Stonefist dropped his packs on the ground and leaned back against the cool green bark of the apuwah tree, sliding down it’s smooth surface to squat at its base. Long slender branches swept out eight feet from the trunk before extending into broad leafy tendrils that hung all the way to the ground. This circular wall of green leaves formed a spacious shaded area and provided Grey and Stonefist something of a natural barrier from the elements. Grey lay back on his pack without bothering to take it off, and lifted his feet onto one of Stonefist’s packs.
“What I don’t understand, if you don’t mind my saying,” Stonefist said, “is why we just don’t fly or magically appear, or something like that. You’re always coming and going by some strange means, can’t you just conjure us some transport?”
Grey lay with his eyes closed, listening to Stonefist’s question, and did not open them when he answered. “It’s possible. I might be able to lift us up in the air and walk on the wind. I know where all the ley lines are, so I could probably move us about fairly easily.”
“Lay lines?” Stonefist asked, puzzled.
“Come on! After all these years hanging out with wizards and sorcerers in parties that I bring to visit you, you never heard them talk about the lines of magic, the threads of power that hold this world together?” Grey turned his head to see Stonefist respond.
“Can’t say as I have,” Stonefist replied. “Fight that guy Stonefist, hit that monster Stonefist, cut off his head Stonefist,” he said while counting off the remarks on his fingers. He looked at his hand as if reviewing a list. “No sir. Nothing about lay lines there.”
“Well, trust me,” Grey said chuckling, “the world is full of them. They run through this forest, through this tree, under our feet.” As Grey spoke, Stonefist began looking around, trying to see what he was talking about. “They aren’t visible my friend. You can’t see them. You have to feel them, sense them. This is how the magic users in Thraveon wield their powers. Wizards use a certain set of ley lines, sorcerers a different set, and conjurors another set altogether. Weirders are able to use multiple sets simultaneously.”
At the mention of wierders, Stonefist shuddered. “I’ll thank you not to mention those monstrosities if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry,” Grey said. “I forgot about your past associations with them.”
“Associations. Hah! Don’t get me started.” He paused a moment, then looked back towards Grey. What about you?” he asked. “Which set of lines do you use?”
Grey looked down at the ground and sighed. “Until recently, I used them all. More importantly until recently, I could alter them all. Add to them, shape them, take them away. After all, I…”
“Lemme guess, you put them there in the first place,” Stonefist finished.
“Yes,” Grey said, looking back at Stonefist. “But when I tried to follow a ley line to cross back through the nexus, it was like it didn’t go anywhere. When I tried to affect your mind, the ley lines that run to you seemed…I’m not sure of a good word…untouchable I guess. I couldn’t affect the line and therefore, I couldn’t affect you. Lines around me are still intact, but as they get farther away, I’m a bit unsure. So in theory, I could lift us up to altitude and speed us to our destination, but there is no certainly that the line wouldn’t just disappear somewhere over Thraveon.” Grey slapped one hand down onto the other to illustrate.
Stonefist shuddered at the thought.
“Couldn’t we just get horses?” Stonefist asked.
“What if I couldn’t control them and they disappeared while we were riding them?” Grey replied.
“I’ve been riding for several hundred years and I’ve never had a pony disappear under me yet,” Stonefist offered. “Well, that one time in Mawdor on the magic ponies the elves gave us, but that was a special case. If we just buy horses they should be no less stable than I am, not that everyone I’ve known would claim me to be stable mind, but that’s…”
“What did you say?” Grey asked.
“I said, not many I’ve known would say that I’m…”
“No. The other part. Did you say buy horses?” Grey sat up suddenly.
“Well…yes…that’s the way we normally do it your majesty…oh high and mighty lord of…”
“Stonefist you’re a genius! I’ve been thinking like the game master. What can I control? What can I make? What can I alter? I can buy horses for us! We don’t have to walk! We’re perfectly safe on a horse that is already in the world!” Grey rolled over to his knees and stood up quickly. “Let’s get to the next town before dark! Buy horses. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Okay…now you’re starting to scare me.” Stonefist said. “I liked you better when you were mostly all powerful but riddled with self-doubt,” he said, getting to his feet. “Why do I get the feeling there will be fewer breaks now?”
Grey laughed. It felt good to laugh. He had been so filled with worry and anxiety. Passing back and forth through the nexus without attempting to, not being able to return when he wanted, not having full control of his environment, it had been starting to get to him. The misplaced items were puzzling as well. No, puzzling was too weak a word. Stunning? Stupefying? Grey turned to Stonefist and waited for the dwarf to twist into his packs. He reached over to lend a hand and Stonefist cringed away in mock terror.
“Don’t touch me,” he said jokingly, “I might disappear.”
Grey shook his head at the joke and turned to part the curtain of leaves that hung down before him. “At the rate things have been going,” Grey said, “it’s far more likely that I would disappear.” He turned to step through the opening and looked down at the green leaves of the apuwah. He had never noticed before how closely the leaves resembled the color and pattern of his Army Combat Uniform (ACU). That was a subconscious choice if I ever made one, he thought. I don’t even like that pattern very much.
“What’s that?” Stonefist called from behind him.
“What’s that? Kelly Richardson called from his outer office.
Grey froze and looked over his shoulder to where his arm still held the portal open. Stonefist was fumbling with a leather strap across his chest, his massive battle axe balanced against his side. He struggled with two large hands to buckle the tiny brass buckle. “Be right there,” Stonefist called, “just hang on a moment.”
Grey looked back to and through the open doorway of his office. Computers sat on his desk and on tables in the outer office beyond. No spinning room. No nausea. No time or space or distance between the worlds. The nexus lay open between his reality and his imagination. This…can…not…be…happening, he thought.
“May I come in Grey?” Kelly called from the outer office, “Or do you have a visitor already?” Because of the various compartments of classified information, Kelly would not even look into Grey’s office without his go ahead. This was a courtesy practiced by most, but unfortunately not all of Grey’s coworkers at the embassy.
“Uh. Hang on a sec,” Grey called. Think fast. He looked down and found that he was wearing his ACUs, tan combat boots. Everything normal here. He stuck his head into the opening that still hung in mid air around his hand. “So then I’ll call you again a bit later okay?” He tried to say it loud enough to get Stonefist’s attention. “I have someone in my office now, so I have to go, okay?” Stonefist looked up from his buckling and stared open mouthed at the light pouring from the other side of the apuwah leaves. Grey gave Stonefist an urgent questioning glance. “Okay then. Great to talk to you. Have a good day. Out here.” Stonefist still stared dumbfounded as Grey pulled his hand into reality.
He took a deep breath to regain his sense of place and leaned quickly over his desk, picking up and then putting down the phone receiver loudly. “Sorry about that Kelly,” he called, “had to finish an important call.” He looked around his office quickly to ensure there were no anachronisms lurking on his desk or computer side table, then strode swiftly toward the office door, trying to instill confidence he wasn’t sure he had.
Kelly Richardson was a twenty-eight year old foreign service officer who had completed tours in Iraq and Washington before volunteering for a year in Kabul. As friendly and unassuming as she was intelligent and insightful, Grey had begun to look forward to their visits. She would drop by in the early morning and again in the afternoon whenever he was in the embassy and they would discuss classified reports, the insurgency, and increasingly, life in general. Her views on the world were often refreshingly different than his own, owing in part to the fact that she was a young African American woman navigating through a world that was dominated principally by older white men like Grey. He enjoyed her insights, her frequent irreverent comments about “the system,” and her youthful tendency to say exactly what was on her mind. Grey smiled as he approached her and reached for the papers she was carrying. She smiled back as she looked up from reviewing her reports, then she seemed to notice something unusual about Grey. Her eyes widened. Grey cringed inwardly as he realized what was wrong.
With her eyes fixed on Grey below his waist she asked, “Uhm…did I miss an invitation to a party or something?” She stared at Grey’s face for a reaction. Grey feigned momentary ignorance to buy himself time to think.
“Excuse me?” he asked. “Is that how we greet our friends now?” Think man, think. This could get ugly.
She fixed her stare on his eyes, her whole expression demanding an explanation. “It is when they are playing dress up in their offices,” she said. “Or do you have a better explanation for wearing that sword in the embassy?”