Gwydion whirled, fumbling
Tylith-senshai from its sheath. (That it itself was a difficult
manuever, owing to his present state and the length of the blade, but he
was a blademaster of the Order, after all, and the years of training had
not been in vain.)
Sitting on the lowest of the black steps was a woman, regarding him with amusement dancing in her eyes and a faint smile on her lips. She was roguishly beautiful, slender in form with short black hair and comely features. She was clothed in breeches and some form fitting sleeveless shirt held up by straps, both of the same worked and supple leather. But her eyes were what caught his attention. They were catlike, and sparkled with a golden glow.
"Back demon!" he cried, pointing the sword at her and assuming a defensive posture.
She stared at him. "Excuse me?"
Gwydion felt his cheeks flush, but did not waver. He had been warned against the dangers of the worlds beyond. "You hold no power over me, demon."
She considered him for a long moment. "I'm going to assume you aren't from around here. I am Brianna, and though I've been called worse things, I'm not a demon."
Gwydion was still suspicious. "What are you, then?"
"A traveler, much like yourself. Although I imagine I'm not nearly so lost as you are."
He shook his head. "That answers my question not at all. You're eyes are unnatural. What manner of creature are you, if not a demon?"
"I'm as human as you are," she said. "I just have a different ancestry. My eyes may be unnatural to you, but they're quite natural to me."
"Where did you come from?"
She gestured up to the top of the stairs. "Through the portal, same as you."
"Impossible!" he said angrily, certain now that he had caught her in a lie. "I just came through the portal myself! You are no creature of my world!"
"And your point is?" she asked. "This is an exit portal. It is linked to more than one entrance. I never claimed to be of your world. Besides, I came through that portal yesterday, and camped the night here. I didn't mean to imply I had come through it at exactly the same instant as you. I watched you come through, not a moment ago. You stumbled right past me without noticing."
Gwydion was not convinced. "You were here all along?"
"Since last nightfall, anyway."
Suddenly, it hit him. She had been here since last night!
"The Icon!" he demanded. "Did you see where they took it?"
She looked at him as if he were speaking another language (which, of course, he necessarily was).
"The Icon," he clarified. "They took the Icon of the one true God. They would have come through this portal ahead of me with it."
She shook her head. "Sorry, cutter. No-one but you has come through that portal since I've been here."
"How is that possible? They were less than an hour ahead of me!"
She shrugged. "Time works differently here. Perhaps they were less than an hour ahead of you on your world. Here they could be nearly a week ahead. Then again, they might not have come through this portal at all. Exactly who is 'they' anyway, and what is it they took from you?"
"Demons," he answered.
"Like me?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No, not like you. Things that crawled from the darkest pits. Misshapen, inhuman things. And they were led by a man."
"That tells me very little. Your 'demons' could be any of a number of things. Tell me more about the 'man'."
Unbid, the memory of the man's face sprang into his mind. The prophet's working had been a strong one. "Tall," he answered, "with flowing dark hair that trails past his shoulders. His face is unearthly - beautiful in a way I cannot describe. His eyes are black, and very cruel. He has a mark on his left cheek. It may be a scar or a symbol tattooed there."
"Is that it?" she asked.
"He was dressed all in black, though I'm not certain that means anything. I'd know him if I saw him."
She nodded. "Right. Well, I've never heard of anyone quite like that, though that doesn't mean much here. Before we go any farther with this, I think I should ask you something. Do you mean to slay me?"
He was surprised. "What?"
She indicated at his weapon. "You still have the sharp end of that thing pointed at me."
Sheepishly he lowered Tylith-senshai.
"Much better, cutter. Much better. Now maybe I can help you. I communicate better when my life's not being threatened. Why don't you sit down?"
Warily, Gwydion regarded her. So far she had been unthreatening, but who or what could be trusted in the worlds beyond? "I prefer to stand," he said at last.
"Suit yourself," she said with a shrug. "Now what exactly is this Icon you keep rattling about?"
He was surprised. "You are not aware of the Icon of the one true God?"
She gave him a weary look. "Look, I know this is going to astonish you, but I've never heard of you precious Icon, your world, or your God. I wouldn't have asked what it was if I already knew."
"I see," said Gwydion. "The Icon is a holy artifact of God."
"I won't even bother asking which God that would be. What does it do?"
"It is the key to unlocking vast destructive forces. For over ten thousand years the Church has guarded it."
"What does it look like, this Icon?"
"I have never seen it, nor touched it," he said slowly. "I have only a second-hand description of what it looks like."
She laughed. "And they sent you to find it; someone who's never even seen it?"
"I have seen drawings," he said defensively. "No-one save the prophet himself and the men who guarded it were ever permitted to see it."
"Very well, then. You have at least seen drawings. What does it look like?"
"A very finely wrought figurine of a stallion. It is composed of some unknown substance which is jet black in color, and unbreakable as well as unscratchable. The eyes of the stallion are green gemstones, which pulsate with inner light. I am told that it radiates power, which can easily be felt by those who touch it. It is small, less than a foot in length and a little more than half that in height"
"It sounds valuable."
He gave her a flat look. "It is very dangerous. Especially in the wrong hands. It has the power to tear apart the very fabric of the world."
"What world is that?" she asked.
He was momentarily taken aback. "What do you mean? Is there more than one?"
She laughed. "You truly are clueless, aren't you? Of course there are. Thousands of them - maybe millions. You come from one world out of all the infinity of the prime material plane. What is that to a planewalker? There are a multitudes of planes, each one infinite, most composed of different layers of infinity. What is the fate of your world compared to that?
"Look around you, cutter. You're not on your backwater little prime world now. You are in the planes."
Gwydion did look around him, for the first time. This place was surprisingly earthlike, for all that it was one of the worlds beyond. Apart from the rolling grasslands which extended in all directions, and the black staircase, there was almost nothing to see, except for a curiously shaped mountain off in the distance. Suddenly the enormity of his task hit him with overwhelming force. He was in another universe, with laws he did not know, alone, on an impossible quest to recover an item he had never seen from a foe he had never met. And, without Theodric and the key to the portal, he would never be able to return to his beloved homeland.
God has faith in you. Rely on him. Gwydion drew comfort from the thought. "Very well, it is true that I am a stranger in a foreign world. But I am not alone." He gave the woman a nod. "I thank you for your help, and apologize for my rudeness. Now I must bid you goodbye. The urgency of my quest forbids delay."
"You know," she said as he started to turn away, "you never told me your name."
He turned. "Gwydion."
"You know, it occurs to me, Gwydion, that by happy circumstance I could be of great assistance to you. For a reasonable sum, I could guide you. Ordinarily I don't do that kind of work, but at the moment I'm between jobs, and could use a little extra jink."
He shook his head. "I need no help. I have my guide." He pointed Tylith-senshai downwards and grounded the tip in the earth.
She regarded him skeptically. "Your sword? I would have figured you for smarter than that. Most bashers who think with their weapons and not with their wits end up in the dead book around here. There's always someone with a bigger sword."
"This is more than a mere sword." He peered at the thummim. Sure enough, the little metal piece was active, floating up from its place and pointing steadily in one direction. "This is an instrument of God; a compass that will point me the way."
"Ah," she said, "magic. Well that won't do you much good here, I'm afraid."
"Don't you realize where you are?" she asked with a laugh. "This is the Outlands."
He gave her a blank look.
She sighed. "Sometimes primes call it the plane of Concordant Opposition. Does that sound familiar?"
It did sound a little more familiar, but it still wasn't ringing any bells for him. "You mean the plane of true neutrality?"
She snorted. "Now there's a prime's answer for you. At least you know what I'm talking about."
"No, I'm not sure I do. Why won't magic be of use to me?"
"Because magic, and magical items, decrease in power the closer to the spire one travels."
She pointed behind her. "See the mountain? That's the spire."
Gwydion regarded again the strangely-shaped mountain off on the horizon. It was unnaturally thin, and very, very tall.
"The thummim points in that direction," he muttered under his breath.
Her ears perked up at that. "That's Sigil calling, cutter. Sure as the rule of threes, the ones you're after are there."
He looked at her. "You have strange phrases."
She laughed. "Strange to a prime, maybe. Standard fare out here. Still, I'm a little surprised that you can understand me. Most primes as clueless as you seem to be don't even speak common."
He realized abruptly then that they had been conversing in another language, one which he had never heard before on his homeworld. It was a smooth, flowing tongue, throaty yet precise, with interesting syllables and an arresting accent. He had slipped into it without thinking. "You have the gift of tongues, my son," the prophet had said. "It will serve you better than you know"
He regarded the spire again. It was directly behind the staircase. In fact, it almost looked as if the stairs led there....
"It's almost like the stairs point to the mountain," he remarked in surprise.
"Of course it does. All portals face Sigil, so the guvners say. Course, that's probably not always true, but sometimes it is."
"What exactly is this Sigil?" he asked.
She stood, and pointed. "Look at the very top of the spire. What do you see there?"
Gwydion squinted. It was difficult to tell. "Some sort of strange cloud formation?"
"Not so," she contradicted. "That's Sigil. It's a city. It's the city."
"Floating in the midair?" he asked, incredulous. "But that's impossible!"
"Maybe," she shrugged. "But there it is. And you haven't heard the strangest part of it, yet. The city is circular, and laid on its side, like a gigantic wagon wheel. The city is on the inside of the wheel. And bloods can walk around inside that wheel, just like normal. Gravity works differently there."
"It must be magic. But you said that magic doesn't work, the closer you get to the spire."
She shrugged again. "It doesn't. But Sigil's an exception to that rule. Magic works just fine there. Some have speculated that it's a demiplane all its own, stuck inside of this one. I don't know, and it doesn't much matter."
Gwydion eyed the spire again. "That looks like quite a climb."
The woman laughed. "That's more than a climb, cutter. The spire's infinitely tall; you'd never reach the top. You'll never make it to Sigil that way."
"How can it be infinite? I can see its peak."
"Nevertheless, you can't get there from here. At least not like that."
He sighed. "Alright. How, then?"
She gave him a cagey look. "Well, that, cutter, is information. And I don't give information away for free. So, like I said, you can hire me as a guide - and I warn you, I don't come cheap - or you can try to find out on your own."
Gwydion considered. "You could be decieving me."
"Yeah, I guess I could Look at it this way. What other options have you got at the moment?"
"I could go on alone," he stated flatly.
She laughed again. "Right, you're a healthy-looking basher, and you look like you could swing that sword pretty good. I'd say you could last for at least three days before someone put you in the dead book."
Gwydion weighed his options. "Convincing. But you could be decieving me about how dangerous this place really is. I'm practically 'clueless' as you yourself put it. Why should I trust you?"
She threw her hands up in the air, starting to get a little impatient about the whole thing. "Who else have you got, besides your God?"
"My God is enough!" snapped Gwydion defensively.
She was momentarily taken aback. "What are you, a priest or something? The way you keep mentioning your God every other sentence reminds me of one of them. I never saw a priest with a sword like that."
"I am a servant of God, a member of a militant order of the church."
Her eyes widened. "Ah, a paladin!"
"A knight-errant of the one true God."
She nodded. "Right then. I never met a paladin who couldn't judge whether a body had evil intentions towards him. Why don't you just excercise that power?"
He was confused. "What are you talking about? I have no such power."
Her eyes narrowed. "I thought all you paladin-types did. Guess I was wrong."
She sniffed. "No need to get haughty. All you priest-types seem to think you have personal relations with the powers you worship."
"I do have a personal relationship," said Gwydion, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
She eyed him as if he were talking gibberish. "Right then. Why don't you go off an ask him?"
He started to retort angrily, then drew up short. She was right. "Let God be your companion, your guide," the prophet had said. Of course he should be asking God! He hadn't even thought of it until now. It had taken an irrelevant argument with an unbeliever to make him see.
"You are right," he said aloud, suddenly humbled.
Brianna watched in disbelief as he knelt before his sword, bowing his head in prayer.
Almost before he could form the question in his mind did he recieve the answer, and so powerful and undeniable was it that it shook his soul.
A peaceful calm descended over him, and he felt his concerns fade.
From where he knelt he looked up at Brianna. "I have my answer. He has spoken. You shall be my guide."
"A barmy," she said, as he rose and replaced Tylith-senshai in its sheath. "I'm traveling companions with a barmy."
Gwydion didn't need his gift of tongues to help him understand what she meant.