This cover is illustrated by the author.
I marched the roads of branches and roots in a marsh which stank of melancholic gloom.
Every leaf cried tears of dew to the swamp beneath the trees. My hands wiped the tears as I passed. My fur soaked the sorrow of the swamp until the thick humidity wetted me as if I’d swam in the saddened sea.
The water off the leaves tasted real, humble. In a place where all was possible, dew brought my mind at ease. I drank until I couldn’t anymore.
After my encounter with the instrumentalist and the songs of time, I craved humility. I desired a moment to embrace the moment.
The canopies shielded me from the overwhelming enormity.
The skies and planets and starships and cities which all comprised the horizons of the ever-changing Liminality drowned me in their incomprehensible weight.
My nostrils opened for the sticky air stained from the war between floral scent and mucky stench. My lungs took arms in the fight against the humidity. The ears perked to every chirping bird or swimming reptile while my eyes feasted on each gnarled tree, or rain-swept stone, or thicket of swamp grass.
A pool reflected the light of a distant red star, turning the once-green swamp into a golden-orange haze. The damp tree roots which flanked the pool shimmered bright and the pool itself echoed the tap of my toe with rungs pushing out in all directions.
After days moving with the swell of adventurous momentum, I rested. Toes in the water and bum on a bank made entirely of branches, I closed my eyes as thickets of wet fur chilled in the breeze. The trees at the far end of the pool opened just enough for the passage of otherworldly winds to flow into the swamp. Along with the setting stars, the peace of the wind pulled me into a state somewhere between the awake world and slumber.
The canopies above the pool naturally formed a circlet of thick rooted trees. Branches outstretched over the trickling pool of water, but couldn’t reach the center. The hole in the sky let through the setting starlight just as the hole in the forest wall ahead gifted that fine breeze.
I closed my eyes, and the lines between that dream state and the awake world became even more pronounced as I trailed off. I leaned against a smooth barked tree and gave into the call to dream.
My eyes fluttered open. Hazy. Fuzzy. Snippets of the setting suns and the tree line and my dangling toes resounding waves into the pool below. I’d slept mere moments. I doubt I even, really, slept. My head and heart pounded with the fog of rest.
Distant echoes. Voices? The noise drowned in the music of the marsh.
Between misty blinks I spotted something in the sky between the canopies. With each blink the object grew closer. A bird? A beast?
The distant voices grew louder.
Yelling. Pleading. Screaming.
Next, I found myself on my feet, starspear slid from my Boundless Bag, body already acting even when my mind was too far gone. When my eyes snapped awake, I already fled up a long root—eyes fixed on the incoming object with weapon in hand.
A long yellow rectangle on wheels. Strange red markings on the sides illuminated bright. From the windows on the sides, the choir sang.
Dozens of little mouths screamed as the golden bus plummeted from the gorgeous orange sky.
How fast is it moving? How many bodies? How heavy is that bus? A few tonnes total? Moving at what speed?
I drove my starspear into the mucky bank and threw up my arms. Channeling Force, the weight of the bus, the occupants, and the speed of the fall barreled into my shoulders. I fought the forces at bay for a moment but couldn’t slow down the bus.
Force was never my greatest sorcery. Quick calculations for my own weight and counteracting those forces? Simple. Attempting to stop a flinging bus mid air after falling hundreds of meters without overproducing the velocity, halting too fast, and obliterating everyone inside from the sudden shock? Far from simple.
By the time I realized I could merely try and slow the bus rather than stop it—recall that I’ve only woken up a moment before, leapt to my feet, and found a hurling passenger vehicle a hundred or so meters above me—destroyed branches smacked me off my own feet and the impact swallowed me in waves.
The impact caused a crater of white water. Trees snapped in thunder and water engulfed my ears. I flung through the pool and the suction of the impact drew me into the side of the bus, where my body crashed into the metal frame of the vehicle. In the dark green depths, bubbles illuminated in the red light of the marking on the side of the vehicle, reading in some strange script, “STOP,” or “HALT.”
The blinking red lights strobed through the windows, and illuminated dozens of faces. Cyclops children yelled so loud that I could hear their fear even through the explosive waves. I grabbed a window underwater and pressed my eyes to the glass.
The bus filled with water through an emergency exit onto which cracked in the impact, along with several open windows. Would these children understand how to escape? Would they know that the bus filling with water would allow them to swim out? Or would fear grip them?
Where did the bus come from?
They’d likely been flung across universes and ended up in some anomalous liminal event. Now they could die while a rodent man tried to save them in a terrifying swamp crash.
I hadn’t time to think on such things. Their fear didn’t matter, their circumstance didn’t matter. All that I could do was help them survive so that they could figure out their circumstance.
A glide of cool water rushed behind me. In my peripheral, a lizard three meters long swam slick as an alligator through the crash. The lizard lurched onto the side of the bus and snuck her head through a window. She grabbed a child in her jaws.
I Channeled Force and threw a hit into the lizard’s side, giving a magical punch akin to being slammed by a bull. The lizard let go of the child and her head snapped out of the window, sending her bubbling to the surface.
Had no time for the reptile, yet.
Stonefire to stop the bus from sinking further? Open windows so the kids could swim out? Use Force to lift the bus from the water? Use stonefire to stop the bus and then Force?
An underwater branch snapped. The bus sank further with a bellowing mechanical groan. The kids inside clamored to the air pocket in the roof as the vehicle tipped nearer the front, tail in the air.
I set my hands on the bus. My lungs burned but I knew they’d be fine. I Channeled the oxygen from the water and felt it writhe into my lungs, absorbing what I could and expelling the rest of the molecules which would drown me. I’d played with such things before. In moments of adrenaline, I found these terrifying attempts at dangerous sorceries to work most often. I’d frozen oxygen, once, when I fought Rahn’s Starbleeder apprentice. I’d breathe like a fish in gills, now.
Pressure forges the strongest result just as it does will.
I breathed and Channeled Force, allowing the bus to sink a few more centimeters into my body. The tonnes pushed against me and the water settled post impact.
Behind me swam the lizard.
No time for that unless she tried to hunt again.
My eyes glowed bright white against the heat of the red emergency blinker. In the window, dozens of terrified faces locked on me. In my own reflection, my mouth opened to a bubbling scream as the bus lifted on my hands. The children stared in terror and awe and bewilderment.
I drove my feet against invisible barriers—imagining stagnant floors equal in weight to the forces I exerted. The bus shifted forward.
A child fell from an open window and got sucked into a vacuum of Force around the water. The lizard sliced through the water and snatched the girl in her jaws, but hung onto the side of the bus.
The lizard’s clothing—some style of coat—did not say “killer” to me, neither did her expression. She glared—an expression of “Same team,” and carried the child to the bank.
No time to feel guilty for hitting the reptile.
I drove into my feet with all my might, counteracting the weight so I could stand in the water while simultaneously pushing the bus towards the tree root banks so the children could escape.
My paws didn’t leave the vehicle. Such a sorcery didn’t require my touch, but the power of tactility gave an entire new dimension to the Force sorceries. I could sense the shifts in leverages as I moved from the side of the bus to the undercarriage, then set the front axel overhead so that the rear moved out of the water as I lifted up.
The back wheels rolled over a root. The rush of water out of the now air-born windows roared like falls in a forest. The screaming turned to a mix of cheering relief and utter terror.
These kids had no idea where they were, what happened, or why it happened—only that they maybe survived.
The back wheels lifted a meter onto the bank. My head—beneath the front axel in the center of the pool—rose above the water until, step by step, I floated on the surface of the pool with counteracting forces.
Bus level, I remained there, holding the front axel overhead as the children departed out of the back door into the marsh. My shoulders screamed, my back lurched, but my Aura did not waiver. The Forces at bay didn’t crush me as I expected them to.
It was not long ago that I couldn’t perform such feats, never mind so casually.
The lizard woman crawled along the side of the bus and helped children who attempted to swim from the windows onto land. She unloaded the bus of the young passengers and the disoriented adult driver.
When the bus turned empty, the lizard opened her mouth—where frills elongated as a mane of bright orange webbing—and an echoed screech burst into the side of the empty vehicle, taking the burden off my shoulders and rolling the bus into the water.
I plopped into the turbulent water then swam to shore.
The cyclops children cried and screamed and some huddled silently. Head wounds, limp limbs, gashes and cuts. The driver lie on a branch, head bleeding and completely without voice or likely thought.
The lizard knelt beside a terribly injured child and called as I swam over, “Do you speak many tongues?”
She reminded me of a slender water reptile. Thin nose, large nostrils. Eyes set nearer the top of the head than sides. Large eardrums burbling when she spoke, “They’re cold blooded but seem chilly from the air, will need warmth,” she flicked her tongue, “I cannot make fire without bombs.”
How many Liminal beings spoke the Many Tongues song? I always thought the speech to be unique, but perhaps not? How else would such beings communicate but by understanding all language and scripture at once? Perhaps such divine luxuries were merely standard in this place.
“I can make a fire,” I said as I came onto the muddy bank where the tires lifted up. I crawled beside one of the children, who was larger than I was. “Will a fire attract any unwanted visitors?”
“This many will bring unwanted attention.” Her tongue flicked the air, her frills shifted with the wind as she scanned the forest. “You hit me hard beneath the water. Tell me, rodent, do you fight as well as you save?”
“Apologies about that.”
“You thought me a predator—no apology needed. Can you fight?”
“I can fight.”
“They are coming.”
The reptile’s pupils dilated. She said, “You are a foreigner, just as I am? Newer to the lands of all lands, I imagine?”
“Haven’t been here long.” I eyed the opposite bank, where my starspear gleamed in the now reddish orange sunset. I Channeled Force and imagined the twenty kilograms of weight on the spear flying effortless towards me.
The spear flew tens of meters across the pool and caught in my right hand. The force caused a step back, but I spun the spear like it were wooden.
“You were not hunted?” the lizard said.
“Not that I know of.” What did she mean by hunted?
“Singles aren’t, sometimes,” she said, “but so many souls will not be passed up. . . they’re close. Somewhere beneath us. Or above. Beware.” She rose onto her hind legs—raptor-like—and the claws on her forelimbs extended to twice their length. Her frills vibrated.
“Who is close?”
“We’re foreigners, here. All are. Where there are foreigners—.”
“There must be natives,” I finished.
As if on cue, from the swamp arrived a being I inferred was a “native.”
Though the contours of this being’s form, the colors, the way it phased in and out of material state—were reminiscent of creatures or people or objects I had seen before, needless to say (or needing, I suppose), the native is far from things my eyes had laid on prior.
And by now, you’d know that is a feat.
A cross between a crustacean and cephalopod. The shell of a snail but more symmetrical. Behemoth, big as the bus. Flashes of navy, and crimson, and lime green—hues glowing like heat fuzz on a sweltering day. Magic curling the being’s very physical presence.
The native lurched over the children, claws rushing through the crowd towards me.
I saw no eyes but antenna. A shape of creature difficult to throw into words. As I leapt between the two ends of one titanic claw, and saw a syphon inside open to me like a predator’s maw, I noticed the tall, conical snail shell was not a solid color, but instead translucent, and that inside danced like ghosts and ghasts in all shapes and colors.
The claw acted as a vacuum trying to devour me. I lifted into the air nearly swallowed by the claw.
I Channeled Force and pushed against the vacuum with equal rates. The magic held me steady in the air as the creature’s breaching marsh water slowly rained down on us, pinning us in a battle pose fit for a painter’s portrait. Leaves fluttered over the children from where the beast appeared from nothing and wrecked the treeline. Dew and flower petals fell in tandem.
A second claw swept from below. In some areas the limbs were gelatinous and more tentacle then claw, but the skin appeared to be sturdy chitin. How did such a hard material move so fluid? Did such questions matter in a place where matter did as it desired?
The claw tried to open for another vacuum to take a swing, but I dug into my exhausted Aura and double down on Force—counteracting the arm’s sweep which batted the limb off.
Why could I fight the second arm so quickly, but not fight off this vacuum?
My Aura shook. My sorcery waned. Holding the bus did tire me even if not in that initial moment. I’d grown in power but this syphon seemed to leech my own might.
I’d endured this sensation before—against the Vicar.
The native’s wicked color only enhanced with our skirmish. Bright luminescence burned. The tall shell on the being’s back—no doubt its “stomach”, where he held his prey—swirled with smokey blue power in the same translucent navy hue.
The longer I held off the beast, the weaker I became, and the brighter he became.
In the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the lizard.
An impact followed harder than a plane crash.
I flew across the pool. Eyes opened, I fell underwater.
Forces betrayed me, as the impact on the native countered my own sorcery and sent me flying like a slingshot. Ten meters, easy.
I swam to the surface and instantly covered my ears.
On the opposite bank, the cyclops children rushed into the trees as the lizard screeched against the native. Her frills acted as some kind of amplifier dish, radiating her calls into waves which parted the pool, brushed the trees barkless, and shredded leaves.
She pushed the native into the side of the pool against the sinking bus.
The terrifying crustacean-snail-cephalopod had only the shell rising from the liminal waters, and another round of swamp rain spilled down from the splash, revealing a leaping lizard. The lizard’s talons wound back a short white blade. The hilt of the blade extended—forging a two meter long sword-spear.
The lizard danced between the cracked canopies, harpooning and calling back her weapon, only to lance the beast again between calls with her frills. She dueled as if to the death.
In the distance behind the canopies, the falling stars staged a sunset duel for the ages.
Was any of this real?
It had to be real. Only the strangest kind of reality. The place between realities, where questions lead to answers only supported by more questions.
I scurried ashore and sprinted to the cyclops children. From this distance, I churned in my soul and summoned stonefire. My burning hot orange-blue breath blazed against the freakish liminal being, and forged a wall between this creature and the cyclops children.
The stonefire pinned one of the claws to the bus beneath the waves, melting them together.
With a moment to spare, I tried to recall wound dressing. Paws deep in the Boundless Bag, I took bandages and wrappings which I never needed—as my body healed quickly—and glanced over the crowd of kids trying to assess who I would help first.
Who first. . .?
What a twisted question I faced.
These were babies. Not adventurers or gods or WorldWalkers wishing to view the void. They were innocents dragged into the chaos by whatever wild force willed them there. What had they done to deserve this?
The stonefire shattered. The native twisted itself and bounced upwards. Gravity inverted around the creature and the lizard. A pane of invisible “ceiling” held the titanic monster in place not unlike how I pushed against my own sorcery to lift the bus.
The native crawled around above the swamp as if on a spider’s web in the midst of the air, moving like it were flying but legs walking as if on ground. The lizard sent her sword-spear through the creature’s limb and dragged it towards her, then screamed so loud that the clouds above evaporated with the sonic display.
They dueled upside down.
Gone without flash or flare, the native vanished into thin air. I scanned the horizon. The lizard woman did the same as she jumped back into the canopies towards myself and the children.
My fur trickled, then my body shifted.
Two wide open claws shattered the treeline behind me. The void between the crab-like claws moved as a desperate maw. He ate the children in waves. Two, three, then ten at a time. The bus driver got devoured.
I tried to hold them back with Force, the lizard leapt into the way and screamed, and I bellowed stonefire at the liminal being’s now brilliant blue shell—but to no avail.
The moment the children were snatched, the native ended the fight against myself and the reptile, and faded into some ghostly form which fell into the marsh below.
A groan bellowed into the setting suns as the bus drowned fully, trees cracked then grew still, and the wild waves turned still in seconds. I knelt on the bank and exhaled slow.
The quiet returned as quickly as it faded.
The suns had set to some form of night.
A fire burned on the banks where the tire tracks condensed the mud. Yallo—the lizard—knelt with her sword-spear in her hands. She’d been there awhile, quiet, observing the weapon which failed her just as mine failed me. My white starspear rose like a surrender flag from the bank.
We sat on opposing ends of the fire. She looked into the pool, I into the swamp.
“They devour life force. Souls. Essence of a person. However you look at their desire, it is what they desire which matters—the whole of a being,” Yallo said. “You have lost before.”
“Yes,” I said, recognizing the same expressionless sorrow in her that I did myself, “as have you.”
“Many times.” She licked her eyes. I’d seen other reptiles on other worlds do similar gestures to clean their lenses. “Do you weep for them when they die?”
I thought of the terrified faces beneath the water. The screams. The horror. The wide eyes when my face came alight and I lifted their bus. The way some of them cheered with hope. How swiftly their existences ended.
The fear they felt in those final moments. . .
A tear fell down my cheek.
“The native lurched for you,” Yallo shrugged, “they do not hunt weak foe first. The children lured it here. You peaked the interest.”
I wondered what my soul was worth to a being like that. Could they feel my Alfarin song? Could they sense the Syndel pulsating through all time in the melody of my Existence?
Yallo said, “Do not allow one of them to snatch you. They know of you, now. They’ll hunt you as they hunt me, as they hunt others. Once they hone your scent, you’re on their spectrum. As if their eyes only see you once they see you.”
I nodded and took a long, deep breath.
“How long have you been alone, minnoro?”
I answered, “Always, I suppose. But only since I came here have I been without my companions.” Porb, Threshold, Peridot, and the others flashed in my mind. What became of all my friends upon being thrust into this endlessness? Where were they deposited? Did natives hunt them? I set my jaw and tried to think of other things, “. . . I miss them.”
I nodded, “They and I are the same.”
“This place, you came here purposefully?”
“No. Yes. . . but no.”
Yallo hissed. Not some vicious sound, merely a reply in her unique voice. “I had such luxury as you—to walk worlds before this place. There is solace in voyaging realms before being trapped in the realms between, yes? Allows the loneliness to be. . .”
She nodded, “Expectations are not so bad when they’re met. Even when sad.”
“Even when sad.” I wiped the tear off my face. My paw ran against the scorched tear mark beneath my eye. Opsalat’s song played in my head, as did the duel with Venefica, losing Beep to that monster and the confrontation with the demon that was my future.
How I wished for my little friend. My Beep.
“Those children are gone?” I asked, knowing the answer but feeling right to ask regardless.
“I have little knowledge but what my senses can know—I am no omniscient one. What I know is that those who go into the shell-bellies do not come out. They remain for all time, so others tell me. Gone. Gone, gone.” Yallo said, “I despise these times.”
I inquired in a glance.
“The quiet after such a clash.” Her frills chortled. A shiver, I inferred.
A smile graced my lips. I remembered the music of the grand titan on the mountainous piano. My fur stood over my body with remembrance of the volcanoes crashing into mountains, the orchestral score of time crashing in thunderous explosions only to deafen in stretches of low humming quiet. The way violence changes things forever, even if that violence comes in but momentary melody.
“What is quiet without the clash. What is clash without the quiet.” I said. What is any one thing without the other, though? There’s no profundity in thinking such simple philosophies, only circles of thinking that never quite end.
“You are no poet, minnoro.” Yallo chuckled.
Minnoro? I laughed, “No, not a poet at all.”
“What does a non-poet do when they’ve lost the fight, and the mourning is through? How does this stranger spend their silence?”
“I ponder what came before. I wonder what comes next.” I sighed, “I try not to mourn again.”
“You weep sometimes, you say.”
“Only when there is something to mourn.” The children. Their faces under the water. The shock of their survival and subsequent demises. The thought of their minds trying to understand but unable to process their own destruction.
If we’d saved them. . . I said, “I fight for the cozy sleep of those I saved after a victory. The serenity in the hearts of those who survived when they know you can protect them. The celebration after the triumph. A dance to fill the stillness, rather than death. Those children should have danced and not died.” I ground my teeth. “How do you spend your silence?”
“The same as you.”
When the fire died, we marched side by side. Niether acknowledged the choice, but we’d decided that we’d not allow those children to die in vain. Next time, we wouldn’t mourn. Next time, the low, slow song would be for dancing and not for death.