The First Walk
Kathy turned and punched Daggeuro on the shoulder the moment she crossed through the rift. Not the wisest decision I've ever made, she thought as she shook her bruised knuckles. She remembered the plate armor he wore only after the impact, at which he gave her an impish, almost demented smile. She looked away from him then, turning her attention to the phantasmal space they stood in. She flinched at the sight of a swirling red mist covering the area as far as she could see in all directions.
Kathy turned in a slow circle, taking in the in-between. She could just barely make out the trappings of her living room, but there was some kind of bluish grass growing up out of the carpeting that didn't react when she stepped on it. Rather, she passed through it like a ghost.
"It can be disconcerting at first, being in the in-between," Daggeuro said, stepping up beside her. "We entered from the Mortal Plane, so the landscape we are presented with is predominantly going to match it, at least in this area, for us."
"What does that mean," Kathy asked, watching as sprays of blue energy flitted about what she thought must be her bedroom, roughly.
"It means the in-between is very different for everyone who passes into it. The landscape adapts to he or she whom enters it. It is the same for only those who enter the same rift, or multiple rifts erected by the same source. You have never been to the in-between, so our landscape reflects your uncertainty."
Kathy marveled at the realm around them, approaching the door leading out of her apartment. She reached for the handle, but the door simply eased open before she could grab it. It opened onto the central courtyard of her building's property. "What the hell?" Cautiously she stepped outside, into a grayish fog, turning around to look back in at Daggeuro. "Um, this isn't right," she said, hands and lower lip now trembling.
There was no building. There was only the open door of her apartment, through which the kennin knight now strode. He joined her and looked around. "Actually, this is perfectly right. None of the other apartments were important to you. Well, except that one," he said, pointing to another free-standing door fifteen yards away.
"That's the super, Mr. Gustafson," Kathy said with a warm grin. "He's a nice old man, always fixes things whenever there's a problem, invited me over for dinner a few times. But it's not like he's majorly important to me."
"Ah, but you must be important to him," Daggeuro said, looking with a sentimental grin at the super's door. "The connection isn't one-way, Miss Kathy. Never think it." Kathy took another look around through the fog, a dull ache settling in behind her left eye. Her hand went to her forehead involuntarily, rubbing. "You are experiencing what is known as a kotami, the fatigue and aches that come from too much time in the in-between. At first, you won't be able to spend much time here. You should let me open the way from here to the Ether Plane now."
"By all means," she said. Daggeuro reached out his dog-like claws and swiped them through the air, creating a new rift. Where hers had been a jagged purple and blue vortex, his was a clean fold in the air, shining with an orange light. He walked through, and a minute later, Kathy followed after.
The world she stepped into thrummed with vitality, with health, and with a subtle buzz that vibrated along the backs of her hands. The pain in her head subsided for a moment, flared bright again, then vanished altogether. Kathy's body throbbed all over dully for almost a minute, but as she turned in a slow full circle, taking in her surroundings in the Ether Plane, it too faded.
The Ether Plane looked, to her, like the wild, wide-open plains of a nature preserve or national park. The beauty of the sweeping grasslands took her breath away, from the valley swooping down off to the left of her, to the rolling hills ahead and to the right. A well-traveled dirt road stretched off toward the hills, a dozen yards to her right.
The grass, she noted, was not all green. In fact, the field they stood in looked to be growing a kind of purple variety, with long, swooping blades of vegetation.
"Rather beautiful, isn't it," Daggeuro asked. Kathy, still holding the dagger and sheath apart, nodded. She then put the weapon away, the sheath clasped to her belt. "That valley over yonder to the west is the Valley of Gerbain. Three hundred years ago, the Gerbain clan of goblins attacked a peaceful clan of their own kind called the Montose, who had established a large township there. They were loyal to king Ovin, and revered a man known as the Gaedling Goblin, one of the few powerful and benevolent goblins in this or any other kingdom. The Gerbain attacked unprovoked, slaughtering hundreds of Montose goblins before the Gaedling led a battalion of watchmen against them. The Gerbains unfortunately laid waste to the area and all of the town's structures. Their fallen were buried there, and surviving Montose moved out of the area."
"Wow. So the valley is named after the bad guys from that conflict?"
"Enemies of the crown never see themselves as villains," Daggeuro said with some disgust in his tone. "They were acting on the suggestions of the shade, Luga." He hitched up his bag on his shoulders a little and shook his head. "Come. You undoubtedly have questions, Miss Kathy. I shall endeavor to answer them as best I may."
The pair sauntered onto the dirt road, the kennin knight taking a lead of five even paces, speaking clearly over his shoulder. "So, you have a monarchy here. How long has Ovin been king? And what kind of faerie is he?"
"King Ovin is a fairy," Daggeuro said, spelling it out. "The most powerful magic wielder I have ever known. He has been king for four-thousand years and more." Kathy gasped, at which Daggeuro chuckled. "Many faerie are long-lived, Miss Kathy. I myself have served his majesty for seven-hundred and four of my eight-hundred and seventeen years of life."
"Well, you must take good care of yourself," Kathy commented. "Lot of garlic? It's good for a silky coat."
"Nothing, nevermind," she said, rolling her eyes at his confused expression, half-turned back towards her. "So, will his son become king if he dies?"
"Amermidst Kingdom isn't that kind of monarchy," said Daggeuro. "Amermidst is a democratic monarchy. If and when king Ovin perishes, the High Council, comprised of one representative from each province, will hold a vote to chose the next ruler. While it is expected that they would select prince Halfor to be king, I have heard from the king's son himself that he has no desire to rule."
"So, if nominated he will not run, if elected he will not serve? That sort of thing?"
"Yes, precisely that," Daggeuro said, clearly pleasantly surprised by the quotation. "Is that an expression in your world?"
"Yeah, but I don't remember where from," she said. "Who chooses the representatives though? And how long do they serve?"
"Each councilman must be freely elected by the citizenry of their given province. They serve for ten years, then must run for election again to continue serving. Think of them like your country's senators, of which I have some familiarity."
"Soooo, they're a bunch of liars, backstabbers and cheats in nice clothes with all sorts of side-deals that they make in seedy bar rooms?" Daggeuro snickered once again.
"In many cases, yes. There are fifteen provinces, and thus fifteen High Council members. Now, Miss Kathy, we are currently on a trade road which will take us to the capital in approximately seven hours' time. If we should come upon any other travelers before getting there, you must let me do all speaking unless you are asked a direct question. Even then, try to defer to me when you can. Newly Awakened humans are often taken advantage of when they first arrive here. Do you understand?"
"We will be into those hills an hour from now," he said. "You may have thought sooner, but your senses are not accustomed to the clean air of the Ether Plane." They continued on quietly for a few minutes before Kathy thought to ask her next question.
"Hey, did something happen to me when I passed through to this place? I only ask because I feel a little strange. Tingly in some spots, and like I'm not the same as I was."
"Some physical changes always accompany the Awakened when they first cross over into the Ether," he said, not looking back at her. "Think of it as being branded or getting a tattoo."
"Well? What happened to me?" Daggeuro stopped in the road and twirled around, so fast that Kathy gasped. A squinting of his eyes told Kathy that he was weighing what he would tell her.
"Hmm," he said, crossing his arms with one hand stroking the underside of his snout. "There are streaks of gray along each side of your head now," he said. Kathy's hands flew up to her hair, grabbing tight. "Also, I believe you'll find a new mark on your right forearm." Kathy pulled back the sleeve of her windbreaker, a lightweight, dark blue number, and found some kind of alien word drawn in a highly Gothic script there. As she looked at it, the marking wavered and writhed like a snake. She pulled the sleeve down again, shook her head.
"Is this permanent?"
"The hair, yes," Daggeuro said. "The marking will only be visible here in the Ether." Kathy groaned, then quickly knelt down at the side of the road. Daggeuro turned back a few moments later, calling out, "What are you doing, Miss Kathy?"
"I have to see this for myself," she said, rummaging through her backpack. She pulled out a can of Coke and a makeup compact, popping it open and angling the mirror. Sure enough, there was a single thin streak of gray hair along each side of her head. "Damn it, I'm only 27," she rasped. "I shouldn't have grays like this." She snapped the compact shut, tossed it in the bag, and stood up. "Okay, let's go. Sorry about the pause there."
"Quite understandable. At least it's the same on both sides. Balance is everything."
"True." A soft breeze blew around them, and the kennin threw one hand back in a warding gesture, splaying his feet in a wide stance. Kathy went deadly still with her Coke to her lips, eyes wide as Daggeuro drew out his swords in a dual cross-draw. In his left hand, a blade of midnight black, seething with shadowy energy, radiating an aura of malice and corruption. In his right hand, a blade of purest white, giving off brilliant light and warmth, a sense of security and life.
Boon and Bane, the tiny foreign voice chimed in inside her mind. Sacred and profane incarnate. Daggeuro swiftly bolted to the west, left of the road, twenty so yards, standing at the ready. Something she couldn't see let out a piercing shriek, and as she watched, horrified, two enormous scorpions, mottled green and the size of large dogs, leaped out of tall purple grasses at him, stingers and claws stabbing, pinching.
Daggeuro moved like a blur of armor, cloak and swords, and in less than a five count, the giant arachnids lay in bloody pieces on the lower grass. He shook off his blades, sheathed them, and stalked back to Kathy. There was a strange orange light fading from his eyes as he reached her.
"Wha-what were those," she stammered.
"Mere specters," he said. "The kingdom isn't exactly overrun with them, but specters are plentiful in the wilds. They take many forms, like yon scorps."
"Are they evil? I mean, you know, monsters?"
"They are often aligned with the profane powers, yes," Daggeuro said. "But not all. Some specters are of sacred alignment, but they're no less of a threat. Let us continue," he said merrily, as though nothing had happened. Kathy shrugged herself free of her paralysis and followed after him again.
"I don't know why, but I sort of knew that a little. What do you mean by 'aligned', though?"
"Ah, yes. I had not thought I'd be the one teaching you of such things, but I did promise to answer any questions you had. Hmm," he said, rubbing his throat again, a habit Kathy would come to recognize as meaning he really was deliberating over some thought or idea. "Very well. In the Ether Plane, and in your world as well, all magic is divided into schools of power. The primary ones are air, water, life, earth, fire and death, as you might expect. They are the primary schools of evocation, instantaneous magic usually used in battle. Now, each of these schools is aligned with either sacred power or profane power."
"White magic and black magic, in other words," Kathy said.
"You could use the analogy, I suppose," Daggeuro said with a shrug. "Air, water and life magic are all sacred-aligned, whereas earth, fire and death magic are profane-aligned. Most wielders focus heavily on one alignment, usually that which comes naturally to them. Some can only use powers of one alignment or the other, though they tend to enjoy a wider range of powers within their given schools of magic. But all things balance, as is right," Daggeuro said.
"Okay. Are there other schools of magic?"
"Yes, though as one might expect, they aren't as widely known or discussed. There is shadow, for instance, which involves a great deal of illusion. I rely on shadow when travelling in the Mortal Plane. Shadow is neither sacred nor profane. It simply is."
"That makes sense," Kathy said. She took a final chug of her soda and looked around helplessly for someplace to dispose of it. "Um, Daggeuro?" He paused, looked back at her. "Where should I put this?"
"It's aluminum, so you can just toss it off the side of the road," he said. "There is a breed of specter known as rendermen, creatures made entirely of living, moving metal. One will undoubtedly snatch it up as a treat."
"They eat metal?"
"Yes, along with whatever animals they can get hold of. Rabbits, deer, moose, elk, you name it. They'll even eat crabbit if they get close to a lake. And yes, crabbits are what you might assume, a crossbreed of sorts between a crab and a rabbit. Delicious meat, but they can be aggressive." Daggeuro's tone was so matter-of-fact that Kathy found herself unable to even express surprise or incredulity. This was his world; he had no reason to lie about it.
She tossed the empty can to the side of the road, carrying on. I could get used to this, she thought.