The Veitie Crossroads were ancient; so old that there were no historical records of its discovery, only legends. In one story, Hermes and Mercurius had guided a lost Walker to safety there just as she was about to run out of breath. In another, a family of Walkers had kept the Crossroads a secret for generations until one had a falling out with his kin; when they realized that he had shared the secret, they dragged him home and shoved his body out of the nebula and into the cold of space; it was still floating out there.
My favorite story was the one Father had shared with me, a bedtime tale whispered when all four of us — Father and Mother and Grandmother and I — would pitch a tent on the roof of our apartment building and camp out under the stars. He would point to one and say, “Maybe that star will be a Crossroad someday.”
Because that’s how Veitie came to be. A sun near the end of its life. The few planets that spun around it had never birthed any life, not even bacteria. But the sun wanted more, felt that it could be more, do more. So the star prayed and the Gods heard its plea. When the sun exploded in its death throes, it was transformed. The energy and heat and light of its death bent space, pulling and tugging and twisting the nearest roads until they curved and came together.
The Veitie Crossroads, the final breath and prayer of a dead star. A weightless cloud of green and purple. Scattered bits of rock covered in bioluminescent moss and flowers float through the cloud, golden chains strung between them to create pathways and nets. Safe havens for the merchants and traders and explorers and scholars who gather there to exchange goods and stories.
I only knew that we had arrived because I could breathe again. My vision was spotty and dark, my ears buzzed with a loud hummingbird hum, and I felt chilled. My whole body was shaking, and my shoulder and arm ached.
I flailed. Something grabbed my sore arm, guided my hand.
I felt a chain under my fingers and I latched on tight.
My clothes floated up around me and I could feel the weight change as my hair lifted free of my shoulders and scalp. I almost lost my hold on the eggs in their ceramic lattice.
I clung to that chain and gradually, too slowly, my vision cleared and the buzzing in my ears faded. Blinking, I looked around.
The nebula’s striking colors were only visible from a distance. Immediately around me, it was clear, and I had a good view of the Crossroads.
Not surprisingly, our appearance had attracted no interest whatsoever. Everyone was far too busy going about their own business. Neanderthals and Cervithians and other sentients followed hundreds of chains, from one netted area to the next, their safety lines locked into place. Pixin scampered along the golden links, carrying messages and small packages. One jumped over my hand, running, translucent wings fluttering. It looked like they had converted several of the floating rocks into habitats, because I could see Pixin cocoons dangling from the bioluminescent flowers. A massive Drake, the largest I had ever seen, clung to the outside of a net, arguing through the chains with a pair of Foxin. The Drake’s breath steamed, and the Foxins’ ears and tails had fluffed in agitation. A Neanderthal growled at me in annoyance as he passed, unclipping and re-clipping his safety line to get around me.
Oops. Safety line.
Damn. No rope and clamp in my backpack.
Well, I would just have to be very very careful and not lose my grip.
Amkhira floated into my line of sight. They had pulled their cloak tight and curled up what might have been their legs. The end result was that they looked like a bouncing red ball with a black bump for a head.
I almost laughed. Amkhira’s grim expression stopped me.
“You have the map from the Infinite Atlas?”
My momentary good humor disappeared. “I do.”
That burnt hand shot out from between the folds of their cloak. “Give it to me.”
“If you would see your father again, give it to me.”
I hesitated again, and red electricity crackled down the sides of Amkhira’s face and neck. A Pixin running along the chain towards us squeaked in alarm, turned around, and raced back towards their habitat.
I tucked the container of eggs under my arm. With my free hand, I felt inside my shirt and pulled out the roll of the map. I held it between my fingers, but did not extend it to Amkhira.
“Are you a Forbidden Road?”
They glared at me. This time, the electricity spat and skated along the surface of their cloak. For a moment, they looked like a sphere of angry red lightning. I had to squint my eyes against the intensity of the glow.
The chain vibrated beneath my hands. I twisted my head to see a Hemkirish and a few Cervithians turning, dragging themselves away, making for the nearest net. Pixin watched, wide-eyed, from a boulder, the bioluminescent flowers shivering.
A bolt of electricity hit the chain, turning it red and hot. I hissed at the flash of pain, let go, started to float —
— I corkscrewed, made a mad grab, caught the chain again.
“I have been denied myself, my nature sundered. Ripped. Shattered. No more! Give me the map!”
More angry red lightning. It crashed through the nebula, striking the net where the Drake and Foxin had ceased their arguing to stare in shock and surprise. When the electricity hit, the Foxins’ fur stood on end and the Drake convulsed, releasing its hold. I could hear the Pixin screaming right at the edge of my hearing, the sound so high that my teeth hurt and my eyes watered.
The Drake flailed, tail snapping, and just managed to catch the net before it floated out of reach.
More lightning, and a boulder shattered, scattering debris and moss and flowers. A Pixin cocoon whipped past my head.
“Amkhira, stop!” I thrust the map towards them, my face turned away. “Here! Take it!”
That hummingbird thrum beat against me and the crackle of electricity was loud as Amkhira moved closer. They didn’t float uncontrollably or flail madly. They simply glided towards me. When they were close enough, they snatched the map away, their burned and blackened and melted hand slamming against my fingers.
I gasped, the sting vibrating up my wrist and forearm, and curled my hand protectively against my chest.
The map unrolled. The page glowed, turning transparent. For an instant, I could see the map and Amkhira and the nebula and the stars beyond, all layered on top of one another.
“Speak my name.”
I drew a breath.
The map caught flame, turned to light, and disappeared.
Amkhira’s cloak flared wide, spreading and growing, extending outward until that was all I could see. The nebula was gone. There was only a great wall of red and lightning and flame. And, within that red, a bundle of black. A mass of tar curled in on itself, lumpy, almost pitiful.
And then that, too, began to grow.
The tar bubbled, oozing out, lengthening. Red and gold highlights appeared, slipping down through the tar like neon paint.
The road that was Amkhira flattened, widened, sinking into the mass/matter/energy of creation. The red and gold highlights spun, whirling into spheres, then flattening into circles. The road that was Amkhira sank further, merging with the universe. The circles continued to spin, circles within circles, filled with that language that I recognized and could understand deep down in my soul.
Amkhira’s voice, but no longer rough and gravelly. Smooth, hot.
I took a step forward. The road that was Amkhira was solid beneath my feet, and the circles continued to spin slowly. There was no infinite brightness here, no wind that was the breath of Gods and Walkers. I could hear the beating of my own heart, feel the deflation of my lungs as I continued to exhale. The air was warm and heavy, and reddish embers glowed all around me.
Breathe. Exhale. Speak the name.
How long was this road? Would I have enough breath to reach the end?
And what would I find if I did?
I looked down, the words within the circles catching my eye. A story. No, not just a story. A history. A biography. The story of Amkhira.
The first road.
I stopped, wobbling on my feet.
The first road —
Yes, quite curious and exciting, indeed.
The serpent again, a brilliant streak of silver against the blackness and the embers and the golden circles. It twirled in the air, incomprehensibly large. One head, then three, then one again.
Out of all the probable outcomes, this is my fourth favorite.
The embers and circles blurred, my lungs straining. The name faded from my lips and became nothing.
The silver serpent shrank, corkscrewing around me. I could breathe again. I panted, sucking in air, utterly unable to understand why I was still here. How I was still here, and not … lost. My focus had been broken, the name interrupted. I should be tumbling through creation, unable to stop myself or save myself.
Yes, but I won’t allow that. At least not this time.
The serpent shifted form and color. He was a melanistic fox now, as big as a horse, the cinnamon-red and black of his fur perfectly matching the road and the embers that floated through the air. Golden-orange eyes studied me.
You do possess a most unusual ability to find that which has been lost or hidden. Or forbidden.
“I — I —”
A God. I was speaking to a God. What else could he be?
Correct. The fox leaned towards me. Mortals do not see very well. Most mortals, anyway. Perhaps that is your secret. Before, you were almost completely blind. Now, you are only mostly blind. Your comprehension of creation is fractionally better.
The fox twitched an ear. Why would you thank me? I haven’t done anything. No, this is all on you. I should warn you, however, that mortals whose eyes are opened rarely do well after the fact. They have difficulty reconciling what they knew to be true with what they know to be true, what they once saw with what they now see. I do hope that you avoid insanity.
My mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
The fox shifted, shrinking into the form of a normal-sized raccoon.
He folded his hands across his pot belly. I offer you this word of warning, as well. Amkhira is a Forbidden Road. Always and forever. Despite that, curious mortals kept finding their way here. We couldn’t have that, now could we? Something had to be done.
Well, because Amkhira leads back to the beginning.
I cleared my throat. “The beginning of what?”
The raccoon scowled at me in disappointment. Why, everything, of course.
He changed again, becoming a massive black tortoise. Golden circles similar to those on the road spun on the panels of his shell, while another rotated in the air above his head. As I watched, red lightning cracked, jumping from one rim of the circle to the other.
The embers all around me shivered. A few dropped to the road that was Amkhira, melting into the asphalt. There was a bubbling and hissing. And then, with a growly, satisfied hum, they exploded outward, stretching, forming narrow roads. A few intersected one another here and there, while others extended off into infinity.
The tortoise turned his massive head towards one of the newborn roads. He smiled.
Yes. That one.
The tortoise shrank. He became a mouse, fur a silvery white, barely the size of my palm.
He leapt, scampering until he reached that new road. He turned back towards me, ears and nose twitching.
I shall call this road … Berthain. An homage, but not so similar that the universe gets confused. That is never a good thing. The God who was a mouse tilted his head at me. As I said, this is my fourth favorite probable outcome. Depending on the decision you make next, this could become my second favorite. Or my least favorite.
“How — how will —” I swallowed and found my voice. “How will I know?”
The God lifted onto his rear legs.
And then he scampered away, disappearing into infinity.
I walked. I walked and I walked, and I kept walking. I had no sense of the passage of time. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. Or tired. But I was sore. My shoulder and arm still ached from dragging Amkhira’s weight from one crossroad to another, and my hand tingled from touching the electrified chain in Veitie.
At one point, I slipped off my backpack and carefully tucked the container of eggs inside.
I continued to follow Amkhira Street, avoiding the criss-crossing and branching avenues that angled in from every direction and then away. Away and away, into forever.
I felt … weird when I crossed those intersections. They were crossroads. They had to be.
Mortals do not see very well. That is what the God had said — whichever God he was.
I looked around me, at the dark road and the golden circles with their histories and the embryonic roads hovering like embers.
Is this what it all really looked like? Or was this only closer to what it really looked like? Were the infinite brightness and the wind and the strange forms of the other Walkers just … an illusion? No, that wasn’t right. Not an illusion. More like, an approximation. This, all of this that I was seeing now as I traversed the first road, was a slightly more accurate approximation. A mortal’s limited comprehension of the infinity of creation.
Amkhira Street led everywhere, touched everything. Every here and there, every where and when.
I read bits and pieces of Amkhira’s history as I walked. I didn’t understand most of it. Not because I had suddenly lost the ability to comprehend this strange language, but because I didn’t recognize any of the names; aside from that of Amkhira, anyway. There name was everywhere. But the rest? Were they people? Places? Events? Gods? So-and-so came here, so-and-so went there. This name walked here, that name traveled there. These names walked together and then parted company. This name came into being, that name ceased to be. This name is now connected to that name.
I knew that name: Kryzkaltislk. And Mercurius. Then more that I didn’t understand.
And then a name that I did recognize.
Jeremiah Allendale Brown of Detroit.
And the road came to an end.
[End Part Five. Part Six of Asphalt Gods will appear in the October issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]