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When Ryou woke up, he was feeling clear-headed once more. The fact that it was day again didn't annoy or confuse him this time. On the other hand, he was suddenly conscious of how very uncomfortable and full of small, sharp rocks the ground beneath him was.

He was lying on his back in the dirt with the cut-out car seat cover over him. The fire was as dead as the squirrel's lower half, which was still there, complete with a fly scurrying around the haunch. Somewhere off to the right, high up in the air, the floating island persisted in flouting the laws of physics.

Ryou felt a sense of surrealism so strong that even the stones poking him through his business suit trousers didn't feel solid enough to cling to. It was a sensation he'd never had before.

It only lasted a few seconds, then he became aware of what had woken him; a crunch of footsteps through bracken and thick, dry grass.

"Bad luck, magian," said Darius, coming through the underbrush from the direction of the car. "Ryou, that is," he added with a crooked grin.

That brought back vivid memories of last night; Darius' breath warm against his ear, the arm around his waist, the unvarnished words. Ryou remembered how he'd felt, and it banished the sense of displacement. Yes, he was so far from home that it couldn't even be measured by modern physics, and his ticket back, his very life, depended on a man who couldn't promise him anything. Ryou had, following a stupid impulse, lost his world, his family, the very structure of his existence to date. He was cold, wet with dew, hungry, thirsty and tired, and the only thing he knew about the future was that it was probably not going to get much better in the immediate and had the potential of getting a whole lot worse. But the very immediacy of his situation was liberating in a strange way. Gone were those niggling concerns about his decisions, his obligations, a life like a straightjacket and the bloody Noruma account. The last few days had put a lot into perspective. Ryou felt like parts of him that'd been asleep for ages were coming awake to help him deal with real problems he could actually tackle. He might be far from anything he knew or understood, but distances were made to be traveled, and that involved putting one foot in front of another without worrying too much about past decisions. The world around Ryou was real, for all it was bizarre, and this was what he had to deal with right at the moment.

Darius dumped the armful he'd been carrying on the ground; Ryou's briefcase, strips of rubber, cut-up material from the seats and other bits and pieces. Ryou noted that the toes of the overlarge sneakers had been hacked off and that the shoes had been redesigned with the help of bits of wire and straps into a sort of enclosed sandal. Ryou nodded to himself; here was a man who definitely left tortured self-doubt and regrets to the poets and philosophers in order to concentrate on the practical.

In the same spirit, he threw back the seat cover and got to his feet, reassured to note that he wasn't so exhausted today. "What bad luck?"

Darius put his hands on his hips and gave the immediate countryside a truculent look. "I scouted around and I can't find a single drop of water on this damned stretch of turf. We better run into some on our way today, or tomorrow will feel like we're licking Nusku's rear end. What are you staring at?"

"How are we going to get off of here?" Ryou asked, pivoting around a second time. The rocky outcropping that had sheltered them last night was the only break in the scenery; other than that, he had a great view of moorland that abruptly ended in a precipitous edge all around. The wreck of the Honda was fifty meters away, as alien as a UFO in this setting. "We're on an island in the sky."

"Oh yeah, you don't know about the Broken Lands, do you."

"Did you expect me to get us off of here the same way we arrived?" Ryou asked with reluctance. His mind was clear and his body fairly rested, but a part of him he could not define felt drained nonetheless, and the idea of doing what he did yesterday all over again-

He lost his view of the edge of the world when he was spun around by the shoulder. Darius was in his face, deadly serious and fingers tense on Ryou's coat. "No! Never do that again. Ever."

"Uh? Why?"

Darius scowled. "What you did yesterday was more dangerous than you can imagine, Inlander. I thought it'd be a fucking wonder if you could just push me into the first country near the no man's land, but you shot us halfway across the known world. You have power like nobody I ever heard of, and you can't control it worth a bird's fart. You could have- furies, let's just say, you try that trick again and we'll wind up somewhere we really don't want to be."

"Where?"

"Inder, don't make me talk about it, not here in the Broken Lands." Darius glanced superstitiously around. "We're too close to that place as we are. But you remember the creatures we saw the first time we met?"

"I doubt I'll forget them in a hurry," Ryou muttered, pushing up his glasses.

"Where you're likely to send us with your lack of control, they're the sweetest thing you'll meet. The Per Gathas will get you back safely. Don't do anything foolish in the meantime. It seems the Lore and the arcana are more important than I thought, at least to get to where you want to go."

"A fact which I tried to call to your attention back in Tokyo," Ryou said pointedly. But then he remembered Darius had an urgent need to get home. "...I'm sorry. I guess I led you very far away from your country by dropping us here."

Darius snorted. "That's an understatement. We're at the back end of beyond, alright. But that doesn't signify much in the Outlands, travel here is not a matter of distance. And on the bright side," he added with a savage grin that included Ryou without any reserve on Darius's side of Us vs. Them, "I'm damned sure my enemies won't know which side we're coming back from. If this little side trip doesn't confuse them, nothing will. This may just be one more way you saved my skin, though damned if I can figure out why you keep on doing that. Come on, let's pack up camp, we have a lot of walking ahead of us. Do you want this squirrel?"

"Which brings us back to my first point, how do we get off of this island, and no, thank you, you can have the squirrel."

"You sure?" Darius looked him dubiously. "Don't get finicky on me. You'll be thankful for squirrel and worse before we get somewhere with proper food."

"You're probably right," said Ryou, looking analytically at the bleak landscape. "But I'll wait until then, if you don't mind."

"Suit yourself." Darius picked up the meat after waving away the fly. "Though I have to say, this would taste a whole lot better dipped in honey and washed down with beer."

"Getting off of here?" Ryou prompted, ignoring the crunching sounds that followed.

Darius spat out a small bone, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his sweatshirt and pointed at a spot over Ryou's shoulder. "Easy. We walk that way."

"And then?"

"We go on walking."

And so they did. For an entire day.

 

---

 

"So they're not really broken," said Ryou. He was sitting near another measly campfire, waiting for a diner of tubers to finish roasting, the only food Darius had been able to scrounge up this time. Which was better than Ryou could have done. He would have been unable to even start the fire, not knowing what a piece of flint looked like despite a degree in mathematics and an MBA.

"That's right, they're all actually one place. They're called the Broken Lands because- well, obviously." Darius jerked his head towards an island that appeared to be floating a hundred meters away, close enough where a bridge could have been built between the two if there hadn't been nothing but empty space in which to sink the pillars.

They'd walked all day, straight ahead, yet they'd never reached an edge. Every time they crested a small bluff or got out of a thicket of stunted trees, the cliff leading to the sky was always in the distance, sometimes a few hundred meters, occasionally so far Ryou could barely see it. He'd wanted to ask for an explanation all morning, but Darius was walking with a steady, tireless gait that ate the kilometers, and Ryou had quickly realized he didn't have the breath or the stamina to waste on questions. Darius might have assured him that landing here, so far from his home, wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but Ryou was still going to do his damnedest not to slow him down.

The weather on these Broken Lands was cool, though intermittently sunny, and at first Ryou had been glad of the winter coat he'd worn to the hospital what felt like a decade ago. By mid-morning, he was carrying it. By the afternoon he was inwardly wishing it were lighter, though the thought pricked his conscience; Darius was carrying everything else strapped to his back with brake cables, a bundle made up of the car seat cover filled with various odds and ends as well as Ryou's briefcase. This evening they'd used the Noruma papers as tinder for the fire.

"So the ground we're walking on is perfectly normal," said Ryou, plunged into thought to avoid dwelling on the ache in his feet. He'd always preferred reasonable shoes over designer brand names, but they were still meant for office wear rather than hiking. "What we see...is an illusion?"

"Nope, it's real. If I had a well-made scorpio at hand, I could hit that one over there." Darius nodded at the nearest floating island, then he took a swig of water from a container that had once been the plastic insert meant to hold cups in the center of the Honda. They'd found a stream in the afternoon and made an early stop, fortunately, as Ryou's thirst had been even worse than his lingering fatigue and the soreness of his feet.

"...So somehow space is what's broken. This is perfectly normal moorland, but it's immersed into a higher dimension that's giving it a strange shape. Rucked up like a ribbon or something. So we can walk along it and it feels flat as long as we're staying in its plane, but our perception of it at a distance is skewed by the bends in space. This is all a matter of dimensions, which is what you were trying to say with your onion layers. And it seems that mathematics- an understanding of mathematics is the key to moving us from...from one area to another." Which didn't make sense; when did a puny human's knowledge of mathematics change the world in any way? When did simply knowing something change anything? Well...except at the quantum level...But that didn't translate to the macroverse.

Darius stared at him over the lip of the container. "I have no idea what you just said, so I hope you weren’t expecting something from me at this point."

"Haven’t you ever felt curious about this onion of yours?"

Darius snorted. "I have enough on my mind. It’s there, it’s the way the world works, I don’t bother about how or why. I leave that to the Per Gathas."

"Who are these Per Gathas you keep mentioning?"

"They're all big-headed magii like you." Darius gave one of the tubers, cooking in the ashes, a poke with a stick. "They're the descendants of Zaratusra and the keepers of his Lore. They're the only ones who can safely deal with the Outlands and the Paths crisscrossing it, which puts them in a position of considerable power, let me tell you. It's thanks to them that we have any trade between countries at all, though they strictly control what gets traded. The fact that you can't travel far without a Path and their say-so is why the known world is not one massive empire already. It used to bug my ancestors no end, back when they had dreams of conquest, but now that we're dealing with the Imperium, I'm rather grateful. I hear there's a few magii around who don't belong to the Per Gathas, but without the Lore, they're making it up as they go along. They can't do much, and they often come to sticky ends. They'll either disappear without a trace, or their friends will find them torn in half, or burned to ashes, or eaten from the inside out, or-"

"I already agreed not to try any more plane jumping," said Ryou, pushing up his glasses and returning Darius' pointed look with an unruffled one.

"Keep that in mind. As for all that stuff you said earlier, I don't know about that. All I know is that, to get out of the Broken Lands, you head down. Turn your back to the islands that float higher, walk towards those that float lower. Charms and sigils are considered useful in avoiding a wrong turn, but obviously we'll have to make do without."

"How far away are we from somewhere normal?" Assuming that could even apply to any place anymore. Ryou's perception of 'normal' was as skewed as the countryside at present.

"No idea. Could be days. Once we're out of here...well, it sort of depends where we end up, but we'll be some twelve days of travel away from my home country if we can't score some horses somewhere." Darius frowned absently, a look of concern Ryou had caught sight of several times today when his traveling companion had glanced up at the sun and at the path ahead of them. Darius hadn't explained what he'd been doing in the no man's land when Ryou had found him other than 'I got into trouble with people who were trying to kill me and they dumped me there', but he’d made it clear he had a situation back home he had to urgently deal with.

"We'll take it easy for another day or two, but after that we'll have to walk faster," Darius finally concluded.

Easy...? It confirmed Ryou's fear. He wasn't used to that much physical exercise, but he'd had the feeling Darius was holding back due to Ryou's fatigue and his own injury, which seemed to be bothering him tonight from the way he sat hunched, wincing whenever he moved his right arm too wide.

"Here, eat these." Darius pushed one of the tubers at him, who felt his stomach rumble right on cue. The vegetable looked like a bifurcated yam, unpeeled, cooked in ashes and marred with them, but the smell of it made him salivate. He reached for it, feeling somehow betrayed by his own body. The root was hot and burned his fingers, but he juggled it around and bit into it anyway.

"We'll need to find more food soon," said Darius, looking around them slowly as if searching for something. "Jenexti won't keep us going for more than a couple of days."

He'd waved the tuber around in illustration as he spoke. Ryou looked down at his own meal. So this was a jenexti. It was full of hard bits that hadn't cooked properly and the taste was a little sour. Jenexti. Ryou didn't think he could pronounce it the way his companion did…This reminded him of another question.

"I never asked you, how come I can understand your language?"

Darius had polished off his roots and was giving the one Ryou was holding a thoughtful look as if wondering whether it might go the same way as the squirrel. "Hmm? Hell if I know. Tongues are no problem for those following in the steps of the blessed Zaratusra. The father of the Lore left this gift to all magian, the ability to break the Curse of Babel for those who walk his path, so my tutor told me. You can now understand and speak every language in the Great Design. Congratulations. Just make sure you don't accidentally say anything anyone might want to kill you for."

Babel. The Curse of Babel. A faint memory stirred; a lecture he'd attended at university about the use of mathematics in other realms than physics, and the theoretical existence of a universal metalanguage; the lecture had only been sparsely attended because it was in English, which had to be ironic in some way or other. The lecturer had, in a fit of lyricism Ryou had not approved of, called this theoretical language protoglossia, 'the language before Babel'; then he'd had to explain to his mainly Shinto and Buddhist audience what that meant. The man had been an American, which in Ryou’s opinion explained the need to gild his theory with catchphrases as if he were trying to sell it...

"Anyway, it's all just magic," said Darius dismissively. "Are you going to eat that? You should if you want to have the strength to walk anywhere tomorrow."

In Ryou's way of thinking, magic was what primitive thinkers called phenomenon they could not understand. Now that Ryou was sitting on an island that wasn't one, with another one floating - but not really - a hundred yards away, talking in a universal tongue and possessing the ability to propel himself through dimensions...now he felt a distinct sympathy for those 'primitive thinkers'. He bit into the jenexti, shelving all other questions until he could talk to someone who knew more about it. Those Per Gathas, for example.

"Have some water, too," said Darius, handing Ryou the cupholder container. "Then we sleep."

"Sleep?" Ryou paused as he reached out for the drink. The sun was still at the edge of the sky. Ryou's watch was as hopelessly turned around as its owner, but he'd taken a stab at guessing the time during a break in their walk this morning, and according to his best estimate it was now six in evening.

"We walk with daylight, so we'll get up early."

Ryou never went to bed before midnight, he slept very little. That was usually on a good bed, too, not on a rock-strewn stretch of earth. And he had so many questions, some insanely theoretical, others of an extremely practical nature. But he finished his meal, drank the water and lay down on the hard, prickly ground besides Darius, the car seat cover drawn over them both. The questions were there, but they were too crazy, too big; they'd crush him right now. And he was...unexpectedly tired...

Ryou never saw the sun go down that night, he was fast asleep in minutes and slept - according to his watch, still attempting to cling to normality - eleven straight hours before Darius shook him awake a bit before dawn.

Then they trekked on. The day was similar to the previous one except that it grew colder and rained, and Ryou was conducting a solitary fight against an increasingly empty yet upset stomach...

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A note from Mal Chants

Two things that always bother me in isekai-type fiction (published, fanfic or manga) is when the protag can mysteriously understand the local language without explanation or even wondering why, and not getting completely sick from whatever they're eating in an era/land where they are unused to the pathogens...


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Mal Chants

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