I started flailing around, trying to get a grip on something.  I still had the sword in my hand, which was good, but it meant I only had my left hand to grab with.  Finally I got myself onto my back, going feet-first downstream, and as I rounded a curve to the right I swung wide and managed to grab an overhanging tree.

As I hung there, clutching the tree branch in my left hand and trying to get my other arm over it, the water suddenly went down and I fell to the stony ravine floor.  It took me a moment to understand that the gateway had closed, cutting off the water.

I sat down, breathing hard, more from the relief than the effort.  Finally I stood up, and I saw that the end of the ravine was in sight.  I felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach.

“Mystery Woman!  Are you okay?” said Troll, and I turned and saw him coming down the ravine at a run.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It, ah, could have been worse.”

We climbed up the sides of the ravine before opening the gate again.  Micron shrunk down to about six inches and got inside my backpack.  Though he was tiny, he still weighed as much as when he was normal size.  When the gate opened, it was Troll who stepped into the water first… it came up to just above his knees, and he weighed enough to be able to stay standing.  He held out his hand to me, and I took it and swung out to him.  With his help, and Micron for ballast, we got through the gate and to the shore.

It was daytime on the other side, and in fact our shadows were almost at our feet again.  “I think we can make it to the next gate before night falls,” I said.  “If I can find my way through the city.”

Micron jumped from my backpack to the sand, growing to full size as he did so.  “Where’s the sun?” he said, looking up.

“This isn’t Earth,” I said, “and I have no idea where the light comes from.  The locals are no help… they just ignore us.”  I looked back at the partially-flooded archway.  “High tide, I guess.”

“I suppose you could figure out where the sun and moon actually are based on the shadows and tides and so on,” said Micron.  Just then, I heard a strange sound, a swooshing noise.  Looking around, I saw strange, manlike figures rising up from the sand.  Six of them, or maybe seven, made of sand.  They looked unformed… arms and legs and heads, but no details, no eyes or hands or whatnot.  But they were big, almost as tall as Troll and much thicker.

For a moment, they just stood there, in a ring around us.  Then one of them transformed, becoming detailed and slender.  Though I could not see his face inside his hood made of sand, I immediately knew who it was.  Nemvex.

“You freed my rival, Belgor Dragos,” he said, pointing at me.  “For a second time you have crossed me.  You will never again breathe the air of your own world.”

Without a word, Troll took a single step forward and bashed the sand-Nemvex with his maul, scattering the sand everywhere.  The other sandmen moved forward in eerie near-silence and attacked us, and the next several minutes were a battle.

I quickly learned that the sword was no good… it passed right through them harmlessly.  So I put it away and tried punching, but that didn’t work either, and worse, as soon as I did it the sandman I was fighting tried to engulf me.

I managed to pull free, and I began dodging and leaping.  This gave me time to look around, and I saw that the ones Troll hit with the maul would stay down only briefly before reforming.  Micron was leaping around and changing sizes; he would jump at one of them, then shrink down and hit with the full weight of his body compacted into a small size.  Most of the time he just passed through, but sometimes he would hit one the right way (whatever that was) and the sandman would fall apart.

But no matter what any of us did, we continued to fight the same six or seven sandmen all the time.  Knocking one down just granted a temporary reprieve.  At least the sand-Nemvex didn’t reform.

On a hunch, I vaulted over the nearest sandman and got outside the circle.  Two of the sandmen followed me.  They didn’t turn around, they just folded their arms the other way around.  It was creepy.  They stomped toward me, and I ran away from them, and I quickly realized I was faster than they were.  If I was faster, so was Troll.

“Guys,” I yelled, “we can’t beat ’em, but we can outrun ’em!  Follow me!”  With that, I turned and ran down the nearest street, into the endless city.  Looking back, I saw Troll smash a sandman and run through the space it had occupied, while Micron made another leaping attack, shrank, and poked a hole through another.

The three of us ran into the city, dodging the blue men as best we could.  Micron leaped up to Troll’s shoulders and kept a lookout behind us.  “They’re following us, guys.  Ooh, just smacked one of those blue men right into a building… the rest are running away.”

“Are the sandmen chasing them?” I asked.

“No, looks like they’re only interested in us.”

“Damn.”  I tried to remember my way through the city… it was so huge, and so seemingly random, but I had tried to memorize the route.  I wished I still had the compass.  Fortunately, after making a couple of turns, it appeared we had completely lost the sandmen.

“Troll, how long can you keep up this pace?” I yelled.

“Longer than you, MW.  No offense.”

“None taken.  Is Micron slowing you down?”

“I can reduce my weight and my size independently,” said Micron.

“What he said,” said Troll.  “I hardly notice him there.”

I had already passed through the city twice, but this was my first time returning through it, and I couldn’t seem to find the correct route.  After running into the city for about half the day, Troll said, “Shouldn’t we be there now?”

“Probably,” I replied.  “Let’s stop a moment.  They surely aren’t anywhere close behind us.”

So we stopped in the street, and Micron jumped down and assumed normal size.  “Where are we going?” he asked.

“There’s another gateway in the city, like the one we came through to get here,” I said.  “I just can’t find it.”  I looked up.  “If I could get up on the rooftops here like at home, I might be able to find it, but I weigh too much here to jump up there.”

“Well, that’s easy,” said Troll, and before I could ask him why it was easy, he had put his big hands on my hips, lifted me up, and tossed me up toward the roof of one of the shorter buildings.  I did manage to land on my feet, at least.

“You could warn a girl,” I yelled down to him.

He grinned.  “You landed okay.  We’re getting better at this.”

I stuck my tongue out at him, then stood up and looked around.

The buildings were odd, but it took me a bit to figure out why: their comfortingly terrestrial-looking tile roofs were all different heights.  The buildings differed in height, not by full stories, but by apparently random amounts.

In a way this was good, though, as it seemed rare for two side-by-side buildings to differ by more than four or five feet in height.  Jumping up to a higher rooftop was easy, even in the higher gravity, and I climbed them like stairs until I was about three or four stories up on the tallest building in the neighborhood.  I pulled my binoculars out of my backpack and started searching the surrounding area for any sign of the gate; I had high hopes, as the archways were all pretty tall.

“See anything?” said a high-pitched voice close enough to me that I jumped.  “Oops, sorry,” said the voice, and then suddenly Micron was standing next to me.

“Try not to startle me too much,” I said, “or Troll may have to catch me.”  He didn’t reply, and with a mask like his I had no idea what he was thinking.  I returned to scanning the buildings with the binoculars.  “I haven’t found it yet,” I said, but just as I said that I saw the tip-top of the white archway sticking up between the buildings just a few blocks away.

At that very moment, Micron said, “What the heck?” so I dropped the binoculars to see where he was pointing.  Turning in that direction, I saw dark things flying low above the rooftops a long ways off.  I raised the binoculars to get a better look… I was expecting murkenegras, honestly, but what I saw was stranger than that.

Black-armored men riding black pegasi; the latter had bat wings instead of the bird wings you would normally expect.  (Normally?  Does that word even apply to my life anymore?  Well, never mind.)  There were five of them, flying in a wedge formation like fighter planes, and I could see that the one front and center holding his sword high in the air could only be the avatar of Nemvex.

“Crap,” I said.  “No sun here must be a good thing for him.”

“Who?” said Micron.

“Nemvex,” I replied.  I looked down at Troll and yelled, “Nemvex is coming!  Follow me!” then said to Micron, “Try to keep up,” and I took off running across the rooftops.

Since I was on the highest one around, the first part of my run was downhill, and that was pretty quick; when it turned uphill, I decided I’d be faster at ground level (especially since I didn’t think I could leap all the way across a street) so I jumped down from there, landing right beside Troll.

“Let’s go,” I said.  “The gateway is this way, and Nemvex will be on us pretty quick.”  I took off running and Troll kept pace with me.  We had to go through just three intersections… I had been pretty close to the gateway after all… but as we crossed the second, we heard a sound like a cross between the screams of a horse and eagle.  I glanced over my shoulder and saw two of them flying down the street, one after the other, their wings almost touching the buildings on either side.

“Watch out!” I yelled.  “They’re right behind us!”  I dodged into a crossing street, scattering blue men in front of me, and the fliers overshot and passed me.  I saw Troll raise his hammer, dodge sideways and smash it into the wing of one of the pegasi, and as it swerved sideways and crashed into a building, the other one flapped hard and ascended, narrowly avoiding a crash.

I ran to Troll’s side.  “Come on, let’s go!”  The warrior who had been riding the pegasus Troll attacked seemed knocked out, so we ran past him toward the last intersection; a right turn and a short street, and we’d be in the plaza where the gateway stood.

“Where’s Micron?” said Troll as we ran.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I told him to follow me.”

“You told me to try to keep up,” said a very high-pitched voice.  “So far, so good.”

“Where are you?” I said, looking around.

“On your backpack.  Hey, look out!”  We had just rounded the corner and started down the last street… but ahead I could see the plaza, and the arch, and standing in front of it two armored warriors with Nemvex right behind them.

We stopped just inside the plaza.  Micron jumped down from my backpack and resumed normal size, all at once.  I said, “Nemvex.  We meet again.”

“Indeed,” he said, his sword laid back against his shoulder.  “For the last time.  You stole from me, and then you dared to return and render aid to my rival.  You are less to me than an insect is to you, yet still you dare to trouble me.  No more!”  With that, the two warriors standing in front of him began to advance on us.