Chapter 7.

A Free Road

The entire caravan consisted of Pepper Domo and an iron carriage pulled by a green-skinned tiger. Svetlana had spent the night comfortably in one of Domo’s guest rooms. She said goodbye to Gehosopha over breakfast. Domo had yet to show himself when the hyep departed. Perhaps the Apothecary had drank too much Andromedan last night and required more recovery time than the Composite Being, who could spread a hangover across several brains at once. Svetlana was eager to begin the next leg of her journey, but only Domo knew the way.

“Can I trust this Apothecary?” she asked Gehosopha as he left.

“He is a fair and honorable trader,” Gehosopha answered. “This cluster will miss your company, Svetlana.”

She had no idea how to approach embracing the cluster of heads that was Gehosopha’s middle body, so she simply nodded and offered him an awkward bow.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We will hire a replacement sentinel before leaving Nil,” said the Composite Being. “I hope you find your missing offspring.”

Svetlana wanted to weep, but she took a deep breath and saved it for later. She waved as the Composite Beings lumbered down the street, the tops of their central stems loaded with crates full of fresh serums. The bizarre crowd soon swallowed them up.

Domo’s carriage came rolling from the stable behind his shop. The body and four wheels were made of black iron, the roof lined with a short fence for securing luggage and trade goods. A silver trim formed arabesques across the single entry door. A curtained window on the opposite side of the coach showed drapes of red velvet. The barrels and trunks containing Domo’s serums had been loaded onto the top of the vehicle, tied into an impressive pyramid by a net of strong ropes.

The tiger’s meaty shoulders stood level with Svetlana’s chin. Its fur smelled like wild grass in summer, and she longed to run her hand through it. She resisted the urge as it turned to sniff at her, showing its magnificent fangs. She heard a rumble deep in its mammoth chest, and its big pink tongue licked at her boots. The servant who had brought the carriage around leaped off the driver’s bench and ran back to the stables.

Svetlana had arrived early in the yard with satchel, cloak, sword, and pistol. Ready to go at sunrise, as requested. She stood before Domo’s waiting carriage awhile. Apothecaries and their wavy-eyed servants rushed up and down the streets, but it was too early for much customer traffic. Both suns were up and the heat was rising fast. For a moment she considered climbing into the driver’s seat of the carriage and taking off without Domo. If she had any idea where to go, how to find Creep City on her own, she might have done it. Instead she crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the shop. The tiger took her cue and lay itself before the carriage, crossing its front paws and resting its chin. The traces that bound it to the coach were polished leather hung with silk and jewels.

“You must be the new muscle.” A deep voice from the other side of the carriage.

Two large, booted feet were visible. The coach hid the rest of whoever stood there. Svetlana moved behind the vehicle to get a look at the new arrival, but she found nobody standing there.

“Slow,” said the voice. “Too slow.”

Behind her. She whirled and something darted from her line of vision. It was inhumanly fast. She reached for Takamoto’s sword and cursed. The handle wasn’t there above her shoulder-blade where it should be. The scabbard was empty.

“Looking for this?” She turned.

The gleam of Takamoto’s steel she recognized immediately. The figure holding it took awhile longer. One of the reptoids that served as the guardsmen of Nil leaned against the doorjamb precisely where she had been standing seconds earlier. His scaled body was covered by form-fitting silvery armor, mostly along the limbs and midsection. Svetlana identified seven points of weakness in that first half-second: ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, underarms, groin, and neck. None of those areas was covered by the silver metal, but each spot did have dense and scaly skin to protect it. Then there was his head, handsome in its own grand ugliness.

A twin set of bone ridges lined the top of his skull. A pair of vertically slitted eyes gleamed yellow above a sloping snout that ended with flared nostrils. The reptoid’s fangs were miniature versions of the tiger’s, but his toothy grin was altogether human. A forked tongue darted in and out between the fangs. His scales were an uneven blend of green and black, or perhaps they were of a green so dark that it resembled black.

A pistol hung at the lizard-man’s side, and a rifle lay across his back. Neither of his weapons looked like those of Svetlana’s world, but their shapes were unmistakable. Her own pistol was made of dark metal, but the reptoid’s gear was polished silver like his armor. She took all of this in while the reptoid stared at her and twirled Takamoto’s sword, taunting her like a child who had stolen a toy.

“I don’t need that sword to kill you,” Svetlana said.

The reptilian smile widened. “You didn’t even know I was here,” he said. “You’ll have to be more alert if you’re going to work for Domo.” He reversed the sword, offering her the grip while the blade lay naked in his palms. It could have been a dare to use it against him. If it was, she didn’t take the bait.

“Who are you?” she asked, sheathing Takamoto’s blade.

“Bruno,” said the reptoid. His yellow eyes flashed in the sunlight. “I work for Domo. Sixteen years now. He tells me he hired you to join this caravan. I say ‘Yes, Boss,’ but we both know he doesn’t need another guard.” The reptoid’s face came near to her as Bruno leaned forward. “So I ask myself: Why did he really hire you?”

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” Svetlana said. She turned away from Bruno and put her back against the wall again. How much longer would Domo keep her waiting?

The reptoid continued staring at her. “I say he feels sorry for you. I say he’s sweet on you. Can you even fight?”

Svetlana closed her eyes.

When she opened them, Bruno had backed away. He inspected the ropes that tied the baggage onto the coach roof. Men had tried to bait her before, and she had learned to ignore it. Once they saw her skill at the hunt or in defense of the community, they gave her respect. This is how warriors bonded. If she was going to travel with Domo, she would have to establish a warrior’s bond with the lizard. Unless the customs of his own society prevented such a thing. Then she would have to make the entire journey enduring the heat of his scorn. She might have to kill Bruno if it came to that. A hundred such lizard-men would not keep her from finding Dima. She waited and kept her mouth shut. Bruno took his spot on the padded driver’s bench, and the tiger woke from its nap yawning.

Pepper Domo appeared in a cloud of powder, perfume, and flying silks. The front door of his shop burst open at the hands of two servants, and he swept through it in a robe of nine colors and carrying a scepter of gleaming glass. Whenever he took a step the air was filled with the tinkling of glass vials like tiny bells. His eyes at the end of their stalks blinked at the brightness of morning.

Spreading his arms wide, staring at his carriage fully prepared and the two bodyguards awaiting his pleasure, Domo sang in a high voice. The servants kneeled about him in reverence. The tiger purred like a great engine. Domo finished his song and the servants withdrew. The Apothecary turned his eyes to Svetlana and smiled with his sideways mouth.

“Good morning, my dear,” he said. “I see you’ve met Bruno.”

The reptoid nodded. Svetlana duplicated the movement.

“Years of experience,” said Domo, “the most trusted soul in all my retinue. Bruno has saved my skin more times than I can count. He was a great warrior among the Uxx people, you know. His people serve the Apothecaries in a generational pact because we helped them win the Batrachian War of 7013. Ah, but that’s enough for now. You’ll get to know us both better along the way.”

“How long?” Svetlana asked.

“Until?” Domo said.

“To reach Creep City,” Svetlana said.

Domo smiled and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Sweet girl, I can see that you have not travelled widely, so let me educate you. On the Thoroughfare we’ll be moving through an array of diverse Affinities–parallel dimensions–until we reach the world that includes our destination. Because time itself is a subjective concept, it is impossible to know exactly how long it will take to travel from Nil to Creep City. Also, atmospheric conditions can vary greatly from realm to realm, slowing down crossworld traffic at times. Too many variables, you see, to calculate an accurate estimate of our travel time.”

Svetlana said nothing. She heard the reptoid grunt with amusement.

“If I were to judge from previous excursions,” said Domo, “I’d say the fastest I’ve ever made it from here to there equals approximately 30 days, as time is measured here in Nil. Yet it has taken me as long as 93 Nillian days in other instances.”

Svetlana nodded, though she didn’t really understand.

A servant held the carriage door open and Domo climbed inside. “Svetlana, ride with me for now,” he called to her. “You can trade shifts with Bruno later.”

Bruno grumbled. “Sweet on you…”

Svetlana climbed into the opulent interior of the coach. Two cushioned benches faced one another across a floor of shaggy pink carpet. On the far side, beneath the single window, sat a lone travelling trunk. Domo opened the lid and the container expanded into a shelf containing four rows of tiny and mid-sized vials. His private supply of serums, potions, and whatever liquid miracles he chose to bring along.

Domo whistled and the carriage rumbled down the avenue toward the Thoroughfare. The Solbred were following the road between worlds back to their riverbed path, and it would lead them home. The carriage turned in the opposite direction when it reached the stone road. Domo spread the curtains so he and Svetlana could watch the odd population of Nil as the carriage rolled along.

Domo mixed a cocktail of serums in a glass goblet and made another for Svetlana. “Here you are, my dear,” he cooed. “This blend of meganutrients and unified field resonance drippings will sustain you for several days.”

Svetlana refused the potion.

Domo insisted. “No, you must drink. This is the Traveler’s Blend. After imbibing its powers you will not need to sleep or eat much for the first half of our journey. It also will keep you alert and ready for action. It is outrageously expensive if you do not work for an Apothecary.”

Svetlana accepted the fizzing cup. It tasted like citrus juice, dancing and buzzing in her mouth, then in her stomach. When the cup was empty she felt like getting out and running alongside the carriage. Beyond the window now the red sky and golden desert had replaced the ruins of Nil.

“You see?” Domo sipped at his own cocktail. “What did I tell you?”

Svetlana smiled. It was pleasant inside the carriage. Soft and cool. The steady rumble of iron wheels on flat stone permeated everything.

“What is this road that runs between the worlds?” she asked. “Who made it?”

Domo’s eye-stalks quivered. “Well, you’re talking ancient history dear. Some great lost empire, I suppose it was. The Nexus is far older than all of us. It has always been here, tying the Affinities together. I suppose there was a time in some prehistoric era when parallel dimensions weren’t connected at all. Most philosophers say there are an infinite number of realities, all vibrating at different speeds along the time/space continuum. The Nexus includes only a fraction of those realities, yet still it links hundreds, perhaps thousands of worlds.”

Svetlana used a rag to clean the grime and sand from her pistol while Domo spoke. A single question could keep him going indefinitely. The man loved to talk. Perhaps that was the real reason he had hired her. Simple companionship. Plus his pity for a mother grieving for a lost child.

Domo told long and convoluted stories of empires transdimensional and intergalactic. Waves of organic and semi-organic beings traveling in and between parallel realities, establishing a crossworld set of rituals, guidelines, and customs. He read to her entries from a dusty old book taken from the secret chest under his seat. His “travelling library,” Domo called it. He recited poems said to be handed down from a great Golden Age long passed, when all the worlds knew peace and prosperity and unity. The Builders of the Nexus must have lived during that time, he mused, while their shining empire spanned time and space like a dream. He read to her ancient epics about the era of darkness that followed when that dream collapsed. She would have preferred direct factual information, but she learned quite a lot from Domo’s classical poetry.

This original proto-empire had birthed hundreds of lesser empires across the Nexus. These lesser realms fell too, one by one, in the tumultuous ages that followed. The cosmos fell into chaos, but the Nexus remained, the eternal road between the worlds. The poems never gave a proper name to this theoretical Original Empire. A reference to “Roman roads left like scars across the fields of England” sounded familiar to Svetlana. She had read something like it in a moldering textbook when she was a child. Her father and mother had tried to preserve books whenever possible, but they were fragile things prone to wetness and flame. She remembered mostly the books’ faded images of the world her ancestors had lost. Another dead empire.

“So this great empire died,” Svetlana said, “leaving behind its road between the worlds. A road of indestructible stone.”

“We do know the road is protected against entropy and temporal dissolution,” Domo said. “But we cannot know if these poems are factual or fantastical. Still, they do ring of ancient wisdom. It’s said that every lie contains a kernel of truth.”

Domo served her another cocktail, this one a blue and syrupy concoction that gave her a feeling of raw confidence. Outside the window the desert rolled by, a backdrop of lazy dunes as patient as the eternal road itself.

“What do you imagine brought this Original Empire to its end?” she said.

The Apothecary shrugged and sipped his cocktail.

“Time is the greatest enemy of any empire,” said Domo. “Although I’ve read books suggesting the rise of the Potentates of Urbille set the crossworld decay in motion. Some even say the dreadful power of the Potentates unleashed a wave of entropy that washed over the Nexus like a transdimensional storm, toppling a thousand empires like mirror images of the original. Other sages believe it was this interdimensional decay–a naturally occurring cosmic phenomenon–that allowed the Potentates to seize control of the Nexus.”

“Who are these Potentates?” she asked.

“They are the Lords of Urbille, which lies at the exact center of the Nexus,” Domo said. “An ancient metropolis where the Potentates hold their court. They are also known as Masters of the Nexus, World Tenders, and Veiled Ones. A network of worlds provides them endless tribute. Our world used to as well, back in the days of my grandfather. But the Urbille forgot about us hundreds of years ago. We are too far from the center of the Nexus. Or perhaps we’ve run out of anything worth taking. Who can say?”

“You mentioned Aphelion last night,” Svetlana said.

“Oh, yes,” said Domo, “the unquenchable fire of glory, the city of cities, a living dream of metropolitan perfection–that is Aphelion. How I would love to see its gleaming gates and its dreamspun walls before I pass on. I would offer ten thousand serums for the chance to meet its glorious Triple Monarch.”

“So it’s real? Like the Urbille?”

Domo’s eyes bulged on the ends of their stalks. “Oh, you heard Gehosopha doubting my belief in Aphelion. I’ve yet to encounter concrete proof of its existence, but I’ve heard many a tale and story. I’ve even purchased an item or two said to have been manufactured in Aphelion. Trinkets and the like. Tiny wonders. It’s impossible to verify these things for the most part.”

“You think the Angel–the Silverwing–comes from Aphelion?”

“It’s quite possible, my dear,” said Domo. “I really cannot say. That is precisely why we are going to see the Mummy Lords. Well, that and to sell my wares.” He lay a palm on her knee. “Patience must be your shield. Hope is already your greatest weapon.”

The carriage rolled to an abrupt stop. The tiger roared in his traces.

“Go!” said Domo. “Bruno needs your support.”

Svetlana opened the carriage door and stepped outside. The hot desert wind brought sweat oozing from her pores. She squinted ahead of the carriage, past the growling tiger. A gateway exactly like the one she’d found in Omiska stood directly ahead. The pale road ran directly between two obelisks engraved with alien formulae. Beyond those obelisks the road was smothered in drifts of sand. Obviously the Thoroughfare’s self-cleaning capacity only covered the space between world-gates. She knew that walking between those obelisks would be walking into another world. Or rolling, in the case of the carriage. The problem, the reason Bruno had stopped, was the band of armed vagabonds standing on the road between carriage and gateway.

The carriage door closed behind her and a metal bolt clunked into place. An iron plate dropped down to shield the window on the coach’s far side. In the blink of an eye Bruno was no longer sitting on the driver’s bench, but standing in front of the tiger with his rifle raised.

The desert wind howled between the scattered stones. Svetlana knew these men were bandits, robbers, no better than the ones who had come every season to murder and exploit her village. None of them were human, but she recognized the same desperate look in their milky eyes, the same crude hunger in the way they held blade, spear, and gun. Several of them held greatbows with arrows aimed specifically at Bruno. The carriage sat behind the reptoid, an iron egg with Domo tucked safely inside.

The bandits wore scraps of leather and rusted metal. Their bodies were largely humanoid, although some were taller than Bruno. A band of misfits and tentacled freaks, they numbered at least fifteen. Their spokesman stood at their center, a glinting rifle propped against his shoulder. It looked exactly like Bruno’s weapon, probably stolen from one of his fellow Uxx.

Svetlana guessed the play: The tiger would protect the carriage while Bruno and she handled the bandits.

“You wish to pass, we require tribute,” said the leader. His snout was horned like a rhino. The visor of a dirty bronze helm hid his eyes.

“This is a free road,” said Bruno. He held the rifle steady.

A round of nervous laughter swept through the bandits’ ranks. Tentacles quivered and whipped the air. Someone’s high laugh sounded like a baying hound.

“This porte belongs to us,” said the rhino. “One last chance…pay or die. We’ll accept the female if you like.”

Svetlana had moved around the tiger to stand near Bruno. The lizard-man ignored her. Obviously he was used to handling these types of threats alone. She slid Takamoto’s blade from its scabbard.

“I think she’s made her decision, boys,” said the rhino. The archers let six arrows fly at Bruno. But the reptoid was no longer there. The shafts were matchsticks to the big tiger, who batted them out of the air like buzzing gnats. Svetlana watched a green and silver blur move through the ranks of the bandits, its path punctuated by grunts, screams, or growls ever half-second. A few dizzy seconds later came the slap of Bruno’s leathery tail against the road. He stood silent behind the group now. A broad-bladed knife in his hand dripped crimson.

Half the bandits squirted blood from their necks, abdomens, or heads. Severed tentacles fell to the ground. Bandits dropped pistols and rifles to clutch at their own bleeding bodies. Svetlana grinned. Bruno had taken out most of the gunmen. The rhino still held his rifle, but the rest of them brandished simpler weapons. Someone tried to spear the reptoid, but Bruno was a blur again. The spearman died in a splash of red, intestines spilling across the road.

The rhino ignored the screams of his men and aimed his rifle at Svetlana.

She lunged forward, sweeping Takamoto’s blade low from left to right. The rifle burped a beam of purple light that flew right above her head. She felt the heat of the bolt passing as her blade sliced through ankle tendon and bone. The rhino fell to the road, spewing gore from the stump where his foot used to be. He howled like a dying wolf.

A bandit rushed at Svetlana while Bruno carved a red path from one to the next. Bright blood spattered his armor. His weapon was half the length of Takamoto’s sword, and twice was wide. Yet he moved so fast she could not clearly observe his technique. She sidestepped the arc of a bandit’s spiked mace and sliced his throat open with an upward swing. He fell bleeding at her feet.

The rhino was trying to stop the blood spurting from his severed ankle. Everyone was dead or dying now. The bandits lay in pieces, choking in pools of their own blood. Svetlana stood over the rhino. He might live on as a cripple, if the blood loss didn’t kill him. On Svetlana’s home world he would never make it. His own people would kill him out of mercy. A one-footed man couldn’t run or hunt or avoid predators. Or defend his family.

She stood over him, blade pointed down. He rolled over, pulling off his helmet and staring at her with piggish eyes. “Please…” he begged, lifting stumpy red fingers toward her. His rifle lay nearby, but it might as well be a hundred kilometers away. He was done fighting. “Please…” He wasn’t exactly human, but he wept like one. His yellow teeth gnashed as he begged for his life. Svetlana kicked the rifle away.

A flash of silver nearby surprised her. Bruno had drawn his pistol. He lowered the barrel to the rhino’s damp forehead. The man’s eyes swiveled to look at him. Svetlana opened her mouth to say “Don’t kill him,” but the first word had not left her mouth when Bruno pulled the trigger. A blast of purple light turned the rhino’s head into a smoking stain on the road. The heat of the bolt also cauterized the wound instantly, so the corpse lay spurting blood from its ankle yet none at all from the raw space between it shoulders.

“This is a free road,” Bruno said.

He holstered the gun and climbed back into the driver’s bench. He waited a moment for Svetlana to climb up alongside him, then spoke a Word of Command. The tiger grabbed a twitching body in its jaws and lumbered forward. A portable snack for the big carnivore. Svetlana heard its teeth crunching through bone as the carriage rolled past the scene of slaughter.

The green tiger disappeared through the invisible plane between obelisks, pulling the carriage after it. Svetlana recognized the sensation of falling again, although this time she felt the carriage and the tiger were falling with her. The impression was gone in an instant, and the coach was rolling on the other side of the gate.

Cold rain pelted Svetlana’s face. The dry desert air was gone, replaced by storm winds. The carriage moved along a high pass, a deep and foggy gorge yawning on one side of the road, a raw mountain wall on the other side. The tiger roared at the rain but did not slow its pace. It knew this road, as did Bruno. The carriage raced around the mountain as lightning swirled above the peaks. Next the road ran along the top of a narrow ridge, then brought the carriage into a forest of trees thick with yellow leaves and turquoise fruit. A waterfall thundered into the hidden depths of the ravine.

Svetlana raised her hood against the rain. It was a refreshing change of climate, but too sudden. She wanted to go back inside the carriage with Domo, but did not want to appear weak to Bruno. The lizard-man had killed thirteen men to her two. One, if you count his final shot.

“Who were they?” she asked, yelling through the rain.

“Lo-tech raiders,” said Bruno. “Parasites of the road. Scavengers and outlaws. Crossworld scum.” She saw the long knife now, in a scabbard tightly bound to his left thigh. She had completely missed it before. Bruno hadn’t drawn his sidearm until the fight was over. He must prefer to fight with the knife. Or could it be some unspoken reptoid custom that made him choose blade over pistol? She knew better than to ask for the secrets of his skill.

“What world is this?” she asked.

“It is the world that rains,” Bruno said. “I do not know the name of it. Ask Domo.”

“How many more worlds before we reach Creep City,” she asked.

Bruno roared with laughter. “Many more,” he said. “We’re parsing the Affinities. Sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Svetlana kept her eyes on the curiously shaped trees. Some kind of birds or monkeys were moving among the branches, taking shelter from the storm. A peal of thunder split the gray sky and she wished she was inside drinking one of Domo’s cocktails. The rainy day gave way to night and the road sloped downward to a flat plain where the ruins of a great city lay moldering in the mud. From the rainy heights, she saw the Thoroughfare winding directly through the ruins. It ran from there across a dark plain and disappeared into a woodland.

A row of yellow moons rose and a few bright stars poked through the cloud cover. Immediately after the rain stopped, a pack of flying things descended on the carriage. Svetlana thought they were bloated bats until they swept in close enough to see better. Each one was a flying, bodiless head with black-feathered wings sprouting from the skull where ears should have been. They reminded her of the clustered heads of the Solbred, except for the wings and the fact that each flying head bore a single bulging eye. Their noses were pointed and their mouths full of jagged fangs. They screeched like starving children as they swarmed the carriage. The tiger stopped and swiped its front claws at them, spilling feathers across the air. A trio of heads dug their fangs into the feline’s back and sucked at its blood like leeches.

Bruno picked them off one by one with bolts of light from his pistol. They sizzled in the rain as he shot them down. One of the heads battered Svetlana’s eyes with its greasy wings, biting at her raised forearm. She grunted and grabbed her own pistol as the fangs pierced her skin. She put a bullet between the head’s eyes, then shot another one through its jaw before it could bite her leg. Then her left arm went dead.

Tongues like pointed snakes shot from the mouths of the heads, first wrapping around Bruno’s pistol arm, then Svetlana’s. Bruno’s free hand came up with his knife, and he stood upon the driver’s seat slashing at the creatures. Svetlana shot a few more heads down, firing until her gun was empty. Her left army hung numb at her side, and her head was foggy. Bruno’s knife was ridding the tiger of the heads leeching it.

Thunder broke in the sky above the mountain. The rain returned in full force, and the flock of heads relented. The survivors flew into the night. Bruno opened the door to check on Domo. The Apothecary took one look at Svetlana and demanded that she come inside. Bruno resumed his driving position and the vehicle rolled on as Domo treated Svetlana’s bite.

“The bite of these things is poisonous and eventually fatal,” Domo said. He cleaned the entry wound with a damp cloth. “But don’t worry, I always have the antidote prepared for this journey. Bruno and his tiger are immune to the poison.” She drank the serum and he bandaged her arm. Then another dose of the blue cocktail. Her wet clothes began to dry inside the warm coach.

She slept for awhile in the comfortable seat. When she awoke the window showed the road running along the edge of a glistening ocean. She peered out the window, blinking. The sky was a deep green, with a constellation of pearly moons hanging over the black expanse of waters. The smell of saltwater wafted through the open window. The antidote had made her sleep longer than she planned.

“We’ve passed into another Affinity,” said Domo, sensing her disorientation. “This realm is far more pleasant, as you can see.” He waved at finger at the window and took a deep breath of the salty air.

“An ocean,” said Svetlana, admiring its wild beauty. She had seen oceans in books, but it wasn’t the same. The vastness of wide open space threatened to suck the breath from her lungs. It made her feel small and insignificant. It was beauty and danger made one.

“I have never seen an ocean before,” she told Domo. “Only in pictures.” It was wonderful and somewhat terrifying.

“Oh, well, this segment of the Thoroughfare stretches along the Sea of Forgettings. You may want to ride up front to get the full experience. It’s quite a view. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of the leviathans who live in the sea. They emerge now and then from the waves like tiny islands, and one can easily see them from the road.”

Svetlana opened the door and climbed onto the driver’s seat. Bruno sat at the reins, impassive as usual. A single sun burned in the green sky. The moons here were of all sizes, and too many to count. On the opposite side of the road lay the ruins of another great city. A field of half-buried slabs and fallen crystal towers overlooked the sea cliffs. Once it had been a spectacular thing, this city by the sea. Another lost capitol in shards. Nothing moved among the hills of crystalline wreckage.

Bruno offered no welcome when Svetlana climbed up to sit beside him. She gave him a vial of refreshment from Domo. He opened it, drained it, and gave her back the empty bottle.

“Killed nine more men at the last porte,” he said, “while you slept.”

“More bandits?”

“No,” Bruno said. “Slavers.”

“Is there always killing on these trips?” she asked.

The ocean was dark and calm, sparkling with sunset.

“Always,” said Bruno.

She studied the flat horizon, eager to catch a glimpse of the leviathans Domo had mentioned. “Is there anywhere along the Nexus where men can live in peace?”

“Many worlds lie along the Nexus,” said Bruno. “Most are peaceful because they have already died. There is nobody and nothing left to fight. Yet some are still dying, so their inhabitants rage against death. There can be little peace on a dying world.”

“Are all the worlds we pass through either dead or dying?”

“Everything dies eventually,” Bruno said. “Our job is to postpone it as long as possible. So we fight. It is the way.”

“In this all worlds are the same,” Svetlana said. “Everybody wants to live.”

Bruno laughed. “Not true. Some only want to die. Some are unable to do so. You will see this when we get to Creep City.”

A great dark shape rose from the ocean out near the horizon. A head and shoulders large as a mountain, gleaming like black iron, it stood gazing at the mainland. For a moment Svetlana thought it might walk out of the sea and scoop up Domo’s carriage in one of its colossal fists. Yet the leviathan only stood and stared at its dying world.

The carriage rolled on, perhaps beneath its notice.

NEXT: “Skiptrain”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —