White Road

By Stepan Vartanov

Fantasy

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35
11 mins

 

Stepan Vartanov
White Road

The road ran by the picturesque hillside. Right and left from me, stretched a continuous green carpet, dotted with patches of flowers. At least once every six months I had to descend into this valley, and each time I had this happy holiday feeling.
The country of eternal spring.
I stood on the box and looked back at the peaks glittering with snow, then turned towards to the valley.
“Don’t you lie to yourself," I thought. In fact, I saw the same sort of mountains and meadows with all their streams and flowers in a thousand other places. This was nit the point.
The point was, no one will ever shoot an arrow out of these bushes. The local folks didn’t know and didn’t want to know such a word as “war”. Unlike all other people.
Yes, probably, this was the reason - the absence of threat. Strange thing, really: in – what? - thirty years? I should have got used it - but no. It still felt like an undeserved gift.
The mountain village we were returning from was called Restat. All year round locals were searching the mountains, collecting their amazing medical herbs. Just to trade with us for knives, axes and other household trivia. Robbery, if you think about it... Needless to say, I have abandoned this sort of thoughts and told myself to not think about such things. Business is business.
I sat back and let go of the reins. Horses knew the road and were well-trained, so that I could enjoy the late spring weather without any distractions. Slight creaking of wheels in the background, the flight of a seagull in the sky... Probably, it was brought here by a storm, I thought. And at that very moment, as if it sensed my gaze, the gull folded its wings and dived towards the first of our three wagons. A second later the wagon stopped. I touched the reins and rode closer.
The seagull, or rather, the creature I mistakenly took as a seagull, was now sitting on Tapis's shoulder, while Orr, his partner, was carefully extracting something from her throat. Other traders approached, too - Odorf, my partner, and Bigolbi with Si-Wu from the third wagon.
A Courier, I thought in surprise. On my memory, couriers were never used, not even once. One such mechanical bird, capable of finding the addressee, wherever he was, cost more than dozen of caravans like ours.
Orr finally got a cylinder with the message from creature’s throat and unscrewed the lid. He shook out a note in the palm of his hand and handed it to Tapis. For several minutes our leader silently moved his lips, translating the lines of the cipher into the human language…
"We got a recommendation," he finally said, "to urgently go to Clanson. Well... Let’s hurry... Turning... "
So much for the valley of ethernal spring.
"We got a recommendation," I thought ironically. "Or, let’s be honest, we are ordered."
I was puzzled by this message, and frightened, to tell the truth. We - I mean traders - are not an organization with any kind of vertical structure worth speaking of. There are some solid reasons for it. It is difficult to manage and coordinate the activities of numerous gang-like groups, traveling everywhere at their own discretion. It is difficult simply from the point of view of obedience - a respectable citizen will be more than happy to make a purchase from us, but I seriously doubt that he will agree to become one of us. There are only two distinctions between us and bandits - first, education – we use all knowleges we can get a hand on, and second, the fact that traders prefer to exchange goods, rather than take them by force. The profit does not decrease as much as one would probably expect. Many of us have criminal past, too. So... It is extremely difficult to force traders to obey any order. Against their will, I mean. Although, of course, there had been attempts and, obviously, will be in future.
The second difficulty is purely technical. Leaders of small caravans are usually people like our Tapis, and they are so good in their business that they simply do not need anyone's advices.
Oh, one more thing. Creating any kind of coordinating center for managing our journeys would inevitably require organizing a multilevel system with all sorts of logistic connections and it means facilities for processing and storing of information, warehouses of all sorts... But the traders have many enemies, so is it worth building something that is destined to turn into smoking ruins?
As for me, I think that our current system is perfect. It has two objectives, and it performs both of them brilliantly. The first objective is collecting and storing information, those crumbs of knowledge that we could buy, steal or take by force. A good trader is an expert in technology, medicine, philosophy, religion... You never know what can come in handy. The second task is to rescue traders who got into any sort of trouble. This, too, usually succeeds. That’s all. No more goals and no limits.
And yet, we have a center, or at least something that resembles one. We call it The Council – a group of the most experienced traders. Not the richest or oldest ones, by the way, just smartest. We fully trust these people to solve problems of global strategy, and they do not interfere with our day to day activities. The last and only time I remember this Council showing some activity, was ten years ago, when the War began. Speaking of which…
“To arrive urgently." What does it mean - urgently? I tried to remember everything I knew about Clanson. It was a dead world, that's all I was able to recall. Odorf knew as much as I did. Looks like a new mess is about to start, I thought. It's always suspicious when you're scheduled to meet in a place that is probably stuffed with all sorts of deadly weapons. Then, of course, there are options.
“Odorf!"
“Yes?"
“Say, it’s not a war. What else can it be?"
Odorf scratched the back of his head.
"War, Rath," he declared. “War... or preparation for one." He rolled over in the darkness of the van, settling in, and then added: "When we approach the portal, wake me up."
The portal... For the next few hours all I could do was watching giant rocks covered with brown moss, we were passing by. The flowering meadows of my valley of eternal spring were left far behind, now our caravan was approaching the mountain pass. Then there will be a short descent and a rise again – the road was passing between two mountains, along the bed of a dried river. And at the end of the way there was a portal, waiting for us. We crossed the stream running from the mountain; without leaving my place, I reached down and scooped up a handful of icy water.
Damn it! If only I could close portals! I would close them - all three roads leading to the my valley! There are places too good to let people spoil them. They say that the Ancients were able to close the portals... Sounds like a fairy tale, just like everything else people say about the Ancients! Maybe they never existed at all.
“Odorf!"
My partner pushed back the tarpaulin and looked around.
“Aha," he stated, “here we are." Then he sighed and began rubbing his face. The passage of the portal is a pretty unpleasant procedure.
"Ten minutes," Odorf said, and disappeared in darkness of the back of our van, rattling with iron.
He returned soon, holding our swords along with two crossbows. I pulled a baldric over my head and looked in the direction of a portal we were heading to. There was nothing there, nothing special, I mean. Just a small section of a dusty road. You can drive through it thousand times, and absolutely nothing will happen. But in the front van, Tapis took out a blue crystal from the box of his magical artifacts...
“Closer," Odorf said. “Close the distance."
I touched the reins: “Hop! Hop!"
At first nothing happened, and then the earth trembled slightly, and the first wagon suddenly melted in the thin air and disappeared. Then, ten seconds later, I felt a weird and unpleasant... touch? It was as if I was pushing my face through a spider web. Multilayer web with strong sticky threads. The light faded and flared again.
"It seems to be quiet." Odorf lowered the crossbow and relaxed, for as much as a hundred and twenty-kilogram giant who had earned his life’s bread by our dangerous profession could ever relax.
Now we were moving along a hilly plain covered with a rare shrub, an endless plain melting in a haze near the horizon, which in fact was not there. The sky above our heads was not blue, but gray, and unusually high. It sparkled with myriads of gray dots, and there was no sun at all, for we were in a great Central World, in which all the stars shine simultaneously. Each through its portal, like a tiny spark in the sky.
A trader is not a trader without a sense of direction, and yet I could not deny myself the pleasure of playing the old game. Looking at the sky, I held my breath and counted to ten. Sparks, as if sensing my attention to them, blinked a little differently, and soon across the whole sky stretched two broad lines, forming the Gray Cross. I have no idea why this happens. It's a spectacular sight, and very useful, by the way, as it always points to the north, south, west and east. A kind of a strange analogue of the constellations of other worlds that are burning in the sky.
We made the second transfer in the evening, after we traveled by the plain of a Central World for at least twenty leagues. This time the portal was almost at the top of a sloppy hill, the ground around was hoofed. “Funny," I thought. Usually such places immediately attracted the attention of all kinds of gangs, but here for some reason everything was quiet. But then I saw the rider in gray ropes, and immediately understood what the reason was. It was a man from the Chameleons clan - an organization powerful enough to wipe out any gang from the face of the earth. Until recently, we, I mean traders, diligently pretended that there were no Chameleons in existence, and they paid us the same courtesy. But, apparently, times have changed, since the Shadow warriors guard the road for us.
When our wagon was passing by, Chameleon raised his hand in a welcoming gesture. I found it wise to do the same.
"Interesting," muttered Odorf, "do we have a truce or a military alliance with them?"
I did not say anything. Chameleons were merciless and skillful fighters. Invisible in a battle. For hundreds of years, this clan was perfecting techniques of distraction - so that the enemy did not see them until the moment when they cut his throat. For our caravan, for example, one fighter would be more than enough - I mean an ordinary member of the Clan. To make things worse, Chameleons also had Warriors.
Except, from the time of the last war, and until now, as far as I know, the whole activity of the Gray Clan was directed at self-preservation and protecting what was their. So why did they move?
The squeaking of the wagon wheels... Sticky threads of an invisible web touching my face... The horses snort, the bowstring of the crossbow creaks... The gray light turns silver, and all objects suddenly acquire an unusual, unnatural depth. Night. We are moving on a high grass-covered plain, flooded with bright moonlight. The moon hangs in a black starless sky. Quiet as in a dream, not a cloud, not a breeze. The world Clanson.
If you travel long enough, moving from one world to another, then approximately one in ten will be dead. I do not mean lands where for some reason there never developed any intelligent life, or those abandoned by the population by their own free will. Such places are rare. The dead world is a place where an intelligent life had destroyed itself, a suicide world.
Sometimes, when the spleen finds me, I imagine that all people, no matter how many they are in all the worlds, stubbornly seek to commit suicide. In different places this happens in different ways. Sometimes, although not very often, it's war. A war for ideals or for lands, or both, and as a result, ideals are lost in the centuries, and lands become deserted.
But more often the resources are getting depleted, fertile lands disappear under the water or turn into a desert, in other words, people took more than their world could provide.
There are also places that became a battleground for the inhabitants of other worlds. Ten years ago I was on such a planet, and by no means as a preacher of peace and brotherhood, so, no matter what excuses I make, I should not be considered an innocent bystander.
However, Clanson, apparently, was empty for a long time. All I saw around us was the prairie, a rather unsettling view as, apparently, only one sort of grass grew on that land, but I did not see any skeletons or ruins. Fine with me. Then I heard a clatter of hoofs, and a group of Chameleons galloped by, not even trying to hide their presence. They paid no attention to us.
"They're in traveling uniform," Odorf said, "not in combat one”.
"I am glad for them," I replied. "Just keep in mind – I take it you never saw them in battle, while I once did... A Chameleon can take out all of us, even in their pajamas."
Odorf grumbled something in response.
The land was completely flat, and yet I overlooked the camp. No doubts, it was done by the Gray Clan – a great number of tents, brightly lit by fires and torches in addition to the moonlight, was absolutely invisible from the outside. It was as if it arose suddenly from the night, along with three guards. They saluted us and retreated, letting the caravan in.
I looked around. People around were mostly traders. But I also saw ten Chameleons nearby, their group stood separately, not mixing with others. Apparently, our caravan came among the last.
Then I was touched by the shoulder: Turning around, I saw Bigolbi, cheerful and disheveled, as he always was.
"Shant is here," he said.
“Shant?" I thought. "Impressive... " Shant was the unofficial head of all traders.
"Something big is coming," Bigolbi winked.
"Big things... " I said skeptically, and at that moment the gong sounded, announcing the beginning of our little gathering.
Shant did not change since the last time I saw him, years ago. Thin and quite gray-haired old man. A genius trader, manager and commanding officer. And he was brief.
"Chameleons will speak now," he said.
One of those dressed in gray took a step forward and spoke, unusually swallowing the endings of the words. The essence of his speech was simple. Two days ago, the Chameleon warrior, named Lin, managed to escape from captivity. By the way, he was captured by a Black Clan. Which was strange, considering that the Grays and Blacks have repeatedly announced that they are best friends.
Anyway, that Lin managed to run away, and not alone: he took with him someone else, apparently, also a captive. And now they are gone. His bracelet was broken too, when he fled, so that the fugitive was not able to contact other Chameleons and ask for help. Here the speaker hinted at the value of the prisoners, and so on, and so on... As I understand, they managed to pass a message to that Lin, using whatever was left of his bracelet’s communication abilities, so that he knew he has to seek contact with traders.
What did I learn from this speech? First, of course, the Chameleon lied. Lied and didn’t even try to hide it. A warrior, of course, is worth something, but if you remember how many such warriors the Gray Clan had lost in recent years... It does not converge.
He knew something – either Lin, or the other captive. Something very valuable.
The Chameleons themselves were not very good at search missions outside the Central World, so it was natural for them to turn to us. Although it should cost them a fortune, especially if you consider that the forfeit associated with changing the routes of the caravans, Shant certainly demanded to pay in front...
"We will fulfill your request," Shant said with dignity, and the Grays immediately left the camp.
“Guess what will happen now?" Bigolbi whispered.
“What?.. "
"Think, trader... "
A man in a motley camouflage jacket pushed through the crowd towards Shant, that was still standing on the platform in the center of the camp, and whispered something. Shant nodded.
"Our friends left Clanson," he said loudly. "Now we can talk... seriously. Listen to this. Two days ago, our observers in the Central World had registered an unusual activity in one of the small fortresses of the Black Clan. Judging by the forces that were put into action, they tried to create a new portal. We do not know if their attempt was successful, but now the fortress lies in ruins, I think, not without the help... " He pointed with his finger up.
"At the same time the Chameleons got very active," Shant continued, "and yesterday one of their castles suffered the same fate. That's all the information. We will certainly help Chameleons, because here is an obvious confrontation between Gray and Black clans. This, I hope, is clear? And as we all know, anything that goes to the detriment of Blacks, benefits everyone else. But before you transfer Lin and his companion... to our clients, we must get all, I stress it, ALL the information about what happened. Two castles destroyed in two days - this is a thing that worth investigation. Where should the portal lead for that to happen?
"Where should the portal lead for that to happen? Either Shant is wrong”, I thought, “or the end of the world is near. "
We have left Clanson and were now riding along one of the western plains; Tapis wanted to cover the distance to our next destination in two days. We used the opportunity to sell the cargo of medicinal herbs, right there on Clanson, and were now carrying a sail fabric for the kingdom called Onizoti. A rather simple trade logistic. A couple of hours ago I replaced Odorf, and he immediately fell asleep, leaving me alone with Shant’s puzzle.
There are many worlds. Maybe their number is infinite, or maybe it is finite, but so large that it does not matter. Legends say that once upon a long time these worlds existed separately and independently of each other. The scale of this "long time ago" is unknown, however, judging by the written history of the worlds we trade with, it is at least fifty centuries. Maybe more.
These same legends say that in that "long ago" there used to be a race of Ancients, skilled masters and scientists. And this race supposedly decided to unite all the worlds together. This is how the place our caravan was crawling by, the one later called the Great Central World, was created. This was the place where portals from all other worlds lead. You can think of it as of a book, where each page is a world, and the Central World is the book’s spine. Portals are the doors one can pass through, if he knew know how to open them – to get to Central World and from there – to any other boundary world.
That’s not all. In a way that no one now understands, the portal forces a person entering through it into the particular world, to memorize the language of that world or the part of that world where the portal opens, at a level strictly corresponding to the vocabulary of the average inhabitant. In addition, a traveler acquires immunity to local diseases, not to everything, but to some of them. It is very convenient, but sometimes I feel like I will soon forget my native language...
The portals behaved erratically: they moved, opened, closed, went underground and soared into the sky - in short, it was not easy to find and use them. Then, according to legend, the same Ancient people created the White Road. The indestructible - and believe me, people repeatedly tried to destroy it - the white ribbon stretched, crossing the only continent of the Central World from North to South. The ancients fixed many hundreds of thousands of portals on the Road, the most important ones, as I understand it. Then they went to one of the boundary worlds, and destroyed all the paths leading there, so no one heard anything about them ever since. What a modest gods.
Now, the legends are delicately silent about the events that followed, but knowing the human race, it is not difficult to make a guess. I think that for some time everything was quiet, and then some king moved his troops to the Central World and began robbing the caravans traveling by the White Road. It is also quite obvious that the neighbors decided to keep up with him, and soon there was the war all over the Central World. Technology evolves and soon first explosions thundered under the gray sky.
Then the Guardian appeared. I do not know whether it was a mighty wizard, or simply a law of nature, but from that moment on, if you tried to use the technological weapon in a Central world, one that was more powerful than an ordinary sword, your life was in danger. As soon as one tried to pull the trigger, an all-seeing omnipotent something delivered a punishing blow on him. The warriors had no choice but to arm themselves with swords and bows.
So, Shant believes that the castles were destroyed by the Guardian, when Clans tried to control a certain portal. Where should such a portal lead? I did not know the answer.



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