Perspectives: Chapter One

by Russ Allbery
© 1995

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have
and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,
we must believe that one of two things will happen....
There will be something solid for us to stand on
or we will be taught to fly.

Patrick Overton

She was perfect. Ignoring the crowd as it bumped and jossled her, she headed straight for the fruit stand. A farm wife, undoubtably, but from fairly close to the city so she could come in and shop without bringing a wagon. Probably from a wealthy farm too, if she could afford to buy expensive imported fruit. Sure to be picky.

Luke slipped closer to the stand, careful to stay on the opposite end from the woman and to avoid being seen by the merchant. He smiled inwardly at her inaudible sniff when she began inspecting the oranges. The merchant headed towards her, offering to be of assistance. Any moment now....

"Tell me, do you have any oranges which aren't either half-ripe or rotten?"

The merchant began to protest, picking out some of the best of the fruit. Luke grinned and moved in next to the stand. A quick glance around revealed that no one in the crowd was paying any attention, all intent on their own errands. The merchant was arguing with the woman and had no eyes for anything else.

In seconds, Luke had three apples inside his coat and was strolling away. Resisting the urge to look back was easy now; besides, he knew that the outcry would have come immediately if there were one. Once he mixed in with the crowd he was anonymous again, just another poor teenager living on the streets.

The crowd around him thinned as he started taking back streets, threading his way through the maze of ramshackle buildings near the North Gate. Even some of the people who had lived in Darheim their entire lives would be lost here, but after two months in the city he knew every turn. Which meant it was time to move on.

Finally, in a narrow alley far from any major road, Luke stopped and took a quick look around. No one was in sight. He had never seen anyone else here, and as far as he could tell the buildings were deserted. There were a lot of places like that in Northgate, as the area was generally called. The city watch never bothered to come here; their duty was to protect the people who paid their salaries.

Still, one could never be too careful. Luke had been forced to move five times already when street gangs had decided that one of his hiding spots would be a good place for their base. Some of them had asked him to join, but Luke wanted nothing to do with the gangs. Sure, it was easier to live when there were enough people cooperating to make cutting purses safe, but a gang meant ties, loyalties. In other words, a trap.

Satisfied that no one was watching, Luke pulled aside a pile of dirty blankets to reveal a small wooden door in the base of the building. It looked like the entrance to a root cellar in a farmhouse, but in this part of the city it was far more likely that it had been a hideout for someone. Not that it mattered now; whoever had built it was long gone, and it was one of the best hiding places Luke had found. The doors opened inward, and he went down the dark stair, turning halfway down to pull the blankets over the opening and push the door shut.

The complete darkness of the cellar didn't bother him; he knew it well enough now to move around by feel. Bending to avoid the low ceiling, he pulled the top blanket off a heap in a corner and added the apples to his store of food. He reached under another blanket, pulled out a flint-and- steel and lit a candle. He was lucky to have the flint-and-steel; it had been a gift from a merchant he had travelled with for a short while, a reward for catching a thief before he could steal some valuable jewels. That was over a year and three cities ago now.

The flickering light of the candle revealed most of the small room. Blankets were stacked everywhere, most of them moth-eaten and dirty except those which made a small bed in the corner. Luke had dragged those outside and cleaned them as best he could, although he hadn't tried to carry them as far as the river. In the corner where Luke knelt now, moving blankets aside, he kept his current stockpile of food. He had a five-day supply now, everything from dried meat and hard bread to the occasional piece of fruit. Most of it he had stolen since the day last week when he decided that he had seen enough of Darheim.

He deftly wrapped it up into a small bundle that could be carried easily, adding his stockpile of candles and the flint along with a few other meager possessions. Five days of food would be plenty to reach the next village according to the merchants he had talked to; in fact, the apples probably weren't necessary. He wasn't sure where he would go next...Karadai perhaps, or maybe Port Stark. It was definitely time to leave, though. Darheim had begun to feel confining and too familiar, and there was nothing left here for him. Again he was feeling the pull of the road, the desire to see the next city, the next country.

Finishing his packing by wrapping the bundle in a lightweight net, he sat down on his makeshift bed and wiped off the apple he had left out. It was still early afternoon, and he didn't want to try the gates until nearly dusk. Not that they were likely to stop him — the guards paid little attention to people leaving the city — but the street gangs were most active near the gates and late afternoon was the safest time to travel. That left him a few free hours to kill before he could move. Luke blew out the candle and leaned back, listening to the silence and the occasional crunch of the apple.

Several hours later, when he pushed the blankets aside and climbed out of the cellar, Luke glanced up at the sun. It was low in the sky, casting long shadows across the deserted streets. His time sense had been accurate again; he guessed it was about four. In an hour and a half the gates would close, but they were only fifteen minutes away.

Pulling his bundle up behind him, he carefully closed and covered the entrace to the cellar. Even though he would never use it again, there was no need to advertise it to everyone who walked by. Perhaps this way it would be found by someone who was intelligent enough to keep it secret.

Even the larger streets were nearly deserted at this hour, and most of the people out were headed home. It was too late for most normal business and still far too early for those who only came out at night. His bundle over his shoulder, Luke made his way towards the North Gate, carefully watching for any of the street gangs. Several times he went a few blocks out of his way to avoid a group of them, careful not to give the impression he was trying to challenge them or steal from their marks. A few nodded to him, but he didn't bother to nod back. They knew him by appearance only, and would probably never notice when they didn't see him again. Friends were a liability on the streets unless they were members of your gang, and Luke had no gang.

The North Gate was far less impressive than it sounded. The smallest of six gates into the city, it faced poor farmland and no major trade routes. As Luke walked through, he was accompanied only by a farmer's wagon, taking a day's purchases back to the farm, and a couple of tired-looking men, walking together in indistinct brown robes that marked them as monks of some kind. The guards never gave any of them a second glance.

The land outside the gate was flat and dry, and the road was dusty and rutted. It wound through fields, some cultivated and growing vegetables, but most suitable only for grazing sheep. Luke lost both the farmer and the monks at one of the many forks as he walked on, enjoying the silence after the constant background noise of the city. The scenery, although unimpressive, was refreshingly different, and Luke felt the excitement of travel grow. Finally he was away...moving again. All of the crushing monotony of the city was left behind, and unexplored roads lay ahead. He reviewed the bits he'd heard about Karadai and Port Stark, trying to decide which he wanted to visit next. There would be plenty of time to decide; several villages lay between Darheim and the major split in the road.

As the sun touched the horizon and the light began to fail, the top of a building became visible over the top of a nearby hill. The road headed straight towards it, and Luke studied it with interest. It was a short tower, made out of some kind of dark stone and standing alone in the center of a field. Luke remembered it from conversations in the city; it had been a popular topic among the younger boys. The Dark Tower it was called and there were any number of dark stories about it, naming it the site of a woman's murder, the home of some of the most fearsome of ghosts, and even the tower of a dark and evil wizard. Luke had told a few himself to men who were willing to give a few pennies for an interesting tale.

Seen now in the fading daylight, it didn't look particularly impressive. Most of the stories were rather doubtful anyway, especially the idea that a wizard would use it as his tower; it wasn't nearly tall enough or far enough away from the city for that. Still, no one was quite sure who it belonged to, and even some of the pratical-minded merchants of Darheim thought that there was something strange about it. The dark stone it was constructed from was highly unsual, unlike anything else in the area.

As Luke came closer, the sun sank below the horizon and the sky began to darken quickly. Without thinking about it, Luke headed out across the field towards the tower. It would make a good place to spend the night, and there was enough superstition about it that no one was likely to bother him. Besides, there was something intriguing about it...he couldn't pass it by without taking a look first. There was no road leading up to it, but the grass was shortly cropped, apparently recently grazed by a flock of sheep, and the ground was even.

The tower was simple, just four cylindrical stories of dark stone. There were no outbuildings or well, just a couple of stone steps leading up to a heavy wooden door. Luke pushed the door open, slightly surprised that it didn't squeak on the old metal hinges, and slipped inside.

Rather than the large room he expected, he found himself in a narrow corridor bending away to his right and left. Notches in the black stone wall faintly lit the hallway. Picking a direction at random, Luke headed off to the left, following the curve of the outside wall. He passed several wooden doors leading farther into the tower, but all of them were locked. His footsteps echoed on the stone floor, raising puffs of dust behind him.

About a quarter of the way around the tower, he found an open doorway. It led into another corridor, this one apparently heading straight through the center of the tower and also lined with heavy wooden doors. He was about to start down it, looking for unlocked rooms, when a door slammed behind him.

He froze against the wall, his heart beating fast. It was back the way he had come, apparently one of the doors that had been locked. Moving further into the shadows, he listened closely, and his heart fell as he heard heavy boots coming down the corridor towards him. No one would be in this tower at night except someone looking for a place to hide, and there were no horses outside. That meant thieves, probably on the run from the city, and if they caught him here, they wouldn't hesitate to kill him.

He moved quickly down the corridor, trying doors on both sides, but all of them were locked. Behind him, the footsteps grew closer, and he could hear the man muttering to himself. The sky outside was still casting enough light through the windows that he was sure to be seen if the man glanced in his direction.

Finally, a door opened to his pull on the handle. Hurriedly, he pulled it farther open, cursing under his breath as it squeaked loudly. From the doorway behind him he heard the man shout, and he ran through the half-open door.

The next room was as black as night, and he almost fell when his foot hit the first stair. Running footsteps came from behind him and he scrambled up the stairs, hearing the door yanked open behind him. Moving by feel, he pulled open the door at the top of the stairs and ran down the hallway, sliding his hand along the wall to look for an opening. Behind him still came the sound of running footsteps and an occasional yell as the man tripped over something in the dark. The wall under his right hand fell away, and he ducked into the opening, turned again immediately, and finding a door in front of him, yanked it open and dove through, slamming it shut behind him.

It took him a moment, leaning against the wall panting, to realize that he didn't hear the man behind him. In fact, he didn't hear any sound at all except his own breath and the pounding beat of his heart. The air smelled different too...cooler, moist, and fresh. The wall against his back wasn't stone, but instead incredibly smooth like polished wood. Beneath his feet, the floor was soft. He knelt and felt it with his hand — it was covered with some kind of padded rug.

Luke felt his excitement rise, the same thrill he always felt at seeing something he had never seen before but stronger than he had every felt it. Something about this place was different...completely different than any place he had ever been. And there was something pulling him, calling him.

He headed down the hallway towards it, relishing the strange feel of the soft rug under his sandals. All thoughts of Darheim, of whether to go to Karadai or Port Stark, of the man pursuing him were forgotten. He longed for a light, certain that this place would look like nothing he had ever seen, and then remembered the candles in his pack. Pulling one out, he lit it and looked back down the hall.

The walls glistened and shone even in the faint light of the candle. They did look like polished wood, but perfect and seamless, without a blemish. The rug covering the floor was a deep brown and stretched from wall to wall and as far as he could see in both directions along the hall. Behind him, the door he came through stood closed, a heavy wooden door with elegant brass hinges. It was the only door in sight.

Forward, though, was the pull, and he had no desire to resist it. He walked slowly down the hall, running his hand along the wall and marvelling at the feel. There were no pictures or any other kind of decoration, but the wood didn't need any. Ahead of him, the hall grew lighter until it reached a sharp bend. As he grew closer, the candle was no longer needed, and he put it out. By the time he reached the bend, the light was nearly as strong as daylight.

He rounded the corner and stopped, dazzled. Ahead stood a window looking out over a sunlit countryside that was clearly nowhere close to Darheim. Luke had never seen rolling green hills and forests that deep in all his wanderings. He moved closer for a better look.

The scene abruptly changed and it was winter. Dead in the center of the window was a city that looked like crystal, impossibly floating above the ground. He studied it, and suddenly it seemed closer, although it never moved. He could see the individual buildings, even make out the expressions on people's faces as they walked through the streets.

The scene shifted again, and now there was a city of metal. This one was on the ground, but the buildings towered impossibly high, reaching for the clouds. A glint in the sky became a piece of flying metal when he looked at it, and then became even clearer as it landed on top of one of the buildings and he could see people come out of the side of it. He looked towards the side of the window, and the view slid sideways in the direction he was looking, revealing more of the city sprawling out across the land right up to the edge of an ocean. Breakers in the distance crashed against a cliff that was suddenly the center of the picture as he looked at it.

He was controlling the window before he even realized what he was doing, looking intently at those things he was interested in, causing them to appear closer and become clearer. He looked towards the side, causing the land to move by as his viewpoint slid quickly across the countryside. A flash of light on the ground drew his attention towards a knight, fully armored, who lifted a glowing lance in salute to something off to the side before the scene moved on to something else.

He heard footsteps come up behind him, and a part of him told him to run, told him that he was messing with some kind of powerful magic that he had no business using, but he was too lost in the scenes to care. Each second showed him another marvel, another thing totally unlike anything he had seen. Much of it he could not understand, but it excited him all the same, and he was caught up in the wonder of his explorations.

Then the window began to grow more sluggish. It didn't respond to his commands as fast, and he had to conciously force it to move. It began missing commands, even moving away from where he wanted. After a moment of struggle, it settled back on the original scene.

Reality returned with a flood, and Luke lept back, remembering the other person in the room. He half-turned to run back down the hall, but stopped as the man leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.

"Welcome to Crossroads."

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04