There have always been roads.
When the Gods willed themselves into existence, they created pathways, walking the nothingness of potentiality. As they shaped that nothingness into somethingness, they created more pathways: broad boulevards and wide thoroughfares, twisty little tracks and lazy winding lanes.
These roads still exist. Most remain known only to the Gods, but a few — a very few — have been mapped by those species which came to be in the somethingness (how and why we came to be, well, there are as many different explanations for that as there are species).
At any rate, some of us have learned how to travel these roads and, for the most part, the Gods don’t seem to mind. They generally approve of curiosity and cleverness. Occasionally, however, we will stumble across a lost or even Forbidden Road; sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally, but either way it usually doesn’t end well for the traveler.
That’s probably what happened to Father. He was a courier, carrying messages and packages between star systems and planets and realms and cities and even points far in the past or a ways away in the far distant future. But he was also an explorer, hunting for unknown passageways. His greatest claim to fame — before he disappeared — was his discovery of three previously unmapped roads. He named one for my grandmother, one for himself, and one for my mother. The first two hardly get used at all: Grandmother’s road leads to an ice planet in orbit around a dying red giant, while Father’s leads to a swamp realm so vile that it took him a month to get the stink out of his skin.
Millicent Avenue, on the other hand — Mother’s road — proved to be moderately lucrative. It leads to a pocket dimension: a single island in a vast blue sea warmed by a bright yellow sun. The weather is always perfect, the beaches are pink, and the sentient cetacean species that lives in that vast blue sea thinks that humans are cute.
Millicent Island: vacation paradise.
Father registered Millicent Avenue and, within a few years, the family was making a nice little income from the hoteliers and tourists who made regular trips to the island.
Along with what Grandmother and Mother made on cab fare, it was enough to keep us going after he disappeared, until I was old enough to carry on the family legacy as a Walker.
And now here I am, about to repeat his disappearing act, as well, and it wasn’t even my idea.
It’s all Herbert’s fault.
Herbert runs Myss Lyla’s in Jerseea, a wild urban realm that exists entirely inside a hollowed out rock. No one knows if Jerseea is a planet within a larger universe, or if that’s all there is; just the cave. No one has ever been able to tunnel all the way through the rock to find out.
And there is lots of tunneling going on throughout Jerseea. Mining is the city’s primary source of income, and the whole thing is run by a handful of ultra-rich families who pay their workers just enough to survive and don’t care about anything that doesn’t impact their bottom line.
Like my regular deliveries of Hy-Brasil whiskey and Kitezh caviar.
(They do not go well together. Trust me on this.)
I stepped off Jerseea Avenue and onto the Crossroads. Other travelers faded in and out around me, coming and going; species of every description, loaded down with whatever they could carry. Someone bumped into me from behind, making the whiskey bottles clink, and another person jostled me from the side. There was growling and swearing.
I muttered a “Sorry,” shifted my tall backpack, and exited the Crossroads as quickly as I could; which was not very quickly. Jerseea is always busy. No day or night here. Just blinding lights strung above the streets, a central clock set to a thirty hour cycle, and the distant walls and ceiling of the cave lost to the darkness.
And it was loud. Drills and diggers, engines and hammers, transports and railcars, music, shouting, talking, running. There was no such thing as silence in Jerseea. It was considered unnatural. It was a common belief that silence would drive a person mad. I had gotten tipsy once and tried to tell Herbert about the quiet little cove on Millicent Island where I liked to spend my limited free time: just me, the sand, and the sea. No wind, no crashing waves. Just quiet.
He had stared at me hard for a good minute, shaken his head sadly, and handed me a shot of Jerseean coffee (to “clear my head of that nonsense”).
I pushed my way through the crowd, finding and joining a stream that was going in my general direction. The road was smooth beneath my boots, worn down by thousands of feet and tails over hundreds of years. Buildings leaned close on either side: apartments, brothels, restaurants, courier stations, grocery stores, bars, temples.
I paused long enough to toss a coin into the donation box for the temple of Mercurius, and then spit at the temple of Kryzkaltislk. (Mercurius likes money, Kryzkaltislk likes saliva. They’re Gods. I don’t have to understand them to curry their favor.)
I continued on, waving to Chinnis as they leaned out the front window of the Sleipnir Delivery Service. The logo of an eight-legged horse flickered above their head in gaudy red and gold. They waved three arms in return, one compound eyestalk pointed in my direction, the other two focused on their customer.
I slowed, frowning. Chinnis turned their attention back to the customer. They were shaking all six arms now, eyestalks dancing. The customer appeared to be humanoid from my vantage point, but I couldn’t be certain: long red cloak, the hood down, stubby black hair with electric red highlights; that was all I could see, and only for a moment.
The crowd closed around me again, the stream of species carrying me further into Jerseea.
By the time on the massive clocks that loomed over every street corner, it took me a good forty minutes to reach Myss Lyla’s. The sign above the wide front doors glowed an inviting white and gold, drawing in customers in search of fine music, fine food, and even finer liquor. (Myss Lyla was about eight owners ago, and there was no one still around who could remember what she had looked like. Most people assumed that she had been the model for the smiling, buxom, four-armed blonde with the trays full of booze, but no one knew for certain.)
The doorman, gray-skinned and broad-shouldered, tipped his hat at my approach. “Fair welcome, one who is Walker Brown.”
I smiled. “And fair travels to you, Peterrmenn. Boss still treating you right?”
Petermenn shrugged, his shoulders blocking one whole half of the doorway. “One cannot complain. Shall one guide you to the Herbert?”
“That would be splendid, thank you, Peterrmenn.”
A slow nod and he turned, the doors parting. The smooth rock of the street was replaced by a thick carpet, beautifully patterned with soft whites and golds with black trim. The color scheme continued as the entryway opened up onto a dining room with cloth-covered tables, elegant servers, and a band and dance floor on the far side. The bar along the left wall was a streak of black, a sleek portrait of Myss Lyla hanging above it.
Peterrmenn and I barely got a glance as we crossed the room. The clientele were far too busy chatting, drinking, eating, and dancing. But Herbert spotted us.
He looked up from a row of colored bottles, grinned, and waved us towards the near end of the bar. Filling a tray with drinks (some of them smoking, others on fire), he slid it towards one of the servers and then walked over to us.
“The Herbert is welcome.” Peterrmenn tipped his hat towards me again and turned away.
“Hold on,” I called after him.
He stopped and I slid my backpack to the floor. It was more than half my height, the ridged sides mostly protecting the fragile contents. I untied the outer bag, flipped open the top lid, and pulled out a small clear flask. The chunky purple contents sloshed around inside as I held it out to Peterrmenn.
“As promised: one bottle of Oscirian berry wine.”
His eyes lit up. The bottle was small in my hand; it was positively tiny in Peterrmenn’s massive palm. “One offers deepest gratitude. One’s mate will be most pleased.”
“Any time. You need more, just let me know.”
Peterrmenn grinned, showing quadruple rows of flat, hard teeth. He tucked the flask inside his jacket and headed back across the floor.
I turned to find Herbert glowering at me. “Thanks, Bertha. Much appreciated.”
“For what?” I reached into the bag and started pulling out bottles of Hy Brasil whiskey.
“For what, she says. Mating season for the Hemkirish, and you give him a bottle — an entire bottle — of their favorite aphrodisiac. I won’t see him for a week.”
“Good.” I stacked the whiskey on the bar, two at a time. They disappeared almost as quickly, Herbert slipping them down behind the counter. “Not like Jerseea has labor laws. He needs the break, and some time with his mate. And you have plenty of other doormen.”
“Not the point. He signed a contract, and, yes, I have plenty of other doormen, but he’s the best. Big, polite, never looses his temper. Big.”
I shrugged and started unloading the canisters of Kitezh caviar onto the bar.
“Have any problems?” he asked.
“Nah.” I shook my head. “Though I might have issues with your order of acorns from Pohjola. Rumor has it that Louhi is on the warpath again and might close off the road.”
Herbert paused, a handful of canisters still on the bartop. “Are you saying you may not be able to fulfill your contract?”
I stood and pressed my hands to the edge of the counter, leaning towards him. I spoke very carefully. “I am saying that a Witch-Goddess closing off her realm is outside my control and that, as the Walker, I have final say in whether or not a realm is too dangerous to visit or a road too dangerous to travel. Per said contract, you may request a substitution if I cannot acquire Pohjolan acorns.”
I held out my hand. “As you have accepted delivery, payment please.”
I was hungry, so I stuck around to eat. Myss Lyla’s really does have excellent food and, as an outside contractor, I was entitled to a twenty-five percent discount. Herbert got back five of his coins, and I got a spiced beef and apricot salad, garlic cheese bread, and a Hemkirish chocolate mousse for dessert.
I pulled up a stool and planted myself at the end of the bar, my backpack tucked against my legs. I ate slowly, reveling in the chance to just sit for a while after having been on the roads for so long. (How much time had passed back in Detroit? A month?) Various species twirled around the dance floor, most of them humanoid at the moment, which meant that the band was playing palatable music.
I was licking my spoon and handing my clean plates back to a server when I spotted Herbert at the far end of the bar. He was leaning over the counter, speaking with someone that I couldn’t see. Then the crowd of patrons and servers shifted.
Red cloak with the hood down, stubby black hair with electric red highlights, humanoid.
The customer from Sleipnir Delivery Services.
At least, I was fairly sure.
Herbert half-turned, tilting his head in my direction. I held his gaze, lifting my eyebrows in a Yes, what’s up? expression. He turned away, motioning to Red Cloak with his hand. More conversation. The crowd around the bar shifted again and I lost sight of Red Cloak.
Tossing my spoon into the dirty dishes bin behind the counter, I bent to pick up my bag — only to find Red Cloak standing right next to me.
Herbert stepped around from behind the bar, waving a hand between us. “Bertha Brown, may I extend fair introductions to Amkhira. Amkhira, may I extend fair introductions to Bertha Brown, a fifth generation Walker.”
Amkhira. Just Amkhira. No occupation, no homerealm or homeworld, no guild or temple affiliation.
Humanoid. Very pale, almost icy blue eyes. Skin that was several shades darker than their hair. The electric red highlights continued as flashing tattoos that shifted and slid across their face, changing shape. The cloak was closed tight, preventing me from seeing anything below their neck.
“Fair travels to you, Amkhira.”
“And to you, Walker Brown.” Their voice was rough, grating, like rocks scratching.
“Amkhira has need of a Walker’s services.” Herbert smiled at me. “They learned of you from Chinnis and, after hearing their problem, I agree that you are the best Walker for the job. Even better, I can call in my substitution.”
I scowled at him. “I haven’t taken the job yet.”
“But you will.”
A server popped up next to me, holding a stool. He set it down and Amkhira carefully slid into place, cloak still closed tight. Jaw clenched, I settled back on my own seat.
“Consider Amkhira’s proposal carefully. And, when you accept, I in turn will accept no fewer than three whole egg shells from Zerzurrah. One as a substitute for the Pohjolan acorns, and two at my own expense.”
I blinked. “What?”
Amkhira’s voice made my teeth grit. “You are welcome beyond the gates of that city. You may travel the road to Zerzurrah without fear of being turned away.”
I shifted on the stool. “Once. I have a one-time pass. And I was —” I shot Herbert an irritated glare “— saving it.”
Amkhira’s cloak ruffled as something moved beneath it. Their hand emerged, or something approximating a hand: the fingers and palm were cracked and an even darker black than their face and hair. No electric red tattoos here.
In the center of their hand lay a tiny cetacean, delicately carved from pink stone. It was so expertly done that, for a moment, I thought it was a real dolphin.
I stared at the sculpture, my heart thudding. “Where did you get that?”
“Your father carved this for me, as proof of the truth of my words.” Amkhira’s gaze was unblinking. “I require an item from within the walls of Zerzurrah. Acquire it for me, and I will guide you to your father.”
[End Part One. Part Two will appear in the June 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]