"So, exactly how far
is it to our destination?"
Brianna spared Gwydion an irritated glance, then returned her gaze to the path ahead. It was the third time he had asked the question in the past hour. "It takes as long as it takes. Three or four days at the most, less if we're lucky."
It was the third time she had answered him this way, and it seemed no more satisfactory an answer now as it had then. "Are you lost, then?" he hazarded.
She gave him a withering look. "Lost! I am not lost. I told you before, I'm a planewalker. I know the Outlands like the back of my hand. You just remember who's clueless and who's the guide. I don't have to help you, you know. Then where would you be?"
He held up a hand, hoping to forestall her anger. "I didn't mean that you were lost," he said quickly. "I phrased that badly. I'm sorry."
"What did you mean then?" she challenged.
"I only meant that perhaps you weren't certain of exactly where we were," he explained, trying to mollify her. "That maybe you knew where we were generally but not specifically, and were planning on orienting yourself as we neared some landmark you knew of."
If anything, she even more miffed. "Then you did think we were lost! Listen," she said frostily, "anytime you think you can't trust me to lead, you just say so and I'll gladly go my own way and you can guide yourself."
"No, no," he protested, "I didn't mean to imply that at all. Look, I know I need you, and I trust you. I was just curious, that's all. If you say that you know exactly where we are, then I believe you."
"I do know exactly where we are," she said icily.
"I believe you."
"And I know exactly where we're going," she added a moment later.
"I believe you," he repeated earnestly. "I apologize. I didn't intend offense."
She was still annoyed. "Then you shouldn't go around asking planewalkers if they're lost. Even a Clueless should have better sense than that."
"I'm sorry," he tried after a few minutes of silence.
"You should be," she shot back, turning away from him again and muttering under her breath. "Lost indeed!"
He followed her for several minutes in silence. Abruptly she whirled and spoke again. "If you're wondering why I can't be more specific about how long it will take us to get where we're going, it's because I can't."
She snorted. "Because of where we are. We're in the Outlands, cutter."
He was puzzled. "I don't understand."
"That should be your motto. Look, it isn't the same here as it was on your little prime world. Things work differently here. Traveling, for instance. I bet you've been wondering why we're headed away from Sigil, instead of towards it."
As a matter of fact, he had, but had kept his silence, and eventually had reasoned out a possible answer. "I was assuming that you were taking me to some gate or portal which would lead into the city. Something like the one I came through."
She seemed surprised. "Smart, cutter," she said with grudging respect. "Better than most Clueless."
He shrugged. "Well, you said Sigil was the city of portals. And since you told me that scaling the mountain... the Spire?" She nodded. "You said that scaling the Spire was impossible, so I guessed it was either a portal or finding some way of flying to up to it."
"Don't get cocky," she warned him crisply, as if she wished she could take back what she had just said. "You're still just a babe in the woods out here. Without me, you wouldn't have a chance. Like I was saying, things work differently out here. It's the nature of the plane."
"I still don't understand," he confessed.
She sighed. "Here in the Outlands, for instance. Distances are decieving here because they shift. Sure, there's space between here and there, just like almost everywhere else, but how much space? It changes. So you never know exactly how long it's going to take you to get somewhere, because it's different every time."
He was amazed. "You mean the land itself warps and changes?"
She shrugged. "That's a question for the sages. No-one knows, and it doesn't much matter. It doesn't change while you're looking at it, at least. The ground won't shift under your feet all of a sudden, if that's what you're asking. It's just a different distance each time you start to go somewhere than it was when you walked it before."
"Then how can anyone ever find their way around? How could you ever find your way back to a place you had been before?"
"Because it doesn't so much matter how far away something is. If you know where you're going, and you're headed in the right direction, you'll get there, usually within a couple of days. Sometimes the plane works in your favor, and you'll get there sooner than you expected. But if some clueless berk asks you to tell him exactly how long it's going to be, you're not going to be able to answer him. It's the nature of the plane. Starting to see?"
"I think I understand you," he said after a moment, "I'm just not certain I'm able to comprehend the concept. Things are never the same distance apart? That doesn't make much sense."
She laughed. "It doesn't have to make sense to you, cutter. It didn't ask your permission or approval to exist. That's just the way it is."
He considered. "Then, by your reasoning, couldn't I just envision the Icon and start walking? Sooner or later the plane would lead me to it, right?"
She shook her head, looking at him as if he were dense. "I didn't say the plane brought itself into existance as you walked through it. Everything in the Outlands is a real thing, that exists in a specific place. I couldn't find my way to Glorium, for example, if I didn't know where it was and I wasn't walking in the right direction. You don't find your way around by picturing the place you want to go and walking. You have to know where your going, and how to get there, just like anywhere else. The only difference is that here the distance may be longer or shorter than you would normally expect. Your Icon," - she jerked a thumb back in the direction of the Spire, and Sigil - "is there, and all the picturing in your mind and wishing you were near it won't do a bit of good. The only way to get to it is to get to Sigil. And the only way to do that is to find a portal. Get it?"
He nodded slowly. "I think so." He was quiet for a moment. "If that's the way it is," he said at last, making up his mind, "then that's the way it is. Look... Brianna. I'm sorry I doubted you."
She grunted noncommittally.
"But you must remember that I am a stranger here; that this place is foreign to me, and I am going to be ignorant of its ways. I am clueless, as you have pointed out."
She darted him a look. "No kidding."
"Which is why I need you," he said earnestly. "You are my only source of information. And remember, I don't know something until you've told me. So please tell me. I need to know."
She snorted again. "You wouldn't believe half of what there is out here, cutter," she retorted. "No Clueless ever does. They're so wrapped up in their own little worlds they can't fathom that there might be other ways."
"Try me," he said calmly. "I'm a blank slate when it comes to the universes beyond. I'm smart enough to know better than to presuppose anything. Just tell me, that's all I ask."
She gave him another look of grudging respect. "Smart, cutter," she said, "smarter than I'd have thought. You might not end up in the dead-book as quick as I thought. But we'll see. We'll see. And I'm not some barmy sage giving out a tour on the planes either. I'm not going to point at everything and try to explain it, just on the off chance you might be interested. And even an experienced planewalker like me doesn't know everything."
He shook his head. "I didn't think you did. But you know a damn sight more than I do. As for the rest, I'll point and ask the questions, just so long as you answer the best you can. That way, when it comes to things like how distance works in the Outlands, I don't make false assumptions and offend you. Or at least I'm less likely to."
"That was your fault," she said defensively. "You didn't ask."
"My fault," he agreed with a nod, "but then I hadn't realized exactly how little I knew. And we didn't have a deal then. Have we got one now?"
She nodded. "Right. Deal. You ask, I'll answer." She looked like she was becoming bored with the whole conversation. "I guess that's why you're paying me the good jink."
Gwydion was suddenly quiet again, a twinge of remorse bothering him. This was something he had been pondering since he had agreed to hiring her on as a guide.
What, after all, did she expect him to pay her? Gold, perhaps? Maybe, but he didn't even know whether gold was a valuable substance here. In any case, he had nothing to offer. Aside from three silver pieces which he happened to have had in the pocket of his breeches when he had hastily slung them on before going to see the prophet, he had nothing except for the clothes he wore and Tylith-senshai, which he had slung on his back.
Theodric had had the supplies, and if the gangly priest had thought to bring gold, which Gwydion thought was unlikely at best, it was gone with him, vanished forever in that horrible trap which had been laid for them between the planes.
Technically he knew that he should tell her. It was just as dishonest to keep his silence when she spoke of payment as it would if he were to lie outright, promising her whatever she desired. He had always striven to be upright and fair in his dealings with others.
But he was also a practical man. The urgency of his quest demanded he have a guide. Without her, could he hope to even find his way to Sigil? He needed her. Surely that must count for something.
Just a little longer, he rationalized to himself. I'll keep my silence just a little longer. And when the time comes, I will find someway to pay her.
The rationalization held his conscience at bay for the moment, although deep within him something seemed to whisper: This is not right. This is unwise.
They marched on for a time in silence.
Gwydion threw his attention back to their surroundings. While he had had no idea of what to expect from the universes beyond, the last thing he had ever expected was such mundane surroundings.
Surrounding them on all sides were vast plains of rolling grasslands which stretched off to the horizon in all directions. The grass was a golden brown, and grew to about mid-waist height. Gentle breezes stirred the tops of the grass in places, making the whole appear like some gently roiling sea.
It was similar in many respects, he thought, to a vast field of wheat, and he had heard of lands in the southern continent of his homeland with similar plains of waving grass. It seemed, as he gazed at it, that it was flat, but that could not be certain. Slight rolling hills could easily hide themselves among the tall grass. That it was featureless was more sure. Ever since they had left the black staircase behind the only feature that stood out was the Spire, far distant behind them.
They were not on any particular path, for there were none, but rather they were wading their way through the vast sea of grass. How Brianna oriented herself he could not fathom, for there were no landmarks of any kind. Perhaps, he reflected, she was using the Spire as a reference point. In any case, she seemed certain of her course, never faltering as they pressed on through the seemingly endless grass.
"Is it all like this?" he asked.
Brianna glanced back at him momentarily, thrown by the question. "What?"
He gestured at the expanse of their surroundings. "All this. The Outlands. Is it all like this?"
"No, it varies. Quite a bit, depending on where you are." She resumed her march. "Why? Too boring for you?"
He gave her a wry smile. "I'm no fool. I've had my share of scrapes, and I've seen too many battles. I'm not after adventure. I like boring. The more boring the better."
"Well don't get too comfortable," she cautioned. "The Outlands is plenty dangerous. Don't let it fool you. Here, for instance." She gestured at the plains surrounding them. "Looks peaceful, but it can turn ugly real quick. There's plenty of predators that stalk the high grass. I've heard that lions in particular hunt through this stretch, sometimes just waiting hidden in the grass for prey to wander by."
"Lye-uns?" he repeated the strange word, rolling it around his mouth.
She glanced at him. "Never heard of them? It's a type of cat. Do they have those where you come from?"
He nodded. "We have cats."
"Well this one's plenty big." She held her palm out to just above the level of her waist. "About this high, on average, with jaws big enough to take your head off. They're cunning, too. Let's just hope we don't run across one."
"What do we do if we run across one?"
"In that case," she responded, indicating the hilt of Tylith-senshai where it rested just above his shoulder, "we hope that you're as good with that thing as you make out."
"I see," he said. "Let's hope so."
There was again a moment of silence.
"Tell me about your homeland," he said after a moment.
She glanced back at him. "My what?"
"Your homeland. Where you come from." He shrugged. "Your kind."
A hard look came into her eyes, and he realized he had touched a nerve. "What's it to you?"
"Just curious. For my entire life, when I've thought of the universes beyond at all, I've had this picture that it was the home of demons and angels and other beings of mysterious power. You seem, pretty much, to be the same as me, except for a few small physical differences. Normal, I mean."
"I am normal," she snapped. "I told you: I'm every bit as human as you are."
"That's my point. The last thing I expected to find out here were other humans, except for a couple of legendary heroes perhaps. And yet, the first being I meet... Well, like you said, you're as human as I am."
"So there must be more humans here, right?"
"Of course. Everywhere."
He scratched his chin. "That's what I can't picture. How do they fit in here? Do they have cities, commerce? Governments?"
She shrugged. "Of course. All that and more. You've asked a kind of difficult question to answer. They're everywhere, like I said, and it's different everywhere you go."
"Tell me about where you come from, then," he said. "Your home. That should be a start."
She gave him a guarded look. "You're barking up the wrong tree, cutter. I ain't got a home." She shook her head. "Never needed one. I look out for myself."
"But surely you must live somewhere; have some family?"
"Who says?" she demanded. "I take care of myself. I always have. And I don't stay too long in any one place. If I claimed a home I guess it would be Sigil, but I don't stay there any longer than I stay anywhere." She gave him a fierce look, as if daring him to say anything negative. "And that's the way I like it."
"Then tell me about Sigil. Is it a human city?"
She grunted. "Not really. There's humans there, of course, but there's plenty of other races too. Sigil's Sigil," she said shortly. "You can't explain it. You have to see it to understand."
He considered that. Other races? There were no other races on his homeworld, except perhaps for a few myths from the elder age that mentioned things like elves and dwarves, but those were only stories; legends. Could they exist here? "What other races?"
"What other races are there - in Sigil?" he clarified.
"All of them, I guess. Like I said, you'll have to see it. Now, can we drop this? With all your chattering, you'll have me wasting the day trying to answer your clueless questions."
He fell silent, aware that he had touched on a sensitive subject for her.
They trudged on in silence for some time.
Mundane as their surroundings might be, something tickled just at the edge of his perceptions, some little detail that whispered to him that he was no longer in his homeland. Some subtle sign which was just somehow wrong.
He had been brooding on it for quite some time when he realized just what it was.
"The sun," he murmured.
"There isn't any." And there wasn't. Although the light was just as it should be for a late afternoon, there was no sun.
He searched the sky again. Cloudless, and faintly blue, but clear. There was no sun.
"Where does the light come from?" he asked.
She seemed perplexed by the question. "What do you mean? It just comes. Why shouldn't it? It's daytime, isn't it?"
"There's no sun?"
He pointed up at the sky. "A ball of light," he tried to explain. "It shines down and provides light during the daytime.
"Not here. I told you, this isn't your prime world. This is the Outlands."
He nodded slowly. "And if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. Strange, though, that I hadn't noticed it before."
She shrugged. "If you say so."
"I've just noticed something else," he ventured after several minutes more of walking. "I think I'm hungry." He was a little surprised. "Odd."
"Well, Theodric had some idea... I mean, we weren't really certain whether people had to eat here. We thought there might be some possibility that here there was no need to draw sustenance. Then again, maybe natives don't have to. Do you?"
She had been staring at him in amazement. "That's the barmiest question I've ever heard! Of course we eat!"
He was a little embarassed. It did seem silly. "Well, we didn't know. No-one had been to the universes beyond for a very long time. The sages had speculated that maybe..." His voice trailed off. "There was no way to know, that's all."
"Your sages are permanently cracked then," she scoffed. "Didn't I mention that we were mortal? We eat, the same as you. Why wouldn't we?"
But his attention was suddenly fixed on the horizon. "What's that?"
She whirled. A tiny black dot had come into view, far off in the distance. It appeared to be moving. She took a quick involuntary indrawn breath. "Trouble."
He squinted. From this distance, it was hardly more than a black speck. "How can you be sure?"
"Because it's headed this way."
Indeed, already it had grown in size and resolution, and although it still had quite some distance to go before he would be able to make out exactly what it was, he could already hear the faint sounds of hooves. "Sounds like a horse and rider," he said. "Do they have horses here?"
She nodded absently, her attention fixed on the approaching object. "They have everything out here, cutter. But I wouldn't be too quick to assume it's a horse." She squinted, then swore under her breath. "Down!" she barked, dropping down into the high grass.
He obeyed instantly, deferring to her judgement. "What is it?" he started to ask, but she was already crawling, moving off at a right angle to the path they had been following.
Quickly he followed, keeping near so as not to lose her in the grass. She was moving quickly, and had a tendency to veer suddenly to the right or left, but he managed to keep up.
Meanwhile the hoofbeats increased in volume from a dim low throbbing sound to a sharply pronounced rat-a-tat as the rider neared.
A moment later Brianna halted, so sharply and suddenly that Gwydion ran into her from behind before he realized.
"Watch it!" she hissed.
"Sorry," he apologized.
She shifted around until she was facing him, laying on her side in a ball. "If we're lucky," she said, "It'll just pass us by." She pointed meaningfully at Tylith-senshai. "If not, I think you'd better have that thing handy."
Obediently he unsheathed the sword, carefully laying it on the grass in front of him. "What is it? You got a better look at the rider than I did?"
She nodded. "And the steed. Looks like a fiend, though I don't recognize the breed."
"Looks like you're going to get your demons after all, cutter."
His face hardened. "Demon?" His grip tightened on the hilt of Tylith-senshai.
"More or less. Don't get any ideas," she warned, noting the sudden fire in his eyes. "Just because you're a paladin-type doesn't mean you can go charging out trying to slay fiends just because they're fiends. That'll get you put in the dead-book quicker than anything."
"I'm not a fool," he said. "I told you before, I don't go looking for trouble."
"Right," she said, unconvinced. "Just as long as you keep hidden. Hopefully it'll just pass us by."
"You don't sound like you believe that," he observed.
"Hope for the best; expect the worse," she said with a shrug. "I just don't believe in coincidences, that's all. Here we are, out in the middle of nowhere, and a fiend shows up, riding straight in our direction."
"You think he might be looking for us?"
"I hope not. Normally I'd say we're too small fish to worry about for something like a fiend, but you never know. Let's just sit tight and hope he passes."
By now the horse and rider had neared enough that Gwydion could see the very top of the crest of the rider's helmet above the top of the grass.
Cautiously he inched up, peering above the top of the grass in an attempt to get a better view.
"Get down, you fool!" hissed Brianna. "If you can see him, then he can see you!"
Gwydion obeyed, but not before he had caught a clear view of the rider. He sat down, astonished, and clutched at the hilt of Tylith-senshai as if it might give him strength.
The rider, as Brianna had said, was nothing human. It was manlike in form, but there was where the resemblance stopped. What Gwydion had earlier took for the crest of its helmet was a pair of gnarled horns which sprouted from the top of its head, curling back and over its shoulder. Its face was skeletal, with papery-thin grayish skin stretched across its cheeks, two holes where its nose should be, and fang-like teeth exposed where its mouth should be. Its eyes cast the most terrible aspect, for they were of glowing green fire, set far back in the hollows of its eyesockets. It was encased in jet black armor which concealed all the rest of its body except for a pair of skeletal hands wrapped in the same corpse-gray skin as the face, with long black fingernails which curled grotesquely at the tips. It held in its right hand a gigantic bone-white polearm, and the ease with which it brandished the impressive weapon indicated that its inhuman strength must have been fearsome indeed. Although size was difficult to judge from this distance, Gwydion would have estimated that it was much larger than a human, standing seven or eight feet in height.
The steed, too, had something of a demonic aspect. Though it retained the form of the horse, Gwydion could see easily that it was a thing of hellish origins. Black as midnight, it stood a good eight feet tall at the shoulder. It had faintly glowing red eyes, and each time it huffed, a puff of smoke was expelled from its snout.
"Demon," Gwydion agreed, crouching down again on the balls of his feet and lifting Tylith-senshai so that its blade lay across his thighs.
"Quiet!" whispered Brianna.
The rider had approached at a gallop, but slowed to a trot as he neared. He searched about him, sometimes jabbing at the grass around him as he looked to his right and to his left.
"He's looking for us," whispered Gwydion.
Brianna kicked him in the ankle. He fell silent.
Slowly the rider made his way forward, searching the grass as he went. Gwydion watched him pass right through the place where they had earlier been standing and continue on.
After passing by them once, the rider pulled up rein and circled around, this time passing farther away. Gwydion watched in silence as the rider passed through again, halted, and circled back again.
For several minutes he watched as the rider crossed and re-crossed the area, searching in vain in ever-widening circles. Each time it passed nearer to them.
"We're too close," he whispered. "If it keeps searching this area, it'll come across us."
The rider made another pass, this time passing within a few yards of them, the grass crackling beneath his mount's hooves as it pushed its way through.
Gwydion tightened his grip on his sword. If it circles again, it'll ride right over us, he thought.
But this time the rider didn't widen his circle. Instead, he guided his steed back to the area where Gwydion and Brianna had been standing when they had caught sight of him. He halted there, looking off to his right, away from Gwydion and Brianna.
"Is it gone?" Brianna whispered.
Gwydion glanced down at her, shaking his head. "It's waiting us out."
He glanced back up, and froze.
It was staring right at him.
Gwydion felt a hollow lurch in his stomach and the muscles in his arm and back tensed. The rider's eyes seemed to stare right through him, radiating nearly-tangible waves of hatred. The glowing green depths were like a roiling sea of malevolence.
For a terrible time, their gazes were locked.
Gwydion held himself perfectly still, not daring to blink or breathe. Steady! he cautioned himself. It doesn't see you. It doesn't see you. Don't panic!
Still the horse and rider sat still, the unnatural glowing eyes fixed straight on where Gwydion crouched, and a cold certainty began to come over him.
It sees you! one part of Gwydion urged frantically. It's toying with you!
Hold steady! another, more logical part of him cautioned. It's just waiting you out. Hold steady!
Gwydion tried to hold himself in check, but slowly a rising tide of panic began to overcome him. It sees you! And still the rider waited, staring with that terrible gaze, making the hair on the nape of his neck crawl.
A cold hand gripped his heart, and he realized he was trembling. His palms were numb and his throat was dry. What is this... this all-pervading and overpowering fear? he wondered. He had faced ferocious beasts in his homeland with nothing but his sword, witnessed the awesome destruction of war and seen armies assembled against him in war, but somehow the sight of this single manlike creature unnerved him in a way that no other thing he had faced in his life had ever done. Even as he wondered at the astonishing power of the fear the creature inspired in him - such that he was scarcely able to move and knew - knew! - with every fiber of his being that the creature could not be fought - he was aware in some dim corner of his mind that the effect was an unnatural one. That the dark force of the creature was throwing out a nearly tangible fear, and that this was some sort of magical effect.
Still, though he realized that this unnatural fear that had come upon him was generated by some dark power of the rider, he could not counter it. The rising tide of panic and fear threatened to engulf him.
Then, just when Gwydion was certain they had been spotted and was on the verge of either sinking into despair and abandoning himself to destruction or springing to his feet in a vain attempt to fight the demon-thing - though he knew somehow that any attempt to fight it by any mortal means was destined to fail - at that moment he felt a vibration in his palms.
It was a warm, comforting vibration, and it seemed to him that it was accompanied by a low thrumming sound. He glanced down, surprised.
Tylith-senshai looked no different to his eyes then than it had ever looked to him. But he could feel the low vibration in the hilt, and it seemed to him he could hear the sword sing. A wave of peace and warmth coursed over him, dispelling in its wake the cold grip of unnatural fear that the creature was projecting. At once he felt calm and comfort return, bringing with it a return to reason. The creature could be fought, if needed, he realized.
Tylith-senshai was awake.
He glanced back up, his sense of calm returned, ready to face the demon rider.
As he did, it turned away.
It wheeled its mount and faced back in the direction from which Gwydion and Brianna had come, towards the Spire and the black staircase. For a moment it sat still, as if considering something.
Then it spurred the demon-steed, and galloped off in that direction.
Gwydion sat crouched, waiting until it was long out of sight and the hoofbeats of the demon steed had faded to an indistinct murmur. Gradually the thrumming of the sword faded, until it was only a memory, and Gwydion was left wondering whether he had imagined it.
"Well?" asked Brianna, laying on her side in the grass. "Is it gone?"
Gwydion was staring off in the direction the rider had gone. "Yes," he said at length. "For now."
Brianna stood, dusting herself off. "What do you mean by that?"
"It saw me," he said calmly.
She snorted. "Don't talk nonsense. If it had seen you, we'd be dead now." She looked down at where he still crouched. "Well, what are you sitting around for? Let's get moving."
He looked up at her. "Did you... did you hear the thrumming?" he asked.
She looked at him as if he were dazed. "What thrumming?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. Never mind. What was that... that fear?"
"What?" She was confused.
"The rider. The fear it generated. Didn't you feel it?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, sure. It was a fiend, I was afraid, sure. Only a fool wouldn't be. That's why we hid, remember?"
He shook his head again. "No," he said vehemently, "I know what fear is. I've been afraid plenty of times in my life. This was something different - unnatural. I was quaking, trembling. I was frozen. That's never happened to me before. I saw into its eyes, and suddenly I couldn't move."
She considered him for a moment. "Well," she said at last, "if you say so. Like you said, you saw its eyes, I didn't. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get moving."
He stood. "You think it will come back then."
"I doubt it. Probably it was just passing through, on some mission for one of the darker powers."
"You don't believe that, and neither do I. It was searching for us."
She snorted again. "We're not that important, cutter. Not to the likes of him. All the same, it never pays to be careless, so let's put some distance between us and this place."
Gwydion glanced back in the direction the rider had gone. "It will return," he said. "It was sent to find us."
"Don't talk like that," she snapped. "You'll jinx us. The rider is gone. If it ever saw us, it only thought of us as a quick meal. It didn't find us, and it's gone - just like we should be. So let's go." So saying, she turned on her heel and struck out again, not pausing to look back and see if he followed.
Gwydion trailed along behind her in silence, looking back over his shoulder from time to time.
The rider will return, he thought, his fingers tightening on Tylith-senshai's hilt, and I will slay it.