A swinging orb of lantern light on the pitch-black plains portended a coming traveler. Ralph had been drifting in a waking slumber, but the sight of the bobbing light roused him to full consciousness just in time to hear a boisterous "then I spit on her tits!" from Gerard, who had so far spent the night telling crude stories to no one in particular.
Five men in total sat around the low campfire. Well, four, since Ralph wasn't quite a man yet. Next to him was his father, Colin, the wagonmaster, who poured over the ledgers obsessively, as he always did after picking up new passengers. Beyond Colin sat the strange offworlder Yenissei, whose pitch black skin would have merged wholly with the darkness if not for the twinkling golden earrings that were the only boundary between face and night. His robe was as black as his skin; it was a long, flowing thing that dragged on the ground wherever he walked. It had a subtle occult aspect to it, like everything else about the man: his brooding visage, secretive behavior, darting eyes... He caught Ralph looking at him and grinned slowly. There were no lips in that smile, only teeth. Ralph shivered.
On the other side of the fire the short and muscular Johnson lay on his back chewing a whip of buckgrass. He was some sort of migrant farmer, which probably meant he had a penchant for getting himself fired. He did seem slow, but at least he was pretty stereotypical and agreeable. He had given Ralph a quick lesson with his Ozark harp earlier in the evening when he first joined the caravan, and had offered to do so again later.
And finally there was Gerard, who acted as if he'd just finished his tenth beer, all the time. But he was a paying passenger, and so he was stoically tolerated.
"You awake, boy?" Colin asked Ralph, noticing him stretching.
"Sure," Ralph yawned.
"Good, go check on the mulks."
Ralph nodded, lit a lantern, and left the fire. He was sleepy, but in a good way, if that made any sense. In a numb, easy-going way. He realized he was thinking strange, nonsensical thoughts, and forgetting them entirely the next instant. He plainly needed sleep, but that lady's damned baby in the wagon wouldn't shut up. That is, it wouldn't shut up until the lantern light appeared in the distance. At that point it finally fell silent, but now Ralph wanted to stay up to see who was travelling on the rails so late in the night.
The mulks were out there in the darkness somewhere, probably sleeping. They never went too far afield, but Colin insisted on checking in on them every few hours in the name of caution. Sometimes, especially on holidays, when all were slow with food and beer, the mulks were left chained to the wagon for a night, but they tended to become skittish the following day.
Ralph waded through thigh-deep buckgrass, lantern held high, eyes scanning for the beasts' huge figures. Few trees grew on the plains, and the ground was flat for a hundred miles in every direction. So the trick was to simply walk about in zigzags until he came across some sign of the animals.
As usual, it was their thunderous snoring that finally gave the mulks away. Ralph followed the sound until his lantern light fell upon the two creatures resting under the eaves of a great pyramid tree. Jack was the small one, at about seven meters long, and Old Mary measured a little more than nine. They lay beside one another, facing opposite directions, legs splayed out spread-eagle, chins resting on beds of buckgrass flattened by their huge, bony heads. "Lizards" they were called colloquially, and fittingly. Their skin was covered with a net-like pattern of small, interlocking scales, and where their torsos ended and tails began wasn't so clear-cut. Their backbones jutted up like sharp ridges, stretching their skin like canvas and running all the way from the tips of their tails to their steaming nostrils.
Jack's eyelid flicked open, and his yellow slit of an eye rolled into position. It had a fearsome, dinosaur glint to it, but that was deceiving. Mulks were herbivores and dangerous only in defense. Jack lifted his head lazily, dog-like, to regard Ralph some five meters away, before snorting dismissively and returning to his slumber.
Back at the campfire an argument was brewing. Ralph stopped short beside the wagon, leaned on its cold steel, and listened in curiously.
"How could I not be tired of it?" Colin's normally placid voice had not quite become a growl, but there was a raspy note in it.
"You just want to sit here in silence?" Gerard blustered in his jowly way. "Listen to the crickets?"
"Better them than your tall tales about whores and crackpot heroics!"
"Why you…" Ralph imagined Gerard rising to his feet, fists balled at his sides, voice growing soft with rage. Ralph tensed, ready to run in there and do something to back up his father, though he had no idea what.
"You want to go the rest of the way on foot?" Colin snapped.
Ralph could hear nothing more but the sound of his own beating heart. He peeked around the wagon and saw his father back to reading the ledgers, quivering almost unnoticeably, and Gerard sitting in the grass, his face beet-red.
Ralph counted to sixty, then rounded the wagon and returned to his place beside his father. He had been looking forward to the end of Gerard's stories, but the awkward tension that now hung around the campfire was no more pleasant. Johnson had sat up, and still had an Oh shit! look written across his face. Yenissei's expression was just as unreadable as before, if not more so.
There was no more discussion of stories, and the atmosphere slowly loosened up. Ralph started drifting again, caught between the waking and dream worlds. The lantern light that had looked like little more than a distant star before had by now become a distant sun. Ralph saw it blink out for a few moments, then quickly reappear, as if its bearer had passed behind a tree. He watched it bounce along the jetrail tracks, like a will-o'-the-wisp from the swamp country. There was something almost mesmerizing about its bobbing dance, the way it began to leave an afterimage behind it, the way everything else seemed to fade...
Ralph woke with a start as someone hopped out of the wagon behind him and thumped to the ground.
"Sorry about that," the stranger smiled at him. "I forgot you were right there."
Ralph looked up and for just a moment thought he was looking at Yenissei as his eyes traveled up the stranger's black clothing towards his face. But while Yenissei's robes had an esoteric, almost tribal look, this person's slacks and jacket were of aristocratic quality, with silver embroidery around the shoulders, buttons, cuffs, and the collar that rose half way up his neck. It didn't look like anything one would wear on the road, but it did have a certain robust thickness to it. Ralph had never seen anything quite like it.
The newcomer rounded the fire and settled himself in the grass a quarter turn away. Ralph looked back down the jetrail tracks, saw that the lantern from earlier had disappeared, and put two and two together.
"Ah, but where are my manners?" The stranger's voice had a lyrical quality, as if he were reciting spoken word poetry. "They call me Berlioz. I was due to depart with your caravan back in town, but missed the boat."
He yawned. He was probably exhausted, but it was customary to fraternize at least a little bit with ones travelling partners.
"I'm Gerard!" Gerard offered loudly. "And we were just sharing girl stories, the more graphic the better. You've missed some good ones. But I'm sure you've a few to share yourself…" He looked Berlioz up and down skeptically. Colin hopped out of the wagon and gave him the evil eye, but didn't say a word.
"I'm afraid I don't share the graphic ones," Berlioz laughed easily.
"Oh, come on, that's no way to be in mens' company."
"I prefer to keep those tales private," Berlioz graciously declined again.
"Well, tell us whatever isn't private!"
Berlioz shifted, looking uncomfortable for the first time. "I don't think those are quite what you're looking for."
"Sounds like it's something though. Out with it, we insist!" Gerard declared, eyes hungry. Ralph couldn't tell if he was just trying to goad Colin, or if he genuinely just couldn't get enough crass stories. Probably a little bit of both.
"Well if you insist..." Berlioz gave in. He cracked his knuckles and seemed to consider for a second, looking from face to face through the firelight and sizing up his audience. He clasped his hands together and straightened himself, as if to better catch the breeze. Ralph felt himself leaning in already. The newcomer had the air of a storyteller about him.
Berlioz took a deep breath, released it, and began.
"You have certainly never heard of Aquila's Point, not many have. It's a village on the river thirty clicks north of Wintersea, named for the constellation Aquila, the eagle constellation. It's where I grew up, and I cannot count how many evenings I spent swimming in the river with the eagle rays that connected our village to that picture in the stars.
"The river is near the village's lone school, so there were always kids cooling off in her waters during the dog days of summer. In the center is an island, with cliffs on one side rising twenty feet in some places. The better endowed boys always wound up there showing off their bravery and agility to the girls we were only just beginning to look at differently. But I was no good at that, and I had something better to do anyway. I spent my time in the deep waters between the island and the shore, diving down with only enough breath in my lungs for a few seconds scouring the silty riverbed for seashells and other artifacts that were carried in from the ocean. That's where I met Owl.
"Sometimes I hunted shells with friends, but on this particular occasion I was alone. I drifted on the water's surface getting my breath back after a dive, paddling against the current to keep myself roughly in place. Down the river a ways someone else looked to be diving, too, and I fancied they were hunting shells just as I was. They were too far away to identify. About the only thing I could tell at that distance was that he or she had long hair.
"I continued diving, they continued diving, and slowly we drifted together, glancing at each other and then awkwardly away when we caught one another's eye. It was definitely a girl, and even though I still had some left over girls-are-gross sentiment at that age, I caught myself thinking about how pretty she was. Her face was almost a perfect oval, broken just barely on the bottom by her small chin. Her eyebrows were high, almost as if she were perpetually surprised, and curved like an archer's bow. Her cheeks were rosy even against her tan skin, and made her look merry, innocent, and alive.
"She was a stranger to me, which was odd. I knew everyone in my school, or had at least laid eyes on everyone often enough to remember their appearances, and I was sure she didn't attend it. I figured maybe she was a classmate's cousin, come to visit for the weekend. It was Friday, after all.
"We came within easy shouting distance and I trusted myself to say hello. I was as nervous as I had ever been, but her enchanting, wide, head-slightly-tilted smile in response was like a gentle song. I felt a little bit better just for having seen it. We talked, I showed her my shells and she showed me hers. She hunted shells for their beauty alone, and didn't know much about the creatures that had once called them home. So I got to feel the expert as I traced the orange spiral on a shell that gave it away as having belonged to a stormcrab, and the two soft bumps on the inside of another that were the telltale traits of a clawmar shell. Speaking of my hobby like this, it was impossible for me to be shy any longer.
"She giggled a lot and I couldn't get enough of it. I struggled to come up with jokes about everything in sight, and most of them were unfunny to the point of not even being jokes, but she giggled anyway.
"We met each other often after that, mostly to play in the countryside around the school. She never wanted to come to my house, never wanted to meet my friends, and never wanted me to visit her at her house. She even asked me not to tell anyone about our friendship. I was eleven at the time, so I didn't think about these things too much. I did ask her about it early on, but she gave answers that weren't really answers at all, and I let it go.
"I kissed her in the last days of that summer. We were playing hide and seek in the forest, and I found her hiding in the hollowed out trunk of a tree. As she rose out of her hiding place, giggling in her usual way, something just came over me, and I leaned down and met her lips with mine. She pulled back instantly, looking shocked, and I was already blushing and starting to turn away. Then she leaned back in and kissed me quickly. We didn't speak about what had passed between us, and parted ways to go home soon after. That was the last I ever saw of her.
"The Exodus Wave reached our planet soon after our final parting. Earth had been destroyed just the year before, and we knew the refugees would start trying to pour in at any moment. The first of them came, and the night sky became a sea of burning lights as they tried to force their way past the orbital cannons and failed fatally. They operated a few low altitude cannons near Wintersea, and I could hear them thumping away as I tried to fall asleep at night huddled with Mom and Dad in the basement. School was closed and my parents wouldn't let me leave the house for fear of the falling debris. Being a child, all of this worry caused me to think we were in much graver danger than we actually were, so I prayed to anything listening to keep Owl safe.
"It took a month for the flood of refugees to slow enough for normalcy to return. The day the school reopened, I waited at our normal meeting place at the gates until sundown, but Owl never appeared. I waited the next day, too, and the next, and the worry built up in my throat, like cotton rising from my stomach, until I was sick with it. Eventually I broke my promise to Owl and asked around after her. No one knew her by name, so I referred to her as 'the girl I always swim with.'
"My classmates looked at me as if I had two heads. They said they saw me swimming with Ryart sometimes, but besides him, I was always alone. No one knew the girl I described to them. Not her appearance, nor her personality. It was as if she had never existed.
"I never accepted that, and I was as heartbroken as an eleven year old can be. But life went on. And on. And on."
"Two years ago I was visiting some of the places we had called our own. One was the tree where we had shared our first and only kiss. I sat against it for a few minutes, remembering, and as I was rising to leave I noticed something sticking up out of the leaves and twigs in the tree's hollow, something unusually white among the stuff of the forest floor. I dug out a damp square of paper, and read its nearly faded words: I wish I could stay longer and I wish I had the chance to say goodbye."
Berlioz paused finally, and not for dramatic effect. The pain of not knowing felt real again, and left him needing to breathe. He shook his head slowly and watched the campfire dance, its sparks funneling up like a tornado toward the Cloudwall. "But there was no signature, and I had never seen Owl's handwriting."
There was silence around the fire for a few moments. Gerard stood suddenly and dusted off his pant legs. "You people are hopeless. I said girl stories, not ghost stories! Was a good sleep aid at least, I can hardly keep my eyes open! Good night!" He stomped off and grabbed a railing on the wagon, swinging himself up and disappearing inside.
Colin shut his ledger book and rose, as well. "No reason for me to stay up any longer, either." He nodded toward Berlioz. "And there's no need for you to indulge that one, you can ignore him in the future, I think the rest of us got to that point shortly before you showed up. He's parting from us in a town just a few more days ahead, so it's no matter. And Ralph, if you're the last one up don't leave the fire burning." His eyes narrowed slightly and Ralph looked chastened.
After Colin had disappeared Ralph turned to Berlioz. "Was that all true?"
The other shrugged ruefully. "Depends on who you ask. It was true to me."
"I tell story." Their heads turned in unison toward the origin of that throaty voice. Yenissei sat forward, the firelight gleaming in his plutonian eyes like there was a battle raging in them. "Very old story," he whispered, emphasizing the last syllable in each word he spoke.
Johnson finally rolled onto his feet, grabbed his satchel, and left for the wagon. He'd confided to Ralph earlier that he didn't like Yenissei, thought he was unnatural and unholy.
That left Ralph and Berlioz waiting for the offworlder to begin his tale. Yenissei produced a bone pipe from the folds of his cloak, followed by a match and some kind of dried leaves. He took a long drag from the resulting blaze, holding it for many seconds before puffing out a misty donut of smoke. "Many thousand year ago…"
Mankind lived in a garden that was infinite in its abundance. Sweet fruits grew from every tree, and the hunting trails teemed with fat game. The rains were warm and pleasant, the air breezy and perfumed with flowers. Every need could be satisfied effortlessly. It was a perfect world, but its inhabitants never realized it was perfect, and some yearned for more still.
Power. For eons there was no word for the concept, for no one had ever thought of it before. What good would it be to control others when all was provided by the unseen hand of nature? But mankind was changing, and dreams of domination, power, wealth spread like a plague. Grand palaces were built, and the simple joy of sleeping beneath the stars smothered. Laws were written, and self-determination forgotten. For the first time, the world knew war and death.
There came a great war between two particularly mighty kingdoms, their names lost to time. Neither side gave an inch, and all the rest of mankind rallied beneath the banners of one side or the other, until there was not a soul alive who wasn't involved in the fighting. One of the two warring kings, more daring than the other, thus sought the only ally that was left to woo, and the greatest one of them all, the maker himself.
The maker was said to sleep among the stars above, and so the king's troops, diverted from the battlefields, began work on the greatest tower that ever was or would be. Each night the king would mount his tower to yell into the heavens for the maker to come down and parley with him. When this failed, he ordered his men to build it higher still, widening the base if need be.
The tower was an immense draw on the kingdom's resources, and slowly but steadily the king's armies began to lose the field to their enemies. The king became desperate, and moved ever more of his soldiers to take part in the construction, thereby further accelerating the defeat that was beginning to look inevitable.
As the enemy armies surrounded his capital city and delivered their ultimatum, the king mounted his tower a final time and cried out to the maker as he never had before. The sound was terrible to behold, and echoed across the lands like a thunderclap. At last there came an answer, a crackling static from the void above, the divine sound of Creation described in legends that were ancient even then.
The maker does not speak in human tongues and one can only guess at what he felt when he emerged from his slumber and witnessed what had become of his planet and his people. He slew every man, woman, and child in the city, and every soldier in the besieging army. He looked across the world then, his temper barely calmed, and killed and killed and killed, leaving few alive. Finally, as forests evaporated and oceans burned beneath his anger, he rent the world into nine, each maintaining only one of the nine attributes that had made the old world perfect. Nine worlds, nine second chances.
He left them then, and sleeps still to this day, awaiting the day when he will awaken and judge the worlds once more.
Yenissei's eyes were red and glazing over by then. Berlioz wasn't sure what he was smoking but it clearly wasn't tobacco.
"Well what part of our world is perfect then?" Ralph asked, wide-eyed.
"I not know. Man still not see perfection. But it here, whatever it be."
"But the story's not true anyway," Ralph sulked, then perked up hopefully. "Is it?"
Yenissei took yet another drag from his pipe and thought for a moment. "Yes," he said shortly, rising and - like those before him - vaulting into the wagon, his robes trailing behind like a comet tail.