Four moons and four tens since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
Andaris broke through the brush. It was clear something upset the guardian. She said nothing, but Andaris could feel a sense of disapproval in the back of his mind. Most likely she deemed his use of the blood-red blade as a machete inappropriate.
But he had made it to a main road. It was paved with gravel and wide enough for two carts. He consulted the compass for a moment and then decided to follow the road northeast. Soon, a few carriages and horses passed him. There were curious looks thrown at him. He wondered about asking for directions, but decided it was unnecessary.
Andaris did not feel tired. Actually, he was feeling great, despite the uncomfortable night spent in the forest. The past three days, he had woken up early and he had not felt the need to sleep longer. He had caught something resembling a hare to cook. It looked like a hare, with the long legs and all. Yet with mouse-like ears. And it was remarkably slow and lethargic. It was still revolting to process the critter, but he needed food. If not him, then maybe someone else would have caught it. Alternatively, it would have fallen to predators.
The sense of wonder and awe at his surroundings had returned in full force. Although it felt different now than on his journey south. Was it because he knew he was safe now or because he knew a part of the truth about this world? Everywhere Andaris looked, he saw familiar shapes and something reminiscent of home. Everything caught his attention. All was untouched here, at peace. A slight drizzle began and Andaris pulled up the hood of his cloak. He wondered if he needed new chest armour. He had only kept the waist-guard.
His mind was stuck in the present. Here. Wherever and whenever he was. Andaris stopped and followed another passing carriage with his gaze. He was here, right now in this very moment. The past had become distant. When he thought about being absent from work or unfinished relationships, his heart did not flutter anymore.
A sense of absence filled him when he tried to think about anything that had happened before this world. It was sad. Sad that he could not find this sense of peace in the world before. There were a few quiet sounds, instead of the endless cacophony of the city. The slight wind in the leaves, the faint pitter-patter of the rain, his slightly ragged breath and his footsteps on the gravel. The silence coming from everything else was crushing. It reassured him.
The future was out of his grasp, yet it did not cause him any worries. He was not scared of its promises. Andaris knew tomorrow would bring sights that would be even more wonderful. Peace would last for a little longer. It was all right to concentrate on that.
His step was full of vigour and he had not felt this well for a while now. Occasionally a wound would throb or his throat felt rough. He had gotten rid of his bandages and nothing bled or oozed pus any longer. Five parallel slashes covered his torso and his right shoulder looked like it had been used as a pincushion for arrows. There were smaller cuts and signs of bruises all over his body. But several annoying scabs still refused to heal.
It was beginning to darken when Andaris caught sight of a village. Human presences had been on the wind for a while now. It had given him time to get used to them. A few farms lined the side of the road. They looked like small livestock farms. Already his appearance had caught some attention. Some threw a second or even a third look at him. Here and there, someone whispered something to the person next to them and pointed a finger at him.
The village ahead looked small, although there were a lot of warehouses and workshops. People were still bustling about despite the late hour. Andaris caught sight of the river and saw large boats docked at several piers. Some had been brought out of the water and were being repaired.
Andaris wandered to the riverbank and let his gaze wander over everything. The river, the village, the boats, the sky. This had to be the Irbis. It was wider than any river he had ever seen here or the last world. The healer had said the river circled most of the continent of Tavran and led to other large rivers and lakes. You could get to anywhere you wanted.
His gaze stopped on the riverboats in the dry-docks and Andaris had to rub his eyes. For a moment he thought he had seen an engine in one riverboat. He took a few steps closer to the damaged vessel. There were rough propellers under it. And a hole in this boat’s side proved his eyes had not failed him. Those riverboats had, in addition to sails and oars, propellers and engines. What would these even use as fuel? Most of the engine looked a maze of wooden cogs and gears.
But the answer was so simple he should have expected it. What else would power those boats than the same flow that coursed through every human in the world? His gaze fell on a pile of rough, pale grey gemstone-like shards. They were about half of his body height and thick as tree trunks and again his mind told him he should have remembered those.
“Don’t know if it’s really him. There could be many people looking like that.” The end of a hushed conversation caught Andaris’ ears, and he looked over to see several pairs of eyes rest on him and then quickly look away.
“Shut up, you daft bastard. Talk louder will you?”
“I am just saying.” The argument continued with barely hushed voices.
“There is something to the bloke. Doesn’t look like he is from around here.” A third voice joined.
“Could be a Pelesian.” The first one said.
“Not likely. I’ve seen Pelesians. He’s nothing of the like. In fact, he looks like that lot did. Outlandish.” A fourth man added. Andaris considered the situation, he had not decided how to deal with the others. He did not want to meet them again, but those four could have been talking about someone else. But how would he know who they were talking about? Andaris’ feet made the decision for him as he found himself heading towards the group.
The four dockworkers were so quickly caught in their conversation again, only the fourth man noticed him approach.
“Outlandish?” Andaris said curtly. The four men looked stunned.
“Look what you did, Jarvis, you daft arsehole. Eldertongue!” One exclaimed, loudly.
“Look. I am sorry. I have never seen a man like you around these parts. We get all kinds, even the occasional Pelesian or Ereko, but you look different. No offense.”
“None taken. What was that about?”
“Krupp.” One of the men threw a meaningful look to the one who had been scolding the others. “That doesn’t sound like your usual eldertongue.”
“You have good ears.” Andaris commented. “But can I ask what that was about, still?”
The four exchanged several looks before the fourth one opened his mouth again. “Well. Some tens ago some people came through here. They were asking if a man had come this way or not. They were really thorough about asking.”
“Some people?” Andaris asked.
“Look, I am going to be honest here. From what we gathered, they weren’t really looking for the bloke. If you get what we mean. This is a problem for us. We want nothing coming back to us. All of them looked like trouble. And so do you.” The one called Jarvis said.
“There is no trouble. But I would like to hear more.”
“We don’t want to snitch.” Jarvis said again.
“You’ve already said enough, do you expect me to walk away now?” Andaris crossed his arms. “They were outlanders, one of them a young girl, right?”
The four exchanged more looks as Andaris tapped his foot.
“Alright.” The one called Krupp said. “A few tens ago. Maybe close to a moon now, nine outlanders came through. One of them was a rather young girl but you would think she was the leader of the others from the way she acted. She was arguing with the others. But we couldn’t understand any of it. Not a language we’ve ever heard. The mood looked bad and then the women started asking around. One of them could talk a bit of eldertongue, but it was broken. Hard to understand. Before we knew it half of the village had gathered here, trying to help.”
“They asked about a man about their age. Tall, wearing dark clothing with silver and a red girdle. He should be carrying two binding scrolls and a blood-red blade. They were asking any news about an outlander like that.” The man called Jarvis said while looking at Andaris from top to bottom.
“Which way were they headed?” Andaris said.
“East. I mean, I don’t know where they wanted to go, but there is only one city in the east that matters.”
Damn it. Did he want to head to Ironcourt now? Andaris’ mood had soured in an instant. Everything seemed to be guiding him towards the capital of the Empire. “East. You’re sure of it?”
“East. There is only destination in the east that matters. Several cities lie on the Irbis, but none like Ironcourt.” The man repeated.
“Doesn’t mean they went there of all places.” Andaris sighed and mumbled. “Where can I find the next ship heading out east?”
“Ask around. They come and go all day, all night. I hope you can sort your troubles. Or avoid them.”
Just as Andaris was about to head down the piers, the man named Krupp opened his mouth again. “Hey! Getting straight to Ironcourt is not as easy as it was some four tens ago.”
“Why?” Andaris called back.
“Riots. A big one happened a few nights back again. All riverboats are thoroughly checked, and papers verified. Boats are on hold at the gates if need be and nothing moves until everything is sure. You don’t look like a local, so I thought you’d want to know.”
A knowing look was on all the men’s faces when Andaris hesitated. He had put his hand in his pocket and was playing with a precious rock between his fingers. Finally, he pulled it out and looked at it for a few moments. “Let’s say I might still be interested in going to that one city that matters. Where can I get some proper papers?” He threw the red gem towards the four men. The one called Krupp caught it. Their eyes bulged, and they looked at Andaris, the gem and each other.
With a hoarse voice, the man called Krupp finally said. “I know a bloke. It’s nothing fancy, but he can get you some papers.”
“Can you take me?” Andaris said. After a moment’s consideration, he threw three more gems to the others. He was afraid their eyes would pop out of their sockets now. But the one named Krupp looked at the others and then walked past Andaris. Andaris threw one last look at the remaining three dockworkers and followed.
Andaris looked around the village and took in the relative silence. This serenity from before had not gone anywhere. But there was the faintest clattering of chains coming from somewhere far away. Everything was pushing him towards Ironcourt.
The village froze for an instant and Andaris looked at the guardian in his empty world. She had her back turned towards him. He left before she noticed him. She was there, but he could not see past her memories. There was nothing that betrayed her true thoughts. He could not spy on her. Yet she could invade every private moment of his.
-Was that you?- A question sounded in the back of Andaris’ head.
-Was what me?- He replied.
-What is it with you now?- He could feel her getting upset.
Andaris said nothing. He let Krupp lead him into a warehouse. Then to an inn, then back to another warehouse. Andaris was barely paying attention. He was lost in thoughts and doubts. Sten’s face was flashing vividly in his mind. Sten had taken his own life. No, the woman in blue was to blame here. But the woman in blue thought Andaris was someone he was not. It was his fault the woman took advantage of Sten. And then he thought of the handsome man from the days before.
He really did not want to see the others again. What would they ask from him? How would he reply? Did they already know? Becca could sense things. Maybe she could sense death.
He barely noticed handing three small gems to another man and receiving a small rolled up scroll in return. Keep it safe, this will open many doors for you. Someone said. Andaris nodded and left. In a haze, he sought the few riverboats that looked ready to set off.
However, his mind was elsewhere. He could not go. He could turn back, head west. Find out what happened to the two mages and the girl. Help them. He could go south. He could go back north. Seek more answers there. He could always not go on the riverboat.
That would be pointless. He had just bargained passage to Ironcourt. The ship captain was even nice enough to let him board right away and take a small nap out the way while they hauled the cargo on board.
“Something on your mind? You all right there?” One crewman called out to him.
“No. Nothing. Tired.” Andaris said. He looked around the village for a moment longer and headed up the gangplank.
-What are you not telling me?- Andaris barked into nothingness.
-By the might of the all-creator! By the Other One, what is it now?- The guardian wailed.
-Everything is guiding me towards Ironcourt!-
-It is obvious. We talked about this. We talked about the Mark of the Other One.-
-It is where I need to be. I do not want that. I don’t want something deciding things for me.-
-We talked about everything. Why are you getting cold feet now?-
-I suppose the two of us are that different. You think once, you do. There are no what-ifs in your world are there? Maybe I should try to be like you. Without fear towards the future. Maybe it would be easier to become this other one and nothing else. Not be a human any longer. Like you.- Andaris mocked the guardian with a perverse satisfaction in her mind.
-Like me? LIKE ME! I am a human!- The guardian shrieked. -I am human! I am not some emotionless construct. I lived, I had brothers and sisters and a family and my brothers in arms! I was born! My mother showed me the memory! And I saw first-hand what happens to those who stopped being human!-
-Yet this is the first time you act like a human!- He roared with fury inside his mind.
The ship disappeared, and all that was left was the ocean of nothingness. Andaris rushed towards the guardian. She turned around, but he caught her throat and raised her off the ground. He watched her grasp at his hands and choke and sputter.
“Do you even need air here? Why do I think this is an act?” But he let go of her. The guardian fell at his feet, coughing and wheezing.
“I don’t need air. No. However, my mind remains. You have complete dominance over me here. Any injury or pain still feels real here. My mind thinks it is real. If you kill me here, I will be gone. Not dead, but I will have nowhere else to go, but into the abyss.”
“What are you not telling me? Why do I have your memories until I met you in Yalthar? Why is there nothing after that?”
“Because we shared those memories.”
“So, why can’t I share your thoughts. I can see it from your point of view but the experience will be as if I were there.”
“No power can take someone’s thoughts. Their ideas, their essence of how one sees the world. It is something that starts at the core of one’s soul. You would have to become that someone else.”
“Like watching a moving picture then.” Somewhere beyond Andaris felt the sound of footsteps on wood and heavy objects moved about.
“Should I hurt you more? To gain what I want?”
“No! I have only one motive. I swear to you!” The guardian pleaded.
“You keep things from me. You have access to my thoughts, my fears. Yet I can’t see beyond you.”
“You think because you trusted your instincts a little you now have control over your flow? I held back a voidstone! I was among the thirteen strongest humans on Tavran in my lifetime! The only thing you have is raw power. You have no control. That is why I can peek at your thoughts. I don’t even need to peek at them. Most of them time you show them here without knowing. Whenever your heart flutters, I can stick a needle in there and pry a little. It costs me, but thus far you are allowing it to happen.”
“Tell me again why should I got to Ironcourt? Why should I let this invisible hand guide me?”
“Because you have more control over your fate this way. Not everything is decided. Those blessed by power have the means to change much.”
“I remember that being a saying. To help ease someone’s mind. That’s your memory.”
“That may be so, but that is all I can do to help you. I still choose to believe that simple saying holds true in your case. Don’t run. Confront!”
“But there is no guarantee of victory.” Andrew mumbled.
“I thought us similar, what I endured, what you survived. Yet your mind makes no sense to me. There are victories in the darkest of times where you wouldn’t think to search for one.” She sounded disappointed.
Andaris had enough of arguing with the guardian for tonight but she would not let up so easily.
-Try being stuck in here in undeath, unlife. I held back a voidstone! I will have my body and life returned to me! The humans alive today must know more about the flow than I did. Visit their libraries!- The words of the guardian lingered when Andaris opened his eyes. He felt a jolt run through the boat as it was pushed away from the pier.