Jin whipped the sweat from her brow and looked up again at dusky shapes of the town on the horizon. She’d been walking for hours since she arrived on this Earth, breathing in the dust, baking under the sweltering sun and swatting away the insects that seemed determined to feast on her flesh before it withered into shoe leather.
From one perspective she was on the deep edge of the dreaming, called to a world with rules for reality that stood firm and allowed for little beyond the most mundane of possibilities. It was a very “real” world, where “reality” was measure by a strict adherence to what was rational and consistent and predictable.
The world had to be like that. It was so far on the edge of the dreaming that it needed those rules and laws to keep itself separated from the emptiness that surrounded it. By establishing clearly what it was not, reality had an easier time remembering what it was.
It was not a world where magic worked. It was not a world where people could transcend the limits prescribed on them by physical laws. It was not a world where joy or hope tangibly shaped the world, except where they motivated someone to act.
For all that though, it wasn’t a bleak world. There was no balance between love and hatred, no guarantee that kindness was the right path, but people still chose to gamble on sharing themselves with each other and even the most wicked could be moved to acts of profound charity.
Jin had been awed by the raw beauty of the souls who called the world home in spite of the horrors and inhumanity it contained. Despite all the lives that were destroyed through cruelty, there were still those who carried on, with grace and passion, to build brighter futures.
It was for those people, for those futures, she’d stepped into the world to fix the rift that was threatening to tear it asunder.
The Jin of this Earth couldn’t be anything impossible. Just a normal girl. No special powers. No magic spells. Only the abilities anyone else could have. It wasn’t the first world she’d worked under those restrictions in, but it was the first time she’d worked in a world like that alone.
In theory it should have been a quick issue to resolve. Step in, seal the rift, and leave the world behind in its original state. What she hadn’t counted on was that the rift apparently had a sense of humor. A mean one.
She’d appeared in the world on a long deserted stretch of highway on a scorching hot day with the rift nowhere in sight. It had fled from her approach – something non-sentient tears in reality were generally incapable of.
Fleeing from a dreamlord and escaping a dreamlord are two entirely different things though, and so Jin pursued the rift. She followed it into the blazing sun, down the searing blacktop and past abandoned rest stops.
Two hours in her trip, she’d begun to wonder if she was crazy. An hour and two mirage cities later though she was certain she had at least a few screws loose. The rest stops were set up every mile, each inviting her to escape the heat and relieve her weary feet of their burden, but she hadn’t paused at any of them.
In part she was determined to find the rift and resolve the danger it posed to the world. That was the reason she gave herself, even though she knew her motivation was more primal than that.
Each rest stop was not only abandoned but picked clean. They hadn’t been destroyed by neglect. Instead they’d been taken apart, piece by piece with only the broken or immovable bits left behind.
Jin was familiar with ghost towns. She had friends in several of them and had stocked a half dozen others with various terrors to keep people away from the dangers that lurked therein. The rest stops weren’t ghost towns. They had no spirits at all. At best, all she could see in them were the echoes of the previous tenants. Bits and piece that hadn’t yet been cleared away.
By the time the town came into view, Jin was more than half convinced that the world was nothing more than an endless road stretching out through the sand and dust to a horizon she would never reach. The part of her that didn’t believe that was busy considering how much longer she could safely walk in the heat before serious health problems set in.
An hour later she opened the doors to the saloon and almost collapsed in relief.
“You look like you’ve near walked yourself to death,” the bartender said. She gestured to the row of stools on the other side of the bar in front of her. “Take a load off.”
“Thank you,” Jin said. “And can I get about a gallon of water to go with that seat?”
“A glass of nature’s finish pipe ruster coming right up,” the bartender said. She reached behind the counter, pulled out a tumbler as tall as Jin’s forearm and filled it with ice and clear, beautiful, liquid refreshment.
“Oh thank god!” Jin said after she’d drunk half of the giant glass.
“So where are you headed?” the bartender asked.
“I’m not sure,” Jin said.
“It’ll be hard to know when you get there then won’t it?” the bartender asked.
Jin smiled. It was an old joke, but like a lot of old jokes there was a kernel of truth in it.
“I’m looking for something,” she said. “It should be pretty obvious when I find it.”
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that,” the bartender said. “More than a few were mistaken about it though.”
Jin turned to her meta-awareness to see if the bartender was correct. The thought of having walked past the rift felt so ironically awful that it seemed almost predestined to be true.
She searched the town, and then the desert and then the world.
She hadn’t walked past the rift.
And she didn’t need to keep walking to find the rift.
It was gone.
Someone else had already closed it.
She searched around looking for other dreamlords or dreamweavers on the planet, but there was only her.
Then she looked at the bartender.
“Oh my God!” she said, her breath sticking in her throat.
The bartender smiled and refilled Jin’s glass. “I don’t know what kind of roads you have ahead of you, but I’m guessing you’ll want to be topped off for them.”
Jin reached out with trembling fingers and took another sip of her drink.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a good idea,” she said.
She paused to consider her next words carefully.
“Any thoughts on where I should go next?” she asked.
“It’s a risky thing to suggest a destination to someone,” the bartender said. “Always the off chance that they’ll actually listen to you.”
“That doesn’t seem so bad if it’s good advice,” Jin said.
“There’s lot of good advice and good destinations,” the bartender said. “I always thought the interesting thing was seeing which one’s people picked for themselves.”
“That sounds like something one of my instructors taught me,” Jin said, thinking of Professor Haffrun’s lessons on the costs of forcing people to think like you did. Mundane charisma was a powerful force, but people are still capable of making their own choices in the face of it. Dreamlord reality weaving was a different and far more perilous method of “changing someone’s mind”.
One of the things Professor Haffrun had drilled into all of her students was the importance of respect for others. Jin had idly pictured the joy of having a world where everyone was as reasonable as she was and where she could get along with everyone. She’d been tempted to try dreaming one up until Professor Haffrun had shown her what that looked like.
A planet (or a cosmos) where all the voices were hers. It was comfortable, but so very hollow and lonely.
Jin looked at the bartender and searched her eyes. There wasn’t any loneliness there, and despite the fact that saloon was empty except for the two of them, Jin saw that they were far from alone.
The bar was a part of the town and the town breathed with life. People walked and ran and fought and made up. They traveled to the next town over and to cities on the other side of the planet while travelers from near and far passed by the saloon heading to their own destinations. The world was connected by relationships as much as it was joined by roads and railways and wires. Even out to the Moon, there were connections of memory through the brave souls who dared tread on its surface. And in the farthest depths of the sky there were the lures of the opportunities and relationships and dreams that would pull people outward into the vast tomorrow that awaited them.
Jin clamped down on her meta-awareness. She felt the call of that tomorrow, the call to be part of the greater wonder that awaited everyone, but that was for tomorrow. For today she was Jin. A normal girl, or an impossible one, but still Jin.
“You’ve still got places to go and people to see, I imagine?” the bartender said.
“Yeah,” Jin said, still a bit shaken by the connection she felt. “I’m getting married in few days. Right after we graduate.”
“Congratulations,” the bartender said. “That calls for a special gift, I’d say.”
She reached behind the counter and drew out an old bottle. It’s top was sealed with a simple cork but there were beautiful patterns illuminated in silver and gold that ran down from the top of the bottle to the label on its front.
“I’ve had this packed away for long enough now,” the bartender said. “I think it should be about ready. Just let it breathe a bit before serving.”
“This is gorgeous,” Jin said. “Are you sure? It feels like this is a priceless relic more than a wedding gift.”
“I’m quite sure,” the bartender said. “You can return the bottle when it’s done, or pass it on to someone else who needs it.”
“Thank you,” Jin said and clutched the wine close to her chest.
It wasn’t until she got back home that she thought to read the inscription on the label, to see what the name of the wine was though.
Beneath a picture of the sun in a bright sky and the moon in a starry night were printed the only words on the bottle.
“Love One Another.”