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The Turning of The Stars

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The Mountains of Garthnor are quiet but never silent, not even now, in the grey hours before dawn's first light. Sam lies on his back. He's quite sure all the other questers are asleep, so in mute irritation he fixes his gaze on the alien stars overhead, listening to the gentle chatter of outdoor sounds. Somewhere in that tapestry of busy insects, overzealous songbirds and the mumbling of a nearby stream, some wrong note must have jolted him from sleep, and now here he is with little chance of nodding off again before sunrise.

The day/night cycles here are longer than they ever were on Higher Earth, he's quite sure. Unless it's only a trick of the mind, his weary brain stretching out the hours as one forgettable day adds itself to an endless stack of its twins. Things move at a slower pace here, after all. There's no television to eat up his life one half-hour sliver at a time. It takes weeks just to message someone on the other side of Belarond; Sam is reminded uncomfortably of the days of dial-up internet. Like trench warfare, seeking the Sword of Asnagar is one part sheer heart bursting terror to nine parts brain melting boredom. Yet he could swear that, addled by drudgery as he is, twenty-four hours really do take longer to pass in Lower Earth.

That's assuming an hour here is the same as an hour at home, of course. And that a minute is equal to a minute. Sam has Penthesilea's assurance that his experiences in Lower Earth take place in real time; that when he gets home - if he gets home - as much time will have passed there as he spent here. It's a scary thought. Sam has done his best to map the Gregorian calendar onto the Elven one in order to work out how long he's been here, resulting in estimates between nine months and three years, but the truth is he won't ever know for certain.

His imagination shrinks from the idea of spending decades of his life trapped here, of going grey before he next sets foot in England. He wonders how it might be reported: Missing novelist reappears after twenty-five years. Underneath, next to a picture of himself looking rugged and handsome: Fantasy writer Sam Porter gained cult status after his mysterious disappearance from a Totnes bookshop in 2009...

Sam blinks and his daydream fades away. He can't afford to distort his memories of Higher Earth with thoughts like that. Since his clothes were all burned in the Holy Fires of Hosternom, all he has to connect him to his old life is the book Darkness brought him - he doesn't like to read his own work, but every few days he takes it out of his pack and flicks through it, trying to capture some scent or sense of home between its worn pages. There's Amis, of course, but Amis is very much a man (well, man-child) of Lower Earth now. He's grown so much since the whole Chosen One thing came along, Sam doesn't like to think what will become of him if they ever actual win the Final Battle. He won't want to go back to being Sam's labrador, that's for bloody well certain. Nothing's ever going to go back to the way it was before. Even if they defeated evil and reopened the portal tomorrow, Sam knows he's already spent too much time around the questers and their odd, dualistic worldview to move seamlessly back into modern life. He'd flinch every time a car drove past, emitting chimera roars and harpie screams. He's increasingly aware that he's forgotten how to use a smoothie maker. Rehabilitation won't be easy.

And for what? He's not in the prophecy. They say you can never tell until the events foretold are upon you, but Sam has a fairly strong hunch that there's no place for a cynical old coward in the Final Battle. Not that he'd want one, oh no. He's best suited to the sidelines, preferably somewhere out of harm's way with a good view of Penthesilea's legs. Amis is going to save the universe, and good for him; Sam's quite happy to watch, and applaud, and then go back to his flat and buy a normal non-magical puppy and spend the rest of his life making up stories. Quite happy.

Dawn is spreading across the sky now, sending the birds into new ecstasies of chirps and whistles. Any minute now the heroes will spring up from their makeshift beds and chime in with their breakfast songs, passing around the remains of last night's fried gramblecock. Sam closes his eyes and pretends to be insensible to the turning of the stars above him.