The journey up the steep section along the rock face was as gruelling as Brandt had predicted, something that Oboru was only marginally aware of. Contrary to outward appearances he wasn’t unconscious. He was, however, lost and most of the time unaware of and unconnected to his body. When, like at this moment, he briefly found himself back in the darkness and shattered realities that pulled at him from all directions, he was aware of what was happening by more than his ears. Oboru was reasonably certain he was both lucid and had his eyes closed, but he still knew that the palest woman he’d ever seen was guiding the feet of a horse one at a time to find safe footing, and that a barbarian mercenary was doing the same for a shaggy warhorse a little ways back. Another woman was walking next to him and … he lost the train of thoughts again. There was a fourth person that he couldn’t get much of any impression of.

The four were the only sources of warmth in a blizzard that he found himself trapped in. Not that blizzard was the right word, but it was the closest that he could think of for the bone chilling cold wind that came out of the blackness that encroached on him, and that tried to drag him off with it. Warmth wasn’t the right word either, but it fit the metaphor.

Just trying to concentrate for a moment on the fourth person made him aware again of the fact that his body was slowly moving forward but that the wind clawed at him and kept him anchored to the utter blackness behind them all.

That moment of inattention was enough to make him lose himself again, and he found himself trapped in the darkness, with the darkness trying to swallow him back, and the unpleasant sensation of being pulled into many directions at once. Each of them promising to be reality if only he could find his way to them.

It was hard for Oboru to keep his thoughts in this place, and memories of the many previous times he had found himself there were fragmented at best. He did have the feeling that the darkness had deepened the last time he found himself this close to it.

Not deeper in the sense of lack of colour, for it was already the complete and absolute absence of all light — which made the existence of colour in it clearly impossible. It was more a deepening in the way a well could get deeper. Though not quite like that either. A well could get deeper into the earth and this wasn’t anything like that. The closest Oboru could come to understanding it was that the heart of the darkness was moving away from the world, seeking something in the nothingness between worlds — and how had he come to understand that there were many worlds separated by a nothing that excluded the very concept of things, he didn’t know. Yet at the same time that the heart of the darkness moved away from him, it also moved towards him, slowly. The two were clearly related.  In his fragmented understanding of what was real and what was hallucination.

He knew he had been trapped in that nothing for a long time, and only a great good fortune, or perhaps a malicious intent, had allowed him to escape before his sense of reality had entirely scattered into parts too small to discover, and he with it. And he now feared, in his brief lucid moments, that he brought some of that nothing with him when he escaped. The Nothing — he felt he might as well capitalise it in his thoughts as it was that much of an entity in its own right — wanted him back, and it wanted that very badly indeed. Oboru didn’t need a teacher to tell him it would be a catastrophically bad thing if it succeeded.

If only he could focus himself long enough on himself so he could tell the others. They seemed to be moving again after staying put far too long and letting the Nothing almost engulf him, but it was so close now that it was very hard for him to stay with his body. The slightest movement could sweep him away and bring him to the edge of the darkness. If not for the other places, realities, or maybe possibilities, that pulled at him, he feared greatly that he would have long been devoured.

Those other things that were pulling at him were weaker by far than the Nothing, because they were so much further away, but they were a pull that felt more real to him than his own body. Possibly because his body was so close to the Nothing that it was all but undetectable in the black blizzard. His sense of presence of those other pulls was also wavering in and out of focus but, sensing how near he was to being devoured, Oboru latched on to the one that was, at that moment, strongest next to the Nothing and let it pull him away.

It wasn’t a solution of course, because rather than a Nothing, he let himself be pulled towards an ancient forest with a lake at its heart, a lake so deep that it could drown the entire world if it were ever to spill over. Getting caught into that lake would drown him as sure as the Nothing would devour him, and it would be equally catastrophic in that he was certain as anything — despite the lack of facts backing up that certainty — that if he were to fall into that lake it would break its bonds and do just that, drowning the world.

So as he slipped out of the grasp of the Nothing and got closer to the Water, he started to pull back from that too and let another pull shift him away from that danger, towards a next. And a next. Because each of the realities that pulled at him were a refuge and a trap.

There was no sense of place associated with these realities, and Oboru feared that was a bad sign of how far away he had already slipped. They were just places with a vague, a really vague, sense of distance. And they all had a heart of something that was vastly more than it at first glance appeared.

The only exceptions where his body, which he could almost never find as he fled from reality to reality, and the one place he dreaded even more than the Nothing that was the strongest pull. In his mind he associated that one reality as a tree, yet at the same time also with an endless forest. It was one tree and it was all trees, it was warm and it was cold. It was light raining down from above on the leaves, and darkness creeping up from the roots. And where the other realities that pulled at him had a distinct feeling of being a place, this one give him the impression of being all places. At its heart was a sound that Oboru instinctively knew not to listen to, for if he ever did, he would be swept away with it.

He tried to stay away from it, preferring even the Nothing if he had any choice.

Mostly he was trying to find his body again, for if only he could manage to anchor himself in himself he would be able to shield from all the things that were pulling at him. For all that he had lost it and couldn’t find it back in the storm of darkness and nothingness, his body was the strongest pull of all and would not allow his self to be torn away again while it still functioned.

Yet, for now he could just continue to dance the dance and bounce himself from one force pulling at him to the next. And hope his strength and concentration would hold out just a little longer until he could make it all right somehow.