A Tree in the Abyss
In Eternity, the One gazed on the All-Thing's infinite beauty, and the unending moment between Creator and Creation was seamless being. Until the schism, when the shards fell, each glittering with the image of the One in their fragmented nature, so that five divine motes attracted the desire of the Spider-God, Lyspera, and she bound them into the Web of the Abyss. And the constant hunger, thirst, and desire of mortal men and beasts is the ongoing cry of The Five Worlds to the One they never knew, and the desolation and unease heard between seconds, minutes and hours echoes in The Five Worlds ripped from the stars.
--from Otoka’s Worlds and Time
While Khyte resented being called a barbarian to his face, it made him laugh to hear the slur whispered unironically and condescendingly. It was funny that they meant it after he was written into so many songs, for it meant he could never slay their fear, no matter how many rounds of drinks his hard-won loot bought, or how many bad limericks he laughed at. Only this fat, old, drunken lout, Sarin Gelf, whom Khyte believed a secret sorcerer and knew as the fairest fence for enchanted items, was allowed to call Khyte by name or 'barbarian' interchangeably.
“Barbarian,” Sarin said flatly, the half-lidded eyes that signified his haggling mask already lowered. The rotund, pedantic, washed-up merchant was the shrewdest negotiator Khyte knew. Had Khyte not been stung many times by that gracious trader, he might consider him a friend, as Sarin always welcomed him with delicacies and generous pours of liquor. Not that Khyte hadn’t benefited from Sarin’s greed, for though the merchant helped himself to a usurious percentage of the take, his leads paid his thieves fabulous sums.
“You welcome me as 'barbarian'?” Khyte returned, aping a wounded friend, “Would I greet you with words so true? Like 'fat man?'” Not waiting for an answer, he pushed his way past the corpulent merchant into the shop. Yellowed tapestries draped the brick interior—brocades decorated with woven trees and dryads, both male and female. A bookshelf was heavy with tomes in Nahurian, Alfyrian, and Ielnaronan script, a liquor cabinet was heavier with vintage brandies, wines, and whiskeys, and where the fabrics bunched up between them coarse red bricks peeked out.
“I don't care,” chuckled Sarin. “Help yourself to the decanter—-it's dryad absinthe.”
Khyte sipped it. “Splendid. Give the dryad my praise.”
“You misunderstand. That absinthe was distilled from a dryad, rather than wormwood.” He smirked when Khyte paled and put down his glass. “A joke. I traffic in the illegal, not the immoral.”
“I've never known you to have a qualm.”
“In truth, I cross the line more often than I draw it,” said Sarin. “But while I trade more often under the table than over it, consumption of sentients is cannibalism. Though there are few universal truths, that axiom is one of them.”
“I'd like to believe there's one thing you hold over making a buck.”
“You know where to wound me. I'll forgive you if you're here on business.”
“You know I am,” said Khyte.
“Good. I have an undertaking for you,” said Sarin.
“An undertaking? Am I so poor a friend that you'd send me away so soon, and call me mercenary a few moments after you've called me barbarian?
“No, you're my good friend Khyte, who's done me the pleasure of partaking in dozens of my undertakings. Aren't you curious about this one?”
“Not in the slightest,” said the barbarian, with a practiced stare over the fence's shoulder that he knew from long acquaintance would take apart Sarin's smugness, snobbery and aloofness.
“No matter. I've already hired other freelancers, but I thought who better than Khyte to hedge my bets?”
“So you've already hired your best men?”
“I never said they were my best. And if I felt they were as able and reputable as you, I wouldn't say that to your face, my friend. For our long acquaintance is based on mutual deception, that each of us are the best of men.”
“I weary of this dickering. I’m ready for your second volley.”
“Volley?” said Sarin, making a moue. “Why not a preface? Very well, here's what you're going to do.”
“Too quick, profiteer. I haven't accepted.”
“I think you might. Are you familiar with the goblin city of Kreona?” said the merchant.
“You know I am,” said Khyte. “What of it?”
“For King Merculo's opal-inset crown, I will pay you nine thousand silver arborians. Additionally, somewhere in his manor there is a red gold wand tipped with a sapphire. You will know it when you see it, as it resembles a thigh bone for the simple fact that it is an elven femur dipped in red gold. I do not know where he keeps it, only that a merchant well-known to me had it stolen from him in his travels there, and we can presume it is well hidden. However, if you should happen upon it, the reward for that is fourteen thousand silver arborians.”
“Fourteen thousand? And nine thousand? I know you have these sums, and more besides, but how do I know you will pay?”
“My dear friend, why would I not? Does our long association mean nothing? Let us at least remain friends, since your success is unlikely.”
“You goad me, knowing my ancestors expect me to act honorably while I live and breathe. Curse you for exploiting their ghosts.”
“My friend, if you have other duties, this can stay between us.”
“Between us and the souls in my shadow.” He snorted. “There are no private matters.”
“How cumbersome your foreign way of thinking would be in my profession. I thank your ancestors that I was not born in their shadow, and I fear for the little ones born in your shadow.”
“For the sake of my ancestors, I'll bring you your elf thigh and goblin skull cap. For the sake of my descendants, I need an advance of 300 silver arborians. Now.”
When the merchant seemed to consider, Khyte continued, “call it my assassin's fee, as I'm not likely to take a crown without smiting the king that wears it.” And on the word smiting, Khyte's hand scooped into the cherries on the table, simultaneously snatching a handful and sending the wooden bowl to crack on the floor. Khyte half-felt like giving Sarin’s storefront the violent tantrum that the merchant feared. He spat a pit so that it ricocheted off of a burnished steel shield on the wall.
“That does seem fair,” said Sarin. “Wait here.” The merchant went into the back room, where Khyte suspected that the merchant kept a large chest heavy with coin.
The barbarian stood and started pacing, coming to a stop in front of Sarin's stock of weapons, in which, among overpriced war surplus, he found two things of battle worth: a gaudily painted skin stretched over a steel buckler of pristine manufacture; and, an unusually bright and clean dagger, polished to the point that it seemed to shine not with reflected light, but its own light. No mundane rag could have given the blade this unearthly sheen, which reflected nothing, not even Khyte when he leaned in to gaze into the placid gleam.
“I'll take these as well,” he said, when the merchant returned with a pouch of coin.
“Have you come to rob my shop?”
“Don't think I'll beg, or ask more than once. Weapons beg to be used. Besides, you'll haggle up until the handshake, Sarin, so don't expect me to do any less.”
“Take them as a faith payment on your fee, and if you keep them, we’ll deduct it from your pay.”
“You'll deduct nothing, except the blade from your collection. It doesn't lie well with the rest of this junk.”
“Yes, and it fits you as well, as it has spilled blood and still looks innocent.” That last barb cut Khyte so close that he suspected he began to wear out his welcome; in turn, the merchant's obsequious manner, more at home with skirting the subject than stating it, grated on Khyte. Assuredly, this was a matter of birth, as Cuvaernei favored courtesy, and the barbarian’s homeland, Drydana, favored bragging. Knowing that their differences were not personal, but lay in the gulf between their respective cultures, only incensed Khyte’s distaste for the decadent land, and abstracted his discomfort into prejudice and his impatience into restlessness. After Khyte sheathed the weapons and donned his cloak, to keep his departure cordial, he asked “How's the weather on Nahure?”
“Balmy and hot, but there’s a spate of storms, so keep your cloak handy.” Sarin opened the door and a squall of rain spattered the floor. “Looks like you need it now.”
The difference in the weather was so profound that it was as if the merchant opened the door into a different day. Khyte surmised that they might have heard the tapping on the windows and roof if they weren’t engrossed in haggling. “Isn't that like a Cuvaernian,” he said, “pushing a man into the rain with pleasantries and a smile.”
“While I could act the part of one with wounded pride,” said Sarin Gelf, “I admit we are a cold people, and our circumlocutions gird us with the pretense of warmth.”
“I've met a warmer people that circle themselves with houses of ice,” said Khyte. “But I thank you for the absinthe, the conversation...and the goading.”
“Thank you for rifling through my wares, and bringing uninvited ancestral ghosts,” said the merchant. “Until next time.”
The Cuvaernians did not fear rain, and the streets outside Sarin's shop were clogged with sodden people as well as mud and puddles of rainwater. While brave to the rain, they were nonetheless shy of Khyte. He had no illusions of how they felt about him, having seen the satirical picture books that depicted Drydanans with boulder-like heads in which was inset a flat line so ambiguous as to seem either politely disapproving or cruelly smiling. Though it fit his sense of humor to ape the vague frown to encourage their racist avoidance of him, Khyte was not Drydanan born, but taken as his father’s share of the loot from a people the Drydanans had forgotten, and the stares of the Cuvaerneians were not unlike the fascination his childhood friends had for one whose skin was black as iron. Though mildly amused, he was under no illusion that he was smiling about either the racism or the rain.
He paid the river-master a few coins to rent a skiff, and began to pole up the weak current of the Kynel River. He hadn't planned on spending the coin, but due to Sarin's unintended generosity, he had coin to spare, and the river was the straightest route back to Juntawni Mountain. When the river's current picked up near Kwasmir Lake in the Juntawni's foothills, Khyte let the skiff drift downstream to Cuvaernei, then hiked around the lake to the south face of the mountain.
By then, it was nightfall, which on Hravak—and all the Five Worlds—meant the horizon rotated away from the red and purple hues of the Abyss into progressively bluer shades of black. Khyte knew neither sun nor moon, as such celestial bodies were unknown to the denizens of The Five Worlds; the simmering twilight of day came from the radiation of the Abyss between The Five Worlds, and the chilling near-blackness of night came from rotation towards nothingness. While there was some illumination at night, due to the ground and the air absorbing the Abyssal radiation during the day, it was not enough for safely hiking, running, or climbing, so Khyte struck camp in a venerable hachimorta tree, climbing up into the stone-gray tree's branches until he found a joint large enough to host him for a night's rest.
Long accustomed to traveling, not just between cities and lands, but between The Five Worlds, Khyte fell asleep upon reclining in the tree joint, not waking until the vermilion hues of the Abyss crawled over the horizon. Though his lower back and shoulders were stiff and his triceps and buttocks chilled by the hachimorta tree's bark, when a pennybeak lit just out of reach, appetite simmered in his limbs, and he lunged. As his hands wrapped around the bird's neck, he lurched, scraping his abdomen as he fell off the tree limb. He caught himself by crossing his ankles, then managed to dangle, as if riding the branch underbelly. When the pennybeak pecked at his outflung wrist, he wrung his hands, twisting its neck, and dropped it in the bushes. Then he swung onto the branch, grabbed his pack, and climbed down, where he kicked the twitching pennybeak, picked it up, then headed for Juntawni Mountain.
From there it was only an hour's walk to the foothills, and another hour by path to the base. Juntawni’s slopes were green with growing things, except for the rocky peak, and the steep south face, which could only support the hardiest of bushes, grasses and growths. Before Khyte's birth, a vast rock slide sheared off the gentler slope that preceded the rugged, sharp incline, leaving numerous promontories, spurs, and outcrops jutting from the cliff face. Even the passage of thousands of climbers had not worn down this surface, now considered the safest path to the Baugn, despite its inhospitably steep slope, due to the preponderance of handholds and snags for ropes, as well as sterner rock from which to secure pitons.
As Khyte started his ascent up the rough cliff wall, mud oozed from the crannies. Rain streamed down the rocks, and the cool mists obscured most of what was above and below, so that when he reached the first promontory, shaded as it was by a jutting precipice that overlooked it, it was like all the dry land there was in the Five Worlds.
When rain trickled from the outcrop above, sprinkling the rock under it, Khyte crossed his legs under him on the middle of the spur and dug into his pack for the lean repast he caught that morning. Not that he wasn't thankful for the pennybeak, as his uncle had shown him how to pluck and scale the scrawny beast to make five or six mouthfuls instead of three. From the bottom of his pack, he removed a cloth-wound packet, which he unwrapped to remove two flat, white, stones. He clapped them together and then set them on the ground, where their upward-facing surface began to redden, then whiten, as he stripped, cleaned, and dressed the pennybeak in the bottom of his iron pan. While Khyte was not one to be impressed by dark sorceries and their egotistical wielders—with one exception, which was mainly due to some ugly personal history—he was appreciative of everyday magic such as the hotstones. It was an immeasurable convenience to cook without fire, which could alert unwanted company or drive off those for whom he lay in wait, such as the Baugn.
After this quick breakfast, Khyte stepped from under the obscuring outline of the promontory to be soaked by the storm, then further inundated by rain slipping down the rocks as he climbed. The gale chilled him to the bone, and his hands were soon numbed and chapped from the cold, rough stones, through which the wind passed shrilly, spraying him. The deluge was so constant and from all sides that it was nearly a minute before Khyte realized that the rain had stopped, as he continued to be pelted by secondhand rain rolling down the slopes.
When Khyte crested the summit, he shuffled along the arete, using one hand to shield his eyes from the wine-red radiation of The Abyss and the other to balance precariously. By these cautious, shambling steps, he proceeded to the peak’s highest point, where the Baugn roosted. Was there something toxic in the world’s soil, or was the air too thick below, or were the Baugn afraid unless sky surrounded them? Khyte argued the latter strongly when you gave him an audience, for it was the only theory that fit the facts: upon arriving on a world, Baugn never landed on the surface below, but instead perched at high altitudes on the tiniest strip of material that would bear their weight. Khyte believed that even a corral assembled from four vast horizons would be too confining to Baugn, who seemed to treat any substantial plane of material as an impassable wall. Though huge, the world-beasts believed themselves dwarfed by the looming dimensions, and hurtled through the Abyss not to travel, but for the sake of the liberating speed.
It was either that, or the Baugn feared their own shadows.
It was a pity that the playful and affectionate Baugn were stuck in the symbiotic relationship they shared now with travelers between The Five Worlds, for with the novelty of the Alfyrian Ladder increasing in popularity as a mode of travel, the Baugn would one day die out, having forgotten how to fend for themselves. As the denizens of The Five Worlds held in common a liking for the ground, and even the thinnest strips of land were confining to a Baugn, their respective lives were barely tangent. Before going extinct, they would be forgotten, for since they were too fanciful to be believed, they would not survive as myths. Not that they could survive at any less rarefied level, for the few attempts at bringing a tame Baugn into a human encampment, at any altitude, led to panic, then heart failure, in the beasts.
While not domesticated, the Baugn were no longer wild, as constant trafficking of travelers had removed any fear of these riders; also, they had become dependent on offerings and hadn't needed to scrounge for food in centuries. Now and again, Khyte would hear of a Baugn that had starved waiting for a propitiator, but he had seen Baugn grazing in their journeys, both those carrying him and those that were riderless. He believed these exaggerations to be crafted by professional storytellers who had never seen the abundant life on an oasis in the Abyss, much less a Baugn. While the barbarian did not believe the Baugn to be so stupid, many did; that these yarns strained credulity, and did not break it, was evidence of the Baugn's tractability.
What should have been equally fascinating to tale-tellers is the theory—only propounded by those that traveled by Baugn—that the world-beasts had developed not on any one of the Five Worlds, but in the oases of the Abyss. If true, this meant that none of what was offered by its riders was native fare, and much of what was offered was only rarely savored by the Baugn. Since Baugn had varying personalities, and some offerings would be rejected by one to be appreciated with gusto by others, sometimes a traveler would be stuck while waiting for a less picky eater.
And so it was with some excitement that Khyte found three Baugn perched on the highest rocky point, two of which slept in the narrow shade while the other bathed in the light of the Abyss, rolling to and fro somnolently. When Khyte congratulated himself on his great luck, making his way along the ridge with enthusiasm rather than with caution, the wide-awake, eight eyed head topping the sinuous neck tracked him carefully. Khyte slowed to a more respectful crawl, with his head bowed. While there was no ceremonial meaning for this approach, travelers had learned this humble crawl for centuries, as the most practical posture when making the final, precarious approach to the half-wild beasts. Though it wasn't ceremonial, the crawl lent the proceedings the caution and respect the wondrous beasts deserved.
The Baugn were over fourteen feet from head to tail, and their wingspan from two to three times that; their soft fur was a rich ebon black, at times absorbing all light, and at times reflective of it, depending on the angle of the light and whether its hide was in motion. While its wings were massive, so were its hind-legs, which were thicker than goblin lampposts and powerfully muscled.
The Baugn whistled mellifluously through its three nostrils as he crawled under its belly, his backpack ticking its starfish-shaped udders as he did so, until his back was pressed against the last spur of rock, a near vertical henge that creaked and spilled a few pebbles when he came to rest against it. Squashed between the beast and a rock that was as tenuous as a loose tooth made unpacking his offering exceedingly difficult. If the Baugn could be lured to steadier footing by the sight or aroma of food, he would have attempted it, but as it was, he unpacked the treat one-handedly, almost losing the pack to the slopes below as he shifted his weight from one hand to the other in order to pass the pack's loops over each hand. As one hand helped him keep his perch, he used his teeth to assist the other hand to work open the pack, and then, grabbing the offering, he shook the pack off of it as he lifted it out.
The sunbathing Baugn unfurled its neck like a black ribbon, sniffed the meal, and all of its eight eyes rolled, although in delight or contempt Khyte knew not. While the Baugn were omnivorous and would eat whatever raw meat or greens was laid in front of them, Khyte had a curious nature and tried various assorted fodders over the years, to the point that he now believed that the Baugn preferred not raw meat or heads of lettuce, but fully cooked or baked human foods, for while the World-Beasts would often reject travelers with uninspired offerings—after devouring the offering—they invariably accepted Khyte as a rider after his baked and cooked offerings. One of these days he would bring a pie up a mountain to test his theory, but today he had packed two loaves—now half-squashed—of buttered bread. Why these creatures had human stomachs was unknown to him. Perhaps his ancestors had seen them as divine emissaries, not wild beasts, and the offerings had started as religious propitiations, so they had acquired a taste for the richer fare that remained after unknown centuries. The Baugn masticated the buttered bread with gusto, and savored its repast for so long that the cold stone precipice numbed Khyte's fingers through the hide of his gloves.
When the world-beast finished its meal, turned its eight-eyed head toward Khyte, and lowered its undulating wings, Khyte shuffled forward on his knees until he was flanking the Baugn and scrunched against the cliff face. He didn't want to be dashed to the slopes below if the beast shook him off as it flew to a different perch, so he waited a few moments, during which the winds kicked up, blowing nothing but the coldest of air, which lent him even more caution. Then, without room to stand, Khyte mounted the Baugn not like a man, but like a monkey would straddle a higher branch with all four limbs akimbo. Showing even more of that primate mix of agility, gracelessness, and common sense, he clenched onto its flanks with his knees, twisted handfuls of fur in his fists, and turned his head to one side so that his cheek pressed against its soft fur. He was still skin to fur with it when it sprang from its perch and shot straight up to the Abyss.
The Baugn maneuver like birds and bats when parallel to the ground, rapidly and with admirable agility; however, when moving towards the Abyss or any of The Five Worlds, they could move, in a split second, as far as an eagle can see, as if a winged god was pulling it by an invisible cord. As regards this bewildering speed, The Five Worlds' best minds were as ignorant as babes, and Khyte's guesses were as authoritative as any. While he may not have articulated it in the following words, the young barbarian sometimes wondered if the Baugn's blinding speed was moving through a medium which only the Baugn could see, and in which only they could soar. Other times, he wondered if the Baugn was an illusion, a stand-in for something beyond human wisdom. Though in truth, these were half his ideas, that he had debated and bandied about with an old traveling companion, Frellyx the Alfyrian. Not that the elf was the sole author of these speculations either, and some credit must be given to the long days passing through the Abyss that had shaped their thesis. And while Frellyx had given up on adventuring, and Khyte had forgotten the Alfyrian's voice, the Abyss remained, and the young barbarian couldn't help but hammer out his ideas in the wearying passage through it.
When Khyte rode upright, his fists still clumped in the beast’s fur, he watched as the ebon ether of the Abyss slid by the Baugn's flanks. Flight was now second nature, so that the motions of it, from ascent, through the Baugn's eerie propulsion through the ether, to the harrowing speed of descent, were all familiar to Khyte, and even exhilarating on the right day. Nonetheless, he braced himself, not for what would cause strong men to have vertigo or become faint with fear for their own skin, but for the three days it took to reach Nahure. At least, he assumed his destination was the goblin world, as Baugn that left Mount Juntawni usually traveled there, but at this speed, and with a mute beast as his pilot, he could only guess at his destination. When they reached the Oasis, he might judge whether Nahure was their target, as Frellyx had imparted knowledge of planetary astronomy that was further shaped by Khyte's later voyages.
In his first journey through The Abyss, the intoxicating purity of the Abyssal air went to Khyte’s head, as it was wont to do with virgin travelers, and when he panicked, fearing he would starve before arriving at his destination, Frellyx laughed at him. Khyte should have guessed that the Baugn must slake their appetites on the three day journey.
While there are only Five Worlds in the sunless, starless Abyss, there are oases in the ether between them—an Abyssal Archipelago of free-floating islands with a curious melange of hypertrophic trees, anacondic vines, and grasses that seemed to creep in the static, windless air of the Abyss. That some of these plants seemed familiar to travelers—having no doubt taken root from their worlds’ seeds and burrs carried in Baugn fur—only made their appearance more otherworldly. For while the Abyssal Archipelago was cross-pollinated with seeds from each of The Five Worlds, the Abyss was an unusual medium for growth, so that while the plants were recognizable cousins of those they knew, none of the trees, bushes, vines, or grasses that grew there recalled the fields and woods of the travelers' homeworlds. For instance, one of the most common plants in the Abyss was an orange-petaled orchid that Khyte would have thought a twin to the Keluvil, a Hravakian flower. Its Abyssal cousin was common as a weed in the Abyssal Archipelago due to its unusual properties of locomotion—its roots adapted into a gas bag that propelled it by a jet of air.
After a half day hurtling through the Abyss, the Baugn's flight was so blinding that Khyte only knew that it chose a place of rest when it came to a full stop. When its claws embedded in the grass of an oasis, it appeared to Khyte that the Baugn snatched the island out of the Abyss.
As the Baugn grazed on the oasis’s grassy rim, Khyte glimpsed the lower hemisphere of Ielnarona, the Dryad World; through a copse of trees to his right, he saw the faint outline of the Elven World, Alfyria; and, in the yawning Abyss, looming directly above, was Nahure. While the Goblin World looked much closer than it did on Hravak, Khyte knew this was a trick of the Abyssal air, and that they still had the bulk of a three day journey through the Abyss. Now that he was confident that Nahure was their destination, Khyte’s mind also turned to grazing.
While the Baugn ate well at the oases, for their riders it was a risk to forage, as the world-beasts might wait...or might not. And while Khyte was never stranded on an oasis, he had one scare while rooting for his supper: his Baugn had stood on its hind legs, extended its wings in full, as if about to leap into the void, then lolled about on oasis grass, having just given itself a good stretch.
Thereafter, Khyte stayed within three steps of his ride, and mostly stayed on Baugn-back, relying on the jerkies, cheeses, coarse breads, and dried fruits he had packed. Sometimes he could snap a bough of berries from the plant on which the Baugn grazed, but just as often he had to wait for the next oasis. If he was particularly lucky, the Baugn that selected his offering was an older, grayer, world-beast, and prone to napping during the journey. While rests would prolong the journey, it would give him time for foraging.
He grabbed a few large, wine-red, drupes called pondira (Alfyrian for 'demon heads'), which weightlessness had made so delectable and loaded with juice that they often exploded in the eater's hand. As their edible pits were both salty and sweet, many travelers preferred them to the messy, cloying flesh of the fruit. Khyte thought it best eaten together in a few large bites, as it tasted like a peach sugared with its own syrup, and with the succulent, velvet, flesh, wrapped around a candied pecan. Not for the first time, he thought it would be nice to cultivate them, and stowed more than a few of the seeds in his pack, though he knew he wouldn't be able to stop himself from eating them before he returned to Hravak. That he had never seen one on the human world was a testimony to the alluring deliciousness of the otherworldly fruit.
Khyte's chosen Baugn was demure, with the unrestrained shyness of a colt, and when it pulled away from the oasis without giving Khyte any warning, it was as if the oasis vanished into the Abyss. They hurtled faster than anything feathered, whether bird or arrow—so fast, that Khyte could see little other than the beast's back, his hands in front of him, and the vast diameter of Nahure. He wondered, not for the first time, why the sudden force of the speed didn't rip him from the Baugn's back in the Abyss. It was as if they were not only faster than thought, but as diaphanous as an idea. Did they travel through the Abyss, or did they become the Abyss, and so go where the Baugn willed?
Though punctuated by stops at the planetoids that dotted the Abyss, riding the Abyss was, in the main, unending speed—hypnotic, unceasing, movement that left Khyte in a reverie. How did the Baugn think, he wondered? Did they have a conception of the strange continuity of their life? Did they have a mythology to explain the travelers as a devil's bargain that kept them from their overpowering fear of foraging near the soil of The Five Worlds? The myths of Khyte's tribe now seemed like jokes and riddles that were told to them by ancient travelers, so the young barbarian now had no religious consolations, only the trial and error of his own experience, and that shared by his mentors in the Abyss. For that matter, no one had any satisfying explanation of the Baugn, either scientific or mythological. Khyte accepted them for what they were—their existence was both an ugly fact and a beautiful idea.
After several days hurtling through the Abyss, with a few more stops at oases where Khyte kept himself fed and watered, the young barbarian was not only exhausted, but enervated. Khyte's hands and legs had started to shake when he realized that Nahure's outline had expanded to occlude most of the forward space, and, thinking that he would soon need his strength for the descent down Mt. Irutak, ate the remainder of his packed food.
From the Abyss, you could see that Nahure was not only an old, wrinkled, planet, but the goblins had wounded it for centuries with non-stop mining and strip farming. Since the goblins as a race feared both wide open spaces and heights, they lived in massive city sprawls of tightly-packed single story dwellings that punched stone stitches into its surface. As there were only a few heights unaltered by the goblins' piercing, hollowing, and leveling, and it was unlikely that the Nahurians would name a mountain or two as Baugn conservatories, one day the world-beasts would balk at alighting on that uglified shrunken head of a world, and they would be completely dependent on the Alfyrian Ladders to travel in The Five Worlds. Which meant that the goblins would be dependent on the good will of the insane few that were willing to cross the Abyss with the vertiginous elven devices, that tore and tortured not only the space between worlds, but the travelers' perception of it, so that there were almost as many elves and men as height-fearing goblins that eschewed their use.
A few emaciated rocky spires still stood, the tallest of which was Mt. Irutak, named after the triple-dugged goblin deity. In ancient days the mountain had three pinnacles; two of those had been pulverized for copper and iron, but the middle one was volcanic, and too dangerous to mine, although on the day that magma churn spews gold from Irutak, the inventive goblins will find a way to harvest it and Irutak will be flat-chested. Irutak was not only a third as majestic as it used to be, but the mountain had been sheared by so many mining detonations that there remained only two rocky spurs acceptable to the Baugn, and as they were extremely meager, this made disembarking, already difficult due to Baugn preferring the slenderest and barest of promontories, a precarious endeavor.
“Thank you,” said Khyte, patting the Baugn’s black furred flank.
When Khyte saw a climber a few hundred feet below his ledge, his curiosity was piqued. While the Alfyrian Ladders made the journey through the Abyss slightly easier, traveling to the Five Worlds by the tried and true method of propitiating the Baugn—which required climbing a mountain, a show of fearlessness toward the world-beasts, a long journey through the void, and descending another peak—was not for the faint of spirit or the weak of limb. Consequently, there were only a few dozen Baugn riders per world, and Khyte liked to think that he either knew or had heard of all of them, and he hoped this one was a friend.