First pages of Hero Transcendent

Part Ten: The Nightmare King

Chapter Eighty One: Crossing the Threshold

The immense hall of cloud-topped columns was as they had seen it before, awesome and awfull and terrifying. It was not sky above the clouds, but an immensely distant ceiling, white with gold and blue traceries. The floor was white and beige marble, and the huge columns of marble and crystal and dark chrome extended to an impossible distance. 

There was time for two heartbeats, then they were pushed away, not to the world from which they had come, but into a non-place. They were not even in the greater reality, half way between one world and another, but nowhere at all. And though they were aware of all the worlds around them, they did not exist on any of them.

They were still all together, still linked together, though they had no bodies, no brains to contain their minds. Had they been alone and unlinked, they would have dissipated into nothingness. It took a subjective moment for them to calm and stabilize their thoughts, to take stock of their present condition, and to know that they were not in any immediate danger.

“Somebody doesn’t like us,” Gaeliu said breathlessly, with no body and no breath.

“Whoever sent us away,” Lirikatli said, “was a little slow on the uptake this time.”

“They knew about it when LeShaw brought us here,” Tondorre said. “I think our coming by ourselves took them by surprise.”

“They think we’re dead now, or destroyed, or helplessly lost,” Elsabey said. “Maybe we can surprise them again.”

“Not just right now,” Saylees said. “That place is terrifying.”

“It is,” Galban-Dado said. “It’s not what it looks like, it’s … it’s….” 

“There is no time here,” Jeanette said. “We don’t have to hurry.”

“We are going to go back, aren’t we,” Lirikatli said.

“Of course we are,” Tondorre said.

“But what will we do when we get there?”

“Just try to stay there for a while.”

“And if we can’t stay there? If whatever it was keeps pushing us away, then what?”

“I have no idea.”

“We could go to some place more congenial,” Jeanette said, “where we can at least be real people while we try to work out what to do next.”

“I can go along with that,” Galban-Dado said, “but I think we should go back.”

They turned away from their own thought, into the nowhereness, and found the place of columns. 

It was not a globe orbiting a sun, among millions or billions of other suns, in an evolutionary cosmos of stars, dust, gas, and galaxies. It was more akin to Diapollion’s garden, or the gray plane of strange objects, or even the wither, though it was much smaller than that, despite its apparent vastness. And it was not really a place, in and of itself, but just a threshold, as it were, to wherever it was that Kada Barros existed.

They made themselves ready, and went back. They waited for the repulsive force, and when it came, they tried to get some idea of whether it was automatic, reflexive, intentional, Kada Barros himself, or some other intelligence. They learned nothing before they were thrust again into the non-place between the threads of the greater reality.

“It wasn’t expecting us,” Elsabey said.

“It will push harder next time,” Tondorre said. “We’re going to have to push back.”

They went, the force tried to push them away, they resisted, got no sense of what it was that was pushing at them, and when the force stopped, they stopped too. Then it came back, taking them by surprise, and sending them once again into limbo.

“It’s intelligent,” Jeanette said.

They went back. Nothing pushed at them. 

They looked around at the columns, which were in no particular order. They could as easily have been hung from the blue and white ceiling, as set on the white and beige marble floor. Their size and spacing were proportional to the scale of the separation between the ceiling and the floor, not to insect-like people.The wispy clouds were half way between. They did not resist the thrust, when it came at last, and let it sweep them into limbo, but this time they came back at once. When the force came back again, with a sense of exasperation, they sidestepped it, as it were, and stayed in the place of columns.

They waited, tired of the game, but determined to have their way. The air moved, but it was hard to tell from which direction. There was a scent, not of flowers, exactly, or of metal. The temperature was almost neutral, skin temperature instead of body temperature. The light came from everywhere, there were no shadows.

“Does he really need this much space?” Elsabey asked. Her voice was lost in the emptiness.

“His ego does,” Saylees said.

They were thrust away, more violently this time. Almost without a flicker, they were back among the varied columns.

“He’s not very powerful, is he,” Lirikatli said.

“It’s not Kada Barros doing that,” Jeanette said. “His power lies in other areas. That’s why he uses physical agents in the physical worlds.”

“How long before we can expect a new Arkenome?” Saylees asked.

“I don’t know. Arkenomes must be found and trained, and that’s got to take some time. I suppose he has a few candidates, just in case.”

“What if he really is this big?” Gaeliu asked. “How could we possibly fight him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tondorre said. “He’s not a physical person like we are.”

“He’s not,” Jeanette said. “The laws which control our bodies and allow us to exist are different from those which control and permit a being of thought such as he is.”

There was another push, a stronger one, but it felt half-hearted somehow, and they didn’t even stagger.

“Think we can outlast him?” Elsabey asked.

“I wouldn’t want to,” Saylees said.

“So how can we attack him,” Galban-Dado asked, “if he has no body?”

“Jeanette has two weapons,” Lirikatli said, “which can affect spiritual beings. Sometimes.”

It was time for their enemy to push on them again, but the expected shove did not come.

“The wither,” Jeanette said, “is a place with no physical reality at all, no matter what it looks like. But I shared its nature when I was there. I became a part of its metaphor, and I was, well, as spiritual, or as psychic as the place was, whatever that means. And because I was a part of it while I was there, and subject to its laws and rules, I was able to deal with it as if it were physical. Whatever really happened there, in any kind of objective sense, doesn’t matter.”

They waited, but nothing happened. The place felt even emptier than before, as if its resident had withdrawn to another plane. The clouds overhead moved in no particular direction, forming and fading in a semi-random way, as real clouds sometimes do if you watch them long enough.

“It’s what we think that matters, isn’t it,” Gaeliu said.

“More or less,” Jeanette said. She chose an arbitrary direction and started walking. Her companions walked with her. The sound of their footsteps on the white and beige floor was lost in the vastness.

“Where are we going?” Saylees asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jeanette said.

He thought about that for a moment, then nodded.

“If this is all a product of Kada Barros’s mind,” Lirikatli said, “couldn’t he just —”

“Even minds obey rules,” Tondorre said. “Even in your thoughts and dreams, there are rules, though we may not know what they are.”

The floor shuddered slightly, and silently, as if something heavy had been dropped upon it somewhere far away.

“Did I just hear a door slam?” Lirikatli asked in mock innocence. Elsabey giggled.

“We need to find that door,” Saylees said, “if we’re ever going to confront him face to face. Assuming he has a face.”

“That could take a long time,” Tondorre said, “unless we get some kind of clue. Do you sense anything?” he asked Gaeliu.

“There is no life here,” Gaeliu said. “None at all. Not even us.”

“These people really do like sterile environments,” Galban-Dado said. “Easier to keep clean, I suppose.”

They kept their banter light, as a way to keep up their spirits. 

They were nearing one of the great pillars, a crystal one. It was transparent, but the fluting distorted their view, and it was so thick that, even if it had been perfectly smooth, they could not have seen all the way through it. It sparkled, slightly iridescent, in the unchanging, directionless light. The neutral temperature, the ambiguous scent, the subtle movement of the air were no different than before. Something like a brief breeze disturbed the clouds overhead for just a moment, but they did not feel it on the floor. They kept walking.

“He’s not forgotten us,” Elsabey said.

“Who is he trying to impress?” Lirikatli asked. “Who comes here besides his Arkenome? Or his Ecliptor?”

“Recruits, maybe,” Saylees said doubtfully. Nobody else had any suggestions.

After a while Tondorre said, “If this is just his front porch, what must his parlor be like?”

“Something far more comfortable,” Galban-Dado said. “Places like this are intended to impress people, not to be lived in.”

“Who is he trying to impress?” Lirikatli asked again, exasperated.

“Himself mostly, I guess,” Galban-Dado said. “Just to prove to himself that he can do it.”

“It’s part of his security,” Saylees said. “You can’t get in off the porch unless he opens the door. Or you have the key.”

“Yeah,” Lirikatli said, “or break a window, but secure against whom?”

“Us.”

“He built all of this for us?”

“Or my predecessors,” Jeanette said. “Or his imagined enemies, whoever they might be.” She paused. “Or his peers.”

A slight breeze came up, one they could feel this time, coming from ahead of them and to their left. It wasn’t very strong, and it might actually have started some time ago. There was no change in temperature or scent. They kept on walking.

“I think it’s silly,” Elsabey said. “Maybe he can throw all this together in just a minute or two, but even so, just on the chance that you might drop by some day?”

“He has to gratify his ego somehow,” Tondorre said sardonically.

“It’s contradictory,” Galban-Dado said. “He does everything he can to destroy as many worlds as possible, and then he creates places like this and Diapollion’s garden. The gray plane makes sense, it’s a portal and a prison. But this?”

“He only destroys other people’s stuff,” Jeanette said quietly.

“What other people?” Galban-Dado asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lirikatli said. “If it’s not his, he doesn’t like it.”

“I knew somebody like that,” Elsabey said. “When I was little. Tomis would build these huge structures out of blocks, and Railif would kick them over. He envied his little brother’s imagination.”

“So our enemies are all neurotic children,” Saylees said.

The light flickered, as though from distant lightning. There was no following sound of thunder. Perhaps Saylees’s comment had struck closer to home than he had intended.

“What did Railif’s parents do?” Tondorre asked.

“I don’t know. It wasn’t my family. Eventually Railif was old enough to move away, so he did.”

“Of course,” Galban-Dado said, “the situation here may be nothing like that at all. And even if it is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is —”

“Whether we can get out of this place,” Lirikatli said. “And more importantly, how do we get to Kada Barros? And what do we do with him then?”

The breeze died away.

“Any ideas?” Saylees asked Gaeliu, who looked at him in surprise.

“I, ah —” he started to say.

“I gotta find a bush,” Galban-Dado said. He looked toward the nearest pillar, which happened to be marble, lightly veined in light cream and pale gray, and vanished.

Gaeliu was staring in the other direction, at a group of people, twenty or more, about a mile away, coming toward them.

“So where do we find a bush?” Lirikatli asked, as if the approaching people, possibly armed, were nothing to be concerned about. “Just go behind a pillar?”

“That’s all we’ve got, isn’t it,” Tondorre said. He stood beside Jeanette. Though it would take the people fifteen, twenty minutes to get close enough to matter, he adjusted his position and posture, standing easily and ready for anything from cheerful greeting to all out attack.

“Do you suppose,” Saylees said, “that Kada Barros minds us soiling his pristine environment?” He put his hand on his sword hilt, then let it fall by his side.

“Railif hated it if Tomis even touched one of his projects,” Elsabey said. She drew her crossbow, loaded a bolt, held another bolt in her left hand — there weren’t that many left — and let the crossbow hang down from her right.

“You can take an analogy only so far,” Tondorre said, “but I’d guess it would apply here.”

Galban-Dado came back, stood on Jeanette’s other side, and folded his arms across his chest. Like Tondorre, he was not relaxed because he wasn’t concerned, but because he was ready for whatever he might have to do. “I tried not to leave too much of a mess,” he said, “but Kada Barros isn’t going to like it.”

“Did you get any sense about the shape of this place from where you were?” Jeanette asked.

“I didn’t think about it.”

The people were still more than half a mile away. They were in two staggered lines, holding what looked like short spears diagonally across their chests. Why hadn’t they been set down within immediate attacking distance? Maybe there was some kind of supra-mundane law that affected Kada Barros’s warriors so that they, like Jeanette, just could not ever be sent right to where they were needed. Or maybe whoever had brought them liked melodramatic flourishes.

Gaeliu and Tondorre, instead of watching the warriors, were looking at each other, as if silently sharing an interesting idea. They had a kind of special bond, almost like brothers. They both smiled just a little bit, then, nearly simultaneously, they both disappeared.

“The kid’s got a lot of talent,” Saylees said to Jeanette.

“There’s nobody here who doesn’t,” she said, though she kept watching as the warriors kept coming. “It isn’t always clear what that talent is.”

“Like Ghinn’s compassion,” Elsabey said, sounding almost relaxed.

“Exactly. I don’t think any of us expected that.”

Tondorre and Gaeliu returned, almost simultaneously. The two dozen warriors did not seem to notice or care.

“It’s amazing how we can communicate,” Tondorre said, “even if our links don’t let us read each other’s minds.” He paused. “What are we going to do about them?”

“Nothing just yet,” Jeanette said.

“We went as far as we could,” Gaeliu said, “but we didn’t take any risks.”

“Five times,” Tondorre said, “in opposite directions.”

“Then we felt the link between us, just to see what it was like.”

“There was a kind of curve to it,” Tondorre said. “It’s hard to describe. This place isn’t as big as it looks. And the shortest distance between us was not the way we had come, but some other direction.”

“All this is mostly a mirage,” Gaeliu said, watching the warriors.

“Its appearance is,” Tondorre said, “but the place is real. As far as I can tell. I don’t think there’s a world attached to it, in the ordinary sense.”

“An interesting way to put it,” Saylees said.

“Does it fold back on itself?” Lirikatli asked. The warriors were now less than half a mile away, and seemed very determined. “Or is there actually some place to go?”

Gaeliu pointed straight up. There was a strange grin on his face.

Tondorre nodded slowly.

Galban-Dado looked up. “How do we get there?”

Lirikatli looked at him, then she disappeared.

Jeanette knew where Lirikatli was, and the others did as well. She was directly overhead, though the concept of “straight up” didn’t really apply. There was a dimensional kink of some kind, hard to describe, which also made it hard to tell exactly how far away she was. This was going to be interesting. Her companions knew what to do.

The warriors picked up their pace a bit. They had seen Lirikatli vanish. Then Jeanette and the others all jumped together to where Lirikatli was, standing a floor that was subtly different from the one from which they had just come. Jeanette looked up at the not quite white ceiling overhead. The clouds were just as far away from this side as they were from the other. The warriors were too far away to be seen.

“That seemed almost too easy,” Saylees said. He drew his sword, and looked around as if expecting to see the enemy suddenly appearing somewhere.

“I still don’t see the point to this place,” Lirikatli said. “Who comes here anyway? Who could come here except his Arkenomes and Ecliptors? We know LeShaw could. Does he have any other visitors?”

“I used to work for a prince of a fairly important country,” Galban-Dado said. He was just as watchful as Saylees. “There were hundreds of people in the palace and its offices. Household staff, personal staff, their staff, visitors, emissaries, traders and services, government officials, lots of people. Having a palace made sense.”

“And this doesn’t make any sense at all,” Lirikatli said, saying what Ikusa had said so often.

“It doesn’t have to make sense to us,” Saylees said. “I don’t think this guy is sane.”

“Probably not,” Tondorre said, “but it really doesn’t matter, does it.”

“Not really,” Gaeliu said, “but that does.” He was looking at the warriors that they had left on the other floor. Saylees and Galban-Dado turned toward them. They were a couple hundred yards off, no longer in a staggered line.

They were large men, vaguely reptilian, brown skinned, wearing heavy brown leather jackets, trousers, and boots. Their weapons were not exactly spears, but more like a Japanese naginata. It had a two-foot long double edged blade instead of a curved one, on the end of a six-foot shaft. They could easily outreach any sword, and could hack and slash as well as pierce and stab. Though the men weren’t human, their expressions were easy to read, a determination to use their short pole arms to murderous effect.

Why were projectile weapons so rare in all these worlds? Firearms could be an accident of technology, as could air-powered guns, but bows of all sorts should have been more common, or slings, or throwing knives or axes or dirks or javelins and so on. It was something else that didn’t make a lot of sense. Unless Kada Barros chose to mess with worlds without projectile weapons. If he, or the Ecliptors, or the Arkenomes, had recruited people from worlds like Jeanette’s, where powerful, long range weapons were common, he could run rampant on worlds that didn’t have any ranged weapons at all.

But Arkenomes worked more by insinuation, seduction, and perversion to turn a people against themselves, rather than by using physical force. The people themselves could do that. Maybe that was important. One charasmatic psychopath could cause an awful lot of damage on a global scale, as Jeanette knew well, while a psychopath with a gun killed a few people before he was killed himself. And there was never more than one Arkenome at a time.

Everybody had their weapons at the ready now. Jeanette left her own weapons alone. She took a breath, then walked a few paces toward the warriors.

They were not tense, but they were alert, and more than ready for whatever Jeanette’s companions might choose to do. They all held their weapons in the same way, left hand near the butt of the haft, right hand three feet further toward the head, each weapon at forty five degrees across their chest. They would not hinder each other when they attacked. If Jeanette and her companions did not port away, they would be cut down in a matter of seconds.

Jeanette waited until they were fifty yards away. Then she gathered all her own authority she could, and said, “Stop.”

Almost in unison, all twenty four warriors stopped. For a count of two. Then they came toward her again.

She tried not to think about what she was doing as she reached over her shoulder, took the Tash Griaf from its scabbard, and set it point down on the floor at her feet, knocking a chip off the floor in the process. It rather surprised her. The warriors didn’t like it either. She put both hands on the hilt and, when the warriors were still thirty yards from her using, without using the Tash Griaf’s power of command, she said again, “Stop.”

They stopped, and this time they stayed stopped, but they held their weapons at the ready. They were not confused, and they were not at all afraid, and their vaguely reptilian, brown faces were still determined.

“You can go home,” Jeanette said, “or you can die here. It is your choice.”

The seconds stretched — seven, eight, nine — and then the warriors, grimmer and harder and even more determined, came toward her again.

She took the hilt of Tash Griaf in her hand and held it down at her side, with the point of its broad blade angled toward the warriors. Though it weighed almost nothing, the muscles of her arm clenched, as if an electric current were running through them, and there was pain in the back of her head and down her shoulders and in her stomach. If she were to attack now, the pain would go away. It was keeping this weapon in check which hurt. Rather the pain than the blackness of guilt afterwards, if she should let it have its way.

The Tash Griaf began to sing, like a crystal goblet stroked by a dampened finger. “Stand where you are,” Jeanette said. Her voice, lower and rougher than ever, yet still feminine and oddly pleasant, resonated with even such a little power as she was drawing from the troll sword.

The warriors stopped. They lowered their weapons just a little. Their faces showed no fear, though the hard edge of their determination was being replaced by an apprehensive wonder.

Jeanette’s companions were tense and alert behind her. They knew they wouldn’t have to fight. They could feel, through their links with her, a little of what what she was feeling. They did not want her to have to use her weapon, either to call on its power of command any further than she already had, or to actually slay the warriors facing her, who would have no chance of survival. Their concern was not for the warriors’ sake, but for hers.

She spoke again, her voice somehow magnified and distorted, and it hurt her. “Leave or die.”

And one by one, in rapid succession, the warriors rotated away and were gone.

Her knees gave way. She dropped the Tash Griaf as she went down. She barely kept from hitting her face on the floor. Her stomach heaved. There wasn’t much in it.

Hands took hold of her, steadied her, held her shoulders and her head. When her convulsions stopped, Tondorre and Galban-Dado helped her to her feet.

“It gets worse every time, doesn’t it,” Galban-Dado said.

“Every time,” she said, her voice now thin and weak. Her muscles ached, and there was a hot pain in the back of her head. “As long as I don’t let it go too far.”

#

She sat on the floor. Lirikatli sat beside her, with an arm around her shoulders. Her other companions stood or sat, waiting patiently until she felt better. 

Gaeliu looked one way, then another. “I think I know which way to go,” he said when she stood up. “It’s not something you can see.”

Elsabey closed her eyes. “How did you know how to get up here?”

“It was the way my link with Tondorre felt.”

“This is not a simple three dimensional volume,” Tondorre said, waving generally at the clouds above him.

“But how can you tell?” Saylees asked. “If you could exist on a piece of paper, you couldn’t tell if the paper was flat or curved.”

“That’s a good analogy. I like that. And now that you say it like that — I don’t know.”

“We’re not human any more, are we?” Lirikatli said.

“Of course we are,” Elsabey said. “Just not in the way we used to be.”

“If we live through this, and get back home, will we still be like this?”

“We’ll all be different,” Jeanette said, “after all we’ve been through. But we won’t be like we are now, unless we come back here again.”

“We’ll have to be careful not to show off any acquired skills,” Galban-Dado said. “Letting people see us jumping from place to place would not be a good idea.”

“You’re right,” Saylees said. “People would fear us, and we could be lynched. But I’ll worry about that when we get back home. Right now, which way do we go? Back down, er, up? To the other floor?”

“There’s nothing down there,” Tondorre said. “I think we should all move away from here, each of us going in a different direction …” He glanced at Jeanette, and saw that she approved, “the way Gaeliu and I did, and see what our links feel like.”

“You stay here,” Lirikatli said to Jeanette. “You’ll be our center and focus.”

“Isn’t she always?” Elsabey said.

“At least we’ll learn something,” Jeanette said. She was pleased that her friends were taking the initiative and assuming responsibility. The more that they could do without her, the lighter her burden, and the more likely they could survive if anything happened to her. And Elsabey was right about the part she had to play now.

They turned from her and ported away, each a distance of their own choosing. Galban-Dado, who was in front of her, went so far that he became little more than a dot on the flat horizon. Their links were coordinated with each other and with her, so that she sensed their intention before they ported again. And again three more times.

She focused on her links with everybody, rather than on the individual people, trying to see if she could tell anything about the shape of space here. She knew she wasn’t as good at that as Tondorre and Gaeliu, who shared a special talent, but she did get a sense of multi-dimensionality. And she could tell that going further wouldn’t get them anywhere. It wasn’t that the surface on which they were standing was infinite, nor that it curved back on itself. If this place had only three, or even four dimensions, she could have visualized it. But it wasn’t like that. Fortunately, a clear or comprehensible mental image wasn’t necessary.

It made her wonder. If Kada Barros had such power that he could construct multi-dimensional places, why did he need agents? Couldn’t he just twist worlds some way or another, without hiring fallible Arkenomes? Did he need an Ecliptor to act as go-between? On the one hand, he seemed powerful beyond comprehension. On another, his limits were crippling.

She doubted that any Arkenome had ever been on this surface, with its blue and gold traceries, which was supposed to be the ceiling, or the sky, of the porch or entrance to Kada Barros’s dwelling. She doubted that Ecliptors, if there had been more than one, came here often. And she didn’t see why Kada Barros ever had to come here at all. Whatever kind of being he was, he didn’t have to worry about dimensions or space.

So what kind of being was he?

Her companions returned before her speculations could get too far afield. They came as if they were sliding on ice. They passed through her without touching her, and through each other, and went on in the other direction.

They had not been porting, they had been moving through space. They went further than she could see, and the vast hall of clouds and columns suddenly twisted inside out. It became dark, but filled with lights. The floor was a rough surface, a dark gray disk a quarter of a mile across. The lights expanded as her companions went further away, some of the lights becoming like stars, like jewels, colored and brilliant. Others became spheres, like planets, some with rings, many with moons, impossibly close to each other in astronomical terms. Each planet or moon had its own unique surface. They had left the porch, as it were, and were now on the threshold. And when her companions had gone as far as they could go, they were beside her again without coming back.

“That was amazing!” Lirikatli said.

“It was,” Jeanette said. “How did you do that?”

“I don’t know,” Gaeliu said.

“I don’t even know what we did,” Tondorre said.

“It was very strange,” Saylees said. “We went as far as we could —”

“And we kept on going,” Galban-Dado said, “and found ourselves coming back.”

“We never turned around,” Gaeliu said, “even after that. But it wasn’t just us, it was —”

“We were changing the shape of space,” Saylees said. “We opened the door.”

“I suppose Kada Barros does that all by himself,” Lirikatli said.

“I don’t think there’s any door at all as far as he’s concerned,” Saylees said. “Maybe he never comes and goes at all.”

“What does he do when he has visitors?” Elsabey asked. “Send out six doormen to open the way?”

“Maybe he does,” Saylees said. “We’ll never know, so I don’t really care very much.”

“But what if there hadn’t been six of us, or seven with Jeanette? Could we have done this?”

“I’m sorry, Elsabey. Same answer. Should we go back and try it with just three or four?”

She shook her head.

“How about us,” Galban-Dado asked. “Can we leave here and come back again?”

“Give me a minute,” Jeanette said. “Too much has happened too quickly.” She felt for the greater reality. 

It was different here somehow. It wasn’t like she was lost, but… “No,” she said. “We can leave, I think, but if we try to come back, we’ll wind up on that floor where we started. Then we’ll have go through the process all over again. This place is really twisted, and I don’t understand it at all.”

“I don’t understand it either,” Gaeliu said, “and I never will, so why bother trying? As long as we’ve gotten this far, let’s keep on going.”

“Okay,” Lirikatli said. “Pick a direction.”

The planet-spheres in the void around them were nearer than the jewel-like stars-things. They were evenly but randomly distributed from zenith to horizon. None of them were part of a system of planets with a central sun. Each was alone except for their rings or moons if they had them. Beyond them were the stars. Some of them were near enough to be seen as flaming disks, though they were still beyond the furthest planets. But most were just brilliant spots, points of colored light. There was a torn swath of gas among the nearer stars, and a cloud of luminous dust, but there were no galactic spirals.

The edge of the disk on which they stood was not too far away, an irregular but sharp horizon, except in one place where it appeared to curve down, gently and smoothly. That was, of course, the way they would go.

The smooth edge of the disk was the beginning of a broad road, hundreds of feet across. Its surface was rough and stoney like that of the disk. Going onto it was like coming over the crest of a gentle hill, except that the ground was always level under their feet, and the road curved down behind them as they went forward. It continued to curve downward ahead of them, so they could not see where it led.

“This, this is just a metaphor, isn’t it, really,” Galban-Dado said, a bit breathlessly. “There is no road, there are no globes or stars in the sky. Whatever this is, we see it this way just because … because … well, because we can’t really see it at all.”

“That’s not particularly lucid,” Saylees said.

“Could you say it any better?”

“No.”

“If our host were to come this way,” Jeanette said, “which he almost certainly never does, he would notice nothing at all, except a transition from outside to inside.”

“So we’re not really in his house yet?” Elsabey asked.

“I think we’re just crossing the threshold.”

“And we don’t know what’s on the other side,” Lirikatli said.

They went on, and as the road continued to curve down, something vast began to come up ahead of them, until it filled a quarter of the sky. It had eyes, and writhing flesh where a mouth should be, and there was a sensation of something darker than space slowly flapping behind it. Maybe H. P. Lovecraft had once been in this place. Or maybe Jeanette’s perception was inspired by the stories which she had read, on Steve’s insistence, and had never liked. It didn’t really matter either way.

They stopped walking. “The guardian of the gate,” Tondorre said.

It came toward them. They all felt as though they should be feeling fear as vast as the creature itself, but all they felt was a vague apprehension.

“If it’s really that big,” Elsabey said, “we’re less than dust compared to it, so how could it possibly see us?”

“It can’t,” Gaeliu said. “At home, from high ground, I can see the top of a distant mountain, which is beyond the edge of the world, but I cannot see the mouse on its slope.”

“It doesn’t get any bigger as it comes closer,” Saylees said.

“Maybe it’s the butler,” Galban-Dado said, “coming to see who’s been knocking at the door.”

Elsabey giggled.

It continued to come nearer, passing over the surface of the road, though it did not increase in apparent size. And then it passed through them. There was nothing on the other side. They turned to see what must have been behind them now, but there was nothing there either. It had no back side.

“There’s nobody there,” Lirikatli said.

“That’s not strictly true,” a voice said, coming from among them.

Jeanette felt a thrill, and all her companions felt it with her. It rose from the base of her spine all the way up through the top of her head. She did not startle, and neither did they. She did not turn wildly around to see who was there, since she knew she would have seen nothing. The voice, though inflected, was completely neutral as to gender or age, and it spoke, not in words exactly, not in language, but in concepts, as precisely as if it had used language.

“Perhaps ‘butler’ isn’t exactly the right word,” Jeanette said.

“No, but it will do.”

“I think you may be missing a fine point,” Saylees said, with a touch of asperity. “Your voice may be among us, but you are not physically here the way we are.”

“I could get picky too,” the voice said, “and remind you that there is nothing physical here. Not even you. But yes, in your terms, you are right.”

“I don’t think we need to discuss this further,” Tondorre said. “Aeons, figuratively speaking, could be spent picking apart each other’s semantics, and never coming to any conclusion or agreement, so why bother. We’re here, you’re not, what do you want with us?”

“It’s more a matter of me asking you what you want with us.” Jeanette couldn’t tell if it was said with a sigh or a chuckle. And again, it didn’t matter.

“We want Kada Barros to stop sending his agents out to mess up our worlds,” Tondorre said. “That’s all.”

“There’s nothing I can do about that,” the voice said, or expressed itself to the same effect.

“I didn’t expect that you could,” Jeanette said, “but that’s the answer to your question. It is our intention to continue as best we can, until we come to Kada Barros in person, and then make our desires known to him.”

“He is unlikely to do as you wish.”

“Then we will do our best to destroy him, and if we fail, another will come after me.” She paused. “We do not want his death. We do not want vengeance for all the damage he has done. We just want him to stop kicking over other people’s sand castles.”

There was no reply.

“Maybe he’s run off to tell the boss,” Saylees suggested.

“The boss already knows we’re coming,” Galban-Dado said.

“Then what was the purpose of that visit?”

“He’s merely doing his job,” Tondorre said. “Or she. If it makes any difference.”

“Was that huge face we saw the same as the voice?” Elsabey asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeanette said. “I’d guess that it was, but it’s only a guess.”

“Whatever,” Saylees said, “that thing came to us because we were here. Let’s keep going and see who we meet up with next.”

Galban-Dado chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. Anybody else would have been staggered or even knocked over. Saylees just snorted.

They went forward, and then the whole road was before them, extending into an infinite distance. They looked back and saw only the descending curve behind them. Jeanette went to the edge of the road. Her companions came with her. From there she saw the place where they had started. The ground beneath the starting disk, hanging in the void, was tapered to a point, like an inverted teardrop. The planets and moons and stars were as before, unmoving and unchanged.

“It’s going to take a long time to get anywhere,” Tondorre said.

“We could —” Gaeliu started to say.

Jeanette put a hand on his shoulder. “If you port, you’ll get lost out there. There are no straight lines, remember, no matter what it looks like. Going out one way doesn’t mean you’ll be able to come back the same way.”

“But we’ll never get anywhere,” Elsabey protested.

“Let me think a minute,” Jeanette said.

“How quickly can you port?” Tondorre asked Gaeliu.

“Hmmm?”

“Like this.” He ported a hundred feet away, then again, then again, all in less than a second. Then he came back in three jumps, but so quickly that he just flickered.

“I want to try that!” Gaeliu said, and he did so.

“Was it hard to do?” Lirikatli asked him. Gaeliu shook his head and grinned. “So we could all do it together,” she went on, and see how far we can go. If we don’t seem to be making any progress, we could stop and try something else.”

“Let’s stop talking,” Saylees said, “and just do it.”

Jeanette was relieved that she didn’t have to come up with any ideas. The way her people were growing and developing, maybe they could actually accomplish something. She stood, with Lirikatli on her left, and Tondorre on her right, and the others close behind her. They didn’t have to touch each other, they were connected through their psychic links. Then, all together, they made a short jump, then another, perfectly coordinated, then another longer jump, then another. After a while their jumps got longer, and they made them more quickly. It became a matter, not so much of jumping, as of visualizing themselves skimming down the cosmic road at an ever faster pace.

The positions of the stars and planets around them changed as they went faster and faster. And then, at some point, they left the road entirely. They didn’t stop. Ahead of them was something that was not a planet or a sun, that slowly rotated counter clockwise as they neared.

We could all die here, Jeanette thought.

* * * * *

If you want to read more, go to Double Dragon.