A series of bumps and thuds woke Ryou up. He sat up in bed, heart beating.
"Ah, he's awake," said the passer, the door swinging shut on its leather strips behind her. She was carrying a small copper pail. On the other side of the room, Darius dusted off his hands as he stood up from a pile of logs he'd dropped into a wooden bin near the fire.
The passer grinned toothlessly at Ryou. "Get up, young man, get up if you want to break your fast. Then we'll be going. How about you, my handsome? Want some milk?"
"Yes, thanks, and if you can sell us some of your cured ham too, I'd take it as a favor," Darius answered, putting a couple of logs and a few branches in the fire and building it up from the embers. From what Ryou could see out of the single glassless window opening, it was still night outside. The light from the two bowls of tallow was too dim and flickering, he couldn't read the time on his watch face.
It took an hour to pack, get the horses ready and eat a breakfast of leftover stew, goat cheese and stale bread warmed over the fire. No coffee or tea, of course, nothing but the goat's milk obtained minutes earlier. The strong taste almost made Ryou retch, but he forced it down and ate all the rest of the food placed before him, wondering how long it would take him to stop feeling so permanently hungry after only a few days of fasting and exercise.
Eventually he, Darius and the horses stood behind the passer at a spot near the barn. A thick pre-morning mist had clamped down on the land during the night. Ryou could barely make out the marker stones. He stared numbly at the limited surroundings; he hadn't gotten as much sleep last night as would have been wise.
"So are you boys traveling further than Aksum?" asked the old lady as if she were idling away the time, waiting for a bus.
"We'll see where the winds blow us," Darius answered, staring straight out across the clearing.
"The winds of war are what are blowing down that way, my boys. Aksum's taking a stand against the Imperium, so's Assyria, Ur and most of the free cities. War and demons are everywhere these days, go as far as you can to avoid them." The passer chewed her gums, then glanced up at Ryou. "I'd wager you're from considerably further away than that, aren't you, my boy."
Both Ryou and Darius tensed.
"The moment I saw you, I knew you were from further out even than Sung. Are you from Ezo? Or from some other place I've never even heard of?"
"Ezo?" said Ryou blankly. Then his mind imploded. "You mean the Republic of Ezo?!"
"Yes, yes, republic. Can't get my head around all your different kind of kingdoms," grumbled the passer dismissively. "Oops, come on, it's time to go," she added, nodding at a thin streak of lighter grey at the edge of the horizon
Ryou found his elbow caught by Darius, who shook his head. "Shh."
"But- but she said the republic of Ezo."
"Yeah, that or any other country she can think of is fine of as long as it's somewhere in the Outlands."
"But the republic of Ezo doesn't exist. Not anymore, I mean. It was a- a small state created temporarily by refugees from the Bakumatsu-"
"On not thinking too hard."
Ryou opened his mouth and then closed it.
The Republic of Ezo. How could that exist here? And didn't they- didn't they have steam power, for god's sake? Didn't they...? Ryou had always had high scores in every subject matter including history, but the latter was due to his ability to easily memorize dates and numbers. He'd never really bothered to look at history as anything more than that and hadn't retained much.
It didn't make sense for Ezo to exist cheek by jowl with the Roman Empire, or an offshoot thereof. Ryou didn't believe himself to be particularly chauvinistic, but common sense as well as a little bit of patriotic pride told him that an army of Bakumatsu survivors would send the Roman legion decamping at great speeds.
Though by the sound of it, they were far away from here, inasmuch as this concept applied to the Outlands. The Per Gathas restricted movements of large forces and technology. The Imperium had gotten around that by creating a groundswell of locally trained legions everywhere in their territories; sheer numbers might defeat technology, since most of these Outland pockets of civilizations they called 'countries' tended to be quite small. And isolationist for the most part, Ryou remembered. From what Darius had said, it seemed Roma Praetorium had created a morass of territories on its side, while the Assyrian, Ionian, Aksumite and now-gone Persian Empires had done the same on theirs, and so in this 'region' of the Outlands everything was confused, but other countries kept their borders more hermetical...
Ryou stumbled against a clod of earth and got a sharp look back from Darius. Right. Not thinking. Not thinking at all.
The remains of the night were grey around them, blurring distances and the landscape's relief. A bird called out stridently from the moorland; the pre-dawn felt thicker and more silent by contrast. Ryou narrowed his eyes in concentration as the passer led them forward. Darius was right behind her, leading all three horses so that Ryou could walk immediately at his side.
Now that he was concentrating on it, their progress bordered on the ridiculous. The passer, who hadn't struck Ryou as being senile up until now, wandered all over the field, muttering to herself. Darius followed her as if he were walking a minefield. Even the horses seemed to pick up and put down their hooves exactly in her footsteps. It was as if their group were making their way through a maze with invisible walls. From Darius's incurious accumulation of hearsay, Ryou had gathered they were going to cross to another country from here, and needed the aid of a passer in order to not get lost. Lost in a circle of terrain half the size of a football field. Darius had also said the Paths opened and closed depending on the time of year and the cycle of the stars. If that was true, that put the science behind these famous borders on par with astronomy, as far as Ryou was concerned.
Ryou stumbled along, feet catching against outcroppings of turf, wondering just what the hell they were doing. Darius looked back at him sharply once or twice, but otherwise said nothing.
Their ludicrously roundabout approach finally got them as far as the stream. The passer, who was barefoot, climbed arthritically down the bank, raising a flurry of bugs and mosquitoes. She hiked up her breeches and walked through the water which rose no higher than her bony calves. Ryou, Darius and the horses followed, Ryou inwardly sighing as water drenched the bottom of his trousers. Now he knew why Darius had asked him to not wear his shoes.
Something deep within Ryou turned upside down with a jerk that felled him to his knees. He barely heard the splash as he landed in the water. One of the horses whinnied in alarm behind him; it sounded miles away.
He couldn’t pinpoint where Darius was calling him from, even though he knew his friend was right in front of him. Ryou focused his eyes-
-but deep inside, a sense he did not know about until now was stirring-
"Ryou- don't- oh Inder, don't do anything stupid." Darius was holding him around the shoulders. Ryou could feel it now.
The sense inside - neither smell, touch, sight, feel or taste - was not actively doing anything. But it was no longer dormant as it had been before.
"Oy, what's wrong with him?" came a creaky voice from up ahead
"He-...nothing. He's alright." Darius sounded a little relieved when Ryou blinked and focused on him.
"This is not a good place for a fainting spell, my Lord from Ezo or Wherever," snapped the passer, not moving from where she stood on the far bank. "Get up and walk."
Darius helped Ryou to his feet, steadied him, then clicked his tongue and pulled at the horses.
The air warped around Ryou - yet it was only inside his head that it was doing so. His eyes and every other sense were telling him everything was perfectly steady. The schism was giving him motion sickness. He leaned against Darius and focused as much as he could on the passer up ahead. And...it was odd...almost frightening...but now when she took one step in this direction and three steps in that...he almost knew why, though he could never hope to put that knowledge into words.
"There's no hostel?" Darius was still holding Ryou by the arm. When Ryou glanced up, his friend was examining a lean-to made of stone and rough-hewn wood squatting on the rough bracken surrounded by stunted bushes- wait, bushes? And further on - further on, trees were looming above the stone markers twenty meters ahead. But the inn they'd stayed in last night was in a grassland- Head spinning even more, Ryou glanced over his shoulder and felt an acute wrench of disorientation. The structure in which he'd slept last night and which should only be half a football field away had vanished. So had the moorlands. The little rill they'd crossed was now a small bubbling torrent cutting its way through a copse of trees.
The passer made a noise like a goat's cough, a sign of amusement. "A hostel, here? No, hardly anybody comes from this direction, my boy. This is not the main Palis crossing, this is the ass-end of the country. Did you want to wait three days to go to the main-"
"No, this is fine."
The passer marched straight on past the lean-to, and Ryou, still swimming through unnamable sensations, somehow felt no surprise that she was no longer weaving in and out of invisible corridors, making her way directly to the stone markers instead.
Whatever had taken possession of him abruptly stopped when he set foot on the beaten earth beyond the stele. Ryou staggered as reality abruptly recovered and the world around him became rock solid again.
"Ugh. What was that?"
"Nothing, you're fine now," said Darius with an undertone of warning. Ryou glanced around and noted how the passer, who'd stopped next to the stele, was looking at him curiously.
"I'm no priest, my young men, but I do think your friend should see one."
"Maybe you're right," said Darius. He was still holding Ryou by the shoulders, the horses from their lead in another hand; those blighted animals always behaved for him, Ryou noted sourly. "What is the closest dwelling from here?"
"Besides my inn, or the shed back there?" the passer gave that croak of a laugh again.
"Yes, the next one to the south."
"That'd be this little mudhole called Kegsum. It's a dump. Even their goats can't make good milk, and what passes for the priest is a dotard of more than five-dozen seasons. He comes to my inn to drink at times," she added as if in explanation. "Can't hold his beer. You'd be better off riding north and east to Alipia, or if his head is really knocked loose, you'll be in Palis itself in four days where you'll find the Grand Hall of Hygiea, the best wine in the country and a Path that will take you anywhere you want."
Whatever Darius thought was lost to Ryou as something twisted deep inside.
It had some similarities to what he'd walked through a few minutes ago, but whereas the previous sensation had been nothing more than weird and disorienting, this one was undiluted wrongness. And this feeling Ryou was familiar with. He knew what it meant.
There! Inside the circle!
The stelae, the circle, the passer, Darius, the horses, and the spot from which radiated that feeling of twisting turmoil, all turned into hard, cold facts like stones on a board. Ryou weighed the situation in an instant and acted. Though not on instinct, because instinct, that animal sense of self-preservation uppermost, was telling him to go the other way as fast as he could.
He wrenched free of Darius's hold on his shoulders, shot past the horses who were just now starting to lay back their ears and roll their eyes. There was still nothing visible, but it was nearly there now, it was about to arrive and it could already be sensed.
Ryou lunged at the passer, grabbed her by the scrawny arms and threw himself back again.
"Ry-" Darius's exclamation was cut short when he had to turn and wrestle with the panicking horses.
Only when he was well away from the circle did Ryou turn to look back. He got a smack from a staff on the side of his head for his pains. "You! You! How dare you?! Attack a passer! Drag her from-...By His Name..." The last words were a weak croak. The passer had seen it too.
It wasn't a Bher Rajiin this time. It was...Ryou stared at it, but no, it wasn't some man in a mask as reason demanded, no, it really was a dog-headed... person. It - he, manifestly - was naked, crouched, arms dangling between his legs, staring at them. No, staring at Ryou. Ryou couldn't tell if the look was predatory, hostile, friendly or what. The expression was unreadable on that parody of anything natural. Ryou's first impression of it being a dog was incorrect. It wasn't an animal, certainly not any recognizable breed. Some insane god had taken a normal man's face by the chin and yanked it forward into the shape of a muzzle, covering the skin with short brown hair until the result looked faintly like a greyhound, though the forehead was too high and the set of the eyes was all wrong. The eyes...the eyes had been human. Once. Now there was nothing there at all that Ryou could recognize.
The thing made a wuffling sound, nose scenting the air, and then it slurped a wet dog's tongue over its muzzle. A human hand reached up to scratch at its chest, which was as hairless as the rest of his body. Then the hand dropped to idly dig thick, blackened nails at its genitals. The dog head started very suddenly at the shoulders and sat atop a long hairy neck, Ryou noted academically. His stomach was not so interested in all this scientific data; it roiled and threatened to heave up this morning's stew, and last night's too for good measure. He would have thought that a child of his century was pretty much inured to anything weird through television and manga, but seeing in real life a- a man's face twisted and pulled into the shape of a dog - the reality of it violated some natural law, it was obscene in a way a drawing or the best CGI could never be. Plus the thing stank like an unwashed kennel.
Darius cursed like a soldier behind them. One of the geldings had broken free. Darius used the long lead to whip another one across the rump to cow it into submission.
"Zaratusra protect us," the passer said weakly, which put paid to Ryou's faint hope that things like this cropped up regularly during crossings.
The dog-headed creature stared at Ryou for a whole minute. Then it looked down at the edge of the circle, between the two stelae they'd crossed.
I was right, thought Ryou, then had to go fish through his facts, some of them born of a sense he could barely understand, to figure out what it was that he'd been right about.
"Ryou, get the hell away from that!" Darius shouted, hauling his whole weight against the horses' bits to stop them from bolting.
"It's okay," Ryou said matter-of-factly, "it can't get out of the circle." Because inside the circle the world was in flux, weaker, while out here it was real again, and this creature could not go from one to the other unassisted. Ryou couldn't put his reasoning into an equation or even words that made sense, yet he felt as sure of it as the ancient mathematicians were sure of their unproven yet rigorously researched conjectures. The answer - more than that, the root behind the answer - was in his possession, even if he could not demonstrate it.
When Darius didn't say anything, Ryou glanced around. Darius was staring at him. Behind his hard, dangerous expression, he seemed to believe Ryou's assurances. Even the horses seemed to believe him. They were still rolling their eyes, huffing the air and laying their ears back, but they weren't panicking anymore.
The passer blew out her breath and suddenly brought down the tip of her staff with a thump. "You're right, of course. You! Go away! You can't leave the crossing, you foul git, so you can bloody well clear off !"
A ripple had run through the ground where the passer's staff had struck, Ryou could sense it even though his five regular senses told him to take a reality check. Her last two words had echoed with a power and a presence that went beyond the mundane as much as the dog-head did. The command went right through Ryou's head, a sharp pain, and both he and the dog-creature flinched.
The creature's eyes twitched in her direction, though it didn't meet hers fully. It dipped its chin and hunched its shoulders, licked its chops. Wary perhaps. Not fully intimidated.
Then it stood up. It had a tail, a long, brown, whippet-thin tail, now held low between its legs. The creature slouched as it walked away, a gait that was neither animal nor entirely human.
Twenty steps and it suddenly disappeared as if it had been plucked off the map of the world.
Ryou rubbed the aching point above his temples without daring to blink or look away from where it had vanished, in case it was a trick. He didn't think it was. It felt gone.
The passer blew out a breath of air. "By the Praised One's name," she said. She'd drawn a copper medallion from her tunic; a flame with a set of stylized wings. She was rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. "That's not what I expected from a quick jaunt into Palis of an early morning. I'd heard of weird things up and down the Paths, but that...Is that why you grabbed me, young man?"
"Yes, that's right," Ryou lied without hesitation. His head was still spinning from all this, but he remembered Darius's words of caution. Besides, he was too used to playing things close to the chest. Show them nothing. His hand did not shake as he pushed up his glasses over eyes that felt they were about to pop out of their sockets from a sudden bout of migraine.
"You say other things like this have been seen before?" Darius asked from behind them.
"Like this? I don't know about something like this. But I've heard things from other passers, travelers, scribes and the Per Gathas couriers. Odd things. Some people say it's the war. That's shit, of course. There's been a war somewhere within reach of my Paths ever since I was a girl, and that's not yesterday, let me tell you, yet I've never seen anything like that before. Of course some people say it's the signs of end times and the unraveling of the Great Design," she added, rubbing her nose, "but they've been saying that since I lost my maidenhead, so I'll not listen to them either. Well, well, well, live long enough and you will indeed see everything...I wish you luck on your travels, boys. May the Path Maker guide your footsteps and hold His hand above your heads."
Ryou took a few seconds to react. "Wait- what? You're going back in there?"
The passer looked back at him. She was already halfway to the nearest stele. "Of course I am, young man. Where else would I go? My home's over there." She waved her staff at an empty space on the far side of the small torrent, which was, of course, perfectly empty, but she acted so sure of herself that Ryou had to look again past the water and the copse of trees, half expecting to see the stone-built inn he'd breakfasted in less than an hour ago. It wasn't there, but reason suggested she could reach it and would, after crossing again.
"But what if that thing comes back? What if there's more of them?" Ryou took a step to follow her, but stopped when Darius hooked him by the elbow.
"If there's more, I'll kick all their naked asses." The passer stomped her way between the stones. "They'll not be polluting my crossing with their half-baked shadows, let me tell you. I've held my home safe and steady during waves in the river that tried to put me plumb into the middle of the Abyss. That fleabag might have tried to creep up on me, but I'm expecting them now. And the inn itself is thrice blessed, protected by water, fire and my fravashi, they'll not set skin nor hide in there." She was already in the circle, her voice dropping to self-directed mutters.
Ryou turned towards Darius. "We should go-..." But then he shook his head. "No. Sorry. That'd be stupid. She's better off without me anywhere in that circle."
"Probably." Darius wasn't watching the passer (who was now threatening a perfectly innocent patch of turf near the stream with her staff). His eyes were sweeping the rest of the circle and the forest around them. "Either way, it's none of our business."
"What do you mean? That thing was my fault, wasn't it?"
Darius spared him a glance that seemed heavy with meaning. "You know this for a fact?"
"Well...it was looking at me."
"You're the one who moved towards it at a run and snatched an old, weak prey from it. Of course it was looking at you, any animal would."
Ryou thought it'd been more intelligent than that, though he could not back that with any proof.
"Truth to tell, I'd be happy if that thing slipped out of whatever hell it was hiding in because you did something dumb. Though I'd still be mad at you," Darius added as an afterthought.
"What do you think it was?"
"How the hell should I know?"
"Yes, you're just a simple soldier. Darius-..." But Ryou had promised himself that he wouldn't ask anything Darius wasn't willing to tell him.
The silence hung awkwardly between them for a few seconds, then Darius shrugged. "Let's just say, you screwing up is a better option than my enemies having found us."
"It will make the next crossing all the more interesting," Darius said with a humorless grin. "Come on, let's catch that dumb bugger of a horse that managed to get away with our luggage, and get moving."
Ryou looked back at the crossing. The passer was approaching the lean-to.
"Wait a second. I just want to be sure she gets back okay."
"And what if she doesn't?"
Darius gave him a hard look.
It made sense. Ryou knew he'd not be able to do anything if he saw her attacked. It was clear by now that without the passer helping them, he could not negotiate the crossing. He'd be insane to try it on his own; he knew enough now to know at least that much. But he turned and watched her progress anyway.
"It will only take a few minutes."
"You'd be better off not knowing," Darius told him.
"No," Ryou retorted, "I would not."
Darius scowled at him, and Ryou, expressionless, looked right back. Then Darius made a 'do whatever the hell you want' gesture and went to get the horse.
Ryou watched as the passer reached the lean-to, peered inside, circled around it suspiciously. She stood there, one hand on her hip, then she noticed him. She gave him a gap-toothed grin as she waved.
A shape, naked and white as a maggot in the early morning light, appeared from behind one of the trees of the torrent's copse and lumbered towards her.
Ryou thought he saw her turn, staff raised-
- and gone!
No more passer. No more lean-to. No more dog-shaped monster. Just bracken and trees and the rush of the torrent.
Ryou was a step away from the circle, a hand against the nearest stele. But he knew he couldn't go in. He sank to his knees on the turf trodden flat by decades of her feet as she passed travelers to and fro.
No. No. But maybe she'd be okay. She had to be okay. This was his fault. He hadn't known. He still didn't know, he didn't know how to help-
Ryou balled his fist and smashed it helplessly against the stele. All that got him was bruised knuckles and a sense of just how totally helpless he was.
"Oh hell," Darius muttered from somewhere behind him.
Ryou stirred. He wasn't sure how long he'd been kneeling there, watching the space where the lean-to and the passer were not reappearing.
"I found the horse," Darius said after a minute of silence. "Come on. There's nothing we can do here."
Ryou took a deep breath. "I know," he said as he got to his feet.
Darius gave him a searching look, then nodded as he seemed to find what he was looking for in Ryou's eyes. "We'll buy provisions at Kegsum, that place she mentioned. If they have a priest, they'll have a temple of all gods. I get along well with Inder and a few others, I'll leave a silver obol for her safe passage."
It was obvious Darius really thought this might help, though for Ryou it wasn't even a sop. "We can get help from that priest she mentioned-"
"But he can warn someone-"
"They won't get back in time to help. And either way you cut it, one of us is implicated in this. Back in Assyria, I can protect us, but if the Per Gathas learn about this and we're all the way out here with our asses in the air, they'll drop us into the Abyss and let the Furies pick at our livers. Come on."
The jingle and snorts of the horses sounded loud in the silence that surrounded the two men as they saddled up. The now empty circle was in a clearing surrounded by stunted trees bearing small, dark green leaves, their canopy rising no more than a couple of meters above the riders' heads. The ground beneath them was dry with little underbrush. Even though it was only half an hour past dawn, the day was already warmer than it'd been back in the previous country. A path wound its way from the circle through the forest, and it took very little to encourage the horses to take it.
When they were fifty meters away, Ryou heard an odd noise behind them, like someone in the far distance coughing very loudly and musically. He twisted around in his saddle. So did Darius, for all his 'go and don't look back' attitude.
"What was that?"
Darius had reined in his horse to better listen. "...A cock's crow. She had one for the chickens back at her inn. That'd mean the Path is still open. Maybe that's a good sign."
"I still can't see the hut, though."
"When all is dark, you cannot see the unlit lantern," Darius muttered, quoting something. Then, more firmly, "Let's move on."