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And we lived happily ever after

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For the record, my name is Jamie Hamilton and I'm a Homeward Bounder.

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything like this, but I remember it being less intimidating.  Of course, the last time, I was talking into one of Their machines, and it didn’t interrupt me to pick apart my story or laugh at me for not figuring out parts of it sooner - thanks a lot for that, by the way.

Where do you want me to start? You have a copy of the story of how we stopped Them from playing games with us - I left it with Adam. Did you find it on his world?  After that, I kept wandering the Bounds, like I said I would.  I visited Joris and Konstam first, and then Helen and Adam and Him, and I kept moving on.  I tried getting back to them pretty often, though, so that they wouldn’t have aged much by the time I saw them next.

All sorts of interesting things happened to me because interesting things always happen on different worlds.  That doesn't really narrow it down.

I guess... I was checking the marks beside the Bound I'd just come through and one of them was YOU CAN TELL THEM YOU'RE A HOMEWARD BOUNDER.  It's the first time I'd seen that since the one I'd turned into Shen on the real place.  I was so shocked I actually went and told the first person I met that I was a Homeward Bounder.

She was a middle-aged lady with grass-stained trousers and she carried some sort of gardening implement with her, so I assumed she was taking care of the grounds of well, the garden I found myself in.  I was expecting her to look at me like I was crazy or not understand what I meant, but she nodded like people appeared out of nowhere and told her this all the time. She kindly but firmly pointed me towards a Wayhouse near the centre of town.  She was clearly a little impatient to get back to work.

I wandered off in the direction she indicated and found myself staring at the boldy coloured Wayfarers Inn, complete with the astonishing sign, "Homeward Bounders stay for free!"

I didn't know what to make of it, but I was pretty sure it wasn't something I could pass by either.

I opened the door cautiously and found myself staring at a wooden desk with a bell on it and a staircase running up to the upstairs behind it.  While I was rolling my eyes at myself for expecting anything else, a comfortable-looking woman with stylish glasses and pens falling out of her dark hair popped her head out of her office (clearly marked with a little metal sign that said C. Guerrera, Proprietor).

"Hello. Can I help you?" she smiled.

And for the second time that day I found myself telling a complete stranger that I was a Homeward Bounder.

"Oh, but of course you are!" she said.  "Will you be staying the night or would you like to move on now?"

I must have gaped a little.  She burst out laughing, in a well-meant sort of way.  "You're completely new, aren't you?"

In what way could I possibly be new, I thought.

"That's prefectly alright.  I'm glad you found us. My name is Carlotta, and I'm a Magid."

"Jamie," I mumbled and shook the hand she offered.

"You look in pretty decent shape, Jamie, so come with me and I'll put you right through to the Empire.  The High Priestess will sort you out."

I undestood less than half of that, but I followed her anyway.  What else could I do?

She brought me downstairs to the basement and opened a door for me. "Right through there. You'll be just fine! Tell them you're new and that Carlotta sent you.  Come again soon!"

I stepped through, and felt the familiar twinge of the Bound.

And found myself standing in a ridiculously massive temple.  A grey robed figure hurried up to me and I explained about Carlotta.  Seconds later she returned with another woman, who I was shocked to realize was Helen.

“Helen!" I exclaimed. "Is that you?  What are you doing here?" I thought furiously, taking in my surroundings with a practised eye.  "This isn't your world, is it?"

It'd been a while since I'd seen her.   The last time I'd been to Helen’s world, she was out on a holy pilgrimage.  As the Hand of Uquar, returning hero, she was kind of a big deal.  They built a great big ugly temple in her honour and gave her a lot of initiates to obey her every word.  They were all dressed in black and wore their hair over their faces.  I laughed at first at the thought of Helen Haras-uquara, fashion icon, but they must have driven her mad, so I could understand why she was out. I’d spend all my time away on a holy retreat, too if that was my alternative.  The frustrating bit was how they wouldn’t tell me anything else - like for how long she’d be gone.

I only lasted a week before I had to leave, myself.

No, I wasn’t being called by the Bounds anymore, since that only happened when They finished a play, and They weren’t playing anymore. It was just hard being polite to people who looked like Helen.  It was even worse when I’d forget and say rude things to them since they’d never snipe back at me properly.  And Helen’s world was awful.  If she weren’t there to visit, I’d have been tempted to let it get unreal again.

I left a message for her that said, “Dear Helen.  Sorry to have missed you.  Your temple is really ugly and your initiates are even meaner than you.  See you next time I come through.  Jamie.”  Or okay, not really, but only because I was worried her initiates would read it and never let me see Helen again.  I actually wrote her a really nice long letter that said how everyone was doing.

The trip from the temple to the nearest Bound took under five minutes.  In that time I acquired three bug bites that swelled up to different sizes and a mild storm sanded part of the skin off my face.

Did I mention Helen’s world was really awful?

Okay, you say that, but it is terrible.  Anyway, Helen looked a bit different now.  She looked older than me - in her twenties, I'd guess, but the really big difference was that she had her hair pulled back out of her face.  It made her look quite pretty and grown up and as always the thought of everyone growing up without me gave me a dangerous pang low in my chest.

"Jamie," she squinted at me.  "You look exactly the same."  I glared, but it's hard to argue with that.

"This isn't my world - it's Koryfos.  I've been helping bring back the wider times,” she said.

I drew back, alarmed.  If she managed to give me Hope - that I could have a home, or travel less - the only foothold we had against Them was gone.  Even thinking it could work was dangerous.  I'd been not thinking about it pretty successfully for years.

"Everyone will walk the bounds again someday, but so far it's just strong magic-users, and they travel more like Uquar did - pushing through the weak spaces between worlds.  You won't have to do it alone."

“That was very kind of you,” I said stiffly.  My body felt like it was locking into place.

“Yes it was, wasn’t it,” Helen said eyes narrowing.  She was starting to see I wasn't on board and she was about to get deeply offended.

“But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t stop being a Homeward Bounder, without losing our only foothold against Them” I said, my voice rising.  “You can’t make me Hope like this, Helen!  I didn’t think you were that cruel.”  The last part tore out of me, cracking my voice into a high, squeaky sob.  Being a teenager for centuries was a cruel torture of its own.  Another thing to blame on Them.

Helen snorted disgustedly.  “This is why I left you out during the planning.  I’m not giving you hope, you idiot.  I’m handing you an organization of trained magic-users to deal with inter-world problems, including Them.  If you decide you want to stop someday, then they can take over entirely, but if you think you can do better by martyring yourself and refusing to let me help you, at least you have support, or a back-up plan.  Which should exist anyway because They’re not stupid like you.  Do you really think They sat around sulking after you destroyed Their Real Place?  Because I don’t.  I bet They started looking for loopholes almost immediately.  It’s what They do.”  

I fumed.  She maybe had a point.  “I’m not going to stop being a Homeward Bounder,” I repeated.

“I didn’t ask you to!”

“You were the one who said about me stopping someday!  I can’t stop! That’s the whole point!”

“You’re such an ungrateful stubborn pig!” Helen snarled. “Just listen to what I’m saying for once, can’t you?  I’m trying to offer you a job!”

“You’re the one who--”  I blinked.  Did I just hear that right?

“A... job?”  I tasted the word in my mouth.

“Yes,” she said, smug now that she had my attention.  “Stop interrupting and let me tell you properly.”

“I already have a job,” I said, just because.

“One with fair pay and benefits....”   She scowled.  “You know what, never mind.  I don’t know why I even missed you.  You make me feel so old.”

“I missed you too, Granny.” I laughed meanly and she bared her teeth at me.

This is what she told me, more or less.  I've left out a lot of insults to save time.  Yes, it was at least half you, Helen, and you know it.

First off, I wasn’t by far the only Homeward Bounder to keep wandering the Bounds.  The others were all sent home, but some of them had been at it far longer than I had.  It’s nearly impossible to live a normal life after something that crazy and awful happens.  Some did manage, picking up where they left off and ignoring that it ever happened, some were worshipped as Gods or Prophets and some went mad.  A couple of them managed to find the Bounds again and keep travelling.  It must have been difficult, without the Bounds calling or having Joris’ device.  I think they mostly did it from memory, which is pretty astounding, although I’ve met one Homeward Bounder who swears he can do it by smell.  

Anyway, I didn’t really see any of them, although occasionally I thought there might have been new marks at some of the Bounds. I must have supposed that it was just the Homeward Bounders taking care of the Bounds.

One of them, poor unlucky fellow, made it through to Helen’s world.  They picked him up, half-dead in the desert from where he’d been trying to find the Bound, and brought him to Helen.  That’s when she got the idea that maybe she could do something about Them yet.  I think she was also having some problems adjusting back home, even though she hadn’t been a Homeward Bounder for very long at all. She didn’t like being worshipped, even if they gave her all the nasty snakes, rats and ugly crawly bugs she could want.

She went to see Him - Uquar, or Prometheus on the world I came from.  He still felt awful over what had happened to me and agreed to help in any way he could.

And so He and Helen bent their heads and put together an initial plan for a stable Empire that would span as many worlds as possible held together by a college of magical judge-ambassadors. He was certain that there would be enough people to train if only they searched through all the worlds.  Helen wnt one way to look for them and He went the other, trying to find an Emperor and a world suitable for an Empire.   Lofty goals, indeed.  I was awed that they would go so far for me. 

Helen ran into a lot of potential Magids - enchanters, sorcerers, witches, warlocks, wizards, shamans, diviners, alchemists, oracles.  You name it.  I’d met a lot of them myself; they tend to get drawn to the Bounds.

He’d come through with an Emperor and a homeworld. Then He did something really complicated with Time (there are a lot of weird things out there to do with Time that I’d never realized before) so the Koryfonic Empire would be well established when I got there.

I feel like I’m telling this all out of order, but I can’t help it.  It comes to me in loops and circles.

Which is funny, I guess, because Helen wanted me to help map the multi-verse, and that’s what it looks like, to me.  It’s an even more confused set of loops and circles when you add in Time over top of it, but I’ll get to that later.  

Helen told me that she picked up a lot of disillusioned Homeward Bounders while she travelled.  None of them had much by way of magic, so they couldn’t be retrained as Magids, but they were full of knowledge about every world out there.

What they figured out between them is that easiest way to imagine the multi-verse is in the shape of an infinity symbol.  One side has more magically inclined worlds, or Ayewards.  The other is all the mundane worlds or Naywards.  And right in the middle, where the loops meet, was the Koryfonic Empire.

The thing is, the multi-verse is always shifting as some of the worlds crawl furthur Ayewards or Naywards or as they break off and meld back together.

More things I didn’t even realize were happening!  I was so interested, I agreed as soon as Helen assured me I would still be travelling the Bounds.  She sneered and told me to wait until I’d heard the rest of the terms at least.

I’d be working with another Homeward Bounder or a Magid - probably at all times since it was useful to have someone around who could deal with Them if it came up.  Avoiding Them, my usual MO, wouldn’t hold up if I were on official business from Koryfonic Empire.  And I’d have to file reports to the Magid High Council.

“Paperwork?” I asked Helen doubtfully.

“There’s nothing more real than paperwork,” she promised darkly.

I also got to carry a Seal of the Empire to allow passage into wayhouses and other Empires where I would be considered an ambassador.  No more vagrancy for me!

The gray-robed temple initiate edged up with a stack of forms and documents and faded off into the corner again.  Helen handed me piece after piece to sign until I began to think she was having me on.  

"I told you," she said, but then it was all official.  I was a properly employed servant of the Koryfonic Empire and the paperwork really started in earnest - ha!

Why do I want to work for the Empire?  I guess I didn’t say, did I.  There are a lot of reasons.  The main one is that my friends built it for me so I could live a life that meant more than They intended and I would be stupid not to accept that for the truly tremendous gift it is.  I’m trying to work on that - being less stupid.  

***