I looked down at the endless bustling past the base of the temple steps, listened to the monotonous roar of the market, and sighed at the thought of having to rejoin the mix with no idea about where to go next. “I would have preferred a big glowing portal home. Or at least a map with ‘This Way to Reality’ in big letters.”
Forrest didn’t respond; he seemed lost in thought.
“Ground control to Major Tom?”
“Hmm? Oh, I was just wondering if our meeting was really a...”
The attack was so swift that I only saw it in flashes. A glimpse of red. Captain Forrest grappling with a man in a cloak. A curved knife flashing. The two of them rolling down the steps.
Any normal crowd would have cleared a space around the fight; here, the mass of people simply swept around them as they reached the street. I couldn’t see them at all, couldn’t hear the struggle over the noise.
Then, I glimpsed the red cloak again. Shouting Forrest’s name, I forced my way into the crowd.
Blurred faces swarmed around me, and I was shoved in every direction simultaneously. I shoved back as hard as I could, trying to clear a path toward where I had seen the man in red.
A flash to my left became a gleaming blade sweeping toward my neck. Twisting away, I stumbled, and caught the folds of a passing toga with one hand. My fingers tingled, and I realized I had grabbed a sleepwalker.
He opened his mouth as I got my feet under me, but before he could speak, his expression of confusion changed to one of agony. He flickered out of the dream, revealing the man in red standing where he had just stabbed the sleepwalker in the back.
The man brought the knife low and moved forward; my back pressed up against the press of bodies behind me. My mind froze; some part of it was screaming at me to move, while the rest, detached, latched onto details about my attacker. Like Forrest, he stood out from the background like someone from the real world; that must have been why I noticed him earlier, though I didn’t realize what I was seeing.
But what froze my heart was his face. It was utterly expressionless. Not a snarl of hatred, not a tightening of the lips or a crease in his forehead to show that he was concentrating on what he was doing. Neither pleasant nor cruel. He didn’t even seem bored or disinterested, just...blank.
The hand holding the knife hovered. My knees felt weak.
The forward thrust was fluid and perfect. Time slowed as the blade moved in a slight upward curve, directly toward my heart.
Then Forrest was there, driving into the narrow space, striking the blank-faced man’s wrist. Bone snapped, and the knife skidded across the uneven paving stones, disappearing under the feet of the crowd.
Forrest and the attacker faced one another, less than two yards apart. Standing behind Forrest, I could see that he was hurt; one fist dripped red from between his clenched fingers, and his t-shirt was soaked with blood. The man in red appeared uninjured, except for his right hand, which hung bonelessly. His expression had not changed.
Then the attacker flicked his wrist, and his hand straightened as if the bones had been shaken back into place. He flexed his fingers, and the knife reappeared in his hand.
Then time started moving, faster than before; the nightmarish inevitability of the killing thrust that Forrest had intercepted became a delirious rush of movements nearly too fast to follow, in an arena less than ten feet across walled with the shifting bodies of the crowd.
Forrest blocked a sweep of the knife with one arm, and snapped a quick jab at the man in red’s face with the other. The blank-faced man dodged back, dropped, and launched a sweeping kick at Forrest’s legs that forced the captain to dance aside. Forrest pushed off of a man with a tiger’s head to launch himself forward in another attack.
I kept dodging, always one step behind the fight, always unable to help. I knew how to handle myself in a street fight, but that primarily involved running away as soon as possible. Forrest and the other were moving so quickly that anything I might try was only going to interfere with Forrest’s defense.
Even as I could no longer make out the individual blows that were being struck, it became obvious that Forrest was losing. He landed solid hits, staggering the blank-faced man momentarily, but his attacker would shrug off the blow and come back as strong as before. Then the recurved knife would flick out. While Forrest was blocking or dodging most of the strikes, he could not avoid them all.
If this were a movie, Forrest would have been able to improvise a weapon to even the odds, a chair, or a broomstick, or something. I ducked and shifted again as a high kick cleared the space where I had just been standing. Leaning on the broomstick, I pushed myself back upright, and helplessly continued watching my guide being sliced apart.
I had been feeling the rough wood under my hand for several seconds before I realized that there was something new in my world.
“Captain!” I shouted, and tossed the wooden staff into the combat. Forrest snagged the broomstick out of the air, and brought it whistling around, knocking aside the knife and driving back the man in the red cloak.
“Never do that again!” he said, as he held the man in red at bay.
As far as I was concerned, Forrest’s hands-off philosophy was going to get him killed, so I ignored him. If a broomstick, why not a gun? I shut my eyes and wished for a Glock, but nothing happened.
Opening my eyes, I saw the man in red glance at me for an instant before turning his attention back to Forrest. The faintest of smiles crossed his face, as he lazily extended his left hand and took a quarterstaff out of thin air.
“Get out of here!” Forrest said, as he and the man in red met in a clash of staves.
I didn’t move. I closed my eyes again and wished hard for a tank, but the armored cavalry failed to arrive.
“I said go!”
Then Forrest crouched, and seemed to surge with a burst of strength. With two sweeps, he knocked the man in red to the ground. But instead of pressing his advantage, he turned to me.
He lurched forward, and I thought he was going to push me out into the crowd. Instead, he reached past me, and grabbed a passing figure, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and large, thick glasses. A sleepwalker.
“Take him somewhere safe. Do it now!”
I started to protest, but it was too late. The dreamer followed Forrest’s command, and we were gone.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 12.1]