Nimrod Woodbine slept beside a smoldering campfire as morning began to light the sky. Musette, his traveling companion, was rolled in a ball. Her light fur, jerkin and leather pants kept away the morning chill.
Dozens of ruby Cheepers flitted through the web of branches above them, welcoming the dawn with their bell-like peeps. A chortler gargled in the nearby stream, and the huge blossoms of a burp bush suffused the encampment with a spicy fragrance. Nimrod rolled over, drew his cloak more tightly around him, and slipped into deeper sleep.
He was startled awake by a loud rustle that sent an eddy of leaves and dust swirling around the dying campfire. A winged man-like creature struggled into flight, its ragged wings so broad and near they almost blotted out the morning light. As it labored toward the treetops, Nim gasped to see Musette’s limp form lying in its arms.
Nim raced frantically through the woods screaming Musette’s name. He tripped and crashed over a boulder. The last thing he saw before smacking his head was the creature disappearing over the treetops.
He was awakened by the gibbering of three blue farkles standing on his chest trying to give him lightwater from his waterskin. For a time he seemed to peer through a veil of gauze, until finally his eyes rested clearly on the jabbering farkles perched just inches from his nose. Bickering noisily among themselves, they pulled and poked at his waterskin. In their bustle and excitement, one of them tumbled backwards off his chest. The raucous way it scolded the others for knocking it from its perch drew a grunt from Nim and made the quarrelsome farkles aware he had regained consciousness. As they boisterously commended themselves for this development, the memory of the strange creature and Musette’s limp form suddenly brought Nim to his feet. “The thing must have cast some spell on her,” he cried. They looked quizzical and puzzled. “It’s impossible to catch her napping–she sleeps with one eye open.”
The farkles broke into a pandemonium of excited jabbering. Nim learned from them that an emaciated, tortured‑looking winged man had badgered them to tell where Nimrod was. When they refused, he had wheedled the information from Jugbutt Longtail, a grizzled old possum still furious with Nim for chasing him away from Musette’s warren two revolutions past.
The question was where to search for her. The farkles fluttered onto his shoulders and tugged at his earlobes. “To the east, to the east!” they harmonized, pointing toward the sky. Nim thanked them, hurriedly gathered his belongings from around the campsite, and set out eastward at a run.
Many friends shared their fare with him and wished him well as he hurried along the roads and paths to the east. Prissy Lightfoot supplied him with waybread and lightwater before sending him on with a passionate kiss. Never before had she demonstrated her affection for him so clearly. Later his wandering cousin, Trotter Woodbine, gave him a fat, stuffed turnip baked with currents dulcetto as Nim hurried past his campfire in Wonderweald.
An Eldermeister Wanderer stopped him to admonish him against hastening east. “Haste makes waste,” the old one said gravely, “and the waste of your time and training can scarcely produce the greatest good for our culture.” Agonized by the loss of his best friend, he politely ignored the Eldermeister’s warning and raced onward.
Although he was just 16 revolutions old, Nim was already tall, leg long, and strong. To his youthful stamina and vitality was now added the power of his compelling determination to find Musette.
His journey through the dismal forest known as Dreadweald robbed him of sunlight for three turns and forced him to camp twice in the grip of the forest’s deep gloom. By the time he spied the sun glinting through a break in the trees ahead, the weald had secured a fearful grip on his soul and had nearly exhausted his ability to fend off the portending doom hanging over the place. But now, rejuvenated by the sunshine and the open landscape before him, he continued onward more cheerfully.
Just beyond a grassy knoll, an old Stinkwadd squatted absently in the middle of the path. The beast picked its nose and belched as its leathery wings rasped in the morning breeze.
“A Stinkwadd.” That’s all I need right now!” Nim grumbled as he approached the repulsive creature. Its foul odor forced him to stop an arm’s length from it.
“I must pass!” he said, almost reeling with nausea. The Stinkwadd grunted and glowered at him from under its sloping brow, but it remained motionless. They glared at each other.
The Stinkwadd dug deeper in his nose. “You may not pass,” it grunted.
“But I must. I have to reach the rim before stepshadow.”
“Nobody crosses and lives. You’re just a kid,” it said, eyeing Nim from head to foot.
It shut its eyes, ignored Nim, straddled the path, and as if to punctuate the finality of his refusal, let go particularly musical flatulence that made Nim gag.
Nimrod knew what to do; Stinkwadds were utterly defenseless to the weapon in his rucksack. Nonchalantly he took a peanut butter sandwich from his rucksack and began eating it with an exaggerated display of pleasure. He smacked his lips, moaned with rapturous delight, and rolled his eyes ecstatically toward the lavender clouds scudding overhead. When the aroma of the peanut butter reached it, the Stinkwadd’s bushy brows quivered and its tail began to twitch. A tear of intense longing welled up in the depths of one of its smoky eye sockets. The beast sniffed the air noisily and eyed Nim sidelong, first with one eye and then the other, all the while clawing at an itch on its scrawny backside.
Staring contemptuously at him, Nim took another slow, deliberate bite from the sandwich, then held it well away, as if to prevent the reeking creature from snatching it out of his hand. But he was wise to the heart of the Stinkwadd. He was certain that even the mere prospect of peanut butter would reduce this one to helplessness.
Overcome with unbearable desire and anticipation, the Stinkwadd collapsed tearfully. “I’ll let you pass. Just a little taste. Please!” The words spilled shamelessly in a miasma of foul breath. Tremulous blue bubbles drifted out of its mouth and settled like grapes in the gruttle bushes along the path.
“Oh, all right!” Nim muttered with deliberate disdain. “The rest is yours.” Nim tossed the remainder of the peanut butter sandwich into a nearby cackle of prickly myna frinkles. With rasping wings and clattering claws, the Stinkwadd fell awkwardly upon the sandwich with feverish intensity.
Nim seized the moment to resume his journey. Glancing over his shoulder a few moments later, he saw the beast lolling in ecstasy as its long, purple tongue snaked out of its mouth to lick his mustaches. “The afterglow of peanut butter, I suppose,” Nim muttered as he continued on his way.
As Nim raced on toward the lightbrink, the stillness gave way to little zephyrs that tugged at his cape, bearing sweet fragrances and birdsong. His heart lifted in the open spaces, freed from the pall of Dreadwood. He couldn’t linger. He had to reach the edge before moonflicker; otherwise it would be impossible to cross the lightbrink today.
He had crossed a lightbridge once before. But it had been a different one in a different place. Besides, Musette had been with him and had helped him negotiate the tenuous steps of the air stair. He recalled how she had bounded a few steps ahead to extend a helping hand to him. Still, their journey across that lightbridge had been perilous and terrifying. Now anxiety welled up in him as he hurried toward another one, for this one he would have to cross alone.
The image of Musette suddenly loomed in his mind and stung his heart. She wore snug, gray leather pants, a dark jerkin, and a cocked hat sporting a little firefeather. She was a mouse, of course, and she was shorter than him by a head. Nimble and trim, with fine gray down on her face, and soft brown eyes set above an upturned nose and full pouty lips, she was as pretty as any girl in his eyes.
“If only she was human,” he sighed. Then instantly he pinched off the thought for she was a mouse and they could only be friends.
Although Wanderers travel alone and need no one, Nim and Musette had wandered together for nearly two revolutions. She was good company, she made him laugh easily, and no better hunter or dodger could be found anywhere under the suns. But now she had been missing for four sleeps. Nim missed her and was worried about her, but he suppressed his fears and continued eastward.
He had been running fast for some time. The land rose and became rocky when suddenly he came to the meandering ridge that formed the lip of the void, a vast, deep chasm across which he knew a lightbridge had been thrown. Although no sign of the bridge could yet be seen, he knew it was the only way across the chasm to Eastover and Highharbor. And he knew that the bridge materialized only when the twinsuns touched the opposing horizons in their trajectories across the sky. Only then would the steps of the lightbridge be shadowed on the near and farside and then become visible.
It was legend that ancient dreambuilders had built the lightbridges out of mere dreams. That was why they existed only in the brief period of the day known as stepshadow. At the first instant of moonflicker and throughout the day, they not only disappeared from view; they became nonexistent. Only in stepshadow were they solid and real. Only then could one cross a lightbridge, and then only by racing madly across it before its steps evaporated in the descending night. Those ancient builders must have been fleet indeed.
As he started toward the top of the ridge, Nim braced himself for the shock he knew he would experience when he gazed across the void. Yet the immense, silent panorama he saw from the top drew a cry of alarm from him. The breadth of the chasm was so great that even in the pristine sunlight he could make out only dimly the high, distant landfall he would have to reach before dark. Bordered by a broad sidewalk of velvety smoothstone, the void meandered snakelike across the landscape as far as the eye could see. It seemed to cut the world in half.
Momentarily overwhelmed by the sight, Nim sat down abruptly on the sidewalk away from the lip of the brink. Like a child who drops a rock into a well to see how deep it is, he absently lifted a fist sized stone and pushed it toward the void’s edge.
The rock rolled across the smoothstone sidewalk and dropped over. He listened intently, but didn’t hear it strike bottom. It vanished silently into the clouds below. His heart thudded at what he had to do.
Nim struggled to overcome the fear of crossing the immense chasm on a winding bridge of unconnected steps that might ultimately evaporate beneath his feet like shreds of fog fleeing the morning sun. He would plunge like that rock into the unfathomable depths of the void, his arms flailing the air and his screams of terror echoing down behind him. How long would he fall before he was dashed on the floor of the void? How many broken skeletons already lay there?
He dared not linger on the lip of the Void for even one full turn. The void was inhabited by nocturnal flying raptors called void kytes, which dined on flesh they ripped from the bones of those who elected to spend the night on the edge of the void. Besides, he simply had to find Musette, who by now was surely somewhere on the other side of the void. Faced with little choice but to cross the lightbridge tonight, Nim heaved himself up and carefully walked the dozen steps down the ridge to the smoothstone sidewalk.
He stepped gingerly across the sidewalk and reeled slightly when he peered over the cold lip of the void. “One thousand long strides an ell makes,” he murmured, recalling a verse from a didactic poem he had learned verbatim under a stern tutor when he was hardly more than a toddler. A wall sheer and as red as blood plunged many ells straight down from the toe of his boot to an immense bank of thick clouds roiling in the cold jaws of the void below. Looking across the void, Nim could see nothing except the sea of restless clouds and the hazy image of the promontory projecting over the void far to the east.
Nim sucked in his breath suddenly when he saw two void kytes circling lazily far away to his left. If they see me, they can pick me right off the lightbridge for dinner. Oh my!”
Stepshadow was drawing near. The twinsuns, popularly called Mere and Pere, each was about to set where the other had risen that morning. At midday Nim had seen them appear to merge at the zenith, where it was believed that they kissed before beginning their descent to opposite horizons. The great, orange orbs approached horizontal equilibrium. Nim sprinted along the crimson rim, searching for a sign.
A deep, worn, grove in the stone led from a long disappeared path to the edge. It was set about on each side with circles symbolizing the twinsuns. This is it! Nim sat down quietly to prepare himself to spring onto the lightbridge the moment its first steps shimmered into existence.
He closed his eyes, summoned his developing powers of farsight and farhear, and imagined the bridge and the whereabouts of Musette.
He heard Musette’s soft voice cry, “Be Careful!” The warmth of her unmistakable voice overwhelmed him with sudden sorrow. Within a few moments, he surrendered days of suppressed tension, grief and fatigue in a flood of hot tears. Then he settled quietly once more to await the appearance of the lightbridge. Exhausted from the days and nights on the road, and the overbearing life-sucking dreadweald, he dozed.
Moments later, Nim physically jumped as he snapped awake. For a few moments he had forgotten where he was and what he had to do. Did I miss it? Noting that the twinsuns were fearfully close to their horizons, he breathed a sigh of relief.
His question was answered when an obsidian cube the width of a span of arms shuddered into view just a step out from the edge of the sidewalk before him. He leaped to his feet and watched it pulse and waver feebly as it gained substance in the gathering twilight. Then step after step began to appear, the higher and more distant ones materializing as the twinsuns descended closer to the horizon. Finally an entire stairway materialized, extending upward and outward to the east as far as the eye could see.
Nim walked tentatively up the first several cubes. Persuading himself that he would remain safe so long as he concentrated on the next cube and ignored the chilling space around the cubes, he summoned deeper courage and stepped out. Terrified at first, he nearly lost his balance as he stepped to next higher cube. Then he started a rhythmic pace, and soon was sprinting cube to cube. Racing against time, he gathered speed until his stride had lengthened into a hard run.
He had no idea how the lightbridge would disappear when darkness arrived. After all, no luckless soul ever caught upon it at that moment had returned to tell. Would the bridge simply vanish like a pricked soap bubble?
His mouth burned with thirst, his lungs heaved for oxygen, and every sinew of his legs seemed to scream in protest. But it was too late to turn back or even to pause on one of the treacherous cubes for a little rest or food. The precipitous rim from which he had departed receded steadily behind him, while nothing but emptiness and the pulsing cubes lay shimmering ahead. He dared not glance down except to rivet his line of sight on the next several cubes he must scale as he pursued the fleeing daylight ever faster toward a destination as yet unknown to him.
Almost an hour later, after climbing ceaselessly to keep pace with the setting suns, he saw that the steps led to a rocky ledge shaped like a huge hand, its palm and fingers jutting over the void at a distance still far above him.
With the flaming crests of the twin suns about to slide behind the Edge and darkness rising fast from the ebony maw beneath him, Nim could no longer resist the compulsion to glance over his shoulder. He was horrified to see that the steps behind him were now melting into the encroaching dusk faster than he was scaling the ones still ahead of him. The great emptiness produced by the disappearing steps was catching up to him with terrifying speed.
Time and light was running out. Instead of receding behind him before disappearing, each step from which he leaped evaporated just as his foot sprang away from it. He was two strides from the rocky ledge when the final step before him suddenly shuddered like a stone seen beneath a ripple of water.
With an anguished cry, Nim lunged toward the ledge, catapulting himself high over the shuddering last step just as it faded and vanished. He plunged to a jarring stop between the index and middle fingers of the stony hand extending from the ledge.
For several minutes he lay exhausted and immobile in the huge palm. He heaved for breath as perspiration stung his eyes and his heart thudded wildly. Not until he had recovered his breath and became aware of the refreshing coolness of the stone on which he lay did he sit up and look behind him.
He sat with his back against the stone, panting, staring at the route he had taken from the west rim. Below him yawned the unfathomable emptiness of the great lightbrink he had just crossed, its billowing, clouds far below, now umber smudges in the profound darkness. Both horizons were aflame as Mere and Peer’s blushing rims dropped from view. Darkness advanced from the northeast, where the distant Nimbus began shooting its radiant shafts of swirling silver and gold across heavens dotted with skydiamonds and streaked with meteor showers.
Soon the lavender moonlight of the quadmoons, the four purple moons now clustered to the west, shone brightly enough for Nim to continue his journey. He ate a meager meal from the store of waybread, vigorsnaps, lipsweets, and assorted nuts, berries, and grains in his rucksack. Tiny sparkles of lightwater flickered through his waterskin when he lifted it to his mouth, and he was glad to find it still comfortably full.
But it had suddenly become very cold. Nim shuddered, drew his cloak closer about his neck, and buried his head well under its cowl. Turning then to the alien, sinister land lying ahead of him, he set off through the soft lavender moonlight, his breath ghostly shreds of white vapor trailing aimlessly in the frigid night air.