Eric jolted from his thoughts. He tried to focus on his food, but the commotion in the café was bothering him. It was getting on his nerves.
“Damn it, stop tugging on my sleeve Sarah!” He stared long into the woman’s face. It felt like a brick hit him square between the eyes. “What the hell? Where are we?”
“We are not home. Come on. I found Jess earlier, she is with Kauri and Mai. Lenna and Robert are out looking for Anna, Becca and Andrew. They should be nearby.”
“Nearby? What is this place?” Eric tried to take in what he was seeing. He was in a café. It was not hard to tell. But the sight of it was unreal. Someone had built it out of many different places he had once visited. He remembered the one on Elizabeth Street and the other on Old Windsor road. And many others. Someone had tried to make a collage of cutouts with pieces of the real world.
The sights did not change outside the café. Towering skyscrapers were looking over apartment buildings and small private houses. Each piece of them was from a different part of the world. That was not the worst of it. Eric looked down, and he had to kneel to stop his head from spinning.
“There are buildings down there! Roads! Factories. What is this place? What am I standing on?”
“Try to focus on something else. It gets better the more you move around.”
Sarah groaned and pulled Eric up by his hand.
“We are still wearing these rags. Wait.” Eric looked back into the café and saw his dull greenish sword in the umbrella stand. He wandered over. “Would I need this still? As a memory of what we had to go through.”
“Eric! We are not home! We failed. Becca failed us! Look!” She conjured a small jet of water at the bar.
“Shut up, Sarah. This once shut up. I wanted to imagine that for a moment everything was all right again.” Eric stared at the sword. It had saved his life several times now. But he hated it. It was so damned sharp.
“I told you didn’t I?” He added after a moment of silence. He picked up the sword and joined Sarah. She had tears in her eyes.
“We wanted to go home! All of us wanted to believe there was a way. There had to be a way.”
“I was right and so was Andrew.” Eric said with anger. “Do you think he didn’t lie about Sten?”
“I am sure he could show you.” Sarah’s voice was bitter. She turned away and Eric followed her in silence.
The patchwork world was bizarre to look at, but it did get better to navigate between the distorted landscape of their home world. It did not make it any easier to look at the things Eric desired. There were lemonade stands here and there. Gas stations and French hot-dogs. Soft serve ice-cream shops.
The latest Mercedes-Benz was on display. He might never afford it, but it was one of the best-looking cars ever made. Maybe in twenty years. If he worked hard and saved money, he could get one used if there would still be any left. There was a lump building in his throat.
Eric had to close his eyes when he heard Jess’ wailing. A few tears escaped his eyes, and he swiftly wiped them off.
“It’s right there! I can see it! I can see my home!” She kept repeating. She was sitting in the middle of the motorway with her arms around her knees. Kauri looked grimmer than Eric had ever seen him.
From another street Lenna, Anna and Robert appeared. Mai rushed off to meet them and hug them.
“I told you!” Anna shouted from Mai’s embrace. “We should have listened to Andrew! Becca betrayed us! Look where we are now! This is so much better than the last world, isn’t it? It was worth the risk.”
“Shut up!” Kauri roared. “We all wanted to go home. We made a choice and we have to live with it. That is punishment enough. We don’t need anyone gloating about who was right or wrong. We wanted to go home!”
“What now?” Eric shrugged. “What do we do now?”
“There is food. Maybe we should try to eat something.” Tears were falling from Robert’s eyes. But he didn’t let a single sob escape.
“It’s not real!” Jess wailed. “We tried. I wanted to eat. But I didn’t taste it. I didn’t even feel it in my mouth. I wanted some damned ice cream. Even vanilla would have been amazing.”
Slowly, she was regaining her composure. “But I couldn’t. Because this place is not real. It is a hell. Our hell, because it holds everything we want and cannot have!” At these words, the world shook for a moment. Glass shattered somewhere and a few buildings collapsed.
“There are two others we need to find.” Anna said softly. “Maybe a certain girl can explain her actions.”
“I doubt she can. You saw what she was like. Something was using her.” Kauri marched up in Anna’s face. “Revenge isn’t going to help either. There is nothing to get revenge on.”
“She can still give us answers! Tell us more about this she-devil inside her. That was the tree that tried to fucking kill us! She can tell us about everything she has kept to herself.”
“She is not the only one who might have answers. Let’s go. Let’s find our oracles!” Jess stood up and looked around. “They have to be here somewhere, right?”
“Shouldn’t we look for a way out?” Eric asked quietly.
“Once we find Becca and Andrew.” Jess rounded on him. Funny that he had never noticed how tall she really was. He felt small suddenly. “Is everyone ok? No major injuries?”
“How on earth did we get through that?” Eric remembered the frantic fight. It all seemed like a lifetime ago now. He saw bruises on his skin and a couple of spots felt really sore but no one was in worse shape than he was. Jess did have a deep cut on her shoulder, but nothing else.
“I think that thing went easy on us. There were others, more threatening than us.” Mai placed a hand on Eric’s shoulder.
“Good! Let’s go!” Jess barked.
Eric watched Jess and Anna take the lead and everyone else march after them. No one even questioned the direction Jess had chosen. Slowly, he ambled after everyone else. He wanted to take in the sights here, however difficult it was for him. All the familiar memories from home and abroad. He wanted to ignore the fact that this was not real.
Never mind the Mercedes. No amount of work would buy him his old world back. He would have to build a new one. He looked at the sword, still in his hand. A part of him wanted to throw it away. But maybe it would be worth something to someone. He would use it to buy his first tool in this world. Sarah still held a part of their treasure they found in the north. If they made it out of this hell, he would make a home for anyone who would come with him.
What would he want to do more? Raise cattle or grow crops? Crops might be the easier way. Cattle meant having to know about animals and their illnesses. However, crops got sick too. Crops and plants would still be the easier start. He could start it small. With herbs and fruits and work his way up.
First, he would have to find a place to live. Then figure out what he wanted to grow and buy the plants and seeds. He would have to get to know the plants of this world. Those would be the two most important things.
Where would he want to live? Eric had seen the backwater villages when they had travelled through this empire. Some of them had been really isolated. Living in a too remote area would have its disadvantages. They had heard about the bandits, slavers, and even small packs of demons wandering around. The ideal place would be near a medium-sized town, somewhere near a fort. Those places would have enough excitement. You only died of boredom if you had given up on yourself.
All of this meant hard work, but work had always been the perfect thing to bury yourself in. Fun ran out and left you craving for more. And it would never be the same the second time around. Accomplishing something with your own hands and wits was far more rewarding. Fortunately, he would not have to worry about money for an easy start. They had brought an entire fortune with them from the north.
“Eric! God damn it!” He had just been behind everyone else, now they were rushing towards him from behind, shouting his name.
Eric found himself in the middle of verdant and golden fields. There was a gravel road underneath his feet. A few larger boulders and a stone fence lined the roadside. In the distance, he made out a fortification. And close to a forest’s edge he could see a quiet village.
“Still not real!” Jess shouted in anger and spat out a flower she had put in her mouth.
“This place is made by us. It shows us what we want. It’s like everything is here. Hiding behind a corner until we think about it. Amazing!” Robert exclaimed.
“But it’s a lie. This place is not real! Eric! This can’t be what you want!” Jess rounded on him. “We thought we left you behind! This is what you think?”
“Enough, Jess! It’s the best choice.” Eric argued.
“I will not give up. I will keep looking for a way to get back until I find it!” Jess shoved Eric. He stood his ground.
“And if you can’t find a way? What if you die?” Eric insisted.
“Who protected your arse from the murder tree?” She hissed. “There is power inside us. As long as I have to tolerate this sorry world, I will use it.”
“There are limits to our powers. You almost awakened.”
“Do you want a fight?”
“He is right Jess. You got the closest to your limits.”
“Whose side are you on, Sarah? You don’t think I know that. Once Andrew told us about the demons, I asked Becca for a solution. I have been training, testing what I can do as much as I dare. Constantly trying my hardest to remain in control.”
“Andrew stopped you from awakening that first time. Maybe whatever he did might still help you.” Kauri patted Jess on the back.
“I am not saying I want to give up.” Sarah looked like she wanted to say more. She was afraid, most likely. It did mean giving up. A conscious choice that would change you forever. It was not too different from acknowledging the death of someone close to you.
“Eric’s idea has merit.” Anna said and Lenna nodded.
“This way we have a future.” Lenna added.
“We will have a future either way.”
“You know what we mean, Robert. A peaceful future. Without constant danger to our lives.”
“Weren’t you the one who wanted answers?” Jess towered over Anna. Eric was afraid Jess might really start a fight.
“I want to know why. That’s it.”
“You want to hide away from the hardships of life. I hope you can live without regrets.” Mai huffed.
“This is not life!” Sarah exclaimed.
“Whether we like it or not, this is our life now. We can’t run away. We must face it. And I will face it.”
“Mai is right. We have gone through too much already to stop now.”
“This is the first time I see you take initiative. I had to drag you to that weight-loss program. Somehow this new side of you is disappointing.” Eric took a good look at his old friend. Something had changed in Kauri’s eyes.
“What can I say, it’s a growing experience.”
“No. The more I think about, we can’t. What just happened in the heart of a large city. What will we cause the third time? This was a catastrophe. I don’t mean that things went sideways for us again. What sort of damage will we cause to the people living in this world?” Sarah took Jess’ hand in her own. After a brief moment, Jess shook it loose.
Everyone was silent now. They exchanged looks and many more unsaid thoughts. It was clear that everyone had made their choices amid these fields of gold. Although Sarah looked pained, she turned away from Jess and crossed her arms.
“How are we supposed to find Becca and Andrew?” Jess demanded from Eric. “You made this place happen. We had to follow you.”
“There’s someone at the edge of the forest.” Sarah saved Eric from having to say something.
“It’s a warrior. A woman.” Kauri frowned. “Is she talking to someone?”
“Should we take a look? Maybe there are others in this place? I think we should be careful.” Mai pondered.
“There’s someone else there.” Jess had climbed atop a boulder. “Someone small. Sitting on the ground” She pursed her lips and jumped into the waist-high crops.
“Jess! I know we want answers, but take it easy on her! Becca is a child, and something took advantage of her.” Kauri shouted after her, climbing the stone fence.
Everyone else was hurrying after the angry Jess. This place did not follow common sense. The distance they had walked had to have been shorter than what they saw. No one else other than Eric seemed to have noticed or cared enough to voice the thought.
“Becca!” Jess half-shouted. There was a threat in the way she said the girl’s name. Eric picked up the pace in case this got bad. But a blood-red sword lodged itself into the ground in Jess’ path. A dark wake danced around it and Eric could smell a bitter chill in the air.
“You!” Eric could not find the offender at first but not far from the female warrior was Andrew.
He was sitting on a small boulder, in the shade of the trees. His arms were leaning on his knees and he looked worn-out. A few new cuts and bruises decorated his face and arms. Something about the way he was sitting meant he was in pain. There was a red, wet spot on his shirt, just above that ridiculous sash of his. Anger flared inside Eric and for an instant, he was ready to draw his sword. But fear got the better of him and the moment faded.
Andrew said something in the foreign tongue of this world.
“He is telling us to calm down. To not start trouble.” Mai said with a sigh.
“I wasn’t going to!” Jess growled. “But is he sure, he isn’t asking for it?”
In response, Andrew’s mouth twisted into a grin. The warrior by his side raised her eyebrows and measured Jess from top to bottom. After a moment she too grunted a laugh.
“What is so goddamn funny? Who is this?”
“Merely one who once was counted among the Six Guardian Deities of the North.” Mai said awkwardly after both Andrew and the warrior talked at the same time.
“I remember her!” Robert exclaimed. “I saw her with the monolith of void. Where the people were frozen in time.”
In the meantime, Mai exchanged a few words with Andrew and the man called his sword back to him. For a moment, Eric was afraid Andrew would not be able to catch the blade. It looked even sharper than his did. But it vanished at the last moment.
“She is inside him.” Kauri said with a disbelieving voice. “How can we see her?”
Although he wanted to focus on more pressing issues Eric found himself looking at the unfamiliar features of the warrior. Her icy eyes frightened Eric. And if you looked closely you could see scars on her neck. Most likely there were more of them underneath her clothing and armour. Her shaven hair with two long braids was the most peculiar thing about her.
“This is the outside. A broken piece of it.” Becca finally spoke. Eric had almost forgotten about her. She was sitting on the ground with her back towards them. Her hands were on the dirt, shielding something on the ground.
Jess was already drawing breath for a barrage of questions, but Eric would not have it. “Let her talk. Let her talk! She will say all we want to hear.”
Becca groaned. “Answers again. I am tired of talking all the time. I am tired of being a messenger I never chose to be.
“Don’t we deserve answers? This happened to all of us.” Jess tried to keep her composure. Eric prayed she would have the strength.
“No. No, it did not happen to all of us. Some of us here have always been beyond others. That already makes a difference. I did not want to be chosen, neither did Eric nor Andrew. I can tell you everything she has told me but in your eyes, we would still be the ones responsible.”
“She used you! She used you and Andrew to bring us all here. For what? The two of you were in on this deceit.”
Andrew stared daggers at Jess and argued something in the foreign tongue again.
“He disagrees. He claims to be as clueless as we were. But many questions were already answered.” Mai in turn argued something with Andrew.
“He means that little argument with that ash-skinned thing doesn’t he? No one understood a thing. We can’t speak your language.” Eric once again cursed his decision not to learn. He would need to, now.
“There were nine altogether. Eight others like her, but different. They built this world. Yet six of the nine did not like the other three. They thought they were too unpredictable, savage, power-hungry. They turned on the three. Soon after the five remaining turned on her. They bound her and her people.” Becca’s voice was filled with anger.
“She found this place, and she healed here. Found a way to peer into the great beyond. Found strength to choose her successor. And the two of them found a way to release their people from a lie. But they needed Eric. The blood of the untainted heir to the voidstones. As a result of releasing him, others... close to him were released from the great beyond. But she wouldn’t have harmed us. She could not help herself. She was not an elder anymore, it was the first time she should have been mindful of the dangers of the heart.”
“And through you, she brought us all here. Didn’t she? And through Andrew?” Anna demanded.
“Through me. Andrew is something outside of her control. One successor of the three she helped dethrone. She opened a path by accident, but it was as much his own decision to come. Enough power had gathered to draw the elder of Dark along. We wouldn’t have survived the north and she would not have survived this ordeal.”
“What’s this about elders?” Eric interrupted Becca. Andrew waved and chuckled a small laugh.
“The nine beings I talked about. She was one of them once. She would not have hurt us. We would have been able to live out our lives here.”
“This place is not real.” Jess had a confused look on her face. “How could we have lived here?”
“Everything we want, can become real enough here. This is the outside even if it is a small part. Even if it is broken. We would have been safe here. Away from harm. She might have even spared Andrew. She was no match for him, anyway. It was only out of fear she acted the way she did. Fear of revenge. But the Other One was never the kind to resort to such a path.”
“So why are we here? She needed Eric. And we happened to come along.” Sarah’s words caused an uncomfortable sensation run down Eric’s spine. It made him twitch and walk around on one spot.
“We are all connected to each other by a bond...” Becca’s voice died and she sighed. “There is no point in explaining this. It is not Eric’s fault. It was random. Naturally, those of you who know him, you are here partly because of that. But don’t blame him, it was out of Eric’s control!”
Eric saw few doubtful gazes cast at him. Even he had a hard time believing he was not at fault here. However Andrew had something to say.
“We are walking home?” Mai translated and asked from Andrew. The two of them exchanged words of their own. “I don’t understand.” Mai eventually shook her head.
Eric had had enough of the topic. “Tell us we are not trapped here, please!” He sighed in one go. “How on earth did we end up here?”
Andrew answered this time. For some reason Mai was upset with his words.
“What do you mean?” Mai exclaimed. She walked up to Andrew and looked down on him. The warrior stopped Mai from moving any closer. There was a small heated exchange between Mai and Andrew. Becca said nothing.
“What is going on? We are not trapped here, are we? Please tell me that is not the case!” Eric approached Andrew, who had stood up.
“You are not trapped. Andrew is your way out of this place.” Becca said with a calm voice. She had barely finished when Mai opened her mouth.
“I can’t believe you! He destroyed the voidstones! That’s how we ended up here.”
“No destroy! Unmade!” Andrew shouted.
“What’s the difference? The point is, they are gone. Unusable. We could have tried another approach. We want to go home!” Mai was really upset.
“I think his decision was for the best.”
“It wasn’t his decision, Sarah!” Jess now joined in on the fight. “It was Eric’s. He was the master of those things.”
“Hold on now! That was not true. I tried, didn’t I? I barely withstood the chill with the help of Andrew’s blood! It wasn’t anywhere near me and I felt like I had a house on my shoulders.”
“Whose blood was needed then? You cut Andrew and took his blood.” Jess demanded.
“The blood of the untainted brother would have been safer, because she did not want to hand Andrew the reins of the voidstones. But Eric’s blood alone would only have been enough with the help of the third one we met tonight. That short and shabby-looking woman who fled.”
“Brothers?” Eric could not understand a thing Becca was saying. “Whose brother? Andrew’s?”
“And yours, Eric. In this third brother’s efforts, she found a place she could drive her wedge and set her plan with us in motion. He was not there to stop her.” This time Becca looked at Eric. She had barely acknowledged anyone else around her, other than Andrew and his companion.
“I don’t have a brother.”
“Neither does Andrew.” Lenna said.
Eric crossed gazes with Andrew. Instead of a surprise, he found the man contemplating something. “What are you thinking? What do you know?” Eric marched towards Andrew. The warrior now tried to get in his path. But Andrew stood up and lay his hand on her shoulder. Then he held out his left hand.
This sudden gesture made Eric stop. He was not sure if he wanted to know.
“Go on. Take it.” The voice of Becca said.
“You told me not to.”
“It was her. Her fear. Emotions do not lie. It is up to you to decide on the situation Andrew witnessed. He can not lie.”
Eric looked at the hand covered in vines. He looked at his own hand covered in the same markings. Before he could come to a decision, Andrew made it for him. He took a step forward and grabbed Eric’s left hand in a firm grip.
A massive beast roared and slashed at the ground. Eric was not the only one screaming. Behind him was the voice of Sten. He followed Sten and Andrew who were escorted by the demons. They met with a woman in blue.
Why would Sten join her? She was surrounded by more demons. The woman was screaming in the foreign tongue and Sten was screaming utter nonsense. His voice changed. His flesh became distorted and so did the woman’s. She was not human. Bones pierced through Sten’s skin and he would not shut up.
Andrew vanished and lightning blinded the clearing. When Eric’s sight returned the head of Sten landed somewhere amid the demons. His broken body twitched its last and everything was swallowed by a raging firestorm.
The scene changed. Andrew and his companion were arguing with another. Eric recognised the man who had appeared before him when they broke the gateway and countless times in his dreams. But the stranger broke into pieces. As he did, foreign thoughts pushed themselves to the surface from Eric’s own mind. Knowledge that was not his sent his mind into panic.
“No more!” Eric shouted. He tore his hand free from Andrew’s grip and fled. Others tried to calm and comfort him. He pushed them away too. “Why do you want to know? What drives you? Curiosity? You do not care for the lives in this world, but why does it matter to you? This is not your world. Why do you push toward madness?”
“It is now, in the present.” Mai translated again. It was obvious from her eyes and tone she was tired of it. “Look at what flows inside us! We were chosen, cursed, blessed. Fleeing from it will not save us. It is impossible to fight against it. We are chained. There might be little to understand, but I can face and witness what more this world wants from us. In time I will know more than I ever did before. I will know this flow and the future it carries. I do not have to be afraid any more.”
“Don’t you miss home?” Eric demanded.
This time Andrew attempted to give an answer through his own efforts. “Yes. But home gone. Shattered possible. All left, is to understand this one world.”
“You don’t know that!” Jess shouted. “We don’t know a thing what happened to our world. Or why? We need to find the way to return.”
“Where did the humans come who live here? Remember the letters under this city.” Eric had had enough. “I would like to go now. I have made up my mind. I don’t want to talk about what ifs and what is the right thing to do. I do not care about this supposed brother of ours. I want to go. Send me back. I will build myself a home here. Home is where your heart is.”
“Then call me heartless!” Jess exclaimed. “But I’ve had my fill of this place too. Send us back then. Becca, how long are you going to sit there? Get up.”
“I am not coming.” The girl’s voice was filled with a purpose. “You are not my mother. Or my teacher. I had to trust her. And my faith was not misplaced. She spared me of her awakening. She could not help it. So, I will help her heal. That is the least I can do.”
“Stop being ridiculous and stand up!” Jess made to grab the girls arm, but roots sprouted from the ground and lashed at Jess. The woman retreated, holding one of her hands.
“I will help her heal. It is safe here. I don’t need to worry about a thing here.”
“This place is a lie!” Jess was fuming.
“It is my choice. We all made choices. Don’t say you want my help. You don’t.”
“We need your help. There is a difference.” Kauri said softly.
“You need to help yourself. I am not some sort of oracle. All I know is what she knew. She did not know about bridging worlds, she only found us in the void near this world.”
Mai and Jess kept arguing with Becca while Kauri tried a more reasonable approach. Eric quickly lost all interest in them. He threw constant glances at the girl. If Becca was the one chosen by her, then whoever she was, she had made a superb choice. Despite being so young, she was strong.
Eric’s attention was now caught by Andrew who had wandered over to a suspiciously familiar circle of stones. It looked like a miniature version of the gateway back north. When he walked closer, he recognised the pillars. However, they had weathered here.
What came next made Eric freeze in his tracks. Andrew wielded the blood-red blade once again and without any hesitation or change in expression cut open his left palm on the blade. Blood poured onto the weathered tiles beneath his feet and within moments the gateway came to life. The remains of pillars sprouted into sleek black flowers and vines. The tiles were re-made. Eric was still staring at Andrew’s hand. The vines on his arm had come alive as well, Eric could see the flow of blood halt, and the wound disappear. Behind him, Mai was shouting at Becca.
The warrior now stood in front of Andrew. She looked unhappy as Andrew held the blood-red sword towards her. The warrior reached out and vanished the moment her hand touched the blade. The next moment, with a ripping noise Andrew himself was gone too.
“How are you going to leave this place?” Mai’s shout made Eric turn around. He couldn’t find Becca again until his eyes fell on a cocoon of roots that had sprouted.
“She can leave any time she wants.” Jess finally opened her mouth again. She had been watching the gateway too. “We are not children. We can do this. She made her choice.” She turned around, took Mai by the shoulder, and pulled her away. Sarah, Lenna and Anna were already waiting on the gateway. The three of them were examining a smaller flower about waist-high near the centre of the gateway as Eric joined them.
“There will be a place waiting for you.” Eric shouted at the other four. Kauri, Mai, Robert and Jess had left Becca alone, but did not come closer to the gateway just yet.
“Where?” Was Jess’ only reply.
He wanted to say that if only they wanted, they would find it. But Eric sighed and nodded to Sarah. Hesitant, she placed her hand on the blossom. The forest spread out and grew thinner all around them until it vanished from sight. The fields turned from yellow into greens and browns and in the distance a wall of mountains rose from the fields and was coming closer at an alarming speed. The nine towering flowers around them grew taller, larger and moved apart.
Warm winds quietly rustled the grass. Birds were singing nearby. On the edge of two worlds, an endless steppe stretched out on one side and small hills quickly grew into a gigantic mountain chain on the other. Silence crushed all thoughts and only the sights around the four stirred Eric’s mind. There was no sign of Andrew.