Monday, May 5, 2014

8 - Black and Red



“It was gone.  The vast expanse of the Hyth-Tao, stretching from near to the western coast all the way east to the Smoke Sea was sundered.  Below me, Synon screamed and drowned. Somewhere to the north, Orb’s Rest burned.  I flew east, fleeing the destruction, seeking our homeland, a mere hour’s flight across the plain. But it was gone.  The world dropped away, and ended.  The sky turned utterly dark.  The sun turned red.  I flew on through mist and vertigo, and heard shrieks and what sounded like crying… or laughter.   I flew for what could only have been an hour or so.  There was no way to tell.  The angry red sun stood directly overhead, never moving.  There was nothing else but blackness in all directions.  Only the sun told me which way was up, which way was down, which way was back.  I finally turned and fled, ignoring the screaming from below, the screaming from above, the screaming coming from my own throat.  I fled, headlong, into blackness, praying that I might find my way back to the world of sanity.  And then, just as suddenly, I found myself back in the world, a cliff side suddenly appearing, the soft grasses rolling below me, the sky turning blue, the sun softening to yellow-white. And there, again, our mountain, what had once been a minor outpost of our religious order far from our ancestral home, now the only remaining refuge of dragon-kind in the world.  And when I landed, I learned that fifty years had passed.”
-          Excerpt: Cataclysm, by Horeb



THEN

DEX

Dear Tara:

I know I was supposed to be writing you letters as we go, but I haven't had the chance to write anything until today. All of the papers and ink you gave me were in my sack, and they threw that in the other wagon and wouldn't let me go fetch it until we had stopped, after hours and hours of moving. Then we camped down for the night, and I was just too tired to do anything but sleep. But now I'm ready to write!

I'm sorry it's so messy. The road is really bumpy!

You won't believe what we ran into on the road. Let me start at the beginning. After Pegason had her men help you back to your house, the entire camp started packing everything up. Tents, pots and pans, flags, armor. It was insane! People running everywhere, and this gigantic man in an apron shouting orders that it seemed like everyone ignored. Then this even more gigantic woman in an apron started shouting orders at HIM! She's the one who threw me in the wagon, and wouldn't let me get out to fetch my pack. Once we were moving, the guards I was riding with said it was too risky to let me go wandering around moving wagons in the dark looking for my stuff. I guess they were right.

We started off moving east, along the north bank of the River Haven. Remember how my father and I sometimes sail upstream? Well, it's a lot smoother ride on a boat than in a wagon! It took me a long time to get comfortable, and the guards kept laughing as I shifted around. Don't worry. They seemed nice enough. They just seemed a little sad, and were looking for any excuse for a laugh.

I was pretty impressed with how quickly everything got packed up and the whole company was ready to move, so I talked to them about it. The guards just laughed again, and one of them said I should spend some time down south with some of the mercenary companies there. He said they made Haven's militia look like green recruits, and that they would have been a mile down the road before Haven's men were finished... well... relieving themselves. The other guards in the wagon laughed at that, but I could tell the militia soldiers walking or riding outside were angry. Oh, I forgot to mention, those soldiers outside the wagon were all wearing Haven's colors. The guards I was sitting with, in the wagon, were the seven guards Pegason had brought with her. I don't think Haven's men and Pegason's guards get along very well. I overheard them saying some things that... well; I don't think it's appropriate to repeat what they were saying.

Anyway, Lady Pegason and our Lord were riding farther ahead, on their horses, I was sitting in a wagon with Pegason's men, and all of Haven's soldiers were walking or riding horses or in other wagons.

That's when we met the man in the red robes. He was walking along the road as we passed him. His robes were a deep crimson red, edged with black. He had a dark red hood and it hid his face. Our wagon swung wide to avoid him, and I could see other men on horses steering away, making warding signs and looking sick. The man was walking with a long staff of wood, and he stopped to look at our long procession of horses and wagons, and as we passed I could see inside his hood and I couldn't help but gasp in surprise. He was wearing a wooden mask over his face, the wood stained a deep red, almost the color of blood. The mask was carved into the face of a laughing demon, or an imp of some kind. The lips were curled in laughter, with sharp teeth, the eyes merry but mischievous. I could only get a glimpse of the eyes behind the mask, darting around from man to man, but the sight of the mask hidden within the cowl of his hood... well... you weren't there. It was scary, ok? I can't explain it. The smile was... wrong somehow. It was a cruel smile. And everyone else was just as afraid as I was. The horsemen were trying to avoid his gaze, and the guardsmen in the wagon with me were gripping the hilts of their swords as if they were about to draw them, and he just stood there, facing us on the side of the road, watching as we rode past.

Lady Pegason rode back, followed by Haven, large and puffing on his own charger. The man in the red robes straightened up, threw wide his arms and shouted.

"Greetings, oh fine Lords! How fare thee this fine evening, and where dost thou travel at such a late hour?"

Haven was visibly pale, and his horse edged backwards and away. Pegason controlled her steed, and her face, but did not answer right away. I heard one of the guards next to me draw in his breath sharply.

Lady Pegason seemed to find her tongue and spoke. "Greetings to you, ancient wanderer! I am better than some, but worse than others, but my complaints are my own. I, and these men with me, travel east, and later south. Will you walk with us this evening?"

The man in the red robes leaned on his staff, as if in thought. "There are many evenings, and many places to be, and this evening is both a unique and a common one. To travel with you tonight might be of no more profit than some other evening. There is much to be done, and I have so little time to spare with lost travelers. Tell me, mighty Lady Pegason, what is it that you seek in the southlands?"

If Lady Pegason was surprised that this man knew her name, she didn't show it. She answered almost immediately. "I seek answers, and aid and the meaning to mysteries I have been privy to. These men come to assist me in my search."

The man in robes straightened. "There are many mysteries in the world, and many men and women have wasted their lives away seeking out their secrets."

Pegason smiled. "I seek not many mysteries, but only those mysteries that have first sought me out, and as you can see, I am not many women, nor many men."

"Some women have died looking for answers to mysteries."

"Some answers are worth dying for, and again, I am not some women."

"No. No, you are Lady Pegason, Lady of... well... not much anymore it seems. I reckon that much is written in the stars."

And the robed man gestured, widely, at the sky. Everyone looked up at the stars. The sisters were overhead, as was Cat and Frog. But he wasn't pointing at constellations. His finger was pointed out, to the side, to the eastern horizon. Out there, rising up in the darkness, was a soft orange glow.

The guards in the wagon with me growled and shifted their weight, and even Haven's men muttered to themselves. Pegason herself was trembling with rage, and it took me a couple of moments to realize that that glow must have been the manor she told us about. Remember what she said about the stoneskins? Pegason's home must have been burning out there, in the distance, somewhere beyond the horizon. Those stoneskins had finally overrun it.

Pegason was silent for several long moments, and then answered by leaping from her saddle and placing her right hand on the hilt of her sword. Her horse skittered back and Haven's men scrambled out of the way.

Pegason stood, straight, staring at the man in the red robes and spoke softly but firmly. "As I have said. Some mysteries have sought me out, and questions too. There are many answers in this world, among them both words and steel."

Now everyone got tense, and I felt a strong hand carefully push me back away from the edge of the wagon. I didn't resist. I softly sank into the center of the wagon, watching from behind Pegason's men, who moved to its edge, coiled and ready to rush forward if needed, hands on their weapons, waiting.

And the man in red laughed.

It was a huge, booming laugh, and I'm not sure how he managed to make such a loud sound from behind that mask. Everyone moved back; even Pegason flinched back a step, though she didn't take his hand off of her sword.

The wooden mask shook with laughter as the man's chuckles roared to the sky. Then he swiveled and locked his gaze on Pegason again. "There may be more than enough of both words and steel for you before this is all over. You offered that I might travel with you? Very well, I shall take you up on your hospitality, and if I cannot help you find the first, perhaps I will lend you the other."

And all of the tension burst out of the caravan, like someone letting out a breath they'd been holding too long. People started chuckling, and soft conversations started up again. I couldn't tell why everyone was suddenly so relaxed and happy, but even Pegason's men slapped me on the shoulders and settled back down next to me in the wagon. Pegason and Haven moved back up towards the front of the column, and the man in the red robes followed them. He was already saying something about needing a horse with grey hair, a white star on its forehead and one black hoof on its right rear leg.

"Of course," smiled Pegason, motioning to some of Haven's guards frantically. "Anything, for our honored guest!"

As they moved off, and the rest of the caravan started getting the horses ready to move again, one of the men with me in the wagon, the same one who'd insulted Haven's men before, rubbed his jaw and nodded.

"That's the way you do it. Never answer them straight, never back down, and if they accept your hospitality they're honor bound not to attack you."

He must have seen how confused I was. "Seriously, kid? You've never heard of the Red Pilgrims?"

I shook my head.

"Really? I suppose it's not surprising... I didn't even think there were any left... but honestly? Not even in a campfire story?"

I shook my head.

"Where have you been?  Well, alright, I've never seen one myself before.  Just heard the stories. But hell, everyone knows that you don't give a straight answer to a Red Pilgrim, and you have to offer them hospitality. Otherwise they'll take your skull and carve another mask out of it."

"YOUR SKULL?!"

"Goddess! Quiet down, kid! He'll hear you! Yes, your skull. Are you trying to piss him off?"

"But... why would he? Why do they...?"

"Who the hell knows? They were... are... an old religious order. They used to all live up north near the old Pedestal, where the Orb fell. There are tons of stories about them, none of which are probably true."

Pegason's other guards gathered around., dramatically whispering and winking at me.

"I heard that Kazath smashed their temple on his way to Hinneus, and they never really recovered after that."

"I heard that they joined with the last lord of Kazio, and they all perished when the city burned."

"Well I heard that they all perished in the cataclysm, because Orb's Rest would not give them shelter."

"Odd. I heard that they descended into blasphemy and atrocity, and were systematically hunted down by Thurn the Damned, Darcana of his time, before his fall from grace, and that he displayed their various body parts along the roadway from Kazio to Eagra as a lesson to all who might worship the dark powers, and that any Red Pilgrim you meet must therefore be either a ghost, or some demon taken human form in mockery of that old and ancient order, and feared for the harbinger of doom that he must obviously be."

All eyes turned, slowly, to look at the man who had just spoken, the man in crimson robes with the blood red mask standing just behind our wagon.

Six guards scrambled backwards over themselves away from the wagon's edge. The seventh fainted dead away.

"Hmph. So much for never backing down. Mind if I ride with you all? They say they won't be able to find a horse for me until we stop at daylight. I'm done with walking."

And he climbed up into our wagon, not waiting for an answer. As he climbed up, he turned his head and glared at me from behind his mask.

"Hello, boy. Seen any good dragons lately?"

Then he stepped forward, lay down in the center of the wagon and promptly fell asleep.

All of us, including the driver of the wagon, just stared at the man, not willing to move. Even when the wagon train started moving again, we all just sat there staring at each other, at the landscape, at anything but the man in the red robes and mask snoring, loudly, beside us.

And that's why I didn't write anything for you until today.

DARSENA

I am a marshmallow, lying blackened in a fire pit.

I’m alive, and this is hilarious, because I will soon be dead.

I am alive because my god is a bastard who wants me to learn from my mistakes.

I am alive because my god is petty and wants me to suffer for my refusals.

I am alive because my god is a pretender and poor substitute who would not understand the duties thrust upon him if his immortal life depended on it.

It is quiet now. The sweet smell of roasted flesh wafts up my nostrils, which are strangely unburned. I raise my eyebrows in amusement, and choke back a shriek of pain.

My face feels as if it is about to split asunder. I hold myself rigid, silent, until the pain fades, at least to merely "unbearable". I'm able to stop screaming in my head, at least.

If you have ever lain on your arm for too long, and it falls asleep, you might understand. It's a struggle against every instinct to hold still while feeling and fire creep back into the limb, and it's a silent agony waiting for the thousand needles to finally fade, for to move is an even greater pain.

I lie not numbed, but burned. Seared. This is so, so much worse than a slumbering arm. And it takes every ounce of my will and my training to keep from moving, for to move is to scream, and to scream is to die.

Yet my will is in tatters, and my training has fled. Only habit and the utter weariness of finality remains.

I am thinking clearly, for the first time in years. Nahhu is gone. That power has fled, and it's like waking up from a dream. The dull weight where it has sat upon my forehead is lifted, and my thoughts are my own.

And they are slow.

Ordered.

Not all jumbled together, running on and on and refusing to follow conventional protocol or narrative styling.

I'm just a simple girl again, not a trained machine of death. I notice doors in my mind, memories and hopes and dreams that I had left closed for ages. Inconvenient things that always got in the way. One of them is labeled Petyr, and it is stained in blood.

I leave them all closed for now. I can see them, at least, in a way I haven't for ages, but I just don't have the time, or the strength, for regrets.

It's just... quiet here. Quiet, and hellish. But it's nice. I can just be myself, at least for the few moments left to me. Just simple Darsé. I'm not killing anyone. No one is watching me, not even a god. I can just lie in endless agony, but that pain is a comfort, a focus for my thoughts. My years of habit are the only thing that are keeping my muscles from twitching, and my stillness is the only thing holding the almost unbearable lances raging across my body from erupting into a full blown nightmare of agony that will finally shred what is left of my soul and cast it into the void.

As long as I lie still, it only hurts a little more than I can bear.

It’s temporary.  I’m already falling into shock.  I know enough, have dealt enough death, to recognize what is happening, will happen, to me.  I’m putting off the inevitable by a matter of minutes, maybe.  Honestly, the only reason I’m still alive at all is because my god thinks he is being clever by taking his time to come and collect me.

I have the urge to straighten up the room before he gets here.  Papers are scattered on the desk by the window, the “almanac” I was left by Average-man, a dossier for my target.  My case with various tins and jars of makeup is sitting there as well, still open.  I ended up only using a small amount for emphasis, giving myself an actual black eye instead, and using one of my knives to apply real cuts to my arms and legs (and back, that took some work) and a small part of me is very pleased that my devotion to authenticity paid off.  I love Ta’lah, even having only known her for ten minutes at most, and I am terrified of what my actions will mean for her and the other lost souls whose only bulwark against hungry monsters was a man who called himself Wyrm.  Even now, though, I think about her inspection of my wounds, and want to pump my fist in triumph.  Who is the best?  I am!

I laugh, but only inwardly. My face betrays no movement. Even so, I feel the corner of my mouth crack, and feel something ooze out from within my ruined face. I bite my tongue to keep in the yelp of pain, and I feel bits of it sloughing off into my mouth.

But neghhru is gone. That power has left me as well, the oldest sister of the four, not just the wind blowing near the goddess but her beating heart itself.  It’s gone, and gone completely, oh blessed goddess (Maiyou, not that other one!) be praised from the seven hells to the highest spheres. The mad dancing vortex that has lived in my heart for ten years has fled, ripping its way out of every pore of my flesh, burning and ruining as it went. It has returned to the fist and chest of the goddess at the Heart of the World, to the one who granted it to me in the first place when I was younger and did not know the price of making such deals. It left me and destroyed me, and so it must be, when something as absurd and impossible as neghhru is touched by mortal hands. A human being is not a vessel worthy of such a fire, and it's only natural that I would be torn asunder by an inferno such as that.

            I knew that it would kill me, but I knew that I was dead.  Maybe I hoped that somehow Lovi would be kind and protect me, or that Gorgus would somehow shield me from the raging fires burning within his lost wife.  As if gods and goddesses care anything for the sufferings of mortals.

Idiotic fate, and the power I was granted, pushes me around in ways I often don't expect. And as much as I despise it when I finally have time to think about it clearly, it makes me do things I'd otherwise choose not to do.  Everything is obvious now, and of course it is, once everything’s over and done with.  I should have locked or barred the door.  I should have waited until after getting settled in with the other women before going, later, to kill Mr. Wyrm in his sleep.  I should have somehow subdued Ta’lah, despite my sympathy and love for her and all of those I saw living under that roof’s protection.  I knew this, I should have thought of this, but the power itself sometimes reaches out and takes a hand in things. I made one stupid oversight, forgetting that Ta’lah was nearby.  The power clouded my judgment, my thoughts, and made me forget what I should have easily remembered, in order to force me into using it.

Or, I was merely stupid.  There is always that possibility.

Either way, the power demanded to be used.  It wanted me to use it so badly.  And now it's left me here, slowly dying.

The bed is hardly singed. The fire raged inside of me, around me, but fled before the room caught ablaze. No one saw or heard anything. The noise from the common room downstairs continues unabated. Singing, laughter, loud conversations. No one is coming to help me. I could not rise, even if I wanted to. I can lie, and wince and try not to scream every time I inadvertently move, or the air moves across my skin in the wrong way, or I simply exist for more than a passing moment and the remains of my nerves remember to remind me that they are still there.

Closing my eyes, I croak out a short prayer to the goddess, and then bite my tongue in half as the flesh on the right side of my face bursts open.

In a moment of brilliant pain I dare to notice that my mouth fails to fill up with blood. I manage, just barely, to spit out the dried and blackened hunk of tongue from my mouth, feeling new fissures rip open across my face as I do so.

I don't have a mirror, but I can imagine that my face is as lovely a shade of black-red as that lump of meat I just expelled.

The pain in my mouth is nothing compared to the rest.

I silently rage, trembling as little as I dare, feeling every tongue of fire as if it still licked my flesh.

I wake up.

I must have passed out for a moment. My eyes flutter open. It feels as if someone has poured sand into them.

Breathing is... more difficult than before. My lungs are on fire. Not literally, at least not anymore. I just can't... get enough air to keep... thinking so hard.

I think they are filling up with something. Probably blood. That would explain it. That, and having been on fire.

Those few short words I whispered to Maiyou earlier winded me. My vision is still dim, and it is long endless minutes until my head clears. Mostly. The room is still spinning, just more slowly now. There's just not enough air in here, especially lying like this, and I can't move to a more comfortable position. I think the muscles of my arms and legs are mostly gone. I don't move my head to confirm the sight of exposed bone poking through blackened skin. I don't want to pass out again, or worse, retch.

Long endless minutes.  Where in the hell is he?  Now I’m angry.  Gorgus’ prize, left to simmer on the stove until fully burned and inedible.  See if I leave him a tip.

I breathe with ruined lungs, and try not to choke. With a supreme effort, I manage to tilt my head slightly so I am looking towards the door.

The agony is unbearable, but I do not cry out. I will not cry out.

He’ll be here soon.  I want to look death in the eyes when he comes to claim me.

MEDROS

The sun dawns on the third day, and my feet are lead.

We have moved north as best as we could, watching the sun and using it as a guide during the day, and making our best guess at night. The daywind from the east has grown stronger, and that can only mean we are moving closer to the Chasm. I'd rather stay far from its edge, but several times now we have heard the horns, or seen the glows of the fires at night, and each time we have felt ourselves pressed eastward. We still move north as much as we can, but we are being pinned in on three sides.

At night, the daywind fades, and the smoke from constant fires hangs low, undisturbed and clouds the stars. In the gloom, the lights of distant fires have glowed throughout the night, seeming safely distant one moment, and horrifyingly close the next. At night, without moon or stars to reveal us, we can run upright, resting our aching backs, if not our legs. We've moved as safely and as quickly as we dared, covering more distance at night, but never sure if we are truly heading in the right direction. Only in one direction did no fires glow, and that must be east, because east is the end of the world.

With dawn, the wind starts again, as it always does on the Hyth-Tao, and the clouds peel back to reveal the blindingly blue sky. Wordlessly, South and Radzik and I would resume our torturous crouches, moving as best as we could bent almost to the ground. Horns, shouting voices and the tramp of feet alerted us more than once to the presence of roving bands of Kyzanthe, and we turned aside before they might stumble upon us. The sun told us which way we were going, and always, we found ourselves moving east. We took turns leading and watching for signs of danger ahead, one alert, the other two somehow managing to doze even while running mindlessly across the miles, north but mostly east.

And now it is another day. Another day without food, and sleep, and still my body plods onwards more through sheer habit. Other men, stronger men, fell dead after only a day on the trail with the Kyzanthe, and I watched their corpses defiled. How am I still going, me, hardly a warrior except in times of need, barely a farmer because several years of prosperous harvest in a row allowed me to hire hands to do most of the work for me?

Those men I hired are now dead, miles and miles away in the ruins of what used to be my village.

Dead like me?  I am dead. It must be so. Kal'Barre Ro Mylha Dur Medrosa died in battle, and I am his spirit, and I roam this world endlessly with the ghosts of these others who somehow failed to please the gods. We are unworthy of the higher spheres, and the vaults below sneer at us. Truly, I am dead, and I am only Medros. This name is all that I am worthy of. My old name and my life are behind with my village and wife and friends, and all that remains are the monsters who must hound us forever until the day the world is renewed. To lie down and die would be a mercy, a rest at last.

No, I run, and I find the strength to continue despite my screaming belly and shrieking back, and this is my punishment. There is no rest for us.

I barrel into South who is leading and has stopped. We tumble into a heap and Radzik comes up suddenly, his hand stifling my exhaled curse before I can even voice it. He stares into my eyes questioningly until I nod, and only then does he remove his hand, and smoothly move off of us. I note that he stays crouched low to the ground as he does so.

South glares at me long enough to make me uncomfortable before disentangling herself and crawling aside. She nods to Radzik, then to me. She motions to what must be north, based on the position of the sun. It is blurred by the remnants of the evening's haze, but it's definitely there, far off to our right and slowly climbing. She motions north again, and then draws a line across her throat.

Radzik and I both hear the horn at the same time, and the clashing of armor. They're close.

Very slowly, South points towards the rising sun. East, even farther towards the Chasm. My stomach sinks deep into my belly, but I nod, more vigorously when South looks at me questioningly.

I can hear voices now, the guttural growls of the Kyzanthe laughing and talking to each other in their own tongue. They're coming closer, but I don't think they've seen us yet. South begins crawling away, slowly and silently. Radzik and I follow, as quietly as we can, on all fours, low to the ground. We move towards the sun, away from, I think and hope, hostile eyes.

The voices grow louder, and I can hear the stamping of feet from behind us. They're passing close, and none of us dares to turn to see if they're merely a random patrol or have actually caught our trail and are following us. The grass is high here, and we should be out of sight, but I can't help but feel a prickling along my spine. At any moment, I expect to feel an arrow or blade between my shoulders.


From somewhere behind and far too close, the horn gives off two short blasts and then one long one. South turns towards us, the unspoken question on her face. I look back at Radzik who shrugs as best as he can on all fours. I shrug back towards South. None of us move but the sound of voices and the tramping of feet seem to quiet somewhat. They seem to be moving off, further to the west. We might be able to continue north if we wait here for a few minutes longer.

As if in answer to my thoughts, a flock of grass swallows bursts into flight mere feet away from where we are crouching. They scatter into the sky from within the grass, shrieking their obnoxious call and easily visible for miles around.


The marching sounds from behind us stop as the birds disperse, and I hear at least two or three voices raised in an obvious question. South's eyes are very wide and she only pauses for a moment before bolting. Radzik is off after her and I don't have time to croak out a warning or command to stay put before they're both off, running upright and sprinting as if every Kyzanthe in the north were after them.

Which is probably true.

Before I even realize what I've done, I've caught up with them and I can hear the shouts and horn blasts from behind as the party of Kyzanthe notice three humans silhouetted against the rising sun. I hear swords drawn, and the tramping of running feet, but I don't dare to look back. We cannot fight, and there is no place to hide, not when we've already been spotted.

My mind is racing, and I find that I'm running through all sorts of possibilities. They are wearing heavy armor, and we are not. We should be faster. But we have been running for three days without food or water, or rest. They can outlast us. They are running into the blinding glare of the sun… but so are we.

There is only one thing that matters. Their lives are not in mortal peril. Ours are.

Without even meaning to, I outpace Radzik, then South, and they likewise pick up speed. I can still hear the shouts from behind us, but behind us is where they are, at least for now. I start to wonder if we can outrun them.

And the world ends.

With a suddenness that sets my hair on end, the blue sky in front of me turns suddenly grey. The ground drops off at a sheer cliff over swirling mists. I skid to a halt, and Radzik's arm snakes out from behind and holds me steady. South comes up behind, breathing heavily and coughing. She's staring into the distance, face pale, and I follow her gaze off into infinity.

There is nothing out there.

The grass suddenly gives way to bare rock mere feet from the edge of the cliff, and then it drops away into nothing. Cold, grey, nothing. Clouds and mist and what looks like smoke flow down there, and out there in the distance there is no other side.

The Chasm at the end of the world. The wound where the world was split, and half of it simply fell away. The boundary of creation. The mists behind which sleep the realms of gods and spirits where a man may not tread lest he die.

That, and a bottomless chasm yawning beneath my feet. And the sun, standing suddenly directly overhead, red in a sky of pure black.

I back away, shaking my head, my legs turning to jelly and falling out from under me as my mind gives way to some deep and primal fear. Radzik is watching me with pity, and motions to South to hold still when she tries to reach for me. I'm not paying attention. My gaze is locked on the grey swirling nothingness looming to the sky and down to hell itself.

Radzik kneels before me, blocking my view of the abyss. "Medros. Medros. Come back. It's the Chasm. Everyone falls to fear when they first see it. This is normal. Come back, we have to move."

I look up at him, and it takes me several long seconds to recognize him.

The blast of a Kyzanthe hunting horn awakens me from my stupor.

We turn back to the west, and the sun is back in the blue sky with grassy plain as far as the eye can see. I have to spend a moment looking back and forth, marveling at the change in the sky depending on which way I am facing. I turn away, and the world is whole, and all is right. The sun shines behind me; I can feel its heat upon my back, rising in a blue sky, and even the sound of marching Kyzanthe is a thing of natural wonder. Turn around, and the world turns grey, the sky is dark and infinite, the sun is red and piercing and the sounds of pursuit cease, overwhelmed by a low throbbing that sounds like the heartbeat of the very world.

It's like we are standing in a doorway. On one side is the world we knew. Beyond it is a place we were never meant to see.

I spin about, one way, and then another and I let out a shout of laughter at the wonder of the changing landscape while South and Radzik talk among themselves.

"He's Chasm mad. We don't have time to wait for it to pass."

"He is touched by the gods. We need him to lead us."

"Damnit, I don't like the idea of leaving him either, but I can't snap him out of this myself."

"Try. I go to look for our pursuers."

Radzik is here again, snapping his fingers in my face and clapping his hands. "Medros! Listen! The enemy is coming! We have to flee. We cannot stay here!"

South runs up again. "A few minutes, at the most. They're walking, casually, and LAUGHING. They know we have no place to go."

"Come on Medros. We have to go. NOW."

South frowns. "Oh, for heaven's sake."

And she grabs me by the shoulders and kisses me full on the lips. Then she steps back, rocks backwards on the balls of her feet, and her fist slams into my face, flooring me in shock and pain.

I feel several pieces of the world fall heavily into place with a dull thud, and I'm suddenly aware that I'm sprawled on the edge of creation with two fugitives looking down at me and an army of Kyzanthe at our heels.

South is looking at me thoughtfully. "Is that sufficient, prophet?"

I stammer out something that satisfies the two of them, and they move to the edge of the Chasm and look down. I gasp, even though I'm still crouched safely several feet away.

Radzik looks around. "We can't go north or south. They can see us, and they'll just run us down."

South grabs up a pebble and holds it over the edge. She releases it, and it makes no sound. "So... down?"

"Have you ever been?"

"I did not think anyone had been."

"My people go… used to go down, but not more than a few hundred feet. Beyond that things change, and I'd rather face the Kyzanthe than some of the things down there. And even the Kyzanthe can climb down that far if they want to. They'll just follow us."

"Climbing men cannot use swords. We are equal. We go down."

Radzik looks at her, for a moment, and then they both look over to me.

Oh no, they have got to be kidding.

I say as much.

"It's the only way, Medros. Come, let me show you. You can use the rocks as handholds, and we can move down until we reach a landing. Then we might be able to outmaneuver the Kyzanthe and escape."

I shake my head, and back away. "I am not climbing down the gods forsaken Chasm! I don't care what your village does for fun, this is beyond madness. This... it's blasphemy!"

I look to South, but she has her eyes closed, whispering the Appeal to Maiyou. Radzik is watching me, hand outstretched.

And very close by now, a horn sounds. Radzik shakes his head, and lowers himself over the edge with what can only be a practiced grace.

South opens her eyes, sees where he's gone, shrugs and follows. She looks at me for a long moment before disappearing from view. “We go first. In case you fall.”

That does not help.

I stare at the bare cliff for a moment, and then turn to the west, and back towards the Chasm at the end of the very world.

"Damn it. Damn you. Damn all Kyzanthe. Damn this Chasm. Damn everything."

And trembling to the deepest muscles of my body, I grip the rocks, lower myself over the edge, and follow Radzik and South downwards into the swirling abyss.

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