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 awful 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 floor and ceiling. 

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.”

“So 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?”


“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. “Though it’s strange that we would even have to, under the circumstances.” 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. He was not relaxed because he wasn’t concerned but, like Tondorre, 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 ranks, 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. “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 about a quarter of 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. They had seen Lirikatli vanish. Then Jeanette and the others all jumped together to where Lirikatli was, standing on 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 whom 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 javelins, or even throwing knives or axes or dirks. 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 charismatic 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. Jeanette left her own 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 of her own authority that 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. That 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. Again using her own authority, not 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 her 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, 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 that 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 as a group, 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 farther 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 farther 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 farther 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 farthest 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?”


“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. It doesn’t 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.


“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.



Chapter Eighty Two: Inverted World

They descended through caverns of black rock and flaming magma, like the lava level of some video games. Perhaps, if they had paused, they might have felt some heat, or maybe it was just luck that every mini-flicker of porting took them to an open space instead of to a constriction of fire. Or maybe this place was designed that way. They went ever deeper into hell, until their movement slowly leveled off, and at last started going up.

The caverns got larger, the lava got darker and crusted, the constricted areas got smoother. The end was ahead of them. It was not an opening onto the surface, just a cessation of hell, which would leave them above ground. They stopped at the perfect moment, when they were right at the surface, not hundreds of yards above it. The hall of clouded columns, the planetoid space, the caverns of fire they had just left, were all preliminary to this.

They were at the top of a high but gentle hill, in a knee-high meadow of grasses and wildflowers. There was no portal to hell behind or below them. The cavern of fire was off in some other more complex direction.

There were insects in the grasses, and more fluttering and buzzing through the air. They were like colorful dragonflies, long-winged butterflies, things like fuzzy bees or wasps, bumbling metallic things sort of like beetles. The flowers were of different shapes, generally small, white and pink and light blue and various yellows and sometimes red. There were a few birds of different kinds. Most of them flew near the ground, but several glided high overhead, and one, with yellow wings on a black body, perched on one of the sturdier flower stems. The sun was warm, the breeze was cool, the light felt like late morning. 

The meadow beyond the hill extended into a hazy distance, then curved up on all sides to enclose them on the inside of a globe. They could see the entire world from here, as if they were in space looking down, except they were inside looking up. There were forests, farms, low mountains, lakes, rivers, more meadows or prairies, some desert areas, and even small seas with islands. There were villages, towns, and even cities, all connected by roads. Cumulus clouds floated everywhere, and cast their shadows on the ground. Way up in the middle of the air was a miniature sun, its light obscuring the far side of the inside out world.

It wasn’t a big world, maybe only a thousand miles across. Inside a real planet, gravity should have pulled them, and everything else, toward the sun-like object at the center. But here it held them firmly to the ground.

“He made this, didn’t he,” Lirikatli said. “He must have spent a long time on it. Is there real life here?” she asked, turning to Gaeliu. She stared.

“Yes, there is,” he said, staring back at her. “At least, it all feels real. It smells real.”

By now everybody was staring at everybody else. To Jeanette, everybody looked as if they had come from her world. She felt Tondorre’s reaction. To him, they all looked as if they were native to his world. Lirikatli saw everybody with dog-legs, muzzles, and crests. Elsabey and Saylees saw everyone with a short brush of hair, except Jeanette who had the long hair of a demon. Galban-Dado and Gaeliu saw people as they would look if they were all on their respective home worlds. She looked at Tondorre, and he looked at her, and wondered if that perception extended to touch as well as sight.

“It’s all an illusion,” Tondorre said.

“Oh, not everything,” Galban-Dado said. “The way we appear to each other certainly is, but I think we’re seeing this place the way he sees it himself.”

“How would we know that?” Lirikatli asked, then said, “We’re all using my language.”

“No, we’re using mine,” Gaeliu and Saylees said together.

“I think we have finally come to the right place,” Jeanette said, in perfect English, as far as she could tell.

Tondorre started to say something, got impatient, then turned away from them and looked around at the world which enclosed them. “It’s beautiful, even if it is inside out.” It was an intellectual response, not an emotional one. “Do you suppose it’s a slave world?”

“There’s a village down there,” Galban-Dado said. “It’s not that far away. We could go and find out.”

“He has to know we’re here,” Lirikatli said. “I mean, we just walked into his house. How long before he sends somebody to throw us out?”

“Maybe he’s just having fun with us,” Elsabey said, “teasing us while he sits back somewhere laughing.”

“If he’s going to do something,” Saylees said, “I wish he’d go ahead and do it. Always before, we had some of his minions to deal with. Now he can deal with us personally. But he’s not doing anything. Maybe he’s not really worried about us at all.”

“The warrior mice finally invade the castle,” Jeanette said, “and the king hardly notices or cares.”

“We sometimes had rats in the stable,” Galban-Dado said, just to be saying something while he looked at the world. “Toiceegh’sopai never knew about it. We’d have somebody set traps if they got too aggressive. One time Hadro-Nosta had some cats brought into the stable.”

“Even a rat can kill a king,” Tondorre said, “if he’s smart enough.”

“It still makes me feel small,” Elsabey said, unaware of the irony.

Jeanette sat down in the grass, then lay back with her hands behind her head, and looked up at the sun-like thing above her. It was not too bright to look at. Whatever the ‘sun’ really was, it was at zenith, and would always be there. How could it possibly rise and set? It never moved, and yet it felt like late morning, not noon, about ten thirty or so.

Tondorre sat down cross-legged beside her. “You don’t seem very concerned.”

“I’m concerned, but I’m not worried or anxious. Even though we’ve come this far we could still fail. We could all die before our time. But we are here, and each of us will do what we can. We may not finish what we set out to do, but there will be no failure for us as individuals.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” Galban-Dado said. He sat down on her other side, his legs straight out in front of him, and leaned back on his hands. “I guess, in a way, there’s nothing to fear, is there? I mean, death may be painful, and we may have regrets for things that are left undone….”

Lirikatli sat down by Jeanette’s head. “I regret the loss of friends,” she said. “But other than that, I’m glad I was able to be a part of all this.” Then she leaned down and kissed Jeanette on the forehead.

The others, each with their own thoughts, sat or stood as they chose. Though the sun-thing did not move, time passed until it seemed to be about noon.

“I wonder if we could get some lunch down there,” Saylees said.

Jeanette stood, looked where he was looking, at the village at the bottom of the hill. It was only a couple miles away. “Let’s go find out,” she said. They walked.


The meadow went down to the bottom of the hill, where there were small fields all the way to the back-yard gardens of the nearest houses. Three produce trucks, their beds open, and which looked like they were powered by internal combustion engines, drove slowly toward them on a road that curved around the hill to the left. Another road went around it to the right. There were other roads, on the left and right of the village, and probably one or two more on the far side. 

The houses were small, frame-built, painted white or pale gray or cream or pale olive. The gardens behind them were neatly fenced and fairly large. Each had a small lawn in front. Smoke rose from many of the brick chimneys. The paved streets were narrow, and there were no sidewalks, and no street lamps. There was a school on one side of town, a court house on the other, a block and a half of shops, a small hotel, and a station behind which a bus was parked.

The people here looked just like people. What Jeanette and her companions looked like to them she could not guess, other than that they were rough, armed, travel-stained, and rather frightening.

There was a café at the corner of the first block of shops. They stopped outside the door. They had no local currency, and not much money of any kind at all.

“It doesn’t seem right,” Elsabey said, “that heroes should have to go begging for lunch.”

“We’re not heroes here,” Lirikatli said. The people passing them on the street looked at them with some disapproval.

“It’s not the same as it was on LeShaw’s world,” Tondorre said. “That was a real world, with real people brought in from outside. Everything here was made by Kada Barros, and we are the enemy.”

“I’m hungry,” Saylees said. So they went inside. Conversation stopped as the people saw them. 

There were a dozen tables for four, most of them filled. There was a counter opposite the door where people placed their orders and picked up their food. Off to the side was a place where the patrons bussed their own dishes. The customers were a mix of men and women of various ages. Jeanette and her companions were very much out of place. There was no open hostility, but there was a lot of disapproval and distaste.

“Do we really want to eat here?” Lirikatli asked, even as her stomach growled.

“We’d better eat somewhere,” Saylees said.

Jeanette made herself be calm. She and her companions looked just like the customers, except for size, shape, clothes, and weapons. Like strange people, but not like aliens. She didn’t want to take advantage by exerting her supernatural authority. Maybe she could do or say something that would make these people less anxious about her.

“I’m sorry,” she said to those nearest her. “I didn’t mean to upset you. We’ve come a very long way —” and how long could that be in a world as small as this, “and we were hoping to get some lunch.” The people around her relaxed. “If this isn’t a good place for us, could you suggest one that might be better?” By the time she finished there were no more signs of negative feeling, only an odd kind of curiosity. There was silence for a moment, then some quiet talk among the people, then a man said, “Go ahead,” and waved to the counter.

“We have no money,” Jeanette said.

There were blank looks, a few murmurs, an increase in curiosity, and some return of apprehension. Then an older woman said, “What’s ‘money’?”

“Everybody works, nobody pays,” Saylees said quietly.

“This has been tried back home,” Tondorre said.

“It doesn’t work does it?” Galban-Dado said.

“Not for very long,” Jeanette said.

“He built this place from the ground up,” Lirikatli said. “Uhm, in a manner of speaking.”

“We should accept their invitation,” Elsabey said.

They went to the counter. They ordered the best they could from the limited choices. Tondorre and Gaeliu took possession of two tables as they became vacant, and pushed them together. They all sat, and had to wait only a few minutes before three people came from the kitchen, carrying small trays, which they put on the counter. The food looked okay but not exciting, and proved to be rather bland. When they finished they took their trays to the bussing station and left.

“I don’t like this place,” Elsabey said.

“It’s not natural,” Gaeliu said. “I don’t know how you did that,” he said to Jeanette, “but the people got calm too quickly.”

“I don’t know how I did it either,” Jeanette said. “And Lirikatli is right. This place is too carefully constructed. It’s his idea of paradise, of what a world should be like if everything were perfect.”

“If we destroy him,” Elsabey said, “will this place die?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanette said.

“So where is he?” Saylees asked. “How do we find him now?”

“I don’t know that either.” She looked around at the village. “I don’t think we have to find him.” The people on the street, some two dozen or so, stopped walking and looked at her. “I think he’s right here, all around us.” The villagers went on about their business.

 “So it doesn’t much matter where we go, then, does it,” Tondorre said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are the people real?” Galban-Dado asked. Those who were nearest Jeanette and her companions now showed them only the mildest curiosity.

“I think they are,” Jeanette said. “I can feel their minds. They are not slaves. They have free will as far as I can tell. But they are all guided. Not like puppets, more like children.”

“And Kada Barros is doing this.” Lirikatli said. The nearest people glanced at them at the mention of the name.

“Probably not directly,” Galban-Dado said. “Princes have ministers and secretaries, who in turn each have a staff of subordinates who do the actual work. I would think,” he said hesitantly, “that he’d get more pleasure from watching all this run by itself, instead of managing it personally. Once he got it all set up. I could be wrong.”

“Build the system to your liking,” Elsabey said, “and set it running, and if it isn’t right, change it here and there.”

“Something like that,” Jeanette said. “But neither he nor any of his subordinates are the kind to just let nature run its course.”

“What’s the point of having control,” Saylees said sarcastically, “if you don’t exercise it?”

Gaeliu put a hand to his mouth. “It is so wrong.”

“This is not something we can destroy,” Lirikatli said, looking around at the village.

“No,” Tondorre said, “I don’t think it is.”

“We have no right.”

“But we do have to stop Kada Barros from destroying everything else.”

If Kada Barros was listening, he didn’t respond.


They walked out of the village, then skimmed along the ground to the top of the hill. It felt like early afternoon now, though the sun-thing in the sky was as it had always been.

It was a perfect world, except for being micro-managed. Growth, change, and development played very minor roles here. It had not always been exactly as it was now, but the differences between what it was and what it had been at its creation were not a matter of chance and evolution.

“Maybe this is as far as we can go,” Elsabey said. She lay on her back, and put her arms under her head.

“I’m not about to give up just yet,” Saylees said, sitting cross-legged near by. He looked at Jeanette. “Unless you tell me to.”

“We have not done —” Jeanette said, then, “I have not done what I was chosen to do.”

“Whoever gave you this job,” Tondorre said, “is asking too much of you. I mean, saving one world is one thing, you’ve done that —”

“We’ve done that.”

“Now, yes, but not at first. So what are you going to do?”

“Save the world.” A pause. “Contain the evil.” A pause. “Forgive it maybe.”

Gaeliu was standing, holding his spear just under the head with its butt on the ground. “But what about right now. Go to a city somewhere and cause trouble? I don’t think that would do us any good.” 

“I don’t think so either,” Lirikatli said. “Besides, though we’ve done that, that’s the kind of thing our enemy does.”

“We have been free to make mistakes,” Jeanette said, “even terrible ones. But you’re right, we should try to not make those same mistakes again.”

“And if we do,” Galban-Dado said, “then we have accept the responsibility for what we’ve done and get on with it.”

A pause. “Yes,” Jeanette said, trying not to sound as spiritually tired as she felt. 

After a while Elsabey said, “There’s no weather, not anywhere in this whole world. There are clouds, but none of them are rain clouds.”

“You’re right,” Gaeliu said. “But the ground is moist under the grass. Maybe it rains at night?”

“And when would that be?” Galban-Dado asked.

After a while Tondorre said, “The people down there knew the name.”

“How would they know him?” Lirikatli asked. “Does he talk to them somehow? Does he come down every now and then and pay them a visit?”

“I don’t think he does that,” Jeanette said. “Maybe he just gave them the idea of an extra-mundane, so that they could think about him, maybe even worship him, though I don’t see him doing that either.”

“There are forces in the world,” Gaeliu said, “greater than we, but….”

“Demons are just superior beings,” Saylees said, “not spirits. Even the intelligences in the domes are not spirits.”

“I don’t even know what spirits are,” Tondorre said.

“They’re all different on those worlds where they exist,” Jeanette said.

“You’ve spoken of Gedeon several times,” Lirikatli said. “Is he a spirit?”

Jeanette hesitated. “I think he’s more like a sentient force of nature, except that he exists in the whole of the greater reality, not just in one world.”

“Like that thing I heard singing once,” Gaeliu said, “out in the white.”

“Yes. Some intelligence far beyond what we might call a spirit, or a demon, or a god.”

“And Kada Barros is like that,” Elsabey said.

“Yes. I think so.”

“But you spoke to Gedeon.”

“He spoke to me.”

“Why would any being like that,” Tondorre said, “want to bother with us in the first place?”

“Because we can do things that he cannot, just like a dog or a bat or a fish can do things that we cannot. Even a being like Gedeon has to obey the rules, whatever they are. He told me once, Eyes cannot touch, fingers cannot see. We each have our parts and our limitations. There is no omnipotence. If there were, there would be no need for you and me.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Saylees said, “Kada Barros seems to enjoy breaking the rules.”

“That has to be a part of it,” Elsabey said.

“The thrill of the forbidden,” Saylees said.

“Why can’t he be content,” Gaeliu said bitterly, “with his little paradise here? He could break any rule he wanted to here.”

“Because,” Elsabey said, “he envies his little brother’s creativity.”

“That’s just a metaphor,” Tondorre said.

“Does it matter?” Elsabey asked.

The light dimmed for just a second, just a little, though the sun-thing did not change.

“I think he heard that,” Saylees said. “I think we may be striking a little close to home.”

“He heard that too,” Gaeliu said. There was something in his voice which made everybody stand up. 

Warriors, about thirty of them, were on all sides of the hill, three or four hundred yards away. They were vaguely reptilian, unlike everybody else, like they must have looked at home. They came up with a steady and determined gait.

“Are they the same ones we met before?” Tondorre asked.

“I would guess so,” Galban-Dado said. “Newcomers might be dissuaded. I’d guess these poor guys had it explained to them that death at our hands would be preferable to what was in store for them if they ran away a second time.”

Jeanette thought about the thing on her back. She did not want to use it again. If she did, she could destroy all these warriors in a matter of moments. They wouldn’t have a chance. And if she did, the death of each of them would add to the burden of guilt which she already bore, would cause her physical pain of its own kind, and would take her another step toward becoming as evil as it was.

Lirikatli drew her sword and stood in front of Jeanette, facing the oncoming enemy. The others took up positions around her, facing outward in a protective circle. Even Elsabey was holding her big knife instead of her crossbow.

“You can always use that thing if we fall,” Tondorre said to Jeanette.

She turned in place, looking past her protective friends at the approaching warriors. A hundred yards away now, they would not be stopped by a simple order. Maybe she could stop them if she used the full power of the Tash Griaf’s command. But her friends, who had moved a few feet farther from her, did not want her to do that, unless there were no other choice.

She had no idea what they had in mind. She drew her own sword.

It would not be a simple fight. She and her friends could move in ways that no ordinary mortal could counter. But the enemy’s eyes were all on Jeanette, not on her companions, and they would do whatever they could to break through the defensive ring. Her companions knew this, and were afraid for her sake, not for their own. If necessary, she would flee rather than let them die needlessly, or worse, let the Tash Griaf fall into enemy hands.

The enemy charge, when it came, was not to take out her companions, but to pass between them so that they could get to Jeanette. But her companions, making tiny jumps in pairs, got between her and the warriors, while Jeanette sidestepped any who got too close. Her companions were never really where the enemy expected them to be. They avoided blows they could not parry, struck from the side or even the back, moved inside the reach of the long-hafted weapons, or sometimes cut them off short. The reptilian warriors did not cry out, and did not yield, and never lost sight of Jeanette as their objective. And they all died.

Jeanette and her companions had taken no wounds. It felt so terribly unfair. They regrouped, as they had been before, ready for another wave. 

Elsabey was crying. “I hate this.”

Jeanette put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. Elsabey put her hand on Jeanette’s, took a couple deep breaths, and said, in a broken voice, “I’ll be all right.”

“I know you will,” Jeanette said softly, squeezed her shoulder once more, and let her go.

They stayed as they were. No one came for a second attack. They cleaned their weapons on their enemy’s clothes, and sat down on the trampled grass, Jeanette still in the center of her friends’ protective ring.

Gaeliu looked around as if uncomfortable, then stood up and said, “I need to relieve myself.”

Saylees said, “The nearest trees are over there.” The grove was about five miles away, far to the left of the village.

“One jump or many?” Tondorre asked.

“Let’s try many,” Lirikatli said. “Short and quick, like when we came here.”

“That was kind of fun, wasn’t it,” Galban-Dado said.

“All together then,” Elsabey said. “Keep together.”

They were all heroes now. Jeanette could let herself be just one of them, instead of always being their leader.

They took tiny jumps, a hundred feet or so each time, so rapidly that they seemed to skim above the ground toward the grove. It was exhilarating, especially all working together in unison. Elsabey was actually laughing by the time they got to the trees and stopped.

The undergrowth at the verge was dense, but there was nothing with prickles, spines, or thorns, and they pushed their way through easily. They stopped when they were about a hundred feet in, in a place where the trees weren’t quite so close together, and each took a turn while the others kept watch for enemies. They were not disturbed.

“Do you suppose he enjoyed that?” Lirikatli asked sarcastically as they moved to another part of the forest.

“It means as much to him as watching insects on a leaf,” Tondorre said.

“Is he going to try again?” Gaeliu asked.

“Of course he is,” Elsabey said. “He’s having fun playing with the mice in his castle before destroying them.”

“So, do we want to get out in the open?” Gaeliu asked. “Or meet them here?” He looked up into the branches overhead. He startled and half crouched. Everybody else looked up. Spider-like things, not quite as big as horses, were coming down at them. A lot of them.

“Just take it easy,” Galban-Dado said, “and jump carefully. With all these trees we could get separated.”

The monsters were big, and strong, and fairly quick, but Jeanette and her companions jumped out of the way of long-reaching legs. They killed four of the spider-things each, then the rest of the monsters fled. They were not intelligent enough to be influenced by the enemy’s arguments.

They stood catching their breath among the carnage of cloven carapaces, yellow ichor, and red and green entrails. Then, without hesitation or consultation, they ported out of the forest to a place a few yards away from where they had gone in.

“I suppose,” Saylees said, “he could just crush us if he really wanted to.”

“If he could,” Jeanette said, “why would he send agents to do his work for him?”

“But he built this place.”

“He did, but he still has limitations, and I don’t think he wants to damage his own paradise.”

“If we go back in there,” Tondorre said, “I’ll bet we would find that the mess has been all cleaned up.”

“Should we just go exploring, then,” Lirikatli asked, “and see what happens next? Or sit around getting bored while waiting for supper?”

“I’m tired of exploring,” Tondorre said. “All the worlds are different in detail, but after a while….”

“The black world was very different,” Gaeliu said.

“Just a smaller example of LeShaw’s slave world, with different colors.”

It was definitely getting on toward mid-afternoon, though the sun had not changed. They decided to go back to the original hill top, and did it in one jump. There were no bodies now, and the grasses were no longer trampled. It was a pleasant enough place to wait for Kada Barros to send another group of minions after them.

“He is just playing with us, isn’t he,” Lirikatli said.

“It gives him something to do,” Saylees said, “besides constantly maintaining this place.”

“If Darnian were here,” Lirikatli went on after a pause, “could he see into this world’s extra-mundane?”

Jeanette looked at her for a moment. “That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know. But think about it, this whole world is extra-mundane.”

“It’s rather academic, isn’t it?” Galban-Dado asked.

“As far as Darnian’s being here,” Jeanette said, “yes, it is. But if he were here, he could see this world, more for what it is than just for what it looks like to us. But he and I, even back then, were very much alike in some ways. In some ways, we almost could have switched roles….”

She had gone with Darnian into what he called the Spiral. Maybe, if she thought about it the right way, she could see past this world’s appearances. She sat up. The unchanging sun was getting later. She leaned forward, crossed her arms on her knees, and stared into nothing. Her friends, surrounding her, became quiet.

Not every world had a spiritual realm, and they were not the same in those which did. Every world was different. Every world, whether a single body or a vast collection of galaxies, had its own rules, though there were certain very fundamental rules which were common to all. The presence or lack of an extra-mundane, a distinct spiritual realm, a divine — a heaven and hell, if you will — was not fundamental. It was something that varied, an extra, as its name implied, but no less real for those worlds which had it.

This world had an extra-mundane, even beyond what it was. Of course it did, another layer. It was where Kada Barros existed. Except that wasn’t quite right. Kada Barros’s place of existence was the primary. This shell of a world, which actually surrounded him in a trans-dimensional way, was the extra, the add-on. And his place was a lot bigger than the world which contained it.

Something about that frightened her, but she felt Gaeliu’s hand on her shoulder before she could decide whether to pursue it, and came back to the present reality.

There were twelve of them, not quite human, each subtly different from the others, each surrounded by its own nimbus of light. They were all off on one side, floating toward them on the afternoon air, on the same level as the top of the hill. It was hard to tell how far away they were. Maybe they were tiny and very close, or gigantic and very far away.

“They’re about as big as we are,” Gaeliu said. “I think.”

They were only a couple hundred yards off.

“There’s no one behind us,” Elsabey said.

The twelve beings, more or less side by side, were naked. Some were male, some were female, some neither, some both, some unaccountably something else. It was strangely impossible to tell how many of each kind there were. Their skins were white, or cream, or pale golden, depending on how the external light struck them, or black, or deep blue, or mahogany where the light did not strike. The light they brought with them did not affect their color.

They stopped when they were still some thirty feet away, not quite close enough to stand on the slope near the top of the hill. They did not actually speak, and they weren’t quite in unison, but what they said, more or less, was, “You should leave now.”

“We did not come here to leave,” Jeanette said. “We came here to deal with Kada Barros.”

“Kada Barros does not ‘deal with’ the likes of you,” came the twelve-part, non-vocal reply.

“Of course he does,” Jeanette said. “Through agents like you, and the creatures in the grove, and the warriors, and Arkenomes, and anyone else he can send our way.”

One beat. Two beats. “We will escort you away,” the twelve beings said, not quite together.

They kept their distance as they encircled Jeanette and her companions, who just stood as they were, and did not turn to face the beings moving around behind them. They trusted Elsabey, who was already facing that way, to keep watch.

There was a subtle pressure, pushing them away, more or less in the reverse direction by which they had come into this world. They did not move relative to the hill, but they came closer to the hell of burning lava and black stone. It was easy to resist, though it might not have been even a few days ago. They went nowhere. After a moment, the pressure stopped.

They became weightless and began to float upward toward the sun. When they were a few feet above the ground, in unison far more accurate than that exhibited by the twelve glowing beings, Jeanette and her friends ported back down. They were lifted again, and responded as they had before, more quickly this time. Again they were lifted, and again they returned to the ground, and again and again, ever more quickly until, as far as an outside observer could tell, they did not move at all. After just a few moments, this effort against them ceased as well.

Elsabey came around from behind Jeanette, and drew and loaded her crossbow. “Just curious,” she said. She shot between Lirikatli and Galban-Dado at one of the glowing beings a few yards beyond them. Everyone saw the bolt passing through it without any effect at all.

“Just a test,” Jeanette said. She reached over her shoulder and took the grip of the Tash Griaf. The beings moved away from her about ten feet or so.

“Can it touch them, do you think?” Tondorre asked.

“Do you think,” Jeanette asked in return, “they’ll come close enough for me to find out?”

The glowing beings circled a quarter turn, and drew away from them a dozen feet more.

“Can you command them?” Lirikatli asked.

Jeanette drew the Tash Griaf. The muscles of her arm tightened painfully. She looked at the being in front of her. It looked back. “I don’t think so.” She began walking toward it. After a moment it backed away, then they all left.

Then Elsabey jumped about three hundred yards down the slope of the hill. She bent down, picked something up, and came back, holding the bolt she had shot. “Just in case,” she said as she put it away.

Saylees grinned at her and touched her shoulder lightly. She grinned back.

Jeanette watched the byplay, happy at their comradeliness, and started to put the Tash Griaf away, but had only raised it as high as her shoulder, when another person appeared in the air in front of her, just a few paces away, floating just a few inches above the ground. And he didn’t glow, he shone. She lowered the sword.

He was, or appeared to be, taller than even Galban-Dado. His physique, which was not concealed by his pearl gray shirt and trousers, was perfect, too perfect to be real. His skin was a dark golden tan, his hair a rich strawberry blond, his beard, two or three shades darker, was neatly trimmed. He wore silvery boots, a silvery belt, and there was something on a silvery chain which hung around his neck, just below and inside the open collar of his shirt. A jeweled ring glittered on the third finger of his right hand. He carried no weapons.

Jeanette let the tip of the troll sword touch the ground. “Diapollion.”

“Yes,” he said, in a bass voice that, though it wasn’t loud, had it been enclosed in a room would have shaken the windows. “I am he.”

Jeanette’s companions pulled back just a little, as if instinctively they sought shelter behind her. “You don’t really look like that,” she said to her enemy.

“Does it matter?” Though Diapollion floated, he was quite substantial, and the light emanating from him did not obscure his body.

“I think it does,” Jeanette said. “Symbolism is very important to you.”

He smiled. “And to you as well.”

“In what way?”

“That great phallic symbol you’re holding. It negates your weakness and femininity.”

Jeanette held the nearly weightless weapon up and looked at it. She would not use it here. “I suppose being a phallic symbol depends on how you look at it. Maybe you see it that way. But I do not see it as a symbol of affection, fertilization, and creation.” She put it away. “I see it as a tool for butchery, for cutting meat. Now, I admit, I’ve not known too many penises, but I really doubt that any penis could be used for cutting meat.”

Galban-Dado laughed. Tondorre chuckled. Lirikatli giggled uncharacteristically. Elsabey nearly choked.

“It cleaves the body of woman,” Diapollion said.

“You are sick,” Elsabey said. “It joins, it does not cut apart.”

“That’s all he thinks women are good for,” Gaeliu said, “cleaving and impregnating. No, not even that. He’s just like Cory Yael.”

Diapollion glanced at him, his expression strange, then he looked back at Jeanette. His eyes were a blue so dark that they were almost black. “He never did like that name,” he said.

“The symbolism didn’t suit him,” Jeanette said. “He didn’t want to be the son of his mother and father. He wanted to be great and mighty in his own right. Which, of course, he was not, without you to guide him and be his surrogate parents.”

“And does nobody stand with you in that regard?”

“Oh, yes, I have a guide. And I had parents, too, once, whom I loved despite their over-protectiveness, which I hated. Parents whom you destroyed.” Her voice was calm. She was calm. She was merely stating a fact.

“You seek revenge,” Diapollion said, with a small, condescending smile.

“Revenge achieves nothing,” Jeanette said.

“You seek it, nonetheless.”

“Do not judge me by your own weaknesses. I have forgiven once, and offered to forgive another. Revenge is empty, it is only another form of death. I seek life. All I want from you, is that you leave the worlds alone, so that they can live.”

“It is not my choice,” he said, but his smile broadened just a little bit.

“You are Kada Barros’s slave,” Jeanette said, “so obviously it is he who I must persuade.”

“That cannot be done,” Diapollion said, smiling just a little bit more. He put his hand up to his throat, as if to draw out the chain which hung there.

Jeanette had her dagger out as if she had been holding it all this time. She lunged at Diapollion for the physical force, and ported at the same time so that she could reach him, and slashed him across the back of his hand, severing two fingers, including the one with the ring, and cutting the chain under his shirt. She swung again, a return stroke, but Diapollion was gone.



If you want more, you can get it here.