From the author: Korix and Leveri are lost, travelling between worlds to find a way home. Leveri's new sword has other ideas.
Korix and Leveri were arguing over a sword.
"I didn't say you couldn't have one," Korix protested, following his friend out of the shop. "I just wondered why now, and why that one?"
"Because I like it," Leveri replied, clutching the sword to his chest like it was his firstborn. Korix tried to ignore the stares it drew from the passers-by. "It's different."
"Different's one word for it. Creepy is another." He paused to dodge around a passing cart, narrowly avoiding the spray it threw up. "And it's impractical. Just look at that serrated edge. That's going to catch on bone as soon as you stick it in anyone, and you won't get it out again before somebody guts you."
Even that practicality didn't seem to get through to the wizard. Leveri stuck out his chin. "I like it."
"You don't even know how to use it!"
"You can teach me. You've always said you would."
Korix raked a hand through his hair. It was true, he had said that, but in the time that they'd known each other the wizard had never shown any sign of taking him up on it.
"I can't teach you with that," he said finally. "You might hurt yourself. Or me, which is frankly what I'm more worried about. If you want to learn get yourself a proper practice blade."
"Fine," Leveri snapped. Korix couldn't tell if he meant he would or that he didn't want to learn after all. Leveri finally seemed to notice the attention the sword was attracting and twitched a fold of his cloak to hide it. Having it out of sight made Korix feel better, but not as much getting rid of it would have done.
They reached their inn and Leveri immediately made for the stairs, shooting Korix the looking-through-him glance that meant he didn't want to be followed. With a sigh Korix headed for the bar and ordered an ale.
"I've seen married couples fight less than you two," the innkeeper observed. Korix shrugged as he slipped onto one of the stools.
"We didn't fight." He took a swig of ale that was golden and tasted faintly of herbs. At least it was drinkable here, something that couldn't be said about all of the worlds he and Leveri had visited. "He just decided to waste half our money is all."
"Good job you're paid up until the end of the week then," Devan remarked. "Any idea if you'll be staying after that?"
"Not if things go to plan." Korix turned the battered tankard in his hands. "I'll let you know."
"And you'll pay in advance," Devan's tone was jovial, but Korix heard the weight behind the banter.
"Of course. Otherwise my spendthrift friend will have us both sleeping in the stables and working for scraps."
"Difficult, since I don't have stables."
"My point exactly." He drained the last of the ale and thumped the tankard back onto the bar. "Another, if you please."
Devan refilled the tankard and Korix nursed the drink for as long as he could. People began to drift in from the streets looking for an evening meal, bringing with them cool evening air and the faint tang of torch smoke. They filled the room with a buzz of conversation, and if it hadn't been getting dark outside it would have reminded him of home. Even after all the time he'd spent travelling he still couldn't get used to the idea of worlds with only one sun. Devan was giving him the sour-eye and Korix took that as his cue to order another drink and some supper.
"It's not like Leveri to skip a meal," the innkeeper said. He scooped up the coins from the bar with a smoothness that would have made a pickpocket proud.
"Not my problem," Korix replied, more harshly than he'd meant. The ale was making him morose. "He can fast for the value of the sword for all I care."
"Sword?" One of Devan's sandy eyebrows went up. "Leveri doesn't seem particularly warlike to me."
"Me neither. That's the problem."
His supper was a bowl of stew and a heel of fresh bread. He ate them methodically, barely tasting either as he considered Leveri's apparent personality change. The wizard had seemed fine that morning, and now he was buying swords and skipping meals. The noise from the other customers suddenly grated on Korix's nerves. It was probably better to leave now, he reflected, than stay and end up in an even worse temper.
Korix slipped through the room. It grew cooler and quieter as he went up the stairs, and he picked his way carefully in the dim light. Outside the room he shared with Leveri he paused, his hand on the latch, but there was no sound within. He pushed open the door.
It was dark inside, the only light coming from the lantern in the corridor. Leveri was sitting on his bed with his back against the wall. He looked up as Korix entered.
"What are you doing here?" His voice was dreamy, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. As if he were doing magic, Korix realised with a chill. He stepped in and left the door open.
"You don't need my permission to buy a sword; I don't need your permission to go to bed."
Leveri didn't reply. The sword was a dark shadow across his lap. It seemed to drink the light. Korix glanced sideways as he walked between the two narrow beds to light the candle on the table.
"Don't." Leveri still sounded far away. "The light will upset my concentration."
"And talking doesn't? I can't sleep with the light out, Leveri. You know that." He lit the candle and unbelted his own sword from around his waist propping the scabbard, as always, within reaching distance.
"It's early to be sleeping," Leveri said. "The whole city's still awake."
Korix refused to take the hint. "Then the whole city's welcome to the dark, wet streets. I'm getting some shut-eye."
He sat on the edge of his bed to take off his boots and got his first proper look at the wizard since they'd returned to the inn. His blond curls were a mess as usual, but his eyes were tired and circled by shadows that hadn't been there earlier. Korix stared.
"Leveri?" He broke off as he realised what was happening. "You're recharging the stone."
Leveri smiled and opened his hands to reveal the palm-sized stone nestled there. The candlelight glinted blue and purple highlights from its surface.
"I thought if I could charge it more quickly then we'd be able to leave sooner."
"A lot of good that will do you when you collapse. It was you who told me it had to be done gradually."
"The sooner it's done the sooner we can open a portal and leave." Leveri was stubborn again and Korix reached out to take the stone from him. The wizard flinched. One hand went protectively to the hilt of his sword. Korix plucked the stone from his grip and slipped it into his clothes.
"Get some sleep."
He readied himself for bed. When he glanced back at Leveri his friend was already asleep, the sword laid alongside him and one arm draped over it like a lover.
Despite his fatigue, Leveri was gone when Korix woke up. So were the sword and their communal purse. Korix felt a stab of alarm: although they each had funds of their own they'd agreed early on in their travels to keep the money for food and shelter between them. A quick check revealed that Leveri had left him the portal stone, which eased some of the worry. He wouldn't get far without it.
"He's eaten already and gone out," Devan told him as he went downstairs. "Said he'd be back. Something about getting a scabbard done," he added. "Nasty-looking sword he's got himself."
"Tell me about it. I'll pass on breakfast, thanks Devan." At this rate he was going to need the money. He headed out into the streets, trying to think where Leveri would go.
When he finally caught up with the wizard it was in time to see him counting out a pile of coins into the hand of a leather-smith who looked very pleased with himself. Leveri beamed as he stepped out of the street and saw Korix waiting. Korix has to restrain an urge to punch him. Instead he stepped close.
"What are you doing?"
"Ordering a scabbard. Of course it had to be custom-made, nowhere's going to stock something to suit this weapon." The weapon in question had disappeared into the folds of the cloak again, seeming impossibly hidden for its size. "I had to pay extra, of course, for him to have it ready by this afternoon. And it will need tipping with steel, but that will have to wait..."
"Wait. How much did all this cost? Do we even have anything left?" Leveri's silence told him all he needed to know. "So you've spent all our money on that monstrosity of a sword. Were you actually planning on eating for the rest of our stay? And what do you mean ‘this afternoon’? We're paid up for the rest of the week!" Devan was right, Korix realised, they did sound like a married couple. He forced himself to stop shouting and tried to ignore the amused looks he was attracting.
"We can leave tomorrow," Leveri corrected him. "I can finish charging the portal stone today, and rest tonight. It will be tiring, but not impossible. Then tomorrow morning we can go."
"And what if it doesn't work? What if you're too tired, or it opens somewhere we can't cross? It's happened before. What were you planning on using for money then?"
"You can always steal us some more."
Korix wasn't sure if it was Leveri's nonchalance or the fact that he'd said it in the middle of the street that shocked him the most.
"No," he said flatly. "You know I don't like doing it. And you know it's only for emergencies. Am I your pet thief now?"
He didn't give Leveri any chance to reply. Instead he snatched the purse from his friend's fingers and stormed away.
If their financial situation hadn't been so dire he'd have found himself an inn somewhere and got quietly drunk. As it was the purse was so light he doubted there was enough to feed them both until Leveri's new departure time.
"Damn wizards and their smug, know-it-all ways," he muttered, although Leveri was the only wizard he'd ever met. Leveri had once told him there were dozens of wizards on his world: if they all behaved like this then Korix was glad there were none on his own.
He spent the day walking the streets, pretending he was going somewhere when really he was killing time. He made a tour of the city park and loitered by the sculpted stream, until a watchmen politely asked him to move on as his presence was upsetting the nobility. When the chimes in the tower rang for noon he spent a tiny copper coin on skewer-roasted meat in folded bread, but that was all he bought. He nibbled it slowly on the street corner and watched the people pass him by. By the time he returned to the inn his stomach was growling.
"He's upstairs," Devan told him. "Doesn't look like he got much sleep last night."
"I wouldn't know. Ale, please. And some bread and cheese if you've got any." It was a cheaper meal than stew.
Korix made his supper last as long as he could, and followed it with another slow tankard of ale. It was full-dark outside before he had the heart to head upstairs.
Leveri was sitting on his bed, in the same position as the night before. He'd lit the candle this time, and his eyes were closed. Korix's gaze strayed to the ugly scabbard that lay beside him with the sword inside it. Leveri's hand closed around it.
"We need to talk," Korix said. "That sword, it's changed you."
"Nonsense. Give me the portal stone. I need to charge it."
For a moment Korix was tempted to refuse, but then he cast it onto the blankets.
"Don't be up all night," he snapped, and went to bed.
Korix woke to darkness. He stifled a cry in his throat and fumbled to light the candle.
It showed him that he was alone. Leveri's blankets were rumpled but empty. There was no sign of the wizard's pack or sword. Or the portal stone.
"Oh no. He's going without me?" Korix flung open the shutters and looked out into the night. He thought he saw a faint light in the sky, but it was impossible to be sure. In the streets below the torches made the shadows dance. Korix shuddered and drew back inside.
"He can't get out of the city, not with the gates closed for the night," he muttered as he pulled on his boots. It was a relief, as he didn't much like the idea of following the wizard into the pitch-black countryside. "So where will he go?"
Opening a portal didn't need much space, but Leveri always preferred to attempt it on flat open ground. Korix had seen most of the city, and could think of only one place that fitted the description.
Korix gathered his things and bolted down the stairs as quietly as he could. He slipped the latch of the kitchen door, then paused. The street was dark: the nearest torch cast a faint glow from around the corner. He closed the door quietly behind him and ran his fingers over the grain of the wood. Then he took a deep breath, and ran for the light.
The streets seemed to twist before him like a maze. Korix ran from torch to torch, shying from shadows like a frightened horse. All his life he'd been taught that darkness was something to fear: so far he'd seen nothing to persuade him otherwise. He paused in one of the circles of light to catch his breath. A glance at the sky revealed that there was no moon, only a blanket of darkness that covered everything. He wiped the sweat from his face and moved on.
He knew he'd reached the park when he heard the gurgling of the stream, and when there were no more lights to follow. He grabbed for the last torch, singeing his fingers as he fumbled to remove it from the sconce. Then, taking his light with him, he headed for the park and prayed he wouldn't be too late.
There was a figure in the distance, bending over something. Korix recognised the shape that cut a shadow across his back.
"Leveri!" he yelled. The figure paused, then turned back to his work. "Leveri, stop!"
Leveri gestured and there was a shimmer in the air. Blue and purple light glimmered briefly and then split apart to mark the edges of the portal. Its centre was invisible against the shadows; its edges lit the surroundings with a blue and purple glow.
"Don't try to stop me, Korix," he warned. "Or I'll stop you."
"You tried to go without me!" Korix closed on him. Leveri's hand reached back for his sword. "You know I can't open a portal myself, even if you left me the stone. Only a wizard can do that. Were you going to just abandon me here?"
"If I'd told you I was going, you'd have tried to stop me," Leveri said reasonably. He drew his sword as Korix circled around to stand before the portal. It came from the scabbard with surprising smoothness and the serrated edge glittered in the torchlight.
"You were right about the sword, there is something wrong with it. It's like us, it doesn't belong here. It wants to move on, to go home. It called to me because I can help it."
Korix felt an ache in his insides at that. "If you're right then it wants the portal, not you," he said wearily. "Look what it's done to you--you charged the stone with no thought for yourself, you were prepared to leave me behind. It'll drag you through every world until you're too spent to charge the stone any more. Then what? Do you really mean to fight me?"
"If I must." Leveri gripped the sword in both hands, standing balanced with his feet shoulder-width apart, as if he knew how to fight. Korix went cold and switched the torch to his off-hand to draw his sword.
"Please don't. I don't want to hurt you."
"You don't want me to hurt you, you mean. Isn't that what you said?" Leveri gave a faraway smile. "We're going through that portal, Korix. You can come if you like, but don't get in the way."
"The sword can go through. You're staying here."
Leveri ran at him, yelling a battle-cry with the sword aloft. Korix waited until the last moment and then threw the torch at his face.
Sparks flew. Leveri yelled and brought a hand up to protect himself. The other moved seemingly with a will of its own and the sword swept down. Korix parried and the force juddered up his arm. He gritted his teeth and felt the serrated blade grate along his own. Leveri stepped back and for a moment they stared at each other.
"I don't have to stop you," Korix said. "All I have to do is stall until the portal runs out of power." As he'd hoped, the goad worked. Leveri leapt for the portal. Korix stepped in under his guard and kneed him hard in the groin.
Leveri gasped. The sword slipped from his fingers as he went to his knees. Korix snatched it away from him.
He felt its anger and cried out, almost losing his grip. Then his awareness of it changed. It was glad to be in the hands of someone who knew how to wield it. He felt the thrill of battle run through him and shivered. There were so many battles to be fought, beyond the portal.
Leveri clutched at his legs as he stepped forward, and pulled him to the ground.
"Give it back!"
Korix kicked him in the head and wriggled free. The portal beckoned and for a moment he almost dove through it and into freedom. Then he screamed and hurled the sword into the portal, where it sparked blue and purple was gone. The opening took much of the light with it as it folded back in on itself.
Leveri was on the ground clutching at his face. Korix paused to snatch up the guttering torch and went over to his friend.
"Are you alright?"
Leveri looked up and he moved his hands from the darkening bruise on his left cheek.
"You kicked me," he said in a small voice.
"You attacked me with a sword, so I think we're even," Korix replied dryly.
Leveri looked around with wide eyes. "The portal's gone. It's going to take an age before I can fully charge the stone again."
"That's alright," Korix told him. "We're paid up at Devan's until the end of the week."
"And after that?"
He shrugged. "I'm sure you'll think of something."
Leveri gave strangled laugh and clambered to his feet to retrieve his belongings. He tore the scabbard from his back and kicked it savagely.
"Maybe we could eat that, if we boiled it for long enough." He sighed. "I've been such an idiot."
"It's happened before." The rest of Korix's reply was choked back as the torch flickered and finally died.
"Here." Leveri gestured and a ball of yellow light sparked into existence between them. "I don't think you'll need it for long, the sun's coming up. How did you know? About the sword, I mean."
"You weren't yourself." Korix nodded to the floating light. "Otherwise you'd have remembered you had magic instead of attacking me with a weapon."
Leveri gave a watery smile. "You saved my life. Or possibly my soul. I'm glad I don't have to find out which."
Korix smiled back. "So am I. I'm glad I never taught you to fight, too."
They waited until there was enough light to see by, then Leveri extinguished his spell and they headed back to Devan's. Deep in thought, Korix barely noticed as they passed the weapons shop where Leveri had bought the sword.
"Now that's pretty. Look Korix, this one's got a gem on the pommel that looks like a world."
Korix looked up sharply. Leveri had stopped to watch as an ornate sword was unloaded from a cart full of weapons and armour. The wizard met his gaze, then raised an eyebrow and grinned.
"On second thoughts, I'll stick to what I'm best at. I wouldn't even know which end to wave at someone."
"Let's keep it that way," Korix suggested. "Now, since you're feeling grateful, how about you find me some breakfast?"
This story originally appeared in Fantasy Short Stories Magazine.