My computer contributed to the situation by dying in instalments. I'm now the proud owner of a spanking brand new PC that can run Dragon Age Awakening, Mass Effect 2, The Witcher and many others without breaking a sweat, which is another reason why I've not been writing much these past months *embarrassed cough*...When I finally did get around to unpacking my Word Doc files and sorting them away, several abandoned stories shamed me into kicking my inspiration back into gear and not leaving things unfinished. Hence this chapter and the next, which should be out soon (no, really, I mean it this time), and hopefully others as well. Now, on with the story!
Link to all chapters
This picks up where the last chapter left off, so re-reading the last one might be necessary to remember some of the who-and-whats.
Ryou's Seiko was still running strong despite all the horse riding and occasional accidents it’d seen, an excellent advertisement for its makers. Ryou dreaded the day it would run out of batteries. It was telling him it was now 6:27 in the morning, thirty minutes since they'd arrived at Mooncrest. It could not tell him what Ryou's inner sense was whispering now; that the Paths were shifting with the faint ripple of light washing across the land. It was the belief in these countries that the rising sun opened the Path. Ryou knew this was nonsense. The Paths opened and shut in accordance to rhythms that were influenced by the gravitational effects of the sun and moon and many other factors Ryou couldn't grasp, but they were pretty much accessible all the time (whether they led anywhere safe was another matter). The only reason Passers did not usually pass people before sunrise was because it would be easy to stumble over unseen obstacles in the indeterminate light before dawn, and while following a rift snaking through several dimensions, it was considered a Bad Idea to go tripping and falling headfirst. Ryou also suspected that this notion of precise times of departures protected Passers from the hassle of impatient merchants and haughty nobles insisting they leave right now.
Ryou felt the rifts align, though he did not have the power or the knowledge to say where they were going at this point. Presumably to Thezali, since that was where they were headed. Darius had sent one of his Hounds over days ago to ask Periklan, the head Passer, when the Path to their destination would be accessible. Now that the spiral was aligned, the Path would be open for one and a half days. Their group had plenty of time to cross the planes and get to where they were going, but Darius had wanted to go as soon as possible, so they were here at the crack of dawn and for the minute this route became accessible.
"Blessed is the Path Maker, we follow in his footsteps," pronounced Periklan solemnly up ahead, a ritual many Passers skipped if they didn't have half-blood royalty traveling with them. Then the old Passer moved away from the inn, the caravan of twenty people and thirty animals falling into a single column behind him.
Ryou was third in line after Dionysodoros and Jexen. Three paces away from the tavern, he felt it: that flux in the air that marked the border between planes, the rifts forming an invisible labyrinth through this odd fraction of space that was both here and elsewhere equally. Each sharp turn, marked by the thump of Periklan's staff, twisted them further away from Assyria through a space that could not be fully grasped by the mind. Everybody else was oblivious to this, which was probably for the best. As for Ryou, he kept his eyes fixed on Jexen's back and his mind on a tight leash, forbidding it to reach out and feel the intriguing swirls and eddies that surrounded their zigzagging progress across the terrain charged with abnormal physics, all the way to the bridge across the water, the fulcrum of the change that would bring them to Thezali.
Darius had somehow contrived to walk his horse behind Ryou's without being obvious about it, but when Ryou glanced back Darius was also looking around, making sure that all the men were neatly lined up and following across the bridge. Apparently he wasn't worried about Ryou bringing the Furies or dog-headed critters down onto their heads. Neither was Ryou, too much. Though 'Useages' had completely skipped over the basics of how Paths worked, the book had not skimped on how magians should safely navigate them, and Ryou had made a beeline to that chapter weeks ago. It wasn't that complicated, just a matter of focusing on the Path straight ahead and not letting the mind wander dangerously. It was what Ryou had been doing instinctively his last two trips through a border.
The caravan crossed the bridge single file behind Periklan. Ryou couldn't figure out why water seemed to be so important as the crucial demarcation between the planes being crossed. He reasoned that it might be for the benefit of the Passers, who were not magians with the power and understanding to change these currents, and who could merely sense them and navigate them. Running water was a powerful symbol in every culture Ryou had heard of so far, maybe the Per Gathas were using that as a visual and also a subconscious aid to the crossing. Yet Ryou could feel something subtle about this flow ahead of him, even though he knew damn well that there was nothing magical about water, running or otherwise, and it's mass and effects were nothing compared to the forces at work here. Damn it, if only Haaskoning hadn't given him dribs and drabs and nothing else...Ryou moodily felt at the pendant around his neck, hidden beneath his tunic. He'd taken it with him out of a vague worry the Passer would refuse him passage, but when Periklan had visibly not recognized him from any other person perched on a horse, he’d not bothered flashing the jewel around to get free passage. Living in the palace virtually free of charge, he’d still not touched much of the recompense money the king had given him. He could afford a bit of desirable discretion.
Ryou's reflections were interrupted by the butt of Jexen's horse which was suddenly only two steps away. He quickly put his hand on his own mount’s nose and tugged the reins. Once the animal stopped, Ryou craned his neck to see what the hold-up was. Periklan was a few paces ahead of the group, standing with his walking stick planted on the ground, and looking around as if he couldn't remember which way to go. He didn’t look concerned, and neither did Dio up ahead. Maybe this was an occasional occurrence. Maybe the Path wasn’t quite lined up right yet, and they had to wait here a minute. Maybe the Passer, quite well along in years by Outland standards, was halfway senile and was going to get them all lost between dimensions, and that was what Andrap had been hinting at earlier. Ryou curbed in his anxiety and pessimism. If that had been Andrap’s concern and the reason he was here, ‘assisting’, then he’d have made sure to come with the group, but instead he’d stayed back at the inn.
Up ahead, Periklan turned to speak to Dio. Ryou caught the words "Sorry for the wait," over a soft snort in his ear from his horse.
Ryou looked around wildly, trying to see around Jexen's horse. But there was now only a startled Dio up ahead.
Horses whinnied in alarm. Jexen shouted. Ryou heard steel leave scabbards.
Ryou took a step back- then another, hastily. Jexen's horse was putting up a fuss, backing away and trying to rear. Dio's horse was also kicking up a storm. Ryou's mount, a steady creature his friends had expressly chosen for him, was snorting and doing ear semaphores to broadcast his intention of getting excited any minute now.
Past the flailing hooves and Dio hauling down on his reins, Ryou spotted Periklan. The man was on the ground in a heap a meter from where he'd been previously standing.
Sword unsheathed, Darius brushed past Ryou with the determined, unhurried stride of an officer taking control of a situation. Ryou dropped his horse's reins and followed.
Periklan did not stir, even though the nearby horses were stamping the ground fit to shake it and Dio was shouting at him to get up. Some distance away from the fallen man was presumably the object that had felled him, at the end of a rut that suggested it had thudded and rolled to a stop. It was solid and polished black. Stone, Ryou thought, then amended that with ‘statue’; a stone statue of a king crane with its feet pulled up beneath it so that it was lying on its chest. It was twenty centimeters across the wingspan, a good likeness. Small, but it must weigh a kilo or more. Who the hell was pelting them with statues?!
Then the thing moved.
Ryou - even Darius - took an instinctive step back when the polished black neck extended itself. It shifted its weight forward with a lurch. Now its legs were beneath it, folded too sharply at the knee-joint to be bird-like. Its wings had come forward to touch the ground at the bend, just like the wings of a bat. But the way it scurried forward...it moved like a beetle. A shiny black beetle the size of a rat. It was moving towards Periklan- but Darius took one step forward so that it'd have to turn its side towards him to get to the Passer, and that made it stop as if suddenly turned back to stone.
"What the fuck is that?" asked Darius rhetorically. "Periklan? Dio, check on Periklan."
Dio moved slowly and cautiously, eyes fixed on the creature. Ryou moved more quickly, ignoring Darius's hiss of warning. He scooped up the Passer's walking stick where it'd been dropped and held it between himself and the creature as he knelt near the fallen man. He didn't have any other weapon, and he'd be perfectly useless standing around like a wallflower while Dio did the legwork.
Periklan was breathing, though Ryou had to put his ear right next to the passer's mouth to feel the faint exhale. Ryou hesitated to straighten the man out, but it wasn't as if they were going to get an ambulance, a gurney and a backboard out here if Periklan had been hit in the spine or neck...The Passer groaned, a bitten off sound, and his eyelids fluttered when Ryou turned him over as gently as he could, supporting his head all the way. Through the bulky brown tunic and cloak Periklan had donned against the morning freshness, Ryou could not tell where he'd been struck by the crane, assuming that's what had happened.
The thing clacked its beak very quickly, a noise exactly like an insect rubbing its mandibles. Ryou repressed a shudder and looked away from the creature and back to its victim.
"Darius, we need to get him to a doctor. I mean a priest."
"Is he awake?"
"Then I am open to your suggestion as to how we get out of here," said Darius. "Fuck this," he added, turning around. Three shorts strides took him to Jexen's horse. He slid one of two short javelins from its sling on the saddle, turned and hurled it at the crane-creature before Dio or Jexen could object or offer to take the risk of attacking it in his stead.
The creature tried to scurry back when Darius whipped the javelin at it, but it'd been too late. None of the Hounds present could have missed at that range. The javelin smacked into the crane- and somersaulted away with a ringing crash. The bloody thing was made of stone!
Though the javelin's point had done nothing more than scratch the shiny black material of its back, it'd hammered the crane's body into the dirt. Its wings jerked and thudded away at the soil, trying to move, uncoordinated, maybe broken.
Darius ignored it as he crouched at Ryou's side. He checked Periklan's head and then gave him a shake, ignoring Ryou's sharp advice to the contrary. "Ei, old man, wake up and get us out of here."
"Darius-" Ryou looked around, but there was going to be no source of help out here. The inn of Mooncrest had disappeared behind them as soon as they’d gotten near the bridge. There was a lot of shouting from the column of men who’d been following them, fear and concern as the nature of the holdup finally trickled all the way down the file. Horses nickered as they felt their humans start to panic, even the hardened Hounds. Ryou remembered the stories of disappearing travelers that were spreading these days. Maybe those groups had also been attacked by stone cranes targeting the Passer first. Once the Passer was out of commission, the travelers would never get back to anywhere normal and thus nobody would ever know what happened to them.
A whirring noise made Ryou duck instinctively. Darius crouched low and spun on his heels. From the corner of his eye, Ryou glimpsed a black shape coming right at him-
A second went by, a dozen thudding heartbeats...but nothing crashed into him. Ryou took his arms away from his head and straightened up cautiously. The black object that'd been hurtling towards him and Darius was nowhere to be seen; instead a man in a dark cloak, back towards them, stood between them and danger.
"Is everybody alright?" Andrap asked in a recognizable bass voice without moving his eyes away from the patch of earth and sky the cranes had come from. "Periklan?"
"That thing over there dive-bombed us. I think it hit him," said Ryou, pointing at the first crane which was still jerking around in the dirt.
"He said the Path was closed," added Dionysodoros, who'd left Jexen to watch the broken crane to cover Darius's back. "He stopped and told me that the Path was closed, and that maybe we were too early. Then he turned towards me and that's when that thing hit him. Took him near shoulder level I believe."
"It's blocked," Andrap said with a glance ahead. "We need to go back. Can someone carry him?"
Darius made a gesture, and Dionysodoros quickly sheathed his sword and picked up the fallen Passer in a fireman carry. Periklan groaned again. If he was half conscious, surely that wasn't too bad a sign...Ryou forced himself not to tell Dio to avoid jostling the poor old man. They were beyond that kind of consideration.
"Turn back," Andrap instructed, gesturing at the large group behind him. This unfortunately insured they were all looking at him when he suddenly spun around once more. Ryou felt it too, now that he was paying attention. The disruption was small and some distance away, not at all like the Rajin Bher or the dog-headed creature; it barely registered above the constant flux around him that filled his senses. But it was another crane creature, its wings whirring as fast as a beetle's, quite uselessly since there was no aerodynamics involved here. The thing moved in an elliptical arc like a rock out of a catapult. It was aiming right at Andrap.
Andrap gestured sharply.
The crane-bomb came right at them- yet it was getting smaller and smaller, as if it was falling away, even though Ryou's sense of perspective told him it was still coming right at them. Then it was gone, vanished before it was more than two meters away from the Passer.
"Okay," said Andrap, wiping some sweat from his brow, his back still towards the column. "Please head back the way we came."
He could have saved his breath. Everybody was shouting now that they'd caught a glimpse of the crane and figured out they were under attack. The Passer's deep voice went completely unheard. Andrap's attention was split between watching the flux around them and trying to get everyone's attention by talking over his shoulder when-
Everybody shut up, including the civilians and the horses. One of the mules at the far back of the column let loose a worried bray and then quickly lowered its head.
"Go and lead them," Darius said in a normal voice as he turned towards Andrap. "They won't go anywhere otherwise."
Andrap looked over his shoulder as if he wanted to object-
A flicker at the edge of Ryou's concentration. "Watch it!" he hissed, but Andrap was way ahead of him, hand lifting towards the incoming missile.
"Let it pass," Darius said in a steady voice everybody in the column could hear. "It's going to miss us. Can you strike back at them?"
Andrap' answer was buried in the thud of a crane hitting the ground a meter away from Darius, who didn't glance at it. Ryou did, and noticed the bird-statue was cruder now. Even Ryou's horse started prancing a little, but Hamado, who'd been behind Darius, quickly gathered its reins and shushed it.
"No, I can't stop them," Andrap said. "We need to leave the circle. It would be best if you and Ujie Ryou stayed with me."
Darius gave him a Look, a long narrow-eyed 'we are going to have a talk about this later’ Look. Then he motioned at Ryou to follow the Passer, heading back up the column, back the way they’d come. "Dio, carry Periklan. Jexen, Hamado, close the march. Get any of the loose horses if they'll come, otherwise screw them. Just make sure the men get out."
"Yes my Lord," said Jexen tightly, hefting his second javelin.
Ryou followed Darius and Andrap back over the bridge and to the tail-end of the column which had not crossed yet. The Hounds got a quick hold of their wild-eyed looks and open fear when they met Darius’s gaze. They became focused, professional, weapons firm in one hand as they held their horses on a tight rein with the other. The Greek merchant and his men were right at the end of the convoy, having ceded their place to a Lord without a second thought. He and his two men looked scared. Ryou didn’t blame them...
Andrap was up ahead, looking at the distant stelae and then to the spot where the inn had been. On this side of the bridge, Ryou had half hoped to see it reappear again. The Path was there...but the inn must have vanished to safety with its remaining Passer and staff when the attack was felt.
Ryou’s senses, focusing on his surroundings, twanged. Behind him, Andrap turned back sharply and took three steps, hand raised towards the black object hurtling towards the middle of the column.
A horse reared and fought its master. Almost above their heads, the crane diminished and disappeared, but it'd been close. Ryou had tried to watch and sense what Andrap was doing in order to help him, but there was too much going on in the ether around them.
The Passer was sweating now, expression grim. There was conflict scrawled across his face as he glanced over his shoulder at the head of the column and then at its straggling end, a dozen men too far away for him to properly cover.
“Go,” Ryou said quickly. “I can see the Path back to Assyria now that we're past the bridge. I can lead them.”
“If Ryou says he can do it, he will, so go protect my men,” Darius growled. In punctuation to the order, another crane had thudded down among the baggage horses, causing one of them to rip away from the Hound holding it and bolt, away from the Path and into the labyrinth of oblivion. The animal was no longer visible after only five strides, poor creature. The crane that’d nearly struck the horse had not been moving its wings this time, it’d come down like a catapult stone. So did the other that followed. From where Ryou stood, they no longer looked well formed, just crude simulacrums of a bird statue.
Andrap looked torn. “But what if you’re attacked-“
“We’ll duck. Go!” ordered Darius, shoving the Passer towards the back of the column.
“This way,” Ryou told the Greek merchant, who was so relieved to be told what to do by someone who seemed to know that he followed without question. The Hound behind him, known to his friends as Brutal Shiim, looked like he'd have preferred a certified Passer to lead them. He hesitated- and got told off sharply by Dio, coming up behind them with Periklan's arm over one shoulder, Bareil propping up the unconscious man on the other side.
Ryou moved ahead of the column, concentrating on the Path up ahead rather than the movement of the people behind him. His eyes couldn't tell the difference between one patch of dirt and the next, but in his inner mind's eye, there was a road, a series of interconnected tunnels through the areas of dimensional uncertainty. Walk one meter this way, turn sharply- a bend up there and then straight ahead for a few paces. Ryou walked forward, focusing on marking the Path with the Passer’s staff while all the time, prickles of anxiety ran up and down his back which had never felt so vulnerable and exposed. But all the cannonball/cranes were falling behind them, quite a distance away towards the far back of the column. The sound of distant thuds was coming more frequently, but seemed scattered. Andrap was letting most of them through and from the lack of horse screams, they weren’t falling near the fleeing rearguard.
"Why are they changing tactics?" he wondered out loud. The air was cool, but Ryou was sweating at the effort of moving with only his wispy inner sense as a guide.
“It takes time to aim correctly,” Darius grunted. “Now that we're moving, they can’t adjust as well.” Which sounded reassuring, until he added, "Either that or they're chasing us away from their location, or towards something worse."
Ryou's steps slowed. He couldn't see anything, or feel anything ominous, but...Maybe he should have let Andrap take the lead after all.
"Go," said Darius calmly. He had his sword drawn, standing right next to Ryou, a rampart. Ryou took a deep breath as discreetly as he could, picking up the pace again. He could hear more thuds behind him now, either Andrap was letting the really poorly aimed shots fall harmlessly around the column, or else the Passer was getting tired. Time to leave.
They were back to where the inn had been, but there was no sanctuary here, so Ryou had to lead them further, all the way to the stelae. But that was a whole lot easier than the previous stretch of the journey. They were already back in Assyria's plane by now, they just had to safely get out of this region of spatial uncertainty, and for that they had to exit between two of the stelae in particular, an invisible 'door' held open for travelers wanting to enter into the border. Ryou could see them as clearly as if they were highlighted in neon, two otherwise unassuming rock pillars off to his left. Ryou lead that way as quickly as he dared while wary of a possible ambush.
When he reached the stones, he gestured the merchant forward. The portly Greek trader sprinted through the border’s edge. His men followed, hauling at the mules. One of the mercenaries had the thoughtfulness to turn back and shout, “He did it! We’re out! I can see the Mooncrest Bridge, and Sura in the distance.”
“Ryou, go,” Darius said, nudging Ryou forward.
“Are you leaving?”
“I have to see my men out.”
Ryou planted the Passer’s walking stick in the turf and gestured Dio and Bareil to pass by him and cross the border. Dio shifted the Passer’s weight to Bareil and nodded his partner forward.
“Ryou,” Darius growled.
“I'm staying here. I can feel them coming,” Ryou said. Back at the rear of the column, another crane barreled in only to be obliterated by Andrap, who was lagging several meters behind the last horse.
“Yeah, we’re back where we started,” Bareil reported from outside the circle. “I can’t see the sanctuary, but everything else is normal.”
“Go ahead, sir,” said Dio, gripping his sword. Ryou had to marvel at the professionalism of all the Hounds in the face of supernatural forces they could not counter. “Both of you get to the other side, I’ll see the men out.”
“It’s likely you they’re aiming for, Darius,” Ryou pointed out when his lover looked reluctant to take his own medicine.
“Fine,” Darius growled with one last look at the column. Four more Hounds had left the circle, only a few more men to go counting Andrap.
The edge of the circle was a line of force in Ryou's mind, somehow maintained by the innocuous-looking stelae which fenced in the instability that was the border. Beyond them, the Taibor twinkled beneath the morning sun. Darius stepped toward the edge-
“Stop!” bellowed Andrap far behind them.
Ryou stumbled to a halt, hand shooting out to catch Darius- but it was too late.
The ground crumbled beneath them, breaking apart as if the turf had been hiding a crevasse, and they dropped through it into a new landscape that was no longer Assyria.
A little Post Scriptum: my LJ account has gotten as dusty as my word processor, and I've not been answering reviews. But I have been enjoying them as they come into my inbox! Thanks to everyone who commented, I'll try to get around to those who had questions in the coming weeks.