The Crossroads: Chapter 1

In an infinite number of universes, there’s an infinite amount of existence. Layer upon layer, all of it revealing reality in a different way, and despite all the walls and blocks between them, they meet in one place: the city of Crossroads. A city where it all happens at once, but only when you aren’t watching. A place so complex that time itself gave up, and that’s no force. The man who makes things go (if a man it is, which it strictly speaking isn’t) resigned to an early retirement, and with him, strict mortality left too, but death still likes his job. A knife or a gun, poison or disease, death won’t ever leave, time or not. It is a city of infinity, a place of everything all wrapped up in one, and so you can find anything in Crossroads if you’re clever enough.

Every world has an entrance, some easy to find, and some only there when the fancy takes them, but every world has an entrance. Crossroads is a place where anything and everything can happen; and it has, and to a new comer, well, Crossroads isn’t a tourist city. So if you find it, you’d best intend to stay.

*************

    Fear, anger, and mourning: it’s a dangerous cocktail and a powerful drive.

A cat on two legs, called a karesh, was on her fourth day at sea in a dingy little sailboat, much to her chagrin. Cats don’t like water, and she was smart enough to think about all the reasons why. Drowning, cold, humidity; so many problems that water can cause. But it was her way out. And the little sail boat was her passage to refuge, or what she hoped was refuge. The island in the middle of the sea from whence no one returned. It had to be better than what she came from.

But, four days at sea in a boat she could barely manage, with almost no sleep, and little enough food and water… Burrzaash was quite cranky. Her fur was damp, and her ears lay flat against her head. She liked land a lot better. Land didn’t rock back and forth under you. Land didn’t make you so cold to the bone.

The little rest she did get was of the lowest possible quality, and mostly, she just watched the horizon. Once she thought she’d found it, but it was just a whale that disappeared again. But today, today had felt different. She was still cranky. And tired. And hungry. And thirsty. And full of complaints. But, something in the air felt different. Her hair stood on end, and the world felt in limbo, like it wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like. Sometimes the ocean was deep blue and then suddenly it would look a stormy green. Fish seemed to swim in thick schools past her boat, and then disappear without ever really swimming away. She told herself it was just exhaustion, but she knew it wasn’t. Something was shifting.

And then it shifted. The world went black for a moment, so briefly she wasn’t sure it had happened, except that now her boat was knocking against a rotted old dock, on a rocky island, with a wall that stretched on as far as she could see. She had found something. And now she was afraid of what that something might be.

Slowly, carefully, she stepped out of the little sailboat and tied it to the dock. The wood felt spongy, like it was going to fall apart with every step she took, but she stepped lightly, and it didn’t break. The wall was only a few feet away from the shore, and she looked for a door. But there was none in sight. So she followed the wall. And kept following it. And when, after twenty minutes the wall, the water, and the tiny bit of shore looked exactly the same, she turned around and did the same thing in the opposite direction, passing her boat and going on for a while. And then she found nothing again. So she walked back to the dock and paced around for a while. And then she swore a bit, but that helped no more than the pacing. So, she kicked the wall in frustration, swore a few more times at the pain, and fell over when a malicious giggle sounded from some unknown source.

“Who’s there?” she asked in a thick, crackling accent.

She looked around her, but there was no one in her boat, or on the dock, and the wall was as flat and unchanged as ever. But the voice came again. “You know, it wouldn’t have killed you to just ask.”

“Well, let me in then!” she said, sounding angry but feeling really quite scared.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” the voice responded, and a bit of wall tore away from the rest, and in its place stood a small dragon made out of the same metal as the wall itself. He bore an unchanging grin and cold, empty eyes. Behind him lay a passage, bright lights streaming through it. Burrzaash hissed and jumped backwards, her hair standing on end. She nearly peed herself in fright. But the dragon just laughed. “I forgot how afraid you cats are of me. In your world you’d be right too, but remember, girl, we’re not in your world anymore. We’re in ever world; or at least the edge of it.”

Of all the questions she should have asked, all she thought to say was, “What?”

“Oh, so you came looking for the mysterious Crossroads, without a clue what you were in for.” The dragon laughed, a sharp biting sound. “I guess I should tell you what Crossroads is before you get yourself killed. But first… what’s your name?”

In the manner of a cat, Burrzaash was pretending she’d never been disturbed in the first place. “You tell me yours first.”

The dragon’s grin grew wider. “It’s been a long time since one of you came here. Ravens or dracandras come from your world. A fox came once. But none of them are so wary. Hmmm. Names. Well I wouldn’t know what mine is. That’s why I’m here, you see. I’m the only dragon in my world who doesn’t know his name.” He laughed his biting, sandpapery laugh. “Of course that doesn’t mean a thing to you. Dragons don’t get given names, girl, not where I’m from. They’re born with them, and I wasn’t. Strange isn’t it? So, what. is. your. name?” he asked.

“My name is Burrzaash,” she said proudly. She liked her name. And what it meant.

“Hmm. I wouldn’t. Bit long, isn’t it? I’m going to call you Ash. Is that alright with you?” asked the nameless dragon.

“No, it isn’t.” Far from afraid, now Ash just found the dragon annoying. And he was blocking the door.

“Ash it is. I’d recommend you use it too. Wouldn’t want your real name being misused.”

“You said you were going to tell me about the city?” asked Ash.

“Yes. The city. Crossroads, where everything meets. It’s what we sometimes call infinity. Everything in every universe, every plane of existence, and every possibility meets here, and so we call it Crossroads. The point being… it’s not just sunshine and daisies, though the sun doesn’t go down.” Ash twitched her tail at the dragon’s patronizing tone. “So, do you have a weapon? Some means of defending yourself? And before you answer… claws and teeth don’t count.”

“I’m very good with my claws,” she offered.

“A sword perhaps, but maybe I’m just a traditionalist. Maybe a wand, a staff, axe, spear, a gun. Anything you might call a weapon, so long as you have one.”

“What’s a gun?”

The dragon laughed. “You’ll find out soon, I’m sure.”

“Well, I can find a weapon myself.”

“A lot say that. I haven’t seen them around.” But he left it at that. “Do you have a destiny, Ash?”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” said Ash.

“I don’t believe in Zeus, and he still gets angry about it.”

“What?”

“I ask because you’ll get one whether you want it or not. I just wanted to know if you had one yet. And you don’t. Good.” He paused, and cocked his head at Ash, his smile widening so large his head seemed to split nearly in half. “I have one last bit of advice. Everything from everywhere, everywhen, and everywhy is in Crossroads, but you won’t see it all. You can’t. Just know that when you walk in a room and it looks empty, it might not be. So best pay attention.”

“May I finally go inside?” asked Ash.

“Yes, and because I like you that very much, I think I have a gift for you.” The nameless dragon moved his front talon beneath his wing, and when he pulled it back, there was a sword there. It wasn’t ornate, or even particularly good, least not in appearance. Its straight blade was covered in dents and chips, its handle had a rough, cracked leather grip, and a simple chunk of metal for a pommel.

“I’m not sure a I want a weapon like that,” said Ash.

“It’s more than you think, but that’s for you to find out. It is as nameless as I, and just as unique. Trust me,” it said, grinning.

She wasn’t sure she did, but she took the sword by its handle, and a scabbard was hanging from her side, on a belt she never owned.

“Till we meet again, Ash,” said the dragon, and he stepped aside.

Ash stepped through the tunnel, just large enough for her. At the end, many coloured lights blazed. Ash was so excited about what might be on the other side, it seemed to take an eternity to get there.

When Ash did get through the tunnel, she saw buildings of every design imaginable. There were skyscrapers built in zigzags, townhouses, monoliths, diamond shaped buildings, balancing on their tips. Lights flooded from shops unlike Ash had ever seen. Shops selling wormholes and doorways, shops advertising swords and armour, wands, and crystal balls. And throughout the whole area, trees and shrubs and every other kind of forest ecology grew. In the middle of streets and through buildings and despite all the development, its still felt like a forest. She just stood with her jaw open as the passage behind her sealed. She’d never really felt awe like that before, but Crossroads impressed.

Before she could do anything more than stare dumbfoundedly, a fox on two legs walked up with a gnarled staff in one hand. A small fox on four legs walked quietly at his side. “Welcome to Crossroads. I am Flame, and this is Ember,” he said, gesturing to the fox at his side. “I being spirit-bonded and therefore better than most people, have some authority in the place due to my gifts with nature.” At that moment, a beautiful, multi coloured butterfly landed on his staff to prove his point. Behind the two foxes, a swarm of the butterflies attacked an unsuspecting lizard and left it yelling and cursing in ways as colourful as the butterflies’ wings.

Flame sighed a little and with a short gesture the butterflies flew away, leaving the lizard twitching on the ground. “I’ve tried to rehearse this about a hundred times, and they keep doing that.” He frowned slightly as if he’d forgotten what to say, but with a quick glance to Ember, he resumed. “Ah, yes. We are spirit bonded and take it upon ourselves to guide those new folk in Crossroads through this place. So I have advice for you. If you need to do something, you’ll need payment, if you need payment, you’ll need to do something. Any questions about that?” Ash opened her mouth to speak but Flame just carried on. “No? Good. You can find anything here, but do watch out as it also has a tendency to find you. I recommend you make some friends quickly. An ally in Crossroads is worth every ounce paid.” He paused, waiting for Ash to say something.

“Umm… thank you?”

“You’re welcome. Now go on then. I’m a busy person.”

So Ash walked away, still confused. She had absolutely no idea what to do in this strange place she found herself in. So, she started walking. She saw shops selling everything. From magic to sex to books to fine china to pieces of scrap metal to pieces of high quality scrap metal to everything else, and all of it was wrapped up in a neat little bow that made it all fit together.

The trees in the area seemed to be forced upon it. The concrete was cracked and broken in places where the forest had forced its way in, and many of the old trees had broken through shop windows. One of them was stealing a tv.

Ash just kept walking, hoping for some inspiration of where to go in this strange new place. And then inspiration struck in the form of a building called Crossroads Information Center. She looked in the window, but realized it wasn’t a window at all. Just a very real looking painting. She shrugged, assuming it as good a place to start as any, and opened the door. A little bell rang, and she gasped. In front of her lay shelf upon pristine, white shelf filled with little pamphlets. Visit the Void at an Entrance Near you! read one. Museum of Bizarre Shit, read another. The small outside of the shop seemed to be a lie, as the room within stretched on without a visible end.

Near the entrance was a small counter, behind which floated the ghost of a teenage elf. It was hard to make out her exact features as the drafts kept blowing parts of her away.

“How may I help you?” asked the ghost in the most obviously fake semblance of happiness.

Ash thought for a moment, and then settled on, “I don’t know, how can you?”

The ghost then dropped her pretense and said, “You know, just because I don’t have to eat or sleep, my boss makes me stand here all day. I don’t need to deal with some airy cat girl who can’t make up her damned mind.”

“I’m not a cat. I’m a karesh. And aren’t elves supposed to be nice?”

“No one’s nice in Crossroads. That’s why everything comes here. No need for manners. Now what do you want?”

“I’m new here and–”
“That figures,” interrupted the ghost.

Ash ignored the girl. “I’m new here, and I want know what I should do first.”

“I don’t know. Why’d you come here if you don’t even know what you want?”

“Just fucking tell me, would you?”

The elf didn’t respond. Instead, she grabbed a flare gun and shot it into the air. A tiny bird with little jets in place of wings flew up. It was a brilliant purple, and presumably due to its size, it had feathers as puffed up as could be. In a croaky voice, it asked, “What do you want?”

“Stargazers,” responded the elf. The bird sped off while Ash and the elven ghost waited. Ash refused to say a word to the ghost, pretending instead that she was alone, and simply waiting for a friend. And was supremely angry about it.

The little jet powered bird came back within a minute or two and dropped a little pamphlet onto the desk separating the ghost from Ash. The ghost elf stared at Ash for a second before saying, “Well I can’t pick it up. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not real.”

Ash grabbed the pamphlet and gladly left the tourist guide location. She looked briefly around herself, noticed it was an entirely different street than when she entered, and looked at the pamphlet in her hand. Stargazers: Drink Among the Stars! read the front caption. Inside was a map of how to get there which made absolutely no sense. It was a black dot on a blank white plane. The dot was marked Stargazers, the plane marked Crossroads. There was no other information. Ash stared at the useless map for a few seconds before deciding to go back to the information center, but when she turned around, she found that she was no longer standing in the middle of a street.

Ash was standing in the middle of a bar, and she was without a doubt that it was Stargazers. She was without said doubt, because, dotted around the room, somehow serving drinks, standing behind the bar, and otherwise looking official, were a myriad of actual stars. All different kinds, blue, red, orange, big, small, red giant, and more.

One of the stars, a medium sized orange one, approached Ash. After it floated in front of her for a few moments, she asked, “Umm… can you talk?”

“Of course I can. I’m five billion years old. I’d be quite stupid not to have learned how to talk by now,” said the star in a very pleasant, upper class accent.

“What is this place? I had the pamphlet… I thought it meant celebrities or something…” asked Ash. She had no idea where to look, as the star was faceless.

“It’s Stargazers, of course! You’ll want to hold onto that pamphlet. It’ll take you straight here any time. Mostly.”

“How do you work? Are you real stars?”

“Of course we’re real. But I can’t very well tell you trade secrets, can I?” it said, with the star equivalent of a wink.

“Well, umm,” began Ash, very unsure of what in the world to say.

“Let me guess, new to Crossroads?”

“Yes. I was told to come here first. Do you know why?”

The sun seemed to laugh, sending a small bubble of flames to burn a hole clean through the floor. “Of course I know. As I said, this is Stargazers. Everything in Crossroads comes here at some point. It’s the only building with a view of the entire city, though I doubt you can see enough dimensions to pick it all up. Now, may I get you a drink?”

“Yes. Something alcoholic. Something very, very alcoholic.”

“I always do seem to hear that from new customers. Sit wherever you like. I’ll be back in a moment,” said the star before bobbing away.

Apart from all the stars, the bar seemed as normal as a bar of its nature could. It was a round room with huge windows that looked over the city. The patrons were as strange as the rest of Crossroads. Humans talked to lizards, vampires sucked on bloody mary’s (with extra tomato juice), elves talked to blank spaces in excited, crackling languages, and Ash even saw an ent standing in one corner looking morosely around at the lack of trees with which to talk. Ash decided it best not to engage any of them and walked over to a small table by a window.

Ash sat down and glanced out the window, before doing a double take at the awesome sight. The city stretched on forever in every direction she could see. Different districts, flying vehicles, skyscrapers, bottomless pits, planes, trains, and automobiles. She stood up to see more of the sheer magnitude of Crossroads. It was so big, it made her head hurt, so she took a step back and turned around so that she was face to face — or rather face to chest — with a dragon man. She knew what he was. And she took a very big step back so that she was pressed against the window. “You’re a dracandras!” she said, grabbing the hilt of her sword.

“Why yes I am. Hello,” said the dracandras. He stood at least a foot and a half taller than Ash. Behind his back stuck out large wings, and he wore a pair of loose, baggy pants. His taloned feet were bare, along with his chest, revealing even more of his shining, black scales. Upon his face, was a sparkling grin. Ash tried and failed to back up even more as the dracandras’s taloned hands twitched menacingly. His grin widened, and then he broke into giggles, low pitched, dangerous giggles, but giggles. “Karesh are so fun to play with. You cats are so high strung.” He paused. “I haven’t seen any of your kind in Crossroads for a long time.”

“What do you want?” asked Ash, looking for an escape route.

“Nothing else to say to a fellow being from Thaldia?”

“Well what do you expect me to say?” snapped Ash.

“Clever girl. You just came to Crossroads, didn’t you? Your mind must be bursting.”

The serving star, or whatever it was called, came back, spat a neon green drink onto the table, and said, “Here you are, miss.”

Ash grabbed the glass eagerly, before inspecting it. “What is this?” she asked as a spark flew off the sun and the glass exploded in a ball of flames. A distinct smell of burnt hair flooded her nostrils.

“You asked for something very alcoholic. I’ll go fetch another. Apologies for the inconvenience.”

The black dracandras laughed again. “As I was saying… I’ve been here for ten years. Or eight. It’s hard to say without any real sense of time. Anyway, ask me anything.”

“How about your name?”

“Names names names… you karesh care so much about names. Do they really matter?” he laughed as Ash began to growl.

“Your name,” pressed Ash.

“Fine. I’m Jack. Yes, that works. Now, since I answered you, you have to tell me yours. It’s the rules.”

“There aren’t any rules in Crossroads.”

“Oh hoh hoh. So new and so wise. But really, it is the polite thing to do.”

Doing her best to look proud and distant, a look that only a cat could pull off while bearing a face of burnt fur. “Ash,” she spat out.

“How excellent to meet you, Ash. Welcome to Crossroads, where anything is made up, and nothing matters.”

“So you’ve been here for ten years. How do I… get somewhere? Somewhere to sleep? A job?”

“I started in Stargazers too. Trust me, you’ll meet someone useful.”

“That implies you aren’t useful,” noted Ash.

“Well I’m not really,” Jack said with an extra grin. “Thats why I’m still alive. Time may have given up, but death loves it here.”

“What’s that mean?”

“No one told you? So many time streams going all over the place, well, time just gave up. So long as you don’t get killed, you’re pretty much immortal. Not that not getting killed is easy.”

“You seem to have done alright.”

“I’m a particularly odd sort of bastard,” he said with a shrug before flashing yet another fanged smile. He raised his hand slowly and made an odd gesture with it before taking a step back. Two headless robots stepped into his place, no taller than Ash, but much more intimidating than she felt.

“What are they holding?” asked Ash.

“Oh, those are guns, and they go bang in a lot of bad ways.” Jack pointed to Ash and walked away.

“What the–” she cut off as one of the robots raised its gun. It looked over to its still unmoving comrade and gave a little kick. With that, they both had their guns pointed square at Ash’s chest. She may have never seen a gun before, but Ash had plenty of experience with danger. And no one in the bar was jumping to her rescue.

She looked for a way out or at least someone willing to help. She found neither. The patrons didn’t care, and the robots were blocking the only space out from the wall, and the two tables beside Ash.

One option remained. And so she pulled out her sword, and slashed forward as fast as she could, but Ash had never used a sword before, and it banged harmlessly against the robot’s arms. They pulled on the triggers a split second after Ash ducked. She lashed out, and her sword twitched mid air, which she did not mean to do, and the robot to her left was suddenly without one of its legs. It fell over, knocking its compatriate to the floor.

In her maneuver, however, she fell over, and by the time she was on her feet, the robot was too. So she kicked it, which she was surprised to find worked. She kicked the guns from both robots’ hands, and then stabbed them both. And by the time she looked up, Jack was well gone.

Her serving star, it seemed, had been waiting for the fight to finished. “Do you still want your drink?” it asked.

“Yes, and I’ll take a second.”

The star dropped her drink onto the table. She realized that her sword was still in hand and replaced it before downing the thing in one big gulp. Tastes like acid! she thought with bugged out eyes.

“Because it is, dear,” explained a giant beetle in a civilized, if slightly buzzy, voice. A sight Ash just accepted out of sheer exhaustion. “It’s fermented acid.”

“What?”

“Well, that’s what you were thinking. Tastes like acid.

“Did you read my mind?”

“I read the cliff notes,” responded the beetle before flying out an open window.

Ash sat down and waited for her second drink. Nasty or not, she needed it. Looking around anxiously for her drink, she noticed an elf was staring at her. She didn’t look like the elves of Ash’s world. The elf was short and curvy instead of the tall and thin elves Ash was used to, her hair long and black instead of silver, but she had the same long and pointed ears, so Ash assumed her an elf.

When the elf noticed Ash was staring back she seemed to make up her mind and walked over to Ash, sitting down at her table. For a second Ash thought of running, considering the encounter she’d just had, but she had no idea where the exit was. The elf seemed to realize this as she said, “Don’t worry I’m not going to attack you like that psycho. I just wanted to say hello, and also offer my congratulations.”

“For what?” asked Ash warily.

The elf gave an apologetic smile, flashing bright white teeth, all of them just a little pointed. “Sorry, I just figured you’re new here. A lot of people don’t make it through their first ‘Crossroads encounter’,” said the Elf, using finger quotes around the term. “I’m Hyalan, by the way. And you?”

“Umm, Ash. What do you want?”

“Just to offer you a friendly smile after that,” said Hyalan, offering her smile. Ash did not find it friendly.

A new star came by then, this one larger and an electric blue. In a deep voice, it asked, “I’m coming on behalf of Drew. Do you have money for those drinks?”

“Drew?”

“The star.”

“His name’s Drew?”

“Do you have money for those drinks?” repeated the star.

“I should go,” said Hyalan, quickly leaving Ash’s table.

Feeling a pang of worry at Hyalan’s sudden departure, Ash replied, “Uhh… sorry.” She hadn’t thought about how she’d pay.

“To the owner’s office. Follow me,” said the star. Ash followed it through the room, hoping the owner was a more understanding person than she’d so far found in Crossroads.

They stopped at a door, labelled Owner’s Office. “Knock on it,” said the star.

“What?”

“Do you see hands on me?”

“Oh, right,” she reached out and gave the door a couple of light taps. From behind the door, a voice said, “Come in.” She’d just had an attempt on her life from a stranger, killed the two attackers, and yet felt like a kitten.

Behind the door was a lanky man wearing a black suit with a matching shirt and tie. “She ordered Two acid bawlers and doesn’t have any money,” explained the star.

“I used to kill people for stuff like this. Losing customers wasn’t so fun, though.” The man had a bratty voice. She knew voices like that, the kids of those who ruled her hometown. The ones who knew they couldn’t be touched, and just loved basking in it.  On his desk, was a plaque reading Mr. Niel Sanders: Owner.

    “I was attacked by someone in your bar. Doesn’t that make you liable?” she asked, knowing the same rules of her town, applied here.

“Of course not. It’s my bar, and I say it’s okay to murder patrons, as long as I still get paid. However, no need to be scared. You’ll just pay with a little work. The guy who just tried to kill you. Whatever name he was using, I don’t like him. I don’t like him at all. So, I want you to take care of him.”

“You want me to kill someone to pay for a couple of drinks?”

“I didn’t say kill. I said take care of. That means, keep him away from my bar. However you’d like to do that is your business. That door is open as soon as you say yes. Just know, if you come back and so does he… well. Best not.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone, how else am I supposed to keep him away?”

“Does it matter? Not my problem.”

“But!”

“But yes?” asked Niel. He pulled a gun out of his drawer and set it on the desk with a heavy clunk.

“Fine,” said Ash.

“Good,” said Niel, and with a snap of his fingers, Ash was no longer in the bar.

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