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 seemed 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 the 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 just 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 bring himself to set eyes on it again.
“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 fixed 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 know. 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.