Shandra was following her father when she looked up halfway through a step he was simply gone. When her foot landed he was there and they were off the long rolling grasslands. Myntimur nearly bumped into her from behind. Instead he moved with surprising grace for a man in heavy armor and carrying a heavy shield to the side.
He was always careful to respect their space and never approached either Shandra or her father without reason or a warning like clearing his throat or speaking quietly. He's not a bad traveling companion for an orc, Shandra thought to herself then felt a rush of embarrassment. Myntimur had been nothing but courteous in his own rough way.
“Is this the place?” Myntimur asked. His question was mostly for Don but he included Shandra as well.
“Maybe,” Don replied they were on a long slope of broken basalt gravel that slid slowly away from their feet whenever they moved making an odd reptilian hiss as if the stone fragments were talking to each other.
It looked much like the channeled scablands of Eastern Washington. There were isolated mesas on a flat plain with tumbled scree of basalt at the bases of the tall mesas. The land appeared flat but was actually gently rolling with hidden dips and hollows. It also had many differences from the channeled scablands. While hot enough to bake bread the light was dull and colorless. A huge black orb hung high low above them pressing down on them as if threatening to crush them and the land beneath into fine powder. Low tangles of what might have been sage brush hundreds or even thousands of years ago trailed along the rocky ground.
Shandra picked up one of the branches and tossed it to Myntimur who grunted at the weight.
“Stone,” he declared, “A plant grown from stone. I have never heard of such a thing.”
“If this were a natural place I might have a natural explanation for a stone plant,” Shandra replied. “Here? It could have been made this way – well any time. Is that right?” She asked her father.
“Maybe.” Don replied, “There's no telling how long any one section of the shadow-lands have been around some appear to have been around since God said, “Let there be Light” and others might have been just created when you take that first step from one shadow to the next.
“You usually don't see such emptiness after covering so much distance. We met those marooned ghosts over eighty thousand steps ago --”
“Wait,” Shandra interrupted, “You count steps?”
“How else to measure how far you have traveled or long you have been here?
Myntimur answered nodding, “That is good thinking. There is nothing truly solid here to measure one's self against, nor time, nor space. So you measure yourself against yourself. It is truth.”
Shandra was slightly embarrassed that an orc came to the answer swifter than she did but she had grown up with the shadow-lands and had preconceptions that Myntimur did not. She realized that she might not be as worried as she should be simply because her father had been traveling through them before she was ever born. What dangers was she missing because she knew too much or thought she knew too much about the shadow-lands?
“So we've traveled about ten leagues?” Shandra mused translating steps into the long Tuathe De league.
“Forty miles,” Don converted the distance for Myntimur, “Or sixty-five --”
“Kilometers,” Myntimur finished, “Yes, we study different measuring systems.”
“That is only a long day's hike maybe two,” Myntimur was trying to work it out in his head. “I feel as if we have traveled further.”
“Yes,” Don replied, “It is a paradox but in the shadow-lands distances are tricky. We might be crossing all this distance and when Shandra and I emerge we will have gone nowhere but to wherever our bodies are. I have only made journeys like this twice before leaving my body behind. It is beyond dangerous and foolhardy but this time we had no choice.”
“Let us walk,” Myntimur looked up at the lowering orb above them, “I think this place hates us more than most places we have been here.”
“I feel like something is watching us here,” Shandra replied.
“Maybe,” Don nodded to his companions, “Let's get moving. We won't get out of here any quicker standing here.”
Matching deed to words Don walked off the last few feet of scree that was slowly eroding from the mesa rising above them. After they had traveled fifty steps a sharp –crack-- sounded and a boulder the size of a large wagon dropped where they had stepped into this realm. It slid to the end of the scree then tumbled once shaking the ground and raising a plume of gray-black dust.
The three exchanged worried glances and Shandra let out a slow silent whistle. Even Myntimur's stoic expression was shaken. Don turned and pointed to their route with his chin and began walking again after a moment Shandra and Myntimur followed.
Walking through the realm quickly became tortuous as they had to avoid the petrified brush. It bruised the foot right through their shoes and twisted beneath their feet as if to trip them every time.
The heat from above was oppressive and the ground beneath their feet held that heat stubbornly. There was no step they took that did not bake them from above and below. The dry air stole the moisture from their skin and nostrils and left them parched with a thirst that had no relief.
“Is there no water here?” Myntimur asked angrily.
“Perhaps but we would be wise not to drink or eat of anything we find here,” Don replied, “it is an evil or at least hostile realm we have found ourselves in and nothing here would nourish us. Or give the illusion of nourishing us. As I said before the hunger, thirst, the heat we feel all that is illusion.”
“I sweat my breath is loud in my ears and my chest is hot as a forge's bellows. All this is illusion? A trick?” Myntimur demanded.
“I do not know if it is a trick in the way you mean, Myntimur. I only know that it is not real and that living men can be doomed forever if they eat of anything they find in certain lands along the paths.”
“We are ghosts of ourselves according to you,” Myntimur replied. “Can we be harmed by water if we find it?”
“We are in greater danger we are more easily manipulated because we are not solid men,” Don said. “In any case any water found here would be full of poison.”
Myntimur looked around and took a deep breath, “I do not smell poison.”
“Myntimur,” Shandra spoke carefully, “Do you feel different?”
“I --” he paused, “I feel, yes. I do feel different although I cannot say how.” Myntimur looked distressed. “Am I fading like a ghost or spirit?”
“No!” Shandra said emphatically, “You are not. You are well --” she quickly reached into her satchel and pulled out a small hand mirror. “Before I hand this to you remember you might not see what my father and I see.”
Myntimur took the mirror carefully and looked at his hands. They were no longer ape like paws and the nails were squared off human nails. He looked for a long time before he turned the mirror over. Again he looked a long time especially at his eyes.
“What do you see,” Myntimur's voice was carefully flat.
“I see a man,” Shandra replied.
“As do I,” Don added.
“Is this what I would have been?” Myntimur asked quietly.
“Perhaps, probably,” Don replied.
“What does this mean?” Myntimur asked handing the mirror back to Shandra.
“It means that you are what you are,” Don replied. “You are near the end of your journey.”
They continued but Myntimur had a firmer step and his eyes were clear and bright. Myntimur's natural complexion was a medium brown. His eyes dark brown almost black and his hair was black as the orb above them. They stopped at the foot of a tall long mesa that towered far above them. Perhaps eighteen hundred to two thousand feet Don estimated looking up. Because he was studying the edge along the top of the mesa he didn't notice Myntimur's actions for a moment.
Myntimur was looking along the ground carefully, “I see a trail here. Going up.”
Father and daughter looked at Myntimur startled then they both saw it. The trail was faint and narrow how long ago it had been used Don couldn't say.
“There's likely an easier path on that side,” Don pointed to their left, “where the mesa has tumbled into a ramp almost. But I think this is the one you're supposed to take.”
“Then it is farewell,” Myntimur replied.
He shook both their hands in the human fashion.
“Thank you for your help,” Shandra told Myntimur, “I am proud to have fought by your side.”
“You're a good man,” Don nodded, “I'm proud to know you. I'll ask my son to say a Mass for you.”
“I would be grateful. Tell your son that I believe in one God, the maker of All Things and in His Son who came to Earth and died for our sins.”
“I will do that,” Don replied.
Myntimur sheathed his spear in a sheath on the inside of his shield and strapped it to his broad back.
“I will bear the burdens I was given here until I am released of them even if I never use my weapons again,” Myntimur remarked.
“Good the heat is hotter here and it is as steep as a mountainside. The path is pure rocks but it is straight and narrow,” Myntimur said with a smile. With that he started up the scree and the rock face using his strong arms and legs to gain purchase and keep going upward.
Don and Michelle watched him for a minute before turning and continuing on through the dark yet dry and hot wasteland.