The Black Fence

Nowhere, Salía, The Caustlands, 345 SE

Airam Mazo was not a tall man, a fact which sometimes annoyed him, especially as a soldier. Today though, he was grateful. Standing as he was three ranks back in the formation, his view of the Black Fence was almost totally obscured by the taller soldiers in front of him.

So he caught only glimpses of the glossy black stone, though he could see the whole of it by remembering the circle it formed on his map, how it curved in to enclose.

But he should not see it, should not have made it, and they were standing so close, and they did not normally get this close to the Black Fence. It wasn't safe. It wasn't—

infinite depths of waves beneath the all of things come see come look look OUTSIDE

—wise. Or so they had all been told by the veterans of the Nowhere Watch. When a group of green soldiers arrived, though, they were brought here. And they were always green, untested, no matter their rank, no matter how crusty or combat-seasoned.

Everyone was green when they first arrived to stand the Nowhere Watch. Airam himself was a Sergeant who had seen action against bandits on the Tenggaran border. He had faced ashwights in Acheronford, had watched their misshapen forms drag themselves out of the Ashlit Mire and swarm the ramparts. He had helped cut them down, heard their burbling death-sounds. He had scars to show for it.

Still he was green, here with the Nowhere Watch.

it's not nowhere you know that no this is a place, this is a real place and the Black Fence Black Fence is real and solid go, go ahead and touch the obsidian it is smooth and it is warm, it must be warm, it must welcome skin

Airam shuddered, doing his best to hide it. He was glad that he was not bald, that his black hair was thick. Otherwise they could easily see his sweat, see it stand out against the flush of his skin, but his skin was brown, and the flush was not so easy to see and he was grateful, was—

reach up in through realized known concept concept made real

He only just resisted holding his head in his hands. Be silent, he yelled downward into the echoing parts of his mind. He yelled it in Gentic. He yelled it in his native Ambérico. He closed his eyes to shut out the great obsidian shards he thought he could still see, see right through the taller soldier in front of him. He had seen already, seen on his map, seen on the map he had made he—

Murmuring in the ranks. Airam opened his eyes. So far everyone was standing fast, none had moved. Airam would stand fast as well. His right eye was twitching. He decided this was because it could see too profoundly. He couldn't shut it now.

"Right...FACE!" It was the voice of the First Sergeant, standing in front of the formation. Airam could not remember her name. Her words were harsh, even for a barked command. He felt his body tense at the first word, move at the second, no thought, long habit. Right foot pivot on the heel—

turn turn yourself toward, turn yourself away face outward, face out from what you have known what anyone can know, turn and see-know-comprehend the Outer Below

—left foot pivot on the ball, body turn to follow. The sound of a hundred boots twisting over thin grit. Left foot step forward, join the right—

join join forward become catalyze making real transgress the boundaries conduit mind

—and back at attention. The sound of a hundred united stomps, bootheels against packed parched earth. All facing another direction now. Not away, no, but at least not toward. Airam felt a moment's relief.

"Counter Column...MARCH!" Her voice again, no name for it, but it called obedience from his feet though he stumbled, though he had to follow the soldier in front of him. Airam—

Sergeant Mazo not just Airam i am Sergeant Mazo i must remember who i am

—thought maybe they were all looking at him, but he kept his eyes forward. He could not look around, must not. The path of the soldier ahead curved, and for a moment Airam was facing it again, could see one great black-dagger mass through the file of soldiers marching the other way. Airam almost stumbled again but he didn't and the path of his own file curved fully round as he followed, went back the direction it had come.

saw you feel your mind reach know grasp below outside

Now they were sliding back into formation. Facing left, now. Not away, but at least not toward. Another moment's relief, but faded this time. Some part of his mind knew what was coming, and he clawed to hang on to the scraps of self. Another part knew he now stood one rank closer to the Black Fence, second rank instead of third. At least he had not been in the last rank, then he would now be first and there would be no—

"Right...FACE!" Again he felt his feet move, body pivoting with them. A different soldier in front of him now, still taller than he, but Airam's eyes darted left, right, between soldiers, seeing through the new first rank. His right eye twitched, and twitched again. He could see them now, the huge obsidian knife-slabs that stabbed up and in toward...toward the center. He could see how they stood slanting side-by-side to form a black-shine curve, bending away from their formation, the circle he had seen on his map.

i have been pondering and we were not to, we were not to do it no thought let by but the map, i had the map looked at the map had to plan plan for duty

His head felt huge. Not swollen, not enormous with pain the way it sometimes was on mornings after he had drunk too much tequila. It was immense, it contained multitudes, its interior his mind was cavernous, no it was a space greater than all that between the stars and what moved between them and and and—

Airam Mazo broke ranks and sprinted toward the Black Fence. The other soldiers tried to stop him but he was clever, the vastness of his sight was boundless it was it was he did not comprehend what it was doing to him but it let him see, let him avoid their attempts to stop him. He ran and he ran and heard shouting behind, orders. He knew the path of arrows and spears that went by but they bent because everything bent everything was bent and it twisted into and along directions that could not, could not, and he must not and he realized and he turned and ran back toward the other soldiers.

Maybe there was still hope maybe he could be

They cut him down. The first blows did nothing, but they still came, and he went to his knees until his resilience was gone. He looked down at his uniform, at his Sergeant's stripes and Salían Army insignia. He wanted to remember, but his thoughts were gone, made huge and inimical. He looked down, and saw more. It gaped upward and could swallow swallow could

They cut him in pieces. The next blows tore him apart, and when there were only rags of uniform and bits of armor and ragged butchery they dragged it all away from the Black Fence and they burned it.
His family got a stipend and a letter explaining that nothing at all had happened to their son. He had not been stationed anywhere in particular. The family burned the letter, and remembered him as he had been.

One of the other soldiers found his map, and had to be knocked unconscious so that she could be transported to hospital. They burned it, along with his desk and everything on it. Airam had copied it over from a good map, a proper map, only instead of the customary hole punched through the paper to omit the Black Fence entirely, he had actually sketched the jagged obsidian circle.

And then he had filled it in.

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