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    (Story 2 Page 443) Higher Up and Farther In

    ~ Years Later ~

    "That's how it was," you say. "I told him he was a good man, and I'd never forget him."

    Around you beaks clack and feathers rustle. You've told the raven tribe about your first other-world experience, as part of a very unusual initiation. See, it happened only after you fought the Red-Beaked Tyrant and freed the land...

    "Wait, wait." Warrior Leif reaches a wing out to you, finger-talons spread at the end. You and the other raven-folk perch in a vast cliffside cave. Firelight dances, and the gruesome carrion of today's battle is only half cleaned away from the once-sacred stone buildings. Leif says, "So you were one of these 'human' creatures, became a talking fox, and only then became one of the People?"

    You stand and stretch your wings, then will yourself to shift. Feathers ripple and fade as you assume one of the battle-forms from this morning: part human, part wolf. Through your fanged muzzle you say, "No. This world is number two hundred and six for me." There's a gasp at that, and you show off your vixen form too before returning to raven. With this many costumes behind you, you've built up some impressive powers.

    Leif's mate Kvelda toasts more fish over the fire. She says, "We knew you were special even before you offered to fight the Tyrant for us." That bird's now being picked over by hungry cliff-racers on the jagged rocks below.

    You bow your beak. "I wanted to do good deeds in a hundred other worlds, like my friend said. It's a good deal for me. I'm not getting any older, and by now I've got..." Two hundred-odd worlds, over one long-week in each... "Well, years of experience. Now that things have settled down, I can teach you about iron-working and many other things."

    "Before you go?" asks Kvelda.

    Leif's head-crest sticks up uneasily. He's likely to be the next chieftain, unless you claim the title. You give a screeching laugh. "Don't worry, Leif. I'll move on, as beautiful as your world is. I do need help in finding at least one costume, though. The Tyrant tore apart the first one when he captured me."

    "You have the gratitude of all our people! We'll scour the area at first light."

    A fledgeling at the edge of the fire's light chirps nervously. Nobody respected the kid till today. In the end he not only figured out how to disable the Tyrant's secret lightning idol, but made sure the Tyrant didn't just fall off the cliff and out of sight. (You hate it when that happens to villains.) Now he says, "What if we find more than one?"

    "Well, there should be two left," you say. "And I want first choice. If you find both, I'll tell you what to expect, though it won't be a costume I've personally seen --"

    A squawk from Leif interrupts you. "What? You would let the boy fly off to another world?"

    "If he wants to," you say with shrugged wings. "It won't be the first time I've ended up having spares that people wanted. There was this world of eight-bit... never mind; you wouldn't know what that means."

    "But he's a weakling!"

    You fix Leif with a piercing stare. "The Red-Beaked Tyrant thought he was the strongest bird in the world. It turns out there's always someone stronger, somewhere. You should remember that." You're not entirely sure he'll turn out to be much better as a ruler. But you've tried to spread certain other ideas in the places you've visited, like "kill all dictators". You came to that stance after world sixty-six, which you'd rather not remember tonight. You shake your head and smooth your head-feathers. "Anyway, he's earned the right to go where he pleases. And he'll get stronger if he does... and maybe even come back someday."

    Kvelda passes grilled fish around. You tear into one of them. You've collected some interesting recipes, but simple ones are some of the best. Kvelda says, "We've heard that before."

    "Oh?"

    "There's something you should see, higher up and farther in." She points away from the fire into the dark cliff-city.

    You crane your neck to peer into the shadows. Suddenly you're not so hungry. "Let's go see it then."

    You and Kvelda and the boy take wing, carefully flapping up along the descrated roofless houses in the darkness. In a little while you reach a high tier of buildings past where you broke out of the Tyrant's prison. Kvelda lights a torch and shows you a space that's been walled up completely. "I think it's here. Very old. Can you get in?"

    "Of course." You shift to a massive form like a centaur elephant and punch the stone wall. You peer in though the hole left by your massive fist, and spot something. Quickly you clear away more stone blocks, shielding the ravens from debris.

    There's a statue here made of tarnished silver. Its wings are spread wide in a welcoming gesture, looking over the cliff city. Before the pedestal was bricked over to hide it, the statue would've been lit from those torch-holders beside it and cast silver firelight on the whole area. And there's writing on the pillar. It translates as:

    "Here, Bragho the Wanderer led his people to victory over evil. May you do likewise in all the worlds that exist."

    You lose control over your mighty battle form, and shift to the sleek vixen body you had a long time ago. Leaning against a broken wall, you manage to laugh and cry at the same time.

    Kvelda and the fledgeling exchange a glance as though you're crazy. They back away and give you a few minutes to gather your thoughts.

    Then the boy taps your fox-tail with a wingtip. You look down at him, smiling weakly. He says, "You were playing a game. That's what this whole costume thing was about, right? So... did you win?"

    You blink, surprised to be reminded of the rules you once fished out of a pocket. The costume game itself is just a means to an end, to you. But you got through it with your mind and spirit intact, and brought some of your favorite things from Earth along. This world's more peaceful and free thanks to you, too, though how that happened is another story. Through your adventures you've worked to sow the best seeds of hundreds of worlds. You've seen things others could hardly believe, from burning starships to countries built on crystal dragons. In hindsight, you've probably earned a few statues yourself by now. And in this place, as in others, you've inspired someone else to go and do likewise. Even for you there's much, much more to see.

    "Yes," you tell him, and hug him close. "This is what winning feels like."

    Written by Snow on 18-07-2010 and edited by catprog



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