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Well, we decided to go sailing again. We had both had enough of babysitting the kids and I didn't want to be associated with that magical flying couch. Plus, Amber and I just had not been out together for a while. You can read more about what we had been doing at Sketches and Story Outlines -- Adventures in Starstrands. I'm kind of running out of energy to rewrite things.

We could see one of two ways to go from where the strand worked its way towards the center.  One side seemed to have a lot of light, but the boat was on the wrong side.  The other side seemed to have more shadows, which suited me just fine. They may call me Amber now, but I have a lot of shadowish ways of looking at things.  Ariel was fine with that choice and we started sailing.

We passed several schools of things that looked like a cross between a squid and a spider.  We were seeing lots of spiderish things, made me think that there must be some sort of connection to some sort of spider somewhere at the heart of all this.  We also saw some rippling waves of color.  We steered away from both, just to be on the safe side and when we finally saw a void shark, I was glad we had.

Void sharks tend to be in the void, they avoid solid land.  They are great tubes of appetite connected to a mouth (they look like a long cone with a mouth as the opening and two sets of four fins -- one about one fifth the way down from the mouth, one one fifth from the end.  The mouth has a slight slant to it, as if the cone wasn't quite straight, and they tend to be six or seven meters long or longer.  They have four sets of eyes, each on stalks and they are really hungry all the time.

I saw one spot a school of the squid and fly right into it, swallowing down squid whole.  But the squid fought back with clouds of magical ink and their beaks and all sorts of twisted magical effects.  They actually took the shark down.  At the same time, they floated near to one of the pretty cascades of color and suddenly it was wrapped around them.  It ate them. We stayed even further away from them after that.

Not that we got too close to the shore either.  There were things like dryads that we saw, but they didn't feel like sisters to me, more like weeds loose in a garden, if that makes any sense. They had large wolf-spiders with them -- just as feral dryads sometimes have wolves as their partners and familiars.  There were also some pretty twisted trees -- they reminded me of trolls, only made of wood.  Ugly clusters and they really didn't feel right.

We finally came to a river that flowed down to the void.  It was interesting to see it leave the end of the land and boil into steam and water vapor, all in a rush.  We could sail the boat up it and so we did, just to see what it was like.  There was an eddy, backed up by a tall stone plinth, that made it possible to sail into the river without having to sail into the clouds and confusion.  Imagine a spot where the river kind of bulged out towards the void, but did not spill into it, kind of a pool, reaching off to the side towards the direction we were coming from.

We sailed into that and up the river, to see what would be up stream.  The plinth had a guard tower, but from the vines and such growing all over it, that tower had not seen a garrison for many years.  Many, many years.

We finally came to a city, and the docks at least were bustling with some activity.  It was larger than it seemed to have people, and it wasn't a city like our home is a city.  I'd say closer to sixty thousand people or so in size, living in a place that probably used to house twice that number.  But they were thriving in the ruins.

I'd noticed something as we sailed through the shadows, the boat seemed to shift colors -- muted the whole time -- and the sail changed colors in an obvious fashion from time to time.  I'm still not sure why and neither was Ariel.  When we got to the dock, as we got closer, things seemed to get sharper and I could tell we weren't invisible any more.  The fog around us kind of faded away.  The city (Chameleon Dance I later learned was its name) had nice docks and we tied up, paid the harbor master and asked for directions to the market.  He gave us the long way and the short way.  The short way was through a slum, but we decided to go as fast as possible.

The city was on the line between permanent shadow and part-time shadow and we wanted to make the most of the light, so we took the short-cut.

What a mistake.

Next thing I knew, just after we lost sight of the dock, we were surrounded by spiderish men on all sides, with their teeth near our necks. I wasn't sure what they could do, but I didn't want to bet I could turn hard before they could bite. The alley was very narrow. They were pleased as punch to take us, and you could hear them debate whether to eat us right now or sell us in the market.  Argh. Hairy guys with bifurcated legs (each leg split into two parts) and bifurcated arms (at the elbows, each arm split into two arms.  Each hand had only two fingers and a thumb though).  They were really skinny guys and the hair was really rough.  I couldn't tell what kind of spider they seemed to be, but they didn't have any webs, even if poison seemed to drip from their teeth.

Much to my surprise Ariel offered them a rope to tie us up with for our trip to the market.  That decided them, to the market we were going.

I just glared at Ariel.  Being sold wasn't much better than being eaten.  She just glared back, then she winked.

I should have known.  In the market her bird could see her again without being closed out by the narrow alley walls.  My cat had followed us the whole time.  Since we were bound, they weren't holding us with poison fangs to our necks.  And that rope they tied us up with was her rope, so suddenly, instead of being tugged along in a knot of spider creeps, she had her rope staff in her hands and there were snowflakes flying all over.  A bolt of magic dropped from the ice falcon and struck the one guard who was right behind us.

There was a lot of screaming going on.  The spidermen were screaming that we were escaped slaves and I was screaming that these kidnappers were man-eaters and everyone was pretty hostile.  The city guard came running, bucklers and short swords and cloaks, half black and half white and they surrounded everyone.

The spiderman leader stood up and said he wanted justice.  I wasn't sure what to say, but Ariel just kept her calm and looked right at him.

The guard captain smiled and said that after we had finished matters between ourselves, he would see that the survivors got all the justice they needed.

It looked like a pretty harsh fight was about to break out between us.  There were a lot of spidermen and some had nets and others had knives and they all had those nasty teeth. Ariel had her staff and her falcon dropped another bolt of frozen magic on the spidermen -- this time on the leader.  You could see it staggered him, so I pounded him with fire and he started to burn, all the time moving in slow motion from the freezing.  I pulled my sword out -- I was getting better and one thing the magic really worked well against was ropes and other flexible things.  It cut through the nets as if they weren't there.

There were probably twenty or so of them, there had only been half a dozen or so when they grabbed us, but more and more joined in on the way to the market.  One of them actually had a sword, and seemed to be a kind of leader.  He looked around and said "couldn't you tell they were women?" and began to back off towards the alleyway that brought them into the market. Suddenly they were all running as fast as they could and I wasn't sure if we could relax or not.

The guard captain (actually, I later found out it was one of the sargents) rolled the burned leader over and took his head and his money pouch and then cut the head off the frozen follower.  He tossed the two heads to one of his men and told him to put them over the market gate as a sign of the queen's justice.  He then smiled and bowed to me and said "looks like they got all the justice they needed" and then walked off, his men in a sharp row behind him.

The crowd broke up, not without some interesting looks at us.

The new story

Ok, at this point I had pretty much finished reading everything that Amber wrote about me.

There is more stuff that Amber wrote, but I just ran out of juice -- I did not have it in me to write any more or add any more. I'd think of happy times and then I'd think of how it all ended up with us in the void on a boat with the magic fading out of it, a gate out blocked by vampires, my best friend in a fugue state, vegging out and me with the food running out and nothing I can do but let the dark creep in.

Not that cold and darkness don't often suit me, but this time it didn't.

I decided that I was going out trying something, and I decided to wake Amber up out of her fugue so that she could tell me more about Shadow Vampires, so I could get a clue as to what to do. I mean, I was thinking that there is this huge cluster of them over there at the gate, but maybe there is something I can do about them that would be better than just sitting here until I go crazy with depression or something. "Maybe I can freeze them off one-by-one. Maybe, maybe something." Anyway, that is what I was thinking when I decided to wake Amber up.

I took it easy.  First, I moved over to the "edge" -- there is kind of a ripple where it isn't as bright -- I figure that is where the splinter of light ends on the other side and the dark takes up. Whatever it is, on that side dark magic is stronger and the fire that seems to fill Amber up kind of drops off. Figure it is a place where the fire magic is more likely to wear off if she doesn't get energy in as fast as the form takes it out.

Then, I toss in just a little bit of cold to eat away at her flame. I'm careful (she is my best friend, after all), but persistent, and sure enough, after about six hours, the flame flickers and suddenly it is Amber, passed out on the deck of the ship.

Well, I'm waiting around for Amber to come to, very carefully, when she rolls over and something falls out of her hair -- it is one of Indigo's marks. That is what she was doing, way back when, as she gave Amber a hug -- kind of like when she gave Tinda a hug good-bye the one time. Of course as long as Amber was shapechanged, the mark would be hidden. But now, is anyone going to look for it? We've been gone so long, weeks past the time they expected to hear from us. And, there is a war going on. Other than Indigo, anyone who could find us with such a guide is probably long gone, and no one would have left the kind of magic necessary for someone else to find us. As for Indigo, she once told me she has a lot of marks she has lost over time. One of the sadder things was the need to give up on old ones so she could use new ones -- she has a limit on working marks. But giving up a mark always meant giving up on whatever it was attached to. She has a collection of those, like old memories of lost friends, including the two that used to link her to her parents.

Anyway, at that point I decided to quit worrying and start trying to get Amber to get used to being human (more or less) again, so we can talk. It takes hours before she takes the first water. A day before she is awake enough to eat food. Another day before she can really talk.

Then we start talking about the vampires. She thinks it is a great chance. Too bad there are so many or she would just burn them all -- but she is pretty sure they can swamp her fire. Now, if she was a lightwalker ...

Which of course was the cue for a lightwalker to show up -- together with Wolfie and Indigo.

Neither of us recognized the lightwalker, but he had the signal glyph of Amber's dad on his collar and light all around him, not to mention he was in good company. Indigo was with him, and they both looked pretty worse for the wear -- it was a long trip through the marks. Good thing I can heal, or he might not have made it. As for Wolfie, he just kept shedding as he healed up, I'm glad it wasn't anywhere near the house, we would still be cleaning up the fur.

They all looked about frozen to death by the void.

Which would have been a bad spot for us all if they had frozen, except ... well, except it was a bad spot anyway.  With that with that many vampires, and with a lightwalker who really wasn't good at much except finding things (which is why they could spare him -- and why they did spare him -- to look for us), and since the trip home was too far for Indigo to take us back, we were out of easy answers that got everyone out in one piece. She had leaped into this blind, willing to take the risk and only able to come so far with the extra magic of the finder pushing her. Wolfie wouldn't let her do something stupid by himself.

But, they were shadow vampires. Amber could call fire, the walker could call light (and would scare them by his presence), Wolfie has the hunger -- he can rend and consume their substance faster than they can take his, and if he linked with Indigo she could do the same. Hmm, those two are getting closer and I could share my link magic with them.

Which leaves me, without anything to get me home. Basically, once we've shared magic, they can all fight their way through to the gate and through it to the other side where the power of fire and light is too much for the vampires to face -- just like sunlight only more so. Once through, they can activate the gate once again and use it to travel home. But there wasn't a way to get me through the mass as well -- at least without getting me eaten. Which meant that I was going to have to run the opposite direction (so that random, scattering vampires did not fall upon me) and then wait for the hope that they could come back for me.

As Indigo said -- "that trip back would be too rough unless you could regenerate like a troll or something.  The cold and the distortion would rend and freeze you. Look at what the cold did to wolfie" (and, heartless, she kicked a pile of his fur overboard at that point).

I thought about it. Lots of times, when she has had to go "too far" -- like when she rescued Tinda -- they've about frozen to death in the void. Every time, though, the problem is cold, and the need to be able to be healed. Which I can do (not that I'd tell anyone but Amber that I can regenerate). Guess they are so used to thinking of me as the "little (+helpless) girl" sometimes, they think of the magic being separate from what I am. Cold I can do -- it will actually make the the trip easier on me. Now, my question: "can they really do enough light and heat and shared hunger? Even with Wolfie's ability to temporarily mindblast and stun?"

Should have heard them when I asked that question -- I guess we are each pretty darn certain of what we can do, especially when there isn't much choice. And more especially against chaos tainted enemies (though the poor lightwalker about fainted when we assayed a scry that probed the chaos reek for comfirmation -- he has no special strength against chaos). Amber admitted to me that her real worry was that they'd encounter some shadow vampires who hadn't followed the vampire path all the way to chaos , and so would not be so vulnerable and stricken when facing her power -- funny that with fighting our group chaos is a weakness.

Well, I thought, "I guess I'll see who makes it home to greet me. I hope it is everyone." Maybe some day we will get the boat back, and I can go back to letting Indigo write the stories. Maybe I can get a date with Parakyle out of this? Keep your spirits up, even if it looks hopeless and the only reason you are reading this is because no one made it back through the void.

Copyright 2001-2003, 2005 Stephen R. Marsh and Heather N. Marsh
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