The Call - Part Nine
Everything stood frozen in time in the throne room. Everything except Brand and the mysterious stranger with the blind man's sunglasses, that is.
The first time Brand met the stranger, he found something peculiar about him. Something just didn't fit. Now, once more face-to-face with the man, that feeling of something wrong returned. Only this time Brand's mind put all the fragments of the images before and around him together, and he realized what the problem was.
"You're not from this world," Brand said. "Your clothes are wrong."
"Cigar?" the man asked. He chomped down on a thick cigar and lit it with a silver Zippo lighter.
"Who are you?"
"No? Sure? Finest cigar you'll ever have." The man considered this statement. Then he corrected it. "Probably."
Frustrated, in pain, physically and mentally fatigued, Brand brought the sword up and pointed it at the man. "I said, who are you?"
"Whoa, pal. Stop waving your little friend around and put it away."
"Answer me before I--"
"I'm not really here. Go ahead and try."
Happy to oblige, Brand charged the man and swung the sword at his chest. It passed cleanly through the man as if he was a cigar-smoking ghost come out of the heavens to annoy him. Suspicion tickled the back of his mind. He could picture Sword smoking a cigar had Sword been a real boy. "You're the sword, aren't you?"
The man laughed jubilantly. "Thankfully, no."
"Hey, bub!" Sword blurted. "What you mean, thankfully?"
"Then who the hell are you?" Brand roared.
"All right, all right. Who I am, you couldn't begin to comprehend. Not in actual terms, at least. But, let me try to explain it using your language. Think of me as... a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper."
"Gatekeeper? To what?"
"The outhouse," Sword mumbled.
The man's face remained centered on Brand's, but Brand found it disturbing that he couldn't see the man's eyes behind those glasses. A silent pause gave Brand the impression the man had to think of the answer, or search for it in his mind. Finally, he said, "Your world has several names for the concept. Alternate realities. Parallel universes. Catch my drift? I'm the keeper of all the infinite possibilities out there."
"What are you saying? You're some kind of..." Brand flopped around in his mind. He wanted to say something besides gatekeeper, but frankly, it was the only word that came to mind. Instead of looking like a fool, he just stopped talking.
"Gatekeeper," the gatekeeper said. "Yes. I regulate the worlds and the travel between them. Or should I say, the travel that isn't supposed to happen."
"I'm also your boss. Your real boss."
"That quaint little bookstore you worked at? That's mine. I have one in every reality. All of them store books in the back and all of them have a potential doorway into and out of that reality. Though none of them are supposed to be reachable. I underestimated Zadara's will to get that book of prophecies. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she'd actually send Chrava."
Brand glared at this strange man with his wild proclamations. Was he supposed to believe such disturbing information? Could he actually be expected to take all of the garbage that spewed from that man's mouth and run with it?
"Listen, pal. I know you're confused. That's all right." The gatekeeper smiled pleasantly. "You just have to understand a few things. For one, with magic, anything is possible, theoretically. Some things... well, you'd be better off not trying because it'd most likely kill you and everyone in the surrounding continent, but that's another story. I digress. What was I saying? Oh, right. Every decision that is made could have been made differently, sometimes several different ways. For each decision ever made on a reality, a new reality is spawned that follows the other paths of choices not taken. Follow? Good. Now, before you ask. This is not the original reality, the reality that started it all. And, before you ask that question, no, your reality is also not the original."
"Are you saying I'm fake?"
"No, no. Not at all Brand. Every reality is just as legitimate as all the others. No reality is superior to another just because it has existed longer. Well, almost no reality. The original reality is superior, but for other reasons that aren't important. It's best not to worry about that. The original reality has nothing to do with you."
"What do you want?" Brand said. "Just tell me what you want!"
"Are you from my reality?" Brand stared again. This gatekeeper looked like he could be from Brand's reality.
Shaking his head, the gatekeeper said, "No. Not your reality, pal. A similar reality, but not the same."
The gatekeeper watched Brand passively. When Brand said nothing more, the gatekeeper continued. "Part of my job is to oversee all the realities and make sure that they are kept untainted. That is, make sure there isn't any reality jumping."
"Hate to break it to you, pal, but you're doing a shitty job." Finally, something Brand could use against this guy.
The gatekeeper didn't seem phased. "That's why I had to activate a new Wielder. Well, had is a strong word. That's why I chose to call a new Wielder. And a Wielder from another reality at that. You are unique in that prospect, Brand. Very unique. By all rights, I should destroy you where you stand. But I won't, because I needed you to clean up this world and bring it to a close. After that, it's back to your world where there the tainting has already grown considerably stronger than it should be. You have to clean your world of contamination before I will be forced to close it, too."
"Why me? That's what I want to know. You know that, too, I assume. So, answer it. Why the hell me?"
"It's tricky, Brand."
"Well make it untricky and tell me!"
"All right. If you want to know. Why you? Your parents were given permission to live in a different reality. The reality you know of as home. They are from the original reality."
"They were killed when you were so young because of that crossing. The whole reason they wanted to cross reality was to protect you and themselves from assassins. It's your destiny, Brand. You are the would-be king of the original reality."
Brand sat down on the floor. Sword lay forgotten at his side.
"Now that you know, there is a choice. You can return to the original reality--where you were born, by the way--or you can return to the reality that you know of as your home and save it before you return home to reclaim the throne. After you finish this mission here, of course."
All of it was far too much for Brand. He needed Buba. Buba could help him think. Buba could always do that for him in the past. Buba. He looked up suddenly. "Can I bring people with me? To the original reality?" He couldn't believe he asked that, much less thought he might actually go. Had he gone crazy?
"Yes. You'll be allowed to bring some people with you, even if it crosses reality borders. It's expected you'll have people close to you that will serve as advisors to the king."
Then he thought of Lisya. Would Buba even be able to survive without her? She gave him something he never thought possible. Brand didn't think there could be anything left in life for Buba after Lisya. "If I control the power of destiny... can I undo death?"
The gatekeeper shifted his head toward the frozen image of Buba with Lisya in his arms. Lisya's entire back had been obliterated; her chest bone clearly visible from here. "You can, yes. However, to give life you must take life. If you want to bring Lisya back from the dead, you have to send someone else there in her place."
There it was. Brand saw it clearly despite all the ravaging pain coursing through his veins. Then another thought occurred. "What about Megan?"
"Megan's been dead too long, Brand." No emotion entered into the gatekeeper's voice. He said the words with a neutrality Brand found disgusting.
Brand stood up. "I don't--"
"There is one way you can bring Megan back."
Had he just thought this man had no emotions? "H-how?"
"Zadara is very powerful, Brand. If you can drain her life with the sword, instead of chopping off her head, you can use that energy to bring Megan back. But be warned... if you decide to do that, and you fail, you will surely die and Zadara will reign free."
"Without Megan," Brand stated with conviction, "I'd rather be dead."
"Very well. Do what you must. Just remember this. If you die, Zadara will not stop with this reality. She'll spread across the spectrum of realities, destroying everyone in her wake as she seizes total control. This includes your reality, Brand. If she somehow manages to get to the original reality... the universe, reality, will be destroyed."
"Are you ready to return?"
Brand looked around. Behind him, Buba and Lisya. In front of him, Zadara. He walked over to Zadara and stepped behind her. "Okay," Brand said. "Let's do it."
The flames flickered to life, spewing across the ceiling, eating everything they came in contact with. He saw Buba and Lisya unfreeze. Buba rocked back and forth with Lisya's dead body in his arms. Then there was Zadara. Her head twisted back and forth, puzzled at Brand's disappearance.
The blade of the sword pierced through Zadara's back, erupted from her stomach, and she screamed out in pain. Her knees buckled. She fell to the ground in front of Brand, her back still facing him and felt the jolt. "Wh-what are you doing to me!" she shrilled.
Sickly black vapors rolled over the sword and up Brand's arm, then faded into the metallic surface. A heavy stream flowed faster and faster with each passing moment. Zadara's hair grayed, then whitened. Her skin began to shrivel.
"Stop it!" she wailed. "Stop it right now!"
Brand's hand squeezed tighter to the hilt of the sword. He twisted it in Zadara's stomach. Suddenly, Zadara reared back. Brand staggered, knocked off balance by surprise. He tried to keep the blade twisting in Zadara's stomach, but failed. It slipped out of her. She whirled on him. Eyes blazed. Brand whacked at her with the sword. Her left forearm sliced clean off, falling to the floor with her hand. She jumped back, then ran at Brand with a full head of steam and crashed into him. Both fighters fell to the ground, rolling and struggling to regain the upper hand.
Zadara got to her feet first. As Brand rose, she kneed him in the groin. Terrible, deadly pain surged through Brand. His knees gave out and he crashed into the ground.
She stared at him. Her body partially withered. A clump of hair fell from her head and spread on the floor. When she spoke, teeth randomly dropped from her gums. "You dirty bastard. Die, Wielder. Die!" Her hands grabbed Brand, palms pressed against his temples, fingers dug into his hair. Then her hands burned brightly yellow and seized at Brand's mind. He felt the crushing weight of Zadara's power as it compressed his brain and did untold amounts of damage while he struggled in vain to escape this devastating hold.
"No!" Buba screamed as he tackled Zadara.
Unaware and unprepared, Zadara tumbled over sideways and smacked her head against the hard tiled floor of the throne room. She heard the bones cracking. She felt the shards of skull as they ripped through the tightened, weakened skin on her head, some of them even jamming straight into her brain. Buba jumped on the fallen, dying woman. Not once, not twice, not even three times. He just jumped and jumped. Dying bones shattered without mercy. Internal organs exploded from the pressure. The energy Brand had absorbed from Zadara had weakened her to such a state that her life hung perilously close to being ended and by a mere mortal at that.
Brand swayed on his knees, unable to clear his head. Unable to fight off the shredded, numb feeling that possessed his body. As he fought against the tide of death trying to work its way through him, he saw Buba through cloudy, misty eyes and he tried to scream. Buba could not kill Zadara. If he killed her... Megan.To be continued...