By Lindsey Duncan
Of the thirteen thousand lampposts marking the paths between worlds, only one was dark, and this did not bother its Keeper.
Lirann reported the problem to his superiors, but the vital function of the lantern — the subliminal pulse that drew travelers so the Keeper could direct them — was unaffected, and he did not miss the light. He wasn’t blind — he simply kept his eyes closed. In the shadows there were sweet winds from meadow worlds, tastes of silverfruit and rye, voices and prayers that shaped the contours of between. Color and surface details seemed bland and distracting by comparison.
In the dark, Lirann leaned against the post, rust crinkling under one hand. Footsteps approached in waltz rhythm, as if their owner moved to music. Too light to be mortal: Even the stealthiest had more weight. She — he could tell it was a woman by the way fabric rustled, silk playing against curves — couldn’t be a ghost, either, for there were aromas of summer earth and wood smoke against clean skin.
“Traveler,” he said, “a hundred greetings.”
“Is this the waypost?” Her voice, though a soothing mother’s touch, rippled like flame.
Lirann forgot to speak. Something in her voice echoed as if he were the first person to hear her. The honor left him disoriented.
“It is,” he said finally. “Between worlds of sorcery and science, where gods create men, men create gods, where a dream is beginning and end.” For the first time in Lirann’s memory the familiar answer felt foolish.
She didn’t laugh. “Then I’ve come the right way.”
“I’m sorry about the lack of light,” he felt he should say. “It will be fixed.”
“It’s warm like fire,” she said. “That’s the important part.”
It was his role as Keeper to direct her on the path, but he wanted her to linger. “Who are you?”
“They call me Rissia,” she said. He thought that somehow, that was not an answer. He heard the whisper of thick curls as she turned. Black was the most common color for hair so thick. He found himself tempted to open his eyes, to look, and was unnerved by the urge. “And you?”
“How did you come to work here?” Rissia moved closer; her warmth filled the shadows. An odd tinge in her scent, almost decay, hidden under cedarwood and wool.
“By accident.” There seemed little harm in telling her, though it was the primary event in his life. “The ways between worlds open spontaneously. Most wanderers find their way back home through luck, through willpower, or because someone thinks to chase after them.”
Lirann swallowed; he could hear sorrow in his voice and knew she did as well. Her breath quickened, a soft outrush of sympathy. Faces could lie, and did — he had reasons for closing his eyes — but bodies told the truth.
“The ones who don’t return are recruited as Keepers.” He made himself chuckle. “I suppose we have empathy for the lost.”
“It’s a noble calling.”
He shook his head. “Where do you want to go?”
Rissia made a pensive sound. “I don’t know.” She sounded old, weighed down. He had met ghosts with more youth in their words. “I opened the portal with no clear plan.”
He reached for her hand and found it. Her fingers were callused but her palm soft as a child’s blanket. They were thick hands, strong, certain — working hands.
He lifted their hands and pointed left. “Worlds of glass, with cities that sound like struck chimes and forests of windows.”
He pointed forward and realized she had leaned in when a stray curl tickled his nose. Her presence was elusive despite the cinnamon scent of her hair, and his eyelids fluttered reflexively, wanting to make sure she was there.
“Worlds of metal and machine, where the ground has automated sentience and takes you where you wish to go.”
Rissia cringed, her fingers tightening. “Oh.”
He moved onward, hastily. “Worlds of fire and ice, where words have elemental force, and human flesh becomes starlight.”
It dawned on him, with that maternal hand wrapped around his. He pointed behind them, somehow needing to say the words to reach the conclusion. “Worlds of myth,” he said, “where every orphan is a hero, every threat is a monster, and gods walk the earth.”
Her breathing remained steady; there was no recognition. He had to know for sure.
Lirann opened his eyes.
The distant terrain was slightly brighter than the inside of his eyelids. In the foreground, luminous contours drawn by oil-ripples of color dominated his view. Rissia herself was only a suggestion within the brilliance, defined by its absence.
He knew what he saw: a goddess from a world where belief created and sustained deities. When belief faded, so did they — but somehow, she had remained oblivious.
Her chin tilted, her eyes — amber — came to his. He saw two things in them: her world’s history, and her.
Rissia, goddess of hearth and family in a land that had removed borders and given equal share to all. There was no pride of place or possession, no bloodlines or inheritance. She waited for someone to confront her with reality and send her to nothingness.
Her gaze widened, trusting, seeking. “Where should I go?”
Easy to tell her. Easy to release her. What more was there for her?
She blazed like flame, hand protective in his. Echoes of her washed around him, overwhelming sight.
He closed his eyes. He would not tell her.
“There are many worlds that could be yours,” he said, then hesitated. “Or—”
“Or?” He heard rasping coals in her voice.
“Or you could stay here. Keep me company, meet those who come through.” While he was near, he could keep her from learning the truth accidentally. He strained for her response, but he didn’t need sight.
Laughter in her voice, a rippling cascade of scent and movement following. “I would like that.”
“So would I.” Lirann grinned and leaned against the lamppost. He felt the warmth of the light, a glow nothing could extinguish.
Lindsey Duncan is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is currently attending culinary school. She can be found on the web at LindseyDuncan.com and on Twitter: @LindseyCDuncan.