when it came down to it.
Silence settled between them. Ryou had too many questions to ask, and was afraid the answers would further shake his view of the world. The stranger looked out the window at the passing buildings for awhile and maybe he felt the same way, because though Ryou frequently caught him frowning or craning his neck to see some detail of the cityscape, he didn’t ask any question either.
But when Ryou took a turn and drove down the main street that would take them to that sector full of Mah-jong parlours, he noticed his passenger had started to study him with the same attention as the city, eyes traveling over his body with frank curiosity. Ryou said nothing.
"I heard you people did not have any real warriors, but that your weapons fight for you," said the stranger, the words abrupt after nearly half an hour of silence. "Do Inlanders really have swords that can bring down lightning on a man's head from a clear sky?"
"No, for pretty much all of those statements," said Ryou, after a few seconds of consideration.
"Oh. I had the feeling our storytellers were making half of it up...Pity...Then again, I'm just a simple soldier, I'll stick to what I know. You don't even have a knife with you, Inlander?"
"No, I apologize, but I don't."
"You live dangerously," said the man in a tone that suggested he half approved of the notion.
"You could be right, though I never thought so before last Tuesday."
Ryou frowned and slowed down. Talking had distracted him. He wasn't that sure of his destination anyway. He'd been driving away from Shore and heading south three nights ago, but his mind had been on the Noruma account, not on accidentally slipping into different worlds. Still, this neighbourhood didn't look familiar. He'd gone too far.
Ryou hooked a left four times and eventually drove at ten miles per hour through an intersection that looked exactly like the others. Then he pulled up at the curb on the other side of the stoplight.
A couple of cars drove past, their muffled growl buffeting the silence.
"We're here," said Ryou, and his tension was enough to spill over in to his voice now. He hadn't known what he'd find here, he hadn't been able to plan this part at all. And now, faced with a completely ordinary street in an ordinary neighborhood...suddenly the rest of the evening looked a lot less straightforward than he'd like.
"I'll take your word for it," said the stranger, looking around with curiosity that would suit a tourist.
Ryou pressed his lips together. That had not been the answer he'd been hoping for, though a part of him had expected it somehow. He drew a deep breath, ready to broach the subject that was now going to dominate the evening- then he exhaled abruptly as the "Opening Soon!" sign emblazoned across the storefront of a tobacconist, magazine and manga shop caught his attention. It was on the other side of the street, partially hidden by a construction site wall of honeycombed brick and stretches of metal sheeting. A mailbox that looked no more derelict than any other in the city stood on the curb. It was all alien and yet intensely familiar nonetheless. This was on the side of the street Ryou had been going down that night, though, not in the street perpendicular to it. To crash into that, he would have had to somehow turned the car around ninety degrees without noticing. Ryou felt a wave of dizziness sweep him and he rubbed his eyes hard.
When he righted his glasses again, he found the stranger watching him.
"We’re definitely here," said Ryou. "What happens now?"
His companion did not appear in the least bit surprised by the question. "You don't know, do you," he stated. "I was pretty damn sure you weren't a border crosser, that much was obvious. That night you met me as your first time breaking the Veil, wasn't it."
"I figured. Now I'm really surprised you got us back, magian. I've been told it's ten times harder in that direction. But right here and now, you don't have a clue. Is that right?"
The facts, the whole trend of this evening, were circling Ryou like a noose. When the stranger had said 'get me back across the border', it seemed driving the getaway car wasn't what he'd had in mind. Ryou had known it on some level, but he'd had too hard a time accepting that preposterous notion.
"I...why are you claiming that I am the one who is responsible for getting in and out of that- that- whatever that place was?"
"Who else? Inder help us," his passenger added with a feral grin, "you don't think a guy like me gets all that mystical shit, do you? All I remember is the onion."
"The onion?" said Ryou helplessly.
"That's how my tutor tried to explain the Lore of Zaratusra to me, back when I was eight. I didn't give a damn back then, I've managed not to give a damn these past seventeen years and I'd have gladly continued not to give a damn if those fucking imperial lackeys-...Just get me back, magian. You did it before, you can do it again. Hell, just drop me off in the no man's land and I'll find someone to bribe or beat up until they take me the rest of the way."
In Ryou's head, the words 'I don't know how!' clashed with 'You did it before'. It appeared that was true; he'd crossed by himself last time, even if he had no idea how. And now Ryou had to do it again. His life and the safety of his family depended on getting rid of the stranger before those ‘rajin’ found him. On a lesser degree, but perhaps more immediate, it'd be a help to Ryou's continued freedom and career to conclude all this before the police found one of their own trussed up in the hospital and followed the trail to the culprit and the accomplice who'd helped him get away.
Ryou started up the car. Maybe if he circled the construction site and the streets around it...
"Besides telling me onions are involved, is there any more information you can give me?" he asked tightly.
The foreigner scratched his chin. He seemed supremely unconcerned about Ryou's ignorance, which was odd for a man who had just as much at stake.
"Sure, if it helps you, I'll tell you the little I know. The greater world according to Lore is like an onion. Your world is the green bit at the very center; it's enclosed by the Great Veil. The Outlands are the layers. The husk around the onion would be- let's not talk about that when we're about to border-walk, that'd be bad luck." He gave the streets around them a dark look as if he actually expected something to materialize on cue. "It's easy enough to travel through the outer layers, now that the trail is blazed. But only a magian can build new routes, or travel between Inlands and the Outlands. That's easy to understand, right? I got that bit back when I was eight."
Ryou turned left without deigning to answer that. He passed by the metal gate through which he’d driven the Nissan into the construction site last Tuesday. In this version of Tokyo, it was padlocked in two places in deference to the neighborhood.
A car passed them with a rev of motor. Ryou was still driving too slowly, looking around and trying to figure out what to do next even though he possessed not a tenth of the information he needed to make even an educated guess. Onion layers. Right. That made it all clear.
"So how do I go from my layer to yours?"
The stranger was staring once more out the window in fascination at the sights of buildings, streetlights, water mains, gutters, neons. "Hmm? You need the Lore: the knowledge inherited from the ancient magii, as well as the brain and the will to use them."
"I don't have the knowledge," said Ryou, teeth attempting to clench in frustration.
"You must have something. Maybe knowledge isn't required. The blessed Zaratusra pierced the Great Veil, founded the first three countries and broke the curse of Babel, and he didn't inherit any knowledge from the ancients since he was doing it all for the first time. Not that you're that good," the stranger added with a bark of laughter. "But you look like you'd have a good head for all those numbers and arcana the magii use-"
"Numbers?" Ryou said blankly as a slew of facts that hadn't gone near each other previously suddenly tried to fit together.
"That's part of it. Don't ask me more about that. I can elevate a ballista's angle to rain hell on enemy troops and that's as much mathematics as I ever mastered."
Ryou thought he was better off a few minutes ago when he understood none of any of this. Now that he saw a thin thread leading through the ignorance...now it really made no sense to the point that it was distracting him in his driving.
A big American car full of what were probably Yakuza passed him by; the passenger window was open and a bald man leaned out and shouted back at him to sober up. Ryou accelerated instinctively until he was driving at a speed that would not get him noticed as much.
"Okay. Fine. So there's a veil between my world and yours and I need numbers which I do not possess to get across it- " except he had once. How? Ryou glanced around and realized he'd driven more than half a mile away from the construction site. He turned into a small side street and did a u-turn in the deserted road. As he drove back the way he'd come, he decided to tackle it from another angle. "So why is this layer you're talking about here, in this place? There's nothing extraordinary about it." Unless there was some ancient temple here back when this was still Edo, or perhaps leylines or some other Feng Shui crap.
"It's not just here. It's everywhere."
"What do you mean?"
"That's where it gets confusing. To tell you the truth, at that point in the discussion I was half asleep. It was a warm day, and I'd been out riding all morning. According to my tutor, who was a Hellen of respect, mind you, this onion is everywhere. All the time. You can cross the border from Inland to Outland anywhere you want. We could have done it back at the sick-house."
"But that doesn't make any sense. You're saying I'm doing this, crossing this veil."
The stranger nodded categorically in the light of streetlamps. They'd removed the disks plaited in his hair; the end of his thick mane was now a ragged disorderly border of curls that rasped against the material of the sweatshirt when he gestured like that.
"I've lived in Tokyo all my life - not that that matters if what you’re saying is true - and I’ve never crossed this veil before." If mathematics were in any shape or form involved in this process, then Ryou would have spent most of his university years in that limbo. Science had been his only joy back then, in an otherwise arduous coming of age. Especially advanced mathematics. His main aim in university had been to become a financier and accountant, but he'd been so good at those subjects that he’d had the leisure to indulge in one small pleasure that was uniquely his own (the trips to what had been his university equivalent of the Shore bar did not count, they'd been more demeaning than elevating). He'd taken a course in advanced mathematics during his first year. Then another, before progressing to algebraic geometry in the second year. At which point his professor had talked enthusiastically about broadening his degree and aiming for a master's and a PhD, and Ryou had stopped and gone back to studying only finance and statistics.
A motorbike zoomed past them, going the other way, followed by three others all going way too fast. Hoodlums, thought Ryou automatically.
"...Ai, magian, watch where you're going."
Higher mathematics. The elegance of leaving the plodding three dimensions behind to enter a realm that had no limit. Numbers embraced an elegant and ever-expanding array of dimensions. An infinity of layers.
The onion is everywhere.
No, that just didn't make any-
The driver side window bulged inward with an ugly crunch.
Ryou jerked on the wheel and the rented Honda careened towards the sidewalk. Something went thud against the back passenger side. Ryou jerked the wheel the other way and forced the car to go straight again.
He glanced wildly into the rear-view mirror. Behind the car, a motorcyclist had hit the ground and was rolling into the gutter. There were four other bikers on the road who'd shot past the fallen man without a glance, and one more in front of the car, now swerving back.
They were all carrying metal bars or baseball bats.
Ryou hit the accelerator, driving right past the man up ahead before the latter could react. Then he glanced at his side window, just to confirm it. Yes, it'd been slugged, the glass a crazy star pattern, though it hadn't shattered.
Something hit the back of the car with a whack. Ryou drove faster. There weren't any other cars on the road, which was so dark in his headlamps he could barely-...
No streetlamps. No lit streetlamps. Just the headlights of the Honda and the motorcycles and the moon above them as they rushed through deserted, derelict streets powdered with snow.
"We’re back in the no man’s land," Ryou said tightly. The road was as unkempt as the rest. His teeth and bones were rattling as the wheels hit cracks and debris
"Looks that way," was the lackadaisical answer, shouted to get over the noise of the car.
Despite the way it shook them up, the state of the road was in their favor; the motorcycles were having an even harder time of it. They weren’t powerful machines; if his recollection of the split-second glance in the rear-view mirror was correct, two of them were mopeds.
"Who the hell are they?"
"Border crossers," said the stranger, looking back over his shoulder. "Defending their territory, or just looking to loot. Okay, this is good enough. Try to get ahead of them a bit, and then let me out."
One of the bikes surged ahead. The rider swiped his club at Ryou's headlights in passing and missed. They weren't shouting or hooting like hooligans, and they weren't signaling him to stop or slow down. Everything was too bumpy and fast for Ryou to get a good look at their pursuers beyond the fact that they were armed and not wearing any helmets, but he could feel their intent. They knew what they wanted, and he would eventually be made to comply in time. The way they tailed him, nipping in and out for a strike, reminded him of a pack of wolves harrying a caribou on a nature program.
"Let me out when you can," the foreigner repeated. "I'll deal with the scum. They're small fry."
"They're armed!" Ryou turned a corner, slewing over debris.
"They're still small fry. Let me out, and then get back to the Inlands." In the small light from the dashboard, his grin was feral and without fear, but Ryou could see him holding his side as they were both jolted and shaken by the car’s speed. He didn't even have his sword anymore-
Do you have a weapon I can use?
"Okay, I get it," said Ryou and hit the accelerator. The stranger gasped, grabbing the door and the seat, and then he laughed in savage pleasure at their speed and their crazy bouncing, the sound broken into staccatos by the vibrations.
Ryou pounded the car through the empty streets, creeping ahead. Buildings flashed by, along with the occasional wreck of a car abandoned alongside the road. Behind him, one of the bikers skidded and fell, his headlight wobbling and jerking sideways to spin in the road. Still four of them left. Ryou turned a corner on what felt like two wheels, though that was probably his imagination. Since he’d shown up at the rental agency without booking any car beforehand, they’d not had many available, certainly not any reasonably priced ones. Ryou had been in a hurry and too focused on his plans to politely argue and negotiate, and the woman at the counter had sensed that and struck like a shark scenting blood in the water. The FD2 she'd managed to offload on him had been abominably expensive, with more power and weight by far than his old Nissan, and Ryou hoped he’d be able to return it to the agency with his most heartfelt thanks, as well as a visa card for the damages.
His passenger was shouting at him, something about stopping now. Ryou gritted his teeth and accelerated instead. After a minute, the stranger stopped trying to object, and split his time staring at the road rushing by and at Ryou’s profile.
Two more abrupt turns and the bikers could no longer see them. They would certainly be able to hear the Honda roaring through the deserted streets, but Ryou counted on the echo effect from these old, empty buildings to make that as confusing as possible. He continued to dart and weave through side alleys to further muddy the trail, not caring that he was now thoroughly lost. What did it matter that he couldn’t find his way back to the construction site, since the bloody onion was everywhere.
Ryou glanced at the rear-view mirror to make sure the manic thread of thought hadn’t made it onto his features. His reflection glanced back at him, cool, collected and as distant as always. Good. Show them nothing. Now what he needed was-...There. That building, and a ramp leading up to a covered parking area.
The Honda crunched its way up the concrete incline to the first floor. It wasn't much more elevated than the street, and the sides were open but for a railing. Far from perfect, but it gave them some cover. Ryou unclenched one hand from the steering wheel and switched off the ignition.
The silence was deafening. Both of them sat there as if unwilling to be the first to break it.
"So, who were they?" Ryou finally asked.
"Border crossers," was the dismissive answer. "They thrive on the border between Inland and Out. They're exiles, or just plain scum. Each band has a hedge wizard who'll poke them across the border from Outlands to this no man's land where the law and the bounty hunters won't risk going. Eventually their mucking around will either rouse the Per Gathas to raid them or bring down the Furies on their heads, and the world will be a better place for seeing a dozen whoreson losers get flayed. How do I open this?" The stranger was pawing at the door. The handle was molded in the same plastic as the armrest; he was ineffectually pulling at the window lock switch and pushing at the glass.
"You knew they'd be there."
The stranger stopped his efforts and looked around at Ryou.
Ryou put both his hands on the steering wheel and flexed his fingers on the plastic. "You said we can cross anywhere. There was no point letting me drive all the way back here if that was true, we could have done it ten minutes away from the hospital. But I did not cross anywhere; not today, nor the last time either. I wasn't even trying to do anything special the first time I crossed, and in a huge area of deserted city that seems to stretch as far as Tokyo does, I ended up a few feet away from you. That's too big a coincidence. Same tonight, I ended up right in the middle of them. You knew they'd be there, that we'd meet them if we crossed, and that we'd get attacked. That’s why you wanted a weapon. Behind all this onion nonsense and 'I'm just a simple soldier', you're actually quite smart, aren't you."
The stranger's lips quirked. "Not half as smart as you are. You don't seem to be all that mad," he added curiously, cocking his head to examine Ryou in the near-total darkness inside the car. He did not seem in the least remorseful at getting caught out.
Ryou had the feeling that he should be furious, but it didn't seem to matter. It was just one more fact to add to the equation. It might even be considered reassuring that one of them had a modicum of control over events. At any rate, he was too used to being intellectual rather than emotional by now.
"I didn't know they'd be here for sure, but chances were good," his companion said, settling back down into the seat. "And you're right. I don't know how the Lore works or anything, but I don't think Inlanders, even smart ones, accidentally stumble into the no man's land because they tripped over a rock and fell into it headfirst. I think you got through because the Rajin Bher had ripped up all the layers to get at me. Or because the fucking Imperials did the same to put me there in the first place. Of course I could be wrong; maybe Inder just decided it was not my day to die and He somehow sent you to save the life of this favored child of war. Won't be the first time He's come through for me. I was hoping He'd give me a hand again tonight. And once we got across, it was a fair bet we'd find the jackals here. A magian tearing through the Great Veil leaves traces even those little poppy-smoking wizards can follow. They've been here for days I bet, digging around, trying to figure out how you did it and if they can follow. Maybe they even got through already, and we ran into the rearguard defending the entrance from other gangs. It's their motherload, to find a weak place where they can get Inland, letting them pillage and then make their escape where your soldiers can never find them. An Inland artifact is worth its weight in gold, even when it stops working. It'd keep them in drink and whores for a year."
Ryou gave him a long look. "And you want to deal with these people to get home?"
The stranger snorted. "They're not dangerous. They're a good deal less dangerous to either of us than the people who are after me, at any rate. For starters, this riff-raff won’t be able to follow your tracks once you cross the Great Veil; they don’t have anything like those abilities. Get back Inland, and you'll be fine."
"Didn't you want me to get you to the Outlands proper?" said Ryou, and wondered why he was objecting...
"That'd be safer," said his companion, and then he immediately corrected himself with a gesture of self-directed irritation. "That'd be safer for me, that is. But let's face it, magian, you've got guts and skills, but you know less about the Lore of Zaratusra than I do, and I told you how much that was in less than fifty words. Maybe you can't even get me to the Outlands as you are. I can cut a deal with the jackals; I'll offer to pay them if I can't beat some sense into their heads."
Pay them what? Ryou almost asked, knowing full well that the only thing inside the foreigner's jogging pants was a price tag, but then he saw his companion absently twist the bracer on his left arm...The way their owner had talked about them, they were probably worth a lot of money. This was a fact, which gave rise to a possible option, but Ryou found he didn't like it much, and he had the feeling the Outlander would like it still less and would take risks to avoid that extreme.
His passenger removed his hand from the bracer as if realizing it'd been noticed, and made shooing gestures at Ryou instead. "I'll be fine. You should worry about yourself, Inlander. Just tell me how to open this damned door and then get out of here, you don't want to have to deal with those pitiful-"
The word 'losers' was lost in the crash of the back window exploding.
"-the hell?!" shouted Ryou’s companion. As for Ryou, he'd already turned the key and hit the accelerator, drowning out the echoes of a shot lingering in the garage's enclosed space.
"Change of plans," said Ryou tightly, back in a world of cold facts where adrenaline was a distant distraction.
"What kind of- was that a musket?!"
"No, I'm pretty sure that was a gun," said Ryou, not bothering to wonder why his passenger knew about firearms at all.
"Hell. They must have gotten it in an Inland raid. These little shits are a cut above the usual scum. Whoa-" he grabbed at the door handle as Ryou shot down the ramp and turned into the street. "Wait- wait, magian, let me out!"
"They'll kill you," said Ryou, accelerating.
"They won't! We're worth nothing to them dead!" shouted his companion over the roar of the motor.
There were headlights in the rear-view mirror. Their glare hid the full picture of the vehicle following them, but it looked like some kind of souped-up jeep or a dune-buggy. Something that would have considerably less problems than the Honda negotiating the ruins. Above the smear of light, Ryou spotted the silhouette of a man holding a rifle...
He shook off the hand grasping his wrist.
"Stop!" his passenger yelled. "Let me out and go! I can't pay for your life if they catch us now. A magian who can go Inland so easily is worth too much for them-"
Above the howl of the motor and the rapid-fire thuds of the wheels grinding over grit, Ryou thought he heard another shot. They'd be aiming for the tires. The bullet through the back window had been a warning shot.
"Inlander, go home!"
Ryou accelerated; in his hand, the wheel jerked and was responding only occasionally. The other car was gaining on them anyway.
The FD2 ran over a large stone, causing the whole vehicle to jolt and slew in the road before Ryou managed to right it again. The other car and the man with the rifle was only thirty yards behind them now, but at this rate Ryou and the stranger were going to die in a car crash in the middle of a wasteland before they could be caught...
He had the Noruma account to deal with this weekend, the price of being ill on a workday. And he was missing the family dinner tonight.
Go home to his career, an eventual marriage, discreet trips to Shore, the total absence of anything extraordinary in his life.
The thoughts of his obligations felt irrelevant, as if he was glancing through last year's schedule. They were facts, but they no longer touched him. Because Ryou had set foot on a path when he'd chosen to drive the Nissan back into the construction site three nights ago. The path had led him to this moment now, it was all crystal clear and so logical.
This time he heard the shot. Something pinged against the back of the car.
"Shit! Hey, magian-"
He could still stop now and turn away. That's what he'd always done up until now when the path of his life had taken a turn that would lead him outside the boundaries of what was expected of him. And to be honest, he'd always gained back in security, respect and ambition what he'd lost of himself in the choice. He could do that now, he should do that now for his own sake and safety as well as his family's; choose to go back to a life that felt as fake as his Ice Prince expression and forget all this, forget how dream-like and shallow his world had seemed these past three days, forget a smile of fierce freedom and no regrets...
"I am so sorry," said Ryou, though the loved ones he was apologizing to were not here.
The car jolted as the right front tire blew.
Ryou found himself thrown to one side by the strength of the motion. His foot hit the brake automatically. The car started to spin.
Shock squeezed his heart, sheer panic, but that was his body, the animal part that wanted to escape death yet did not know how to do what he needed to do now. Ryou's mind, by contrast, felt oddly clear. The way ahead was as distinct as the ruined cityscape waltzing around and around the car.
Ryou lifted his foot from the brake and hit the accelerator. The Honda shot forward on a tight curve with a horrid fla-fla-fla-flap of shredded wheel, straight towards a wall, not that that mattered.
There was no sound, no flash of light...
...but the debris-strewn road was suddenly gone. The car was falling through the air instead, the ground a blur his eyes couldn't focus on though it looked frighteningly far in this moment of freefall.
-should have gotten him to put on his seatbelt, Ryou thought as he closed his eyes.
It turned out the ground was closer than it'd looked, and the Honda hit it with an almighty crash. It bounced a few times with a swansong screech of its suspensions. Ryou's foot was glued to the brakes, but they were no longer responding. And this was the second time in a very, very busy week that he was getting all too acquainted with an air bag.
It seemed to take forever for the Honda to roll to a bumpy stop. The destruction of the front wheels - and the front axle with them - had more to do with it than mechanics.
Ryou's eyes were still closed. His glasses were cutting into his cheek, but he couldn't seem to move.
From very, very far away, he could hear someone cursing. The sound waxed and waned from Japanese - very crude Japanese - to another language, one full of harsh, odd sounds Ryou didn't think he'd be able to make if he tried. Huh, that must have been what Yuki and Kimura had heard. Ryou had never figured out why he could understand the foreigner, or why he seemed to be losing his grasp on that understanding now.
It was that man calling him. The man who'd fought that monster, who'd smiled at Ryou and walked away. Ryou realized that, very deep inside where a part of him was locked away, he'd always wanted to be able to smile like that...
Ryou opened his eyes. His head was twisted sideways, so he could see, over bulges of airbag, a strong arm with a wrist bracer struggling to push its way through.
"Fucking- shit-licking- thing-"
The arm disappeared. Then there was the crash of a window getting kicked out.
More cursing. Ryou's mind wandered a little, and then his door was wrenched open, letting in a waft of air.
"Magian? You still alive?"
"Yes," said Ryou, since that fact at least was undeniable.
He was gently extracted from the car. The stranger gave the airbag one last vile look, then he helped Ryou to sit down on the dusty ground, leaning him back against the car.
"How are you feeling? You look like shit."
How was he feeling? That was a more complicated question to answer than 'Are you alive'.
"I'm very tired," Ryou eventually said. His mind felt light and empty, which was quite an extraordinary state for him. His body hurt in various places. And he was so drained that even the thought of moving was agony in itself.
Fingers felt him over, righted his glasses in passing. Ryou felt thankful for that. He couldn't have lifted his hand to do it himself, and he couldn't pass his fingers over his features to tell what they looked like...It felt wrong not to be able to check...
The stranger's face was bruised, a trickle of blood running from his lip down to his chin. The concern in his eyes faded as he finished checking Ryou over. With a grunt of pain, he sat down next to Ryou and leaned back against the Honda's rear passenger door.
The air was starting to stink of gas fumes. Ryou knew he should mention this, but it was too much effort to concentrate on all the moving that would then be required.
"Why is the sun shining?" he finally asked instead.
"Dunno," said the stranger. "We're somewhere where it shines, I guess."
The sunlight was hurting Ryou's head, though a big, thick cloud was blocking out most of it. He closed his eyes, and the darkness brought momentary relief.
Slowly, slowly his mind started to function again. They were out of danger. Immediate danger, Ryou corrected himself as the gas fumes filled his nose with an almost solid presence.
...But it wasn't the smell of gas, or the ping of the car settling into a very final heap, or the thought of having leapt outside the boundaries of his life, that was currently taking up a larger and larger part of his thoughts...
Ryou opened his eyes and stared at the cloud again, which wasn't in any way a cloud at all.
"What is that doing there?" he croaked.
"Hanging there," the stranger answered with an audible shrug.
He was talking about an island. An island in the sky. It was some distance away, so Ryou could see it clearly. It was floating against the whiteness of the firmament which seemed never-ending, plunging away from them. They were only a hundred yards away from what appeared to be a cliff. Ryou wondered if they were on a floating island as well, and wasn't sure he could handle the answer.
He stared at the landmass again. It was diamond shaped, green on its flat top above bedrock tapering to a point, and it was all in all quite big. And it was indeed hanging there with no visible means of support.
"Did I go crazy?" Ryou asked. It certainly felt like it. Dealing with facts was all well and good, but if he tried to fit that one in, at least a dozen established ones were going to fall out.
"No, you're okay," said the stranger, wearily rubbing the blood from his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. "We're in the Broken Lands. It's always like that. You took us all the way from the Inlands to- hell, I don’t even know how far we are, but we’re on the far side of the onion, that’s for sure. I take back what I said earlier, my friend. You are as good as Zaratusra. Hell, you're the blessed Loremaster reborn. You just got to learn a whole lot of control and then you can take over the Per Gathas tomorrow."
The words washed by Ryou without much meaning.
"We're going to have an interesting trip ahead of us...But don't worry about that. You need to rest, magian, you're as white as the belly of a fish."
"I..." Ryou stared at the thing floating there. Then he closed his eyes. "We need to get away from the car. Right away."
"Oh? Okay. Hold on."
The stranger slid his arm around Ryou's shoulder and lifted, and Ryou passed out.