Beneath the Crimson Sky, Part I
The cave entrance loomed before him, a cold, dark blight in the icy mountainside. His feet slipped on the narrow ledge and Dusty moved into the darkness as quickly as the slippery surface allowed.
There was no visible light source but Dusty realized he could just make out the smooth walls of the cave on either side as he slowly made his way farther into the cavern, hands outstretched and teeth gritted, his breathing coming in shallow gasps. Several times he almost lost his balance, arms flailing wildly, but he regained his footing every time, stubbornly refusing to allow himself to fall.
Dusty inched forward ever more slowly as the passageway narrowed. Whatever light had seemed to illuminate the way forward seemed to dim and the passage grew darker and darker before him. Still, he pressed on, thoughts of turning back the way he came never crossing his mind.
All at once, the passageway opened into an enormous circular space. Jagged shapes rose up on all sides, strange figures that seemed to reach out from the frigid surface of the crystalline rock walls. A faintly bluish glow seemed to emanate from the walls themselves and Dusty beheld his surroundings in stunned silence for several moments.
Dusty drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, sending vaporous tendrils into the frigid cavern. The eerie beauty of the ice cave threatened to lull him into an almost meditative state and Dusty shook his head slightly as he forced his thoughts back to the task at hand. He took several steps toward the center of the cavern, unsure as to how to proceed in the utter stillness that surrounded him.
“Who are you?”
The voice was low and strangely melodic, and Dusty turned abruptly toward what looked like a hallway cut into the rock face to his left. As his eyes grew accustomed to the strange, blue light, Dusty realized that he could see at least six black holes in the icy rock around him, entrances to corridors leading into the unknown depths of the mountain in which the cavern lay. He could only make out the silhouette of a figure standing at the first tunnel’s entrance, and Dusty squinted at the shape that almost seemed to shimmer and blend into the ice wall, shifting and changing as it phased in and out of sight.
“My name is Dusty Grein.” His voice seemed somehow small and insignificant in the vastness of the ice cave.
The shape pulsed oddly, all at once blurring like a reflection in the rippling surface of an opaque pool of water, before coalescing into an almost painfully distinct form, the form of a young woman. Dusty watched, his heart pounding, as she moved swiftly into the center of the room to face him. From out of the folds of the black cloak appeared two snow white hands that reached up to push back the cowl. Long dark hair spilled out over her shoulders and she fixed her coal-black eyes squarely on Dusty’s face.
“Why are you here?”
Dusty almost shrank back from the woman before him but managed to maintain his composure, forcing himself to match her unyielding gaze. Something about her filled him with unease and it was several moments before he could answer her question.
“I... I’m looking for Onyx City.”
The woman nodded slightly, an almost imperceptible smile playing at the corner of her lips. “Are you?” she whispered.
Dusty returned her nod, his confidence wavering. A chill ran down his back, a chill originating not from the frozen rocks around him, but from some primal instinct deep within his own mind.
Show no weakness. The words rang in his mind unbidden, speaking not in the voice of his mind but in tones that seemed strange, alien, as though the thought was not his own.
A smile slowly spread across the woman’s face like frost on a window glass. Her eyes narrowed as she appeared to consider Dusty’s words carefully before responding.
“I am Onyx City,” she said finally.
Relieved even in the midst of his disquiet, Dusty drew in a deep, ragged breath. “They told me I would find you here.”
“Yes. I mean, you know, they.” Dusty turned his head to the cavern’s ceiling, bedecked with giant icicles that seemed to point all over in impossible directions, suddenly desperate for relief from Onyx City’s penetrating stare.
Onyx City murmured something under her breath. She took a careful step closer to Dusty, her cloak swirling inexplicably around her feet in the still air of the ice cave. “So they told you about me. And for what reason might they have done such a thing?”
Dusty swallowed hard and looked back to Onyx City. “I need to find the artifact.”
The glow of the blue cavern light seemed to intensify for a split second as Dusty spoke the words and he winced as though struck, taking a step away from Onyx City before the action registered in his own awareness.
“The artifact.” Onyx City sighed deeply as she spoke, lowering her gaze for the first time since appearing from the tunnel. “Do you truly know what that would entail? Do you know what you would have to do, where you would have to go, to find it?”
“I do,” Dusty replied softly. “I need to go to the other side.”
“Not just to the other side.” A scornful note entered her voice.
Dusty’s brow furrowed and he turned away from the coldness of the woman’s visage, rubbing his face with one freezing hand as he struggled to make sense of her words.
“Ah, so you are not quite so prepared as you thought. You enter my realm uninvited, speak so brazenly of seeking the artifact, and yet do not fully understand the true nature of your own request.” Laughter lurked beneath Onyx City’s words that twisted and floated around the ice cave as a snowflake borne on a winter breeze.
All at once, Dusty felt his chest tightening, his head pounding in frustration. He spun around to face Onyx City, who now stood only so many feet away. “Are you going to help me or not?” he asked, not bothering to restrain his exasperation. “I don’t have time for lectures, or your riddles. I just need to know if you’ll help me or, if not... I’ll find another way.”
Onyx City’s expression darkened, the icy formations along the cave walls glinting in her coal-black eyes. “There is no other way,” she said matter-of-factly before pressing her lips tightly together as she considered Dusty’s outburst. “Understand that it matters not to me whether you find that which you seek, or whether you are lost forever among the twisted alleys and abominable spires of the other world. But I can see that you are sincere in your request, though your understanding of what lies ahead is clearly deficient.” She sighed again and a cunning gleam flickered through her eyes.
Dusty remained silent, inwardly seething at the woman who, for the moment, had become the decider of the direction his journey must take.
“I will help you.” With those words, Onyx City turned and started for the tunnel from which she came. “Follow me,” she called back over her shoulder as she disappeared down the passageway.
The cavern floor was slippery and Dusty had a hard time keeping up with Onyx City, who seemed to glide easily over the icy surface. The passage was dark but almost completely straight, although Dusty perceived a slight downward slope, and he remarked inwardly that they must be heading ever closer to the center of the mountain.
The corridor opened up into a small, bright chamber of white ice. The far wall appeared to be engraved with an intricate pattern of concentric circles and strange runes that appeared somehow disturbing to the senses. Onyx City stopped in the middle of the room and turned, motioning for Dusty to remain where he stood.
“You say you seek the artifact. To find it one must travel to the Onyx City. There is but one portal to the city in this world, and that portal is here.”
“Wait a minute, I thought you are Onyx City.”
A laugh, crisp and cold as a river in winter, escaped her throat. “Yes, well, that name is as good as any, I suppose.”
“So that’s not your name?”
Onyx City narrowed her eyes at Dusty. “No, it is not my true name.”
“Then who are you exactly?”
Onyx City raised a hand to silence Dusty before he could press her further. “That is not important. It has been a long time, a very long time, and I suppose they no longer remember. The Onyx City is a place of mystery and of terrors unknown. Of all the worlds on the other side, it is the most feared and the one shunned the most by travelers.” She paused meaningfully before continuing. “I am the guardian of this place, this doorway to the city on the other side of this world. My true name was once known by all but, over time, I have become nothing more than an idea, forever joined with that fearsome place of which no one dares speak. For now, that is all you need to know.
“But back to the matter at hand. To reach the Onyx City, you must enter through this gate,” she continued, gesturing behind her with one hand as she spoke. “I, and I alone, can open this gate, and know that it can only be opened from this side.”
“How do I get back?” Dusty asked nervously, glancing behind Onyx City at the strange markings on the wall at her back.
Onyx City raised one arm slowly, one snow white finger pointing toward the passageway.
A sudden gust of wind blew past Dusty’s head and he flinched, drawing back as a large raven burst into the room from the darkness. It circled three times before landing on a large, irregularly shaped block of ice in the corner of the room where it shook itself, ruffling its glistening black feathers before fixing Dusty with an all-too-human stare.
“The raven can pass freely through the barrier. When you are ready, call out to him and I will open the gate.”
Dusty looked quizzically at Onyx City. Call him? he thought to himself. How?
Onyx City’s lip curled in a sneer and she shook her head derisively as though hearing Dusty’s unspoken thought. “When the time comes, you will call,” she snarled through gritted teeth.”
The sense of uneasiness that had seemed to pervade their entire exchange up to that point intensified, and Dusty waited, wary of Onyx City’s impatience and the apparent changeability of her nature.
“To find the artifact, seek out the Tall One. He dwells somewhere on the dark side of the Onyx City.”
“Somewhere? Where? How do I find him?”
Onyx City glared at Dusty, clearly irritated at his eagerness. “Listen. And listen well, for what I tell you I will say only once. I do not know where the Tall One dwells. He can only be seen by those who wish to see him, and I have never had reason to seek his presence. No one from this world has ever laid eyes upon him and I cannot tell you exactly what path will lead you to him.
“There is a paladin who lives on the west side of the Onyx City. He is known only as the Western Paladin. He might be able to help you.”
“Might?” Dusty could not resist interrupting.
“It is more than you have a right to expect. The Onyx City is a dangerous place and those who reside there have no interest in your mortal concerns. Find the paladin, and you might persuade him to help you in your quest. There is a chance, and that is the best I, or anyone, can offer.”
Dusty nodded slowly. Though Onyx City’s tone was harsh, deep down he knew she was right.
“Once you step through the gate, the rules of this world will no longer apply,” Onyx City continued, turning away from Dusty as she spoke. She walked slowly over to the runed portal and reached out with both hands. “There will be no landmarks to tell you in which direction you are traveling.”
Two of the strange runes were carved in the center of the circular portal, separate from the patterns that adorned the outer rings of the door. Onyx City gently pressed her two palms against the central runes and Dusty watched as the carved designs turned a deep, glowing blue.
“In the center of the city there is a tower. Go to it. Only from the tower can your bearings be discerned. From the tower, travel due west until you reach a glade of black flowers. The Western Paladin resides on the far side of the glade. Be warned that you must get from the tower to the glade by nightfall as landmarks change every night in the Onyx City. The journey will be dangerous. I cannot guarantee that you will be able to make it to the Tall One, even should the Western Paladin deign to help you, nor can I tell you whether you might successfully obtain the artifact. Even if you are successful, you must make it back to the gate in order to re-enter this world. There is a chance, a very good chance, that you will be lost or killed on the other side. That is the reality of what you face on this quest.
“But, if you are ready, I will open the gate.” Onyx City turned her head to one side, speaking over her shoulder at Dusty as the door’s runed patterns glowed even brighter.
Dusty took a deep breath and approached the portal, shaken, but not deterred, by Onyx City’s words. “I’m ready.”
Onyx City raised her head as if beseeching the Heavens, eyes closed and lips parted. Her hair cascaded down her back and turned somehow luminous, the cloak seeming to harden, tightening around her body and shimmering as a precious gem in the ethereal light.
“Brenna. Myrkyr. Hljota opnask.”
The glow of the intricate carvings intensified until Dusty had no choice but to turn away, shielding his face with one hand. His feet slipped out from under him as a low rumbling assailed his ears, and he fell to one knee as the sound grew louder and louder to an almost unbearable point. He felt all awareness of the chamber around him disappear, his very being seeming to dissipate like a wisp of smoke in a gale, and he cried out as he felt himself falling, reaching out with both hands and grasping at nothing, his eyes blinded by a sudden painful flash of brilliant blue light.
A split second later, the light disappeared and all was silent. Dusty gasped at the realization that he was standing as perfectly still and upright behind Onyx City as before she spoke the mysterious words. Where the carved door had been, there was now only a grayish mist, and Dusty suddenly dreaded walking through to whatever lay beyond the portal.
“How...?” he began before trailing off, uncertain as to whether he should ask any more questions. “How long might this journey take?” Dusty finally asked. “Will you...?”
Onyx City cut him off with a glance. “Time as you know it has no meaning on the other side. It could take hours or days.” She shrugged dismissively. “Or it could be ten thousand years. But, if you make it back, I will be here. As I have always been. As will he,” she continued, gesturing at the raven who sat preening importantly from his seat of ice.
“Ten thousand years?” Dusty muttered under his breath. “I guess I’d better get going then.” He stepped up to the swirling mist, steeling himself for whatever lay ahead.
“One more thing.” Onyx City spoke out suddenly, reaching out and grasping Dusty’s forearm, which turned instantly numb at her touch. “Neither this world nor the one beyond the gate may be sacrificed for the sake of the other.”
“Remember my words. There are many worlds on the other side and, to them, this one is as strange as the Onyx City will seem to you. Each world exists, in part, because of the presence of every other world. If one falls, so, in turn, shall every other.” Onyx City fixed Dusty with a steady gaze, the undulating mist reflected as a rush of storm clouds in her coal-black eyes.
“What? Why are you telling me this?” Dusty asked as he tried to pull his arm from Onyx City’s vise-like grip.
“Just remember.” Onyx City squeezed Dusty’s arm once, hard, the numbing cold of her touch dissipating the second she released him. She beckoned to the raven before walking briskly toward the corridor leading back to the central cavern. “Remember all that I have told you.” At the entrance to the passageway, she stopped and turned back, the raven flying swiftly over her head and out of sight. “Good luck, Dusty Grein. Perhaps we will even meet again.” With those words, Onyx City disappeared into the darkness.
Dusty turned back to the portal, relieved in spite of himself that the enigmatic woman was gone. The finality of the situation hit all at once as he realized a choice had been made, one that would take him irrevocably into a world for which he was utterly unprepared, and there was no turning back.
Without a backward glance, Dusty stepped forth into the mist.
Beneath the Crimson Sky, Part II
The Onyx City was a sprawling metropolis of glistening black structures, each bearing some resemblance to a familiar shape or form, only altered in some indescribable way. Wavering lines that met at impossible angles assailed Dusty’s vision and he gasped, shutting his eyes against the grotesque horror of the twisted distortion that was the world on this side of the gate. After several minutes of careful glances, his senses began to adjust, and he started to recognize patterns in the madness which his eyes could follow, allowing him to take a cautious step away from the spot on which he appeared upon stepping out of his own world.
Much to Dusty’s surprise, the sky of the Onyx City was a deep red that almost blended into the rusty sand that covered the ground as far as he could see up to the horizon. Faintly pinkish clouds drifted like candy-colored smoke, their movements oddly unmethodical, with no two bursts of wispy vapor flitting in the same direction at the same time. There was nothing that he could identify as a plant in his direct vicinity, although Dusty wondered if the odd clump of onyx sticks that stuck out of the red sand to his left might be what passed for vegetation in this world.
Impatient as he was to start for the tower, Dusty knew it would be unwise to leave without somehow marking the gateway. Looking over one shoulder, he saw an immense black mountain rising up behind him and realized he must have, in effect, walked out of the mountainside. Evidently the gateway was hidden in a mountain face in this world as well, and Dusty took the knife from his belt and scratched a large X in the onyx rock face approximately at the point where he stood upon appearing in the city.
Turning back to the Onyx City, Dusty scanned the scene before him for some sign of the tower. Squinting his eyes brought the strange lines of the structures into something approaching a coherent focus, and Dusty was able to discern a long, narrow column that rose above the gleaming black forms in the center of the city. No other buildings approached the height of the column and Dusty felt sure it must be the tower from which he would derive the direction of the Western Paladin’s realm.
Dusty walked forward toward the city, casting his eyes toward the crimson sky, carefully sheathing his knife as he tried to guess how much daylight might be left in this most alien world. The sun, a shimmering burgundy orb that cast an incongruously orange light over the landscape, appeared to be almost directly overhead, but Dusty was unwilling to trust his natural assumption that sunset was still a number of hours away. He quickened his pace, eager on the one hand to get to the tower and the mysterious paladin beyond, but also suddenly anxious to leave the unprotected expanse of red sand that lay outside the perimeter of the city.
As he neared the Onyx City, the shining buildings seemed to grow more luminous and the disconcerting shifting of lines and shadows turned somehow familiar to Dusty’s sensibilities. He marveled at the structures that suddenly appeared not just natural, but desirable, as though there could be no other form but that which he now beheld, a great mass of elaborately gabled rooftops, elegantly carved pillars, and grandly intertwining walkways connecting huge complexes, the smallest of which must have stood at least fifteen storeys tall.
The closest path into the city appeared to lead across a bridge of muted black, under which ran a stream that appeared to pulse more than flow, the water a dark, dusky green that reminded Dusty of the tops of the evergreens that dotted his homeland.
Dusty was taken aback by the voice that spoke out of nowhere, and he froze, one foot poised in mid-air over the bridge that would carry him into the Onyx City.
“Hello,” the voice repeated. The tone was feminine, yet flat, the voice of someone speaking with no intention or meaning, for no reason other than to see how it might sound.
“Hello?” Dusty tried to make his voice sound confident and forceful, but all that came out was a hesitant whisper.
“Hello.” The voice repeated, the tone now relieved, as though the first meaningless attempt at speech had quite unexpectedly yielded results.
Dusty shrank away from the bridge suddenly. “Ah!” he cried out, any attempt to maintain his composure forgotten as he noticed the figure of a woman standing on the bridge before him, her pale, faintly yellowish skin and flimsy, bright white gown contrasting sharply with the black of the city behind her.
“Hello. Hello, hello.” The woman tilted her head oddly from side to side as she spoke, approaching Dusty with a halting, disjointed gait that seemed to somehow defy the ethereal flow of the gown that fluttered about her.
“Uh...,” Dusty trailed off, unsure of how to proceed. An almost painful awareness of the warning of the dangers of the Onyx City screamed in the voice of his memory. “Can I help you with something?” he finally asked, desperately hoping for a negative response.
The woman took two more jerky steps toward Dusty, lifting her arms to either side, palms outward, in a bizarre gesture that might have been a shrug. “Help.” She repeated the word, the sound turning unnatural as it rolled past her lips. “Help. Can I help you. With something.”
Dusty looked away from the woman, disgusted at his own hesitance, inwardly berating himself for wasting time fearing the strange woman, time he was sure he could not spare. She had made no actual threat, and he could not explain even to himself why her attitude, grotesque though it was, should bother him so, especially with the artifact calling out to him from its hiding place somewhere deep within the city.
With a deep breath, Dusty addressed the woman firmly. “I don’t need help. If you do, I suggest you find someone else who can assist you with whatever you need. I’m afraid I must be going now.” With those words, Dusty strode purposefully forward, his footfalls ringing loudly on the onyx surface of the bridge, and he forced himself not to look at the woman as he passed.
Dusty heard the woman’s strained whisper but stubbornly refused to turn back.
The sudden high-pitched shriek of the woman tore into Dusty’s mind, and he spun around in time to see her stumble toward him, heaving herself in a confused jumble of frantically flailing limbs.
“Get away!” In an instant the knife was in Dusty’s hand, and he stood ready as the woman came closer and closer, her head drifting to one shoulder as she fixed him with a sideways stare.
“Stop right there! I don’t want to hurt you but I will if you make me!” Dusty raised the knife in preparation to strike.
The woman suddenly stopped, her arms falling limply to her sides. She swayed slightly, her neck stretched noticeably as her head twitched even farther until her ear almost touched her shoulder.
“No. Going now. Stay.”
The thick, flat voice began to grate on Dusty’s nerves and he grew suddenly angry in spite of his shock at what he was seeing. “What? No! I mean...,” he trailed off, lost for words. “What’s your problem? Who are you anyway?”
The woman’s eyes grew dull and her skin seemed to turn gray in an instant. “Just. A. Person. Just. A person. Just a person. Justaperson. Justaperson, justaperson, justaperson, justaperson...”
Dusty jammed the knife back in its sheath and backed away, stumbling as his foot slipped on the slick polished onyx that was the road surface, catching himself just before he fell to the ground, and he realized he was no longer standing on the bridge. Turning quickly, he moved as fast as he could into the street, twisting around for one fast glance over his shoulder.
The woman had moved to the side of the bridge, her twitching arms raised above her head. Dusty watched in horror as, in one swift movement, she suddenly dove into the thick, green water below.
Dusty hurried back to the bridge and peered carefully over the edge. The woman’s face surfaced suddenly, her eyes flashing as her lips parted, sending a dreadful laugh floating up the bank to where Dusty stood.
“Just a person!” she shouted between peals of raucous laughter. “Iamjustaperson!” With those words, the woman dove, her head and shoulders vanishing into the sludge.
Dusty shuddered as he glimpsed a glittering flash of black as her back arched into the water. Where her legs should have been, Dusty could see a long, serpentine tail, covered with black, jewel-like scales that shimmered in the orange light.
Turning back to the road, Dusty forced the image out of his mind. Glancing up at the sky, he noticed that the sun had moved several degrees during the time when he had been detained on the bridge. A deep feeling of unease rose within him and Dusty quickly started walking down the smooth, black road leading from the bridge into depths of the Onyx City.
There was no point guessing how long he might have spent walking on that shiny, onyx road, but Dusty nonetheless could not help feeling that hours must be passing while he remained almost as far from the center of the city as when he began.
The streets of the Onyx City were of the smoothest, darkest onyx, polished to such a high sheen that more than once Dusty was forced to shield his eyes from the glint of the dusky sunlight on the glistening surface. Though he felt he was, in some sense, walking in a straight line, the top of the tower remaining visible above the rooftops almost directly in front of him, the road itself seemed to curve inexplicably at various points, his eyes registering bends and twists that did not actually divert his feet from the path he steadily forged ahead. The city was eerily silent and, by all appearances, surprisingly empty, though Dusty did see three tall robed figures emerge from an enormous domed building to his right and a squat, brownish homunculus that loped its way across the street, glancing warily at Dusty as it passed, to disappear into what looked like a dark, windowless theater.
Weary of walking and growing increasingly nervous without anything to mark the passage of time, Dusty stopped, glaring at the top of the tower’s spire that seemed to peer smugly from its place in the elusive center of the Onyx City. His fingers danced nervously over the hilt of his knife and he glanced this way and that, suddenly overcome by the all too familiar feeling of being watched.
From somewhere to his right, Dusty heard the unmistakable sound of a footfall. He spun toward the noise, straining his eyes to see into the darkness of the onyx alley that stretched before him. Suddenly, a voice rang out from out of the shadows that stopped Dusty in his tracks.
“Dad, it’s him!”
It was the voice of a young girl. Even in those three words, Dusty recognized the characteristics of his own dialect, the vernacular not of this world, but his own.
“Hello? Who’s there?” Dusty called cautiously into the alley.
The pace of the footsteps quickened, stopping just short of the street. Dusty could make out the shape of a girl standing just out of reach of the sunlight. A larger form appeared behind her, visible only as a featureless mass peering out of the darkness.
“You’re looking for the Western Paladin, aren’t you?” the girl asked eagerly as she stepped into the street. She looked to be about fifteen or sixteen, with bright emerald green eyes and long, blonde hair pulled back in a high ponytail. Her jeans, high top sneakers, and hooded sweatshirt appeared foreign and out of place among the glistening black stone that was everywhere and everything in the Onyx City, and she carried a small, army green knapsack on her back.
Dusty did not answer the girl’s question immediately. The sight of the tall, skinny girl with the bright green eyes sent an ache through his heart and his thoughts turned back to the world he had left behind, the house in the country from which he had walked away, telling himself he would one day return, even while knowing he could never again bring himself to set eyes upon it.
“Wait a minute,” a deep voice resounded into the street. “Give the guy some room.” A tall man carrying a similar knapsack over a black softshell jacket emerged from the alley.
“Uh, who are you guys?” Dusty asked, forcing his mind back to the present.
“The name’s Paul. Paul D. Chambers,” the man replied, extending his hand. “This is my daughter, Allyson.”
Dusty reached out slowly and shook the proffered hand, saying a silent prayer that the man would not morph into some vaguely humanoid abomination as he did so. “Pleased to meet you,” he muttered, more out of habit than any genuine feeling. He shifted restlessly from one foot to the other and glanced upward toward the top of the tower in the distance.
“Dad, come on! We have to get going, there’s not much time.”
“Patience, Ally. There’s always time enough for common courtesy.” Paul smiled broadly and turned back to Dusty. “Although she’s absolutely right, of course. Well, let’s get down to business. I couldn’t help but notice you looking at the tower.”
Dusty gaped at the man standing before him. “Look, I don’t want to be rude but just what the hell do you think you’re doing? I can’t stand here and exchange witty banter with you right now, I have somewhere I need to be.” Dusty cast his eyes up to the steadily darkening sky as he spoke.
“Ah, well, as long as you don’t want to be rude.” Paul laughed heartily before turning suddenly serious. “The truth is, I am aware that you are on some kind of, shall we say, quest and that time is of the essence right now. That’s why I’m here – why we’re here,” he continued, gesturing at his daughter.
“What? Just how do you know so much about me?”
Both men turned to Allyson as she cried out, pressing her hand to her forehead as she staggered, grabbing her father’s arm for support.
“What is it, honey?” Paul’s tone was more curious than concerned, and Dusty glanced at him in confusion before turning back to the girl, pushing away the image of another girl standing in the middle of a bright garden path that floated unbidden through his mind as he beheld her.
“Give me a minute...” Allyson steadied herself and straightened, her eyes shut tight, her head jerking minutely from side to side as though watching some scene play out before her. “Okay, here’s the thing,” she began, opening her eyes and looking earnestly up into her father’s face. “We need to leave. Now. Right now.” She took two steps backward toward the alley as she spoke.
“Okay. Let’s go,” Paul replied, his manner turning suddenly brisk and businesslike as he turned, striding toward the darkness at his daughter’s side. Just before stepping off the street, he turned back to Dusty, who stood staring at the two people he had decided must be lunatics of some very special variety.
“Well, sir? Are you coming? I really think you should come...”
Dusty shook his head slowly and pointed tentatively down the street. “No,” he replied cautiously, “I think I’ll just be on my way now.”
Paul’s expression turned grim and he nodded at Allyson, who retreated to the alley while her father quickly returned to the street. Dusty took a step back, hands half raised to protect himself as Paul scanned the street around them.
“Look, I know this is weird, and I know it seems like we’re trying to interfere or something. The thing is that I can explain everything, and I will, but you really need to come with me and Ally right now. Trust me, if she says it’s time to go, it’s a really good idea to go.”
Dusty was cut off mid-protest by a howling shriek that suddenly pierced the silent stillness of the Onyx City. The sound cut into Dusty’s brain, seeming to somehow emanate from within his own mind, even as a jolt ran through his entire body like an electric current. He looked at Paul, who cringed beside him, his eyes locked on a distant point down the street from where they stood as he grabbed Dusty’s arm, pulling him ineffectually in the direction of the alley.
“What do you say we both go now, huh, friend?” Paul’s voice was steady but a desperate urgency seethed just below the surface of his words.
“You know what?” Dusty said as he shrugged Paul’s hand off his arm, pushing the man into the alleyway before him. “I think that sounds like a great idea.”
“Dad!” Allyson ran up to her father and threw her arms around his waist. “What took you so long?”
“I’m sorry, hon,” Paul said as he hugged his daughter. “We were... delayed.” He glanced at Dusty, laughter in his eyes.
Dusty stared at the man in disbelief. There was not much about the Onyx City that, in his opinion, could possibly be construed as amusing. Before he had a chance to consider the thought any further, another bone-rattling screech came tearing into the alley through the dark barrier behind him. Dusty, Paul, and Allyson started, instinctively moving closer together where they stood while clapping their hands over their ears in almost perfect unison. The action did almost nothing to block out the terrible shriek, which nonetheless sounded much farther away than the first cry. The sound faded rapidly before disappearing altogether, seemingly in the direction from whence Dusty had first approached the alleyway.
After allowing several moments to pass, Dusty turned to Paul again. “Okay, so you promised you’d explain everything, now get to explaining.”
“Shh!” Allyson glared angrily at Dusty, one finger pressed firmly to her lips.
“What are you...?”
Paul gestured at Dusty to quiet down. “Please! Just wait a minute, okay?”
Something in Paul’s tone made Dusty uneasy all over again and he turned to look through the barrier, which appeared gauzy from the alley side.
All seemed quiet on the street, and Dusty peered out as far as he could in either direction without leaning through the barrier. Directly across from where he stood, he could see another black void, which he now assumed led into another similar alley. He cast his eyes over a dull black shack of indeterminate shape and size that stood next to the entrance of a tall steepled building that he could see by pressing himself to the onyx wall to his right. He looked to Paul and Allyson, both of whom kept their eyes fixated on the street corner to the left of the alley.
“What’s going on?” he whispered finally. “I don’t see anything.”
“Just wait for it,” Allyson softly replied.
With a frustrated sigh, Dusty looked back to the street. Five more minutes, he thought to himself. Or what I guess to be five minutes anyway. Then, I’m outta here.
A sudden skittering sent a violent shudder down Dusty’s spine and he tore himself away from the wall and the view of the street beyond, revulsion twisting his features. “What the hell...? What the hell is that?” he cried out loud.
“Shh!” “Quiet!” Paul and Allyson spoke at the same time, the look of terror on the girl’s face allowing Dusty to forget, for the moment, the creeping horror that had afflicted him upon hearing the terrible sound.
Paul and Allyson exchanged a meaningful glance before turning back to Dusty where he had pressed himself against the onyx wall.
“Look, we just have to wait for her to pass, okay?” Allyson hissed impatiently, fear dancing in her eyes. “She can’t come into the alley but, if we’re not quiet, she’ll hear us and then we’ll never get out of here.” Paul rested a hand on Allyson’s shoulder as she beckoned to Dusty before turning back to the street.
“Who?” Dusty remembered to whisper as he took his place at the barrier beside Allyson.
“The sandflea.” Paul spoke before his daughter could answer. “She’s the sandflea and, believe me, you do not want to run into her out there. Now, for the love of all that is holy, be quiet.”
Dusty rolled his eyes but contented himself with watching alongside Paul and Allyson. He found himself growing somehow accustomed to the skittering, as had happened with the unnatural lines of the city’s structures, and he found himself focusing on a pattern within the sound, a pattern that seemed almost recognizable as he squinted into the distance.
“Wha...?” Dusty stifled the cry in his throat as the form of a gigantic crawling mass came directly into view in the middle of the street. It was as tall as the steeple of the building down the street and appeared to walk upright, though Dusty had a strong impression that the thing possessed an insect-like collection of monstrously segmented legs. It seemed to shimmer and change from dark brown to gray to black in an undulating rhythm that Dusty suddenly realized followed the motion of its body that rippled and surged wildly as it lurched down the street. Something sat atop the strangely fluid body, something that Dusty’s mind screamed was a head but that bore no resemblance to any living organism he had ever seen before, and he shuddered again, sure that his sanity would slip away should he behold the dread creature for even one moment longer.
“It’s okay!” The voice broke into Dusty’s haze of fear and loathing. “It’s okay, just hold on a little longer!”
Allyson’s whispered encouragement soothed Dusty’s nerves and he found himself relaxing even as the thing heaved oddly and stopped in the street directly across from where they stood.
“Ally, did you see...?” Paul muttered softly.
“Shh, Dad, I’ll tell you after.”
Dusty tore his gaze from the thing outside and gazed quizzically at Allyson. She smiled and shrugged up at him before indicating he should return his attention to the street.
“The sandflea. Look! She’s going already,” Allyson whispered, pointing excitedly.
Sure enough, the thing outside had resumed its forward crawl, and in another moment it passed almost to the point where they could no longer see it from where they stood.
“Whew! She’s gone.” Paul took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “At least, I think she’s gone. Ally?” He looked to Allyson while Dusty slumped wearily against the wall once again.
Allyson waited before answering, a faraway look in her eyes. “Yeah, she’s gone,” she said finally. “For now,” she added.
“How comforting,” Dusty muttered. “What was that anyway?”
Paul indicated to his daughter with a practiced go on, you tell it gesture.
“Well, like I said, she’s the sandflea,” Allyson began. “I can’t say I know exactly what she is, I mean, neither of us really knows. From what we can tell, she makes those awful screams right before she splits.”
“Splits?” Dusty asked, his tone at once intrigued and disgusted. “What does that mean? You mean before she leaves or something?”
“Um...” Allyson looked at Paul briefly, amusement flashing in her emerald eyes. “No, not ‘splits’ like that. I mean she literally splits.” She put her hands together and pulled them apart rapidly as she spoke. “You know? Like, splits herself. In two.”
Dusty’s expression turned blank, all ability to even feel repulsed by what he was hearing draining from his body. “Oh,” he said flatly.
Allyson giggled and tossed her ponytail, obviously delighted at Dusty’s reaction. “I know, I know, it sounds gross, right?” She giggled again before abruptly turning serious. “Well, even so... That’s why we call her ‘she,’ because it’s like she’s, you know, multiplying or whatever.”
“Obviously that could be a very incorrect interpretation given our current setting, of course,” Paul interjected.
“Yeah.” Allyson nodded her agreement.
“Wait a minute,” Dusty started as he pushed himself away from the wall. “If it, she, whatever, splits, then there must be a whole lot of those sandfleas, right? I mean, you called her the sandflea...”
Allyson nodded again. “You’re right. There are a whole bunch but only one walks around the city at a time. Every time one splits, that one goes and the new one takes her place.”
“Yeah, there’s a... like a nest outside the city, way out near the mountains. Only the newest one stays here in the Onyx City.” She shrugged lightly. “We have no idea why.”
“Have you seen this nest?” Dusty asked, morbid curiosity getting the better of him, even as more pressing concerns nagged at the corner of his mind. “How many are there?”
“Sixty-seven,” Allyson answered. She indicated the street with a tilt of her head. “Until she splits anyway. Then she’ll be sandflea sixty-eight.”
Dusty sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair, turning his face up to the crimson sky. He felt like he had been traveling for eons without making any progress toward a destination that now seemed unreachable.
“All right, enough of this,” Paul spoke out suddenly. “Now it’s really time we got down to business.”
“Yeah, okay,” Dusty relented. “Well, I’m Dusty Grein. And you were right before – I’m trying to get to the tower so I can find the Western Paladin.”
Paul and Allyson exchanged another glance.
“We know,” Paul said almost apologetically. “We know who you are.”
Dusty just gazed steadily at his companions, no longer surprised by anything they told him. “Really...?” he muttered, resisting the urge to roll his eyes again.
“Yeah, look, I’m sorry, I know we kind of ambushed you back there...” Paul trailed off, flashing a boyish grin. “Well, what matters is that we’re here now.”
Dusty gave a half-hearted smile of his own, resigned, for the moment, to listening.
“So, here’s the explanation I owe you,” Paul continued. “My daughter and I are, well, let’s just say, travelers. We’ve traveled to many different worlds, although as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, we’re from the same world as you.
“Allyson here is a seer. Her visions have gotten us out of some pretty tight spots, I’ll tell you that. Like before, with the sandflea.”
Dusty flashed back to the sight of Allyson stumbling, eyes closed and hand to her head.
“But mostly, Ally’s visions tell us where to be and when. It’s that simple. See, it was in a vision that she saw you on your way to the tower and the Western Paladin beyond.”
“Is that right?” Dusty crossed his arms over his chest. “What else did you see?”
Allyson shrugged modestly. “I know you’re looking for the Tall One. And the artifact.”
Dusty narrowed his eyes at the girl, unwilling to confirm her remark or to show how disconcerted he was at the knowledge of his quest that she possessed.
“I know it must seem strange,” Paul offered, “but we’re here to help you. That’s truly why we came looking for you. Just to help you.”
“Hmm...,” Dusty murmured noncommittally. There was no denying that it would be useful to have someone with him on his journey, which had already proven to be as difficult and as dangerous as promised by the guardian before he left his own world. Still, he did not trust that anyone would offer such assistance without some kind of ulterior motive.
Dusty looked from Paul to Allyson, considering what they had told him and what they might be holding back. He quickly made a decision, one that would hopefully allow him to find what he came for and return to his world as fast as possible. He looked grimly to the rapidly darkening sky before speaking. “All right. If you want to help, fine, I won’t stop you. I might even be grateful for the favor.” He tried to clear his mind, suddenly overcome with a deep and abiding exhaustion. “I understand the city will change at sunset. So, I suggest that we head for the tower and try to get there as fast as possible. Although I’ve been walking for hours, it seems, and I haven’t gotten any closer at all, so...” Dusty trailed off.
Paul and Allyson looked visibly relieved at Dusty’s words, a reaction that added to his unease rather than relieving it.
“Don’t worry about that,” Allyson said cheerfully. “I know how to get to the tower.”
“Oh, yeah,” Allyson said with assurance. “Shall we?”
A strong sensation of déjà vu settled over Dusty as he followed Allyson through the barrier into the street, and he wondered as Paul’s grin flashed in the corner of his eye, whether he might still live to regret his decision.
Interlude: The Dark Side
The sun never rose on the dark side of the Onyx City. Onyx structures stood like shadowy sentinels along the streets, the stone appearing dull and matte with no glistening rays of hazy orange light beaming down from a sky that remained the deep, shining red of a newly cut garnet all through the day and night.
The Tall One stood atop his citadel, calmly observing the silent quarter. Around his shoulders hung a charmed cloak of fine onyx dust that shimmered and swirled around his incorporeal body in a glittering ebony curtain. He turned minutely this way and that as the sounds of the dark side floated up to him, guardian and ruler of all manner of indescribable beasts that lived only in the darkness.
Though the flitting creatures of the night that populated the dark side moved with the stealth of a prowling cat, their creeping slithers and airy footfalls were all noted by the Tall One, who heard even the faintest motion of the most insignificant vermin that moved throughout his realm.
What do you want? The Tall One replied with the voice of his mind, without turning from the maze of somber streets below him.
“I saw them again, Sir.”
The Tall One turned and gazed down at the figure who now stood before him. Broken Toe appeared as a man-shaped silhouette where he stood, featureless except for the glowing red stone that hung from a woven cord around his neck. He was the only being on the dark side whose form the Tall One permitted to remain hidden. So they have met as you foresaw?
“Yes, Sir. It was the girl who found him.” Broken Toe swallowed hard, thankful that his unease was masked by the glamor that cloaked him, a most welcome reward granted for a lifetime of loyal service to the master of the dark side.
Who is she?
“She is the daughter of the other.”
From where have they come?
“I don’t know, Sir. Not exactly anyway.” Broken Toe paused, searching for just the right words. “All three are from the same world. But she and the other came through a different doorway. It was not revealed to me, but I saw that they come and go. They have been here for at least thirteen moons in total.”
Why have you only seen them now?
Broken Toe did not respond immediately. The implied accusation underlying the Tall One’s question made him decidedly uneasy, even though he was certain the master knew the visions revealed what they would, and that Broken Toe’s magic could unveil the hidden plane but not control it.
The Tall One seemed to shift closer to Broken Toe with no discernible movement, a hint of amusement somehow apparent even in the incorporeal essence that was his form. Never mind. Have they yet approached the tower?
A flash of anger surged through Broken Toe. “No, Sir, not yet. The one had lost his way but the girl and the other found him. She is leading the way,” he answered, managing to keep his voice steady.
Do you see them arriving in time?
“I can’t tell, Sir. There are two paths. Each exists equally for now. Evidently the choice has not yet been made.”
And the one? Does he know?
Broken Toe shook his head slowly and the upper portion of the silhouette swayed gently to and fro. “No. The vision was quite clear, and I saw into his mind. He has no idea but there is something that remains unseen. It could be a mark.”
The Tall One was silent for several moments. He turned away from Broken Toe and gazed out over his dark realm once again. His words played over and over in the master’s mind and any amusement at his oracle’s discomfort drained away in a mere instant.
“Nothing you don’t already know, Sir.”
Very well. Is the horde prepared?
“Yes, Sir. Completely.”
Then leave me.
With a brisk nod, Broken Toe retreated into the shadows.
So the one approaches still, the Tall One remarked inwardly. And there may be a mark to deal with as well. He closed his shimmering black mantle, and the delicate cloak of minutely flecked stone formed a cold, comforting shell around him. He turned his mind back to the streets of night-dulled onyx. Soon all will be revealed, one way or the other, he told himself. The Tall One shifted restlessly where he stood, stepping to the edge of the citadel rooftop. He had complete confidence in Broken Toe’s second sight, and yet a troublesome uncertainty nagged at the back of his mind with the persistence of the irritating bite of a desert fly.
The Tall One reached out with his mind and sent his awareness soaring to the street below, turning swiftly down a narrow alley. He saw without seeing as he passed a family of dreads huddling over the bloated and lifeless body of a nightwisp, a shivering, bleating hoar rat digging in the soggy, rotting remains of a whirler, and a glower that softly stridulated as it rolled into a pitch black doorway.
At the end of the alley, quivering almost imperceptibly where it sat in a glistening puddle of oily black liquid, was a monstrous feldspinner. In the corner, eyeing the spinner’s mess of mouths and legs, lay a greater cstreml, cowering and whimpering despite its vastly superior bulk of swollen, undulating muscles. Ignoring the cstreml, The Tall One approached the feldspinner from the deepest, darkest corner of his mind and squeezed, as a fist closing around a ripe, swollen fruit, pressing harder and harder until only a wet, mangled twist of flesh remained.
In the blink of an eye, the Tall One drew his awareness back to the citadel. Any psychical pleasure he might have felt upon taking out his frustration on the grotesqueries that haunted the dark side suddenly felt somehow hollow in the shadow of the annoyingly steady progress of the one.
The Tall One turned and strode to the hidden recess that housed his spiral staircase. He muttered a curse under his breath and the black clouds that converged over the citadel matched his darkening mood.
Below the citadel, in an underground chamber accessible only through an intermittently existent doorway, knelt Broken Toe in the middle of a circle inscribed with an intricate pattern of ancient and esoteric glyphs. His eyes remained fixed on a bright green flame that flickered and danced in the middle of a circle of onyx chunks, each one anointed with the ichor of a blood agate beetle.
It was only within the underground sanctum that Broken Toe removed the red stone from his neck, thus revealing his true form. Beads of sweat shone off his milky white skin, running down his face in streaks through the ceremonial paint that encircled his eyes and drawing a crooked pattern of tracks in the designs on his cheeks, the runes of the prophet that would make clear to him the portentous significance of the visions received from the flame.
Broken Toe’s powerful hands jerked and strained against the magicked filaments with which he had bound his forearms tightly together before beginning the ceremony. It was a necessary inconvenience that prevented him from tearing at the shining onyx rings in his ears or gouging chunks out of the tattooed flesh of his broad chest in the throes of the trance of the flame. A low roar escaped him as he allowed the flame’s arcane light to drag his awareness into the hidden plane, the black feathers woven through the snow white hair that hung down his back quivering almost expectantly as his muscles rippled and trembled with exertion.
All at once, an unseen force pressed his throat and he was there in the other plane, the vision coalescing around him even as he jerked his head back, hands reaching ineffectually upward toward his chest. The straining of his hands went unnoticed as in his mind’s eye, Broken Toe saw a delicate white bird flutter before him, and the pressure on his neck gradually abated as the vision took hold. The movement of the bird’s wings seemed to slow even as an inexplicable gust of wind buffeted him where he sat. A shudder tore its way through his body and he suppressed the urge to retch as his awareness was carried deeper into the hidden plane.
The bird stopped moving all at once, hovering motionless in the ether before him, and in an instant Broken Toe realized he was no longer looking at a bird at all, but an opaque crystal. A bright yellow light glinted off its multifaceted surface and the stone began to spin, slowly at first, then faster, and faster again until nothing remained except a brilliant whirling dervish.
A sharp stinging sensation broke out on Broken Toe’s face and chest as he saw the dervish fling a barrage of tiny, needle-sharp stones across his body. His hands twitched upward in an automatic attempt to block the shower of stones, fighting against the filaments for several moments before relaxing. The vision was new but the sensation of pain that traveled through from the other plane was familiar and it had been many centuries since the involuntary straining of his body against the magicked bonds could distract him from his vision.
The bite of the stones on his flesh faded gradually into nothingness but the dervish continued to spin wildly. Broken Toe released his mind further, and the flame flared higher in the onyx circle, until suddenly a hidden layer of the vision came to the fore.
Broken Toe gasped, his arms pulling back, twisting upward in a vain attempt to cover his face, as the dervish abruptly sank into the earth. Looking down, he saw that the circle had disappeared and he found himself sitting cross-legged in the shiny maroon sand of the mountains surrounding the Onyx City. With a start he realized his arms were free and he frantically dug in the sand, pushing great handfuls of earth this way and that, his mind reaching out in every direction as he searched desperately for the circle that not only oriented him within the visions but that was his only gateway between the planes.
A sharp stab of pain burst into his awareness and Broken Toe cried out, his back arching against a searing pressure. He threw himself forward and his arms sank into the earth, his fingers still twitching and clutching at nothing but handfuls of hot, dry sand. His eyes rolled wildly as he jerked his head this way and that but his mind could not find the circle, and the sand seemed to grow deeper and deeper around him, until all over was nothing but a wall of sand that flowed and pulsed absurdly in a swirling series of eddies and currents that surrounded him, burning his eyes and filling his lungs as he hurled his mind out into space in one last futile grasp before a coldness enveloped him as a black shroud that gripped his body, clinging tighter and tighter until he at last slipped into a merciful unconsciousness.
Broken Toe gasped and sucked in a breath that rasped deep in his chest. Though the green flame no longer shone from the onyx circle, he could make out the familiar form of his hidden chamber beneath the citadel and he sighed in relief that he had somehow made it back to his world. He could not deny, even to himself, how much the vision had shaken his nerves. Never before had he been drawn so far into the hidden plane as to lose his mind's hold on the circle.
Standing gingerly, Broken Toe uttered the incantation that lit the tapers in the corners of the rooms as he made his way to the black mirror on the far wall. What he saw sent a shudder tearing through him. Both arms were marked with deep scratches running from elbow to wrist and the tattoos on his chest were almost indiscernible beneath a thick layer of rapidly drying blood that had run from a gash just under his collarbone. Reaching up with one trembling hand, Broken Toe pulled the end of a sharp chunk of onyx from the wound, absently casting it aside as a fresh stream of blood began to pulse thickly over his chest.
The blood that soaked his body was soon forgotten as Broken Toe’s gaze settled on his face.
Red sand still clung to his cheeks, embedded in the smeared remains of the runes that were his guide to interpreting the visions. A circular pattern had been drawn in the paint under his left eye, instantly recognizable as sjá, the sight, and under his right, the three vertical lines indicating heimr, the world. His brow furrowed as his gaze traveled upward to the hair that now fell in straggly clumps around his neck and shoulders, and it took several moments for him to realize the full import of what he was was seeing.
Slowly, Broken Toe reached up with one trembling hand and pulled one of the feathers from his hair, a feather that had been black as the citadel’s onyx walls but that was now the bleached white of bare bones. The very tip of the delicate shaft was stained the bright crimson of fresh blood. Every feather that Broken Toe removed had been similarly changed, and he drew in a deep shuddering breath at the portent that had been revealed to him.
Come to me.
The call of The Tall One’s mind pulled Broken Toe from his thoughts and he jerked his head toward the hidden doorway. It would not do to keep the master waiting but, as he quickly wiped the blood smears from his arms and chest and slipped the red jewel onto his neck, Broken Toe resolved that this would be one vision he would not share, at least for the time being.