Jemith rode his horse with reckless abandon across the desert flats from Peridai, knowing he would have little use for the beast by the middle of the afternoon. The western horizon was near and growing nearer by the minute, sky like blue enamel meeting a low-lying bank of dirty clouds that seemed to boil up from under the horizon. It was not really surprising; Jemith rode straight for the edge of the world. The land simply ended without explanation or apology, turning into a sheer face that disappeared into misty distance in three directions: north, south, and down.
It was not entirely a clean end; the line of demarcation was visibly concave. Massive boulders, more resilient or better anchored than the rock and earth around them, projected jaggedly over the precipice, suggesting a monstrous grin on a gaping maw, open to someday swallow what remained.
Supposedly, there had once been land beyond the edge of the world, but no one was really certain where—or even when—it had vanished. The hot wind that blew during the daylight hours carried plumes of dust from the desert over the cliff and hit cooler, moister air below; dust and vapor formed a haze that confused distances and never completely dissipated.
The horse’s sides began to heave and the breath roared in its chest, so Jemith dismounted and left the beast to its own devices, freeing it from the harness that he casually discarded. The walk was hot and uncomfortable and he rested gratefully in the shaded vee between two massive stone fangs, staring over the edge only a few feet away. He checked the straps on his backpack, settled his gear into place, and gripped the boulder next to him as best he could. Cautiously, he probed the empty air with an extended boot, bending his other knee and lowering himself an inch at a time until he succeeded in thumping his toes on something solid. Sighing in relief, he transferred his weight forward, lost his balance, stumbled, and fell into the illusion, catching the chain that served as a guardrail with his stomach.
He cursed and wheezed painfully for a minute or two, glaring down the length of the now-visible path down the cliff. It was well hidden even without magical protection and he hated not being able to see where he was putting his feet, especially with that endless fall if he misjudged. The board pathway descended along the cliff, decking suspended from chains attached to the wall. It was sturdy and stable construction, but Jemith could never manage to stop himself from clinging to the chains as he walked. It was ridiculous to be afraid of heights, but being ridiculous didn’t reduce the fear.
The clouds were shading into evening colors when the suspension road swerved into a dizzying switchback to pass under a fall of white water. Jemith wiped spray from his face and looked down at the improbable construction of the Side.
Enterprising magicians had contrived a way to make enormous blocks of stone hover in mid-air. It was an impressive feat, and, secure in their power and capability, they’d gone ahead and built their homes on top of floating rocks. It increased the difficulty of visiting the neighbors somewhat, so they threw up delicate bridges to accommodate traffic. Then, they’d quietly vanished from the world, choosing to locate their city where no one would ever think to look for it: beyond the edge of the world.
That was centuries ago. Now, the population of the Side had outgrown the platforms and spread, fungus-like, over the nearby rock face. Thick pilings driven deep into stone supported buildings of rope, wood, and canvas; in the twilight they looked like a colony of birds nesting on a bluff, as though at any moment they might tear loose from their perches and fling themselves into the void.
Ehmammin, important elder magician that he was, had located his home in an eccentric location that required Jemith to navigate almost the full width of the city before he arrived at the drawbridge. Predictably, it was up. Fortunately, the caller was sitting in its box, otherwise Jemith might have been reduced to throwing things to get his master’s attention.
“Master?” he shouted into the device. Faint scrabbling noises ensued, as though rats inhabited the caller.
“What?! Who’s there?”
“It is I, Jemith, returning!”
The drawbridge descended with a thump, nearly claiming Jemith’s toes. With a resigned sigh he walked into the home of the master magician.
“Finally!” the old man declared, grabbing his apprentice’s backpack so aggressively that he almost jerked the younger man off his feet. Jemith ducked his head and pulled his arms out of the straps, then slid into a cushioned niche with another sigh.
“You’re getting dust everywhere! Go take a bath!”
“And I suppose you’re hungry as well, hmm?”
“Good, you can start my supper after you’re clean.”
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