Chapter 9 - Tracks and Tracking

The huntress ran up the tree. One, two, three steps - so practiced and paced she paid hardly any attention to them. That’s not right. In truth, she paid more attention to these quick steps than I have paid to anything in my life, but so little it seemed to her by comparison to how much attention she had left to pay elsewhere. For that was her gift, her thing, her superpower: focus.


Pressing a final foot into the trunk, she leapt over the lava, without fear or fault. Her hands grabbed the high branch and her legs swung up and around. She flipped and landed with her feet cradled over the bough. Her long, dark coat fell into place behind her, the high split down the back breaking precisely over the branch, giving the effect of two wagging tails - a visual metaphor, ready to remind any onlookers that she was twice as graceful as a cat. Of course, there would be no onlookers, for she was twice as stealthy as one, too.


Every muscle, every hair, every thought fell into perfect balance, grasped tightly in her unerring control. She had had teachers - masters of their arts, martial and otherwise - who had wanted her to give up some of that control, to accept that she couldn’t command the wind or shoot an arrow through a star or some other flowery figurative folly for which she had no use. Maybe they couldn’t, but they were not her. She had proven that in the end, when she had bested each and every one of them at their own craft. One day, not too far from this one, she would be twice as good at everything as any person or cat had ever been.


She flicked the clutch of cloth that dangled from the branch just as a clock sounded in her head - calling out the mark of time she had been awaiting. This precise timing had been her first mastery, when she was a child stowed away in the hull of a pirate ship. The lava below lurched around, beginning its backtracking pilgrimage to that holy mountain top whence it had come. The wind turned as well, retracing the winding maze of the treetops and their leaves. A hawk soared backward overhead and a squirrel on a nearby branch spat out its lunch. Still the bit of cloth swung in the motion she had set it on, as unaffected by the forces of time as she herself.


She gave the cloth a sharp look and it let go of the branch, drifting slowly to the ground below. Or that’s how it appeared. Actually, a knife fell into her hand, cut the cloth from the tree, and returned to its home within her sleeve so fast and fluid that it was nearer to impossible than to noticable. So lucky you have me, then.


When she leapt from the branch the lava was still beneath her feet, covering the spot where she would land. Nevertheless, by the time she hit the ground the molten rock had retreated to a safe distance (safe for it). Whether she reached the land or it reached up in space to cradle her is a question left as an exercise of philosophy for the diligent reader. In any case, she came smoothly to her feet and held one hand half-way to the sky. I’d tell you which one, but she said I can’t. The gesture was not lazy, nor did it seem to cost her any effort. It precisely was. The cloth came to rest in her waiting palm as she surveyed the surrounding scene.


Two pairs of footprints raced out from between the larger stones. They were unfaded, preserved in time like a bubble in amber. That made it easy to follow them, but impossible to know how long ago the idiots who’d left them had been here. Still, based on what she’d been able to get out of the people in the village, she wasn’t long behind them.


She had examined the trail of prints closely when she first came upon it. Outside of the village, there had been three sets - one of which had mysteriously disappeared. She now understood that was because of the time loop here. Whoever had left the third set had been affected. Since that person wasn’t still at the edge of the loop zone, doomed to bounce back at the end of every reversal, their friends (or, as she suspected, cronies) had helped them make it out.


The two pairs of tracks remaining were from an older gentleman - and she was sure he was quite gentle - and a young woman coping with a bevvy of injuries, probably a few years older than her. She had guessed more about them as well, based entirely on their footprints, but most of it was inconsequential, which is basically how she thought of them as people anyhow. Her sister had been the other set, the one that had disappeared, but she would find those tracks again. She had no doubt.


She never had doubt when it came to matters of what she could or would do. That’s something her old masters had always failed to understand. One of them, trying to tame her, had said once that the world was a river and all the people stones within it. He told her that there are two types of stones in a river. There are the pebbles, buffeted and battered by the current - rolled along endlessly to the sea by their troubles. Then there are boulders, dug into the bed, holding their spot no matter what comes. They are still buffeted by the current, eroded and smoothed as the years and the waters roll by, but they hold fast.


She laughed thinking of it now, as she had laughed when he first said it to her. She wasn’t a stone in that - or any - metaphor. Stones are stagnant - unmoving, ungrowing.


Naya Sakura was the river.


She brushed back her coat, shoving both hands into the pockets of her pants. Depositing the bit of cloth from her [redacted] hand, she pulled a small silver disk out from her pocket. It was tarnished and permanently closed, but the mechanisms inside still worked as perfectly as the day she found it. She clutched the watch, feeling the tick tick that had saved her all those years ago when she was a scared little girl trembling in the darkest, dampest corners of a wooden ship.


Sakura tucked the pocket watch back into its namesake. Sentiment could not interfere with her mission. Her world needed her, once again, and she would not let it down. She wasn’t sure what her sister had done, but she was going to stop it, no matter what.


***


“My mouth tastes like horse!” Highmond bellowed, spitting hay and hair and worse out of the now permanently open side door of the train car.


“That an improvement, then?” Iona goaded him.


“I’m tha-ry, did’do thay something?” he asked, too busy scraping his tongue to have listened.


“She was wondering where you learned to ride like that,” Edna stepped in.


“Ahh,” he started, holding up a finger. Once the horse flavor - along with a layer or two of tongue - had been sanded away, he responded, “I’m a wealthy Inglish aristocrat - riding horses is part of the gig, as it were. I also play cricket, hunt for fossils, and keep up a saucy correspondence with an Irish nature poet. It’s all, you know, expected of me.”


Iona, perhaps sensing the edged undercurrent to his voice, didn’t push him further. “Well you blew my expectations to timbuktu, and mighta saved our behinds to boot, and boy howdy I cannot wait to stop talkin’ like this.”


“It doesn’t suit you,” Edna confirmed.


“No?” asked Highmond, “I think it’s bang up to the elephant! Cowboys!” he laughed, “Delightful adventurers!” Giuseppe licked him on the face again.


“It does bring up a concerning thought though,” continued Edna, ignoring Highmond as she had learned so well to do.


“Oh? And what’s that?” Highmond asked, not ignoring her.


“What if the next Change takes away our ability to communicate with Iona?”


“I been thinkin’ ‘bout that,” said Iona.


Highmond, who clearly had not been thinkin’ ‘bout that, was flabbergasted. “Why on Earth the Second would it do that?” he asked.


“Because, Highmond, we’re being yanked around through time and space,” Edna began, “and most of time and space doesn’t involve English. Most of time and space doesn’t involve Earth - or Earth the Second - at all!”


Highmond, visibly disturbed by the realizations this was bringing up for him, began to pace and think. Edna could tell he was thinking because of all his thinking noises, which were louder than the train. “But,” he finally said, “we are - ultimately, I mean - trying to get to Pretty Good Britain. And it, well, forgive me but, it just seems that ol’ PGB is at the center of, well, a frightful big lot of adventures. It seems like every boxing day we’re celebrating escape from another world-threatening invasion or space volcano or mutant lightning pig. And I was wondering, if… you know, perhaps… I mean, I shouldn’t say--”


“--Are you going to ask me if Britain is the center of the universe?”


“Or at least time, yes. London, specifically, I was thinking.”


Edna looked at him for a long moment, “No,” she finally said.


Actually, Highmond wasn’t that far off. The ‘centers’ of a universe - there being one each for space, time, and gregory - are defined as the graphical origins at which that universe was birthed from its mother reality. For Highmond’s particular universe, that point in space was a planet called Lune Dune, in the Ternin Sector of Seventh Soola. In time, the center was a holiday the imperial citizens of Lune Dune called “Kurissmaw S’de”. All the monsters and mayhem that Highmond and his countrymen had seen those many Christmases had simply got there notes wrong and turned up at the wrong spacetime nexus. It happens to all of us.


If you’re wondering, the center of gregory for Highmond’s universe is suspected to be the number yellow. No one understands why or how or to what extent this is true, but the evidence is like a mother asking her newlywed child when she might get a grandbaby out of the bargain. That is: never direct but never subtle, and impossible to ignore.


“Fair enough. Fair. Right...” Highmond trailed off in affirmations as he returned to his pacing and loud thinking.


Iona’s eyes followed Highmond for a moment, then a look of shocked awareness flashed on her face. “What is it?” Edna asked.


Iona flattened her face. “Well, like I was sayin’, I been thinkin’ ‘bout what happens if ever we come to somewhen doesn’t speak Inglish, and… I think I do speak Inglish, it’s just buried somewhere with the rest of my memories.”


“That would be convenient,” Edna said, and I agree - narratively speaking. “But what makes you think that?”


“It’s that famous sister of mine Ol’ Lightning Pig over there mentioned.” She nodded at Highmond.


“Naya…?” Edna trailed off, trying to remember.


“Naya Sakura!” erupted from Highmond’s thinking noises, which continued after.


“That’s right. I got these… feelin’s about her. I think maybe she taught me Inglish,” Iona started, then her tone darkened, “I also think she’s comin’ for us, and that we don’t want be around when she finds us.”


Highmond snapped out of his loud thinking. “What?” he cried, “She’s a great hero of our world! Why wouldn’t we want her aid?”


“I just got this feelin’ she ‘n I don’t get on so hot,” Iona was as cool as ever, but the seemingly permanent smirk that had previously been frozen to her face melted away.


“Well that seems another indictment of you.”


“Highmond!” Edna snapped, “Your wealthy Inglish aristocrat is showing.”


The tone of Edna Star - Hero Arborist of the Mystery of the Nine Anklets - was sharp enough to cut straight through Highmond and all the airs he had put back on with his pants. He cowed a bit, Guiseppe too, which is quite something for a horse. Still though, he squeaked out a final argument that had already been primed and pumped into his throat. “Besides, she’s been turned into a baby.”


“Nah.” Iona said, “The other adventurers had been turned into babies, so you didn’t bother goin’ to her. I’m tellin’ you now: Naya Sakura ain’t no baby. Naya Sakura is comin’.”


***


From the dead grey ashes of the fire Naya Sakura pulled a pack of cigarettes, hardly touched. They had been dropped on top, long after the flames had died and the embers cooled. Lifting the pack revealed a single smoked cigarette beneath, which she plucked with a pair of tongs that fell smoothly from one of her sleeves. Again, I’ve been sworn never to tell you which.


Examining it she saw small, grinding bite marks, like the smoker had clinched it in their jaw while they spoke. That would fit, given Naya Inari’s propensity for never shutting up. There was the issue that her sister didn’t smoke, but the practice could easily have come from a Relic. (What our heroes have been calling Changes, Naya Sakura has taken to calling Time Relics, which, you’ll find, is cooler.)


There was no use trying to match the dental impressions to her own. Sakura had learned long ago - on the Case of the Cast Out Caste and its Cast-Doubt Cast, when she was eight - that the dental castings of a set of twins - or dodecatuplets, as it had been in the case - were never identical. Instead, she rolled the cigarette through her fingers, creating a mental scan of the bite marks.


She closed her eyes and began her methodical search through the meticulous records she kept in the files of her Mind Planet, which was like a Mind Palace but better. Every memory she had was catalogued, bound in folders with coordinated tabs (grayscale, for there was no color in her Mind Planet - by choice).


Weeks passed within her Mind Planet before she found a memory that confirmed her theory. It would have been sooner, but the file had been miscatalogued. Interrogation of the cleaning staff confirmed that Tanaka san had knocked over the shelves when she was dusting and had put back the files without telling Sakura, so as not to be fired. She had three children.


Despite all the exacting standards upon herself that would never have allowed her to make such careless mistakes, Sakura understood Tanaka san’s decision. Afterall, she had concocted it on some level - this was all happening in her mind. Still, she could not have liars on her staff, and in such important positions.


Naya Sakura knew, however, what it meant to grow up without parental stability, and while that challenge had forged her own strength early and well, it had done much worse things to her sister. So for the sake of Tanaka san’s children - Shigeru, Aika, and little Ichika, with her cough - she set the older woman up with a job at a local bakery. The owner owed her a favor (also his existence).


But why go through all the trouble of populating her Mind Planet with fake people? I’m sure you’re wondering. It’s a question of empathy, really. Not lovey-dovey, hug-the-world empathy, but a hunter’s empathy. To follow a person, or an animal, or a sentient pile of moss, it was sufficient to look for the clues they’d left behind. But to predict where a target would go under given circumstances, you needed to understand them - often better than they understood themselves. Filling her false world with facsimile people was a way to practice this sort of prediction.


For all the time it took, Sakura’s bite mark analysis had confirmed that she was on her sister’s trail. Satisfied then, she reentered the real world, where about an hour had passed. Time dilation being yet another feature of her Mind Planet. It also had great bagels.


She stood, brushing the cool, dead ashes of the fire from the cigarette and pack. Sakura stuffed them both down interior pockets of her coat and smirked. The trail was warm. Soon enough she would overtake her sister, and be the end to whatever evil plan Naya Inari had wrought, as she had always been.


Once again, Sakura strolled off confidently in the right direction - knowing no amount of planning, no amount of power, no amount of genius could stop her.


***


“He’s a clingy horse,” Highmond said apologetically, craning his head under Giuseppe to speak to the elderly woman in the seat across from him. They had elected to find a passenger car for the remainder of their journey, thinking the horse would stay behind to stuff itself full of hay. The animal quickly made it clear however that it had no intention of leaving Highmond’s side.


So it had been that they found themselves sharing a semi-private compartment with an old woman and a horse. She hadn’t been there when they sat down, but had come back from the restroom to find they’d overtaken her once quiet domain. The elder woman had been remarkably unperturbed, begging Giuseppe’s and Edna’s pardons as she slid past them to her window seat.


“What, er, brings you here?” Highmond continued, after his apology.


“Oh deary, we don’t have to talk,” said the old woman. Then she pulled a pair of headphones over her ears, pressed play on a walkman at her hip, and began listening to the heaviest, loudest, bassiest metal any of them had ever heard.


She lifted a folding tray from the wall, setting the leg up underneath it. From her flowery, cloth bag she pulled a sack of candies, some folded tissues, and about thirty knives.


“Well,” Highmond cleared his throat, “I suppose we shan’t worry about speaking freely.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over her music.


Edna matched Highmond’s volume for the first time. “Does she look like a cow-woman to you?”


“Edna!” Highmond was appalled.


“I mean a cowboy who’s a woman. Our language is lacking.”


They agreed she did not. Even Giuseppe shook his head, though that was probably coincidence.


Edna continued, “I think we’re heading somewhere strange, even by our standards. What did he say it was called?”


“Edo,” said Iona.


“Yes,” Highmond agreed, even though Iona had said it, “which itself is strange for that’s already what it’s called.”


“What do you mean?”


“In normal times, I mean. Based on my geographical estimations, I think we should be heading straight for a city that is always called Edo,” Highmond clarified.


“Yeah,” Iona agreed, even though Highmond had said it, “it’s odder than a big rat cracking seashells on its belly, but he feels right.”


“Hmm,” Edna pondered, worried by her two companions agreement. “I think I’ll go get a look at the other weirdos on this train, then. See if I can get a sense of what time and place we’re hurtling into.”


“Count me in,” said Iona, standing up.


“And I could stomach a little constitutional as well,” added Highmond. When he stood up, the others guessed that meant he planned to join them.


“No,” they said together, which prompted a confused, hurt look to dart out of his eyes at Edna.


“The horse, Highmond,” she said, “We can’t have the horse following us around this whole train.”


“Oh. Right. Certainly,” he laughed and it sounded like a man who had never heard laughing but had read about it in an anthropological journal. “Sure thing. Of course.” He smiled and his eyes met the horse’s, who licked his face again.


***


The train rumbled over the rails even as time inside fumbled over itself. They had wandered the one-way maze of passages for what might have been an hour, if those existed or meant anything. The corridors, long and straight, still wound through every time and form a train may take - as well as several that it must never. Neither Edna nor Iona had a solid memory of the outside of the locomotive, having been distracted by bullets and other inconveniences. Inside, however, they found the train like a teenager trying on identities, changing dramatically at every opportunity.


The group of adventurers had first boarded the locomotive in an Old West car, but the pair had walked through the comforts of Victorian finery, a car made entirely of stone, and now the pastel patterns of the 90s. Every new piece, it seemed, came from another era or area, and every passenger, she learned, was as incongruous to the next as Highmond to Iona.


A man in a toga argued - in Inglish - with a woman doused in head-to-toe tweed. A fencepost was propped in a seat with a hot cup of tea sat in front of it. When Edna looked back, the cup was empty, and the post was wet. Glancing through the window to another private room like their own, she saw what must have been a very strong infant, rocking her sleeping mother.


There was, in short, no time or sense to this place - no thread to pull or rope to lead you back to safety. The cracks in reality that had spidered out across this universe were converging. The world was broken here, and what did that say for where they headed?


Perhaps what Edna hated most of all about adventure was the sense of obligation. To look at these people (and fencepost) to think of their suffering and their loss (fencelessness), of their families and their pain (...nails?), was to find herself without a choice. She couldn’t simply abandon them to their fate, for she knew better than most what it meant to be cast out to the wave of fate, clinging desperately to whatever wreckage of hope washed by. Yet again, she sighed at having been left without a choice - she would help this world, even if she could no longer help her own world.


Her own world.


That was a thought she had been avoiding. Earth. No “the Second”. Just home. Just gone. Her pale blue dot. Her tiny, insignificant speck in the vast sea of time and space, and gregory. Suddenly Grief was there by her side, no longer knocking at the door. The old lady had found the spare key and let herself in.


She didn’t gloat in her arrival - didn’t complain about Edna’s manners or compare her mind to a cleaner one. Edna wasn’t even aware of her guest until she had been wrapped in the woman’s arms - that sweet sister of pain swooping her up, cradling her to bed. In the real world, or what passed for it, she sat where she was in the middle of the aisle. She grasped the rough cushion of an armrest to make it to the floor, where a matching, faded carpet waited.


She was vaguely aware of Iona and of a scoff from the direction of the tweed woman. Edna assumed everyone was probably staring, but she didn’t care. There was only the thought that Grief would be upset with her. Edna had kept her sweet friend locked out for so long, sleeping on the stoop. How could she be so harsh to such a kind old woman? How could she be so selfish?


She wept - at her cruelty, at her fate - burying her wet face in the soft shoulder of Grief. But Grief wasn’t Angry, she was only Grief. The old woman did her best to bat away Depression and Self-Hate. She only wanted Edna to feel the turmoil that she had been keeping at bay - to reckon with the loss before it consumed her from within. There was no need, Grief whispered, to feel those other things. They were lies born in Edna’s locking away of the real emotions, nothing more.


She felt Iona’s hand on her shoulder, then the other, then her friend pressed her forehead gently into Edna’s hair. There, Grief said, all that worry, for nothing. Edna said nothing, and Iona said nothing, and nothing was said. The tears Edna shed were no longer all from Grief, but from a new kind of Joy the old woman had let in. Of everything Edna Star - Master of the Forbidden Keys, Mapper of the Four Bidden Quays, and Molder of the Forb Idddn Kis - hated about being The Greatest Adventurer of Several Earths (And Other Planets As Well, You Know), what stood highest and hatedest of them all was that hardly anyone tried to comfort her.


She was expected to comfort everyone else, of course, she was a Hero. She was THE Hero. What could a lowly person offer to someone as great and mighty as she? The fact was, when you became a Hero at the level to which Edna had achieved, you ceased to be a person, to everyone but yourself. There were a few holdouts who remembered her humanity, certainly - her parents, some childhood friends, the Citizen King of Jupiter - but all of them were dead now.


Iona Plum though. The con-woman who snatched a monarchy from the jaws of being hanged was so confident, so self-assured, so pig-headed that she could never be in danger of seeing anyone as more than human. And now Edna had some small confirmation that her friend didn’t see her as less than, either. She turned and sobbed into Iona’s shoulder, and that was when Grief let her guard down.


Everything was going so well. Edna was feeling what she needed to feel, the monsters were being held at bay, she was accepting the friendship she yearned for - but then she reached for her watch. This, in itself, wasn’t out of the ordinary, you already know. Her watch was her oldest comfort, her closest solace. She clutched it in every moment of sadness and solitude, of contentment and curiosity, of joy and justice.


What was out of the ordinary now - what was horribly, terribly wrong - was that her watch wasn’t there. And just like that a powerful, cruel emotion shoved past Grief, pummeling the old woman to the ground. Edna opened her eyes and peered at Iona - into Iona.


“What is it?” her cowpoke friend asked, worried.


She didn’t answer - only stood up and looked around, not bothering to wipe the tears from her face. She looked Iona up and down, with special attention to her pockets. Then finally said, “Nothing. Sorry. Let’s get back to Highmond.”


And she walked around Iona and headed toward Highmond.


They didn’t notice that behind the tea-drinking fence post - home and hidden in the shadowed corners of the train - was a woman who looked, but for a forced western aesthetic, exactly like Iona. This woman rolled her own watch over her knuckles while she sipped a cup of tea, and said - out loud, for the benefit of you - “Well, that was curious.”

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