Blurring the Line
"So are you staying this time?"
Brian looked up from the hunk of leftover, re-heated rabbit he'd been eating. Omen sat across the fire from him that time, and he'd set down his own meat in favor of watching the taller boy. It was impossible to read on his face whether or not he actually cared.
But there was reason to hope. If he really wanted to hope - Brian wasn't quite ready to give in on that score. "I don't know - I'm not wandering in or out of here on purpose. I guess it's up to whoever makes my travel arrangements."
"Oh." Omen looked away from him and made some show of going back to eating.
Brian kept his eyes where they were, able to feel his own heartbeat against his chest. "Do you want me to stay?"
"You cook pretty good." The wolf-boy shrugged, still not looking up at him. "I wouldn't mind hearing more of those stories. I guess you're not bad to have around."
He couldn't help the grin slowly edging its way onto his face at that.
They were camped out in the middle of one of the ruined buildings around - a semi-sheltered place with weed-choked stone walls in irregular formations around them and no real ceiling. Since they were - according to Omen - just an imitation of a place in some other world, Brian tried not to wonder too much about the people who had built them or what had happened to merit the abandonment. In any case, they'd been deserted long enough for the ground on the inside to have long-since grown soft again, and sleeping wasn’t likely to be any more difficult than it had been the first night.
"Speaking of stories, you didn't tell me any others like you promised," Omen pointed out suddenly, eyes gleaming a bit as he looked up again. "Maybe you should now."
Brian nodded. He had a feeling it was better to forget the other line of thought - at least for the time being. "I will." An idea struck him then, and he had to add, "But maybe we could trade."
From the thoroughly puzzled look on Omen's face, that could have been a foreign word. "Trade?"
"I'd like to hear about your world too, you know."
The smaller boy frowned, as if this hadn't occurred to him and he wasn't sure if he liked it now that it'd been suggested. "There's nothing about my world that you'd enjoy hearing about," he said, and looked sullen for a moment. "Why do you think I left it?"
"You left?" That was news to Brian. "You didn't just get sucked in here like I did?"
"No. I came here on purpose." Omen shot him a wry look. "One of those things that are possible in my world, since we actually know that the BorderLands exist."
Brian was starting to get a little tired of that. "I'd really like to see who you're calling ignorant after you come to my world and try to use a computer," he said in return, irritably. "Anyway, didn't you tell me last time that only special people can go jumping through the worlds?"
"Gifted," Omen said automatically, and frowned some more. "And that's one of the things you have automatically when you're…" He halted and then turned suddenly guarded eyes down to his food again, darting a quick glance at Brian. "What I am."
Brian choked back the obvious, rude question - 'What are you?' - and nodded, accepting the words for what they were. "Oh. Well, I'll try and remember that next time I want to go jumping into another world." He wouldn't get far with teaching Omen about politeness if he didn't use it himself, after all.
Besides, considering how determined he was to avoid the subject, Omen probably wouldn't answer him even if he asked.
"I might tell you about where I came from," Omen conceded grudgingly, after a moment of silence. "But you'll have to tell me a lot of stories before I'll really think about it."
Brian put down the remains of his meal and gave his companion an incredulous look. "So I have to talk, but you'll just think about it? How fair is that?"
Omen frowned a bit, looking like he was mulling over 'fair' in his mind. "I hunt all of our food, so that takes care of my part."
"I cook all the food," Brian reminded him, half-heartedly. This sounds like some kind of domestic argument.
"But you get me to help with that, and anyway, I could eat it raw if I had to," Omen argued, accurately. There was the barest hint of triumph in his eyes. "So you tell me about your world, and I'll tell you about mine if I feel like it."
"Yeah, yeah, all right." Brian sighed. It was only fair, though - Omen couldn't read, so he deserved to hear a historical account more. "I'm still going to wonder about it."
"Why? It's a stupid place, and you're never going to go there."
The taller boy grinned. "I'm going to be a History Major when I get to college. I always want to know about stuff like this - it's fascinating. Besides, you want to know about my world. Why shouldn't I want to know about yours?"
Omen shrugged dismissively. "You're interested in yours, so it makes your stories better. I hate my world."
Once again, there was that echo of some old injuries mixed in there… What happened to him, anyway? "Why?"
"Lots of reasons. Are you going to talk, or do you want to hunt your own food?"
I've got a long way to go with the politeness thing… "Yeah," Brian said instead of pushing it, and cleared his throat to begin, his thoughts already shaping around where he would start and how he'd tell it.
It was the water that woke him up. There were times when Brian had tried to imagine what it'd be like to sleep on a water bed - mostly when he was younger - but the imagining and the actual experience were fairly different.
This wasn't exactly a water bed, either…
"Wha… huh?" Brian stirred, the ground tipped, and he almost fell off the edge of the platform he hadn't been aware he was lying on. "Ack!"
He flailed for a bit, grasping at the wood underneath him and causing a few splashes with his sneakers in his haste to regain his balance. He also managed to give himself a nasty splinter. "Ow!"
"What?" Omen had pushed himself upright, instantly alert, and Brian had to press himself flat against the wood to avoid nearly falling off again. The wolf-boy swayed for a moment in the low crouch he'd rose into, then blinked, and sighed. "Changed again already? That was fast."
"Changed?" Brian did remember Omen talking about 'changes' but this hadn't exactly been what he was expecting. It was still a bit dark out, but there was enough of an early-morning glow to see the flat line of deep blue ocean spread out in all directions. The wide wooden platform they were on seemed to be a path of sorts - it extended on toward the rising sun and also back to the west, and there were other paths running in various directions intersecting it in places and stretching out to destinations Brian couldn't see.
"Resembling other worlds, remember?" Omen rose to his feet - slowly - and glanced around. "Apparently this one's made up of water - or least this part of it is."
"Oh." That made sense - if any of this could really make sense. He blinked then, and took a turn looking around. "Where's the wolf?"
"Sometimes she leaves for a while." The shorter boy shrugged, not seeming concerned. "She'll turn up again if there's trouble or if she's finished whatever it is she's doing."
If it were any other wolf, that might seem weird. Or, if they were in normal surroundings and the wolf was a normal wolf… then it might seem weird. At that point, it didn't really. "Don't you get lonely without her?"
Omen shrugged again, dismissively. "We might as well walk along here," he suggested, and moved past where Brian was just sitting up - toward the west. "There's not much else we can do. Come on."
"Whatever you say - Ow!" He'd forgotten about the splinter embedded at the outside edge of his palm; trying to push himself up with his right hand only aggravated it. "Damnit…" He managed to get himself up without it, and examined the minor wound with a grimace.
"Give it here." That was about all the warning he got; Omen grabbed his hand by the wrist and pulled it forward, bringing up his knife and prodding at the sliver.
"Ow!" Brian jerked against the hold instinctively, and managed to dislodge the shorter boy's hold - he was a bit stronger, probably because of his extra weight. His companion chose not to comment on that, but tightened his hold and continued to dig at the injury.
The look of concentration on his face was a much more interesting focus for Brian than the pain in his hand. He blinked a few times, and kept his eyes on that expression - To distract myself from the pain! That's all! The silver in the gaze directed at his palm was more evident in good lighting and up close like that.
Brian's face felt hot. Omen's fingers were the slight, dexterous sort, and they didn't feel very rough - which was strange, considering how he lived. Whether they'd been rough or not, though, they would probably have had the same effect on him that they were having right then. Every little movement seemed to send sparks of electricity shivering up from Brian's arm to run down his spine; the warmth of his hold had an almost dizzying effect.
I shouldn't… think…
He could hear him breathe… just a bit, like an echo, really.
But I'm not… I'm not…
The skin on his face may not have been a mask of pale perfection, but it definitely looked soft enough… and smooth - more so than any normal person's had a right to be.
I don't feel that way… there's no way…
He was lean - not skinny - but his shoulders were slighter than Brian's and he had a compact look to him, like something small and precious but wild and strong at the same time.
He'd feel like… if I were to…
"Done." Omen let go of his hand, wiped and put away his dagger, and started forward again, pausing to glance back over his shoulder with a strangely guarded expression. "If you get dirt in that and it gets infected, I'm not going to sit around and watch you be sick."
Brian's daydream came screeching to a halt. "Thanks," he said wryly, managing to keep his voice from shaking too badly as he moved his hand a bit and followed. My dad's right - I need an 'off' switch for my head sometimes.
Fantasies about crazy wolf-boys who were rude and unsympathetic were definitely not healthy.
"Have you ever been in a place like this before?" Brian asked, catching up to the object of his unwilling infatuation. "All water, I mean?"
Omen shook his head. "No, but I have been in a place that was all fire once."
"All fire?" That wasn't really a pleasant thought. "How do you survive in a place that's all fire?"
Another shrug was his answer.
One of those answers, I guess. Apparently, the BorderLands were sort of dangerous. "What happens if you're switched to a place where you can't breathe the air?"
Those silver-blue eyes shifted toward him. "It doesn't happen."
"Didn't you say it could switch to anywhere?"
"Yeah, it could, but the BorderLands were created partly to preserve life, you know - it's one of the things centered here." Omen sighed, rolling his eyes upward. "Haven't you ever heard the stories about the original nine gods?"
"Would you stop treating me like a moron?" Brian scowled, irritated by the hint of a condescending tone he caught in the younger boy's voice. "No, I haven't heard it - but I haven't heard of the BorderLands before either; how am I supposed to know these things if someone doesn't tell me?"
"If you'll shut up for a minute, I will." Omen glared right back at him, and for a moment it seemed like he might just refuse to tell anyway, out of spite. But apparently he and Brian were at least something alike, because he couldn't seem to resist the chance to share the story. "Each of the gods created an aspect of what would be the known universe, and those things are what's centered here. There are actually eight if you don't count the potential for creation," he added, frowning thoughtfully.
The curiosity that seemed to be Brian's automatic reaction to any kind of back-history overrode his annoyance. "What are the other aspects?" he asked, forcing his voice into something that might be considered patient.
"Fate, time, life, earth, water, fire, air, and seasons." Omen recited them as if they were as much a part of his basic knowledge as his name. "Ayasha the OverGoddess brought the potential for creation into being - the others started creating things after that. And Berem created life, so it's centered here just like everything else."
"That's interesting," Brian admitted - with some reluctance - and gave him a sideways glance. "But what does it mean? You can't die while you're in the BorderLands?"
Omen snorted. "Would I have wasted my energy trying to kill you if that were true?"
Yeah, probably not. "Well, what does it mean, then?"
"It means the BorderLands won't kill you - an area you're in won't change to some place fatal for you." The corners of his mouth turned up. "Maybe dangerous or uncomfortable, though."
It's nice to know you're so concerned with my well-being. Brian decided to let it pass. "So what happened to those gods that created everything? Are they still around?"
"No." Omen shook his head, but didn't look at him. "They were supposed to be reborn," he said, and there was an odd note in his voice. "It was a long time ago, and some people just believe they died or were destroyed. But the stories say that Everan, the god of fate, fell in love with a mortal, and all nine gods were to be reborn so that his mortal lover could take on an immortal form and be with him forever."
Strangely enough, there almost seemed to be some trace of sympathy or sadness mixed in there somewhere. "That's sad," Brian conceded. He'd heard stories like it before, of course, but it always seemed sad to him anyway. "So no one knows if they're going to be reborn - maybe they have been, and no one's noticed."
Omen shrugged, and said nothing.
Brian endured the silence for a moment, then picked up another conversation thread. "Do other people besides you live in the BorderLands? By choice, I mean, not just because they wandered in and couldn't get out."
"The Mageborn do." The shorter boy smiled a bit - almost a smirk - and glanced at him sideways. "If I tell you about the BorderLands instead of my world, that'll take care of my part, right?"
"So I won't have to talk about my world. I can just describe this place instead."
"Wha… but…!" Brian sputtered for a moment, caught off guard. "That's not fair!"
"So what? I don't want to be fair." Omen turned down another side path, leaving Brian to stumble and chase after him. "The only people besides me and those who wandered in and couldn't get out are the Mageborn," he went on, picking up the old conversation as if nothing had happened to interrupt it. "They're supposed to take down history and sometimes help with guarding and protecting things. All of them are born from people who wandered in and couldn't leave, though."
I give up… It seemed like he was doing a lot of giving up lately. Maybe this was what all those years of being Tatyana's best friend had been preparing him for. "Have you ever talked to any of them?"
Omen snorted, giving Brian the sort of look you gave someone when whatever they'd just said was beyond ridiculous. "They wouldn't talk to me."
"No one sane would talk to me," was the answer, and he got a pointed look to go with it. "They'd probably try to chase me out." The younger boy shrugged. "If I avoid them, they won't get the opportunity."
Brian wished he wouldn't keep dropping hints about whatever it was he wasn't talking about; it only made him more curious. Maybe Omen wanted him to ask - maybe he was hoping the answer would scare him off.
That thought made him more determined than ever not to ask. "Okay. That makes sense."
"Then there's the Guardians - but I don't know if you'd consider them 'people'."
"They're supposed to protect the BorderLands and keep everything running the way it's supposed to," Omen explained, shrugging. "But I've never seen them. Some people in my world thought they were just a couple of chosen Mageborn who are replaced when they die. Other people think they're constants - that they've lived for centuries, and can talk with Gods as equals."
Brian frowned. He got the feeling he shouldn't be skeptical about this, but his practical upbringing got in the way. "Like immortals or something? People who live forever?"
Omen came to an abrupt halt, and turned to look at him fully, eyebrows coming down. "You think there's something funny about that?"
Uh… okay… Apparently, he'd said something offensive. Maybe he's one of the people who think those Guardians have lived for centuries. Brian raised both hands as if to ward off an attack. "I didn't say there was anything funny about it. It just doesn't happen in my world, except in fiction. Give me some time to absorb all of this, will you?"
He got silence for the next minute or so - then Omen scowled a bit and turned away. "Fine. Take as long as you want. But," he added, looking back over his shoulder again, "I can tell you for sure that it's not fictional here."
There was something in his tone that didn't invite argument - even if Brian had wanted to provide one. "Okay, it's not fictional. I'm sorry if I said something wrong."
Omen sighed, starting to walk again. "Yeah, I guess it's not your fault you're stupid."
Oh, great. Thank you very much. Nothing boosts my ego like being referred to as stupid.
Brian let the conversation die out for a while, then. He was starting to get a few suspicions based on the way Omen seemed to dance verbally around some of the things he said. Any questions related to what he was - which wasn't human, apparently - were avoided. He could survive in a world of fire somehow, and he got upset over the subject of immortals.
So maybe he's immortal? Could that be true? Could Omen be centuries old, and consider the past couple of days just a brief second in time? Could he just look like a kid forever? If he's not human, anything's possible, right? He could be like that.
And maybe there was a way to find out. "How old are you?"
Omen blinked, obviously startled by the question, and then gave him another of those suspicious sideways glances. "Why do you want to know?"
Brian shrugged, meeting the gaze evenly. "Just wondering. I'll be fifteen next November - that's a month," he added quickly, before his companion could ask and distract him. "It's around the winter time - ah, the time of year when it gets cold, I mean."
The younger boy gave him a strange look, but didn't comment. "I don't know. About thirteen seasons, I think. Something like that. Not as many as fifteen, but more than eleven or twelve."
So maybe he's not immortal… Brian pushed that thought aside for the moment, a more mundane interest catching hold of his attention instead. "What time of year were you born?"
"Rainmoon," Omen replied, promptly. "In the planting season - closer to harvest than the cold season. I don't like that time of year," he added, frowning a bit. "Everything's always wet. It makes it harder to hunt - you can't get much of a scent. Besides, I feel strange when the sky is grey and I'm alone."
Another rush of pity, and Brian wasn't sure if he should really feel it. Omen didn't look all that upset, but there was something about the way he'd said that last part that caught his attention. "Strange?"
"Empty." The shorter boy's voice had gotten short; the gaze he directed at Brian was downright unfriendly. "It reminds me of something I don’t want to think about, and I don't like it."
"Oh." I'm sorry I asked. Brian turned his gaze forward again, feeling a bit awkward. "Sure."
And things went quiet again.
I do sort of… want to help him, though. That thought was halfway guilty, and it made him wonder if he was really that compassionate or if he just wanted to help Omen because of whatever misplaced hormone fired up in him for the crazy wolf-boy. Brian risked another look, and pulled his eyes back quickly when he realized how obvious he was being. He couldn't tell if his companion noticed.
"Have you noticed," Omen said suddenly, flatly, interrupting those thoughts, "that this path we're on hasn't changed?"
The meaning behind that one went right over his head. "Huh?"
Omen stopped, forcing Brian to a halt as well, and looked back. "It goes in a straight line. The other paths branch out and end, but this one hasn't ended or turned at all." He moved his gaze down toward the water near them, as if looking for an answer there.
Brian squinted at the other paths. It was hard to see, with the glare the sun was creating on the water underneath them. "I can't tell," he admitted, and reached into his pocket for his reading glasses.
Omen caught his wrist sharply, before he could pull them out. "Don't." He wasn't looking directly at Brian, and there was a sort of agitation in his expression that hadn't been there just seconds ago. Some of it leaked through into his voice. "Leave those reading-things in there."
This didn't seem like a good sign. Brian frowned. "Why?"
"They're made of glass - the sun will catch on them. Anyone can see something like that, even from far away." If anything, Omen's frown was even deeper than his. Brian recognized the same wariness and suspicious that was normally directed at him when he asked a personal question, and couldn't help being a bit confused.
"I thought you said no one else lived here."
"I said no one else lived in the BorderLands, and it's true." Omen let out a harsh breath, as if he were frustrated by something. "But just look in the water!"
Brian looked down. The water remained as still as one could expect from anything liquid, so dark a shade of blue that one could almost think it was black. It was hard to see, especially without his glasses to make the images sharper, but underneath the surface… it seemed like…
He caught his breath. "There's something moving down there!"
"Life," Omen said, in that clipped tone, but Brian didn't look at him that time. He lowered himself down to his knees and bent over with his hands at the edge of the wooden pathway to peer down at the shapes sliding around underneath him. Through the darkness, he could see thin, graceful, familiar appendages, propelling their owners through the water with ease.
"They're people…" he breathed out, afraid to speak louder in case it attracted the attention of the dark, human shapes gliding smoothly amongst each other. It was frightening and breathtaking, to be walking above the place where so many creatures like himself lurked.
What would they do if they found us up here?
It was a question he probably didn't want answered.
"I don't know where we are," Omen announced into the following silence, and his voice had the kind of flat tone people used when they didn't want anyone else to know that they were uncertain or afraid.
Brian sat back on his heels, drawing in a long breath and willing his suddenly fast-paced heartbeat to slow. "What do we do?"
"That's a very good question." That voice was quite female, and definitely not Omen's. The path dipped and rose quickly as it spoke, as if someone were climbing out of the water and onto it with a practiced speed. "I'd like to hear your intentions myself, actually, if you'd be so kind."
Brian swung his head back to face the path they'd just walked up, and took in another sharp breath of air, almost choking on it. The girl now standing on the wood with a growing puddle of water around her feet had pale skin and a thin frame, and her eyes were distinctly blue. She didn't seem to be wearing any sort of clothing, but she had long, wet hair draped over her well enough to obscure anything she might not want seen. The hair itself was a silvery-green color - combined with the paleness of her skin and the unconsciously light way she held herself, it made her seem almost ethereal.
And clutched in her right hand, pointed at them with confidence, was a small wooden construction that Brian identified after a moment of shock-induced confusion as a loaded crossbow.
"You've probably gone far enough," she said, keeping the weapon leveled at Omen's forehead and offering a brief, crooked smile. "Without supervision, anyway." She nodded at Brian. "Get up - we're moving on now."
Brian rose slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements, and she waved them forward with a slight motion of the crossbow. "Walk."
Omen was frowning; Brian could see it even without daring to turn his head toward the shorter boy. He wondered if his traveling partner was having the same problem with a too-rapid heartbeat and that sharp spike of fear running up and down his spine that he was, and irrationally wished he could somehow do something to make it better.
She's not killing us… Are we being thrown in jail or something?
Maybe they were trespassing. Brian took in a few deep breaths in a futile attempt to calm himself down, and forced back the panic rising at the back of his throat. It was possible. Would they be released once whoever was in charge found out that they had wandered in without knowing? Or was this an unforgivable crime? And how would they know what to say or do to make things better? They weren't in the BorderLands, obviously, and this seemed to be outside Omen's area of expertise.
Which meant no safety net. They'd have to work things out for themselves.
Can I do that? He swallowed, wondering for a brief instant what would happen to the people in his own world if he died here or was locked up in a jail for the rest of his life. Maybe Tatyana would know what had happened - or at least would have an idea…
Would anyone believe her, though?
"Stop," the girl behind them said suddenly, and Brian almost tripped over his own feet as he came to a halt. He glanced over his shoulder.
"I'm taking us under here," she explained, and inclined her head to the right.
Brian turned his head. About a step away from the platform they were standing on, perhaps ankle deep in the water, was a large black square. It extended out a few feet in front of Brian, several more feet away from him, and as far as he could see down into the water. Like a huge, solid black tower, probably build on the sea floor.
"This is for visitors," their captor said, obviously reading his confusion. She made another motion with the crossbow, eyes still fixed sharply on them. "Get on."
Omen moved first, walking past Brian without protest - as if it didn't matter anyway, whatever the girl did to them - and stepping onto the top of the tower. He didn't look back, but got out of the way quickly so the taller boy could follow.
At least he can be calm about this… Oddly enough, that show of nonchalance made him feel better. Brian bit back his own uneasiness and crossed the short span of water himself.
When the girl had situated herself properly in front of them, she stamped her foot on the surface a few times, then made a face. "I can never remember where the trigger is," she muttered, fumbling along on the smooth stone with her foot a bit more while keeping the weapon pointed at them. "Ah! There."
There was a firm click, and the ground dropped sharply underneath them.
"Wa…!" Brian stumbled and fell, knocking his body onto Omen's and nearly taking both of them to the descending floor under their feet.
"H-Hey!" With a startled grunt, the wolf-boy stumbled back a few paces, pulled off balance as Brian instinctively grabbed his arms to steady himself. "Watch what you're doing!" His voice echoed oddly in the sudden darkness of what had become something like an elevator shaft; his hands came up but couldn't do much besides rest under his unwilling assailant's elbows.
He felt warm… and small - but strong. Compact. Like something that would make Brian feel good to hold close.
The taller boy pulled back as if he'd been burned - which was almost true, considering the way his cheeks warmed and his hands tingled where they'd been holding Omen's arms. "Sorry… about, uh, that!" he blurted out, feeling awkward and strange, and breathing funny. It wasn't fear making his heart pound like that this time…
"I would be careful if I were you," the girl warned them, and Brian glanced up sharply. He'd almost forgotten she was there - but she was, and staring at them. Her eyes were visible in the almost-complete darkness, even if her shape was just a silhouette. "Don't touch the walls. We're moving very quickly; you wouldn't want to leave a finger or some skin behind, would you?"
Brian swallowed again, still feeling slight remnants of the excited buzz from his contact with Omen. His adrenaline was racing from the past shock, fear, and brief excitement, and he was having some trouble breathing. Above them, all he could see was darkness, and there was no way to look below and see where they were going.
He crossed his arms over his chest and deliberately didn't look at either the girl or Omen. At the moment, his emotions were more than he felt he could handle, and he wished he could be alone. Fear, embarrassment, and something very like longing made a toxic mixture at the pit of his stomach, and felt almost like bile rising at the back of his throat.
I want to go home. Really this time.
But he didn't want to leave Omen alone, either. Shutting his eyes, Brian did his best to block out the world and pretend that he was perfectly all right.
The floor continued to fall underneath him, his world sliding with it, further into the darkness.