(c) Jodi Ralston
Key Plot Point One: Edit One
This key point has been divided into several parts for easier loading.
You can find Part One, Part Two, and Part Four here.
I learned to adapt a soft focus. Soft on target, just to the point where if you looked, you saw something odd, a shimmer like crosshatching of one reality over another but not quite. Ghost like. What it took was time, lots of bumps and bruises and sore egos and sorer patience, to train my eyes to see differently enough. To focus on these different wavelengths of hatching. The clearest, crispiest ones were the ones that I did my best, fastest travelling by, no matter how indirect that route was.
Eventually, I put my hand on the door of the main house and let go of my focus. The illusion slammed back, and no amount of rubbing took away a bit of my headache. I squinted at my watch to figure how long the direct indirect route took me.
What it told me made me seek stronger confirmation elsewhere.
The sun said it was noon, or so I assumed. Hadn't paid attention to the sun before, but surely it was exempt from the magic illusions or the illusory aspect of the crosshatchings taking place here. By now I had assumed less than someone had something valuable to protect here, and more that this world had done what, in theory, would happen to the Twin Lands eventually. Merge.
No one ever saw it happen, or lived to tell about it. In fact, no one saw any realities closer to that eventuality that the Twin Lands. But I strongly suspected it had happened to this world and recently so if no one cared to warn me about it. While their grasp on law may be iron as Grip's grasp, my people--my former people who cared, my classmates and colleagues--they gave a damn about what they were doing. They went beyond the letter of the law to ensure I wasn't going to my execution. Just prison.
Well, leaning against the door in contemplation of theories made reality wasn't going to give me anything but a headache times two--and a likely a few splinters to match its wild brethren welcoming embraces. I was about to pick myself off the door when I heard voices and movement behind it, too low to register past my thoughts earlier. So there was life beyond my own here. Things were looking up, after all.
I managed to paste on an exhausted smile and knocked. "Hello inside. Can I get some water and information?" My own water was running on the low side, due to marching hither and thither to get in a straight line.
No response. I knocked again and said the magic words, "Please, I can pay you for it. I have gold."
Nothing. Keeping one hand on the building, just in case if by moving back a step I ended back up by the schism, I craned around the door, stood on tiptoe, and looked inside the window beside it. Nothing.
No life inside.
I didn't get it. I didn't think I wanted to get it. Because, when I looked out of the corner of my eye, looked like I had when walking the way here, I saw blurs of movement. I saw blurs of people. Schiz it, I was even beginning to make out bits of conversation. But when I looked directly inside I saw nothing, absolutely nothing but pretty curtains, pretty table cloth, pretty chairs and heck even pretty napkins laid out, besides a table laden with food and drink galore. Pristine as the road. Tons of food and seats for guests, but no one to neither eat nor serve.
The scholars had warned that when merges happen people can get trapped . . . in a sort of limbo. But when I soft-looked back, what I saw made me jerk back. Something vague was at the window looking out. Vague or not, looking at me. Until I lost that focus. And now my side was screaming in pain, that it had me crouching. And I heeded. I wasn't going in there, limbo-land. That was damn creepy. If I were honest, it was a whole lot more than creepy.
But then, there was a horse.
A horse that didn't look too vague from a distance.
From my angle I couldn't see the horse. It wasn't pressing itself up against the fence that hung off the building like limbo-inhabitants did, steaming up the window---creepy--and scooting shadows along the gab at the bottom of the door--creepy, too. But just because it wasn't in sight, didn't mean the horse wasn't real. The corral could have escaped the cross-hatching collapse. Better yet, there might be a well, or in this land a pump for water in that direction. And at least, it was further away from that befogged window and the door. I felt my way along the side, and heard noises inside again. Louder this time. And creaking as if of footsteps following my progress. From the corner of my eye, I even saw someone push aside the curtain. Didn't want to either. Creepy.
I--and my side--were really disliking creepy.
Nor did we like people that were there but not there. Perhaps this wasn't a limbo. If I were wrong about the scholar's theory in action, then these people were in another house entirely, miles away like I had been crisscrossing over the road, thanks to the magic illusion that infested this place it. And the oddness of such--the food and furniture, the sounds, the movement of the curtain, the breath-fogging the window, even the shadows under the door--could be explained away thanks to that illusion, too.
Possible. Creepy. But possible. Best to keep to my own, either way, not speaking, not drawing undue attention upon myself as I felt my way along the house to the fence which abutted the house. Once it came under my fingertips, I breathed a little easier and gave the house another look, to see what this angle had to tell.
There was no window on this side, according to my direct look. Only a closed door.
My soft vision had an opinion of its own to share. Yes, there was no window on that side of the house that opened into the corral, but there was a door and it was open. Creepy.
Painfully creepy, I thought, rubbing at my side.
Maybe I should just move on. Forget the mystery of the horse.
When I saw movement at the door that was not-open but was open, I decided I should move on just that much faster. I let go of the fence.
And a swift movement caught my eye.
The horse was standing there. Right in the middle of the yard.
And he was beautiful. Big and black, of light draft, hair perfectly and pristinely feathering his feet. Nice, alert ears. Strong back. With extra touches: his body may be black, but streaks of white and gray wended boldly through its long black crinkly mane and tail. That it flickered like ribbons of satin as I watched, as if aware I was watching. He was even prone to arching its neck like a show horse to accompany its beautiful steps as it pranced to me, and at the perfect moment the horse reared, pawed the air, and tossed his head. Wow.
I unclenched the fence I hadn't realized I had grasped again and sat back on my heels. Mech beasts are different than the real deal, so my knowledge in this area was limited. But even a novice can recognize good horse flesh when they see it. This was one great horse flesh. Male and energetic, proud and beautiful, and . . . incredibly healthy for its rather sparse corral and abandoned nature. That idea hit me just as his promenade toward me ended up with him within touching distance. My scar warned me to let it come no nearer. The horse stopped and cocked his head, as if confused by me.
As if seeing me for the first time.
Up this close, he even looked well groomed. Mane like that, after all, didn't take care of itself.
But even so, I thought, gripping the fence again, for different reasons. I couldn't just walk away. Forget the idea of hitching a ride, an idea at some point I had unwisely picked up. No doubt that was what my scar was warning me about. But nor could I walk away and leave him to the same fate as that of the creepy house-dwellers. I could open the gate; let it out so it could at least find forage. I walked along the fence until I found a gate. The horse followed at an easy gait that sounded far lighter than it should, especially for such a high gait. If I didn't know better, someone had thrown a little cat into the genetic mix. Perhaps that was what I felt. Sometimes you get a cross-schism traveller who brings along some living potpourri of genetics, thanks to magic, but the problem was they didn't always breed true and you didn't always get what you expected.
Hence the scar's fretting my side into knots.
Even so simple an explanation as that, it was wise to be cautious. I didn't know this world. I didn't know this . . . horse.
The horse, starved for attention, was waiting patiently out of reach by the gate. I unlatched it and opened it up, careful to not get trampled. The horse came out and snorted and stopped by my side as I was securing the gate to the fence and dipped his head slowly, lowly down its leg in thanks.
At least that was what looked like.
So, I laughed. "You're welcome."
He dipped again and this time, as his head came up, butted against me, my shoulder.
I laughed again--see, he wasn't so bad, was he--and reached out to pat his neck. "Sorry, pal. No food on me."
And he struck like a snake, mouth latched onto my shoulder. With teeth. Teeth I got to see in great detail as they flashed down. Sharp, pointed, and too many. Fangs was more proper at term. His eyes glowed red, and eyes firm on mine, he gave me a shake with his head. Hard. So hard, an image popped into my mind too quick to grasp.
All this happened in the matter of seconds, and by the time my mind processed the attack and the shock and went toward conjuring up my training from dealing with keshets, I was already out of time. I had lost my feet in the shaking and was dumped to the ground. It had released me, and I had fallen.
Roll away, idiot. Roll.
Before I could, it leapt backwards, shaking its head, as the taste of my blood and flesh hadn't agreed with it.
By the time I got to my feet, it backed up, head low, and hissed at me as if I were the attacker here. "Hiss, yourself. That's my blood on your teeth." Crouched low, arms out from my side, I took one hand up and shook a fist at it. The one hurt.
Gods. Damn. It.
Through the pain, I saw very clearly an image of myself shaking a fist. Then wincing. And something more, something glowing and twisting at my hip, my hip scar. But other shining inside too, as if spreading from that mark. As if it were leaking out a hole.
What in the schism?
He had stretched his neck out to the utmost, nose pointed in my direction, nostrils wide, sniffing the air like a big, black dog. I very clearly saw that. Just the same, I very clearly saw myself clutching that leak, my scar, without looking at myself, and yes it hurt, thank you very much for the reminder. I hadn't paid it attention when I was being bit and shook like a ragdoll. But that was a very clear image from outside me. Undeniable, but real, despite the . . . viewpoint.
Dealing with long-tongued succubus taught me something or two about false images and their origin. This horse was sending an image at me. Horse . . . I was beginning to think that made for a poor description. Now that I knew what he--it--hid, I began to understand that warning from before. The whole horse-image was a lie. An illusion. And I thought, as I felt my blood and the accompanying pain drip down my arm, that it was one I could do without.
Problem was, you don't run from predators. Not unless you wanted to end your chase, collapsed under their weight and claws, breath heating the back of your neck just before the fangs descended. No, I could do without that, too. But I couldn't stand here. He had a ton on me. It wasn't just fangs I was worried about. He could stomp me far too easily.
He pulled his head back, ears pricking as an image came to me. Of him rearing up and me becoming squooshed and flat on the ground as he pranced that elegant little prance he did so well.
Well, crap. "You don't just send images and thoughts. You read my mind, don't you?" Stop giving it ideas on how to kill you, idiot. In fact, give it something to chew on. I sent him an image of me threatening him. With a mehnset--most animals hated snakes. Magical ones even more so. Didn't matter I had one or not. I sent that image, built on experience, of what a mehnset could do. What I could do with one. What I would do to it. In as excruciating detail as I could manage under the circumstances. "Understand that . . ." I sneered. "Horse."
The "horse" cocked his head. Then, it spooked, back wrinkling, and it looked up to the sky, then quickly back at me. His parry? And image of me getting on his back. Us clipping along a lightly shining path toward a stonehenge, but most of the rings of rocks were built upon a smaller scale than the one I had seen on another reality. At last, towards the outside circle they were not even belly height to him. As soon as he carried us through that first ring, a strong sensation of safety overwhelmed me. So strong, I found myself standing, relaxing.
For all of a few seconds.
Then I shook myself out of it and crouched back down, doing my best to look menacing.
Right, horse. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, I deserved the blood shedding. I touched my shoulder and it came away sticky with blood. But not as bad as I thought. Oh, it hurt, but not quite as bad as before it seemed. Even so, I needed to take care of it and soon. Who knew what things were in the thing's mouth?
The demon horse snorted. And sent me a strong image of a human with worse smelling breath and looking teeth than mine overlying my mouth. Great. I coughed. Damn, it could send other senses too? And emotions. Don't forget the emotions.
The demon horse took a cautious step closer. Sent an image of him licking my shoulder clean.
Hell, no. Without taking my eyes of the predatory thing, I reached inside my pocket with my good hand. Hungry? How about this! And I made a false image of sugar which made his ears perk up. Damn strong mind-reader. And I flung my weapon at him. Straight at his face.
Too bad he had quicker reflexes.
He caught my weapon in his mouth. Held himself very still. Mouth stiller. Fang tips just holding the golden ball in place. Then, he crunched with his fangs exposed. Folded back his ears. Growled. And sent a bite image, this one toward my soft parts.
Quick in reaction, not so quick on the more important draw. I smirked and waved night-night as green smoke curled out of the side of its mouth. Comically, he looked at his mouth. Dropped the device. He dropped soon after. Heavily. Smoke curling out if its nostrils like an overheated mech beast. "Take that, horse."
Now more than ever, I needed some place to hunker down for a while, collect myself, and think, and this place from passed out horse to creepy house was not it. But looking ahead at the open vista, kindling forest, and, yes, even the horse's stonehenge, I didn't have many options. At least, whatever my option, I was bound to walk off my adrenaline. But I was going to need some water, first. Felling demon horses made a man thirsty. Not to mention, my arm was going to need it. Water, than walk. At least, I had a plan.
End of Part.
Links to Key Plot Point One Parts:
Links to Key Plot Point One Parts: