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Darius rode up to the stelae but did not go past the circle delimiting the Kazanstar crossing. Instead, he shouted until the passer stepped out onto the flat rooftop of the two-story building fifty meters away, and then he shouted some more until he got his question across.

Ryou was hanging even further back, trying not to look furtive or guilty. He didn't make out what the passer hollered back. It was when Darius rode back that Ryou learned that all their hurry had been for naught; the Path to Essin was closed, something about the war. The Path to Anwat, the neighboring province, would lead them close enough to make their way to Essin, but could not be traveled for another three days.

"At least it isn’t three dozen," said Darius, trying to take it philosophically with only mitigated success. Ryou understood his companion's urgency get back, though he himself wasn't in any hurry use another crossing again.

The days of waiting were spent quietly. A forested hill half a kilometer from the crossing's inn gave them shelter. They made camp by the stream rushing down the slope and which bisected the circle of stones in the valley below. Darius spent that afternoon bathing and relaxing and doing martial maintenance stuff to his sword, javelin and bow, but by the next day it was obvious that he was constitutionally unable to sit quietly for any length of time. He was out hunting and just generally riding around most of the day after that. Ryou, by contrast, took advantage of the time to rest up, scrub his skin raw in the cold water, eat plenty of the rabbits and the tiny, wild pig Darius shot and roasted, and recoup his reserves. He’d been riding the edge of the latter for awhile now.

But mostly he sat on a rock and stared down at the circle of stones from his perch in the hills. Thinking, and trying to feel. It was perhaps a dangerous thing to do, but Ryou estimated that it was just as dangerous to not have any clue at all when next he walked one of Zaratusra's Paths. Between doing nothing and hoping for the best, or trying to gain some ascendancy over his abilities and the situation, the choice seemed obvious, particularly for a self-confessed control freak like Ryou.

The building, a large hostel for travelers, stood off to one side of the large clearing, defiantly prosaic and real despite the geometrical nightmare going on around it. A lot of people stayed there before moving on. Ryou kept count of them and averaged it to thirty a day with a wide variance which might correspond to when a particular Path was available. Ryou idly calculated the margin of error on those crude statistics, and then how long he would have to sit here and observe before he could bring that margin down to an acceptable amount...while deep inside, a sense he could not yet name, much less control, watched the people come and go, winking out of existence once they and the passer waded through the rushing stream bisecting the circle. Like a radar, this inner sense sent out regular feelers as it waited for the passer to come back, often with another group of travelers he'd picked up at another inn in another plane entirely. Ryou would watch the man and his charges stroll over the dry grasses and rocks in a zigzag pattern that should make no sense at all, and yet spoke to Ryou on a level too deep inside to clearly distinguish...

"Damn, you should have seen the size of the buck that got away!" exclaimed Darius, slipping off of his mount. Ryou's banal sense of hearing had registered the clip-clop of horse hooves for a few minutes now. "If only I had a decent beater to get the bloody animal to go up the gulley...Are you still feeling tired?"

"A little," answered Ryou, hoping to avoid getting dragged off to hunt tomorrow.

From the way Darius was studying him with faint concern, that had not been his intention. "Considering what you told me about the easy life you led Inlands, I'm surprised you held up so far. Would it help if we went to that village the passer mentioned and let you rest in a proper bed for a night or two? It's only three miles away."

"Oh no, I’m fine," Ryou said contradictorily. Between roughing it out a few more days, and sleeping in a village as dirty as Kegsum and others he’d seen, Ryou was ready to heed the call of the wild.

Darius studied his expression and decided to take that at face value. "For the best, then," he said, unfastening the girth of his horse. "Any place near a crossing is expensive."

Ryou looked at him in surprise. "I thought we were camping out here for discretion, so that your enemies won't get wind of us."

"That too, but I don’t want to waste money. With any luck we’ll be with Assyrian troops in three days time, but no man can tell what the Gods have written in their tablets on his subject."

Darius was cautious that way, always an eye out for supplies, food, shelter and defenses like a good soldier and one used to living in a country with no convenience stores, visas and safety nets. If all else failed, he could live off the land for awhile and make do that way. Ryou was acutely aware of how helpless he was by contrast. He'd be hard-pressed to earn a living, even if he stuck to the cities of the Outlands. He could not do the simplest manual task most of these ancient cultures required, either through lack of strength or lack of knowledge. And though the merchants of Palis were reputed for their business acumen, they probably couldn’t use a financial expert of his kind. Since he had no clue what the gods were putting on his tablet, maybe he should-

"If you’re not too tired, do you want to go hunting tomorrow?"

...should start learning how to flush deer out of gulleys, it seemed.

The day after an exhausting hunt in which they almost got that buck, it was time to leave. Ryou found himself glancing back almost with regret at the blackened circle where their shared fire had burned these past two nights. But then he squared his shoulders and faced forward, towards the circle of stone and the crossing.

He felt dizzy when he crossed the invisible perimeter delineated by the stone markers, but this time he was ready for it, and didn't stumble. Not that the passer was paying much attention, too busy haggling with another group of travelers about the price of the accommodations. Ryou overheard the final counter. He already knew enough about local currency to realize that Darius had been wise to camp out for the past two nights. Considering it was only for a barebones meal and bed, the cost was borderline extortion, especially since it could not be avoided; the two of them could theoretically have camped out again, gotten up before dawn and made their way to the crossing to catch a passage, but it turned out that a lot of passers were just too busy first thing in the morning to include in their crossing some dirty wanderers who showed up at the last minute. Rich merchants or powerful lords probably wouldn't get that treatment... but then again they would be able to afford the inn's going rates, too. Two common travelers without a merchant's leverage or particular protection had better stay the night at the inn if they wanted to be sure they'd get a spot on the caravan making its way across the river in the morning.

It wasn't that it was disagreeable to sleep in a bed for one night - and as it turned out, this inn was the cleanest place Ryou had seen so far in the Outlands. But from the moment the sand-colored bricks of the place had loomed above them, Darius started scrutinizing everyone he saw in or around the place. Discreetly, quick sideglances here and there before he settled in the darkest corner of the ill-lit main room; but Ryou knew him well by now, he could pick up on his friend's tension. That was the problem with crossings when one had enemies; they were bottlenecks, obligatory points of passage that could make it easy for a couple of targets to be found... By common accord, the two of them took turns to sleep. A passer's inn was sacrosanct, in theory, but trouble could follow them out, and people kept arriving through the early evening and halfway through the night.

Because unlike the first crossing they'd taken, the Path to Anwat was extremely busy; a dozen people crossed with them the next morning at dawn. More pressure on Ryou to avoid causing any problems that could bring dog-headed creatures down on their group, or worse. Their passer that morning was a portly young man with the overbearing manner of a bus conductor who wouldn't jeopardize his schedule for one passenger's sake, but Ryou would have still felt terrible if the man had gotten himself eaten by eldritch creatures. He kept a close watch on his own mind and senses as he made his way across the field, following the passer's wandering trail until they all waded, one at a time, across the fast-running stream.

Nothing happened, other than a sharp episode of vertigo Ryou had braced for.

The passer waited on the other side, occasionally barking, "Hurry on now!" at random, even though everyone was moving at the same slow pace. Once they'd gathered in the dawn light, all golden and as fresh as the stream babbling behind them, they took off again, winding their curious way around the circle in zigs and zags and a final curlicue.

Nothing untoward continued to happen. No monsters, at any rate; just a small delay as a mule bit a caravanner from another group and a small argument broke out, disrupted by a bark from the imperious passer.

Ryou's tension grew as they neared the stelae, his eyes and senses bolted to their surroundings. Here, this was roughly the spot where that stinking creature had appeared last time, about ten meters from the edge of the circle. Reality felt fluid around him, but not broken, no fracture here, nothing creeping up on them or about to spring into existence right over their heads... Nearly to the edge of the circle now. The sod beneath their feet was dry and pounded flat by so many feet crossing over it; dust rose like a veil, occasionally twisted into weird shapes no wind could explain, making Ryou tense and his horse wicker as it picked up his edginess. But still nothing. Only ten steps away from the edge... five... four, three-

"Nothing happened," he breathed once he was past the stone circle.

"Are you okay?" Darius asked dryly.

"Just dizzy. From the...you know." Crossing the invisible boundary had felt like missing a step once more, though this time Ryou had managed to keep to his feet. He was rather getting used to it.

"I was talking about the strain in your back and shoulders." A hand landed at the base of Ryou's neck and gave it a quick teasing squeeze. "You looked like you're about to snap in two."

He sounded mighty flippant, but he'd been tense too when crossing the rill, and hell, he'd been acting like a cat on hot bricks since they'd arrived at the inn last night. Where did he get off making fun of Ryou for what was surely a natural amount of caution? The nervous tension and the effort the latter had expended trying to control a part of himself he barely understood had drained him too much for witty repartee, or he would have surely pointed it out.

"So this is Aksum," was all he said as he got up on his horse - he could manage without help now - and glanced around. "It looks a lot like Palis. A little greener."

Darius gave his surroundings a comfortable look. "Assyria is a lot like this as well."

"...Who are all these people?"

He'd been paying attention to what might happen inside the circle of stone, he hadn't realized until now that it was surrounded at a distance by an even larger circle made of tents, firepits, impromptu paddocks with a few livestock, wagons, hand-drawn carts and people. A lot of people, easily a hundred or so. A few gave Ryou a disinterested glance and returned to their pots, animals, children and business.

"Refugees waiting to walk a Path, or just people sticking to where it's safer. Essin is at war, has been for awhile. A group of soldiers might pillage these farmers' animals and pay with wooden talents. Bandits won't even leave them that. No army would dare besiege or interfere with a crossing, though, so they're safe here, but they're not allowed closer unless they're actually traveling and willing to pay the fare."

Darius was about to add something else when he tensed and let his hand drop to his sword.

Ryou followed the direction of his gaze to see half a dozen armed men on horseback circling the tents and wagons, making their way towards the pair of them.

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A note from Mal Chants

Next chapter... this journey was going too smoothly, now, wasn't it. Something just had to go wrong sooner or later...


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Mal Chants

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