The gates were nearly silent as they swung inward. I couldn’t see the hinges, and I heard only the faintest drag of wood against metal. Slowly. Slowly.
The doors stopped. They hung open just a few feet, barely wide enough for me to slip through without brushing my shoulders on either side.
I could hear and feel the crowd behind me. Every merchant and shopper and loitering tourist had abandoned their huts and wares to push close, muttering and whispering. A few were whimpering or cursing. They shoved against my back, anxious, desperate, trying to see around me, trying to push around me. Hands and paws appeared in my peripheral vision, straining and clawing.
I couldn’t see Amkhira.
Another hard shove, my backpack grinding against my wet clothes.
I stumbled forward under the weight of the crowd, passing between the doors. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder. An Oscirian and Fenrisian tried to follow, but they just seemed to … slide sideways. Every time they tried to take a step forward, they touched something slippery and off they went. A Cervithian tried to jump over them, furred legs flexing, hooves gleaming, and hit the same slippery barrier.
Anxiety and desperation changed to anger. The crowd surged, faces contorting in jealousy. Teeth and fangs flashed as whispers and curses turned to shouts.
The gate closed behind me. Not even a click, just a slight rasp of wood.
Pulling my jacket straight, shifting the backpack on my shoulders, I turned my attention to the city that spread out in front of me. And above me. And … below me.
When I had accidentally found the back road into Zerzurrah, I had popped out in the middle of their hatchery. That had been an enclosed space, dark except for a few high windows, covered in feathers and soft dirt, smelling of honey and dried grass.
This — the city — looked nothing like that.
I wasn’t standing on solid ground. I was on a wide walkway that branched to either side, following the walls, and straight ahead, and at an angle up to the right and at another angle down to the left. The walkway was a pale off-white ceramic, like ivory strands loosely woven so that sunlight filtered down and down and down, illuminating even the deepest depths of the city.
It felt odd beneath my wet boots, tinging with each step as I moved forward, staring around me in awe. My mouth was probably hanging open.
Towers rose in and among the walkways, twisting and spiraling. Ceramic, or maybe bone or eggshell, varying from rusty orange to dark yellow to russet brown; the colors shifted, flowing in and out of one another. Delicate, fragile, riddled with holes that might have been doors or windows.
I heard wings. A shadow passed overhead.
I looked up, squinting against the drops of sunlight.
A Zerzurrahn landed in front of me, hind legs first, then middle legs, then front legs. Both pairs of wings fluttered once and then folded neatly along its back. The feathered comb atop its head was upright with agitation and curiosity. A mixture of scales, fur, and feathers, all deep blue edging towards purple, covered its body. Golden claws, a golden beak, golden eyes, and a tail nearly as long as its body that ended in a tuft of golden feathers.
“Walker Bertha Brown, I speak on behalf of the Nest. On behalf of the Nest, and all who are blessed to hatch within its walls, I welcome you. Walker Brown, you may address me as Chharhan.”
I bowed low, eyes dropping to the walkway. My backpack shifted uncomfortably, dragging at my wet clothes, and I rolled my shoulders in a futile attempt to move it back into place. “Chharhan, I am honored by the welcome offered by you on behalf of the Nest, and all who are blessed to hatch within its walls.”
The Zerzurrahn dipped its head and bent its two front legs, returning my greeting. The words that followed were a statement, a binding proclamation, not a question. “Walker Brown, you have come in fulfillment of our debt to you.”
“I have. This day shall see the fulfillment of the Nest’s debt to me.”
Chharhan blinked slowly, eyes shading from deep gold to something closer to canary and back again. It settled on its four back legs, wings still folded close, feathered comb relaxing against its head.
No movement around us. No other Zerzurrahns anywhere within my sight.
Chharhan was seated in a calm, conversational pose. I had seen this plenty of times on market day, when Zerzurrahns wandered out into the crossroads to negotiate with merchants or exchange morsels of information with scholars.
But Chharhan wasn’t really calm and relaxed. No. The Zerzurrahns wanted me in and out as quickly as possible, and would reveal as little to me about themselves and their city as they could.
I drew a deep breath, slowly exhaling. “I wish to purchase four items, and I bring fair recompense in exchange.”
Chharhan dipped its head again, motioning for me to continue.
I pulled the bag of Herbert’s coins from inside my shirt, tugging it open to spill the gold into one palm. “In exchange for three whole Zerzurrahn egg shells.”
Chharhan studied the coins for a moment, then nodded. “It is agreed.”
I dumped the coins back into the pouch and set it down on the ground, roughly halfway between us. I reached into my shirt again and pulled out the fine, light cloth with the amber tear tucked inside.
Chharhan’s feather comb twitched.
I gently unfolded the cloth and held it out so that the tear was clearly visible. It shown a soft golden-brown in the sunlight, the dark specks within casting minute shadows over the white cloth.
“In exchange for one page from the Infinite Atlas.”
The feather comb shot straight up, and then Chharhan went very still.
It stared at me.
I stared back.
Chharhan rose slowly onto all six feet, golden claws making a harsh grating sound against the ivory walkway. It paced towards me, glaring down over its beak.
“And this will fulfill our debt to you, Walker Brown.”
Another binding statement.
“Three whole egg shells and one page of my choice from the Infinite Atlas — yes. The Nest’s debt will be fulfilled.”
Another silence with more staring.
Sweat trickled down my back and my arm started to cramp, but I didn’t look away.
My father. I almost had my father back. I couldn’t lose now.
“It is agreed.” One more step forward, so that Chharhan was looming over me, sharp golden beak a hair’s breadth from my forehead. “But hear this well, Walker Brown, as I speak on behalf of the Nest, and all who are blessed to hatch within its walls: never again will you be welcome at our gates, or at our crossroads, nor will any whom you guide to our realm. Do you understand my words?”
I tilted my chin so that Chharhan’s beak now pointed down at my nose, and we were eye to eye.
“Yes, I understand your words. I heed and comprehend, and I accede.”
Chharhan’s rear wings flashed and fluttered, and it pranced backwards a few steps. “Leave the coins and the tear. You will follow me, and you will not deviate from the path I walk.”
I crouched, laying the tear and its cloth next to the pouch. When I straightened, Chharhan was already a good twenty feet away, its six legs setting a quick pace. I scrambled, jogging to catch up, the ivory walkway tinging musically beneath my boots.
As a Walker, I knew how to navigate the roads of creation. I instinctively felt the pathways and how they interconnected. That talent extended to cities and towns, to a certain extent. I didn’t have the same instinctive understanding of mundane roadways, but I figured out the pattern pretty quickly; faster than non-Walkers.
Even when I was lost, I was never really lost.
In Zerzurrah, I was utterly and completely lost.
Chharhan led me up one walkway and down another, through swooping loops and around winding bends. Other than the city wall — which was quickly gone from my sight — there wasn’t a single right angle anywhere. It was all curves and swirls.
And it was completely quiet. And … scentless, unlike the hatchery. My nose still hurt, but the blood had cleared.
There was nothing here that might be considered greenery. No trees or shrubs or flowers. No birds chirping, no insects buzzing. No traffic of any sort, not on wheels or tracks, or flying overhead.
At one point, I caught a hint of movement in one of the … windows? Doors? No glass, just open space. That made sense for a species that could fly. The figure I spotted, only for a moment, was clearly Zerzurrahn, but much smaller. And it lacked wings.
Maybe that was the reason for the walkways. Their young couldn’t fly.
“I will not mention the Atlas.”
Chharhan slowed, one golden eye peering back at me.
“The location of the Infinite Atlas is meant to be secret. It is not a secret I will share.”
The Zerzurrahn blinked slowly, then nodded and turned away.
And we kept walking.
The tower that Chharhan led me into looked no different than any other: a fat spiral of rust and dark yellow and russet that went down and down and up and up. We entered somewhere near the middle, the room before us spreading out to the far walls. The floor was the same mixture of colors as the exterior, and translucent enough to allow sunlight to pass through from one level to the next.
Looking up, I saw faint shadows. Figures, other Zerzurrahns, moving around on the level above us, but silently and out of direct sight.
“The Infinite Atlas,” Chharhan announced.
Dragging my attention away from the ceiling, I refocused on the space around us. The very empty space, except for a single bookstand. It grew directly out of the floor, delicate, tendrils curling, in the very center of the room. It was tall, too. The Atlas sat above my head, high enough for an adult Zerzurrahn to read.
Chharhan sat on its rear legs, all its claws still extended. Its feather comb bobbed up and down.
Licking my lips, I walked over to the bookstand. My boots squeaked. Grimacing at the ugly sound, I looked up at the Atlas for a moment. I could just see the edge of the bottom cover. I could reach it, but I somehow doubted that Chharhan and the rest of the Zerzurrahns would approve of me pulling the Atlas down and spreading it out on the ground.
Shrugging my shoulders, I tugged off my backpack and set it on the floor. It didn’t contain anything fragile or valuable now. I had delivered every bottle of Hy-Brasil whiskey and Kitezh caviar to Herbert, plus the bottle of Oscirian berry wine to Peterrmenn. All that was in there now were a few changes of clothes and basic survival supplies like a fire kit and a compact rebreather.
It might be enough to support my weight if I stood on the corners ….
Grabbing the lip of the bookstand for stability, I carefully hoisted myself atop my backpack. The corners crushed slightly, but pushed me up high enough that I could see over the edge, see the Infinite Atlas itself.
It was a book. A plain brown book, no markings on the cover or spine, maybe an inch thick, but tall; like a book of fold-out maps.
And it contained infinity.
And I had to find the one page that showed Amkhira’s name.
Maybe that would finally tell me what, exactly, Amkhira was.
Assuming I could find it. In all that infinity.
I bit the inside of my lip.
Atlas. A book of maps. A book of places, of heres and theres and whens and wheres, and the ways to get to all of them.
And I was a Walker. I understood the ways to get to here and there and when and where.
Amkhira. I needed to find Amkhira.
I inhaled, long and slow, letting my gaze go unfocused, the cover of the Atlas turning a hazy brown. Exhalation. Another long inhalation and exhalation. Then another. This time, when I exhaled, I bent slightly so that my breath ghosted across the cover.
And I whispered the name.
I continued to exhale, keeping my focus on the Atlas, on the name, on the place.
The cover fluttered. Fluttered again, lifted, and fell open. Pages turned, one after another, flipping by so quickly that they were a blur of blue and black and white and gold. Page after page after page, yet I never seemed to get any closer to the end.
Infinity within the covers of a book.
My lungs got tight as I continued to exhale, whispering the name.
The pages turned.
Exhale. Breathe the name.
My chest started to hurt. I clutched at the edge of the bookstand.
Exhale, name, flip-flip flipflipflip.
Spots danced around the corners of my vision.
The Atlas went still.
I gasped, dragging air into my lungs. Blinking rapidly, I flexed my cramped fingers and tried not to fall as the corners of my backpack sagged further under my weight.
Amkhira wasn’t a person.
A map covered the right-hand page. Solid blue with black and white and gold and silver lines shimmered as they carved through the cosmos, with dots of various sizes where the lines intersected; the more lines that intersected, the bigger the dot. Tiny, perfect script identified each line and dot. I didn’t know that language, I had never seen it before, but I could still understand it.
Brulein Avenue and Brulein. The Veitie Crossroads. Yanover Boulevard and Yanover City. Fiorenzia and its tiny pathway that would be clogged with tourists come rainbow season.
And there, in the upper right corner. A dashed white line. The name had been crossed through, but was still legible.
The dashed line led to an end point.
A tiny dot. Not a crossroads, but a place with only a single road. A pocket universe, maybe, or a time-space fold. One rarely visited. Or not visited at all.
A forbidden road. To a forbidden place.
I swallowed, or tried to do so. My throat was dry.
I lifted a shaking hand, smoothing it over the left page. More perfect neat script in a language that I had never seen but could still read. Each road and crossroads and endpoint was named, followed by a short description. Brulein, a world of perpetual winter where herds of furry brul fought for dominance by singing the ice into exquisite sculptures. The Veitie Crossroads, sitting at the heart of a breathable nebula and if you weren’t careful you would float right out of it into open space. Yanover City, a single skyscraper on a single island in the middle of an endless black sea.
The dashed line stretched out from the Veitie Crossroads to that nothing endpoint.
I traced a finger down the list.
Amkhira Street and Amkhira. Both were crossed out, followed by a single word description.
What did that mean?
A tiny silver serpent slid across the page, under my fingers, and across the map, so quickly that it was a streak of light.
I lurched in surprise, almost losing my balance. A corner of my backpack crunched. Grabbing at the bookstand, I pulled myself back upright.
The silver snake whirled around the map and off the edge of the page.
I thought I heard laughter.
“You have found that which you desire, Walker Brown, yes?”
I cleared my throat. “Uh, yes, Chharhan, I have.”
“Then remove the map and let us conclude our business.”
Remove the map? Literally?
I studied the inner binding. No perforations.
No sign of the snake, either.
I grasped the upper right corner with my fingers and very gently began to pull. There were no objections from Chharhan, so I kept pulling.
No tearing sound. Only a low popping, like stitches being pulled free.
In a few seconds, I held the map loose in my hands. I gaped at it, astonishment making my palms sweat.
A flutter and a flip.
I looked up just in time to see a new page slip right back into its place. A duplicate. Exactly the same.
The cover lifted and the pages rolled over. With a soft thunk, the Infinite Atlas closed.
There was another Zerzurrahn waiting for us at the gate; deep green fur and feathers and scales, with a bronze beak, eyes and tail tuft. This one didn’t introduce itself, or speak to me at all. It just held out a tall cylinder with one clawed paw.
Three whole egg shells, carefully stacked atop one another and held in place inside a lattice of ivory-like strands.
I lifted the cylinder, allowing sunlight to pass through the shells. They were completely hollow; they were either dud eggs or their contents had been removed through some means that left the shells intact.
Holding the cylinder in the crook of my elbow, I bowed my thanks to the green and bronze Zerzurrahn.
No acknowledgement at all.
“This concludes our business, Walker Bertha Brown.” Chharhan’s tail and feather comb twitched.
“It does.” I could feel the Atlas page where I had rolled it up and tucked it inside my shirt. At least my clothes had finally dried. “The Nest’s debt to me is fulfilled. I shall not speak of what I saw here today, nor shall I set foot upon the Crossroads of Zerzurrah again.”
“Indeed not, Walker Brown.”
The gates swung open, the massive, sky-high golden-brown doors hardly making a sound; again, there was only the faintest rasp of wood against metal.
I moved back a few steps, giving the doors room. They stopped when the gap was just a bit wider than my shoulders.
Business suits. There was a herd of angry business suits.
Baldy glared at me. Bite marks covered his face, one of his ears was half torn away, and there were slashes and rips in his clothing. The dozen other suits arrayed to either side of him, an arc that covered the entire gateway, looked just as bad.
And just as angry.
“Uh,” I said.
“Our business, Walker Brown, is concluded.” Chharhan paced closer, both sets of wings fluttering, eyes heating to molten gold. It stretched its neck closer, beak clacking.
And then it hissed at me.
The green and bronze Zerzurrahn hissed, too.
I spun as the air was suddenly filled with hissing and clicking and clacking and chirruping. The sounds came from everywhere, above and below and behind me, overlapping, dissonant. Every hair on my body stood on end, and I instinctively hunched my shoulders and crouched.
Chharhan was on top of me, beak slicing towards me, wings flapping hard. I backpedaled, feet tripping as I scrambled to keep out of its reach. Its wings beat at my head and shoulders, and its beak just narrowly missed my cheek and ear.
And then I was through the gate.
I spun, pressing my crunched backpack to the wood as the doors closed soundlessly.
The crossroads was very quiet. The merchants and shoppers and lingering tourists and scholars huddled around the edges of the open space, sheltering in their huts and tents. They watched, some looking eager, others afraid.
They would offer no assistance.
Where was Amkhira?
Baldy tilted his chin. “Missed you in Detroit. We are here to personally escort you back to Jerseea. Our employer would like to make you an … alternative offer for the eggs.”
“I get the distinct impression that a yes or no on my part doesn’t really matter.”
Baldy grinned. A tuft of white fur was caught between two of his front teeth. “You would be correct.”
A flutter of red, far off to my right, in the pooling shadows of the jungle.
“Well in that case —”
Amkhira appeared at my side, red electricity crackling across their scalp and hair, down their cheeks and throat. They wrapped that semblance of a half-melted hand around my arm, squeezing hard. I saw Baldy’s eyes go wide, his hand start to reach for something inside his jacket.
Every color I had ever seen and a thousand, a million more that I couldn’t name. Silence, profound and utterly terrifying. Up and down and sideways and every direction in between, except that I wasn’t moving.
I was screaming again, on my knees, the container of eggs clutched against my side.
Amkhira tightened their grip, digging into my skin.
Shouting. The sounds of running.
I pried my eyes open.
We were on the far side of the crossroad, opposite the gate. As far as we could possibly get from Zerzurrah without moving into the swamp or leaving the realm entirely.
Baldy and his fellow suits were running towards us. Guns. Knives. Hooks. They were angry and yelling.
“Don’let gooo,” I whispered.
I pushed to my feet, inhaled, and exhaled the name. Veitie. And I stepped onto the road.
[End Part Four. Part Five of Asphalt Gods will appear in the September 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]