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The Books of Knowledge

 

 

LEGEND OF ALM

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BOOKS

OF KNOWLEDGE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRAHAM M. IRWIN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before beginning, all was as a single point in the ether.

There was no difference.

Then there came a division, and the all became parts, and the parts repelled their new opposites, until the light clung together from the dark, substance bore distinction to nothingness, and separations became fixed.

So it is today that the universe is in the middle of its journey, far from home, yet headed toward reconciliation.

 

 -Nee, The Legend, Chapter VIII

 

1

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Slate Ahn returned to his stone hut tired after a long three days spent hunting in the Blue Forest. He had little to show for the hunt, three scrawny gnars, but at least it was something to fill his stomach.

The hut was cold and dark, and so he started a small fire in the fireplace, then lit a candle from it. A family of squee shrieked and ran when Slate took his hunting gear into the back of the hut. Slate didn’t like squee, but almost wished they had stayed, if only for the company. He had been alone for some time, since his brother and father left to find work in the south, and though he occasionally got to talk with the other villagers, their numbers were dwindling, too. It wouldn’t be long until Alleste was empty. Everyone was leaving for the new way of life in the south, for the technological wonders and ease it promised. But the Ahns were hardy folk, determined to stay in the remote village of Alleste no matter what. Or so Slate’s father had told him, which seemed hypocritical when he left.

Slate sat and warmed himself by the fire, which grew into a roaring flame. He cooked the skinned gnar over the flame and then ate one whole. He would have eaten the others as well, he was that hungry, but there wasn’t much other food around, and he knew he had to pace himself, to ration what little he had. The excitement for the night spent, Slate sighed and fell back into the chair next to the fire place. He took from the table next to the chair the Legend, the only book in the house, and opened it up to start again from the beginning for the hundredth time. Whenever he read the book, he heard the words in his mother’s voice. She had often read from it to Slate and his brother, Greene, when they were children. She passed when Slate was ten years old, but for him, it seemed like she lived on in the book’s stories. And so while it was Slate’s only real form of entertainment, it was also a link to a happier past. Reading from it was bittersweet.

After finishing the story of Hent and Ote, one of the book’s shorter tales, Slate closed the cover carefully and set it back down on the table next to his father’s chair. He looked out the window at the rising moon and sighed. He sighed all the time since his father had left. His life had become one of sad resignation.

Slate rose to sort the fire out for the night. As he was walking to where the poker was resting against the mantle, he noticed a letter on the floor by the front door. The weekly postal delivery must have come while he was away. It was probably more money from his father. It was nice to have the money, but there was little to buy with it, apart from Mrs. Gainee’s preserves or Old Man Crowthall’s awful zhin pies. Slate appreciated his father having left home to find work, but he really just wished his father had stayed. After all, there were always gnars to catch.

Upon opening the letter, Slate was surprised to find that there wasn’t any money inside. He shook the envelope to make sure, then unfolded the letter inside. He couldn’t believe what it said. He must have misread it. The room was too dark. Slate took the letter closer to his candle and read the letter again. He hadn’t misread it. His father had found steady work in Airyel, on the southwestern coast of their island. And better yet, he was asking for Slate to join him.

Slate had to read the letter a third time to make sure it was real. He sat back down on his father’s chair and stared out the window, then down at the letter. Was it really true? Could he finally leave his lonely village? Slate was so overjoyed that he couldn’t help but cry. He read the letter over and again, until the tears fell over a huge smile. There was no exact address in the letter at which Slate was to find his father, as he hadn’t secured permanent housing yet, but still, this was it. Slate’s ticket out. He felt like his prayers had been answered.

He couldn’t wait until morning to leave. He packed what little food was left in the hut into his hunting sack, made sure the fire was out, and strode out the front door into the glowing light of the full moon. He nodded good-bye to every hut he passed. At the end of Main Road, he turned back to see the little village silent in the moonlight, bid it farewell, and started down the Janos Trail to what he hoped would be a much brighter future.

After some time on the Janos Trail, Slate’s excitement wore off and he started to feel sleepy, and so he settled down on a dry patch of Alm covered over with needles to close his eyes and rest. But whenever he would begin to fall asleep, he would imagine he heard a woodbear or a blackstrake nearby, or hear his father calling, and would spring up weakly, only to fall over again in exhaustion when he realized it had only been his imagination. He considered turning around and going back home.

“I don’t know, little fellow,” he said to a tiny scratchfurrow that scampered up onto his bag. “Maybe I should wait until morning. Maybe I can’t make the trip by myself.”

The scratchfurrow chattered and ran away.

“I guess everyone’s running away,” Slate said with a sigh.

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Eventually, the worrisome night changed to day again, and it was only then that Slate was able to sleep, for a short while. It was hardly enough to fully rejuvenate him, but, coupled with the warmth of the sun, it gave him the strength to rise up off the forest floor and continue down the path to the neighboring town of Mearror.
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2

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    An hour or so into sleepy-headed hiking, Slate came to a break in the Blue Forest. He was happy to espy the forms of a town in the clearing, which a signpost confirmed for him was Mearror. Though Slate had been quite young when visiting the town before, he remembered well the novel two-story buildings, the street performers, the running water, and the sounds of the horse carts in the cobbled streets. Thoughts of warm food and conversation overtook his weakness, and he managed a run toward the gate.  When he came to the guard post, the sun’s blinding rays that had been obscuring his vision were halted, and Slate could see the town more clearly. Only it was not the place he remembered. The buildings seemed derelict. There were no carts running through the streets, no music wafting out of the cafes. There were no guards at the guard post. In fact, it didn't seem like there was anyone in Mearror, either.  Slate walked warily down Mearror’s main avenue, which lead in a straight line to the town’s center. He moved past peeling, pink-gray houses, and windows framing games of half-finished chess and open books. At one corner of an intersection sat four, small café tables underneath the faded red awning of what was once a bistro, still set perfectly for no one. In the silent city square, rows of statues glared down at Slate. He began to feel pressure pushing against him on all sides. He turned from the square and ran. He broke free of the dead city and didn’t stop running for some time, not until he was deep in the Blue Forest once more. Slate had no idea how to get from Mearror to Airyel, but didn’t want to stop moving for fear that he’d never start again, that he’d seize up like one of the statues in Mearror’s city square. He figured the path he was on had to lead somewhere, and that somewhere was better than nowhere. Walking sadly along, he came to a fork in the dirt trail. A faded signpost at the intersection pointed to Alleste and Mearror in the direction he had come from, the Blue Bridge in another, and Arvest in a third. Slate had dreamed of visiting Arvest as a boy, of seeing its famous armaments and monuments to the Gocci Invasion. But the prospect of another deserted city did him no good. It would be wiser to head south, for the Blue Bridge. All roads led to the Blue Bridge. Slate walked for hours, with little to stop his mind from wandering. In fact, he would often walk off trail when he got too lost in his thoughts, wondering if his brother or father had taken the same path he was on. If they had been as frightened, or felt as small. The trail sank deep into Alm, where the soil never thawed and little grew, save for some strange, stringy-looking plants. It then climbed up into fern-covered, cleft hills that Slate made a game of climbing, rolling his pack up over their tops and grabbing it up again on their other sides. After a long day, as the sun shared its last light with the trees, Slate found a pond at which to rest. The pond was murky, but clean enough to wash in. After his bath, Slate set his shoes and his pack into the barrel of a fallen snag, then propped himself up inside it. Eventually, the peace and serenity of the forest overtook his troubled mind and he nodded off to sleep. There was rain during the night, unbeknownst to Slate in his warm tree trunk, and it gave the air the next morning a fresh and invigorating smell. The forest's wildlife greeted Slate with their chatter and activity. After an hour or so more of hiking, the Blue Forest appeared to break again in the distance. A crescendo of noise rose as Slate approached the end of the trees. When the forest finally opened, onto a rocky, surf-battered beach, he was staggered.  Slate had never seen anything approaching the immensity of the ocean before, apart from the sky. Lake Mhio, where he had spent countless summer days floating with his brother, was now a pond, a thimble-full of water compared to the vast, unceasing gray-blue before him. Staring out into the panorama of fiery white sun-glints dazzling the rolling waters, Slate’s periphery was clear for what felt like the first time in his life, interrupted only by wisps of falling clouds. He took in deep breaths of the ocean air and his head swam. He stopped to take off his shoes before setting out onto the beach. When he came to the tide line, Slate dipped a cautious toe into the water. He shrieked in surprise at how frigid it was. But the smooth stones comprising the beach felt good on his blistered feet, and so he decided to continue along the edge of the water and enjoy the sunshine. He found a shaded place to rest when the mid-day sun grew too hot to bear, a stand of banch trees. He dropped his things and sat on the mossy floor, to stare out at the ocean and let his imagination run free.  The longer Slate stared at the ocean, the more mysterious it became. Thinking of all that could be lurking beneath its surface filled Slate with a sense of dread, and despite the fact that he was far up the beach, he couldn’t help but think of drowning, of how helpless he would be against the crashing, unceasing waves. He thought of the story of Captain Lanya from the Legend, and how his entire crew and ship were swallowed whole by a tentacled sea monster. It was terrifyingly beautiful, that something so serene and calm under the sun could have the potential to be so deadly. A small part of Slate hoped he would never have to travel the ocean, that he would never have to face the fear of what might lie in the depths beneath the surface. After the sun had started to set and the heat of the day began to wane, Slate ate some of his small food reserve, put his shoes back on, and continued toward the Blue Bridge. A weathered signpost along the edge of the beach told Slate he was near the crossing, not half an hour after starting his morning hike. With all of the history surrounding the old bridge, the myriad stories, he couldn’t help but feel excited. How many summer afternoons had he spent dreaming about crossing the ancient bridge? For at least the immediate moment, all other worries were as far from his mind as he was from home.  The beach grew more narrow, and then evergreen forest overtook the shoreline. Flutterbys whipped about in the shafts of light that fingered their way down through the trees, and redbirds called to deep echoes from the bay. Slate was buoyed up and covered quick ground, reaching the Blue Bridge in no time. Here might have been the edge of his world. The Blue Bridge was as far as his knowledge stretched. His thoughts began pressing against the limits of his imagination, grasping at what the rest of his island, and more, the rest of Alm, might be like.  The mist in the bay that the Blue Bridge spanned was so thick that it prevented view of the structure itself. Slate discerned its entrance though, a winding stone footpath that lead up to a stone battlement. As he climbed the footpath, a wind blew through the bay and the bridge became visible. It was much different than he had imagined. The legendary crossing looked to be no more than a worn suspension bridge. A discomforting creak sounded from its crusty ropes whenever the bay winds would flutter. It looked far from the picture he had held of it in his mind. In fact, Slate questioned if the bridge was even safe to use. At the top of the stone footpath, he came to a wooden door. He pushed hard on the door, to no effect. He then seized a knot of hent tied to the door’s thick handle and pulled. This caused the door to groan encouragingly, and so Slate took the knot in both hands and braced himself on the silty ground. He pulled as hard as he possibly could. The door jerked twice and then finally broke open, sending Slate falling backwards. He got up, adjusted his pack, and with a deep breath, headed through the doorway.  An open atrium revealed itself in thin, blue light. The space was sparse, decorated with little save for two trees, one hull and one banch, on opposing sides of the entrance to the creaky suspension bridge.  Slate swallowed hard and stepped out onto the first plank of the bridge. It groaned under his weight, but held. Slate took another step, then another. The fourth plank snapped beneath him when he stepped over it, its shards lost to the mist. Not letting this dissuade him, Slate gripped the side ropes of the bridge tight and continued forward. Before he could remember to breathe, he looked back to see the embankment fading away. He focused and continued on. The rickety bridge swayed and jerked so much in the wind that it made progress slow. Slate clung desperately to the rope as whipping ocean gales forced their way over the narrow bay and through the sheer cliffs of the waterfalls that tumbled down the shore. Brief breaks in the wind afforded Slate short spurts of movement.  After a long, confusing time, whipped back and forth in the churning mist, he saw the other side of the bridge. Slate raced over the remaining planks and leapt onto a stone mount, where he was greeted by two smiling statues. He smiled broadly back at them and then hopped down a short staircase onto solid ground, the black soil of eastern Aelioanei. Thrilled at his success, Slate bounced down the path from the bridge to a split where two signs were posted. One read “Adantals-sub-Aislin,” and showed an arrow to the north, while the other showed an arrow pointing southeast, toward Haijoor. Which direction would take him to Airyel, Slate had no idea. But he did know that Aislin was one of the largest cities on Aelioanei. If he were to find anyone anywhere on the island, he figured, it would be there. He finished the last of his cider and headed north.
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3

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    The eastern side of Aelioanei was much different from the west. The trees here were larger and their leaves colored differently by the coming winter, the indigos and blues of the western forests replaced by oranges and reds. Slate moved with wonder through his new environment, the thick growth around him alive with grunts and calls of wild beasts and birds. The cacophony was quite unlike anything he had heard before, and disorienting at first. Eventually, Slate began to recognize the musical patterns in the different animal calls, how they all answered each other and set countless counter-melodies and new rhythms into motion as the song progressed. Taking every opportunity to relish the wonderland, smelling every new flower and inspecting every new leaf he came upon, Slate made his way through winding miles of what he called the Orange Forest.
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He came around a bend to hear an awful
growling noise, something sounding both terrifying and pathetic at
the same time. Slate left the trail to seek out the source of the
noise, and found it coming from a hulking snarlingwulf. The shaggy
beast was twisting and turning where it had gotten caught in a
tangled tree root, whimpering and roaring in impotent rage. Slate’s
first instinct was to leave the beast where it was; he was relieved
the creature was not free to stalk him on the trail. But as he went
to leave, the animal let out such a pitiful moan that Slate
couldn’t help but feel sorry for it. The poor thing was trapped, as
trapped as Slate had been in Alleste. Slate couldn’t leave it to
suffer. He wanted to try and help it free, but didn’t know how to
begin.

As Slate approached the animal, it gnashed
its teeth and pulled its ears down to its head in a show of furious
anger.

“I’m only trying to help
you,” Slate said.

The animal snapped its jaws and tried to
lunge at Slate, but couldn’t. It fell upon itself in a great
bluster.

“Do you want me to help or
not?” Slate asked the beast.

Less angry now, the snarlingwulf rolled a
growl deep in its throat and didn’t move when Slate came closer to
examine how badly it was caught. The tough nadderwood root had
split the animal’s heel, and the wound had been exacerbated by the
animal’s writhing.

“You’ve made quite a mess of
yourself,” Slate said.

The snarlingwulf grunted.

“Now, I’m going to try to
get your leg free, okay? But you can’t attack me when I do,
alright?”

The animal turned its head, as if agreeing to
no such terms.

Slate found a tough piece of nadderwood lying
nearby and stuck it into the root where the snarlingwulf was
caught, then began to rock it slowly back and forth. He slipped as
he was doing so, knocking against the animal’s wound and causing it
to shriek in pain. But it didn’t lunge at Slate. It stayed
patiently still while Slate worked to free it.

Putting all his weight on the brace, the root
finally broke and the snarlingwulf pulled its leg free. It ran a
few feet from where Slate had fallen from the force of the root
breaking, licked its wound, and then paused for a moment, staring
Slate straight in the eye, before it limped quickly away.

“You’re welcome!” Slate
shouted after the snarlingwulf.

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He continued on toward Aislin, feeling rather proud and brave. The sun was nearly set now, and the woods started to flicker with tiny blue fireflies. Slate was marveling at the tiny bursts of light when, without warning, a figure in a green cowl dropped down with a loud smack onto the trail from an overhanging branch. The figure rose up and raised an arrow-primed bow at Slate's chest.  “Your pack or your life,” a voice from under the cowl threatened. Slate was startled, but not shaken. In one swift movement, he used his left hand to knock the arrow pointed at him away, then ducked and swung his leg out, which managed to trip the stranger, but not bring him down.  At this show of bravery, three more figures rose out of the surrounding brush. Two of them had their own arrows drawn. The third was surely the biggest person Slate had ever seen, and carried a massive club in his left hand. Slate knew immediately that he was outmatched. “I’m sorry! Please don't hurt to me!” he managed to blurt out, putting his hands up and slinking back from the figure in the cowl.  “Ha ha ha!” the man laughed. “A big show and now he’s scared, is he? I ask again, your pack, or your life? It is not threat, it’s a choice.” One of the other men added, “You should choose, now.”
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Slate began to sweat. He stuttered, unable to
form a coherent response as the three other hijackers surrounded
him. The huge one batted Slate to the ground with a lazy swipe of
his hand and then pinned him to the ground with his massive
boot.

“What’s the matter, little
one?” one of the men taunted. “Are you…”

He couldn’t get his last word out, because
the wounded snarlingwulf Slate had rescued came flying out of the
woods in an explosion of sticks and grass. The animal landed on the
back of the hulking brute of the group, freeing Slate. The
snarlingwulf sank its huge teeth into the back of the hijacker, who
howled and wailed and thrashed as his accomplices took to the
woods. When the snarlingwulf had sufficiently shredded the big
brute’s back, he leapt off to capture the fleeing leader of the
criminals in his jaws. With a snap-bite and the twist of his neck,
the man in the green cowl was thrown into a tree. He hit it with a
loud crack and then slid down the trunk, unconscious.

The animal then took to Slate’s side, barking
and howling at the other men who had dropped their things and were
fleeing into the woods. Slate wasn’t sure if he was going to be
next, and so he stood, petrified with fear, waiting for what the
creature was going to do next.

When it became apparent that the creature
wasn’t going to tear into Slate, the young man picked up his
things.

“Thank you very much,” he
said to the panting animal, then started to continue warily down
the trail, turning around every few steps. What became quickly
apparent was that the snarlingwulf was following him.

“You’re not going to eat me,
are you?” Slate asked the animal. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any food
to give you.”

The snarlingwulf came closer and closer to
Slate, who stood his ground as best he could while trying to
tremble as little as possible. The animal came within two feet of
Slate, towering over him as he did. Slate was just about to break
into a panicked run when the wulf stuck out his mangy snout and
gave Slate a wash with his giant tongue.

Slate laughed and wiped the saliva from his
face. “Is that all you wanted to do?” he asked. When the animal
licked him again, Slate gave him the best pet he could, the
creature being so much larger than he. “Thanks again, friend,”
Slate said, then turned to walk away without any fear that the
animal might do him harm.

But as Slate kept walking, the animal kept
following.

“I already told you, I don’t
have any food,” Slate said.

This did nothing to dissuade the animal.

“And I have no idea where
I’m going, either,” Slate said.

The wulf didn’t seem to mind.

“Now, if you’re going to
keep following me, I’m going to have to give you a name, you know
that, right?”

The animal was walking closer to Slate now,
more at his side than behind.

“You’re just like Pilotte,
from the Legend, you know that?” Slate said.

This provoked something like a smile from the
beast.

“Well that must be your
name, then,” Slate said. “Pilotte. You going to come with me to
Aislin, Pilotte?”

The animal trotted along as well as it could
on its wounded leg.

“Well that’s just fine. I
needed a travelling partner,” said Slate. “We’ll get something to
eat real soon, okay?”

With his new friend, Slate felt much less
scared. He didn’t know how long the animal would stay at his side,
but he was simply grateful for him to be there, however long it may
have turned out to be.

That night, Slate slept curled up in
Pilotte’s fur, the deepest sleep he had found in months. Rising and
falling with the animal’s breaths, he felt for the first time since
leaving home optimistic about what the future might bring.

4

 

 

 

 

When the woods finally ceded ground to
plains, Slate stopped for a deep breath and turned back to the
trees to bow in reverence. Pilotte seemed hesitant to follow Slate
out of the woods, but when Slate didn’t push the issue, offering
the choice to stay or leave, the animal ultimately decided to
follow after his new friend into the city.

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Crossing a long field that turned into a backyard, Slate was met with a happy wave from the first Aislinean he encountered, a woman working in her garden. He waved back. When the woman caught sight of Pilotte, however, she screamed in horror, and so Slate apologized and hurried quickly through the yard to the street in front of her house. As Slate came to the street out front, he was amazed at the craftsmanship of it. The bricks were so uniform, the whole of it was so level and of such parallel width, stretching on in both directions in a thick ribbon for what looked like miles. It was nothing like the dirt roads in Alleste. He started down the impressive street toward the city skyline. Along the sides of the road were several large estates of equally impressive construction, dotted with houses and pagodas. Such were the sizes of the mansions' plots that Slate and Pilotte accidentally walked off the main road up one or another of their giant drives many times, mistaking them for the main thoroughfare. Slate was passed by several horse carts as he progressed, ones larger and more ornately decorated than those he had seen in Mearror as a child. He tried to get the attention of the passing drivers, to ask where he might find information, but, invariably, when they got a look at him, covered in the crust of countless days in the forest and accompanied by a giant snarlingwulf, they would speed hastily by. Losing Pilotte was out of the question, but Slate figured he should probably do something to make himself more presentable. He stopped to splash some water onto his face, to clear away more grime and tame his knotted hair. A voice surprised him as he was doing so. “That’s disgusting!” Slate whipped around, splashing the girl he saw standing there, and gulped a watery, “I’m sorry?” The girl laughed and replied, “You don’t need to be sorry. But washing your face in road water is disgusting.” Slate ignored the girl, and went back to washing. “Where are you from?” the girl asked. “Is that your wulf?” “You don’t own a snarlingwulf,” Slate said, continuing to wash. “What’s your name?” the girl asked. “My name is Arianna.” “My name is Slate,” Slate finally answered. “Slate Ahn. I am from Alleste.” “Alleste? What, did you walk here?” “Yes.” “You look sick,” Arianna said. “So does your wulf.” “I feel sick. I haven’t slept or eaten properly in days, and I’ve been walking for miles. And poor Pilotte’s foot is injured.” “You really did walk here? From Alleste?” “Yes ma’am. I’m on my way to Airyel, to find my father. He’s found work for us there.” “Oh. That’s very far away, Slate. It would be an awfully long walk.” “Oh?” Slate sighed. “Oh, well. Nothing left to do in Alleste, anyways. I’m just so glad there are still people here in Aislin. There wasn’t anyone in Mearror. The whole western half of the island seems empty. I didn’t see anyone for days. Not until I was jumped by some thugs, just outside town.” “Did they hurt you?” “No. But they tried. Pilotte took care of that.” Arianna took a moment to stare into Slate’s bruised, sad eyes before saying, “Why don’t you come with me, back to my house? It’s just up the hill here, it’s not far. You can get a proper wash and something to eat. And we can bandage your wulf’s ankle.” “Thank you, but I should really try to find somewhere for us to spend the night. We’re both pretty exhausted.” “I can see that. Do you have any money?” “No… Why?” “Rooms here are very expensive. And I doubt they’d house your wulf.” “Oh. Well just how far am I from Airyel?” “Quite far. Do you have any family anywhere else on the island? Do you know anyone in Aislin?” Arianna asked. “No, I don’t,” Slate admitted. “Well then where do you think you’re going to go? You can’t go into town looking like that, you’ll get arrested.” “Arrested for what? What have I done wrong?”  “You’ve done nothing wrong, at least that I know of. But people around here don’t understand that someone can look like you do and not be a criminal,” Arianna explained. “Things are strange lately. People are suspicious.” Slate saw a sadness in the girl’s eyes that mirrored his own. He could tell, somehow, that Arianna was a kindred soul. He couldn’t keep his eyes from welling with tears. “Oh, come now, don’t cry, Slate,” Arianna said softly. “Wouldn’t it be better instead to come with me, to get some food and clean clothes?” Letting down his defenses, Slate wiped the tears from his eyes and answered, “I’d be very grateful for that, Arianna. Please, yes.” “Excellent. This way, follow me.” Slate and Pilotte followed Arianna up from the road to a great white house, then up its wide staircase to the front patio, where they moved into the shade. “Wipe your feet,” Arianna said as she opened the front door. The strong odor of astringent medtermint bit Slate in the nose as he passed into the house. “Arianna, bluebird, go around back please, dear! I’m washing the floors,” called a warm voice from one of the hallways leading off the main entryway.  “But Mom, I need to speak with you! Please? I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” Arianna called back. “Well, how about you and your friend go into the kitchen and have some berry folds while I finish up? We must have the floors clean for your many guests, after all!” “Very funny,” Arianna mumbled under her breath as she pulled Slate back onto the front porch. Slate was led around to the back of the house, where he followed Arianna up onto the porch.  “My mother would kill me if we let your wulf in before a bath,” said Arianna. “Do you think he’d mind waiting here?” “Pilotte?” Slate asked the wulf. “Would you mind waiting here?” The wulf circled himself and sat down with a huge sigh. “Looks like he’ll be alright,” said Slate. “He’s very well trained,” Arianna said. “He’s not trained at all,” Slate said, following Arianna through a set of double doors. The doors led into a kitchen, one larger than Slate’s entire house back in Alleste. Wooden counters rose from a red-and-orange-tiled floor interrupted by three iron ovens and another, open-flame hot stone oven. One of the iron oven’s burners had a flame glowing under a steaming, cast-iron pot, which hiccupped as it stewed. Slate’s eyes focused on the center island counter, where he espied half-chopped nuts heaped in a big mound next to some conoma shavings. Off to the side of that were three berry folds.
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“Fold?” Arianna offered
hungry-eyed Slate.

“Yes, please! I love those
things,” Slate said. “I had one at the Assembly once.”

“You went to an Assembly?”
Arianna gasped. “That’s incredible. How? Why?”

“What, you never did?” Slate
asked. “I thought everybody had at least once.”

“Hardly. Very few people
from Aislin got to go to Assemblies. Your family must have been
special.”

“I doubt it. There just
weren’t many people in Alleste to go.”

“So you actually saw the
re-enactment of the Tahal, and everything?” Arianna
asked.

“I did,” Slate sighed. “A
couple times.”

Arianna shook her head. “Here I thought I met
a puddle-washer and you’ve been to an Assembly. Tell me; were the
Aislinean representatives any good? In the Tahal? My friend Brenna
got to play Maro Aislin one year and I saw her audition and it
wasn’t very good.”

“Well, mainly my brother and
I would try to make each other laugh during the re-enactments, so I
can’t say that I remember any of them too precisely. I do remember
that I bit through my lip one time trying not to laugh,” Slate
said. “I laughed anyways.”

“Oh, the Gods themselves,”
Arianna said. “You’ve been to an Assembly! That’s so exciting.” She
stared off in thought for a moment. “Too bad there’s no chance to
go anymore. We really lost something when the Great Hall burned
down.”

“We lost everything.”

The two were quiet for some time.

“My brother left pretty soon
after the Hall burned,” said Slate, “To try and find work. Most of
the village left, because there was no trade anymore and Alleste
doesn’t have much on its own.”

“Where did he go?” Arianna
asked.

“No idea,” Slate said. “He never came
back.”

“Slate…”

“My father stayed with me for a while, but
the farm couldn’t produce enough for us to eat, even with what we
could catch hunting. He left about a month or two ago. He was
sending me money every now and again. Not that there was anything
to buy with it. I really miss him. I can’t wait to see him
again.”

The cavalier attitude with which Slate
rattled through his experiences startled Arianna. “What about your
mother?”

“She died when I was
little.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah.”

“And then you left all on
your own? With Pilotte? And walked here?”

“Right. Well, I met Pilotte
on the way. Yeah, I got a letter from my dad that he found a place
for us in Airyel. It was only a few days ago that I left,” Slate
said. “I didn’t intend to walk here, I just don’t know the way to
Airyel. It’s hard for me to remember the past few days clearly.
It’s a lot of walking and trees in my memory. I went over the Blue
Bridge, that was scary. It’s hard to think when you aren’t eating.
Really, I’m just coming to with this berry fold. Haven’t been able
to focus.”

“We’ll have to get you some
real food, then,” Arianna said. She moved around the kitchen,
finding a loaf of bread, a wheel of cheese, a few sticks of jerky,
and butter. She put it all on a wooden plate with a knife and
carried it over to Slate, who was then finishing his second
fold.

“Thank you so much, Arianna.

This is so good, I don’t know how I can repay you,” he said, before
setting voraciously into a meat stick while his mouth was still
full of fold. “Think you got anything for Pilotte?”

“I doubt we have enough to
satiate a snarlingwulf, but I’ll see what I can find. And you don’t
have to repay me. What are you going to do now?” Arianna asked.
“That you’re in Aislin?”

“Um,” Slate managed between
gulps, “Just rest up for a day or two, I think. I want to get ahead
of the coming winter and get to Airyel before it gets too
cold.”

“I thought that you don’t
know where it is?”

“I don’t.”

“It’s on the southeastern
shore.”

“Well, there you
go.”

“Do you know where your
father is in Airyel?”

“Not exactly.”

“How do you think you’ll find him?”

“I’ll ask
around.”

“Is it really that easy? To
find one person in a city of thousands?”

“Do I know? I hardly ever left Alleste.”

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“Why don’t you stay here for a while first?” Arianna asked. “To heal up?” “I don’t know anyone here.” “It doesn’t sound like you know anyone anywhere.” “That’s not true,” Slate said, searching his mind for proof. “I know Pilotte. I know people.” “You're right, you do,” Arianna said. “You know me! And you’ll know my mom soon. Look, we have a big huge house and it’s just me and Mom and my brother and sister. You should stay here and rest up and get some weight on those bones and let Pilotte heal up and then think about what to do.” “What about your dad?” “He died when I was little. Like your mom.” “Oh. I’m sorry.” “Yeah.” “But what’ll I do here?” “Well, I have school all day, ugh,” Arianna huffed, “But when I get done, I can show you around town, and, I don’t know, we can… wash our faces in puddles?” Slate stopped eating. “You’re in school?” he asked. “Yes, unfortunately.” “Unfortunately? That is amazing,” Slate said. “I’d love to go to school. We didn’t even have one in Alleste.” “Well maybe you can. Go ahead and fill up while I ask Mother to get the guest room ready.” “Really?” Slate asked. “Are you sure?” “Absolutely.” “Well, okay, then. Sounds good.”  Slate was in dire need of help, but felt uneasy taking it. It wasn’t the way he had been raised. An Allestian was supposed to be self-reliant. But he was beyond weary, and Arianna and her copious kitchen could have convinced him of just about anything that morning.
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5

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    Slate slept for two solid days. On his third day in Aislin, he felt rested enough to get out of bed and explore his new location. The Falls had all left the house for the day when he exited the guest room and descended the winding staircase down to the first floor. Entering the kitchen with a yawn, he found a plate of nuts and fruit out on the table. He sat and ate as the rising sun warmed his body through the picture windows on the southeast side of the house. After breakfast, in the strange suspension of time that occurs in a large, empty building, Slate wandered from room to room, looking at the art on the walls and the various knickknacks and heirlooms that were tucked away into shelves and corners. He followed a tight hallway lined with a family tree of portraits to where it opened up into a library that rose a full two stories. The library ceiling was painted as the evening sky, a dark royal blue in a gradient to light purple, and dotted with tiny, glittering stars. In the center of the library, a leather-bound atlas the size of Slate’s upper half was spread open on an iron stand, alongside a desk covered with map-making tools and smaller atlases. The huge atlas was opened to a map of a land named Fjird. Slate had never heard of Fjird, nor did he know how to pronounce it. Fjird appeared to have only two cities, the rest of its land dominated by mountain ranges. Slate studied the strange map for a long while, imagining what life must be like in Fjird, a place seemingly more desolate than western Aelioanei.  He carried those thoughts with him back into the kitchen, where he now noticed the pile of dishes in the sink. He decided the pile would be a good place to start his contribution to the housework.  First, Slate leaned out the back door to make sure Pilotte was still there. The wulf stood up when Slate appeared, stronger on his healing ankle than he had been days before. “They been feeding you, Pilotte?” Slate asked. The wulf came closer and nuzzle its snout into Slate’s chest. “Thanks for waiting while I slept, big guy,” Slate said. “I was exhausted! It looks like you got a bath! Did you get a bath?” Pilotte smiled an open-mouthed pant.  “What good people these Falls are, huh? We got lucky, buddy. Want to come inside while I get some work done?” Pilotte continued to smile. “Well, come on then. I’ll get you some more grub.” Slate gave Pilotte all the meat from the ice box he felt he could without taking too much, which Pilotte made short work of. “That was it, friend,” said Slate. “Now, I’m going to do some dishes. Mind staying here?” The giant animal fell on the floor in front of the window and let out a happy sigh. “That’s the way,” Slate said. “Just hang tight, then we’ll go for a walk later, okay?” Pilotte was too happy in his sunbeam to answer. When Slate was finished with the dishes, he moved on to sweeping out the floors. He was starting in the entryway when Mrs. Falls happened to come through the front door. “Hello, Slate,” she said, surprised to see him up. “What a good guest you are, sweeping the floors.” Slate diffused the praise, saying, “Oh, it’s the least I can do. I did the dishes, too, and if there’s anything else you may need done while I’m here, please just ask.” “Well, I’m happy for the help, but you’ll be required to do no more than your fair share of the housework, no more than anyone else,” Mrs. Falls said as she searched for a place to set down the shopping bags she was carrying. “Let me get those for you,” Slate offered. He took the three brightly colored bags and asked, “Where do these need to end up?”  “If you’d put them up in the bathroom in my bedroom, that would be perfect,” Mrs. Falls said. “I’ll start on dinner and finish this sweeping. Why don’t you get outside a bit, have a look around? Don’t go too far, though. We don’t want you getting lost again.” “I wasn’t lost,” Slate said. “Well. Go ahead up to my room now, and just be back for dinner at seven.” Slate carried the shopping bags up the staircase and down the hall into the master bedroom, then headed back down the stairs and whistled for Pilotte. The huge animal squeezed through the hallway from the kitchen, and then the two walked out the front door.  Tall grass mixed with rich brown threa that shone bright orange in the late-day sun as Slate made his way down the road through the quiet countryside. He could hear the tinkling sounds of dozens of wind chimes dance across the landscape as the cool breeze made its way south. Slate was enjoying the scene when a mirage down the way flickered into what first appeared as the form of a person, then nothing. It waved into existence again: it was Arianna. Slate picked up his pace and ran toward her. “Arianna!” he cried out. “It’s me, Slate!” “Slate! It’s me, Arianna!” she called back. Feeling a sharp pang of self-consciousness, Slate slowed his gait in a show of casualness. Arianna giggled at this. “I was just out taking a walk with Pilotte here and happened to see you on my road,” said Slate. “So you’ve been here three days and it’s your road now?” Arianna asked. "No, I..." "I'm kidding, Slate. Hiya, Pilotte,” Arianna said. She gave the wulf a pet which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy. “How was school?” Slate asked. “It was alright. We’re in prehistory right now. Studying the Great Wars, so it has been tolerable lately.” “Great Wars?” “Are there any others?” “No?” Slate guessed. The three walked for a while in silence, until a breeze stirred up the wind chimes again and broke the quiet. “What exactly about the Wars were you learning today?” Slate asked. “Well,” Arianna sighed, “I’m sure you’d like the battles and the armies and stuff, as you are a boy, but today we were talking about my favorite subject: Galienda Veorenza’s Freedom Runners.” “What about them?” “So: The time is the first Great War, and the Nuvians are at the Junjut Gate, in the Ojikef Jungle. Outside the gate, there’s a monastery, where a saint named Veorenza is caring for all the wounded soldiers. They're always telling her how they didn’t want to fight and die for politicians, about how they don’t feel any honor or sense of purpose in war. So Veorenza and her sisters begin secretly shuttling away the unwilling soldiers along an underground network of monasteries and Alries. She would tell wild stories to the generals about their capture by slave pirates, or claim they had died. They say she saved thousands of men that way.” “That is a good story,” Slate agreed. “That woman sounds pretty brave.” “I love it when the rules are bent for the good guys, you know? I mean, why should the bad ones always get to do whatever they want?" "Good point." "I just hope that someday I can have a part in something as romantic or important as that. Have you ever wished, not really, but just as a dream, to see what war would be like?” Slate asked, “Are you serious?” “Well, not...” “What exactly happened here after the Great Hall burned down?” Slate asked. “It seems like everything is fine. Like nothing changed at all.” “We’ve all been affected by how fast the world is changing, in our own way,” said Arianna. “Our city is being overrun by con artists, from Magri and from South Airyel, even as far away as Proterse. People like Johannes Kale, people like Brella Greave. There’s a battle raging here for hearts and minds. Don’t take a calm countryside to mean that things here are peaceful." “Oh,” Slate said, kicking at a stone in the road. “I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about. You know, we didn’t hear much of anything about politics, growing up in Alleste.” “No, I don’t imagine you did. That’s what the pioneers who founded Alleste were looking for. A life apart,” Arianna said. “Why?” asked Slate. “Well, the repopulation of the planet wasn’t going like they wanted. But there’s not really anywhere left to go to start over anymore. Alleste is one of the last untouched places.” “Repopulation of the planet?” “After the Fall.” “What Fall?” “You don’t know?” “I don’t suppose I know much of anything, Arianna, apart from farming and hunting.” “The Fall was a terrible meteor shower that nearly ended all human life on the planet, some four hundred years ago.” “A meteor shower?” “That’s when massive pieces of rock fall from the sky.” Slate looked up apprehensively. “My Gods, really?” “Yes. Don’t worry, they’re very rare. But nearly everything was lost. Some technology was remembered, which has allowed us to flourish so quickly as to cover the globe again in four centuries, but the event was the worst thing to ever occur in human history. So many lives lost, so much knowledge and history gone.” “That’s unbelievable. Why didn’t I ever hear about that?” “The people who first came to Aelioanei did so to maintain a simple way of life, to live off the land. They saw the rapid redevelopment on the continent of Proterse as adverse to humanity’s true way, that the Fall was a chance to start over again that they were ruining. But, eventually, some people of the island started to long for the ease the people in Proterse enjoyed. And so the few who didn’t left for Alleste. To live purely.” “Well what did they think, they could just ignore the rest of the world forever?” “I suppose.” “That’s foolish.” “To some. To others, maybe not.” “Wild. Why did my father never tell me any of this?” “I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to protect you.” “I would have preferred the truth.” “Me too. I always prefer the truth.” “It sounds like something out of the Legend.” “You know the Legend?” Arianna asked excitedly. “Oh, absolutely. My mom used to read it to my brother and I before bed, every night,” Slate answered. “Then you know more than you think. The Legend is actually a mythologized version of the planet’s history.” “Mythologized?” “Actual events amplified for poetic effect.” “Oh. You know, I thought that Veorenza lady sounded familiar. Sounds just like Halita the Wise.” “Yes, that’s the same story! History is where the Legend got the inspiration for that story.” “Wow,” Slate said, trying to wrap his head around what he had just learned. “Can you tell me more about the Fall? About history?” “I’d be happy to, Slate.” “Thanks, Arianna.” “I’m happy you like to hear it,” Arianna said. “My mom says I talk too much.” “Maybe. But you do it so well,” said Slate. Arianna blushed. “Thank you, Slate.” By this time, the three had reached the drive to Arianna’s house. “Hungry for dinner?” Arianna asked. “Very. I’m sure Pilotte is, too.” A chandelier decorated with whyres lit the Falls' dining room in a soft glow that glistened off the honey-cured lart and made radiant, golden rings around the tops of glasses. Arianna’s brother, Brit, and her sister, Mart, were home for dinner, which made for what Slate learned was a rare whole-family meal at the Falls house. Slate took a seat and joined with the family in holding hands and listening to Mrs. Falls recite a prayer of thanksgiving. Pilotte was happy to sit in the corner, eating a large plate of all the leftovers Mrs. Falls could clear from the ice box. “So what do you think of our town so far, Slate?” asked Mrs. Falls. “Well, I like it,” Slate said, gulping down an entire biscuit in one swallow. “I like your house, and you are all really nice, and, yeah. I like it!” “I think he’s trying to say he likes it,” said Brit. “I’m glad,” said Mrs. Falls. “Were you able to make it far, before dinner?” “Well, I made it a little way, but then I met up with Arianna,” said Slate. “Oh, I see. Did you two have a nice time?” asked Mrs. Falls. She looked toward Arianna, who was trying to cut a tough bit of lart. “It was very educational,” Slate answered for her. “Yes, we did,” Arianna said, giving up on the meat. “Slate wanted to hear about what happened here after the Great Hall burned down.” “And about the Fall,” said Slate. “I had no idea that had ever happened.” Brit took the opportunity to offer his own opinion. “Well, let me briefly sum up the last half a year in Aislin for you, Slate: The Great Hall is destroyed and then, hey, that's it! Centuries of tradition? Gone. Where’d they go? Who knows? Then Johannes Kale shows up. Oh, hello, Johannes Kale. What’s that about our way of life? Oh, it’s gonna go too? Okay! What about those ancient texts at the university? Gone. Dissenters? Halo Brandt? All gone. Welcome citizens indentured servitude, our new best friend.” “Brit, you sound like a fool,” Mart said. “You’re the fool, Mart,” Brit responded. “That’s enough!” said Mrs. Falls, silencing her children. Brit tried to choke back a laugh that got caught in his throat along with a piece of bothel. “Johannes Kale is the new mayor, right?” asked Slate.     “He’s a politician, Slate, therefore a strake,” said Brit, after taking a drink of water. “He’s from Proterse. He has no idea what the needs of Aislin are. He was appointed mayor in an election that most citizens weren’t even invited to participate in.” “Brit!” Mrs. Falls said sharply. “Why is he a strake? What did he do?” asked Slate, too interested to let the subject drop like Mrs. Falls obviously wanted. “Well, let’s see: the city is financially ruined; probably for good, public funds have all gone missing, Kale appointed his own officials, our outskirts are overrun with criminality… But really, what did he do?” asked Brit. “Listen!” Mrs. Falls said, slamming her fist onto the table, rattling the plates. “Both of you! I don’t ever want to hear politics at the dinner table!” “Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t be allowed to speak at all before too long,” said Brit. “Enough, Brit!” Mrs. Falls said. “Shut your mouth! Only open it again to eat. Politics and digestion do not mix. There is a time and a place for everything, but right now the place is here and the time is for the dinner I worked on for two hours. So let’s just eat and worry about the state of the world later.” Once the meal concluded and the Falls family had retired to their usual after-dinner activities, Slate took Pilotte outside and decided to try the telescope on the back porch. He made out Obiers Ring in the night sky, and then turned the glass up to the broad moon, which was hovering close to Alm. Its gentle radiance reminded Slate of one of his favorite stories from the Legend, that of the Moon Goddess Baoulemiere.  Arianna came out onto the patio without Slate noticing. “Oh!” he yelped when he noticed her watching. “Arianna, I’m sorry. You scared me.” “What are you doing?” Arianna asked. “Looking at the moon. Have you ever heard the legend of Baoulemiere?” “I have,” Arianna answered. “But would you tell it to me again?” “Of course,” Slate said. “You see, the moon, Baoul-em, is a Goddess named Baoulemiere, who is the mother of all Alm’s children. In the days before the Fall, she circled perfectly around the planet in a loving embrace of her creations. However, when the heavens sent down their anger, their weapons hit Baoulemiere by accident. It is for this reason that her path around Alm is distorted. Now, she comes very close to our planet for two months a year, to try to find her missing children. When she remembers that they have gone missing, she runs away into hiding, and so two months a year one can barely see her. That she can never remember her loss angers her ex-husband, the sea god Alo. He cannot handle the pressure of reflecting so much of Baoulemiere’s misery for two months a year; it makes him rage and seethe to be so close to her grief. And when she is far away, he can't wake himself up. This is the reason behind the tides running to extremes twice a year. Why certain sea routes are impossible to chart, why our shorelines are so changeable." “You’re good at telling stories, too, Slate,” Arianna said. “The Legend is easy. It’s the world I’ve always known,” Slate said. “One governed by Gods and stories. And it always made sense. But now I’m learning the world so much different than I thought it was. That destruction really does fall from the sky.” “Those stories in the Legend still hold the ultimate truths,” Arianna said. “Humanity is confused right now. Still finding our way.” “I feel like it’s all changing so fast, for me,” Slate said. “A part of me wishes it could all be a dream, that I could wake back up in Alleste tomorrow. I can’t wait to get to Airyel. To talk to my dad.” “It’s nice to think that the way things were were the best way they could be,” said Arianna. “But maybe we remember things better than they really were.” Slate nodded and stared at the moon. “What exactly happened to your dad?” he asked. “He got injured in a traffic accident,” Arianna said. “Didn’t live much longer afterward.” “My mom had cidix,” said Slate. “She died when I was five. I can remember some things about her, like her reading us the Legend, and what she looked like. She was pretty. Or, I’m just remembering it that way.” “I’m sure she was beautiful,” Arianna said. “You’re really lucky to have your mom, she’s amazing.” “She is, I know. What about your dad? What is he like?” “He’s okay, I guess. Actually, he’s a good dad. He cares about my brother and I a lot. Or did. Or, still does. He only left to send back money. But sometimes I wish he had just stayed. I’d rather have had him around than the money. But, I don’t know. It sounds like he found what we needed.” “You’re going to find him, right?” “Yes. I don’t have anyone else. I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. He was a good dad. Is. I don’t know.” “Don’t think you don’t have anyone else, Slate,” said Arianna. “Oh, I don’t think that,” Slate said. “I’ve got Pilotte, and I’ve got…” Slate started, as he turned to meet Arianna’s gaze and then understood what she had meant. “I’m really lucky I found you, Arianna.” “We’re lucky to have found each other, Slate.” “Maybe we are, huh?”  “Don’t worry, Slate,” Arianna said, trying to stifle a yawn. “You’ll never be alone.” “Feeling tired? Am I boring you?” “No, no. I just had a long day. Call it a night?” “Sounds good, Arianna. Pilotte! Inside or outside tonight?” The wulf didn’t answer, distracted as he was by digging at a furra hole. “Outside, I guess,” said Slate. He started for the door, so that he could open it for Arianna, but she stopped him with a hand on the shoulder. The two looked into each others’ eyes for a moment, and then Arianna folded into Slate, who wrapped his arms around the girl. The moonlight enveloped them in its soft glow, and they breathed together for a while, until the time was right to head inside. Later that night, as Slate was settling into bed, Mrs. Falls came in to apologize for what had happened at dinner. “There is no need to apologize, it was delicious!” Slate insisted. “I mean the arguing, Slate, not the food,” Mrs. Falls said. “It wasn’t very hospitable of Brit to start an argument.” “I’m not very used to hospitality,” Slate said. “I come from Alleste.” “Oh, Slate,” Mrs. Falls laughed. “You know, for all you’ve been through, you are one plucky young man.” “What have I been through?” Slate asked.  “You’ve lost your whole family, Slate. I know that hurts. You can be honest with me.” “You know, it’s strange,” Slate said. “Earlier this week, I was all alone in my hut in Alleste. And then, a few days ago, I was living in the woods. And I was sad sometimes, very sad. But then I found Pilotte. Now I learn about Johannes Kale, and the Fall… the world is just so… big. So much bigger than just my family and me. So my troubles seem smaller. Does that make any sense, Mrs. Falls?” “Of course it does, Slate. It is certainly strange how the world can seem so small when you are unaware. And how the world can seem so huge when you realize that we are all bearing the heavy loads of each others’ existence. But nothing negates the reality of what you’ve been through.” “Yeah, but who hasn’t been through difficult things before?” Slate asked. “That’s very wise, Slate.” Mrs. Falls said. She thought for a moment. “I bear obligation to my family name, I suppose that's what I struggle with. You see, my maiden name is Aat, which means I am a proud Oognook. My people were the original native inhabitants of Aelioanei. The Aats started the school system on the island. As a teacher, I have a long history and reputation to live up to.” “I’m so worried about my own family,” Slate confessed to Mrs. Falls. “What about, exactly?” she asked, taking a seat on the edge of Slate’s bed. “All sorts of things. I’m worried about my brother,” Slate said. “We haven’t heard from him since he left. I'm worried I might not find my father. Or that I won’t like it in Airyel if I do. Anyways, I’m sure you’re a good teacher, you don’t have to worry about your reputation,” Slate said. “I mean, Arianna’s so smart.” “Well thank you,” Mrs. Falls said. “It’s been hard work with her. Talk about fighting your heritage. That girl has the most independent spirit, Slate. She always has.” “I really like her,” Slate said softly, as he felt his eyelids starting to get heavy. “She likes you too, Slate,” Mrs. Falls said. “I can tell.” Slate yawned and smiled, obviously fighting a losing battle against sleep. “Just so you know, Slate, you can stay here as long as you’d like,” Mrs. Falls said, pulling an extra blanket up from the foot of the bed.  Slate murmured happily and nodded on his pillow. “I’ll take that as understood. Good night, Slate Ahn,” Mrs. Falls said. She blew out the bedside candle and made her way to the door. Just as she was about to close it she stopped at the jamb. “We’re here for you, Slate,” she said. “You don’t ever have to worry that you’re alone.”
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    Over the two weeks Slate spent at the Falls’ residence, he devoured books with relish, making his way through the entire set of encyclopedias in the library to try and catch up with all he had never known about his world. He also attended some of Arianna’s classes, where he sat rapt in the back at all there was to learn. When she wasn’t at school, Arianna, Slate, and Pilotte would go exploring together. Slate was enjoying his time and company, but always at the back of his mind was the nagging notion that he had to get back on the trail to Airyel. After deciding one night that the next day with the Falls would be his last, and struggling for hours with how he would tell Arianna, when he was finally ready to make his announcement, it was cut short by Brit, who brought home his own big news. Arianna’s brother burst through the front door with a holler, and then proceeded to make four loops around the house, whooping and celebrating before his mother demanded an explanation. “What are you so excited about, Brit? Did the school burn down?” she asked. “Mother, my Mother. Tell me, did you vote today?” asked Brit with a huge, presumptive smile. "Of course I did," Mrs. Falls said. "And how did you vote, Mother?" “You know I voted against the Heritage Act, we talked about it at breakfast this morning.” “Well that’s strange, Mom. Because no one voted against the Act,” said Brit. “What do you mean?” asked a suddenly worried Mrs. Falls. Arianna ran out from the kitchen.  “Yeah, what do you mean no one voted against it? It passed?” she cried. “No, no, it didn’t pass,” said Brit. “But no one voted against it. Actually, no one voted for it, either.”  “How? Come on Brit, just tell us what happened,” plead Mrs. Falls.  “Happy to. This is the best story ever,” Brit began. “So all the votes are all counted up in public, right, and nothing’s been reported yet, because those are the rules, right? Then, just before the tallies are about to be announced, someone in the crowd stands up, a Green Shield, from what I heard, and asks the crowd, ‘People, how can we trust Kale’s ballots?’ Now, Kale is there, of course, and he’s so confident, he quiets the crowd and says, ‘I guarantee that this vote is one hundred percent accurate, with no tampering or distortion of any kind. The electoral system is foolproof, and we needn’t listen to men such as this, who try to breed mistrust.’ And so they begin reading off the tallies, and the place just explodes. Every vote, every single one, is for ‘Freedom.’ The Green Shield re-rigged the rigged election and caught Kale in his own lies, right out in the open!” “Nnno!” gasped Mrs. Falls. The Falls family danced around the kitchen, singing and cheering. Slate was happy for their excitement, but couldn’t share it. He quietly left the celebrations to join Pilotte in the back yard, where he continued to struggle as he had since the night before with how he’d tell Arianna that he had to be on his way. “Slate?” Arianna asked from the back porch. “Where’d you go? Is something wrong?” “What?” Slate asked. “Oh, no. I just don't really know anything about politics. I’m glad the vote turned out good, though.” “You seem upset. Tell me what’s wrong.” “I think I have to be leaving, Arianna. Before the deep winter. Before the snow starts to stick.” “Wait, what? You are going to leave already? Why are you going to leave?” “I’ve really got to find my father. I know he’s expecting me,” Slate explained. “I mean, I can’t just stay here forever, can I?” “Why not? You don’t even know where your father is,” Arianna protested. “Sure I do, he’s in Airyel.” “But we are more than happy to have you here, we all really like you.” “And I really like all of you, too. But he’s my dad, and he’s expecting me. I can’t just stay here forever. Arianna, I’ve only known you for two weeks and you’re already my best friend. This is not an easy decision for me to make. But I have to let my father know I’m okay, and know that he’s okay, too. Can you understand that?” Arianna searched Slate’s face and then sighed. “As hard as it is, I trust you if you say you have to go. Airyel is just so far away, Slate.” “There’s nothing I can do about that.” “And it’s a huge city, Slate, like nothing you’ve ever known.” “Most of the world is like nothing I’ve known, apparently. And I’ve got Pilotte to protect me.” The wulf looked up happily from the rather large hole he had been digging for the past few days. “I’m worried you are being too rash about all of this,” Arianna said. “If your father were out there, somewhere, wouldn’t you try to find him? I’m fine, I know how to take care of myself. Can you just support me on this?” Arianna sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Thank you. And you’ll be here when I'm done, when I get back, right?” Slate asked softly, putting his hand on Arianna’s shoulder. Arianna shook her head. “You’re never going to come back, though,” she said. “Why would you say that?” “People leave, Slate.” “I won’t leave you forever, Arianna, I promise. Just like the story of Henti and Ote from the Legend. Friends separated by the fates their whole lives,” Slate said. “Chance saw them buried in the same graveyard, and then two trees planted over their graves eventually grew so high and tall that the boughs reached out and stretched all the way across the other graves, growing intertwined and reuniting them at last. Like Henti and Ote, whatever happens, we will see each other again, I promise,” Slate swore.  “In a graveyard?” Arianna asked “Before that, I promise.” Arianna nodded reluctantly. “You’d better, Slate,” she said. “You’d better.” Later, Slate was reading an old visitor’s guide to Airyel on the edge of his bed when Mrs. Falls came and knocked on his doorjamb. “May I enter?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” Slate answered. “Slate,” Mrs. Falls began, “Firstly, I just want to say that we all appreciate the help you’ve been giving around the house. I want to let you know, again, just so you do, that you are welcome to stay here as long as you like.” “Thanks, Mrs. Falls.” “Arianna tells me that you feel that you have to leave tomorrow, to go see your father in Airyel.” “Yeah.” “Well, I wish it wasn’t so soon. But just know that, wherever you go, you are always welcome here.” “Thank you,” Slate said. “I don’t intend to be there forever. I promise I will repay you someday, on my way home, or, wherever, however. For all you’ve done for me.” “You don’t owe us a thing. However, if you never come back to at least visit and let us know you’re okay, I will track you down and yell at you.” “I’ll be back through Aislin; I’ve already made a promise to Arianna.” “Oh, thank the Gods. She cares about you so much, we all do. I just hope that there is an Aislin for you to return to.” “Me too. I feel a little scared, going out into such a confused world,” Slate said. “Who knows what is happening in the east?” “Well,” Mrs. Falls said, “One can never be certain about the future. But we can be hopeful. Otherwise, everything is already lost.” “Do you ever wish you could stop it all from changing so fast?” asked Slate. “It’s funny you should say that,” Mrs. Falls said. “I have a favor to ask. I need you to carry a book to North Airyel for me, Slate. I need you to bring it to a man there named Guh Hsing. He owns a well-known bookstore there; it should be easy to locate him.” “Okay, I guess I can do that," Slate said. "But why don’t you use the post? They still seem to be functioning pretty well.” “I can't,” Mrs. Falls said. “I must tell you; it is of the greatest importance that you get the book to Guh Hsing.”  “Mrs. Falls, I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t know if I can be trusted with something of great importance. I hardly know what I’m thinking one minute to the next. The post would deliver your book for sure.” “I cannot use the post. Son,” Mrs. Falls explained, “This is something that I wouldn’t even have brought to you if we didn’t think that you were capable. You have proven you are. You made it all the way here from Alleste on your own. And you’re smart as a whip. And you have the protection of a snarlingwulf, which is a rare as a silver thornicanth. Airyel isn’t a difficult trip from here. I'm certain that you can make it. We need you to.” “We?” “You’ll understand it all soon enough. I have some goldquartz to send you with so that you can catch a boat out of Nowhere,” Mrs. Falls said. “It will make your trip even easier. You’ll deliver the book, and then you can ask about your father, just like you wanted.” “A boat?” Slate gulped nervously. “What if I get eaten by a gibu, or I drown?”
pre

“Slate, I’m asking you for
this favor because I know you are smart and strong and capable,”
said Mrs. Falls. “If fate has decided our book shall be lost, it
will be no fault of you or your character.”

“I just don’t
know…”

“Slate, don’t let anxiety
control you. Trust me. You will take the book, and you will see
that it gets to Guh Hsing. There is no reason to fear otherwise.
And he will tell you why, when you get there. I cannot.”

“Why?”

“You’ll know when you get
there.”

Slate’s stomach turned with a loud groan.

“Okay,” he said. “If you really think it’ll be okay, I’d be honored
to take the book to North Airyel for you, Mrs. Falls. It’s the
least I could do to repay you.”

“If the book makes it to Guh
Hsing, you’ll have repaid me twenty fold. And if it doesn’t, I will
love you no less,” Mrs. Falls said.

“I will do my best,” said
Slate.

He and Pilotte set out early one morning into
a foot of fresh snow, with the book for Guh Hsing stowed in a new
leather pack from Mrs. Falls along with a change of clothes, a few
travelers supplies he’d received as gifts from Arianna, and a
decent amount of goldquartz. The snow crunching under his feet and
the metallic smell of the winter air distracted Slate from his
worry and sadness. The cold was bracing and invigorated his
imagination for what was yet to come. Ahead were the Vallor
Mountains; it wouldn’t be long before he would cross them and leave
the bitter chill behind.

That first evening back on the trail, as he
and Pilotte sat before a small fire eating roasted hare with fern
sprouts, Slate felt very sad for having left Arianna and the Falls.
The only thing that kept his sadness at bay was the certainty in
his mind that he would return to see them soon enough, as soon as
he was able to see his father and let him know he was alright.
Pilotte sensed Slate’s sadness, and distracted him as best he could
with a game of fetch, until Slate was so tired he couldn’t stay
awake to dwell on his sadness any longer.

7

{color:#000;}
    The next day was fifteen or so more miles travel to Nowhere. The Vallor Pass would be trying and bitter cold, but Slate had learned that the weather on the eastern shores of Aelioanei was always much warmer than that in the north, and the prospect of such warmth and his new company made fifteen miles go by quickly.  Slate and Pilotte entered the very oldest parts of the Yellow Forest during their hike. Above the snow, droves of woodneedles worked extracting tiny bugs with their long, thin beaks, making the forest sound like a woodshop. The Yellow Forest had plenty to eat for Slate as well: there were patches of mushrooms springing up wherever the snow had not covered the ground. Pilotte didn’t care much for fungus, and so he got the greater portion of the small game the pair was able to catch. At the base of Vallor Pass, Slate and Pilotte stopped to sleep for the night in an old hiker’s lean-to. There was warmer weather ahead, and Slate had been able to walk off some of his heavy heart. But the boat ride ahead was not something he was at all excited about. The next morning’s hike over the pass didn’t take but two hours. At the top, the warm air from the Anir greeted Slate like an old friend. The temperature rose as Slate and Pilotte came down the eastern side of the mountains, allowing for Slate to remove his heavy coat for the rest of the trip to Nowhere, which sparkled like a jewel on the coast in the rising sun.  Slate was excited to see the wild place he had heard so much about from Arianna. While he had explicit recommendations from Mrs. Falls to find the first transport south, he figured looking around the city beforehand wouldn’t hurt. And putting off the boat trip was an added benefit. He set with Pilotte onto one of the walking paths that looped through the beach that surrounded the city and readied for excitement. The sweet, rich smell of honeymarrot palms and their fallen white petals guided the way through a maze of slap-dash shacks to where the sandy path turned into a proper street. Commercial businesses started appearing in stretches of three and four along the sides of the street as Slate made his way into town. Eager to sample what exotic delights Nowhere might have to offer, he stopped into a store that had a wonderful smell wafting out from its open door. Pilotte waited outside, scaring passers-by to the other side of the street. Inside the shop, Slate found a clear-fronted box stacked with trays of glistening baked goods: breads, cookies, bundles, cakes, and candy, in every color imaginable. There were even chocolate-covered windhoppers and spiced dried fish for the daring. Slate spent some time trying to decide between a clant bunch and habricotte bread, before finally settling on a frosted cranberry fold. He asked the clerk behind the counter for two of the folds, plus the biggest bone they might have behind the deli, for Pilotte. The clerk ducked into the back, then reappeared with a two-foot larts rib. He wrapped the goods up in banch paper, then turned to total them on a ledger. Slate paid and rejoined Pilotte on the street outside. He ate his fold and wandered. In the artisan quarters, he saw incredible glass and jade carvings, and listened to a man who could sing two notes at the same time. He lost three pieces of goldquartz in a game of chance right on the street that he was pretty sure he couldn’t have won anyway.  When the sun went down and the streetlamps were lit, Slate realized he had wasted his whole day without ever making it to the harbor. Figuring it was too late now, he yawned his way into a small inn called the Breakaway. Slate was conned out of a sizeable portion of his goldquartz by a clerk at the hotel, who made up a number of tourist charges that a noddy-headed Slate agreed to.  In the morning, after kicking himself for having paid the no breakfast fee, Slate ate his remaining cranberry fold and headed for the city harbor with Pilotte, to try to find their ride south to Airyel. As Slate approached the harbor, a series of haggard beggars stumbled at him asking for money. Some were younger than he, but most were gray and wizen. A number of them mumbled things about being Veterans of the Ha War, which Slate had never heard of. He felt bad about having nothing to offer, but he worried that his remaining pieces of goldquartz might not even cover his trip, if he could even find anyone that might be open for charter.  The water in Nowhere’s harbor was full of garbage and human waste from the nearby shantytown that used it as their latrine. Though the waters were unsightly, the strong winds from the northwest carried the stench away on salty-sweet air, and the orange-pink sky was a beauty to behold that morning. There wasn’t much activity at the harbor, just a few old sailors and blissful retirees scrubbing down their boats and making repairs to the music of the surf.  Slate walked down to the far end of the last pier, to get a clearer view of the horizon. The strong winds there precluded the peaceful viewing that Slate had hoped for, and he was forced to turn back. He made for the closest barricade against the wind, the hull of a boat with the word Calamity painted in sparkling blue on its side. Looking up, he saw an older man on the deck. “Hello!” Slate called up to the stranger. The man responded, “Hello to you!” “Headed out today?” Slate asked. “Are you kidding? Did you see that sky? Red at night, sailor’s delight. Red in the morning, sailors take warning! There’s a storm blowing in, son!” “So why are you cleaning your windows?” Slate asked. “It’s not that the windows need to be clean, son, it’s that I get to work on my boat,” the man explained. “Where you hope to be heading? Back to my worst nightmare with that hairy monster there?” “He's not a monster, he’s Pilotte,” Slate said. “And my name is Slate Ahn, and I am looking to travel to North Airyel. Do you know anyone that might be leaving today, despite the red sky warning? I have four pieces of goldquartz I can pay.” “Hid Hidli,” the man introduced himself. “Don’t ever tell a Nowherer that you have goldquartz, son. This ain’t the town to be flashing money around.” “Okay.” “Or, do whatever the hell you want! I don’t care. What do you want with the traitors in Airyel anyway?” “I have a delivery to make. And I’m looking for my father.” Hid stopped cleaning. “How old are you, son?” he asked. “I’m almost seventeen, sir,” Slate answered. “When’s the last time you saw your father, Slate?” “Just before summer ended,” Slate answered. “He left because there wasn’t any work left in Alleste after the Great Hall burned down. He’s been sending me back money. But then I got a letter that he wanted me to join him, so I left home.” Hid took off his hat and scratched at his scalp, taking in a deep breath as he squinted into the rising sun. “Too bad, about the Great Hall, isn’t it? Then Kale, in Aislin. Island’s had a hell of time lately. Tell you what. I was thinking of making a try at an itchy fish today anyways…” “Itchy fish?”  “My wife would never let me hear the end of it if she found out, but whenever it’s about to storm big like this, I go down to Harson’s Island and try for an itchy fish. Incredible creatures. The things are huge, some fifteen feet long. They have a big old sail on their back, and they’re the color of emeralds in the moonlight. They go into an absolute frenzy before a big storm, leaving their usual waters to snatch up the fish that show up to eat all the goodies the storm dislodges from the sea floor. Storms like this one is shaping up to be.” “Has anyone ever caught an itchy fish?” Slate asked. “Stories say that people used to,” Hid said, “But like anything good, everyone jumped on it. Fished ‘em to near extinction. Anyways, to my point, you can’t make the trip back north from Harson’s Island at night with the moon where she’s at this time of year, so I usually camp out down there by Airyel after itchy fishing. If you want to come with me, you are welcome to. But I warn you, things may get a little rocky!” “Oh, that’s okay, Mr. Hidli, I would just really appreciate the ride,” Slate said, relieved. “Well, alright then! And call me Hid. It’s off to Magri for business! Or so we tell the wife, right?” Hid said with a wink. “Come on up, we’ve got some work to do. Do you know anything about sailing?” Slate admitted, “I’ve never been on a boat. To tell you the truth, I’m sort of terrified by the ocean.” Hid tried to contain his disbelief, swallowing hard and smiling down at Slate and his wulf. “There’s nothing to be terrified about in life, if you know what you’re doing, Slate. We’re gonna have to teach you about the sea!” Slate and Pilotte climbed up the galley plank to board the Calamity as the soft rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Hid gave a tour, explaining that the vessel was an old postal boat he had converted using wood from the Passage Islands. The traditional sailboat out of Nowhere had a much narrower keel, as compared to the Calamity’s wide, flat bottom, which Hid used to access pearl beds that deeper-water vessels were unable to reach, and a fully rotating boom, which let him switch directions easily.  It wasn’t difficult for Slate to learn what little sailing skill the Calamity required. There was just a single mainsail, which allowed Hid, who was usually at sea by himself, to have greater control, and over the years, he had mastered how the Calamity’s design best rode the particular winds of northeastern Aelioanei. “Slate, you seem to be a natural,” Hid said after giving a brief lesson. “You know, my father said that a sailor is born, not made. Also said that the only true sailor is the small-boat sailor. See, we gotta know how to make the wind carry us from one place to another. Have to know about rips and eddies, bar and channel markings, know about how the weather works. And most importantly, a small-boat sailor has to be able to learn the little quirks that give a boat its personality. How to coax her, bring her gently about. You’ll get that all soon enough too, I’m sure!”  The happy old sailor sang over the crash of the waves as the Calamity's sails caught a strong wind, which tried as hard as it could to lift the boat right up out of the ocean. The little craft leapt and stuttered over the breakers close to the pier, and then began to pick up smooth speed once it was free of the harbor.  “We’ve got to take her east now, aim for the clouds,” Hid called. Slate gripped the wheel with white hands as he described a foamy arc through the sea, and bit down hard on the anxiety that was trying to knock him over.
pre

 

8

{color:#000;}
     A pod of dahlphins joined the Calamity for a while, jumping back and forth in front of the keel as it rode along. They turned back when the water grew choppier and tiny droplets of rain created a fine mist, which turned into a light shower.  On shore, the land climbed higher and higher up into the foothills of the Aelioanei Mountains before eventually disappearing completely into low-hanging clouds, leaving only flat-faced rock cliffs visible to the passengers at sea. Hid fixed the sail for trolling so that the Calamity could better move with the stormy water’s swells and surges, forces that he explained could throw less experienced sailors up onto the rock like flotsam.  As the boat trolled through the rolling blue-gray, Slate was surprised by a blast of water that shot up from the sea. It was followed by a slick, shining black form that rose up like a wheel, then rotated to display a snubbed top fin and a long, orange-and-purple tail fin that smacked the water’s surface with a splash before it disappeared back down into the abyss. “What on Alm was that?” Slate gasped. “What’d you see there?” asked Hid, furrowing his bushy eyebrows as he crossed to where Slate was standing. “I don't know, a thing! A huge, black, thing! With a bright orange fin,” Slate explained. “That was probably a sirrk, son,” said Hid, scratching his ear. “Strange that they’d be north this early in the year, but I suppose our winters have been different than they used to be.” “A sirrk? Is that like a fish? How big is a sirrk?” asked Slate. “Are we going to die?” “No. Maybe. Yes, actually. Everyone is going to die. But we probably won’t die today. There are a coupla kinds of sirrks, but you prolly saw a ployback,” noted Hid. The creature reappeared ten feet off in the distance, again heralded by a blast of water. “Yes, ployback,” Hid confirmed. “That’s its blowhole shooting water. Sirrks are the biggest creatures on Alm. Absolutely huge. And they eat plankton! Tiny plankton. The waters up here have the highest plankton concentrations in the world, that’s what brings them. And the dahlphins and the itchy fish, too. It’s a good place to be a fish. But a better place to be a fisherman.” “What do they look like under the ocean, the sirrks?” asked Slate. “Well, kind of like a really big malnos, but with a noad’s face... tell you what, I’ll show you one when we get to Airyel,” promised Hid.  As the boat continued its way through the fjords, Slate saw creatures stretched out on the rocky islands that rose from the sea, all piled on top of each other and barking at the nerrs that flew in a frenzy around them. Pilotte barked along with the strange creatures, which stopped silent to stare at the wulf as he went by. A low island, different from the others and covered with plant growth, soon came into view through the rain. “There’s a place up ahead where we can get out and stretch a bit,” said Hid, as he began to steer the Calamity into the tiny island’s bay. The Calamity met the grade of the island's beach, and the tide helped to push it far enough up the sand for the three passengers to be able to hop out. Slate was thrilled to be back on land. He helped Hid tied the boat to a tree, shivering, and said, “I’m really cold.” “Yeah, I can see that,” Hid said. “There’s a sweater and some wind pants in the cabin, go ahead and grab ‘em. Also, grab the bretton root, this is gonna be a long night!” Pilotte followed Hid along a tiny stream into a small pine stand to collect fresh water as Slate pulled on the woolen sweater and the wind pants he had been offered. They were far too large, but he felt immeasurably warmer with them on.  Slate stuck a squib of Bretton root into his mouth, lodging it firmly between his back teeth and his cheek, where it could slowly dispense its stimulant over the course of the night. He went back out onto the boat’s deck to find Hid and Pilotte had returned. “If you gotta make water or take water, this is the time to do it,” Hid snickered. The old sailor started double-checking the rigging, while Slate made his way to the cold-water spring amidst the pines with Pilotte in tow. Once the crew was all back on board, the Calamity opened her sail once more. The craft slid down the beach back into the water as a deep rumble of thunder from off in the far distance volleyed around the rock faces in the fjord in an ominous echo, and then the sky could hold no longer and the rain began to pour down. An ocean swell grabbed the Calamity and pulled it into the confusion. The force was so great that it knocked Hid off his feet and sent the ship’s boom swinging wildly around. The boom nearly knocked Slate off the edge of the boat, as the craft went careening toward one of the rock-slab islands. “Grab the boom!” Hid screamed. Slate threw his right arm at the boom as it came swinging back at him. He missed catching it with his hands, instead meeting it with his jaw as his feet slid across the slippery deck. Slate got a hold of the boom the next time it swung back around, but a huge gust of wind caught the sail just as he did so. The wind’s pull lifted Slate up from the deck and clear across the left side of the boat, and then swung him out over the prow and around to the right side. The Calamity broke into a free-fall from the crest of a collapsing wave while Slate was spinning, and for a moment, all three passengers floated about the deck as if weightless. The vessel smacked back down into the water and Hid and Pilotte fell, hard. The boom swung around again, loose in the raging wind, dragging Slate along with it. He caught the banister that rimmed the boat with his foot, and his body snapped taught when the pull of the sail back over the front of the boat was arrested. A blast of lightning startled Slate and caused him to lose his foothold, and he began to ride the boom over the prow again. This time, Hid was there to grab him around the waist and pull him back onto the boat. The boom came back around one last time, and Hid seized and tied it down. The flat-bottomed boat road up high and fast on the crest of a peaking wave, so near to one of the rock-faced islands that Slate could see the rain cutting little waterfalls down its mossy surface. With a grace that belied his age, Hid brought down the sail in perfect synchronicity with the wave, and then the Calamity was still, for only a second, before it banked ever-so-slowly to the right and eventually came to rest on the surface of the sea with the back-roll of the wave. Slate had forgotten to breathe during the confusion, and gasped hard when he realized it. “What’s wrong, son?” Hid asked. “That was terrifying,” Slate answered, trembling. “I thought I was going to die!” “But you didn’t, didja? That wasn’t nothin’! Welcome to itchy fishin'!” Hid said with a hearty laugh that somehow managed to warm Slate’s spirits. Slate tried to wring out his clothes, which was futile, as the rain just kept coming down. Hid got the pilot light for the boat’s small furnace started back up, then adjusted the sails once more, and the Calamity carved its way back into deeper waters.  The sky strobed with lightning off to the north. The time between the flashes and the bellowing thunder following after was growing shorter and shorter, meaning the heart of the storm was following the little boat through the fjord. As Slate counted the duration between one particularly bright flash of lightning and its thunder, a long, green fish with a sharp snout and a fan-like dorsal fin breached the face of the water just in front of the boat. It glistened in the rain for a moment before jumping, turning around in mid-air, and torpedoing back down into the depths. “Itchy fish!” cried Hid, throwing his arms up to the pouring skies. "Itchy fish, itchy fish!" “That's an itchy fish? They’re huge! We have to catch one?” asked Slate. “Yup. But we don’t try for them here in the fjord,” answered Hid. “They’re diving hundreds and hundreds of feet here, we’d lose them for certain. What we’re gonna do is head just a little east of here, closer to Harson’s Island. The waters around Harson’s aren’t more than forty feet deep at best, so if we get one of the bastards, we might actually be able to hold on to it.” After passing four more rock islands, a second, flatter, greener island revealed itself. “It’s Harson’s,” hollered Hid. “Here, take over for a while.” Slate took the wheel and kept the boat steady while Hid unpacked a huge harpoon gun from its bag, a four-foot metal rod with a three-pronged hook at its front end. Hid mounted the harpoon gun into its fittings on the right side of the boat.  “Here, you come over here now,” he said once the harpoon was in place. “I have to position the boat just right to trick one of these clever bastards, so I’m gonna need you to shoot the thing.” “But I haven’t ever shot anything before,” Slate said. “That’s okay. You see that little bump on top of the harpoon there?” Hid asked. “Yes, sir,” answered Slate. “You just have to line up the fish with that little bump, use just one eye, like this, so you get a real clear line, then you release that crank there. Just pull out the pin. And don’t miss!”  "Got it," Slate said. Two itchy fish breached together, this time more horizontally, due to the shallower water around Harson’s. Their torpedo-noses sliced back into the water with almost no spray, and then they re-appeared twenty feet away, leaping back in the other direction. It seemed that they were making parallel dives, back and forth along the ocean floor, in figure-eight patterns. Hid maneuvered the Calamity near to the middle of the fishes’ loops. “If we just set here, and you target one of these sons-a-bitches, well, we may actually catch one,” Hid said with an air of great enjoyment. “I should have brought you along sooner, Slate! You’re good luck.” Slate set the harpoon's sight on the spot where the fish would appear next. He waited for them to jump four more times, to get their rhythm just right, and then he knew it was time to take his shot.  A shock of lightning illuminated the sea, followed almost immediately by an ear-shattering blow of thunder. Slate’s eyes were just readjusting when he made out the nose of one of the fish. He aimed with a hard squint and pulled the pin out of the harpoon crank. The heavy weapon released with a ‘thwap’ that sounded loudly despite the storm, and sent the harpoon flying through the downpour. It struck one of the fish dead center, right below its huge dorsal fin. The fish dove back into the water, and then the harpoon rope began unfurling into the sea after it.  The fish popped up again on the other side of the boat, while Hid spun around to keep pace.  “Tie down the line, Slate!” Hid yelled. Slate wound the harpoon rope around a stopper and tied it, finishing just as the line snapped. The strength of the itchy fish pulled the side of the boat down for a moment, and then the line went slack. Slate was terrified to see the fish’s fin slicing through the water toward the boat itself. The fish broke from the surface of the water and soared clear over the prow of the Calamity, wrapping the line over and across the deck as it went. When it dove down again on the other side, the little boat groaned and sank down deeper into the sea. “If we don’t match his moves, he’ll drown us! Sucker’s tryin’ to drown us, Slate!” yelled Hid.  The eye of the storm had made its way down and over Harson’s Island. The rain relented momentarily.  “If we can just keep up with it, he’s as good as ours,” Hid said. “So let’s stay sharp. Keep the line tight but not too tight, and give if you have to give, but not too much.” The eye of the storm passed quickly and the storm began to gain intensity again. The itchy fish on the end of Slate's line began surfacing closer and closer to the island, which meant that it was getting tired. The Calamity followed its every move for some two and half hours, slowly dowsing the seemingly unquenchable fire that drove the creature through the freezing waters. In the end, the fish’s fin surfaced for good, this time up near the island’s sandy beach.  “It’s time,” Hid announced. He sailed the boat up slowly on the prey to where it was within five feet of the bloodied water where it struggled. Hid and Slate pulled the heavy fish up and out of the water, using all of their strength to hoist it onto the deck. It stretched across the entire boat, and flopped with a dull thud against the wooden boards. “Poor thing,” Slate said. “Can’t we put it out of its misery?” “Best way to go,” said Hid as he procured a flask from his pocket. He poured its contents into the fish’s gills. The fish flopped a few more times before coming to rest with its huge, bulging eyes staring motionlessly skyward. “Drunk and dead happy. Saints alive, we caught an itchy fish, son!” screamed Hid, his eyebrows pulling halfway up his forehead and his smile reaching nearly as far. He danced around the deck of the Calamity, clapping his hands and laughing. “Do you have any idea how amazing this is?”
pre

“That was one heck of a
ride, Hid,” Slate said. “I know that much.”

“You are telling me, son,
you are telling me,” Hid said with a huge sigh, staring down at the
fish in disbelief. “See, that’s what you do when you’re scared,
Slate. You bite down hard on it. You own the fear, you conquer it.
You catch the itchyfish! Let’s take harbor here until the storm
passes. Looks like it’ll clear up soon.”

The storm clouds dissipated over the far edge
of the horizon, the thunder roared its last howl, and the moon
reappeared, graced with a halo.

“We’ll set up camp at
Breakers for the night, about ten miles or so from North Airyel,”
Hid said. “That way we won’t have to go through the hassle of
registering the wulf, the fish, the boat, all of that junk. It’s
real nearby.”

The Calamity radiated a lazy green wake
toward the shore where Mount Ange, the tallest in the Aeolian
chain, rose up high and proud from the surrounding peaks. Once Hid
brought the flat bottom of the boat to rest at Breakers camp, Slate
helped him string a line of hemp cord between two trees, and then
the two draped a canvas over it, to form an a-frame tent. Slate
broke off a tree branch and used the fronds as a broom, sweeping
out the cones and small sticks from the floor of the tent while Hid
collected rocks to build a fire pit.

By the time Slate had the tent ready for
sleep, after transporting a few wet blankets from the boat to the
fire pit for drying out, Hid had a large conflagration spewing
smoke off into the chilly breeze and some small fish roasting over
it. Before dinner was through, Pilotte crawled into the tent and
took up most of the space inside, and so Hid and Slate each chose a
side of the animal to curl up to, where they slept warmly and
comfortably until the gulls cried out to announce the morning.

When Slate reemerged from the tent, wiping
his sleep-swollen eyes, Hid was already re-packing the boat.

“Got some glint going on the
fire there, help yourself,” he said.

Slate stumbled over to the fire pit, which
had kept hot coals all night. He poured a cup of glint for himself
and sipped slowly at the steaming beverage as he watched Hid
work.

“Leaving soon, Mr. Hidli?”
he asked.

“Yup. Once the water heats
up the winds make it damn hard to sail north, so I’m already a few
minutes behind,” Hid said. “I know I said I’d show you the sirrk in
town, but I’ve got to get the itchy fish on ice, so you’re on your
own. Give me a hand with the tent, Slate.”

Slate gulped down his glint and then helped
Hid fold up the canvas, take down the cords, and load them onto the
boat. After Hid threw a couple of buckets of seawater into the fire
pit, it was time to say goodbye.

“Guess that’s it then, Slate,” Hid said.

“Alright. Hey, I really
appreciate the ride down, and the company, Mr. Hidli,” Slate
said.

“It’s Hid. And don’t you
worry, it was my gain. Turns out I needed a helper all these years.
Who knew? So, what’ll you do now?”

“Well, I have a book to
deliver to North Airyel,” Slate said, “And then I’ll ask around to
see where my father is at.”

“And if you find
him?”

“Well, I’ll see what he’s
been up to. See if he needs my help.”

Hid could see that Slate was uncertain. “Son,
I don’t like to preach but, if you’re staring in the face of proof,
well… I want to tell you what: I know you are looking for your
father, and that’s noble. But here’s how life is: You find
something, whatever it is, something for you, just for you, Slate.
Whatever you can find that you care about. And you love that thing
so much that it drives you wild. Think about it all the time. Go to
it when you can’t find anything else to believe in. Remember it
when you think you’re satisfied. And it can be anything, can be an
idea, doesn’t have to be a thing even. When you get to be my age,
and you get to have that dream you’ve dreamt your whole life come
true… you’ll see what I mean. Always remember that you have all
you’re seeking within yourself. And that you’ve got nothing to be
scared of but bein’ scared.”

“Okay. I appreciate it, Mr.

Hidli,” Slate said, though he didn’t quite understand.

With a sniffle, Hid said, “Truly sorry I
can’t stay and help you more, son. But I certainly will never
forget the young man who helped me catch an itchy fish. Now, I want
you to come see me up in Nowhere, after you find your father, okay?
And make it soon, because I don’t have too many days left.” He took
out the goldquartz pieces that Slate had given him for his journey
the day before and handed them back. “And I can’t take this,
because you helped me so much with the catch. Wish I had something
more to give you, in fact. But I don’t. Money, anyways, I don’t
have any of that with me. So I thought maybe this’ll work for ya.”
He reached over the side of his boat to retrieve a pointed jawbone,
and presented it to Slate. “Itchy fish jaw. Found it diving a few
years ago. Figure you should take it, as a means to remember our
catch.”

“Oh, wow,” Slate exclaimed
half-heartedly as he took the bone. It seemed to glow like a pearl,
smooth and glossy in the morning light. “Thanks, Mr.
Hidli.”

“Mr. Hidli was my father,
Slate. You got to call me Hid.”

“Right. I really appreciate
it, Hid.”

“Least I could do. Now
remember, once you find your dad and get all that squared away, the
two of you come visit me,” Hid said. He gave Slate a pat on the
back.

The last remnants of morning mist finally
dissipated and the beach grew at once brighter and warmer.

“That’s the cue for me to
go!” Hid said.

The sailor climbed up into his boat, and then
Slate gave the vessel a push back into the sea. Hid unfurled half
of the mainsail, riding the wind in a spin toward the north, and
then he dropped the other sail, which pulled the boat off into the
distance.

Slate waved goodbye. He stood watching until
the Calamity became a speck on the horizon, indistinguishable from
the crests of the innumerable waves.

“Well, I guess we keep on
then, huh, Pilotte?” Slate asked the wulf, as he scratched its
hairy chest. Pilotte confirmed with a wet wash of his enormous
tongue.

Before leaving the campsite, Slate decided to
catch a few more crabs for the day’s journey, using a trick that
Hid taught him to set up a trap: he dug out a pit near where the
tidewater was reaching its farthest up the shore, and lined it with
the rocks from the fire pit. Then, it was just a matter of waiting
for high tide to bring in some sea life, and waiting for the tide
to go out again, leaving the sea life trapped and exposed to snatch
up.

Once the tide had begun to move back out,
hours later, Slate was eager to resume travel. He speared up four
trapped crabs, stowed them in his sack next to his delivery, and
then destroyed the trap, before Pilotte rejoined him and the two
strode out of the salty sea air into the sweet-smelling Red
Forest.

The forest along the eastern shore was thick
with tall, spindly trees, and the light green moss of the stony
floor was dotted with clusters of orange mushrooms that Slate
learned were probably poisonous when he attempted to pick some and
Pilotte whimpered warning. Squat bushes began to appear along the
path, bursting with berries, as did bright yellow sunblazes, their
seeds naturally baked by the sun. Slate ate of the fruits and seeds
as he passed among the gently sloping hills that stretched on a
winding path down from the Aeolian Mountains.

After not too long, Slate saw the towering
city wall of North Airyel rise up before him, so huge that it
seemed much closer than it actually was. He realized this walking
for an hour or so, over and across two rivers and through vast
wildflower patches buzzing with insects, with the wall always
looming ahead. The remnants of many watchtowers, buildings, and
cabins sat empty along the banks of the ox-bowing rivers that
straked across the plain, vestiges of the time before the city
limits were cut short by the wall.

Slate was so completely transfixed by the
enormity of Airyel’s gated wall that he didn’t even notice when he
came to a guard station. The station was occupied and in operation,
which Slate found out when a woman appeared from the station door.
Whisking a notebook from her pocket, the guard started a routine
that it seemed she’d gone through far too many times.

“What is your name, place of
origin, and business within the city today?” she asked without
raising her eyes.

Pilotte seemed unfazed, so Slate swallowed
his anxiety and answered, “I am Slate Ahn. I have travelled a long
way from Alleste to find my father.”

The guard’s cold, blue eyes warmed, and she
retreated to her booth. She soon reappeared with a small piece of
paper.

“You’ll need a license for
your wulf,” the guard said. “Hard times in Alleste these days,
aren’t they?” she asked as she began filling in the forms. “Spell
your name, please.”

“S-L-A-T-E A-H-N. Yes, very
hard times, ma’am.”

“My father was actually from
Alleste, too,” the guard said with a tinge of sentimentality. “I
even visited there a few times, when I was very young. Spell the
snarlingwulf’s name please.”

“P-I-L-O-T-T-E. Who was your
father?”

“Grif Nim. Age?”

“I’m fifteen. I know the
Nims,” Slate enthused.

“Really? Huh.”

“Well, I knew them,
anyways.” Looking over the form the woman was filling in, Slate
asked, “Why do I need a license for Pilotte?”

The woman answered, “These are strange days,
Slate. There is confusion everywhere; life itself seems to be
breaking down. Many fear another end to be near, and are severely
distrustful of others. Even distrustful of animals. It’s madness.
I’m sure Pilotte will protect you, but still, be on guard. Here’s
your permit. You may enter into the city now. Good luck.”

Slate took the permit and shrugged off the
guard’s ominous warning. He watched as she pulled a large, red flag
from a box hanging off the side of her station, then waved it back
and forth to someone high above in one of the watchtowers. At this,
a set of huge, wooden doors in the wall began to glide open. They
moved in perfect, floating synchronicity, filling Slate’s entire
field of vision. Here was his whole world literally shifting form
before him. Slate and Pilotte walked through the massive gateway,
which groaned shut behind them with an echoing thud.

 

9

{color:#000;}
    The world inside Airyel’s walls couldn’t have been more different than the one outside. Huge estates rose up on the sides of the valley, pouring opulence down onto the streets below over wrought-iron railings stuffed to bursting with flowers. Bramblebees of every color danced around the flowers, some bright yellow, others as red as taspberries, still others orange, or green. Marble statuary lined every property and stood in every park square, of which there seemed to be hundreds, dotted all across the town in honor of everyone and anyone the Airyellians could think to pay tribute. Stretched across the wide, redbrick streets, high above the bustling crowds, were garlands of pine and jundaroses.  One of the most remarkable things about North Airyel was that Pilotte was not the only exotic creature. Slate noted many others as well, from walecats, giant felines with bright blue bands of fur around their eyes, to stubranges, squat animals with fat legs and wide bodies. Slate asked the apparent owner of one of these stubranges if she knew the location of Guh Hsing’s bookshop, and was pleased to find it was only a few blocks away. Slate was eager to complete his deliver and then start asking where his father might be. When he and Pilotte reached Guh’s shop, Slate left the snarlingwulf outside and went in. “Hello? Guh Hsing?” Slate called into the darkened interior.  "Who's that?" a voice called from the back. "I’m looking for someone named Guh Hsing,” Slate answered. An elderly man shuffled out from the back of the store. “Who is it looking?” he asked. “My name is Slate Ahn. I have a package for Guh Hsing, from Aislin.” “What sort of package?” the man asked. “I’m not sure… It’s from Naan Falls,” Slate answered. “Naan Falls?” the man asked, his eyes popping with excitement. “Yes,” Slate said hesitantly. “Do you know where Guh is?” The old man darted to the front window and scanned the street outside. “That’s… that’s a snarlingwulf out there!” he exclaimed, grabbing his scalp. “How did you… Is that creature yours?” “No, but he follows me. He has ever since we met,” Slate answered. “My goodness,” the man whispered. “You know, it’s a rare person who gets the devotion of a snarlingwulf.” “He’s a great traveling partner, anyways,” said Slate. “So, do you know Guh? I was told this was his shop.”  “It’s me!” the man said in a whisper. “Who?” Slate asked. “Guh Hsing!”  Slate scoffed disbelievingly. “You’re Guh Hsing?” “Yes, he’s me!” the man said.  “So this is your bookshop?” Slate asked. “Yes, yes it is,” said Guh. “Please, wait here. Right here. I’ll be right back.” “Can Pilotte come in?” Slate called to Guh, who had disappeared again into the back of the store. “Yes, that’s fine!” came Guh’s response. Slate let Pilotte in and then strolled about the small shop. The afternoon sun poured in through yellowed curtains, bathing the interior in soft light. The big picture window at the front of the store nestled a seating area padded with overstuffed beige pillows upon which slept two plump, orange cats, until Pilotte entered, at which point the cats fled. The store’s aisles were delineated by three bookshelves, which ran back to a heavy wooden counter. The place was smaller than the library at the Falls residence, but its texts were more ornate, decorated with jeweled and etchleath covers. Bazzeb webs and dust showed that many of the books hadn’t been disturbed for years. It was only the New Release section that showed any sign of recent visitation. “You don’t have much business here, do you, Mr. Hsing?” Slate asked when Guh returned. “How would you know that?” Guh asked defensively. “What would make you think that?”  “Well, this place looks like a tomb,” Slate answered. “And you look like a foolish young man,” Guh said. “Perhaps we are both mistaken?”  “Well, I’m not as foolish as I look,” Slate said. “And I have very good business. Let’s not go by first impressions, shall we?” said Guh. “I print here. Do you know printing?” “No?” “Can you read?” “Yes.” “Where do you think the words in books come from?” “Someone writes them there?” “Ah, I see. I suppose you are from the west... No, see, we don’t have to write things by hand anymore. See,” he explained, as he showed Slate a machine resembling a wine press that sat on the back counter. Guh cranked up the top of the press with a hand pedal and then unscrewed from it a plate. There were words on the plate, though Slate couldn’t read them easily because they were mirrored. “I arrange the letters onto this plate, and then we can ink them and print many copies, very quickly,” Guh explained.  Slate watched Guh demonstrate: He took the letters from a cabinet hanging on the wall, arranged them on a plate, and then screwed the plate back up into the press. He put a clean sheet of paper into a well below the plate, brought the press down a bit, and then wiped the letters with an oily cloth. He lowered the press all the way to the paper, wound it back, and handed the result to Slate, the whole action taking no more than three minutes.  “Well that’s pretty neat!” Slate marveled at the resultant printing. It depicted on it Slate’s name, three flower forms, and a little dog figure. “It’s so fast.” “You see now how it is,” Guh said. “That’s how I have good business. I print up menus, pamphlets. There are only two other presses in town, so we stay busy.” “Who’s we?” Slate asked. “Well, me and the cats. And now, you. I could use your help. Strong young man like you.” “I can’t stay here," Slate said. "I’m just here to give you the package. The real reason I’m travelling is to find my father.” “Oh? We’ll see, we’ll see,” Guh mused. “First, let’s get something to eat.”     “I suppose I can wait long enough to eat. I’m starving,” Slate said. “I actually have some blue crabs in my sack, if you’ve got a way to cook them.” “Blue crabs? Delicious. Oh, things just keep getting better, don’t they, Slate?” laughed Guh. The two cooked up the crab in a tiny, back-room kitchen along with some rice and a vegetable Slate had never had before, something Guh called mea. As they ate over the sink, their faces close to their steaming bowls, Guh asked Slate a litany of questions. Slate answered them half-heartedly, wondering why Guh should be so invasive, but focusing on the tasty snap crunch of the mea. “What about school, have you completed your schooling?” asked Guh. “No, I haven’t,” said Slate. “Not formally. No schools in Alleste. But I did some studying in Aislin.” “The Falls have one of the largest ancient libraries on Alm, did you know that?” “No. But I…” “And your family, what about your family?” “Why do you have so many questions anyways?” Slate asked. “Because the answers are very important,” answered Guh. “Why?” Slate asked. “Slate, I don’t know how much the Falls have explained to you, but you have stepped into something vast. Something incredible. Something that will affect the entire course of Alm’s future.” Slate choked on a bit of crab, turning red as he struggled to take it down. He finally cleared his throat and gasped, “Care to elaborate?”  Guh Hsing put down his bowl and shuffled to the kitchen door to close and lock it. Slate wondered if he should be worried for his safety. He looked to the window over the sink, and wondered if he might be able to fit through it if he had to escape. “What would you say,” Guh asked, “If I told you that I know who burned down the Great Hall?” Slate wasn’t expecting Guh to ask any such thing. “What should I say?” he asked incredulously. “Yes, Slate,” Guh said, “There are very strange things happening these days. Searches. Mysteries.” “I’m not searching for any mysteries, Guh,” Slate said. “Anyways, dinner was excellent. But now, Pilotte and I should really try and figure out where my father is.” “Do you have any idea at all?” Guh asked. “Only that he’s in town,” answered Slate. “Tell you what, Slate. I know a lot of people in town. I could ask around for you. It would be a lot easier than trying to find him yourself.” “I’d really appreciate that, Guh,” said Slate.  “Well, you did bring me my package, anyhow,” said Guh. “I’d be happy to do that for you. I’ll ask about first thing tomorrow. For tonight, you can sleep in the room above the shop. I’ll find you some pillows.” “Thank you, very much,” Slate said.  He made sure to call Pilotte to join him upstairs in the shop, as something about Guh Hsing seemed the slightest bit off. Even if it was only the cider making him paranoid, Slate felt safer with his travelling partner and loyal friend beside him in the dusty, cramped storage space above the printing shop that Guh gave them for a bedroom. Dingy as the space was, it was warm, the pillows Guh found for Slate were soft, and the room stayed nice and dark and quiet and allowed Slate deep sleep. The next morning shook Slate to his feet with a series of loud bangs and a clamor of voices from the shop below. He moved closer to the stairs, to try to make out what the arguing was over. He heard a low, raspy voice that he could not understand, followed by another, then Guh’s, which he could hear more clearly. “You can’t come in here,” Guh insisted. “I told you you’re not allowed!” There was more growling from the other voices. “It’s private property,” Guh said. “Get out! Get out!”  The unfamiliar voices lowered their tones, then Slate heard stomping across the floor. After the front door bell rang with the visitors’ departure, Slate made his way down the stairs to ask Guh what all the commotion had been about. “Good morning, Guh,” Slate yawned as he stretched. “Good?” Guh snapped. “I’m sorry,” Slate said. “What were those men here about?” “Nothing,” Guh sighed. “I’m sorry, it was nothing.” “Looks like the printing trade is a dangerous business.” “You don’t know the half of it,” Guh said. “Listen, I’m going to head out, to take care of some errands and see if I can’t find out where your father is at. Would you mind helping me with some deliveries?” “Oh,” Slate said, surprised, “Sure I will. I’ve got nothing else to do. Of course.”  “Excellent. I have another strange favor to ask. Do you think you could leave your wulf here while you’re out? To keep an eye on things?” asked Guh. “I guess…” Slate said. “Are you in trouble, Guh?” “I really have to be going. The deliveries and addresses are there on the counter. Expect word about your father later,” Guh said, before dashing out the back door in a hurry. “What a strange man,” Slate said to Pilotte, who was trying to make his way down the circular staircase from the second floor. Slate took the load of parcels wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine from the counter, along with a piece of paper that listed the addresses they were to be delivered to. “I hope you don’t mind hanging out here for a little bit, Pilotte,” Slate said. “I’m going to be right back after these deliveries, and I’ll bring you a treat, okay?” The wulf seemed happy to lie back down and return to sleep, and so Slate left for his errands. The first delivery was just across the street: one large, flat parcel and two smaller and thicker ones for J. Wellington of Wellington’s Haberdashery. A great number of the foolish hats that North Airyellians donned around town sat in the window of this museum of bad taste, and Slate was trying to imagine why Mr. Wellington would even think to construct a specifically awful one of the hats, a nest-like affair replete with eggs and chicks, when someone wearing the very design walked directly in between Slate and the display. He withheld his laughter as long as he could, breaking down two blocks later on the same street outside Carters and Sons, a hardware store that was closed. It was a sturdy and imposing brick building, like most of the others in town, executed in simple curves and hard edges. Slate slid their one heavy parcel through the mail slot, and then cut down two more stone-paved blocks south and three east, to Babacelli’s Wine. Babacelli greeted Slate with a giant, “Hey!” which startled Slate as he fumbled through his stack for Babacelli’s three medium-sized parcels. “My menus! Hey!” bellowed Babacelli, stuffing a fat tip into Slate’s shirt pocket. Slate hadn’t considered the possibility of being tipped for his errands, and now felt more eager to finish the rest of his route and see if anyone else was feeling as generous as old Babacelli.  The rest of the deliveries were all in an older part of town. On Graypyre Street were Johnson’s and The Black Keys, where two and five more parcels were unloaded, respectively. That left two parcels, both addressed to one K. P. of Bartlett’s Fruits, which sat across from a sprawling graveyard. Slate cut through the graveyard, passing the headstones of countless lost friends. He passed one that gave him pause, as the deceased had the same birth date as his own. The poor soul had died before making it to ten years of age. Slate pushed his last two parcels through the mail slot at Bartlett’s Fruits. As he was doing so, the door swung open into the store. “Hey, what’re…?” barked the frazzled man in the doorway. “Oh, menus,” he said, taking and then throwing them back into the store haphazardly. "Here, this’s for you,” the man said as he handed a roll of goldquartz to Slate. “Thank you,” Slate said quickly. He stole away from the testy fruit salesman and turned quickly down the first alley he came to.  There, amidst the sawdust and trash, he sat on a rusty old barrel frame and counted his tips, a total of thirty-seven goldquartz from just the two customers who had actually been present for their deliveries. Slate was amazed at his fortune, and decided to stop at a mercantile, to purchase a giant bone for Pilotte and a new hat for himself. He returned to Guh’s shop two hours after he had left, finding Pilotte still sleeping and Guh now busy at work on the press. “All done, Guh,” Slate said happily as he slapped down the remainder of the tips on the counter. “What’s that?” Guh asked. “The tips I made, said Slate. “Or, what’s left. I got a new hat and a bone for Pilotte.” “Those are for you to keep,” said Guh. “Oh wow, really?” Slate asked. “Thanks!” “No, thank you,” Guh said. “I’m sorry I was short with you this morning.” “It’s okay,” said Slate. “People get angry sometimes.” “You’re a good person, Slate,” said Guh. “Ahhh,” Slate said, waving away the praise. “What’re you up to?” Guh stopped his work and came to the other side of the counter where Slate was standing. “Slate…” he began, “I have some bad news.” “What is it?” Slate asked. “It’s about your father. Now… I don’t know how to give it to you.” “What is it? Is he in trouble? Is he hurt?” “I don’t know how to do this the right way,” Guh said, moving to where his coat was slumped over a stool. He took a small package from under the coat and brought it to Slate at the counter. “I got this from my friend,” he said. “He knew your father… Take this, and go ahead and go out back and open it up.” “Okay?” Slate said, taking the package. He exited the back door and sat on a busted bench with the small package. Swallowing down his pounding heart, he opened it with trembling hands. It contained his father’s knife. He noticed that the package also contained a letter. Before he unfolded the letter, he looked to the sky in prayer that its message wouldn’t be too painful. It read: My dear Slate, It won’t be long for me now. The doctor tells me I have maybe three days left, tops. It’s a hell of a thing to hear someone tell you that. But we all have to go. I never dreamed I was any exception. I wish only that I had enough time to see you once more, to hold you, to tell you in person how much I love you. I’m sorry you have to find me like this, meaning not find me at all. I’m sorry I ever left, that I thought we needed more than we had in Alleste. Know that I only left to help you. And that I died trying to do the right thing, trying to help a stranger. Like I always taught you and your brother, others are all we really have in this life, all that matters. The money I was going to send to you I leave to you now, with my knife. Carry it always, as I have you in my heart. And know that I’m watching over you. I love you, son. Tell your brother the same. You’ll both be great men, I know it. I’ve always known. I love you, Slate. Dad Slate could hardly read the words due to the tears in his eyes. His chest hurt so much, the kind of hurt only love can cause, one so much deeper than any other kind of pain. He took the knife from the box, the knife he had seen his father reach for so many times. Its handle had been decorated by his mother. Holding the knife seemed to cut something loose inside Slate. Tears began to flow like rain. Through the distortion of his tears, Slate saw his father’s strong, thick-skinned hands holding the knife instead of his own. They were a father’s, a farmer’s. The strongest person Slate had even known. For almost a half an hour all Slate could do was weep, as layers of sadness peeled off his heavy heart and were taken by the wind. When Slate came back to his senses, he realized Pilotte was lying at his feet. Slate reached for the wulf, who jumped up and nuzzled his huge face into Slate’s chest. Slate leaned on his friend and cried some more, until he didn’t want to feel such deep hurt any longer. He rose from his bench and went back into Guh’s shop. “He’s dead, Guh,” Slate said. “I know. I’m sorry, Slate,” Guh said. “He died trying to protect a stranger from being robbed.” “What am I supposed to do now?” Slate asked. “You don’t have to think about that right now,” Guh said. “Are you hungry?” “No,” said Slate. “Do you want to sleep?”  “Yes.” “You go ahead and sleep, okay? And if you’re hungry or you need anything at all, you just let me know, okay?” Slate headed for the stairs without answering. “I’m sorry, Slate,” Guh said. “I know it doesn’t ease your pain, but I lost my father a few years ago. I know how it hurts.” Slate nodded and walked up the stairs, then fell into the bed Guh had prepared for him and pulled the covers over his head. He stayed in bed for days, sometimes sleeping but mostly not, thinking about his father and how he’d never see him again and how lost he felt now. He had only left home to find the man, and now he was gone, and so it seemed was Slate’s purpose and direction in life. After nearly a week, Guh’s insistence that Slate eat finally reached him, and Slate stumbled back down the stairs into the bookshop, then out the back door, to join Guh and Pilotte for dinner. “Go ahead, eat all you want,” Guh said. Slate stabbed at some food with his fork, but couldn’t bring himself to eat anything. “So what are you going to do now, Slate?” Guh asked. “I don’t know,” Slate answered. “Well you can’t sleep forever,” Guh said. “I know that.” “Do you have any idea what you’d want to do?” Guh asked. “No,” Slate answered. “Maybe go back to Aislin.” “Well, that’s something,” Guh said. “Before that, would you like something to take your mind off your father?” “What do you mean?” “Well, I know that when my father died, I had to leave town, to get away from my memories and myself, before I could start feeling alive again.” “Did you?” “Would you like to do the same?” “I don’t know.” “I have all the sympathy in the world for you, Slate, but I also don’t want to see you wallow in your sadness. One has to try to lift themselves up when they’re in a place like you are.” “Do they?” “They do. Now, I’m going to be leaving soon.” “You are?” “I have to. Things are getting dangerous for me around here.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I have to be leaving soon, but before I do, I need a favor.” “You need some more books delivered?” “In a way, yes,” Guh said. “Now, I don’t want to push you, but I need to leave soon and so I need to know if you want to do me this favor, and if you want the opportunity to get outside your head.” Slate looked up from playing with his food to stare at Guh blankly. “Well?” Guh asked. Slate looked over to Pilotte, who smiled back at his friend. “What are we talking about, Guh?” “I’ll take that as interested. Listen closely,” Guh said gravely, as he leaned in toward Slate across the dingy table in the back alley behind. “The Falls from Aislin are descendants of AlriFal. One of the seven great sages who wrote the Book of Knowledge.” “The what?” Slate asked. “The Book of Knowledge. When the seven sages from Aurora Falls, where humanity rode out the Fall and compiled the Book full of all the knowledge of the Gods grew old, they moved away from the world,” Guh continued, “To retire to lives of solitary contemplation.” “You don't say?” Slate said. He had no idea what Guh was talking about. “They each agreed to each create a repository where they settled, so that the knowledge of the Gods, of the time before the Fall, could be retained. AlriFal took his own collection of the knowledge to Aislin, as one of the first settlers of Aelioanei. The Falls own house was built upon the exact same location that their ancestor chose, on the foundations of his library.” “Guh Hsing,” Slate interrupted, “I’m sorry, I’m really tired. I don’t understand.” Guh didn’t stop. “And that library contained one of the seven volumes of the Book of Knowledge." “Really?” Slate asked. “It was this that Mrs. Falls had you bring to me,” answered Guh.  The old man now produced the package Slate had delivered. It was free of its wrappings, and so Slate could see its crystalline jacket. Guh handed the sealed book to Slate. He fumbled with it, unsure of how to react. “…I think it’s locked,” he said. "Indeed,” Guh murmured. “Well... what’s the book about?” Slate asked. “So it is said, that in the times before the heavens fell and Alm swallowed itself, a race of people lived who were so incredibly advanced, so perfect in their relationship to nature, that they could even fly into outer space if they so desired.” “Isn’t that the beginning to the Legend?” asked Slate. “It’s also history,” Guh said. “The book you are holding now was produced by those people who lived before the Fall. Our Legend is their mythologized history.”  “Right. But it’s sealed shut,” Slate said. “How do you know what it says inside?” “Pieces of the knowledge have been passed down from generation to generation, though most of it has been lost.” “The Falls didn't say anything about that. Why haven’t I heard of any of this before?” Slate asked, furrowing his brow. “Oh, wait, I guess Mrs. Falls did say she couldn’t tell me why I had to carry the book…” “There aren’t many alive who know these truths, Slate. The secrets are whispered, but the legacy of the Gods remains. Think, how is it that all of Alm’s languages are derived from proto-Protersian? How scientific measurements are uniform for all peoples, across all continents? Why do all folk histories include the story of the Fall? Because it's all true, it all came from the ancients. From this book. Well, not this one. The one you are holding is written in archaic Protersian, it's basically unreadable. But a translation key exists, somewhere.” “Why are they being assembled now?” asked Slate.
pre

“Because the city of Opal
Pools, on the eastern coast of Proterse, has translated a set,” Guh
said. “And they are building a weapon of terrible, terrible
destruction with what they have learned.”

“Why?” Slate asked. “And why do you have part
of it?”

“I am a member of the Protectorate. We who
have overseen the protection of the Gods’ books since the Fall,”
Guh answered.

“So, you are in the
protectorment?” Slate asked, still trying to wrap his head around
all he was hearing.

“The Protectorate, yes,” Guh
said. “Like my father before me. Like Naan Falls.”

Slate rubbed his eyes and frowned.

“Slate, you must realize the
importance of what I’m telling you.”

“Oh, I believe you. Sorry,
Guh,” Slate said. “I’m just tired. Really tired.”

“Come with me,” said
Guh.

He got up from his seat and called for Slate
to follow him into a hallway leading to the shop’s office. There,
he led wary Slate through an opening revealed in the back of a
fireplace. The opening went into a tiny passage that ended at a
circular staircase, which wound down into the bedrock. Staring down
the staircase into the pitch black below, Slate wondered what he
was doing.

Guh lit a number of candles at the bottom of
the staircase and then Slate could see around him. The space
appeared to be another library, one even more ancient and untouched
than the bookshop upstairs contained.

Guh took from a shelf an ornate key, cut from
quartz in a talon shape, with three ridges of incisions around its
circumference. At the top of the talon was an asthern’s head,
sculpted perfectly from the grain of the quartz. Black clane inlets
for the asthern’s eyes completed the design, which even in the dim
light of the cave was one of the most beautiful pieces of art Slate
had ever seen.

“I’ve been waiting until
you’re ready,” Guh said.

“For what?” Slate
asked.

“To open the book. This’ll
be our moment of truth, then,” Guh said. “Here, hold it tight so I
can insert the key.”

{color:#000;}
Slate held the book from Mrs. Falls tightly as Guh carefully inserted the point of the talon key into the lock. When it reached the first ridge of inscriptions, the key stopped, and so Guh tried twisting it, which released one layer of diamondcrest bindings. This exposed a second key hole, on the underside of the case, which released another set of bindings when the key was inserted into it up to the second ridge of inscriptions. When Guh tried to twist the key back out, the bottom of the key detached, leaving a flat bottom on the asthern-head. This fit perfectly into the wider rim around the hole on the top of the binding. A last twist of the key to the left popped the rest of the diamondcrest casing off completely, leaving the pieces of the key irretrievable from their keyholes. “So now what? I almost expected an explosion or something,” said Slate. “Well, we had to get the cover off.” “So we did that. What does it mean?” “Open it, Slate.” The illustrated pages were full of things that Slate had never seen before. Machines, animals, plants, places, people, thousands of fantastic things that Slate couldn’t begin to understand. And accompanying it all was a strange text that Slate could not read.  “It’s great,” Slate said with a yawn. “I guess. Just... what does it mean?” “It’s proof of what I was telling you," Guh said. "About how important you bringing the book here was. I can tell that you struggle to believe.” “What do you expect? You tell me that crazy story. You can’t even read the words on these pages, Guh. It doesn’t even look like real writing,” Slate said. “Like I said, they are written in an early Protersian script. But a translation code exists!” “What about the knowledge that’s been passed down? Wasn't that all the good stuff anyways?” “So much was thought lost in the Fall, Slate. But these books contain it all! I was not really lost! I know it seems nonsensical, but I try to understand. Like... this picture, here, with the arrows and the bizarre little creatures, I think it’s a medical text. I think the whole volume is medical. My friend Voutre has begun to experiment with an optical instrument that can magnify living particles to an incredible degree with lenses, making them visible to our eyes. What he’s seeing in the minutest examinations of the human body very strongly resembles the pictures in this book.” “But if any of the stuff was at all relevant or applicable, wouldn’t we know about it, now? Couldn’t we write about it in modern Protersian?” “Certainly every age of man thinks it’s the brightest one, Slate. But perhaps what is in these ancient books is beyond our capabilities, yet. Perhaps fantastic machines and wonders are just around the corner, waiting for re-invention. I’ve done some research on my own, and if you compare it with the books…” continued Guh, as he flipped through a second book to a section containing pictures of plants alongside human forms, “See, here, this picture looks just like a graybane flower, and it points to the head. And we all know that graybane calms headaches, right? So I tried another one, this one here that looks like a dead ringer for yiuyiu, correlated to the eyes. Tell you what; it made me half-blind. So there’s no positive or negative association with the correlations, just that they are linked. Also, there are plenty of plants that aren’t represented in the books, and there are some plants in there that I’ve never seen or heard of.” “I’ve seen lots of books on plants far more extensive and relevant than this nonsense here, ones that have been produced within the last few years,” said Slate. “But you see, Slate, it’s the combination of information from the entire set of the Books of Knowledge that holds the true power. It is the summary of all of the knowledge together that grants the possessor the powers of the Gods. It is this power that Opal Pools has used to create their horrible new weapon.” Slate stared at a page in one of the books, trying hard to take the drawings seriously, but he couldn’t. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “But to an Allestian, it all just seems like a lot of nonsense."
pre

“What you think is nonsense
may spell the end of freedom for many people on Alm,” said
Guh.

“Well what can be done about
it? Why are you telling me?”

“Because I need you to take
the three volumes of the Book that I have here and transport them
to Aurora Falls for me. For a meeting of the Protectorate, where
the seven volumes will be reassembled and we will decide what to do
with them,” said Guh. “I cannot do it myself. There are already too
many people looking for them. Who know I’m associated with them,
and suspect I have them already. You would not attract such
suspicion.”

“Where do you want me to
take them?”

“To Aurora Falls. Across the
ocean. To Proterse.”

“All the way to
Proterse?”

“You would be paid
handsomely, and remembered forever. This is a very exciting
opportunity.”

“Then why aren’t I excited?
I don’t really care to be paid handsomely or remembered
forever.”

“And that is why you are the
right person for the task. I know you are sad, and I understand.
But doing this for me, for us, will shake you out of your sadness,
and help a huge number of people. It will affect the entire course
of the history of Alm.”

Slate sighed. “I’ll ask you the same thing I
asked Mrs. Falls: What if I lose them? What if I mess up?”

“They are safer with you
than with me,” Guh said. “If they stay with me, someone would
surely take them. At least they have a chance with you to make it
to Aurora Falls.”

“And there’s no one else you
could ask?”

“Not that I could
trust.”

“Why should you trust
me?”

“Because Pilotte does.

Because I’ve seen your character. I know you’re a good person,
Slate.”

Slate shook his head. “When would I have to
leave?”

“As soon as possible,” Guh
answered.

Slate stared at the ground and then answered,
“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll take your books
across the ocean,” Slate said. “I don’t have any money…”

“We’ll pay for everything,”
Guh said.

“Alright,” said Slate. “Can
we finish dinner now?”

“I’m happy to hear your
appetite is back,” said Guh.

“Yeah,” said Slate, feeling
a little better. “I guess life has to go on at some point,
right?”

“That’s right,” Guh said.

“We’ll eat well; you have a long trip ahead of you.”

The next morning, Guh prepared a huge
breakfast for Slate and Pilotte, which Slate still didn’t have much
of an appetite for, but Pilotte was happy to finish.

“Well, the cats were off
with my friend Canaya this morning. I suppose there’s no reason for
either of us to stay here any longer. I’ll be waiting for you in
Aurora Falls when you get there, alright?” Guh said as he handed
Slate a bag full of supplies.

“Right,” said Slate. “I sure
hope I can make it. What is going to happen to your
bookshop?”

“Whatever must,” Guh
answered. “All they can find now is the basement, which may confuse
the new owners but no longer holds any secrets. Those go with you
now.”

“Are you sad, to leave the
place you’ve lived your whole life?” Slate asked.

“Only for the memories I
have here. But I’ll take those with me,” answered Guh. “Remember,
seek out the ship named Sefose in South Airyel. That will take you
to Proterse. I’ve got leave now. Enjoy your journey, Slate Ahn.
I’ll see you soon.”

The old man flipped the sign in the window
from open to closed, then stepped out front door. He waved through
the window and then was gone, leaving Slate and Pilotte alone in
the shop.

“You ready, Pilotte?” Slate
asked the wulf.

Pilotte wagged his tail, knocking a whole
shelf of books onto the floor.

Slate smiled. “Then here we go.”

Slate thought of happy memories of his father
as he hiked the small distance between North and South Airyel. Some
were sad, only because Slate would never be able to recall them
with his father, but Guh was right; the memories would always
exist, and so, in that way, Slate could never really lose his
father, despite the fact that he was no longer living.

Towering chimneys of
industry blew columns of smoke and steam up into the sky as Slate
and Pilotte approached South Airyel. The Florian Ocean knocked at
the city’s break walls, bejeweled with the lights of the harbor and
the fires of innumerable ships. Even at the
city’s edge, the air was thick and
congested with the pollution from the waterfront factories, the
crumbling streets strewn with garbage. Crouching beneath broken
edifices and sagging pillars were sets of hungry eyes leering from
the shadows.

“Keep close,” Slate said to
Pilotte. “We won’t have to be here long.”

Slate was walking cautiously along, watching
a fight develop on the opposite side of the street, when he
mistakenly bumped into a young man, one who looked to be somewhere
around his own age.

“I’m sorry,” Slate
apologized.

“Watch where you’re going,”
the stranger said.

“I said I’m sorry,” Slate
repeated.

The stranger stared at Slate for a moment,
but said nothing more before disappearing into an alley. By this
point, the fight across the street had attracted the attention of
the police and their compliance clubs. The officers were showing no
favorites, pummeling both sides of the argument equally. When a
crowd started to develop around the fight, placing bets and
cheering, Slate decided he wanted to leave South Airyel as soon as
possible.

Because the city sloped down to the ocean,
Slate could see the harbor from nearly anywhere in town, which
saved him the anxiety of having to ask any of the mean-faced
citizenry for directions. He proceeded down through crumbling
infrastructure, eventually finding his way to a park near the
waterfront where he sat down on a graffiti-covered bench to eat
some lunch, thinking how cold and uncomfortable the bench was
compared to the mossy floor of the forest.

After Slate’s hurried meal, a grizzled old
sailor told him where he could find the Sefose, the ship on which
Guh had secured him board. Slate and Pilotte followed the sailor’s
directions to pier seventeen, which was deserted, save for some
junk fishermen who worked in heavy clothing to protect themselves
from the waste choking the docks. Slate watched them for a moment
before noticing a bill hanging from one of the pier’s posts. It
read:

Sailing To-Morrow:

The Merchant Ship Sefose

Captain Alistair Slocum and Crew of
Twelve

Available: ONE rooms quarters for

Transportation to Proterse via the Passage
Islands

Docking in Jaidour

Those present at ten hour will be
interviewed for consideration.

Slate was confused as to whether or not he
already had a room on the Sefose or if he would have to be
interviewed yet. As there was no one around to ask, he and Pilotte
headed back into town to find a room for the night. The manager at
the inn they found seemed reluctant to house the wulf, but a bribe
erased his concern.

The room was warm and the bed just the right
amount of broken-in. Slate washed his clothes and himself in the
small, communal bathroom down the hall, then set his clothes out to
dry before climbing into bed and falling fast asleep.

Slate awoke hungry, and so roused Pilotte
from a deep sleep for help in scrounging up breakfast. The two
stopped briefly at the front desk to settle their bill and ask
directions toward something to eat before stepping out into the
morning hustle.

After eating, Slate and Pilotte found the
Sefose docked at pier seventeen when they returned there. Slate
expected a crowd, or at least a few others looking to rent the bed
available on board, but there was no one but the shipmaster
around.

“So you’re the lucky lottery
winner, eh?” the shipmaster asked drolly as he handed Slate a
ticket.

“I…guess? I was sent here
by a man named Guh Hsing. Do you know who that is?” Slate
asked.

“No idea, son,” the
shipmaster said.

“He said he secured me
passage on this ship.”

“I didn’t hear anything
about that.”

“But there’s a room
available?”

“That’s what you’re here
for, isn’t it?”

“Yes… is there anything else
I have to do, or is that it?”

“That’s it. Just get
onboard, that’s all. And make it snappy, we’re all ready
now.”

“I’m sorry if I’m late,” Slate said.

“It’s fine. Come on,” the shipmaster
said.

“And my wulf can come with
me, right?” asked Slate.

“Yes, it can,” answered the
shipmaster. “Now, let’s go. We’ve got a lot of ocean to cover.
Ocean teeming with pirates.”

“Pirates?” Slate whispered
to Pilotte as the two made their way up the gangplank.

The Sefose was tugged from the pier not long
after. Slate stood beside Pilotte on the deck and stared back at
his island, his whole life up until that point, as the ship drifted
away from it. He wondered about Arianna and the other Falls, about
his brother. He wondered if the island might be different when he
returned, or if he would. It wasn’t until Aelioanei disappeared
behind the swelling fog that Slate’s thoughts turned to Proterse
and what might lie ahead.

 

 

10

{color:#000;}

pre

The other passengers and crewmen who Slate
made contact with onboard the Sefose were withdrawn for the
majority of the trip, fearful as they were of the omnipresent
threat of pirate attack. Slate and Pilotte kept to themselves,
playing fetch on deck and watching the birds swoop over the
dahlphins that jumped and frolicked in the choppy gray water.

On the third day out from South Airyel, true
to fears, a terrible war cry broke the silence and a pirate sloop
sidled up swift and fast alongside the Sefose. The crew and other
passengers went into an immediate panic, running around the deck
and lower levels of the ship aimlessly. A few even jumped off into
the ocean. As the pirates threw lines and began to board the
Sefose, Slate knew he had to act fast to protect himself.

He and Pilotte ran down the busy steps from
the ship deck to their room, where they spun around in circles
wondering what action to take next. Loud cries of anguish soon let
Slate know that the pirates were in the hallway outside. Just after
he managed to grab his sack full of Guh Hsing’s books, one of them
smashed down the door. Slate spun around to face him.

“No one in here,” he barked
at the pirate in a flash of inspiration.

“Wha… who’re you?” asked the
pirate, with a look of dull-witted confusion.

“What do you mean? I’m a
pirate,” Slate said with as much conviction as he could, “Like
you!”

“You are?” the real pirate
asked, scratching his scraggly beard.

“Well I wouldn’t be
searching for loot if I wasn’t, would I?” Slate asked.

This question must have convinced the pirate,
as he grunted something under his breath, shrugged, and left the
room.

After the brute had moved on, and with a new
plan for cover devised, Slate raced back up the stairs to the
deck.

At the top of the stairs there was a man
screaming and cowering. Slate scooped him up and threw him over his
shoulder for cover as the man screamed and kicked. Despite this,
Slate was able to clear the length of the ship’s deck, dodging
flying bodies and fistfights.

Before he could reach the prow, three of the
pirates set upon Pilotte with ropes and netting. The snarlingwulf
howled and bucked and managed to throw them off, then took a large
chunk out of one of their sides, before five more pirates joined in
capturing the beast. They bound him tight in their ropes and threw
the animal overboard onto their waiting sloop, where he landed,
thankfully, on a pile of pillaged silks. Slate dropped the poor man
hanging from his back onto the planks of the Sefose, and dove
without abandon after Pilotte. He landed on and then climbed down
one of the many boarding ropes that ran to the pirate’s sloop
below, where he checked Pilotte for injury, hid his bag, and
scrambled for what to do next.

When the pirates started their retreat from
the Sefose, heavy with plunder and raging with adrenaline, none of
them paid any attention to Slate. They fought with each other over
their share of the takings after they cut loose for hours, and then
still none of them noticed at dinner later that night that a
stranger was onboard. Slate kept his head down and spoke quietly,
and by then end of the night, when all the men were high on drink
and smoke, he had managed to make conversation with enough of them
that he seemed almost to belong.

The morning after Slate had inadvertently
joined up with the pirates, a meeting of sorts was called to order
by their captain on the deck of the sloop.

“Good work yesterday, men.

It looks like we only lost a few,” the pirate captain said
proudly.

“Oh yeah? Who’d we lose?”
one of the pirates barked.

“We lost… who did we…” the
captain stammered, fumbling as he examined a scroll of names.
“Well, it doesn’t matter who,” he finally said.

“You don’t know who we lost,
do you?” the contrary pirate asked again.

“I don’t have everyone’s
name here, no,” admitted the captain, flustered.

“What’s my name, eh?”
another pirate asked.

The captain was growing indignant. “Look,” he
said, “I don’t know all of your names, but that’s not why we’re
here, is it?”

The crowd laughed and the captain flushed red
at their insolence.

“Fine. Just fine,” he
muttered. “In any case, there is a shipment of silk that we should
come very near this afternoon, and it looks like we still have
enough space in the hold to take that cargo, as well.”

“Why on Alm would we want
more silk? Who’s going to pay for that garbage these days?” a
pirate asked.

“It’s for the captain’s
underwear!” cracked another.

The men roared.

“Listen, if any of you want
charge of this ship, I dare you to take it,” the captain said.
Slate saw him stroking a silver, club-like tool stowed in his
belt.

“Oooh, captain, yes,
captain,” another pirate teased.

This must have pushed the captain over the
edge, as he pulled the silver thing from his belt, and held it
toward the sky. He activated a mechanism on it with his fingers and
then a thunderous explosion came from its tip with a burst of fire
and smoke. This quieted the pirates to a stifled giggle. The
captain then lowered the tip of his thunder stick at the crew, and
passed it before them in a slow turn.

“If any of you really want
to challenge my authority,” the captain said, “I dare you to do so
now.”

The men refused his eye contact as they tried
to contain their laughter and shifted about.

“That’s what I thought,” the
captain growled. “Expect the silk ship sometime after high
noon.”

One of the crew then made a loud, wet
raspberry sound that sent the rest of the men into hysterics once
again. The captain slammed the door to his quarters after storming
through the jamb, which caused a small sign that read “Captain’s
Quarters” to fall off onto the deck.

“Well. Can you believe the
nerve?” Slate asked the pirate standing next to him, feigning
solidarity. The pirate scowled at him and spat in his
face.

Slate remained on the deck until the
preparations for the raid on the silk shipment started, at which
point he was conscripted into helping ready the boarding ropes.

When the sloop rode up next to the silk ship, Slate could see the
terror in the faces of its crew as they stood watching their doom
approach. Just as the sloop was in place and before the boarding
lines were set, the captain reappeared from his quarters with the
sniveling order that the pirates leave no one alive.

When the first nets were thrown from the
pirate sloop to the silk transport and the villains began their
attack, Slate actually thought that he might be spared having to go
aboard, but he wasn’t to be so lucky. Instead, he was just short of
tossed up, from his hiding space onto the silk ship, by a hulking
pirate with a gleam in his eye and a hearty laugh that suggested
that piracy was his simply his favorite thing in all the world.

Slate landed on the side of his right ankle
when he hit the deck of the silk ship, and then slid through a pool
of blood for a few feet before managing to get traction. The blood
was pouring in rivers from a lifeless woman nearby, bent into a
heap next to her wailing child. Slate had the thought to play dead
beside her and wait for the massacre to cease, but the same pirate
that had tossed him up into the fray to join the raid threw a
scabbard his way, and so he reluctantly rose to his knees.

“What are you doing, don’t
just stand there!” the pirate hollered.

Slate began searching the pockets of the dead
woman to appease the pirate.

“Wait until they’re all
dead, you idiot!” the pirate yelled, and then he lunged at Slate,
pulled him with one huge arm up off the deck, and threw him forward
into the confusion of bodies and blood.

One of the silk ship’s seamen came running at
Slate, brandishing a knife held up over his head. Slate managed to
deflect the knife with his scabbard. He dodged and then kicked the
man in the stomach, sending him to the floor in pain.

“Just play dead!” Slate
whispered to the man.

“What on…” the man began.

Looking up, he must have seen something trustworthy in Slate’s
eyes, as he did cease to flail and closed his eyes.

Just as soon as Slate had stood back up,
another of the pirates shoved a helpless woman into his arms.

“Slit her throat!” the
pirate growled, as he sent a fountain of teeth gushing forth from
the mouth of one of the other passengers.

Holding the struggling girl’s arms behind her
back, Slate tried to whisper to her to calm down, but the girl was
completely hysterical and continued to flail wildly in his
grip.

“Kill her!” another pirate
ordered, before slicing the arm of an unlucky young silk trader
clean off.

“I hope this works,” Slate
said under his breath. He raised his scabbard to the girl’s throat.
With just the slightest amount of pressure, the knife drew a
trickle of blood from the girl’s neck. When the rivulet of blood
reached down to the girl’s hands, she screamed one last time and
then fainted, which was exactly what Slate had hoped
for.

Slate then reared around to see a crazed,
reddened face flying at him, which he managed to stop rather
immediately with an outstretched fist. The recipient spun around
three times from the force of Slate’s blow and then fell over the
side of the ship. Slate raced to the banister, where he saw that
one of the silk ship’s lifeboats, full of six other lucky escapees,
had already begun helping the unconscious man out of the water.

After much more fighting, which blended
together in Slate’s mind into an inglorious mess of sweat and pain,
the silk ship and all its crew were dispersed. Slate had managed to
make it through the foray without having to kill or seriously harm
anyone, and other than what were sure to be huge bruises, no one
had managed to harm him too severely either, though the gory
horrors he witnessed during those few awful minutes were surely
going to weigh heavily on his dreams.

It was then four more days to the Passage
Islands, the home of the pirates. Slate spent the time nearby
Pilotte, slipping him scraps and petting him when none were
watching. When the ship entered the tight confines of a shallow bay
in the Passage Islands, it was apparent that the pirating business
was doing rather well. There were many other ships in the little
harbor, and many more pirates swarming over the whole face of the
island, which was covered with buildings and new watchtowers. Slate
looked at poor Pilotte, bound and broken, and wondered how they
could ever hope to escape.

 

11

 

 

 

 

The Passage Islands were lush and vibrant, as
teeming with birds and flowers as the surrounding ocean was with
schools of multi-colored fish and pods of dahlphins. It seemed a
paradise, and sad to Slate that it had been co-opted by such
villainous people. Surely it hadn’t been the natural beauty of the
islands that the pirates had come looking for when they chose this
place for home, but its great distance from other landmasses and
the reach of the law.

When the sloop set down its anchor, the real
work began: a long afternoon slogging up and down the sandy beach,
carrying plunder up to the safe point, out of reach of the highest
tide, and from there into a deep, ferny grotto. Slate managed to
stash his bag full of books during one such trip, but was sad to
see Pilotte had been taken away while he was gone. He had to find
him, somehow, as soon as there was free time.

After the work of unloading the sloop was
finished, the men dispersed, some of them climbing up the long
stairs to sleep in the camp overlooking the bay, others to the
water for fishing, most to one or another of the numerous taverns
on the tiny island. When it seemed sure that he wasn’t going to be
noticed, Slate grabbed his bag from its hiding place and slipped
away, dashing behind a wall of foliage to further explore the
island, to try and find where Pilotte had been taken.

He came to a deep cave hidden behind a
waterfall and flowery vines. Inside, piles of gold and treasure
glittered like hot iron across the reflective striations along the
stone walls. Slate was only just growing accustomed to the dimness
when he heard the noise of shifting pebbles behind him. He dove
breathlessly into a pile of silk.

From it, Slate watched a thin-limbed shadow
on the wall reach out an arm toward the mountainous silhouette of
one of the many piles of plunder. As he was looking on, Slate
leaned so far forward from his hiding place that he tumbled right
out of it and into a pool of light, noisily scattering a stack of
goldquartz across the cave floor as he fell.

“Who is it?” the shadowy
figure across the cave gasped.

Slate grunted.

“Doney? Caloran? Hey, I was
just… just checking, making sure I had put all of my take from
today into the store…” the intruder fumbled. “Yep, yep. Looks
good,” he said nervously. “Everything looks good here,
so…”

“What do you mean, you were
just checking?” Slate asked, immediately assuming the role of
prosecutor, figuring that’s how the other pirates would act in such
a situation.

“Who are you, anyway?” the
pirate barked. “I should ask you the same, what are you doing in
here?”

“I’m looking for
someone.”

The pirate scoffed. “Oh? Someone? In
here?”

“I’m looking for a wulf we
brought in today,” Slate said.

“What’re you looking in here
for? He’s out with the other animals, near the pit,” said the
pirate.

“Oh, right,” said Slate. “Of
course.”

“Bloody barbaric, that,”
said the pirate.

“What is?”

“The fighting. Pitting those
poor creatures against each other.”

“They’re going to make the
wulf fight?”

“You sure are stupid. Of
course they are.”

Slate tried not to look too upset.

“But that’s what you get
when you work with pirates, isn’t it?” the man said with a
shrug.

“Work with pirates? Aren’t
you a pirate yourself?”

“I’m my own man. I’m an
independent contractor.”

“Isn’t there better work you
could find?” Slate asked.

The man rolled his eyes. “Better work? Why
are you here if there’s better work? Listen, we all go to different
lengths to justify our behaviors. Hatty only needs to justify his
actions to Hatty, see? I don’t care about what anyone else thinks
at all. Which is most everyone else’s problem. Why should they care
about what the other fearful, ignorant monkeys think about what
they do? I could never understand.”

“It’s because they care
about each other,” Slate said, “Because we’re all members of the
human family.”

“Oh, fart. Well, I’m no
family man,” Hatty scoffed. “Everyone should follow their own path.
And I’ve never stood in anyone’s way as they took theirs. I’ve
taken some old lady’s jewelry, sure, I’ve threatened frightened
women and children and men, and I don’t feel pride about it, but
I’ve never killed anyone. Never stolen from the poor.”

“You’ve stood by while
others did, though,” Slate said.

“You haven’t? I can see the
scarlet proof that says otherwise right there on your
shirt.”

“But I have to stay alive, I
cannot be detected,” Slate said. “I have to make it to Proterse, it
is imperative.”

“To your own survival,
right?”

“You wouldn’t understand,”
Slate said.

“Oh, get a load of the
self-importance with this one,” Hatty said. “Whatever noble quest
you believe yourself to be on, let me start by telling you my own
vainglorious justification: Say the whole riotous crowd we call
society wants to go off to war to destroy themselves. We’re going
to need at least one of us to stay out of the fray, right? My
apathy towards the causes of foolish men is for the sake of
humanity, not against it. One of us must remain above it all,
right? Who else would build the rafts when the floods
come?”

“So, you believe the future
of humanity to be hopeless?” Slate asked. “A lost
cause?”

“Yes,” Hatty answered, “I
do.”

“But what if it’s
not?”

“What if the clouds were
made of pink sugar fluff?” the pirate asked. “Dreams.”

“Well,” Slate sighed. “I’m
sorry you feel that way. But I have to find my wulf and get out of
here.”

“Out of where?”

“Off this
island.”

“How do you plan to do
that?”

“Any way I can.”

The pirate swayed in the stagnant cave air
and scraped at a scab beneath his greasy, thin beard for a while,
wearing a look of dull bewilderment.

“Alright, sunshine,” he
finally said, “Tell you what. I’ve thought about getting out of
here myself for months now, taking my fair share of the plunder.
But my plan needs a partner. Now, you help me, I’ll help you. But I
don’t want to hear any crap about altruism, okay?”

“That’s just fine,” Slate
said. “My name’s Slate.”

“Slate,” the pirate said,
shifting his stance. “You better follow through, or it’ll be both
our necks. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know, I know,” Slate
said. “Now where’s this fighting pit you were talking
about?”

“You’re not a pirate at all,
are you?” Hatty asked. “This is your first time here, isn’t
it?”

“Maybe it is, maybe it
isn’t,” Slate said. “Where can I find my wulf?”

“On the other side of the
beach, behind the viryall grove,” Hatty said. “But wait until
tomorrow to go looking for him. There’s a trade day tomorrow, and
it’ll be our best distraction. We’ll get up early, you’ll go get
your animal, and I’ll commandeer the sloop. But you’d better make
it, Slate, because if I have to stay here, you’re dead.”

“I thought you said you
never killed anyone.”

“I haven’t. Yet.”

“Alright,” Slate said.

“Tomorrow morning.”

 

12

 

 

 

 

Slate was up before the other men and already
halfway down the crumbling footpath from the camp to the beach when
the purple sky began to spray a light mist on the island. The
pirate sloop bobbed in the bay next to the earliest trading ships
to have arrived. It occurred to Slate that he and Pilotte may show
up at the sloop and find Hatty had ignored his promise to help, but
he had to act on the notion that the pirate was going to keep his
word.

Upon reaching the beach, Slate turned the
wrong way at first, and got lost in some sticky ferns for a short
while before realizing his error when he bushwhacked himself into a
stony corner. He re-entered the brush on the other side of the
beach after a brief jog through a warm rain, and then, after
stowing his pack beneath a frond, found the trail he was looking
for.

It led him to what could only mockingly be
called an arena, a muddy scrap of land surrounded with rotting
seating where the pirates held their sick games. Just behind this
space were the rusty iron and wooden cages that held the poor
contestants. Slate found Pilotte wheezing in the dirt in one of the
cages. The wulf recognized Slate and began to whimper and
thrash.

{color:#000;}
“Shhh!” Slate whispered, to little effect. He found the latch to Pilotte’s cage and opened the gate. The wulf got up on shaky legs and staggered to Slate, to nuzzle his neck with his cold nose. “What’d they do to you? Come on friend, we’ve got to go,” Slate said, scratching Pilotte’s matted fur. As the two were about to leave, Slate noticed a matterwall in the cage next to Pilotte’s. The creature looked barely alive. Its left eye was missing, the socket scarred over, and its fur was clumped with dried blood and mud. Slate reached a hand into the cage to try to get the matterwall’s attention, but the animal could barely lift a paw from the rain puddle it sat in. Slate did manage to attract the attention of a woodbear across the walk that ran between the two rows of cages. The woodbear roared something terrible, not so much in anger but as a statement of indignation. It charged at the front of his cage, slamming against the bars violently, only to get up and do it over and again. “Poor things. We can’t leave them here, Pilotte,” Slate said. The cages all had locks. After an unsuccessful search for keys in a hut at the end of the row, Slate went to inspect one of the locks further and realized that they were simply hanging on the cages from the inside. None were activated. As Slate was testing one of the cage’s latches to see how it opened, a clovoxen appeared as if from nowhere and crashed into the almost-open door. The jolt threw Slate back into the mud, and the latch slammed back down. And then the clovoxen charged again. Slate was forced to think: he couldn’t just set the delirious animals free, as they might trample or kill him unintentionally. Or maybe intentionally. He didn’t see why they should have anything but contempt for human beings. Searching around for some idea of what to do, Slate looked up to see that the tops of the cages had slats he could probably walk on. From there, he reasoned, he would be able to loose the animals without endangering himself. “You’ll protect me, right, Pilotte?” he asked his wulf. Pilotte stood up a bit taller to show he would. Slate climbed a tree growing next to one of the cages, jumped onto the closest one, and then lay down on his stomach and undid the door latch. The cage swung open, and a sickly-looking raelwulf with his tail between his legs slipped out and disappeared silently into the jungle.  The next cage contained a dalcrag, a hairy creature with a great hard plate for a forehead that was circling its cage in a rut it had worn into the mud. The dalcrag ran at the door of its cage once Slate opened it, knocking it clear off its hinges. The animal then began a wild charge, all about the arena and the holding area. It smacked its head into the other cages and tore down the hut at the end of the pathway before hurtling into the jungle brush after the raelwulf. Slate released a jix next, which raced after the dalcrag. Then there was the poor matterwall that couldn’t even bring itself to stand when offered freedom. Slate swung down to the ground from atop its cage and tried to urge the animal out, but soon realized that it was probably too late. He wished he had some way of putting the creature out of its misery, or that one of the hungry other creatures would make a noble end of its life and eat it. The dalcrag Slate had freed reappeared in a charge straight toward him, pursued by the jix. The dalcrag came so quickly that Slate wasn’t able to move out of the way, and the creature collided with him, hard. The blow was so intense that Slate was lifted clear up off the ground and thrown a good five feet. The dalcrag disappeared into the jungle once more, honking, as the jix sank down and coiled its massive back legs. It growled and flashed its fangs. Slate’s heart began to beat so hard that he could hear it. The jix sprang forward. In those few milliseconds that felt like an eternity he stood petrified watching the jix, a creature three times the size of Pilotte, float through the air toward him with its jaws wide.  Before Slate had even begun to think of how to save himself, he saw his best friend appear and sink his teeth down into the jix’s neck. The jix howled and landed twenty feet away, thrown by Pilotte like paper waste. Pilotte exhausted himself with the throw, and collapsed. Slate scrambled up, his back burning with pain from the dalcrag blow. There couldn’t have been much time left now; he could only swallow hard and run the entire length of the holding area, screaming to drown out his fear and throwing open the latches as he went. A menagerie of animals, in all states of health and anger, sprang from their captivity as he did so, some to briefly quarrel with one another, most to disappear out through the jungle onto the beach. When Slate had managed to regain his breath, he and Pilotte headed down the path toward the beach themselves. A few pirates had made their way to the beach, Slate discovered, to be surprised by the wild creatures running rampant. Some of the animals were washing their wounds in the salt water, others were just running, without direction, stretching their sore legs in the morning sunlight. And others still were setting on their captors. Slate watched a walecat overtake one of the men, pushing him down to the ground with his massive paws and then making ground meat out of his back. A dalcrag was following behind another of the men, looking like he was enjoying knocking his toy back down every time he got up to run away.
pre

Slate watched as more and more of the pirates
flooded the beach and the scene grew increasingly gruesome. The men
on the decks of the arriving trading ships looked on in confusion
as the terror unfolded. Amidst the carnage, Slate espied what could
only have been Hatty, charging right through the carnage and diving
into the water. He was headed for the sloop, it seemed.
Surprisingly, it looked as if he were actually going to uphold his
end of the plan.

Some of the quicker-thinking pirates took to
the salty water of the bay after Hatty, and a few had even thought
to head for the sloop that he had reached and begun to ready. Slate
watched a well-placed kick from Hatty dislocate one of the pirates
as she was trying to scale the side of the craft. When Slate next
saw the main sail fall, he knew it was his cue.

He and Pilotte ran full-speed across the
beach, dodging a charging ginkoiz and diving outstretched into the
water when they came to it. They swam furiously, and managed to
reach the sloop. Hatty helped pull Slate aboard, and then Slate
Pilotte, and then it was left to Slate to throw off any of the
pirates that should try to board their sloop as Hatty finished
preparations. Slate grabbed loose a plank and swatted at the hands
of the men and women attempting to board while Pilotte roared. The
steady stream of island refugees looked poised to become
unmanageable when Hatty finally announced the sloop was ready.

He loosed the mizzen sail and the craft spun
around in the wind toward the end of the bay and the open ocean
sparkling beyond. Slate had racked up quite a score of thwarted
pirates and was a little disappointed when boat began to move and
leave the rest behind. The freed animals were still wreaking havoc
on shore, the pirates still running for their lives and losing the
race. Slate laughed, bid them good riddance, and nodded a farewell
to the island as the ship passed beside an arriving trading vessel,
out of the bay, and into the rougher swells of the open ocean.

13

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t until they had been at sea for some
time that Slate or Hatty realized they weren’t alone on the Jean
Bee. Sometime after breakfast, but before high noon, a small
cacophony starting emanating from the Captain’s cabin. First was a
thud and a shattering of glass, then there was a boom, and then a
constrained moan of pain that found release in the salty air when
the cabin door burst open and the pirate captain fell out onto the
deck. He was obviously very hung-over, if not still drunk, and he
smelled as awful as he looked.

“It’s the captain!” Slate
exclaimed.

Hatty set the wheel and came down from the
sterncastle, laughing.

“Looks like we have a
stowaway!” he said.

“What’s all this?” the
captain barked, confused by the open sea around him. “Who are you
two?” he demanded, trying to appear in charge of the situation and
himself.

Pilotte rose his head, observed the fumbling
captain, yawned, and went back to sleep.

“Who are we?” Hatty asked.

“Might I ask, who are you? And what are you doing aboard our
ship?”

Slate didn’t miss a beat. “Indeed. And why is
it you should be in our cabin, sir?” he asked, moving to within
inches of the captain’s oily face.

The usurped captain looked pathetically
confused as he spun to and fro around the deck, scratching himself
and trying to make sense of what was happening. “Command me? But
I’m the captain of the ship. Who do you think you are?” he asked.
“Where is everyone else?”

“Oh, he must not be well,”
Hatty said with an affected sigh. “He thinks he’s the captain of
our ship.”

“I am Captain Verialus
Cointer, I am in charge of this sloop, and I take my governance
from no one but myself,” the captain growled with a grimace as he
reached for the thunder stick tucked in his belt. He fumbled and
dropped the heavy object onto the deck, where Hatty easily kicked
it out of his reach and retrieved it.

“Well, it seems as if you’ve
just issued yourself your termination papers,” Hatty said with a
laugh as he tucked the quickshot into the sash sitting high around
his waist. “Your services aboard this vessel are no longer
required.”

“What is that, anyways?”
Slate asked Hatty of the captain’s weapon.

“This here is a quickshot,”
Hatty said. He held the apparatus up over his head and pulled its
trigger to demonstrate how it was used. The device went off with a
loud bang and a poof of smoke.

“What’s the point of such a
thing? Distraction?” Slate asked.

“Well, it’s not just noise
and smoke, see…” Hatty said. He aimed the quickshot at the door
of the captain’s cabin. With a second explosion, Slate saw that the
device actually launched projectiles, as evidenced by two
smoldering holes through the door and out the opposite
wall.

“Pretty fancy, eh?” Hatty
asked. “Terrible weapon, though. Cowardly.”

“What, have you never seen a
quickshot before?” Verialus asked Slate. He was now sitting
cross-legged on the deck, wearing a pitiful look of defeat. “I’ve
just been overtaken on my own ship by a man who has never even seen
a quickshot before,” he moaned to the sky.

“Sir, perhaps you should
return to bed until your senses are stronger,” Slate said to
Verialus.

“I don’t wish to! You cannot
tell me how to act!” the captain said obstinately. “This is my
ship!”

“But oh, it’s not, and yes,
we can,” Hatty said, gripping the quickshot menacingly.

“But! But!” the captain
sputtered, until he finally stood up, threw his hat down, stopped
to steady himself, and then tottered into his quarters. A loud thud
and the sound of snoring followed soon after.

“Impressive method of
control, that,” Slate said of the quickshot. “May I see
it?”

“Well now…” Hatty said with
a deep breath. “I don’t think that’s going to be
possible.”

“Why not?” Slate
asked.

“Because if you had it,”
Hatty said, “Then I wouldn’t, and that just wouldn’t be good at
all. To give you all that power.”

“What, don’t you trust me?” Slate asked.

Hatty smiled and shook his head no.

“But you’ve no reason not
to,” Slate said.

“Yes, but I can trust
myself,” Hatty explained. “See, I’d let you see it if I had another
for myself, but as long as there is only one, I prefer it stay in
the hands of someone I know intimately.”

Slate understood what Hatty meant, but still,
so long as Hatty had the weapon, and was awake, Slate was under his
subjugation. Hatty seemed benevolent though, and maybe even
trustworthy, sacrificing himself as he had to help escape the
island.

Slate and Hatty hardly slept during the rest
of the trip to Jaidour, which was hastened by an early Searching
Season storm system that blew up from the southern sea. Under
pitch-black clouds which poured their fury down on the sloop, they
talked about trivial things to pass the time. Pilotte regained his
strength during the journey, and the three became something like
friends, though the quickshot and Hatty’s reserve kept them from
growing too close.

By the grace of nature on the fifth day the
beacon from the lighthouse of Jaidour pierced through the rain in
pulses as it illuminated the angry atmosphere, calling the Jean Bee
out from the madness of the storm towards the sandy cliffs of the
western Protersian coast.

 

14

 

 

 

“We’re going to have to time
this right, if we want to go unnoticed,” Hatty told Slate. “They
won’t be expecting any ships during Searching Season, but that
doesn’t mean the coast will be unguarded. From where the patrol
boats sit outside Jaidour, the glare from the ocean will be at its
brightest in about an hour. Best place to hide in the ocean is the
brightest. Hopefully we can get close enough to the calmer waters
by that time that we can row the rest of our way.”

“And if we can’t?” Slate
asked. “If they see us?”

“Well, we’ll have to come up
with something else if that’s the case,” Hatty said
matter-of-factly.

The rain subsided completely as the sun rose
higher and the clouds dispersed. After idling in the still-choppy
ocean for some time and readying the Jean Bee, Hatty gave Slate the
order to move forward with their plan. A fortuitous current of air
filled the headsail as Slate dropped it, which sent the sloop
sailing swiftly toward the landmass on the horizon.

It was just before the lighthouse of Jaidour
became visible as a shiny speck on the spit ahead that Verialus
Cointer fell out of his cabin again, obviously refreshed in his
drunkenness. He began to load one of the two lifeboats on the ship
deck with small goods, mainly bottles of wine.

“Captain?” Slate asked to
gain his attention. “Captain Cointer?”

“Don’t captain me, young
man. Never seen so much disrespect in my life,” the pirate grumbled
under his breath. Slate wondered what respect a pirate captain
should expect.

“What, uh…” Hatty began,
“What you doin’ over there, Verialus?”

“It might behoove you sea
dogs to know that there are three ships approaching from the coast
at great speed. In case you might be concerned about such a thing,”
Verialus sniffed. “But what would I know about
anything?”

“What are you talking
about?” Hatty asked, realizing at the end of his question with a
quick look through his binoculars what the captain
meant.

“What is it?” Slate asked
Hatty, unable to see anything with his naked eye.

“Well…” Hatty said, “I
can’t… Three ships, I think three… they aren’t flying any flags,
though. That I can see, anyways.”

“Those’re government ships.

The only ones allowed to not identify themselves, though it kind of
gives them away,” the captain said with a cackle. “And I’m sure any
one of them would love to bring in the Jean Bee.” As he was
lowering the rowboat down on the ship’s winch, he lost control and
the boat dropped into the ocean with a great splash.

“So he’s going to leave?
Honorable to the end,” Hatty said.

“Listen,” Slate began, but
Hatty stopped him.

“Let him go,” he said. “We
don’t have time for his nonsense. Take your position.”

Captain Cointer then threw himself off the
Jean Bee, and managed to land in his escape boat. He must have
knocked himself unconscious in the fall, because the boat drifted
off with the current.

“Can you escape them?” Slate
asked Hatty, refocusing on their new threat.

“No, I don’t think so. The
fire power on those ships wouldn’t let us get more than five
leagues,” Hatty said, scratching his beard.

“Hatty!” Slate cried. “What
are we going to do?”

“Well… I’ve got an idea,”
Hatty answered. “You ever fired off a blastporter
before?”

“I haven’t, no,” Slate
answered. “You’re not thinking of fighting those titans, are
you?”

“Not fighting, just
distracting,” Hatty murmured under his breath.

He spun the Jean Bee to where the starboard
side paralleled the three ships now plainly visible on the horizon.
They were fully rigged, which meant they were as fast as the sloop
or faster, and they were loaded with blastporters of their own.

“Follow me!” Hatty shouted
to Slate, as he leapt from the sterncastle and grabbed onto a
nearby line, which he rode down to the deck. There, he began
readying one of the seven small blastporters that poked their
charred heads through the portals along the side of the
sloop.

“Hey, come on! Let’s go!” he
shouted at Slate, who was looking on with frozen shock.

Slate snapped to attention and raced down the
boards to the third blastporter, where Hatty was preparing its
charge.

“Like this!” Hatty shouted
with hurried anxiety, demonstrating to Slate how to pack the
weapon. He poured from a nearby store of gunpowder a fair amount of
the explosive, and then packed it down with a long bristled swab,
before rolling a heavy sphere that strained his neck muscles to
bulging into the chamber. Slate moved on to the fourth blastporter
to do the same, and soon the rest were ready.

“Now what do we do?” Slate
asked.

“We wait,” Hatty
answered.

“Until what?”

“Until they’re in firing
range.”

“And then we fire?” Slate
asked.

“It’d be a good time,” Hatty
answered.

“What of the men
onboard?”

“What of them?” Hatty asked.

He began waving his arms to the ships as if asking for help. “The
shells should only disable or slow them down, they aren’t
explosive. Wave your arms, like this.”

“And then we turn back, or
head north?” Slate asked, his arms in the air.

“No. You’ll see. On point
now, they’re coming closer.”

It was still another ten minutes or so before
the warships were within firing range. Slate just wished they could
hurry up, to calm the acid in his stomach and get whatever was
about to happen over with as quickly as possible.

When the ships were very near indeed, they
turned parallel to the little sloop and began to lift their sails
and slow down.

“Here goes nothing. Take
this,” Hatty said to Slate as he handed him one of two sparkboxes,
“And get those fuses lit!”

Slate ran to the first of the seven
blastporters and sparked the fuse as Hatty returned to the wheel.
Just as the seventh fuse was lit, the first of the blastporters
went off, with a huge plume of smoke and a noise like a clap of
thunder. The force sent the blastporter rolling back across the
deck of the sloop.

“You were supposed to secure
them!” Hatty shouted.

“I didn’t know!” Slate
screamed back.

The first three shells from the Jean Bee
missed the towering ships completely, but the fourth and rest hit
the closest square in the hull. This sent the warship careening off
to the south, pushing the other two ships along with it as they
strove to avoid collision.

“Ha ha!” Hatty shouted.

“What a hit!” Load ‘em up again!”

Slate found the blastporters extremely hot to
the touch, and seared his hand when he first attempted to re-load.
He fumbled a bit with his burnt hand but was able to overcome the
set-back and had all seven blastporters reloaded in little
time.

“Spark ‘em when they’re
ready! We gotta hit ‘em one more time before they split!” Hatty
cried. He had maneuvered the Jean Bee a bit southward to compensate
for the government ships’ relocations, and so the second volley of
shells was able to directly strike all three of the ships, though
the wide spread meant they were less effective than before. There
was nothing in this second round of shells to dissuade the
approaching ships at all; the sloop had lost its element of
surprise. Soon the massive ships were separated and moving into
attack position.

“We’re going to have to
press forward!” Hatty cried. “Sailing right through them is our
only hope. They’re too big to turn around, and they won’t shoot
toward each other.”

“Toward them?” Slate gasped,
as the sloop bounced wildly along the ocean under Hatty’s ace
navigation.

The ocean put up its own resistance, in the
form of foamy water that came up like a hand over the side of the
sloop, smacking Slate hard on the back and soaking the store of
blastpowder he was scooping from. As he struggled to move across
the slippery deck toward drier powder, the sloop came up against a
most formidable wave, one that lifted its front up at a near
forty-five degree angle with the surface of the ocean.

The Jean Bee groaned and moaned in agony
while it was suspended there, before the wave collapsed on itself
and the sloop sank back down, deep into the water, then rolled over
far to the left, then the right, then came level again. The wild
rocking almost pulled Slate into the ocean, but he managed to hang
on, as the blastporters slid about the deck and Pilotte scrambled
for footing.

When the sloop began to surge forward again
in the direction of Proterse, the tangle of blastporters chased
Slate and Pilotte across the deck, as Hatty did his best to fight
against the wind-battered ocean. The sloop bounced and skipped like
a rock cast from the shore, its planks and beams groaning and
crying out as they struggled to remain together.

One of the government vessels was able to
move swiftly enough that its many blastporters could fire off a
round of shelling. Slate watched the smoke trace the shells’ way to
the sloop, those that missed making a neat line of
one-two-three-splashes in the water before the rest connected and
sent pieces of the Jean Bee exploding upwards and outwards. After
the dust and debris had settled, Slate could see that the damage
was severe, possibly too much for the sloop to bear.

“We’re taking on a lot of
water!” Slate shouted up to Hatty, who was locked to the wheel with
a look of fierce determination.

“I can tell!” Hatty shouted
back.

As the sloop maneuvered between the great
ships, Slate could hear the men onboard them calling and shouting.
Under the weight of the water the Jean Bee was accumulating, it
began to lean to the starboard side, and to slow. The spit reaching
out from Jaidour was only three or four hundred feet away at most
now, but it didn’t seem like the boat was going to make it.

“What are we going to do?”
Slate begged of Hatty.

“We’re going to have to
beach her!” Hatty shouted back.

“What do you
mean?”

“Hang on tight!” Hatty
shouted.

Though the boat was water-logged and still
losing speed, it was yet moving fast enough to where an impact with
the coastline was going to be catastrophic.

“What should I do?” Slate
shouted helplessly.

“Hope for the best!” Hatty
shouted.

He roped the wheel into locked position and
leapt up to catch hold of some rigging. “Try to hold on to
something that moves!”

Slate spun around looking for something to
hold on to. He saw Pilotte bracing himself and then his bag, washed
into a corner. Just as he had made it to his bag and wrapped one
hand around its handle, another round of shells sounded from the
government ships, seconds before the sloop collided with the shore,
hard. The whole of the already weakened ship buckled under the
impact, splitting the deck into a ‘v’. Pilotte leapt as the force
catapulted Slate into the air.

He soared high, up past Hatty, who was
snapped back by the rigging as if it were a leash, up past shells
flying through the debris of the exploding ship. For a brief
moment, he could see Jaidour, and then his body twisted in the air
and he saw the three ships on the ocean, and then the rocky spit
below him. How suddenly he was going to die, he thought, falling
down into oblivion.

In that suspended moment, as the wind whipped
around his head and soothed his thoughts, Slate didn’t feel scared
of dying. He saw Pilotte land on the sandy shore. He saw the image
of Arianna, and thanked her. He saw his brother. He felt the warmth
of the sun. When his upward trajectory was at last thwarted by
gravity, Slate began his descent to the jagged rocks below, closed
his eyes, and prepared to die.

With a loud thwack of taught canvas his eyes
popped back open, as he bounced off one of the sloop’s sails like
it were a trampoline, just as the mast wedged itself into the
coastline. He fell back to the canvas and bounced again, this time
neatly and gently off onto the sandy beach just to the left of the
still-settling shipwreck. Pilotte ran up to him and licked his
face.

Hatty hadn’t been as lucky, which Slate
discovered when he began to climb to where his bag was dangling
from the splintered mast. The poor rogue was nearly split in two
himself, splayed across rocks and broken wood.

“Hatty!” Slate cried. He
rushed to the pirate’s side.

“You had better get out of
here quickly,” Hatty said as he closed his strained
eyes.

“Hatty,” Slate said, his
eyes watering. “Hatty, I’m so sorry…”

“No, Slate. We all have to
die. At least I died for something other than myself.”

And then with a deep groan, Hatty stopped
breathing, and his splintered limbs stopped twitching shortly
thereafter.

Slate wiped his eyes and managed to stand up.

It was hard to move quickly with such grief weighing so heavily,
but he knew he had to. Pilotte nudged him along into the waiting
jungle as smaller boats from the ships out on the ocean were
dispatched. The two raced through pieces of the exploded ship, and
then bound toward the walkway leading to the lighthouse ahead. As
fleetly as a wisp they flew over and across it, before disappearing
deep into the waiting jungle on the other side.

It occurred to Slate as he ran that he should
have taken Hatty’s quickshot with him, but it was too late now to
turn back. He ran for what seemed like miles, but which was surely
much less, until he found a cave. He charged deep into the cave and
then hid, with Pilotte at his side. The two stayed there, waiting
for someone to come searching for them, until the sun went down and
then through the night.

The next morning, Slate was still waiting for
a sign or sound that someone was looking for him, but there came
nothing. Eventually, his fear abated enough for him to crawl back
out of the cave. He hesitantly looked around, and Pilotte’s easy
demeanor told him there was nothing to be immediately worried
about. The two then continued through the jungle, coming out of it
not long thereafter into a park. Slate used a fountain to wash off
the dirt from the cave, and then he and Pilotte made their way into
Jaidour.

Slate couldn’t help but stare up in awe at
Jaidour’s architecture, despite the heavy sadness hanging on his
shoulders. Many of the towering buildings were decorated with
surreal sculpture, grotesque faces tinged green and yellow with
moss. The wonders at street level were just as great: so many
thousands and thousands of faces unlike any he had seen before,
with greater variation than he ever imagined the human form to
possess. The millions of emotions and stories behind the faces
seemed unfathomable, and while Slate felt a bit rude staring, he
simply couldn’t help it.

Slate asked one of the strangers how he might
get to Aurora Falls. He learned from them that a trade freeze had
interrupted passenger travel north over the sea, and that his only
other two options were heading through the Ojikef Jungle, which the
clerk heavily advised against, or a three-week land route that
wound around the southeastern shore of the continent and then back
up.

“What do you think,
Pilotte?” Slate asked his companion. “I want to go back home as
soon as possible. I don’t want to take three weeks to deliver Guh’s
package. What about you?”

Pilotte smiled back.

“I guess we’ll decide soon
enough, won’t we?”

The two made their way down the swirling
green avenues in mid-town. They passed a man on a box shouting at
passersby.

“The end is near!” the man
cried. “Opal Pools will be the end of us all! Repent!
Repent!”

Slate noticed that few of the other men and
women in the street were paying the man any mind.

“Is the end near, Pilotte?”
Slate asked.

Pilotte sniffed as if to say such thoughts
were nonsense.

During a steep walk up a cobbled street a few
blocks later, Slate heard voices calling in his direction.

“Catch him! Catch that
boy!”

Slate turned back to see a young man running
frantically down the street in his direction. The look on the young
man’s face was one of sheer panic. Not far behind him were his
pursuers. They looked menacing, and much older than the young
stranger.

In an instant, Slate dove into a fron bush
along the side of the road, just as the young man was about to pass
by. He grabbed the stranger’s coattail, and then both of them
tumbled into the bush, as Pilotte hid himself in the bushes on the
other side of the street. Slate struggled to quiet the stranger as
his pursuers stopped outside the bush. Their investigatory blade
was being thrust perilously close to the entwined young men when
Pilotte surged from the foliage across the street. He gave a great
howl and the gang of men threw up their arms and scattered in
fright. After they were gone, Slate and the stranger rolled out
into the street.

{color:#000;}
“What's the matter with you?” the stranger growled, throwing Slate off. “I was only trying to help you,” Slate said. “You looked like you were in trouble.” “Oh. Well, I was. You got that right. Here,” the stranger said as he handed Slate half a loaf of bread. “What’s this?” “Half the reason they were chasing me.” “There were three men chasing you over a loaf of bread?” “Well, it’s not the first time I’ve helped myself to their bread, let’s just say that.” “Oh. Why do you steal their bread?” “Because I’m hungry and I don’t have any money and no one will give me a job.” “Oh." Slate said. “Did three of them really need to chase after you, though?” “Do you think so?” the stranger asked. “No.” “Well, then we can be friends!” “Alright, then.” “Is that your snarlingwulf?” “Yes, it is. Well, he isn’t mine, it’s not like I own him. You don’t really own a snarlingwulf. But he follows me, everywhere. Pilotte is his name. Mine is Slate Ahn. What’s yours?” “Pilotte, Slate, my name is Ertajj Khomz.” “Ertajj, it’s nice to meet you. Do you live here, in Jaidour?” “No,” Ertajj laughed. “No, no.” “Then why are you here?” Slate asked. “Well, I’m actually still working on that.” Slate sensed a kindred soul. “Any bright ideas?” he asked. “Nothing. Thing is,” Ertajj said, “I snuck my way onto a freighter back in Cole and it ended up here by chance. I didn’t plan on coming here at all.” “Why did you sneak onto the freighter?” “Just runnin’.” “What from?” “You name it.” “I’m new here, too, from Alleste, originally. That’s on Aelioanei. I’ve just had the most horrible experience…” “If you have to know, the real reason we left were the jackals that burned our homes to the ground. First, they condemned the whole community. We were growing our own food, we had our own money. That doesn’t work for them, does it? Can’t tax it, can you? Development, as they call it, was just an excuse to get rid of us. Just like they get rid of anyone who doesn’t fit into their vision of society.” Slate listened as Ertajj went on a wild rant interlaced with political ideology and conspiracy theory. When at last he reached some sort of conclusion, Slate had no idea what any of it had meant. “Oh yeah, I understand,” he lied. “So there’s that,” Ertajj said. “Now I’ve not been in Jaidour a week and there are gangs after me. What a life! That’s why you gotta have friends. Like you! Come on, let’s see if we can’t find my other mates.” “The people you came here with?” Slate asked. “Yeah. It’s me, Juke, and Dahzi. The Miscreants. They should be in the park.” While Ertajj led Slate and Pilotte downtown, he offered endless commentary on anything and everything. Ertajj claimed to know the true history of Jaidour, how it had been stolen by people from the east after a mass-murder of the original inhabitants. It was for the natural resources the ground possessed that the invaders had taken their land, and as far as Ertajj saw things, little about the character of the Jaidourean people had evolved since then. In every house, the angry young man from Cole saw a monument to cruelty. Even the street signs supposedly bore names that told those in the powerful elite the city’s true history, written in blood. It was entertaining and sometimes funny, but Slate sensed a deep hurt beneath Ertajj's performance. The young man reminded Slate of Hatty, whose dying grimace Slate couldn’t seem to chase from his mind. Slate and Pilotte waited outside a market while Ertajj bought cider. “Now how are we going to get to Aurora Falls, buddy?” Slate asked the wulf. Pilotte dropped his jaw and panted. “I don’t have any idea, either,” said Slate. “Hey, Slate, I found ‘em!” interrupted Ertajj. He was with Juke and Dahzi across the street, and had somehow gotten intoxicated in the short time Slate had been waiting. “It’s Stanton and his Calloray, isn’t it, then?” asked the taller of Ertajj’s friends. Slate recognized this as a reference to the tale of Stanton the Pretender from his treasured Legend.  “That’s the Legend, isn’t it?” he asked. “Not bad, Ertajj, he’s up on his Legend,” the young man said. “Absolutely,” said Slate. “And you must be…Vuvpil?” “Cha-cha! From the mountains of the skies! No. Actually, I’m Juke. Nice to meet you.” “Aw, look at them making friends,” Ertajj said. “And you’re Dahzi?” Slate asked the third young man. “Yes, I have been for some time now,” Dahzi answered. “Well this is just perfect, isn’t it?” Ertajj asked. “Let’s not just stand about. Shall we get somewhere a bit more…secluded?” he proposed, flashing the bottle of cider hiding inside his coat. The group took a long walk through the jungle surrounding the city, joking, stopping for drinks and pipes, and talking about their pasts. They climbed trees and skipped rocks. In fleeting moments, Slate felt like he was back with his brother in Alleste. When the sun went down, Slate and his new companions drank and laughed themselves to sleep around a campfire on the outskirts of town.  “Beautiful morning,” Slate said groggily as he rose the next morning. “Meh,” Ertajj said. “Same as any other.” “Where should we go today?” asked Juke. “Let’s go downtown and see what trouble we can stir up,” said Ertajj. “Who we can piss off.” “Sounds good,” said Juke.  Pilotte walked out in front of the others as they made their way downtown, his tail wagging happily. “These houses make me sick,” said Ertajj, scowling at the opulence around him. “They’ve each got enough room for a small village, and the city’s got a problem with homelessness. Bunch of Ghasts living around here, I’m sure.” “Ghosts?” Slate asked. “Ghasts. Not ghosts.” said Ertajj. Dahzi giggled. “Ghosts. Ha.” “Ghasts?” Slate asked. “What does that mean?” “He’s thick,” Ertajj grumbled. “He just doesn’t know,” said Juke. “Slate, if you believe it, the Ghasts are a secret society that controls the world from behind closed doors. How or where or why they originated is unknown. Supposedly, they travel the known lands, collecting information and artifacts from the Golden Age of the Gods. The time before the Fall.” “The Books of Knowledge,” Ertajj interjected. “The Books of Knowledge?” Slate repeated. “That’s right. What do you know about them?” asked Ertajj. “Oh, nothing. No more than you, I mean. Have you ever met one of them?” Slate asked. “A Ghast?” “Oh no, I’ve never met one, no,” Juke said. “I don’t mean to make it sound as if they’re ubiquitous; it is all very underground. You hear about the Ghasts every once and a while, over a campfire or in gossip. Personally, I think it’s all very interesting, but I don’t believe it. It’s a myth. An urban legend. I live in the real world.” “I believe,” said Ertajj. “Really?” asked Slate. “Don’t listen to Ertajj,” said Juke. “He has a wild imagination.” “Jealous,” Ertajj said. “Keep dreaming,” said Juke, rolling his eyes. The five stopped to buy more cider and pipes, and jerky for Pilotte, then found a park at which to enjoy their indulgences. Once Slate had enough cider, he started telling the others what he had learned of the Books of Knowledge from Guh, stopping just short of revealing that he possessed some of the books himself. “And here I thought you were a clueless island kid this whole time,” an impressed Ertajj said after Slate had finished. “You’ve heard some things. Bring it on, Opal Pools. That’s what I say. The faster we get this society ready for the revolution, the better, I say.” “The revolution?” Slate asked. “The coming revolution,” Ertajj said. “When the politicians and their vain stabs at power are finally brought to justice. They gather their Books, they lord over us and suppress the knowledge our ancestors left us. Their greed vilifies humanity!”  “Oh no,” Dahzi sighed, putting his head in his palm.  Loud with drink, Ertajj continued. “Since we first crawled out of the caves and began our domination of nature, human history has been a story of struggle, contests between exploiting and the exploited, those with information and the oppressed ignorants. But now we’ve got Opal Pools, and the Green Shield! And the Books of Knowledge! It’s the end of empires! The truth will set us free, and not only the truth and the knowledge from the books, but the knowledge of the books! Let everyone know that they have been subjugated and programmed from birth to be a pawn in the elite’s games! And that these days are over!” “Tell it, Ertajj!” cried Juke and Dahzi in a tone both joking and sincere. “I will, you nonbelievers!” Ertajj went on. “When that day comes at least I’ll be ready, while the rest of the world will suffer. I’m ready to die for the new world. I’m ready.” “When the cider stops flowing, you’ll be singing a different tune,” Dahzi said. “Tell it, Dahzi!” Juke said with a laugh. “I heard that the Books of Knowledge were created by an evil sorcerer,” Dahzi said. “Daz, there aren’t any sorcerers,” Ertajj said. “Just stupid men who can’t and shouldn’t be trusted with whatever is in those books. Man’s stupidity is his ruin.” “I guess. Though, it would be better for people who could be trusted to possess the books, right?” Slate asked. “If they even exist?” “You show me one person that can be trusted, and I’ll consider it,” Ertajj said in a dark tone, after taking a long swig of cider. “You certainly can’t be trusted, you squatter. You loiterer!” Juke said. “Or you, you shifty native-born!” Ertajj retorted. “Or you, you island-born rube!” Dahzi said to Slate. The three friends from Cole laughed. “Anyways,” Slate said. “I’m headed for Aurora Falls; do any of you anything about getting there?” “I know it’s not easy, with the trade freeze,” said Juke. “What are you headed there for, anyways?” “I… have to pick something up,” said Slate. “It’s why I’m here on Proterse.” “Pick something up?” Ertajj asked. “Yes.” “Well, good for you,” said Ertajj. “I hope it’s not too heavy.” Slate rolled his eyes. “Do any of you at least know anything about passing through the Oji-something Jungle? I understand that it would be faster than the three weeks it would take to go the southern route?” “It would be faster, but the Ojikef is a very dangerous place, Slate,” said Juke. “I don’t have three weeks, though,” said Slate. “Why not?” asked Ertajj. “I want to get back to Aelioanei,” Slate answered. “There’s a family there…” “Oh, but you don’t have anybody,” Ertajj interrupted. “Please. Whatever. Come on, boys, let’s go find something worthwhile to do.” “You… now? You’re all leaving now?” Slate asked. “Just like you,” said Ertajj. “See you ‘round, Slate Ahn.” Dahzi gave a sad smile and Juke nodded an apology as they followed after Ertajj, who stalked off without another word. “Goodbye!” Slate called after the three as they faded into the street crowd. “Guess it’s just you and me again, Pilotte. Come on, let’s see what we can see about this Ojikef Jungle.”
  At the far outskirts of Jaidour, Slate stopped at a general store to ask if they knew anything about hiring guides. After the clerk told him no, Slate was approached by a dark man in a hat who had overheard his query.
pre

“Did I hear you say you’re
looking for a guide for the Ojikef?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, why?” asked
Slate.

“Because I might be able to
help you,” the stranger said. “Ever been through
before?”

“No, I’ve never been in at
all,” Slate said.

“Hmmm. Where do you want to
end up?”

“I need to get to Aurora
Falls.”

“Alright. I could get you
through the jungle to Chreopoint, you’d be on your own after that.
It’s about a week-long trip. What’s with the wulf?”

“That’s Pilotte,” Slate
said. “He’s coming, too.”

“He would make it easier.

But listen,” the stranger said, “I’m not taking just you two. The
dangers are too great and the pay too small for one person and a
wulf. Find a larger traveling party and it might be worth it for
me. At least four people.”

“Four?” Slate repeated.

“And we couldn’t leave for a day or so, on
account of that rain we had. We get too cold and wet in there and
we might catch Direwreck Flu and die very painful deaths. Unless
that sort of thing appeals to you.”

“Not especially. So when is
the soonest we could leave?”

“Well,” the stranger
calculated, “I’d say, to be safe, three days from today, if the
rain holds off until then.”

“And what would you require
as far as payment?” Slate asked.

“Fifty pieces of
goldquartz,” said the man, scratching his stubble.

“Alright, fifty pieces,”
said Slate, downplaying the large sum. He didn’t have that much,
but hoped he might be able to find it. “Now, how can we find you?
If I can find two others?”

“Any of those fifty pieces
for me now?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Well. I’m usually downtown.

I only just got back from a trip through today, in fact. Muddy as a
sty in there. And we lost one.”

“Lost a…person?”

“No, a sock. Anyways, kid,
my name is Theolus Reever. Look me up near the docks at the
Blinking Fish if you’re serious about making the trip. I’ll be
there for the next three days.”

“Certainly, thank you,
Theolus. My name is Slate. Are you heading downtown now? I am.
Perhaps we can travel together?”

“I travel alone, except when
I’m pulling people through the Ojikef,” Theolus said. “No offense
intended. I’ll see you soon, if you’re serious.”

“I am, trust me,” Slate
said. “I’m so thankful I ran into you.”

“That’s great. Till next
time,” said Theolus, considerably less gregarious than when he had
first thought he had a sure sale.

Slate waited for Theolus to disappear down
the thin road so that he and Pilotte could start their own way back
to town. It took almost two hours, though when he got there, Slate
realized he didn’t have the slightest idea where to go. He was
wondering where he would possibly get enough goldquartz to pay
Theolus when he heard a voice call out to him. He looked up to see
it was Juke.

“Hey, Slate!” Juke said
happily. “Where you headed?”

“Juke! What are the chances
I’d find you here?”

“Small?”

“Probably. Hey, I was
wondering, do you have any idea where I might be able to make some
goldquartz?”

“I don’t really know the
town,” answered Juke. “But you might ask Dahzi, he’s got a lot of
money.”

“He does? You think he’d
lend me some?”

“He does. And he might. But
you’d have to ask him yourself. I can’t answer for him. He and
Ertajj will be back from Buxd’s Cove tonight.”

“Oh. They’re gone? Why
didn’t you go?”

“Just didn’t want
to.”

“Okay,” Slate said. “What do
you want to do until they get back?”

“Well, I might have come
upon a bit of moone…” Juke teased.

“Really?”

“I’m headed to the park,
want to come wait with me?”

“I could use the break,”
Slate said. “Let’s go.”

The two lazed in the park, passing the time
and a pipe of the relaxing moone. Pilotte caught a decent-sized
curnot for dinner, which the three enjoyed around a fire. Slate was
far from his worries when Ertajj and Dahzi returned, laughing and
singing at the top of their lungs.

“I smell drugs! What’re you
vagrants up to?” shouted Ertajj as he charged up an embankment to
where Slate and Juke were relaxing. Dahzi shuffled along behind
him.

“Don’t oppress me,
oppressor!” said Juke.

“Hey guys! How was it, how
was your trip?” asked Slate, struggling against the moone to rise
and greet his friends.

“Jukey! Slatey! Fellas!”
Ertajj said. “I smell moone, don’t I? Any of that left? No? Shit.
Anyways, Buxd’s Cove, it was great. Amazing, colossal, incredible.
I had always heard the girls in Jaidour had a cold shoulder, but
I’ll tell you what, the rest of them is plenty warm!”

“Had a bit of luck, did
you?” asked Juke.

“Did I ever. Even Dahzi got
lucky!” said Ertajj.

“It’s true,” said Dahzi,
huffing and puffing as he finally reached where the others were
congregated.

“That’s great, guys,” Slate
said. “Listen, Dahzi, I need to ask a favor…”

“Looks like someone found
out who’s got the deep pockets,” said Ertajj.

“I know it’s awful forward,
but I was wondering if you could loan me fifty goldquartz? And if
you guys might come with me and Pilotte on a trip through the
Ojikef, to Aurora Falls? We’d be leaving in three days.”

“Well. Let’s see,” Ertajj
said. “Ponder, ponder…yes. Next issue, when do we get more
smoke?”

“Really, yes? I thought you
didn’t want anything to do with me,” said Slate.

“Only when I thought you
didn’t want anything to do with us,” said Ertajj.

“Oh, no, I like you guys.

Dahzi, would it be too much?” asked Slate. “To loan me the money? I
can repay you when we get to Aurora Falls.”

“Sure,” Dahzi said. “I
wouldn’t mind.”

“Oh, great,” Slate said. “I
was worried you wouldn’t want to.”

“What, are we going to slum
it in Jaidour forever?” Ertajj asked. “All these larts around here,
I wouldn’t be able to stand it.”

“Oh, thank you all so much,”
Slate said. “I already found us a guide, his name is Theolus
Reever. He says he makes the journey through the jungle all the
time, and he only needs fifty pieces of goldquartz.”

“Who has the gall to charge
fifty pieces of goldquartz for guide services? How long is the
trip, a week? At most? It’s not as if he’ll be preparing our
meals,” said Ertajj. “Will he?”

“I agree with Slate, I think
we need his help. Have you heard the stories about what happens to
people in the Ojikef Jungle?” Dahzi asked.

“No,” Ertajj responded.

“Of course you haven’t, because none of them
ever leave,” said Dahzi.

“Aw, please. You’re being
offensive to Jukey here,” Ertajj said. “Those savage Nions in there
are his ancestral people, you know.”

“Not exactly,” said Juke, a
bit defensively. “I was raised in the same society as you were. And
I share Slate’s fears about traveling through the jungle by
ourselves. I think we could use a guide.”

“What does Ertajj mean?
Nions?” Slate asked Juke.

“Where’d you think he got
the marks from?” Ertajj answered for Juke, referring to Juke’s
facial tattoos.

“Come on, Ertajj,” Juke
said. “Stop it.”

“Never be ashamed of who you
are,” Ertajj laughed. “Juke is from the jungle, Slate. He’s a Nion,
raised as a non-Nion. Didn’t you ever think about why he looked so
weird?”

“I never thought he looked
weird at all,” answered Slate.

“Simple Slate,” Ertajj
sighed. “You’re just the sweetest tit around, aren’t you? Anyways,
you think it’s alright to entrust ourselves to this random guide
you found? That’s the recipe?”

“It’s better than going
alone,” Slate said. “I’m going no matter what, but he said he needs
at least four people. Will you come?”

“Fine, fine,” Ertajj said.

“Go in there alone and you’ll die, dummy. But your guide is getting
fifty goldquartz minus the cost of two jugs of cider!” He bounced
back down the park’s embankment for a corner ale shop.

“Never a dull moment with
that one,” said Dahzi.

“Though sometimes you wish
there would be,” said Juke.

“I’m so glad you’re going to
come with me,” Slate said, relieved. “I’m glad we’ll all be
together.”

The next afternoon, Slate found Theolus where
the guide had said he’d be, the Blinking Fish, a foul-smelling
alehouse in Jaidour’s fish-packing district. The young man gave
Theolus half of the payment for the journey, on promise of the
other half when they reached Chreopoint. Slate imagined that the
money would likely be spent on drinks before the afternoon was
over, but he had no choice other than to trust that he hadn’t just
given his friends’ money to a scam artist.

For the next two days, the
four friends scavenged around town for things that might help them
in the Ojikef. They found packs, coats,
boots, some bug netting, and a few canteens. Only somewhere as
affluent as Jaidour would have such a store in its
dumpsters.

Camping on the banks of the mighty Jai River
amongst the fragrant mewdock flowers, Slate cherished the
opportunity to sleep under the stars. It wouldn’t be long until he
delivered his package for Guh and was on the way back home.

 

15

 

 

 

 

Slate, Ertajj, Juke, Dahzi, and Pilotte sat
bored and waiting along the last road stretching out from
Jaidour.

“So, Slate. This Theolus
person. You gave him half our goldquartz. How exactly do you know
him?” Ertajj asked.

“I met him here,” Slate
said. “Down the road.”

“Down the road? When?”
Ertajj asked.

“A couple days ago. When you
two where at Buxd’s Cove.”

“And what made you think to
trust him with our goldquartz?” Ertajj asked.

“My goldquartz,” Dahzi
corrected.

“I… We… He’ll be here,”
Slate stammered.

“What makes you so sure,
Slate?” Juke asked.

“Because. I know he’ll be
here,” Slate answered.

Another hour ground past and tempers were
about to break when at last a wagon, pulled by a tired, gray horse,
came into view down the hazy road. The wizened horse wheezed to a
stop, and Theolus offered no words of apology or explanation for
his tardiness before he immediately began tossing supplies down
onto the dirt road. Slate watched for a moment, waiting for
acknowledgement. Theolus threw a length of rope at his feet.

“Why are you standing
there?” the guide asked. “Tell the other three to get on over here and start gearing up. We’ve got a lot of
time to make up if we’re going to get to a campground
tonight.”

“But it’s so late in the day
already,” Slate said. “We’ve been waiting…”

“We can’t be here after
dark, because we’ll get robbed, killed, or worse,” Theolus
interrupted. “The fyre addicts living out here in the far reaches
will eat you to watch you scream. We’re far better off in the
jungle. Just trust me to do my job, and get your friends over here
to do theirs.”

Slate hastened over to his friends. “Told you
he’d show. He’s saying we have to leave right away,” he informed
them. “We have to leave tonight because of something called fyre
addicts.”

“Oh, if there are flamers
around here, he’s right. I can take just about anyone, but those
people are crazy,” Ertajj said.

“Hey, kids,” Theolus called
from the wagon, “Quit your jaw flapping and get over
here!”

Goods and tools were parceled, then stowed
and strapped into packs and bags. After a small lunch of jerky and
nuts, the expedition loaded into the wagon. The old horse could
hardly get the full wagon moving again, but once it did, it never
faltered.

“Alright, kids,” Theolus
said after four miles. “This is where we get lost.”

“Is he joking?” Dahzi
asked.

“I hope,” Ertajj answered.

“Either way, this should be fun.”

The guide let the old horse free and gave it
a smack, which sent it back the other way. Without wasting a
second, Theolus starting into the jungle. He set a pace that was
hard for Slate and his friends to keep, what with so much weight on
their backs. They weren’t used to carrying it. Theolus was, but he
didn’t care to hear their complaints.

The Ojikef provided distraction from their
toil: it was wild with life. Beyond the small trees and flower
bushes at the outskirts of the jungle, taller trees with broader
palms began to appear. Vines twisted and wove themselves through
the trees and water trickled everywhere, in small and steady drips
and cascading falls. It was beside one of these larger waterfalls
that Theolus stopped for the first time, after almost two
hours of hiking.

“This would be the
beginning, then,” he announced.

“The beginning of what?”
asked Slate.

“The trail to the jungle,”
said Theolus.

“What jungle?” asked Dahzi.

“A different jungle?”

“How many jungles you think
there are around here? The Ojikef Jungle. I hope you boys didn’t
think that we had made the Ojikef yet,” laughed Theolus. “Because
we’ve got two more hours until we hit the campsite, and that’s just
inside the first stand of mille trees. Drink up now if you’re
thirsty; this water is clean. We won’t stop again.”

{color:#000;}
Ertajj groaned and threw a handful of leaves and dirt at Slate, who was too tired to retaliate. By the time Theolus located the campsite, the others were so exhausted that they fell asleep before dinner was ready. Slate awoke to the soothing sounds of a rain shower. He left his tent to find the rainclouds were hanging lower than the jungle canopy itself, rolling like an upside-down sea through the treetops. The gray began to dissipate as morning broke and new chirps and howls changed guard with the nights’. The rest of the expedition rose as Theolus prepared a stark breakfast, but before anyone had much of a chance to eat it, he began shouting orders to return to travel. Without so much as a cup of glint between them, the group was up with their packs on and moving again.  The heavy rain over the prior weeks had left the spongy floor of the jungle muddy, a slippery kind of mud that acted like a vacuum sucking at the travelers’ feet with every step.  “How much longer should this take?” Ertajj asked. Theolus answered, “If you mean the whole journey through to Chreopoint, well, that depends. If it rains any more, it could be a while. A long while. If the rain holds off, we should be able to reach the Ojikef River in four days, and then, if all that goes well, we could make Chreopoint about three days after that. But don’t think about days, it's useless. There are no days here.”  The jungle grew darker as denser growth allowed less sunlight to penetrate. Slate sensed something scary but familiar in the darkness, a mechanism inside himself that he had perhaps never had to use outside the jungle, a phantom anxiety. It occurred to him how the dark thoughts spurred long ago by the mysteries of the deep jungle must have had a powerful hand in shaping humankind's fearful nature. Slate thought at first that it may have only been that paranoia, but over the course of the second day, it began to seem as if Theolus was growing displeased that the travelers were keeping up so well. He would drive harder at any sign of one of the young men faltering, and answered even the smallest complaint with venomous condescension. Though Slate had neither the energy nor clarity of mind to bring accusations out in the open, it was telling that Pilotte had taken to walking in the guide’s blind spot.  At dinner on the third night, Slate thought he would confront Theolus outright, rather than let the anxiety brew.  “Theolus, I understand that you are familiar with the jungle and have made this trip many times,” he said. “But I have to ask you, why must we drive so hard? We haven’t encountered anything so far that would necessitate moving so frantically.” “Ever seen a walecat, kid?” asked Theolus as he sank his knife into the chest of Pilotte’s latest kill.  “Yes,” Slate said. Theolus muttered something under his breath as he pulled his knife down the animal's belly. “Well, sorry you boys are having a tough time of things,” he said. “I really am. But if we were to encounter some Nions, you’d be thanking me. Things could get much worse. Be happy we’re moving this fast.” “I don’t see how moving quickly helps us avoid...” began Ertajj. “It’s about averages, okay?” Theolus said angrily, his knife dripping with entrails. “Think: fewer days in jungle, less opportunity for the Nions to cut off your scalp. Less chance of rain, less chance we get sick and die. How hard is that to understand?” “Don’t get so upset, Theo. I was just asking a question,” Ertajj scoffed. Theolus sneered. “It’s Theolus. Listen, I don't need any of your questions, alright? Ask another and I’ll take your goldquartz and leave you to your own devices,” he said. “Believe me, it would be much, much easier!” He sat back down to his butchering as if nothing had happened.  The others had little to say for the rest of the evening. As Slate tried to fall asleep that night, he felt worried for himself but worse for having dragged his friends into such a situation. He could have gone around the jungle, with or without them, but instead he had talked them into going with him on a ridiculous quest, using their money, and now the whole situation was perilous. There were Nions and walecats in the mists. Somewhere between waking and sleep, Slate wondered if maybe it wasn’t he who was the real enemy, endangering the lives of people he called his friends out of stubborn self-interest. On the fourth day, the jungle was loud and hot, and the trail sank and rose continually, with never a stretch of level path running longer than ten steps. Slate sweat and worried over whatever it was in the dark growth that seemed to be stalking him. The team had just passed into the territory of some screaming tree tandos when Slate noticed Pilotte’s tongue lolling from his mouth. Slate had stopped to offer the wulf some of his canteen when a crackling noise of quick movement came from atop a hill-slope on the right side of the trail. The young men cast wide eyes at Theolus, who responded without words that they needed to hide. Under Theolus’s mute instruction, the boys dashed under the cover of a glossy palm bush. The whip-fast old guide bounded off an exposed root onto a low tree branch. He pressed his back against the tree’s trunk and waited.  As Slate and his friends watched from their hiding place, seven men appeared over the crest of the hill and began to descend onto the trail. They crouched low as they moved, their shoulder blades rolling with the coiled power of walecats’ and their legs sturdy and thick as dalcrags’. Once the seven had coalesced on the trail, only feet from the palm bush that barely concealed the four young men, the Nions began to move toward the tree where Theolus was hiding. They encircled it and stopped, all in perfect unison, then silently turned their heads up at the guide. “Run! Run, boys!” Theolus shouted, breaking the silence. Dahzi screamed and scrambled out from under the palm bush. The seven-headed tribesman spotted him and the other hidden trespassers, and fractured.  Two Nions descended on Dahzi, who fell to his knees, put his hands to his ears, and howled. Slate threw his pickaxe in the direction of Dahzi's assailants, only for it to miss and disappear into a mass of thick growth. Juke was next to break from cover, jumping onto the back of one of the men moving for Dahzi. He was thrown from the Nion’s back through the air, and landed against a rock with a crack so loud that it echoed. At this, one of the Nions shouted something unintelligible, which stopped short the other six. They began moving together toward Juke, who was unconscious. Theolus took the opportunity to slide down his tree and crawl over to where Slate, Ertajj, and Pilotte were gathered. Pilotte seemed not defensive but ultra-aware, his ears pressed forward, his tail tall and still. Something about the presence of the Nions caused the wulf to act differently than Slate had ever seen him act before. After the jungle inhabitants had observed Juke, one of them came toward the trembling trespassers, asking in perfect Protersian, “Why are you with this boy? How long have you been with him?” Theolus began to respond, but was silenced with a high-pitched yelp and steely glare from the native. “I ask one of the young ones in the bush,” the Nion said. Ertajj spoke, answering, “His name is Juke, and he is my good friend. I have known him since I was seven.” “We are all passing through the jungle together,” Slate added. “Theolus, too. He’s our guide.”  At this, the Nions reformed their circle around Juke and resumed discussion. After a few minutes, during which Dahzi managed to regain control of himself and Theolus seemed like he might have run off at any second, the seven tribesmen formed a straight line.  The man in the middle stepped forward to speak. “What is your business in the Ojikef?” he demanded. “Have you not heard the rumors that we kill those who attempt passage?” Theolus attempted a sincere smile and plead with the men, “Your legend is well known, certainly, and we have much cause to fear. We mean no disrespect. We wish only to make it to Chreopoint. We only have so much time, you know, and we were unable to afford the prohibitively high cost of water passage. Please, if you let us continue on our way, we will never speak of our meeting.”  The Nion announced, “We will care for this dark boy here, who bears the marks of the Banowa, and you, too, if you are his friends. Come. Follow us.”  Two of the tribesmen lifted Juke’s slumped body off the ground and began carrying him away. The rest of Theolus’s party had no choice but to follow. Upon reaching what Slate assumed to be the village of the Nions, he and his weary fellow travelers were led into a small hut. The tribesmen kept Juke with them, leaving the others in the hut to eat and smoke. After four hours or so, the tribesmen re-entered the small hut with Juke bandaged and clean before them, and took seats amongst their guests. The leader took a deep inhalation of smoke from a pipe adorned with a red flower that he wore on his belt, and blew a purple cloud up and out of a hole in the roof. He passed the pipe to Dahzi, seated to his left. The leader began to speak. “We have spoken with Juke. We have determined that you are to be granted passage through our jungle. We will take you first to our village.”  Theolus choked on his drink. “Of course, of course, we would be honored to visit your village!” he sputtered. “Good. Please wait here for us to summon you in a short while,” said the Nion leader.  Then passed a quiet five minutes during which the pipe was circled around the hut. Once it was finished, the Nions stood, bowed in synchronicity, and exited. Ertajj’s sigh of relief spoke for everyone left behind. “Do you boys have any idea what this means?” asked Theolus, dreams and delusions bubbling up in his eyes. “No one has ever been to a real Nion village before! This is sure to pay, sure to pay, boys, sure to pay!” he raved. Shortly thereafter, the Nion tribesmen helped the travelling party lighten their loads, taking some of the gear onto their own backs before leading the way back into the thick. As it happened they all spoke Protersian well, with clear, deliberate enunciation, which they used to calmly answer an annoying litany of questions from Theolus. “So what is the name of where we are going?” Theolus asked. “Our village doesn’t have a name. It is our home. So we say we are going home. This is yiente, off our tongues. Or Ojikef, off of yours.” “How long have your people lived where we are going?” Theolus asked. “What do you mean, where we are going?” the Nion asked. “This location we are going to,” Theolus responded. “We have lived on Alm forever,” the Nion said. Theolus was quiet for a moment and then asked, “So why is it that you don’t let anyone pass through the Ojikef?” “It is for the benefit of the land and of time.” “Excuse me?” Theolus asked. “So that Mother Alm and Father Time may still have a place to run free,” the Nion explained. Theolus chuckled. “And you kill people for such nonsense?” “We kill no one. Perhaps you’ve heard rumors that we kill people. Rumors are stronger than clubs,” the head tribesman said. “So you’re not going to kill us?” “No. But you were going to die without help. You were headed into a valley from which you cannot leave.” “I thought you said you’d made the trip before?” Slate said to Theolus. The guide smiled awkwardly and shrugged. “You will not survive on your own. You are lucky we have found you. Come.” Slate shot Theolus an angry glare, which the supposed guide ignored, as the team collected their things and began to follow after the Nions. After climbing for some time, the party reached the highest ground in the surrounding jungle, where it was barren and dry. It wasn’t long that the group was in these heights before one of the Nions stopped, posed, and released an astonishingly loud sound from his lungs. Soon, a cry came echoing back from somewhere down in the valley below. The party followed a game of call-and response past yawning cave-mouths gated over with vine and branch, back and forth over a clear, winding river glimmering with darting, silvery fish. At a slight bend in the river, near a field of grass, they came to a stop. “Here,” the Nion leader announced. “Is this the village?” asked Ertajj, looking around. “It’s just more of the same.” “Quiet, boy, show some respect,” said Theolus. “Lessons of respect from Theolus? Maybe that’s why we came all the out here to middle of nowhere,” said Ertajj. “To find the lost treasure of Theolus’s humanity!” Everyone laughed at Ertajj’s joke except for Theolus, who grumbled incoherently.  While waiting for the Nions, who had retreated into another of their circular conversations, the outsiders took seats on the dewy soil next to the river. Pilotte splashed about in the crystal water, trying to catch the elusive silver fish that streamed between his legs. Two native women appeared, from seemingly out of nowhere. They looked much like the men, though they were shorter, with finer features, and their faces did not bear the tattoos the mens' did. The Nions exchanged greetings and had a brief conversation. The two women then turned from the men and spoke to each other alone, before one of them spread her arms and began to move toward the river. “Men of Jaidour, welcome to our home,” she said. “We are pleased that you are here. We hope that you will come with us to our village, where we can care for and feed you.” “I will,” Theolus said without hesitating. Slate looked to his friends for their opinions. Ertajj threw up his arms as if to say he didn’t know what to do or care, Juke nodded enthusiastically, Dahzi simply smiled back, and Pilotte seemed perfectly at ease, as if to say the Nions offered all the protection the group needed. “Okay,” Slate said. “I mean yes, I agree to your request.” “Of course!” Dahzi and Juke said at the same time. They congratulated each other on their synchronicity. “Sure, whatever,” said Ertajj. “Wonderful,” the woman said. “It is agreed, then. Please leave all of your things here and follow us.” “What do they mean, leave all of our things? Are they kidding?” Theolus asked one of the tribesmen. “Your possessions will not be harmed, I promise you,” the Nion said. “You cannot carry your outside goods into our sacred space; it will offend the gods,” he explained. “You may wear your clothes however, as that is your taboo.”  “Well, if there is anything missing when we get back, I’ll know,” Theolus said. “I want everything I have exactly as it is when I return.” “Don’t worry, Theolus, your things will not be touched,” the dark man promised. The foreigners shed their packs and all but their lightest clothes, revealing bruises and cuts that testified to the danger of their journey thus far. Slate felt uneasy about leaving Guh’s Books behind, but trusted the Nions when they promised security.  Ducking low through a tunnel of twisted branches, the group at some uncertain point crossed into the Nion village. Its grounds were smaller than Slate had expected, and the village more plain, assembled mainly of long huts built around fire pits. It was clean, though somewhat claustrophobic, and buzzing with happy activity. The villagers seemed to have already received word of the visitors, as a heavy, old woman in a lart pelt came waddling up hurriedly to Juke. “It’s true!” she said. “You have the Banowa! Child, where did you get this?” “I don’t know,” answered Juke. “But I’m hoping you can tell me.” “You come with me, child!” the woman said joyously, grabbing Juke by the wrist and pulling him off as he waved a surprised goodbye to the others. Theolus hastened around the village, trying to communicate with the tribespeople. When it became clear they wanted nothing to do with him, he retreated bitterly to where Slate, Dahzi, and Ertajj were sitting beside a huge viliali tree. “Stupid people,” Theolus grunted. “Living in the dirt.” “They’re not living in the dirt, Theolus,” said Dahzi. “They live in huts.” “Primitives nonetheless,” Theolus said.  “Howso?” Ertajj asked him. “Howso what?” Theolus responded. “How are they primitive?” Ertajj asked. “Look at them. Walking around half naked. Nothing to show for themselves but sticks and stones,” Theolus said. “If I lived in the jungle and hadn’t been told there was anything wrong with it, I’d probably be half-naked, too,” said Ertajj. “They don’t have any culture,” Theolus said. “No libraries, no opera houses. No museums. They haven’t elevated themselves above animals at all.” “Oh, Theolus,” Ertajj laughed, “You’re such an ass.” “When’s the last time you were in an opera house anyways, Theolus?” Slate asked. “That’s not the point,” Theolus answered. “They don’t live much differently than we did back in Alleste, on Aelioanei,” Slate said. “I don’t think they’re primitive at all. At least they know an impassable valley from a passable one.” “Shut up,” Theolus said. He looked around scornfully. “I can’t wait to get out of here.” “Good luck finding your way,” Dahzi said. Slate and Ertajj busted out laughing. “You’re all bunch of ingrates,” Theolus said, kicking at the dirt before stomping off. Juke returned to his friends a short while later, seeming somehow different than he had before. “Hello, brothers,” he said to his friends. “Hey there, buddy,” said Ertajj. “Where’ve you been?” “Truly, where have I been?” Juke asked. “Where are any of us?” “Uh… In the jungle?” Ertajj responded. “Perhaps,” Juke said. “But at the heart of it, where are we, really?”  “What’s the matter with you, Juke?” Ertajj asked. “What did they do to you?” “Only reconnected me with my true self,” said Juke. “You’re true self? What do you mean?” Dahzi asked. “I mean that these are my people. The belonging I’ve been seeking my whole life… I think I’ve finally found it here,” Juke answered. “Belonging?” Ertajj scoffed. “What about us? I thought we belonged with each other?” “I don’t doubt that to be true,” said Juke. “But I think that I may want to stay here a while, to learn more about my heritage.” “Aw, crap,” Ertajj said. “I don’t want to stay here, Juke, it’s hot and sticky and awful.” “I don’t expect any of you to stay,” Juke said. “But when you leave, I don’t think I will be going with you.” “Nonsense!” Ertajj roared. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Juke. It’s supposed to be us against the rest of the world, don’t you get it?” “It could never be only us forever,” Juke said. “I understand why you’re upset. But this isn’t forever. I just need some time, to figure out who I am.” “I’ll tell you who you are, you’re a fool for wanting to stay here,” Ertajj said. “But you know what? Fine. Whatever. Do whatever you want. We don’t need you.” “I’ll miss you, Ertajj,” said Dahzi. “And I’ll miss you too,” said Juke. “But this isn’t goodbye forever. Just for the time being.” “Crap,” Ertajj said. “Well, great. We’ll go have fun without you.” “Don’t be bitter, Ertajj,” Juke said. “Don’t tell me what to do!” Ertajj barked. He scowled at the others and then stormed off. As he was storming off, Theolus came storming up. “What a waste of time. There’s no great mystery here, after all,” he said. “Not even any treasure. Oh, well. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.” “Leaving for where?” Slate asked. “Chreopoint,” Theolus said. “We’ve got to wrap this up.” “Do you even know how to get to Chreopoint?” Slate asked. “Of course,” Theolus answered. “Have you ever actually made it through the jungle before? Slate asked. “Maybe I have, and maybe I haven’t. But I got some directions, anyways,” said Theolus. “You’re a piece of work, Theolus,” said Slate. “Yes,” said Theolus, “The best piece.” The next morning, some of the villagers helped to replenish and repack the visitors’ bags, and a small feast was prepared for their departure. After all in attendance had eaten more than enough, Juke stood up to make a speech. “Please excuse my words, I don’t want to give any of you indigestion,” he began. The group gathered around the long table laughed. “Theolus,” Juke continued, “I must thank you for your help so far. The village offers you this small treasure in thanks.”  A tribeswoman tossed the leathery guide a pouch containing a few pieces of goldquartz. “They said they didn’t have any!” Theolus snorted, before managing a, “Thank you.” “And what can I say about my friends…” Juke began, but he was cut off by Ertajj. “That’s about enough,” Ertajj said, standing up and leaving the table. “I’m sorry he has to be like that, Juke,” Dahzi said. “We’re going to miss you so much.” “It’s alright, he’ll see,” Juke said. “We will meet again.” “Of course we will,” Slate added, though he couldn’t really be sure. After final goodbyes to the Nions, Slate, Dahzi, Ertajj, and Theolus squeezed out of their village, followed closely by Pilotte. “Here we are,” Theolus said when the team reached the banks of the Ojikef River. “Our raft should carry us all the way to Chreopoint.” The raft, a gift from the Nions, was a light-weight craft sewn of hin canvas, thick and durable, wrapped around four hollow wooden tubes. The raft held the weight of the travelers and their provisions well, and it was well-balanced, so that they could move from side to side without sinking any of the raft’s corners too far into the water.
pre

“Do you know anything about
rafting?” Slate asked Theolus.

“Probably just as much as he
knows about hiking through the jungle,” said Ertajj.

“Shut it,” Theolus ordered
Ertajj.

“Why are we still listening
to this guy, anyways?” Ertajj asked.

“Listen, I may have been
heading the wrong way, but I would have gotten us to Chreopoint,
okay?” Theolus said. “The heavy storms changed things… the
landscape looked a lot different, alright? I’m going to see you
out, you can take my word for it.”

“Well I won’t be
recommending you to any of my friends,” said Ertajj.

“Pity,” Theolus said
sarcastically. “Now, come on. We’re going to need to cooperate to
get to Chreopoint. We’ll all have to follow my paddle orders,
whether you think I’m capable or not. Cooperation is just how
rafting works.”

“We’ll listen, Theolus,”
Slate said. “Just, please, do your best?”

“Thank you, but I don’t need
you telling me how to do my job,” Theolus said. “Alright. Let’s
push off the bank. On three.”

The boat slid down the silty banks and into
the bubbling river and started its way downstream.

16

 

 

 

 

The trip was easy and unremarkable at first.

There was a long stretch of the trip that wasn’t rafting at all,
where the river disappeared under rock. Other than this section
when the team had to portage the light raft, there was little to
complain about. The crew was able to enjoy exotic bird-watching and
the food that the Nions had sent with them. The raft swam slowly
down the course of the Ojikef River, sharing the languid pace of
the puffy clouds drifting overhead. On either side, the banks were
unbroken green walls of vines, leaves, and trees. Endless,
thousands of trees.

Two days passed by almost without incident,
save for a brief terror on the second night, when the team was
startled from sleeping at their campsite along the banks by a wild
lart that nestled in to sleep with them. Pilotte caught the animal
as it tried to run away, which made for a delicious breakfast the
next morning.

On the third day, without warning, the raft
came to a three-way split in the river.

“Which way?” Slate asked
Theolus.

The guide didn’t look to have an immediate
answer.

“…The one on the right,” he
said after a few seconds of thought.”

“Are you sure about that?”
Ertajj asked him.

“Sure I’m sure,” Theolus
said, his face belying his words.

Not fifty feet later, a rapids broke up the
smooth course of the river. Smooth, water-carved boulders along the
sides of the river abruptly gave way to sharper rocks. Roots and
fallen trees started to clutter the river, creating whirlpools and
dams that pulled at the raft. Seeing that the going was getting
more dangerous, Theolus ordered the others to began securing down
supplies.

“And you’re sure this is the
right way?” Ertajj asked again.

“Just do what I tell you and
we’ll be alright,” Theolus said, avoiding eye contact.

The crew was strapping packs and oars into
canvas holsters when the raft experienced the river’s first major
drop in elevation.

“Drop!” hollered Theolus,
noticing the drop only split seconds before it came.

Ertajj nearly fell out of the raft as it
dropped some three feet or so through the air into a churning mess
of bubbles and froth. Dahzi managed to reach out and grab him,
hanging onto the raft by grabbing hold of one of the oars with his
other hand. Ertajj briefly got stuck in an eddy that spun him
around and around and tried its best to pull him from Dahzi’s grip.
Thankfully, the eddy wasn’t strong enough to hold him, and spat him
out after a few rotations. Slate helped Dahzi pull Ertajj back
onboard, just before Theolus announced another drop coming up.

“Tie yourselves down!
Quickly!” Theolus said.

The front half of the raft lurched out over
the edge of what was revealed to be not just another drop in the
river, but more of a small waterfall. The raft sat there on the
edge of the falls for some time, teetering and threatening to dump
its contents into the chasm below. Pilotte seemed poised to jump,
torn between staying with Slate and making the jump to shore that
only he could manage. Further and further the raft reached out from
the upper stream of the falls, until its bottom could hold the
horizon no longer, and then for a brief time all the crew could see
was the water below, as they plunged down into it with the raft
tied to their limbs.

Mid-drop, the raft somehow managed to
overtake the crew. It cut into the waiting water at the bottom of
the falls like a diving bird, smooth and swiftly, and the crew was
pulled down with its trajectory, their vision obscured by a white
wash of bubbles. For one clear moment, Slate saw the underwater
world around him, how close the sides of the raft were to slabs of
rock which surely could have destroyed it had it fallen just the
slightest bit to the right or left. And then the buoyancy of the
raft caught up with its dive and pulled it back out of the water,
and the four tethered passengers were yanked from underwater. The
punishingly loud sound of storms of water bashing down on the rocks
all around them drowned their screams.

The raft then managed to bump and spin and
slide just so off the lurching, angular stones at the base of the
falls, down a bit further along the river to where there was a
calmer current. The crew was of course pulled along the same lucky
route that the raft found, all the while thrashing and struggling
to get back on top of the craft and gasping for air. Pilotte, the
only member of the team free from the raft’s direction, was
paddling along behind the others, a look of frightened panic in his
eyes. Between being plunged below the current and surging up above
it, Slate saw the look in his wulf’s eyes. He had never seen such
fear there. He looked to try and make contact with one of the other
crew members, but the confusion was too great. Slate tried
desperately to climb back into the raft using one of the oars as a
ladder, but the oar became lodged somewhere between two invisible
rocks below the water’s surface and it split before being torn from
his grip by the angry undercurrent.

Slate wondered for the briefest moment why
the Theolus had taken the crew on such a dangerous course, but the
thought didn’t last long. None could, as he tried to make sense of
the churning world before him. He thought he saw that the river
ended, not too far ahead, but this didn’t make any sense. Not in a
delta, or at a merging with another river, instead it looked as if
the river just stopped, as if it reached the end of the world.
Beyond it was nothing but clear blue sky, without even the
slightest wisp of cloud. If what was ahead was another waterfall,
then the drop the raft was approaching must have been great indeed.
But Slate couldn’t hear any roar of water indicating this was
so.

The water became more calm, and the four
crewmen managed to partially or totally pull themselves into the
raft. Theolus was just standing up for a clearer view of their
destiny ahead when the raft met the seeming end of the river. He
ripped an oar from its binding and jammed it into the crack of a
rock in the middle of the stream to temporarily halt the movement
of the raft.

“In boys, hurry, get in!” he
cried.

He helped Ertajj finish his way into the
raft, and Slate helped Dahzi. It was then that the whole crew had a
moment to see the ground below, so very far below, with thousands
of jungle trees stretching out from the river banks miles off into
the distance. There was at least sixty feet of falling water
waiting just ahead of the precariously perched raft.

“What are we going to do?”
Dahzi cried.

Theolus had nothing to say.

The oar, the only thing precluding the raft
from continuing, groaned and snapped. The raft rode clear to the
edge of the soaring waterfall, slipped around backwards, and then
launched off into the air. It actually stayed level for some while,
and the crew experienced the odd sensation of riding the air as if
on a sled. They were able to peer over its edges and see the trees
as clustered by kind, and all the tributaries of the raging river.
And up above, along the edge of the fall, was Pilotte, howling as
he watched them shrink from view. But then the raft tipped, and
began turning top-over-bottom, faster and faster, with its crew all
the while trapped inside. The wind whipped and battered the
airborne raft, as green turned to blue then to green over and again
and again for the terrified passengers. And then they and the raft
met the river below with a resounding, thunderous smack.

The air was knocked out of Slate’s lungs as
the raft blew apart from its impact with the water. Suffocating
now, he was hopelessly trapped in the ratty folds of the
disintegrated raft with the others, as the hollow logs that had
previously been its sides met and enveloped them into the raft
under the force of the water. Slate fought against the canvas and
the water with wild rage, as did the others, but the forces around
him proved impossible for them to assail. Slate began to cry with
frustration, to suffer the kicks and punches of the others
struggling to free themselves, then saw red, and then purple, which
finally faded to black. His fingers stopped working, and then Slate
felt an odd moment of relief, before his other senses faded to
nothingness.

When he regained consciousness, he was lying
on a rock in the middle of the river. Ertajj was splayed next to
him, breathing, but still unconscious. Dahzi was on a smaller rock
across the way, but Theolus was nowhere to be found.

“Ertajj?” Slate asked.

“Ertajj?”

There was no response. When Slate went to sit
up, a deep, stinging pain shot across his back. He winced and bore
it, and managed to get on top of the slippery rock.

“Dahzi?” he called across
the water.

Dahzi mumbled something in response.

“Dahzi, are you okay?” Slate
asked.

The prince pushed himself up with his arms
and looked around to see who was calling him.

“Slate,” he said, “Are we
dead?”

“No,” Slate answered. “I
don’t think so.”

“Where’s Pilotte?” Dahzi
asked, now pulling himself up to sitting.

Slate searched the banks of the river. “I
don’t know,” he said despondently.

Ertajj shook and coughed water out of his
lungs, then gasped for air as he flailed on the rock in the middle
of the river.

“Ertajj!” Slate cried,
falling to his side.

Ertajj continued to cough and wheeze until he
could breathe regularly.

“Good Gods,” he said,
panting. “What the hell.”

“You alright?” Slate asked
him.

“I guess, considering,”
Ertajj answered.

“No broken bones for
anyone?” Slate asked.

The three searched themselves, and,
miraculously, none of them had been severely injured, beyond
scrapes and bruises.

“Where’s that bastard
Theolus?” Ertajj asked. “I’m going to kill him.”

“He’s nowhere in sight,”
Slate said. “Neither is Pilotte.” Suddenly remembering his pack, he
realized it, too, was gone. “And neither are any of our
supplies.”

“Great,” Ertajj groaned.

“Well, no reason to sit here like a couple of waterwomen. Let’s get
the hell out of this damn river.”

The water was fairly calm, and so the three
were able to reach the banks of the river easily. The assessed each
others’ torn clothes and beaten bodies and exchanged sorrowful
looks.

“That son of a bitch,”
Ertajj said. “I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but if Theolus
is in fact dead, well, the river did the job I would have. Idiot
had no idea where he was going.”

“I really don’t think he
did,” Dahzi agreed.

“I’m sure they told him
about the split in the river, he just probably didn’t listen,” said
Ertajj.

“I can’t believe we lost
Pilotte,” Slate said.

“Well, we know he’s alive. I
mean, I saw him watching us fall. Did any of you?” Ertajj
asked.

Dahzi and Slate nodded.

“Still awful, though,”
Ertajj said. “Now he’s alone, and we’re easy prey.”

“What are we going to do?”
Dahzi asked.

“Well, we should follow the
river,” Slate said. “It’ll lead us out of here.”

“How much longer do you
think it is?” Ertajj asked.

“No idea,” said Slate. “But
keep an eye out for fish, or plants you recognize as
edible.”

“Great,” Ertajj said. “This
is just great.”

The three walked along in silence until they
came to the wreckage of their raft, caught in a root system along
the riverside.

“It’s completely shredded,”
Dahzi observed.

“But, look!” Ertajj said
happily. He ran to the side of the river. “I need a long stick,” he
said.

Slate found him one, which Ertajj used to
fish out a pack caught up in the tangle of wreckage.

“It’s my pack!” Ertajj said.

He opened the soaking bag and dumped its contents out. “Which means
we’ve got something to eat! I mean, the bread’s ruined, but we can
salvage the meat, and the zans.”

“Well that’s some good
news,” Slate said. “There’s a decent amount of food
there.”

As the three ate a little of the food,
careful to conserve their rations, Slate wondered what he was going
to tell Guh Hsing about the books he had lost.

“So, your delivery to Aurora
Falls isn’t going to get there, is it?” Ertajj asked, echoing what
was on Slate’s mind.

“No, I don’t think it will,”
Slate said. “I feel terrible about it.”

“Nobody to blame but
Theolus,” Ertajj said. “Seriously, what a moron.”

“Come on, now,” Dahzi said.

“He’s probably dead. No need to beat a dead moron.”

Ertajj chuckled. “Still.”

“Well, what are we going to
do now?” Slate asked.

“I’m going home as soon as I
find a road that leads there,” Dahzi said. “I think I’ve had enough
adventure.”

“I’m still invited?” Ertajj
asked Dahzi.

“Of course you are. You,
too, Slate,” said Dahzi.

“Thank you,” Slate said.

“But first, I’ve got to go tell my friend in Aurora Falls what
happened.”

“That’s still pretty far
away,” Ertajj said. “Why not just skip it?”

“I can’t,” Slate said.

“He’ll be expecting me.”

“Expectations aren’t always
met,” Ertajj said.

“I know, but I have to go,”
said Slate. “It’s the only reason I’m on Proterse at
all.”

“Reasons change,” Ertajj
said. “Maybe your real reason for being here was to meet
us!”

“I’m sure that’s a happy
coincidence,” Slate said. “But that delivery was really
important.”

“Fine, fine,” Ertajj said.

“But Dahzi’s family will treat us well. You know he’s a
prince?”

“What?” Slate
asked.

“That’s right, he’s a
prince. An honest-to-goodness, about-to-inherit-a-kingdom prince,”
Ertajj said.

Slate looked to Dahzi, who nodded
sheepishly.

“Where you think he got all
that money?” Ertajj asked. “He just likes to slum it with the likes
of us. Don’t’ you, Dahzi?”

“I certainly wasn’t ready to
be a King when I left home. But I think I’ve seen enough of the
world now. I’m ready to go home,” said Dahzi.

“That’s incredible,” Slate
said.

“Yep. The kingdom of Morai,
it’s all going to be his,” Ertajj said.

“That’s pretty impressive,
Dahzi,” said Slate.

“Eh. I happen to be born
into it. That’s all,” said Dahzi. “I just hope I’ll be a good
ruler.”

“I’m sure you will,” Ertajj
said. “Being concerned about it is probably a good sign you will
be. Anyways, you boys all done? We should get a
move-on.”

“All done,” said
Dahzi.

“Sure,” Slate said, looking
back up the river as if he might spot Pilotte if he looked hard
enough.

The three walked all day and then found an
overhang to sleep under when the night became too dark. The next
day they rose with the noisy jungle and continued along the river
bank, talking and generally having high spirits despite their
situation.

After lunch, during which most of the rest of
their food stores were depleted, the banks of the river became
congested with trees that made hugging the exact side of the
waterway impossible. The three were forced deeper into the darker
jungle.

“I don’t like it in here as
much,” Ertajj said, tugging at a difficult vine.

“No,” Dahzi said. “Me
neither.”

The way grew tighter and tighter, the
greenery closing in on all sides and choking out the sun overhead.
Huge insects crawled around the tight passageway, chittering and
tickling the strangers to the jungle with their long antennae and
hundreds of feet.

Something huge started moving through the
growth alongside the three travelers.

“What is that?” Ertajj
asked.

“No idea,” said Slate. “Try
to keep your voices down.”

The farther the three went, the closer the
mystery in the nearby jungle came. The noise of breaking branches
and snapping vines grew to almost as loud as the fateful waterfall
before, and then, in a small clearing, the source of the cacophony
showed itself.

“Pilotte!” Slate cried,
overjoyed.

The wulf tried turning around in the small
clearing, but could hardly. When it did, Slate was doubly surprised
to see his sack of books dangling from the animal’s mouth.

“And my delivery!” Slate
said.

“Unbelievable,” remarked
Ertajj.

Slate jumped on the wulf and scratched him
all over.

“I was so scared I was never
going to see you again!” he said, welling up with tears. “Oh,
Pilotte, I’m so glad you found me!”

The wulf seemed happy but annoyed with the
claustrophobic surroundings.

“I know it’s terrible in
here, right?” Slate said. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

The wulf took the lead, burrowing a tunnel
wide enough for the others to easily follow through after.

It wasn’t long before the tight stand of
impassable trees on the riverbank broke, and the four travelers
were able to walk along the water once more.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Slate
asked his friends.

“Honestly, yes,” Ertajj
answered. “But we’re still in the jungle, I’m afraid.”

“Much safer with Pilotte
here, thought,” Dahzi said.

“Doubtless,” Ertajj agreed.

“I just wonder how much further we have to go. That’s another very
large mouth we have to feed.”

“Well, if a snarlingwulf can
find you in the middle of a jungle, perhaps there’s reason for
optimism,” said Slate.

“You go ahead with that,”
Ertajj said. “I’ll carry the pessimism until we find a way out of
here.”

That way out came a few hours later, when the
team spotted a watermill set up along the Ojikef River.

“We’re saved!” Ertajj was
the first to exclaim.

“Thank goodness,” Dahzi
said. “My legs are killing me.”

“Better that than a jungle
cat,” said Slate. “Let’s see if anyone’s home.”

There wasn’t, but there was a road leading
from the mill out of the jungle and onto a wide plain.

“Aaah,” Slate said
overlooking the plain. “Look at all that treeless
wonder.”

Ertajj smiled and grabbed Dahzi’s arm. “Have
you ever seen anything so beautiful?” he asked.

“Maybe once or twice,” Dahzi
answered. “I’ll be really happy when we find an inn.”

“Let’s do that, then,” said
Ertajj. “Down the road, boys! Down the road to dinner!”

The four came to a small village named Marsh
Hallows, which they were surprised to learn wasn’t far from
Chreopoint. They located an inn there, run a sweet old couple who
were happy to listen to their tale of adventure and feed and house
them for the night.

{color:#000;}
When the morning came, there was a small breakfast already waiting in the guest room. “I’m so ready to go home,” Dahzi said, buttering a biscuit. “I never thought I’d say that.” “I could use some time in one place, myself,” said Ertajj. “Morai sounds like a good oasis.” “So we’ll split up today, then,” Slate said sadly. “Only for a bit,” said Ertajj. “You go complete your delivery, then come see us.” “How will I find you?” Slate asked. “Morai is the only kingdom left on the continent,” Dahzi answered. “Our people have never wanted a change to democracy or republic like the rest of Proterse. So it’ll be easy to find; just ask about.” “How far is it from Aurora Falls?” Slate asked. “Not far,” Dahzi answered. “Maybe a day or two.” “Watch yourself, though,” said Ertajj. “The closer you get to Opal Pools, the worse.” “Why’s that?” Slate asked. “Because,” Ertajj answered. “Those people are fascist.” “Really?” Slate asked. “Well, I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere other than Aurora Falls, then back to… Morai? Is that right?” “That’s right,” Dahzi said. “Come see us and we’ll treat you to some real luxury.” “I definitely will,” Slate said. “Thanks for coming with me through the Ojikef. Sorry it was such an ordeal.” “An ordeal to remember for a lifetime,” Ertajj said. “Would never have done it without you.” The friends said goodbye to one another outside the inn and parted ways. Slate stopped before a turn in the road to look back and see Ertajj and Dahzi getting into a carriage, then watched the carriage disappear behind a cloud of dust kicked up by the horses carrying it. “It’s just you and me again, buddy,” Slate said to Pilotte, who smiled.
pre

17

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    Following directions from the innkeepers, Slate and Pilotte reached Chreopoint three hours after leaving Marsh Hallows. They made their way to the Halo River, and found one of the many readily available transports heading north to Aurora Falls. Slate paid the fare, bought food for him and Pilotte at one of the markets along the waterfront, boarded, and was well north of Chreopoint by mid-afternoon. Slate lost count of how many cities the riverboat passed while he sat on the deck. Some were large, most were small, but all had their own character, and a thousand stories for Slate to read to pass the time. Just before reaching Aurora Falls, four days after leaving Chreopoint, the riverboat reached the famous Vascian Canal. It took twenty thousand laborers working all year long to maintain the canal, which ran the last thirty-eight miles of the Halo River to Aurora Falls. The Halo’s natural course was to flow into the underground aquifers underneath Aurora Falls and then out into the ocean, but the canal had rerouted it, bringing it above ground and level with the Ojikef Delta. The city of Aurora Falls had grown up around the canal and was still growing, the hundreds of passing ships bringing new people and ideas to the burgeoning place daily.  After waiting for a shipping vessel to pass through the canal, Slate’s riverboat was given clearance to enter, and it came into port at Aurora Falls not soon after. Slate and Pilotte disembarked, and Slate asked for directions from a brestle stand. He was pointed downtown. The waterfalls from which the city got its name poured down from the heights of the surrounding Lentini Mountains. Spanning the deep gorges carved by the waterfalls were hundreds of bridges, which coursed Slate and Pilotte into the heart of the city where all roads converged like spokes of a wheel. Slate bought some unidentifiable but flavorful meats on sticks from a cart, one for himself and three for Pilotte. After devouring the mystery meat, Slate learned from the vendor that the Green Cat was just two blocks away. Slate left Pilotte in a comfortable, shady resting spot beneath a brum tree and opened the door to the Green Cat, spilling light into the dark space and eliciting annoyed groaning and grunting from the clientele. He apologized for stumbling over a number of chairs as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. When he could see more clearly, he found his way to the bar. “Hello, I’m looking for a Kit Evory?” he asked the bartender. “Who’re you?” the bartender asked without glancing up from his ledger. “I’m Slate Ahn. I’m a friend of Guh Hsing, from Airyel…” The bartender straightened up and cut Slate off with an open hand. “No way. You really made it. Slate Ahn, good to meet you,” he said. “Kit Evory. Welcome to town. Guh Hsing goes by Num Ochre around these parts. Here, come on back.” The bartender raised a hinged section of the counter for Slate to pass through, and then the two went through a beaded curtain separating the bar and a cramped back room where Kit slept and ignored his housekeeping. “Is this where you live?” asked Slate. “Yes, sometimes,” Kit said. “Sleep here sometimes. But I live everywhere. You live everywhere you go, don't you?” “Ah, yes. You certainly sound like Guh’s friend,” Slate said. “Or, Num, now, I guess.” “Num Ochre, that’s right.” “Why did he change his name?” asked Slate. “No reason we should talk about here, in such loose company,” Kit said, glancing out through the curtain into the front of the bar. “Anyways, we’re glad you’re here. Very glad. We thought you were lost for good. Expected you weeks ago.” “Yeah, sorry for the delay,” Slate said. “Some things came up. I’m just here to meet with Num. Where is he?” “I get it, I get it,” Kit said, as if he was playing along. "So where have you been for so long?” Slate thought, then answered, “Chreopoint, actually.” "Alright, alright. Not much for conversation, I get it. Old Num-nuts should be up on South Drought Place, at eight-seven-six.” “Is that far from here?” “No, not at all. Just follow the main western crux and it’ll be the fourteenth or fifteenth Street. Make a left there. Eight-seven-six South Drought Place.” “Thank you, Kit," Slate said. "Now, if you'll forgive me, I've got to be going.” “So soon? Come on, before you leave, couldn’t you just tell me a little bit about why you’re here? What you're bringing? I can’t remember anticipation like this.” “Anticipation? Of what?” “I just told you I don’t know. That’s why I wish you’d tell me!” “Tell you what?” “I don’t know,” Kit repeated. “Well, this is going nowhere fast. You’ll have to forgive me, but my business is urgent,” Slate said. “Fine, be like that. Still good to see ya. And tell Num I said he needs to settle his tab.” “Okay, Kit. Thanks for your help.” Slate left the Green Cat to a refrain of groans at the flood of light when he opened the front door. He found Pilotte had been accosted by a group of excited children, who were pulling and jumping on the wulf. Pilotte was withstanding the assault with good humor, but seemed very grateful when Slate chased off the tiny horde. The two then headed off to South Drought Place, to find their old friend with a new name. The building at eight-seven-six was an apartment complex. It was not entirely run-down, but had begun yielding to time; the ledges sagged and bowed, the patches in the concrete were cracking. There was a rusty postal box listing the tenants’ names next to the front entrance. Slate found Num on the list, apartment number thirty-one.  After trekking up two flights of stairs, the young man knocked on Num’s door. Pilotte’s excitement let Slate know that the wulf recognized a familiar smell, and soon the slatted blinds over the door’s window split open. Slate saw a pair of wide eyes peering out at him, and then the blinds snapped shut and the front door opened with a whoosh. “Slate! You made it!” the familiar old face cheered. “Believe it or not, I did,” Slate replied. “Come in!” Num insisted, spittle flying everywhere. He pulled Slate by the arm inside his apartment and slammed the door shut. He had to open it again to let Pilotte in.  “Slate, you can’t call me that name around here,” Num said, checking back out the window to make sure no one was there. “Don’t mention my old name, please.” “Okay, okay. I brought your books. You have no idea what it took to get them here.” “It must have been quite the ordeal! I was expecting you a week ago.” “Yes, yes, I know. Pirates and jungles will hold you up. Anyways, you’re lucky the books made it. I pretty much lost them in the Ojikef. It was only Pilotte here who managed to get them back to me.” “Wonderful!” Num said, taking the heavy package from Slate. “I had feared they were lost! This is possibly greatest thing that has ever happened! But now, you have to leave.” Slate couldn’t believe it. “What? That’s it?” “For now, yes,” Num whispered. He ran to the back window and peeked through the blinds. “Who are you looking for?” Slate asked. “You’ll understand it all, tomorrow, when you come with me to attend the meeting of the Protectorate,” Num whispered. “A Protectorate meeting?” Slate asked. “Yes,” Num said, “Tomorrow. But you have to leave, right now. For the time being.” “Why?" "I can't tell you." "Of course. Where is the meeting?” “I can’t tell you.” “Well there you have it,” Slate sighed. He threw up his arms and started to leave. “Slate, wait! I will take you there, when the time comes. I will summon you. But where will I summon you? Where will you go tonight? You don’t know the town.” “I know the Green Cat. I could stay there. Your friend Kit seems pretty nice. Though, he says you need to pay your bar tab.” “A good friend he is. You’ll be safe with him. Now, go! I’ll call on you tomorrow.” “Alright?” Slate guessed, as Num pushed him and Pilotte back out of eight-seven-six number thirty-one. The door closed, and then reopened just a crack. “And Slate?” Num asked. “Yeah, Num?” “It really is good to see you again!” the old man whispered, before the door closed again. “What do you think about that, Pilotte?” Slate asked his friend as the two descended the stairs to the apartment building. “This world… I tell you.”
pre

Num was present at the Green Cat at precisely
noon the next day. He woke Slate and Pilotte from their rest, and
then the three made their way to the secret location of the
Protectorate’s meeting.

Slate and Pilotte followed Num up the
northernmost streets of Aurora Falls to where the city ceded ground
to the Lentini Mountains. The team climbed two foothills and
crossed three streams where the chilly water came up to their
ankles, then climbed over another hill and passed through a cave
entrance that was completely obscured by pine trees.

The entryway was lit by candles. After that
entryway there stretched a long, dark hallway, in which the young
man lost sight of his guide. The hallway ended in a wide chamber
made bright by two ornate chandeliers. Another passage revealed
itself, spanning off to the right of the wide chamber. The three
followed the passage to its terminus in another, well-lit
chamber.

“Now, you’ll have to leave
Pilotte here,” said Num.

“Why? How much farther are
we going?”

“Just into this next
room.”

“What, is Pilotte going to
tell people what he sees if he goes in there?” Slate
asked.

“Don’t put it past a
snarlingwulf. Now, please, come with me,” Num beckoned. “Pilotte
will be right here the whole time.”

Slate whispered to Pilotte to listen for
cries for help, and then followed Num into the next room. It was
illuminated by mirrors, all positioned to reflect the light of a
central mirror that was catching the rays of the sun passing
through a fissure in the cave ceiling. The space was not only
bright as day, but well decorated, with tapestries, fine wooden
furniture, and sculptures all about the walls and floor.

“What is this place?” asked
Slate.

“This is the Great Library
of Aurora Falls, Slate,” Guh said reverently. “You are standing in
one of the very oldest places on Alm. New Alm, anyways.”

“The oldest places on New
Alm. Okay. So it’s a library? Where are all the books?”

“Come, follow me,” Num
enticed.

Slate followed into another chamber.

Inside, a few people were gathered in conversation. Slate thought
his mind must have been tricking him in the darkness, because he
could have sworn he saw Arianna Falls in a shadow across the cave.
Then the person seemed to notice him too, and as they moved closer,
Slate couldn’t believe what he was seeing: it was Arianna
Falls.

“Guh… Num…” Slate
stuttered.

“You can call me Guh here,
it is safe,” the old man said. “Now, go ahead! I’m sure you want to
talk to your old friend!”

Slate was running to Arianna before Guh had
finished talking. “Arianna!” he called.

{color:#000;}
“Slate!” she called back. The two met and Slate stared as if he were seeing a figment of his imagination. “Go on, poke me. I’m real!” Arianna said. “But… I can’t believe it!” Slate cried. “What are you doing here? How… Do you know Guh Hsing?” “Well, it was only a matter of time before I was indoctrinated into the family business, anyways. I’m one of the Protectorate now.” “Within the past few weeks? How did that happen?” “Just after you left they came looking for the Book. I guess my mother knew they were coming, that’s why she sent it with you. They searched the house, top to bottom, turned it inside out." “Oh, Arianna, that’s terrible.” “It’s okay now. It’s a good thing you had it. After the searches, my mom told my brother and sister and I about how our lineage has protected their volume for hundreds of years. About how it was all coming to a head, how the Books had to be reassembled. I volunteered to drop out of school and fulfill the family duties. Sailed all the way across the ocean. I only met Num yesterday, when I overheard him talking about you. And now you’re really here!” “Well, I mean, I’m just now finishing the delivery your mother sent me on back when I left Aislin. Isn’t that funny?” “Too funny. Did you ever find your father?” “Yes. Well, no, but I learned what happened to him. In Airyel. I learned that he died.” “I’m sorry, Slate.” The young man nodded and gave his best smile. "Well, fathers can't live forever, can they?" “I guess not. Slate, I’ve thought about you every day since you left,” Arianna said. “When I learned Num knew you, and that you would be coming here, it was like a dream. But now you’re really here! We’re really together again!” "You don't know how good it feels to see you," Slate said. "After all I've been through since we parted, seeing you makes me feel like I'm home again." "Well then, welcome home, Slate!" Arianna said. She grabbed and squeezed him. "I hope you'll stay longer this time." Slate told Arianna all the details of his journey after leaving Aislin, about Pilotte, about the pirates and Hatty, and all that had transpired in the jungle with his new friends. He learned that Brit had joined the Green Shield, and that Mart was still in school, and claimed that she always would be. Mrs. Falls was still teaching and baking, trying to maintain a normal way of life despite the searches. Slate and Arianna talked for almost an hour, so happy to see each other that they didn’t notice the rest of the chamber had started to clear out. It wasn’t until Num startled them out of their reverie that they remembered where they were.  “I don’t want to interrupt, but I have to… interrupt,” Num said. “We are about to meet! Please, follow me.”  He started toward an ornately carved stone entryway across the chamber. “Here it comes. So what exactly do you do as a member of the Protectorate?” Slate asked Arianna, as they followed after Num. “I’m not entirely sure yet, really,” Arianna admitted. “I made the trip here from South Airyel along with a woman named Kia something-or-other, from Magri, and another man who takes this whole thing really seriously and wouldn’t even tell me his name. Though we all had the one brief meeting here yesterday, I can’t say that I know why we were summoned. Even my mother didn’t know. But I’m pretty sure it has to do with the Books being brought back together.” “Yes, I’m most interested to see this all explained myself,” Slate said, just before the two passed through the entryway into the secret meeting. On the other side was the most decorated room in the underground complex. Around it, pillars carved from the stone vaulted up to a great dome, which was covered with fading murals of hooded figures holding books. The room was lit by dozens of small lanterns, which allowed Slate to discern a circular table in the middle of the space, hollow in its center. Encircling this table was a bench, upon which the mostly elderly crowd was seated, all leafing through papers and scrolls. When word got around that Slate had entered the room, applause went up in his honor. Slate blushed, and Arianna gave him a look that amounted to saying, "Well, aren’t you something?" before a woman in purple robes stood and began to speak. “And this must be Slate Ahn, celebrated deliverer of the final volumes of the Book of Knowledge!” she proclaimed, inciting more applause. “Slate, it is an honor to have you here,” the woman in purple continued. “You have come so far, and done such a service to both the Protectorate and humanity. We will be forever grateful for your deeds. They will be recorded and celebrated for years to come!” “Thank you,” Slate said awkwardly, unsure of how to receive his praise. He took a quick seat with Arianna on a bench sitting along the cave wall. “Yes, greatest thanks to this incredible young man, Slate Ahn,” continued the robed woman, “Who has brought to us the last volumes all the way from their hiding places on Aelioanei. He has ensured the continuance of our lineage of protection!” “In the name of AlriFal, thanks to Slate Ahn!” one of the old men cried out to the wall, as he was obviously blind. After a third round of congratulations circled the table, attention turned away from the young man. Though to Slate it seemed a bit anticlimactic, a feeling of release and satisfaction washed over him when the room’s attention shifted fully to the woman in the purple robes. “And now,” she said theatrically, “We begin: So it shall be written that in the year 392 AW, nearly four hundred years after humanity’s reemergence, a complete set of the Books of Knowledge was reassembled at the Library of Aurora Falls, under the jurisdiction of the fourteenth generation of the Protectorate.” With these words, the woman pulled a dark green cloth off the table, revealing a complete, seven-book set of the Books of Knowledge underneath. The room gasped. “Praise to the gods!” a woman clad in black called out. “My great-grandfather, Calumetz, if only he could have seen this!” All of the eyes in the cave were fixed hungrily on the books. There was such a palpable feeling of lust for the inanimate objects on the table that Slate couldn’t help but think it was funny. Here were fully-grown people, many over-grown, sitting about in robes in a dark cave, ogling indecipherable, ancient books. “Indeed, what would any of our parents’ generations say?” the purple-robed woman asked the congregation. “It was never to come to this. To war. But time erases all impossibilities and creates new necessity. As for the stark reality of things: We know that certain factions in the east, centered in Opal Pools, have already deciphered two of these Books of Knowledge. The long wait is over. Our old ways have become insufficient.” “Aye, aye!” chorused the members of the Protectorate. “And believe me,” the woman in purple said, “It pains me to see a way that has served us since the Fall succumb to the desires of basest man. But these are the times in which we are living. Now, we must begin the task of redefining the Protectorate for our future.” At this, she uncovered another, smaller stack of texts from under a black cloth. “I have not shared this with many of you before today, but it is certainly the biggest news I bring: My friends, not only have we been able to reconstitute this complete set of the Books of Knowledge, we have also obtained a key to their translation.” The room fell silent. Breaking the silence, one of the old men gasped, “But we are not to decipher them! That is the work of evil!” “It is our only option,” the woman in purple explained. “Opal Pools has begun to manufacture untold weapons of mass destruction using the information in the Books. Weapons they could use to subjugate the rest of the world.” “But the prophecies warn against reading the text!” another man cried. “A portal to the other world may open if we try, it may spell the end of Alm!” “And none of us doubt the prophecy,” the woman in purple agreed. “But there is another prophecy, one of a greater sadness than the Fall, should the ambition in Opal Pools go unchallenged.” Looking over to Arianna, Slate was relieved to find her face as full of disbelief as his own. Summoning all of his self-control to remain silent, the young man continued to listen to the talk about ancient prophecy wrapped in so many years and layers of formality and self-importance. Even if Opal Pools had cracked the code of the ancient books, Slate couldn’t discern from the conversation how or why this could or would inevitably lead to destruction. He listened hard for evidence amidst the ramblings of the elders, but heard little other than fear. “I feel that we should translate the books! Regardless of prophecy!” said a woman draped in orange silk. “It was not in the prophecy that the Book should be assembled again, and here we are, so obviously the prophecy has changed. It is now imperative that we study the Book, to learn what Opal Pools may know. We must meet them head-on in the upcoming war for the minds of men.” Arianna questioned the veracity of this claim to Slate with one raised eyebrow. “No, it cannot be, it cannot be!” another woman said. “Our minds cannot comprehend the information; it is the knowledge of the Gods. We are not supposed to read, we are not supposed to know. It will drive us mad!” “Then what is to be done?” asked the woman in orange, before all eyes turned back to the woman in purple. “It was paramount that the Book should be reassembled here,” she said. “It was a hope beyond greatest hope; one I’m sure many of us believed an impossibility. Now that the impossible has happened, our plan must be decided. We must carefully choose our next move.” “I say we burn them, burn them all right now, with the translation and the maps and everything else!” called a voice from the darkness. “We cannot act so rashly,” the woman in purple said. “After so many centuries, the fate of these Books should not be decided in haste. We instead shall discuss what is to be done, for as long as we need to. Until we are all agreed on what the next course of action should be.” The rest of the assembly gave lukewarm assent. Following a strange recitation in a language Slate had never heard before, the Books were again covered with green cloth, to the chanting of the phrase, “Re-ta-ta.” At the end of the chant, the woman in purple blew out the three black candles next to the shroud covering the Books, and the room fell into animated conversation. Slate found no reason to join in the chatter, nor did Arianna. Num was so taken with discussion that he didn’t notice when the two slipped out of the labyrinthine cave structure, back out into the sunshine falling on the Lentini Mountains. Pilotte had already made his way out to the pine grove that hid the cave entrance, and Slate and Arianna found him there, chasing after a flutterby. “Pilotte!” Arianna shrieked as the wulf covered her with kisses. “He’s the real reason my delivery made it here,” Slate said. “He’s a good Pilotte, isn’t he?” Arianna asked, scratching the happy animal across its chest. “Could you even believe all that in there?” “Hardly. It was like I was in the Cave back home or something. What a bunch of old wizards!” “What do you think about it all, what they were saying? About the Books, about Opal Pools?” “It just seems so far removed from reality,” Arianna said. “But my mom tells me it’s all true. I guess it’s all real.” "And what's this I keep hearing about a weapon of incredible destruction?" Slate asked. "I really have no idea," Arianna said. "But my brother Brit is convinced of it. He even joined up with the Green Shield friends." “But what's the weapon for?" Slate asked. "It just doesn't make any sense. I can’t see how the Books would be relevant today. For example, imagine if you and I wrote down all the things we knew from all our books today, from all the books in your library back home, everything, if everybody did. The result would just be an encyclopedia. And I’ve read a lot of encyclopedias. Even in the very newest ones, some of the information is outdated. How could a book hundreds of years old be any better?" “I tend to agree with you, Slate,” Arianna said. “I think the Protectorate has been so wrapped up in their importance for so long that any and all sense has escaped their minds on the matter. It’s become like a religion; they don’t question it. And I was just born into it. At least the whole ordeal brought me here to you.” “Which I am extremely grateful for. I’m really interested in this place, Opal Pools,” Slate said. “What could possibly be happening there that could be such cause for alarm, anyways? I just can’t imagine. I mean, what have you heard about it? Could it really be such a bad place?” “I don’t know much about Opal Pools, really. It’s a subject that many people are uncomfortable talking about. You bring it up and you get sneered at. As if not mentioning them will make them go away. I've only heard that they are very technologically advanced.” “What's wrong with that? Why is the Protectorate and everyone else so fearful of them?” Slate wondered. “I wish I knew. I’d like to make a trip to Opal Pools myself, to see the truth with my own eyes.” Slate lit up. “Arianna, what are your plans after the meeting here is concluded?” he asked. “I’m not really sure,” Arianna said. “I don’t know what my obligations will be. I want to go back to my mother eventually, of course, but other than that, I’m not sure. Why?” “I’d like to go back to Aelioanei again as well,” Slate said. “But, you know, seeing as we’re so close to Opal Pools anyways…” Arianna's smile took over her face. “Slate, are you asking me on an adventure?” “That depends. Would you be interested in going to Opal Pools?” “Yes! Oh, Slate, yes! Absolutely!” Slate was overjoyed at the prospect of setting out on a new quest with Arianna. “Great! And then we can go see my friends in Morai, before we go back home. You sure you want to come?” he asked. “Of course I do,” Arianna answered. “Oh, we're going to have so much fun! I’m not ready to say goodbye again, Slate Ahn, not for a long while.” “Well good,” Slate said. “Because you don’t have to.”
pre

 

18

{color:#000;}
    Slate stayed with Arianna for two nights in Aurora Falls, at an inn where they had all expenses covered by the Protectorate. Num stopped by the inn twice, to tell the pair how the Protectorate meetings were going and how frustrated he was by the proceedings. The way he told it, the Protectorate’s discussion over the books had broken down into squabbling, or, in Num’s exact words, nothing of substance at all. Still, it was quite a shock, when on the third day, Num came frantically pounding on Arianna’s door. “Hello… Num?” Slate groaned as he answered. “Slate,” Num gasped, his eyes wide, “Let me in, quickly!” “Who is it?” called Arianna from her comfortable position under the covers. “Quickly!” Num insisted. “They’ll find out soon if they haven’t already!” Slate lifted the door latch to let Num in. The old man pushed past him and slammed the door shut. He was shaking and sweaty, and carrying a large, green sack over his shoulder. His bony knees were buckling under its weight. “Num, what’s going on? What have you got there?” asked Slate. “Hello, Num,” said Arianna, drawing herself upright with a yawn and a stretch. “Arianna, hello. Slate! Listen, we have to get out of here, quickly! Or, rather, the both of you have to get out of here, with these,” Num said, heaving his green sack into Slate’s unready arms. “Ooof!” Slate exclaimed, staggering backwards under the weight. “What’s in here, bricks?” “The Books! The Protectorate can’t be trusted with them,” raved Num, as he darted across the room to lift the corner of a curtain for a peek at the courtyard below. “The Books?” Arianna repeated, looking to Slate for an explanation. “The Books?” Slate gasped, realizing what Num meant. He threw a cupped hand over his mouth. “What, all of them?” he asked more quietly. “What happened, did you steal them?”  “No, I did not steal them,” Num said. “I reclaimed them! There are holes in the fabric of the Protectorate… we have been infiltrated, Slate! It is the end of a four-hundred-year secret. They can no longer by trusted. Now, the Book of Knowledge and its destiny is yours. Their next chapter begins with you!” Slate was stunned. “What on Alm am I supposed to do with them?” he asked. Just then, a clamor of voices could be heard shouting outside. “They’re coming!” whispered Num. “I don’t know how they found me here, but they did! Run, Slate, Arianna, please, run! You must protect the Books now, whatever happens!” “But where, how?” Slate wondered in exasperation. “That I cannot tell you. Just far from here!” Num said, his eyes wide with worry. “But what will happen to you?” Slate asked. “It doesn’t matter! Guh, Num, I’m not important. I never was. It is the knowledge that matters! Please, I will distract them, please,” he wheezed, as if with his last breath. “Run, now!” Slate and Arianna exchanged looks of disbelief for a brief second, before Num threw his frail body between them. “Run!” the old man commanded, with as much force as he had left in his withered frame.  At the insistence of the old man's watery eyes, Slate tied his boots on hurriedly and slung the heavy green sack over his shoulder. Pilotte had already taken the lead, hopping out a rear window. After a wordless goodbye with Num, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte fled the inn and Aurora Falls. “What is your mother going to say about this?” Slate asked Arianna as they raced through the streets. “I don’t know that we should tell her!” Arianna answered. The two followed Pilotte toward the mountain range that rose up between the city and the ocean. Arianna carried both her and Slate’s packs, which together were almost as heavy as the green sack of books on Slate’s shoulders, as they powered their way up the foothills. “You finding us a good escape route, Pilotte?” Slate asked. The wulf looked back confidently, and continued his charge toward the Lentini Mountains. Slate and Arianna’s excitement and energy had begun to wane by the time they came to rest at the top of a waterfall, where they were relieved to find the hidden mouth of a cave, just behind the water. They slipped into the cave to catch their breath. “What are we supposed to do now?” Slate asked, as he sat down on a flat rock. “I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t see that coming,” Arianna answered. “I can’t say that I did it either,” said Slate. They both stared at the bulky, green bag on the cave floor. “What are we going do with them?” Arianna asked. “I don’t know. I thought I was through with the whole ordeal,” Slate grumbled. “Should we try to take them back home, to Aelioanei?” “Maybe. Or maybe we should just bury them, or burn them. It sounds like they cause nothing but trouble.” “No, my mother would be pretty ashamed of me if I did that." “Then what are we to do?” Arianna thought for a moment. “I think taking them home is a good idea. But I would still like to see Opal Pools,” she said. “I don’t see why this should change our plans.” “What about your business with the Protectorate?” Slate asked. “I’m sure they’ll be far too busy with the missing Books to notice I’ve gone." “Hmmm. The Books are heavy. They're only going to make the trip to Opal Pools more dangerous. We could probably just leave them here, in this cave. I'm sure they’d still be here when we came back.” “Really? You think we should do that?” Arianna asked. “No,” Slate sighed. “Not really. We’ll bring them along. But you’re carrying. Just kidding.” “Too funny, Slate,” Arianna groaned. “I don’t think we’re far enough out of town yet. I say we keep going up the mountain.” “Right. Let’s move,” Slate concurred. Faithful Pilotte found the best route, as always, using his mix of intuition and keen nosing. About a half an hour up the mountain later, the wulf located another cave, one much deeper than the first, with several chambers and some evidence of occupation. A small prayer book sat beside a copy of the Way of Things in what looked like had once been a hermit’s retreat. As it seemed to have not been disturbed for quite some time, the friends decided it was a safe place to pass the night. Heavy rains arrived after sunset, growing the waterfalls falling down the Lentini Mountains and creating a curtain that sealed off the cave entrance. Safe and secure in the cave's confines, Slate and Arianna kept close to Pilotte to stay warm through the chilly night. “So, have you ever tried reading one of them?” asked Arianna the next morning, as she tried her best to fit Slate’s gear into her bag without having to discard too much of her own. “No,” Slate said. “They are all written in a dead language. Language of the Gods. It doesn’t make any sense. But the pictures are sure interesting.” “They don’t seem to have anything to do with one another,” Arianna said as she paged carefully through one of the Books. “But we have a translation key now,” Slate said, holding up the small leathern booklet included with the Books. “Well, that changes things, doesn't it? I guess we do.” “Should we try and translate part of one of them?” “Maybe,” Arianna said. “Later. Not now, though. Not until we're far away from Aurora Falls.” “Good idea,” agreed Slate. Once the volume of the waterfall outside the cave had diminished a bit, chirping, dripping, and other fresh sounds of morning came floating through the cave entrance. While Arianna went through her things for a fifth time, reconsidered which of her items were truly essential, Slate started to flip through the maps Num had stolen along with the Books. He studied one of them for a while, and then started to look about the cave. "What is it?" Arianna asked. "What are you looking for?" “You know… I think this is a map of the cave we are in,” Slate answered. “Really? A cave is a cave, isn't it? How can you tell one from another?” “Look, here... The horseshoe falls we climbed up, and these are the four back chambers, over there, and here's the early Protersian symbol for hermit- it’s the same cave!” Arianna came over to join Slate in examining the map. “Huh. I think you’re right,” she said. “What else does it say?” Following Slate’s finger across the map, the two found the Protectorate’s meeting chambers clearly marked. Slate began to say as much, but Arianna nodded that she already understood. The far right corner of the map, representing the mountains to the north of the city, showed another, much larger chamber, a huge space that was apparently connected by underground passageway to the ocean. Slate read the writing on the map, which was in Protersian, aloud. “The Great Mother Mountain, from which New Alm was born.” There were symbols other than the one for ‘hermit’ on the map: across from the Protectorate meeting space was printed the symbol for ‘Book,’ and across the empty space to the north, the phrase ‘The Navel of the World.’ “What do you think that means? Navel of the world?” Arianna asked. “Well, we have only one way of finding out,” Slate said with a wink. "Care to take a detour on the way to Opal Pools?" “Well, look at that. Adventure just follows you around, doesn’t it, Slate?” Arianna asked. “If you want to call it adventure.” “Also, if there was a map with this cave on it, the Protectorate might know about it still. They could come searching any minute. Let’s leave while we can.” The trio left the hermit’s cave following a trail marked on another of their maps up most of the rest of the mountainside and then into a flat, narrow valley. The valley cut through the high peaks of the Lentini Mountains and looked like it never got much sun, which made for a cold, damp trip. After trekking along the valley floor for a while, the travelers began to descend down the other side of the mountain to the ocean below. They came to a point where the trail suddenly ended, dissolving into scree and boulders in the aftermath of an avalanche. Stopping at the broken edge of the path, Slate watched the dust and stones kicked from his shoes fall down the sheer cliff below. “Seems like a dead end," Arianna said. "Seems like it. According to the map, we’re supposed to continue on down that path,” Slate said, pointing at the mess of rock before him. “To where?” Arianna asked. “To there,” Slate answered, now pointing to a distant beach hundreds of feet down the mountainside. “Well, continue down the path we shall,” Arianna said. She surprised Slate by twisting, squatting down on all fours, and beginning a slow crawl across where the trail had once been. “I guess this is actually going to happen,” Slate sighed. He crouched down hesitantly on the end of the trail to start his own descent. Pilotte was as surprised as Slate that they were going to attempt the perilous crawl. The snarlingwulf circled himself many times, whining and hesitating, before eventually following after the others. The day grew hot, with the rising sun at the team’s backs as they worked their way down the mountain at an excruciatingly slow pace, over piles of stones, down through patches of weeds, and then at last to a cliff edge hanging some ten feet above sea level. The soft sand below invited them to jump down, which they did, to fall exhausted at the edge of the foaming ocean. They weren’t there for more than a minute before Arianna noticed something was wrong. “The tide is moving in pretty quickly, isn’t it?” she asked. Slate sat up to examine. “It certainly seems to be… Arianna, look at the rock,” he said, pointing to the sea wall behind them. Arianna looked back at the wall and then to Slate, not understanding what he was trying to show her. “Look at the high water mark,” he said, pointing frantically toward the waterline, which must have been eight feet above where they stood on the beach. “It’s searching season…”  Arianna began to panic as the water inched toward them. “But we can’t go back up, there’s no way! What are we going to do?” she yelped. “How should I know?” Slate asked. “I thought you were used to this sort of thing!” Slate realized the best option would be to run, as fast as he could. Arianna raced after him, with Pilotte close at her side, as the water continued to lap further and further up the beach with every push and pull of the waves. The encroaching tide pressed Slate and Arianna closer and closer to the cliff face, while the goopy, wet sand made their running all the more difficult. A rogue wave leapt out of the water and grabbed Arianna around the ankles, dragging her out to sea. As she went out with the receding curl, the young woman hit against a stone that was jutting from the ocean floor. It caught her by the stomach, and she was able to wrap her arms around it and hold tightly until the wave passed. She dropped from the seastone and swam and slogged as swiftly as she could through the undercurrent, back to the seawall, where Slate was waiting with an outstretched hand. The water now rose at least two feet up the yellow stone of the sea cliff, so high that Slate and Arianna had to use all of their energy to move through its pull. Most of this energy was expended in simply staying upright, and so hardly any headway was made down the beach. Slate swam his hardest when he could no longer walk, but his muscles couldn’t match the unrelenting power of the undertow, and so he began to slow his straining, to try to conserve his energy. He heard Arianna coughing and sputtering, but was completely powerless to help her. After drifting a fair distance out into the ocean, where the water churned less as it got deeper, Slate could see Pilotte dragging Arianna from the surf onto a high beach. He coughed as he watched her get to her feet, and mistakenly inhaled a deep breath of ocean swell. His vision became a wash of bubbles as his lungs took in water. He kicked and strained, unable to expunge the water from his lungs, watched the trail of bubbles rising up to the surface, and then fell unconscious. When he awoke, he was lying next to Arianna on fine, white sand. Pilotte sat nearby, facing the now-calm ocean with a smile. “I couldn’t…” Slate began. “Shhh, just rest,” whispered Arianna. She held out a cup of glint. “Oh, thank you. This is hot. How did you get this hot?” Slate asked, as he took a steamy sip. “And where did you get a cup?” “I told you, I pack with a purpose,” Arianna said. “It looks like the tide will be in all day, so we can’t go anywhere. We’re stuck on this beach.” “How do you know that?” asked Slate.
pre

“One of the maps tells me
so. Look, at the calendar,” Arianna said, pointing to a chart at
the bottom of the map. “It’s searching season, so the tide
differential is just enormous right now. The only time that we can
get to that Navel of the World is going to be either early morning
or late afternoon. See, we’ll have to swim to this entrance, here.
It’s only accessible when the water is at the right level. If we’re
too early, we can’t get in because it’s too high up the sea cliff;
too late, we can’t get in because it’s too far underwater. We have
about a five-minute window in which to make it.”

Slate was impressed with the information
Arianna was able to discern from the tiny map. “You’re a pretty
good interpreter, Arianna,” he said. He looked around the sparse
beach. “And you said that we can’t do anything about it right
now?”

“No, not for a few hours
still.”

“Okay, good,” Slate said.

“So what are we going to do while we wait?”

“We can talk.”

“About what?”

“What was your father like,
Slate?”

“Oh. Well, he was tall. And
funny. And he could be strict, but I think it’s because he had
hard-fixed ideas about the way the world should be. He mainly
wanted the best for everyone. Why do you ask?”

“Because you must be
thinking about him.”

“Oh, I am. I have been. But
there are a lot of other things on my mind right now. And, the way
we are in Alleste, we understand death is a part of life. We don’t
really get too hung up on it.”

“I’m still sorry he’s
gone.”

“Oh, of course. Me too. I
just wish I could have said goodbye. He always taught us it was
important to remember we would all die. So I know he was always
ready for it. And I was, too. But I still would have like the
chance to say goodbye.”

“I had to say goodbye to my
dad for months,” Arianna said. “I don’t think either situation is
ideal.”

“I don’t think there could
be an ideal situation when you’re losing a loved one.”

“No, I don’t suppose there
could be.”

A seabird attracted the attention of Pilotte,
who followed it down the sand.

“Pilotte is an excellent
friend, isn’t he?” Arianna asked.

“He sure is. I’m pretty
lucky to have the two of you with me,” said Slate.

“I’m so glad to be here,”
said Arianna. “More tea?”

“Yes, please,” said
Slate.

Under the warmth of the sun, the two watched
Pilotte chase birds and talked about anything and everything. While
the rest of the world may have been growing more dangerous by the
day, for the trio on that little beach, Alm was still a
paradise.

 

 

19

 

 

 

 

The tide started to roll out again, and
Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte set off along the widening beach to
locate the entrance to the Navel of the World. In half an hour,
they came to a tiny bay surrounded by seawall. Arianna noticed the
timeworn carving of a face at the top of the seawall, consistent
with the map’s description of the cave entrance.

“The entryway should be below that face,”
Arianna said.

“And we have to be in position underneath it
when the tide falls, right?” Slate asked.

“That’s right,” Arianna said. “The way the
water’s moving, that’s going to happen soon. We need to hurry.”

The tide was receding as quickly as it had
come in, and so Slate and Arianna quickly bobbed and paddled
themselves into position underneath the statue and started to tread
water, trying to keep their packs above the water, which was harder
than keeping themselves afloat. The more waterlogged they got, the
less it seemed like Slate and Arianna would be able to hold on.
Pilotte sensed this and swam between them, so they could use him as
a buoy.

It wasn’t too long before the water level had
descended low enough to reveal the cave entrance. The travelers
swam into the space and the water poured out, leaving them on a
smooth stone floor. Jewel-inlaid bas-reliefs were carved into the
frame of a stairway, which lead up from the entryway into darkness,
and elaborate sconces hung from the walls. Though the artworks had
suffered the damage of hundreds of years of the battering ocean,
enough of them remained to stun, executed in geometric patterns and
organic forms as beautiful as the finest masterpieces in
Jaidour.

The tide kept moving out, until the little
bay outside the cave entrance became a rocky beach.

“Well, we’re stuck until the
tide changes again,” Slate said.

“Then it’s up the stairs,
isn’t it? Go on, you first,” Arianna said.

Slate toed hesitantly up the slippery stones.

The staircase was long, so long that it wound up into the darkness
until the light from the entrance could no longer penetrate it.
When he couldn’t see any farther, Slate stopped.

“We have to go back,” he said. “So I can see
where my flares are in my bag.”

“Wait,” Arianna said. “I’ve got a better
idea.”

There was a click, and a yellow flame sprang
to life from Arianna’s hand, sending the shadows fleeing and
revealing the stairwell.

“That’s handy,” Slate remarked.

“I’m glad it still works,” Arianna said. “It
got soaked.”

“Lucky for us,” Slate said. “Let’s keep
going.”

The team continued its way up the stone
steps, pressed close together. The circular passageway eventually
came to a narrow hallway that stretched out beyond the light’s
reach.

“Now what?” Slate asked.

“Let’s check the map before
we go any further,” Arianna said. She fumbled for a moment getting
the soggy map out of her waistbag. “According to this, we should
follow this hallway in front of us.”

“Well, obviously. There’s no
other option. But where does it lead?” asked Slate.

“Navel of the World?”
Arianna wondered.

The narrow hallway was extra slippery on
account of a fuzzy moss growing on its stones and drippy ceilings,
and it made for difficult walking, especially as Slate, Arianna and
Pilotte were huddled so close to one another. They were so
distracted that they reached the end of the hallway without
realizing it. Slate almost fell out into the black void that yawned
open before them, but Arianna sensed his body starting to pitch
forward and managed to grab his shirttail and pull him back. He
fell onto his side with a surprised yelp that echoed loudly around
what must have been a huge space below.

“I think we found the Navel,” he grunted.

“But the hallway ends,”
Arianna said, shining her light down into the nothingness. “I can’t
see a thing.” She unfolded the map again to study it.

“What do you think is down
there?” Slate asked.

“Hand me one of the flares from my bag,” said
Arianna.

“Flares?” Slate asked. “How
are you so well prepared?”

“It’s all about preparation,
Slate,” Arianna said. “Quick, they should be on top.”

Slate went into the pack on Arianna’s
shoulders and found a bundle of four flares near the top. He handed
one to Arianna, who smacked it against the stone to activate it,
and then heaved it off into the darkness below.

“What did you do that for?”
Slate asked. “We only have three more of those.”

“Look,” Arianna said,
pointing down to the pool of illumination around the flare on the
floor of the cave. “There’s the bottom.”

“Oh, I get it,” said
Slate.

“Perhaps one of the other
stairways on the map leads down there,” suggested
Arianna.

“But where are the other
staircases?” Slate asked.

“Well,” Arianna said,
studying the map. “I think we actually passed them, on the stairs
up from the entryway. Before I lit the sparkbox.”

“Oh. So then it’s right back
where we came from?”

“I guess so.”

Backtracking, the team found that two other
staircases did in fact branch out from the stairway they had
entered on. They followed one of them down, to where the way grew
tight and twisted. After many reversals, the team finally spilled
out into the cavernous expanse of the main cave.

They soon realized that they had stepped onto
a patch of subterranean beach barely wide enough to fit the three
of them. A wide river of gently running water coursed in front of
them.

“Just look ahead,” Arianna
said. “Over where the flare is burning.”

“Is that… tile underneath
it?” Slate asked.

“It sure looks like it,”
Arianna said. “Back in the water with you,” she added, before
pushing Slate into the underground stream.

“Gah! It’s so cold!” Slate
cried. “Why’d you do that?”

“Don’t worry, I’m coming in
after you!” Arianna cried.

The two splashed and struggled in the frigid
water, while Pilotte made an incredible leap over the entire river.
He waited calmly while Slate and Arianna made their way across.

“Well, here we are,” Slate
said through chattering teeth. “What happens now?”

“Why do you always ask like
I’ll know?” Arianna asked.

“You are a member of the
Protectorate, after all,” Slate joked.

“Ha. Probably not anymore,”
Arianna said.

All at once, the cave started to become
brighter.

“Slate, look!” Arianna cried
when she noticed.

It seemed as if the sun had reached a point
in the sky outside where its rays could penetrate a series of
square openings carved along the roof of the cave. The squares of
light grew brighter as the sun poured through them to displace the
darkness in the watery grotto.

With illumination, it became apparent that
the walls of the cave were adorned with huge mosaics: beautiful,
marvelously intricate murals made of seashell and gemstone. The
three largest of the mosaics, those on the wall just opposite the
sun portals and above the entrance to the chamber, told a story:
the first showed columns of fire descending from the skies,
volcanoes, earthquakes, and mass destruction. The second showed Alm
ravaged on the surface, and people living underground. The third
showed radiant beams of light streaming from the cave into the
outside world, and the people returning to the surface.

“Navel of the World…” Slate
whispered in awe.

“It’s where the Books come
from, Slate,” Arianna said. “Right here! This is where they wrote
the knowledge of the Gods down. This is where our ancestors waited
out the Fall!”

“Could it really be?” Slate
asked, dumbfounded. “Arianna, could it be?”

After the team spent hours spent admiring and
trying to decipher the hundreds of mosaics in the subterranean
museum, Pilotte started to grow restless.

“He’s probably hungry. I’m
hungry, too,” Arianna said. “What I wouldn’t give for some roasted
boar.”

“Roasted boar… oh… or
potatoes, with butter and salt… or a great big piece of cheese and
a hard loaf of bread… oh my,” Slate gurgled.

“And for dessert, chocolate
pie with dream cream and bitterberries!”

Pilotte couldn’t handle all the talk of food,
and whined desperately for it to stop.

“Soon enough, old boy,” Slate said to the
wulf. “Soon as tide comes in we’ll get you a feast.”

“Well this is incredible,”
Arianna said, “But we still do have an awful lot of time on our
hands. Before the tide comes back in.”

“Don’t remind me,” Slate
said.

“You know, we do have the
translation key to the books.”

“Arianna, no. We can’t…”
Slate stopped to think. “Wait a second, sure we can.”

He dove into his bag and pulled out the
watertight skin that contained the Books. He also procured from it
a metal flask. “Forgot about this!” he said. He unscrewed the top
of the flask and took a drink, wincing at the bitter sting of the
brite inside.

“What’s that? What do you
have there?” Arianna asked. Slate offered her the flask. She took
it and bettered his swig with a great gulp. “Ah!” she cried, nearly
spitting the gulp back out. “That’s awful! What is it?”

“Tenury Ale! From the gift
shop at the inn in Aurora Falls. This drink courtesy of the
Protectorate,” Slate said.

After sharing a bit more of the flask, Slate
pulled one of the heavy Books into his lap and cracked it open.

“Just like before, just like the one I saw,” he said. “Nice
pictures and nonsense.”

“That’s why we have a
translation key,” Arianna said.

“Oh yeah,” Slate said. He
got up and stumbled over to his pack again, and dumped everything
in it onto the ground.

“Shhh! You’re making a
mess!” Arianna giggled.

“It’s a quiet mess, though,”
Slate laughed.

Without much food in their systems, the
alcohol had them both in hysterics.

“Got it!” Slate proclaimed,
picking the translation key out of the pile of books and
papers.

“Okay! Chapter one, page
one,” Arianna began. Let’s see… Well, this isn’t easy. With
the…hiccup. Oops. Perhaps we shouldn’t have drunken
gotten?”

“Drunken gotten? Is that
what the translation says?” Slate asked.

“Stop, stop, stop,” Arianna
plead as she struggled to stop laughing.

“Okay, okay. Hiccup. Let’s
see,” Slate said.

The two focused as best they could and began
to work through the first paragraph on the first page of the green
Book. The translation code was easy to understand; there were two
versions of a story contained within it, one written in Protersian
and the other in the language of the Books. To complete the
translation, Arianna searched for a letter from the green Book in
the translation and Slate wrote it in a notebook. Soon, they had
the first few sentences translated.

“Should I read it to you?”
asked Slate.

“Yes, please,” Arianna
said.

“Okay, here goes: Book
Two-Origins- In which is recorded the second half of the history of
the human race prior to the Fall. From our earliest terrestrial
wanderings to our journeys amongst the heavens, humanity has
wondered what came before. May this volume make it through our dark
night and illuminate our future. And that’s it.”

“Journeys amongst the
heavens?” Arianna repeated.

“I have no idea what that
means,” Slate admitted. “And my head hurts.”

“Mine too,” Arianna said.

“Next time we do this, let’s not get drunk.”

“As drunk,” Slate corrected
her.

The two passed out shortly thereafter,
leaving hungry Pilotte to explore the little pockets and niches of
the Navel of the World in search of something, anything to eat.

Some indeterminate amount of time later,
Slate awoke feeling much more lucid.

“Did you sleep well?” he
asked Arianna, who was bent over another of the many maps in the
watertight sack.

“I did, but I was just about to wake you up,”
she said.

“Oh?”

“Because of
that.”

Arianna pointed to the water rising slowly
over the banks of the subterranean river and onto the floor tiles;
the tide was coming back in. Slate jumped to his feet and began
cramming the Books and papers back into his bag. Pilotte raced
ahead, disappearing up the stairs. He wasn’t gone long before he
reappeared, barking in a panic, followed by the first trickles of
tidewater, which soon grew into a steady stream, and then a spray.
The stairwell was unusable; the team was trapped.

“Is there any other way out
of here?” Slate hollered.

“Not according to the map,
no!” Arianna screamed over the growing white noise of the water now
pouring steadily down through fissures all about the walls of the
cave.

Pilotte was the first to take the high
ground, a worn stone altar, where he was soon joined by Slate and
Arianna. The ocean water rushed in eddies and waves, pouring down
from the high ledge the team had first entered to, and gushing out
of the stairwell. As the water rose, overtaking the last few
patches of dry ground that remained, Slate and Arianna looked on
helplessly.

“Slate,” Arianna cried,
pointing up to the square sun portals near the cave ceiling. “Do
you think those holes are big enough for us to fit
through?”

“Probably,” Slate shouted
over the roaring waters. “But how can we possibly get up
there?”

“We’ll wait,” said Arianna,
pointing to a piece of flotsam rising with the water.

“Yes!” Slate cried. “I told
you you always have the answers!” He grabbed Arianna and gave her a
kiss.

Arianna looked stunned. She wiped her lips
slowly and then smiled. She took Slate’s hand, as the rising water
met the top of the altar. When it was at their waists, Slate,
Arianna, and Pilotte began to float.

Slate lost hold of Arianna’s hand as the
water in the huge space began to form a whirlpool. After being
pulled around the whirlpool a number of times, and becoming
completely disoriented, he felt his body being pulled on by a
different force. The volumes of water exiting through the sun
portals yanked Slate flat against the cave wall, and then slowly
dragged him along it, which tore a hole in his coat and back. He
gasped, taking into his lungs a great volume of salty water, and
then screamed full-throated as his body was squeezed through the
sun portal and he shot out into the open air.

The force of the water launched him from the
cave like a stone from a blastporter, straight out for ten feet
before he began to plummet. In a flash Slate saw the sparkling
ocean, and then his body twisted and he could see Arianna and
Pilotte flailing through the air above him. As he tumbled to the
waves below, Slate felt his heartbeat pounding in his skull. And
then the loud rush of air past his ears and the calls of seabirds
in the bay were silenced, as he broke the surface of the water
headfirst.

Down into the depths he plunged, his body
turned up to the refracted sunlight. He saw Arianna and Pilotte
splash into the water above him, trails of bubbles tracing their
path as they fell. When the resistance of the water had slowed the
team’s downward trajectory enough, each began paddling back to the
surface. Slate broke first, with a loud gasp for air. He spun in
the water, searching for Arianna and Pilotte, the gash on his back
turning the ocean water around him red. Arianna bobbed up next,
coughing, and then Pilotte appeared, closer to the shore. Next were
the team’s bags, which popped up reluctantly from the water and
looked like they would soon return to it.

“Get your bag!” Arianna
called to Slate.

When he tried taking hold, the young man
realized the extent of his injury: his right hand could barely grip
at all. He pulled himself through the water with his other arm,
dragging his pack behind him with his feet. Upon reaching the
shore, he crawled up after Arianna to a sandy ledge high enough to
avoid the still-rising tide, and collapsed.

“Well,” Arianna said, as she
squeezed seawater from a twist of her hair.

“Well,” Slate repeated.

“Is this the kind of
adventure I’ve been missing?” Arianna asked.

“I haven’t done anything
like that before in my life,” Slate said. “Actually, strike that, I
did go over that waterfall in the raft. Anyways, you call it
adventure, I call it damn lucky. I don’t know how much luck I could
possibly have left.” He winced as he peeled off his tattered coat
to get a better look at the gash that wrapped around his side. The
deep cut was oozing blood and a yellowish liquid.

“Oh no, Slate, that looks
awful,” said Arianna when she saw his injury. “Here, lie down on
the sand.”

Slate did so, and Arianna dug her medical kit
out of her bag. The balm from it that she applied to Slate’s wound
stung worse than the salt water.

“Ah! What are you doing?”
Slate shouted.

“Be still, Slate. You’re
going to get sand in your cut,” Arianna scolded.

The young man did remain still, except for
his mouth, from which many curses flew before Arianna managed to
finish treating his wound and covered it with gauze.

“How does that feel?” she
asked after she was done.

“I’ve been better,” said
Slate. “But I’ve been much worse, too. I’m just glad you are here,
and that we’re all safe. And, that was pretty incredible, I’m not
going to lie.”

“It was absolutely amazing,”
Arianna agreed. “When we were churning around, and how we flew
through the air? It was like a nightmare. I didn’t think we were
going to get out of there alive.”

“Me either, I really
didn’t,” Slate said. “Good thinking on the sun portals, though, I
wouldn’t have realized that.”

“Well. We would both have
found out sooner than later, I imagine,” said Arianna.

Slate watched the wind play with Arianna’s
long brown hair, blowing it all about her, creating an effect like
a halo. Her dark eyes shone from within the aura, warm and
bright.

“You’re very pretty, you
know, Arianna,” he said. It was simply what he was thinking, but it
made Arianna blush.

“Oh, Slate,” she laughed. “I
bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Actually, I
don’t.”

“Oh? Well, you’re rather
handsome, you know.”

Slate had never before looked at Arianna in
the way he was now. She had always been like a friend, or sister,
to him. “You think I’m handsome?” he asked.

“Well, you know…” Arianna
murmured.

“Is that the real reason you
came all this way to see me?” teased Slate.

“No, it’s not. I don’t need
to travel halfway around the world for a date, I assure you that,”
Arianna said.

“Plenty of dates in Aislin,
huh?” Slate asked.

“Yes, in fact, there
were.”

“What, did you have a
boyfriend?”

“No, but I’ve been on dates.

It’s not just you, you know, travelling the world on your great
adventures, who gets all the romance.”

“Hey, you can do whatever
you want, Arianna. You aren’t beholden to me.”

“If I had known that we
would meet again, I would have waited for you,” Arianna said, her
dark eyes sparkling at Slate.

“I…” Slate began, but he
couldn’t think of anything to say. His heart was racing. There was
a new feeling growing inside him, one that he didn’t have the
energy to assimilate. “I’m sleepy,” he finally blurted
out.

“He’s sleepy,” Arianna said,
throwing her arms up. “Fine, Slate, fine. Go to sleep.”

The young man rolled over onto his side,
careful not to disturb Arianna’s treatment of his injury. He lay
awake for some time, unsure of what to think or what to say to the
girl next to him.

“Are you mad at me,
Arianna?” he eventually asked.

“No, are you mad at me?” she
asked.

“No.”

“Good.”

Wordlessly, Slate and Arianna inched closer
to one another, until their backs were pressed as close as Slate’s
wound would allow. They lay like that for hours, saying nothing,
synchronizing the rise and fall of their breaths with the crash of
the waves.

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    Pilotte led the way over sand dune after sand dune until he finally found a way out of the Ojikef Delta and back onto soil. A dirt road ran near the delta, which Slate and Arianna followed to a small general store. “We should stop here for food and supplies,” Slate said. “Aren't you worried that the Protectorate might have put out a search for us?" Arianna asked. "Are you sure we shouldn't keep in hiding?" Slate answered, "I'm sure they're looking for us. But it's not as if they can go screaming to the police or the press. The whole 'secret organization' thing.” “That’s true,” Arianna agreed. “Still, I don’t think we should be seen together, especially with Pilotte. Anyone would remember Pilotte. We don’t want to leave a trail of witnesses.” “That's smart, you're right. You stay here with Pilotte, while I go across the street and get supplies.” “Why should I stay?” "Why should you go?" “You forget, Slate, that we women have an easier time disguising ourselves.” “How’s that?” “Just a minute,” Arianna said. She began rearranging her still-wet hair around her hairpins. Soon, it was up in a bun and the young woman was rummaging through her bag. After a quick application of lip pigment, eyeliner and a brush of rouge, Arianna looked at least five years older and completely different than she had just a moment before. “What witchcraft is this?” Slate joked. “I’m still Arianna, Slate, you can stop staring. Why is that men love makeup so much anyways?” she sighed. “I’ll be back soon.” Arianna managed to procure a waterproofed map of the eastern half of the continent, a tent, a fair amount of food, a water filter, and a first aid kit. With the new supplies, and food in their stomachs, the explorers set off down the wildflower-lined road to Opal Pools. The vista changed dramatically as the team moved south. The terrain near the delta, lush with vegetation and small ponds, turned to sparser clumps of grass and the cracked mud of dead lakes after less than half a day’s travel. Forests faded and the road cracked as massive, red rock formations rose up from the distance. The day grew hotter and the air drier. All signs of life faded, eventually even the buzz of flies. Pilotte’s tongue lolled out of his mouth and his throat clicked as he panted in the overwhelming aridity. A muddy puddle marked on the map as a watering hole was all that Slate could source for the thirsty wulf, and no filter was going to extract water from the muck. There was another source of water marked on the map, some five miles away. "Should we turn back?" Slate asked. "We need water. Do you want to turn back?" Arianna asked. "No," Slate said. "Me either," said Arianna. "Let's keep going. The map says a place called Saityr's Quarry is next. We should be able to find water there." “I hope so.” There came a sparkle from the haze, something in the distance gleaming like a diamond. Slate had read about how the desert could make people see things that weren’t really there, and so didn't say anything to Arianna until they had come close enough to where she confirmed it for him. The gleam was coming from a silo, one rising over a plot of farmland somehow full with vegetation in the middle of the otherwise lifeless desert. Coming closer still, the two saw a farmhouse, albeit a small one, built low to the ground, with a barn nearby for sheltering the few horses and cows that lay asleep in its shade. A metal windmill spun slowly over the farm, pumping dirty water into a mucky pond in spurts whenever the erratic wind rose up. At least twelve faded signs on display around the fencing told would-be trespassers that they should reconsider their plans if they valued their lives. “I wonder who would live out here,” Slate said. “Hey!” a voice cried from somewhere behind the fence. “Hey, you two! Where’re you going?”  “Whoever that is, I suppose,” Arianna answered Slate. “We’re just passing by!” Slate called back. “Don’t worry, we’re not trespassing!” “You kids are going to die if you keep going like that,” the voice said. “What do you mean?” Arianna asked. “I mean, if… Oh, forget all this shouting, come on inside for something cool to drink!” the stranger hollered. Slate and Arianna might have stopped to discuss the idea first, but Pilotte made their decision for them when he started trotting back toward the farm. He ran through a gate and up the path toward the farmhouse. As he reached the porch, a woman appeared at the front door. Deep lines in her face pulled around her smile. “Well, howdy!” she said heartily. “Sorry if I startled you, but I don’t see too many people out here, you know? Least not but fyreheads, or criminals. But you three aren’t criminals, are ya?” “No, ma’am,” Slate said. “Well good,” the woman said. “Now, you kids need to sit down here and have some lemon ice and hear a thing or two before you head off into the desert like you're settin' to.” “I know I can’t refuse an invitation to lemon ice,” Arianna said. “Me either. Ice sounds wonderful,” Slate agreed. They followed the woman inside her house, stopping first in the kitchen, where a bowl of water was put down for Pilotte. The farmhouse was dark and cool, and filled with the faint aroma of prairie flower. “Please,” the woman urged, showing her visitors to a couch. “Sit down.” Slate and Arianna took a seat, as the old woman poured lemon cider over ice cubes that cracked and spun around their glasses. “Iced and everything. Incredible,” Slate said. “This is such a treat.” “Well, thank you,” said the woman. “The extra ingredient is sugar.” “I’m sorry, ma’am,” Slate said, “I’ve been rude. My name is Slate, and this is Arianna, and the wulf is Pilotte.” “Beautiful creature, that wulf. Nice to meet you, Slate. And you too, Arianna. I’m Ginny.” “Do you live here in the desert?” asked Arianna. “All the time?” “I don’t know who else would work the farm if I didn’t,” Ginny cackled. “You’re here all by yourself?” Slate asked. “All by myself,” Ginny said proudly. “Though, I can defend myself, so don't try anything funny." "We wouldn't think of it," Arianna said. "Good," Ginny said. "Yep, all alone. Ever since Sam died, anyhow.” “Your husband? I’m sorry for that,” said Arianna. “I appreciate it, darlin’. It’s alright though, they’re on the greatest adventure of them all now, those who’ve left us. Good old Sam,” Ginny reminisced, staring into her cup. “Do you have any family or friends nearby?” asked Slate. “Nearby? Where nearby?” Ginny asked. “Isn’t Saityr’s Quarry just to the south of here?” Slate asked. “Son,” Ginny said, shaking her head slowly, “Saityr’s Quarry doesn’t exist anymore.” Arianna gave Slate a worried look. “No, thank you, sir. Alone on this farm is where I want to be,” Ginny said. “I don’t much care for most people, anyways, thank you. I have no interest in towns, cities or any of the rest of the burning mess that humanity calls society these days. I’m completely out of the system. I don’t want their food, their water, their fancy technologies. I don’t want none of it!” “Why not?” asked Slate. “Because, kids, there comes a point in your life when you realize you’re a cog in a machine. You work and you buy and you work and you buy, but you aren’t happy. Civilization these days just sucks up the whole world so it can sell it back to you. They're gonna kill the planet, worse than any Fall ever could. When they can’t live in their scorched world, I’ll know how. I’ve always done it. I can live off nothing, like a strake, like all of us desert creatures are the toughest, the hardest. We’ll still be here.” Slate nodded. "I understand,” he said. This caught Ginny by surprise. “You understand? How so?” “Well,” Slate said, “Arianna and I are from the far west, originally, from the island of Aelioanei. Things there are already changing for the worse, and quickly. There are many there who are unhappy with what is happening in the world. And all along my travels I’ve heard these myths of the east, of the forbidden wonders and technologies of Opal Pools. It's hard to know what to believe, and so we’re travelling there ourselves, to see it with our own eyes and decide what’s really going on.” “A quest to make sense of this crazy world?” Ginny asked, her eyes wide and bright. “Exactly,” Slate answered. “I don’t know, kids,” Ginny said. “I hear you talk like that and it stirs me. But I’m no fighter. I’m a survivor. But just because I’m out of the race doesn’t mean you two have to be. You still got your youth, your fighting spirit. I believe you should follow your dreams! Go to Opal Pools, see things for yourself." "That's the idea," Slate said. "Though, who knows what will happen after that." "Off to Opal Pools through the Glass Desert," Ginny said. "Now that’s an adventure. Did y’all know it’s a couple dozen miles to any watering hole?” “No,” said Arianna, disappointed. “We didn’t. Our map said that Saityr’s Quarry was close to here. Is it even possible to make it to Opal Pools through the desert?” “It’s possible, sure, but you’re gonna need some help. Come on, now,” the old woman said, grunting as she stood. She waddled out the back door with Slate and Arianna following after. “You kids ride horses?” Ginny asked, heading to the stable. “No,” Slate and Arianna answered simultaneously. “Well, you’re gonna,” Ginny laughed. Inside the stable were three horses, two brown and one mottled. Ginny chose one of the small, brown horses, named Chestnut, for Arianna, and the spotted one, Patch, for Slate. After a hurried crash-course in equestrian fundamentals, Ginny told Arianna and Slate that they were free to take the horses for use over the rest of the Glass Desert and beyond. “We really cannot thank you enough,” Slate said. “And you don’t have to, kids,” Ginny said. “Sam loved these horses and would be proud you're using 'em to search for truth. When you get to TkLawt, after the buttes, you can sell 'em to a man named Murtle. He'll take good care of Sam's horses. Now, daylight is running out! You must run! You must chase down your dream! Ride wild into the night! Question and demand an answer from this mad world. Live, children, live!” the dazzled-eyed woman cried. She began jumping up and down and howling at the sky. Pilotte began to howl with her, and so Slate and Arianna joined in, losing themselves. After a snack and more lemon ice back in the farmhouse, the horses were saddled with packs and supplies and then Slate and Arianna thanked Ginny again and bid her goodbye. Ginny whipped the horses into a gallop with a throaty cackle, and they carried the two riders out from the farm into the wide open desert ahead. Chestnut and Patch bore down hard in their gait, raising a fine trail of dust in their charge toward the giant orange sun on the horizon.
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    It was unclear how long Slate and Arianna had been riding in the bleached heat of the desert when a giant rock formation in the form of a bull’s horns came up from the sand to block the sun. The shape was represented on the travelers’ map, one of the few things in the desert that were, as the town of Saityr’s Quarry, the town Ginny had made clear no longer existed. A bizarre scene revealed itself to the riders as they neared the rock bull. Dozens of points of light sparkled about the low hills rising up to the formation, reflections from scattered ruins. Arianna was the first to notice the huge gashes in the red rock mountain, the scars of a massive mining operation. Around dozens of buildings built into the mountainside were blast-holes gaping like sores, with rails and platforms running in and out and trails of scree trickling down like gore. “My Gods…What did someone do here?” asked Arianna. “It’s like Alm is bleeding.” “It’s awful,” Slate agreed. “What do you think they were mining?” “I don’t know,” Arianna said, “All this destruction, what could possibly have justified it?” Slate and Arianna dismounted when the path became too littered with stones, continuing on foot and leading their horses through the ruinous wastes.  They passed the tin skeleton of an operations building, corroded and full of holes. When they stopped to investigate, a loud bang of metal on metal sounded from somewhere in the near- distance. Chestnut reared up in fright as two figures, then three, appeared from over a low hill. “Hello?” cried Slate. His voice was lost in the expanse of the desert. One of the figures gave a wave. “Do you think we should go talk to them?” Slate asked Arianna. “Yes, I think so,” she said. “Though, I'm a bit cautious. What could they be doing here?” “Mining? Hunting?” Slate guessed. “Maybe they know of a well.” "We need water," Arianna said. "Then let's go talk to them," Slate said. "But be ready to run." The two left Pilotte waiting with the horses, though the wulf still followed halfway after them as they went to meet the strangers, ready to defend if he had to. “Do you have anything to eat?” an emaciated man begged. The others with him were a woman and an even sicker-looking child. “We do have something to eat,” Slate answered. “We have more than enough to share.” “Do you have any water?" Arianna asked. "Yes," the woman said. "It is practically all we have." "If we share our food with you, will you share your water?” asked Arianna. “Bless you, of course. Bless you! Come with us,” the ghost of a woman said weakly but happily. Slate and Arianna followed over the sand hill to a patchwork tent riddled with holes and worn thin by the unforgiving desert sun. “Please, can you share your food with me and my family now?” the man begged as soon as Slate and Arianna sat down on his rug. “Of course, of course,” said Slate. He reached into his sack and brought out crackers and sausage, which the family accepted with ferocity. “Careful not to eat too fast, Dora, you’ll hurt your stomach,” cautioned the mother, restraining herself from devouring the food.  Slate and Arianna watched the family eat until the father looked up at Slate with eyes more present, sharp, and full of life. “Praise the Gods, thank you, thank you,” he said. “Please, there’s no need for thanks," Slate said. "You can have all you want. How far are we from food that you are starving so badly?” “We aren’t too far from food, but we can’t get to town,” said the woman. “Why not?” asked Slate. The man lifted his pant leg to show a malformed limb, thin at the top, with bubbling folds of skin at the bottom. “What happened?” asked Arianna. “It’s from the mines,” the man said. “It’s all from the mines.” “What was mined here? Who did this to you, to Alm?” Arianna asked. “Opal Pools,” the man answered. “At first they were alright, even good for this city. We had always been a goldquartz quarry, and we were blessed with a good spring and a lake. Lots of folks from Proterse would buy our goldquartz and vacation here. But then Opal Pools found tynarium in the mountain, said they found lots of it. We didn’t know what it was, tynarium, but the attention it attracted was even better for the city than the lake. Lot of money came in, lot of new work for the men and women around here, for the people from down in TkLawt, for traveling workers coming down from Aurora Falls. Opal Pools built schools, a firehouse. Dammed up the river and gave us glowing street lamps.” “I was able to get an oven, a real, hand-wrought oven,” the woman interjected. The idea still seemed to excite her. “But then everyone got sick,” the man continued. “Started to get so sick. People started to die, fast. Coughing up the strangest stuff after being in those mines. Of course, certain bodies held out longer, so the foremen pointed to them and said, 'See, nothing’s wrong here.' But mainly, people started to get sick.” “And then all the babies born were already dead,” the woman said sadly. “The schools they built just sat there. There weren’t any children to fill them.” “Except Dora,” the father said proudly, grasping his frail daughter tightly. “And Faim, my son. He’s in back." "Did everyone die?" Arianna asked. "Not everyone," the man said. "When the tynarium was gone, which was almost as soon as it was found, and so many of my friends had died, they decided that the best thing to do was to flood the valley, to try to wash away the sickness. They tore up everything they could, barely even left the buildings, tore up the mine tracks and wells and even the fire station. They hauled it all away, broke the dam, and flooded the valley. Didn’t give us but a half a week’s warning beforehand. We couldn’t leave, Faim was too sick. We sat right up there on the mountain and watched the town get washed over. But all the water did was wash more waste out of the mines and onto the plains, destroyed the lake. You see what’s left. All we’ve got now is our spring.” “Is there anyone else left here, other than you?” asked Slate. “Maybe,” said the man. “It’s hard to move, though, so I don’t know. Can we have more to eat, please?” Slate gave the family the rest of his remaining food. After it had been devoured, the man stood up. “We are so grateful for your help, friends,” he said. “Please, I want you to meet my son.” He beckoned for Slate and Arianna to follow him through a tattered fabric partition to the back of the tent. Slate saw the faint outline of a body there, covered by blankets in the dark recess. “Faim?” the man asked the boy, “Faim, I want you to meet Slate and Arianna. They have brought us food to eat!” An almost undetectable ruffle signaled life within the blankets. Slowly, a bony hand reached out and pulled down the fabric to reveal two huge, blue eyes staring out from a sunken face. “This is my son, Faim,” the man said as he knelt next to his boy. “How are you feeling, Faim?” The boy’s body tensed, but he couldn’t speak. As Slate’s eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, he could see the child more clearly: pallid as the moon, his skin stretched taught over his bones. Whatever muscle tissue he once had was gone. Dark veins ran in visible striations all over his translucent body. “He’s feeling better. Aren’t you, Faim?” asked the father. The boy's eyes bulged in terror like the deadened eyes of the itchy fish Slate had helped Hid Hidli catch. “He’s so strong, my boy is,” the man said, trying to hold back tears. “He’s so good, he never complained. He’s like an angel, like a gift from the Gods. See how beautiful he is? How his skin turns clear? He’s like an angel.” Slate and Arianna watched as the man washed his son’s ghostly face with a damp cloth, speaking inaudible words of comfort. When at last the father had covered the boy and dried his own eyes, he showed Slate and Arianna out of the dark space. “If you’d like to stay the night, we can find you something to sleep on,” the man offered. "Though, you shouldn't stay long. Death is all around." "Perhaps we should leave now," Slate said. "When we reach TkLawt, we can tell the authorities you are out here," Arianna said. "They will come to rescue you." "There are no authorities in TkLawt," the woman said. "But thank you for your kindness." "We will try to find help, anyways," Arianna offered. "Come, I'll show you the well," the man said. "Is it not poisoned?" asked Slate.  "I test it every day," the man answered. "It has not yet been poisoned." "Thank you, then," Slate said. Without making any eye contact, he offered a goodbye to the others in the tent, and then stepped back out into the sunlight. After filling their canteens, Slate and Arianna fled back to Pilotte, Patch, and Chestnut. They mounted the horses and rode out from the shadow of the Bull's horns. "What's tynarium used for?" Slate hollered over the sound of the horses' thunder. "Nothing that I know of," Arianna hollered back. "Not anymore. It hasn't been used since before the Fall. Since the age of the Gods."
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    The landscape began to change once more, now from desert to the area labeled on the travelers’ map as the Benoit Buttes. The Benoit Buttes were a disorienting place, all ups and downs around a rocky maze that left the travelers turned around every time they reached the bottom of a gulley, then again when they crested a hill they thought would be an exit. Rounding any one of the hundreds of corners through the confusion led to many surprises, such as majestic creatures like viraliers and giant grelt. There were hundreds if not thousands of grelts, rolling in the dirt, scraping their matted fur against boulders, and grazing on the tall grasses around the hundreds of muddy little water holes pooled around the buttes. Patch and Chestnut had to be careful not to step in any of the thousands of doryholes that were everywhere in the ground, and Pilotte made a game out of chasing the little creatures into the holes.  Just before nightfall on the second day through the rocky maze, the buttes lost their argument with the plains and travel became easier for the horses. Water came flowing to Slate and Arianna from a river that sprang up not far from a road they found, and Pilotte was able to scrounge a gammit out of the low grass for dinner. The team arrived at the outskirts of TkLawt under starlight. Trees and forests began to reappear, and the air began to carry smells again, something Slate hadn’t noticed missing. He and Arianna decided to camp just outside the city, as it was already late. With the promise of a fresh start and warm food the next morning, the two fell asleep under the stars. Slate awoke early to a brilliant yellow sunrise and decided to take Pilotte into town, to see if he could find some folds or glint as a surprise for Arianna.  The sprawling logging operations just outside town told Slate that TkLawt was booming. The streets he came to were wide, built for the massive carts that hauled towering stacks of lumber from the woods to the mills, of which there were dozens, all bustling with activity. The storefronts lining the sawdust-strewn streets of the city’s downtown appeared slapdash, built quickly of whatever material had been available at the time. The dusty citizens crowding these few, small buildings were hard-faced, and cast hostile looks toward Slate. It wasn’t until he saw his reflection in a filthy window that he realized how ragged and burnt he looked. Anxious to escape the suspicious townsfolk, the young man stopped at the first grocery cart he reached. The humorless merchant sold him glint in two small, dirty cups, and a dry, broken fold, then got angry when Slate questioned the quality of his merchandise. Another man who had been in the queue stopped Slate to apologize for the grocer’s attitude. “Sorry, outsider. Don’t take it personal,” the bearded man said. “Oh, I don’t, ever,” Slate said. He began to walk away. “Where ya in from?” the man asked after him. “Aurora Falls,” Slate answered. “All the way up there? What are you doing here in TkLawt, of all places?” Slate stopped and turned around. “Looking for work,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “Plenty of that here. Wait a second, I have to pay the man,” the stranger said, dropping some coins on the grocer’s counter before he joined Slate and Pilotte near a hitching post. “The pay is terrible,” he continued, “But the work is steady. Though first, I have to ask: What exactly do you call that thing you got there?” “That’s Pilotte, he follows me everywhere,” said Slate. “He’s a snarlingwulf.” “A fine looking animal. Never seen one. Anyway, if you want work, you should come over to my place. It’s right here in town. We’ll get you set up. You a hard worker? You know trees?” “Sure.” “Good deal. I’ll see if we can’t find something for that beast to pull around, too. Clyde Batch is my name, what’s yours?” “Dahzi Juke. Good to meet you.” “We’ll see how you feel about me after a couple weeks sawing wood, Dahzi!” laughed Clyde. “I’m at the corner of Line and Alat. Look for my name on the sign when you come ‘round.” “Sounds good,” Slate said. “Say, who’s that other cup of glint for?” “For my partner, back at the camp.” “Well you should bring him on by, too. Remember, there’s plenty of work, plenty of work,” Clyde repeated as he shuffled off. Back at camp with two cold, dirty cups of glint, Slate told Arianna about his meeting with Clyde. She suggested that it might be a good idea to look him up in town, even if they didn’t need work, as he might know the best way to get to Opal Pools. “Why don’t we just ride old Patch and Chestnut?” Slate suggested, while he and Arianna had lunch in a cool grove along the edge of town. “I’m kind of sore already…” Arianna said. “Didn't Ginny say that Murtle somebody or other would take good care of them here? I mean, I love you, Chestnut. You too, Patches. But my backside, not so much. If we have to, I'm happy, but if there’s any other way, I’ll take it.” “I don’t know that there is,” Slate said with a sigh. A distant cry of ‘timber’ echoed through the trees. “Where do you suppose all this wood ends up?” Slate asked. “Probably Opal Pools,” Arianna guessed. Slate leaned up. “And how do you think it gets there?” he asked. “Oh, they usually float…” Arianna explained without thinking, before she realized what she was saying. “…It down a river!” “So there’s probably a river that flows from somewhere near here all the way to Opal Pools, right?” Slate asked. “Look at how clever we are,” Arianna said. The two sold Patch and Chestnut to Murtle, who they located by asking Clyde Batch. The horses seemed happy as they were led off, even stopping to rear up in good-bye as they went. Just as Slate and Arianna suspected, the O River flowed just outside the town of TkLawt, at the end of the logging roads. After sliding down the log flume to the river banks, the group hopped onto one of the hundreds of booms of felled trees floating downstream. They were clear of the city before they knew it. The soot, sap, and gnarled bark of the boom didn’t make for the most comfortable transport, but it was free and fleet. The team drifted past the countryside, trading posts coming and going along with forests and animals along the riverbanks. The river was jam-packed with log booms, yet the travelers only ever occasionally saw a lumberman, separating the logs with their long, hooked, wooden poles. Even so, the friends hid. When night came, Arianna used one of her scarves as a net to catch fish under the stars. The five days it took to reach Opal Pools were passed in relative relaxation. Word that the metropolis was approaching passed along a chain of lazy calls from the lumbermen over the stowaways’ heads. Peering out from their hiding place, Slate could see the skyline of Opal Pools, as strange as the rock formations in the Glass Desert.  The time had come to get off the log boom, though how exactly that was to be accomplished remained unclear. “I don’t think we can make it all the way to the bank if we jump from here. We’ll have to jump into the river and then swim over,” Slate said. “I think I’ll go second,” said Arianna. “Your humor is as dry as anything’s going to get around here for a while,” Slate said. “Terrible,” Arianna said, shaking her head. The two stood poised, watching and waiting for the best moment to jump, when at once their senses were overtaken by a horrendous noise that roared up all around them. Slate couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a giant steel cart come barreling down the side of the river. The cart was moving at an impossible speed, quickly revealing itself to be not one but a series of carts, all linked and tearing along as one. The monstrosity whipped and wound along the riverbank like a strake, before it turned toward the river and bore down on Slate and Arianna.  It tore past their boom with such velocity that they were thrown back onto the logs as it went by, appearing as a terrifying blur of metal and lightning. The roar it emitted was ear shattering, louder than the greatest winds and thunder Slate had ever heard. Pilotte had never looked so bewildered, if he had ever looked bewildered before. The nightmare seemed to last forever, and then was gone as quickly as it had come. Slate’s entire field of vision changed in an instant from a metallic blur to bucolic countryside again, as the monster rumbled off into the distance spewing smoke and steam and squealing, leaving Slate’s ears ringing. “What was that?” screamed Arianna. “What?” Slate screamed back. “What was that?” Arianna hollered at the top of her lungs. “I don’t know!” Slate hollered back. “Do you still want to get off the river?” Just then, he spotted an embankment wide enough to risk attempting a jump. He didn’t wait for an answer from Arianna; he leapt to his feet and ran, gaining what speed he could before diving off the boom. He overestimated his abilities, and fell immediately into the water. Arianna failed her jump as well, and so the two had to slog their way through the marsh, up the side of the embankment, and finally to level, dry ground. Pilotte, of course, had no troubles with the jump at all. It was at the top of the embankment that Slate found the secret to the great metal monster’s flight: an interminably long pair of rails, which stretched out in either direction until they looked to converge, like huge arrows pointing north and south. The metal monster had left these runs of steel hot to the touch, as Slate discovered when he tried to touch one. “Careful! It’s hot!” he cautioned, jumping up and shaking his hand. “Whoa… put your foot on it, though, you can still feel it vibrating!” “I don’t want to touch those, Slate,” Arianna said. “Have you ever seen something like that before? What was it?” “I have no idea. But these are kind of like mine tracks. It was just, like, a giant mine cart, that could propel itself somehow. Incredible! Imagine what the rest of the city must be like!” “Oh, I can’t even!” Arianna gasped. “Well we’re not too far off now, are we?” Slate asked, standing up tall. “Let’s go see this Opal Pools.” "Are you scared?" Arianna asked. "No," Slate said. "A little. Are you?" "A little," Arianna confessed. “It’s okay,” said Slate. “That makes it even more exciting!"
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    It wasn't far from the banks of the River O to a municipal park at the farthest northern reach of the metropolis of Opal Pools. Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte crouched in the bushes along the edges of the park, watching as people jogged or walked past. “It just looks like any other park,” Slate observed. “The people here don’t look any different.” “What were you expecting?" Arianna asked. "I don't know," Slate said. "Tentacles or something." "Well it's good they're only human, because that means we won’t stick out,” Arianna said. “Right," Slate said. "We’ll have to leave our things here, though. I don’t want to be carrying the Books with me if we run into trouble.” "Leave them unattended?” “Unattended? Pilotte here is keener than the Protectorate. He’ll keep them safe. Won’t you, Pilotte?” The wulf smiled. Slate stowed his and Arianna's gear in a ferny burrow, then gave Pilotte a good scratch goodbye. The wulf curled up in the burrow and closed his eyes for a nap.  The sky had fallen dark by the time Slate and Arianna reached the park exit, at a place called Fern Water. It had been a five mile journey, and they were exhausted. Slate was about to complain when every lamppost in the park began to glow, instantaneously. The light was not like that from an oil lamp, but pure white, and steady. It glittered on the path and transformed the park into a glowing dream world.  A bit farther down the path was a concentration of the lamps, housed inside a great glass building. Through the impossibly huge windowpanes, Slate and Arianna saw groups of people congregating along what looked similar to the tracks they had discovered along the edge of the river. “What do you think those people are doing?” Arianna asked. “What’s that building?” “It has rails running through it,” Slate said. “Like the rails for that horrible machine we saw. What are they waiting for?” “Let’s watch and find out.” After ten minutes or so, a screech off in the distance heralded the arrival of a variation on the metal cart train Slate and Arianna had encountered earlier. This one moved much more quietly as it glided to a stop along the platforms inside the glass building. The great strake opened its doors and dozens of people stepped off. Others boarded, the doors shut again, and the machine lurched into motion, gaining momentum until it was lost to the dark forest. “People ride those horrible things?” Slate asked. “Could you imagine? Going that fast, over land?” Arianna asked. “I think I'd be sick.” “I bet it would take us into town a lot faster than our feet, though. Obviously lots of people ride them. Come on, you’re not scared, are you?” “Scared? Please,” Slate said. "Let’s board the dragon.” The two entered the bright white station and located a rail map and timetable illuminated by a blue ring of lamplight. “Where do you think we should we go first?” Arianna asked, scanning the map. “I don’t know… what do you think of… there?” Slate asked, pointing to an orange-tinted area of the map. “The Historical District,” Arianna read. “It says they have a museum. That would be a great place to learn about the city. I can’t even imagine what a museum here must be like.” Slate tried to plot the route to the Historical District. “We need a… green…no, an orange…four. No, three. No, four, that’s right, but a green one. We need a green four.” “No, Slate. It’s a red…five. That’s it. A red five,” Arianna said. “There will be one coming in a few minutes." “That’s what I meant,” Slate said. “It says it costs eight stone to ride. I don’t have any stone. Whatever that is.” “Look, there’s a pictogram of a stone there,” Arianna said, pointing to an advertisement printed along the bottom of the map. “It looks nothing like goldquartz, that’s for sure.” “Hmmm. Maybe if we tell them we lost our wallets they’ll let us ride?” “It’s worth a shot. I can look pretty forlorn. I know you can too.” “Thanks,” Slate moaned, demonstrating how right Arianna was. When the red five came, the strangers to Opal Pools waited for the paying customers to board before stepping up to the faretaker wearing their sorriest faces. “Sir, my friend and I lost our wallets in the woods...” Slate began. “Get in, come on, let’s go,” the man said in a bored monotone. The doors closed and the car began to roll along the tracks. Slate and Arianna were thrown to the floor, as they didn’t have a firm grasp of anything. They quickly picked themselves up and managed to locate two seats, which they slunk down into in embarrassment. As the train rattled along, Slate and Arianna stared out of the windows as the land outside flew past in a blur. Before they knew it, the train had left the countryside and entered a tunnel. Inside the tunnel was another boarding station. Few exited at the stop, though many more got on. At the next stop, even more passengers boarded. The crowding eventually got so bad that Slate and Arianna were pressed against the train's windows. To their great relief, Slate at last spotted a sign for the Historical District on a station wall. He and Arianna pushed and fought their way out of the train and into the thick of the city.  The noise previously deadened by the tightly packed confines of the train now blasted their ears, and dazzling lights confused their vision. Storefronts, street vendors, bizarre machines of every kind, street preachers, performers, throngs of people, and everything else imaginable were everywhere. Overwhelmed, the newcomers cut their way through the bustling hordes to a quieter corner of the street, near a restroom and a tucked-away newspaper stand. "This place is insane," Arianna said. "Absolutely insane," Slate agreed. "Amazing." A headline on the newsstand caught Slate’s attention, one boasting ‘The Final Fortress of Knowledge Is At Last Overtaken.’ He was reaching for the paper when the butt of a cane suddenly thwacked it out of his hands. “You have to pay for that, you know,” said the frowning woman at the other end of the cane. “But I don’t want to buy it, I just want to read the one story,” Slate said. “You don't buy it, you don’t get to read it,” the woman barked. “Sorry,” Arianna said. "You can keep your paper." Slate and Arianna left the newsstand to find a safer spot, keeping close to the buildings along the street so as not to get trampled by the thousands of people. Where exactly in the Historical District the two were was hard to discern. Slate helped Arianna up onto a wastebasket so that she could get a better view of things, and from there she espied the museum they were looking for, just across the way. The two bounded like frightened jix across the six-lane street, dodging trains, two-wheeled, pedal-driven contraptions, and unceasing waves of others. They charged up the granite steps of the museum. There were few people at the entrance to the museum, an oasis of calm in the hectic bustle. Etched into the building’s edifice were phrases such as ‘From Raw Material, We Fashion the Future,’ and ‘In Moments of Inspiration, We See the Gods.’ Slate imagined the words must have come from the men and women whose busts lined the porticos around the entrance, as he and Arianna stepped into the museum’s lobby. Just inside, the body of a ship was on display. A placard informed that the ship was very old and very famous, though it looked like any other rotten ship. Slate and Arianna quietly slipped past it and the ‘recommended donations’ box, and into the dimly lit museum interior. There weren’t many other people there, and so Slate and Arianna were able to take their time inspecting the various exhibits on display. One entire room was devoted to a person by the name of Dorieaye Khe-tK. The items on display there concerned his mystical revelation. It appeared that Khe-tK was recognized as a prophet of sorts by the people of Opal Pools, having once attained a mysterious knowledge that had somehow sparked the city’s technological explosion. Nowhere in the exhibit was there an explanation or discussion of what exactly the man had discovered, but there were collections of his writings behind thick glass, and a diorama recreating what the museum curators imagined the hovel in which Khe-tK attained his enlightenment might have looked like. Altogether, the room conveyed the impression of a great man without actually saying anything about him or what he actually accomplished. The rest of the museum was more straightforward. There was a room full of technological marvels, such as the first steam-engine motor the city had produced, and early electrical generators, alongside an exhibit on hydroelectric power and some other concepts whose placards assumed the museumgoer knew more than either Slate or Arianna did about their subjects. There was also an entire wing of the museum dedicated to a collection of ancient artifacts, with murals depicting life in the ages before, clothing samples, hunting and farming tools, and artworks. Slate found it funny that the depiction of life almost two hundred years before the present day in Opal Pools looked very much like his early life on Aelioanei. He and Arianna spent hours piecing together a picture of Opal Pools as a city that had risen suddenly and unexpectedly to great heights following the revelation of some unimaginable intelligence to the hermit lauded in the first room. The last exhibit pointed toward the future of the city, with descriptions of how the trains would be improved, conceptual drawings of beautiful new buildings and shiny new machines to come, and myriad promises of a better life. “Well it must have been the Book of Knowledge, right?” Slate whispered to Arianna. “That Khe-tK discovered?” “It must have been,” Arianna answered. “I wonder why they don’t say that anywhere.” Finally, a marvelous light-and-sound show dazzled Slate and Arianna more than anything in the museum before it, a display of wall-sized, glowing pictures appearing to come to life and speak. The crowd was shown many different corners of the city quickly, so quickly as for it to almost be sickening. The pair was somewhat relieved when the show was over and they were led to museum’s exit. Or, rather, the museum’s gift shop, which was full of little recreations of the technologies on display inside the museum, all priced very steeply. Slate and Arianna left the shop when the attendant started to follow them suspiciously. There was a small cafe situated behind the museum, overlooking a public green lined with flowers and willow trees. There, Slate bought Arianna a cup of very expensive glint at a waiter’s insistence, and paid for it in goldquartz, which he was glad to learn was in fact acceptable currency in Opal Pools. The two drank slowly, not wanting to relinquish their table as they people-watched. The citizens of this strange new place seemed just like any other people they had met, but faster, and more focused. The whole city was in a great hurry, even in ordering and eating food, even when they put out their picnic blankets on the green and had a game of catch. Slate and Arianna emptied their cups and were asked if they wanted anything else. The waiter’s tone suggested they shouldn’t, and as the two didn’t have much money left anyway, they shuffled off.  They rode the waves of foot traffic for some time, looking in shop windows and getting shoved this way and that, before happening upon a small booth that advertised ‘Photographs’ on its side in colorful, rainbow print. Stopping to investigate, they were startled by an overly enthusiastic man who popped out of the booth and began his sales routine. “A picture of the lovebirds for a keepsake?” he asked with a forced smile. “A what? A picture?” asked Arianna. “A picture, of the two of you, to show your grandkids one day?” asked the man again. The two confused visitors just stared. “Listen, kids, you want a picture or not?” the man demanded. “A picture?” asked Slate. “Like a painting or drawing?” “You stupid or something? I said a picture, a photograph,” grumbled the man, glancing around for other potential customers. “What is a picture?” asked Arianna, embarrassed. “What’s a picture? My stars, you two’ve been living under a rock, haven’t you?” “No, not under a rock,” said Slate. “Aw, crap. Listen, you sit in the booth and I snap your picture and then you get to take it home. It’s like a painting, see, but…magic! It’s painted like that,” the man said as he snapped his fingers. Slate and Arianna still didn’t have a clue what he meant. “Okay, I see I’m not working with the brightest bulbs in the garden. You got any goldquartz?” the man asked. “A bit, yes,” said Slate hesitantly. “Three pieces?” asked the salesman, still using a condescending tone. “Yes, I suppose,” said Slate. “Well, you want something to remember your youth by?” the photographer asked. “I’m guessing you won’t remember too well on your own.” “Okay, sure,” said Slate, figuring he ought to have some sort of memento from when he and Arianna were in such a strange place. “Alright, then. It’s like pushing a stonker with you two. Into the booth, go on!” ordered the man, as he pulled back a felt curtain to reveal a small bench inside the booth. Slate and Arianna entered and sat on the bench, and then the man closed the curtain. Across from where the two were sitting, a hole appeared in the wall, through which they could see the salesman’s squinty eyes. They heard him say ‘Get ready!’ though they had no idea what they were getting ready for, and then a bright flash filled the booth.  Slate jumped up with a shout. “Hey, what are you trying to do?” he demanded of the photographer. “Calm down, calm down,” the man said. “Give me a minute.” “Are you okay, Arianna?” Slate asked as he helped her out of the booth. “I’m fine, thanks,” she muttered. “I don’t know why that cost three goldquartz, though.” “No, it cost three goldquartz for this, dimwit,” said the photographer, reappearing with a thick sheet of glossy paper stock in his dirty fingers.  Slate and Arianna watched in wonder as a likeness of them seated in the booth slowly formed on the paper, their outlines appearing to bleed through out of nowhere, becoming more defined and rich until the paper bore a perfect recreation of their faces, one just as detailed as the most lifelike painting either of them had ever seen.  They were pleased beyond belief with the keepsake, and began to say as much to the photographer, but he had already resumed his sales routine with another couple. The two giddy travelers merged back into the crowds again, careful to shield their new picture as they marveled at it while they walked. They found a spot on a bench, one of the city’s few free places to sit, and pored over every detail of the photo. As they sat, more and more people shuttled by, until the foot traffic became so congested that it almost came to a complete stop. "What time do you think it is?" Slate asked. "It's got to be late," Arianna said. "I wonder where everyone's going. Where is everyone going?” she asked a woman who was passing by with her children. “The speech is tonight," the woman answered. "The speech?" Slate asked "About the new weapon, in the great square,” the woman answered, before the crowd shuttled her off. “New weapon? Should we go hear the speech?” Arianna asked Slate. “We should,” Slate said. He admired the photo one last time, before he put it gingerly into his pocket and merged with Arianna into the flow of the crowd. They drifted with the current for a number of blocks before coming to a huge, open space in the middle of the city. The towering buildings of Opal Pools soared up all around the public square, all glowing with white light against the cloudy night sky. Slate and Arianna were lucky to get pushed up against a railing overlooking the very center of the square. From there, they had a clear view of a stone platform decorated with purple cloth and flowers below. A five-piece band dressed in colorful garb played jaunty music at the platform’s steps, as an acrobatic troupe spun and dazzled the crowd with their tricks. Children laughed and ran about, adults spoke in excited tones. A piercing trumpet call sounded. The crowd let out a great cheer, as a small group cut through the square below to take the stone platform. Amid cheering and applause, a woman approached the podium and began to speak. Her words came at once from all around, loud and clear. Slate and Arianna were confused at first, before realizing the voice was being recreated from a system of small boxes hanging around the audience. The crowd cheered after the woman had introduced herself, and then fell silent as she went on. “Thank you, Opal Pools. Good evening to you all! It is always heartening to see so many of our citizens together, as it is in our moments of solidarity and confederation that we rise above our individual existence and achieve something greater.” A round of applause went about the square. “Of course, it is this togetherness, this unity, which we as a people hold paramount. In the face of those in this world who don’t want us to enjoy it. Some hate us for it. They resent our common vision and the means we use to achieve it, calling our science the work of evil. The old days of a separate peace have come to a close. The empty spaces in Alm are conquered. Those in the west say our inventions will bring us to ruin. They say we are polluting and spoiling the natural world. But while their gross miscalculations and fear see our technology turning toxic the very mother nature that nurtures us, we know better. We can and will improve, we will certainly discover new ways to live in closer unity with nature, but this is a gradual process. For us to brake our progress now would be foolish and harmful.” The woman paused to clear her throat while the crowd murmured. “They would tell us that we can no longer follow our destinies. They would hold humanity back from its naturally ordained advance, and deny the power the creator has invested in us to think, reason, and invent. They would deny the revelations given to Dorieaye Khe-tK. But it will not be so. Let me say now that the people of Opal Pools are not, nor will we ever be, warmongers. However, our council receives reports every day about the recruitments in Jaidour, about the factories in Dane being utilized for military production. We all know it to be true. Are we to ignore these omens? Are we to stand idly back and watch the forces of ignorance march over us, to be remembered as vanished pacifists?” A collective cry of “No!” went up through the crowd. “They may have greater numbers, but we haven’t any reason to fear. The headlines have proclaimed it already, you all know the truth: My fellow Opalites, our scientists have breached a tall wall in our understanding. I announce to you today our appropriation of matter itself: the re-invention of particle energy.” The crowd went wild. “To be clear,” the mayor continued, “We have cracked open the very building blocks of the universe. With this knowledge, we have constructed a weapon so powerful that the Gods themselves would stand in awe of its might in their time. If the west wants to test our capability, we will make a show for them indeed.”  The crowd could hardly contain itself at this point. Slate turned to Arianna and said, "I'm worried how excited people are for this." "It's like a holiday or something," Arianna said.  “Of course it is. You kids aren’t from around here, are you?” asked a voice from somewhere nearby. Slate turned around to see a man grinning at him. “Were you talking to us?” Slate asked the stranger. “I was,” the man answered. “Y’all new to town?” "How can you tell?" Arianna asked. "You aren't cheering," the man answered. "We’ve actually come a long way to get here," Slate said. “We heard rumors about this new weapon all the way back on Aelioanei.” “You all really want to know the truth?” the stranger asked. “It’s why we’re here,” Arianna answered. “You want to come with me and hear it?” the stranger asked. “Ummm…” Slate hummed warily. “Listen, I’m not one of… these,” he said, waving a dispassionate hand at the frenzied crowd. “Well, what are you, then?" Slate asked. The man put a finger to his cracked lips and beckoned subtly, backing out of the swarm of people. Slate was reluctant to follow, but Arianna tugged him into action. They had to move quickly to keep sight of the squat stranger as he disappeared and reappeared amongst the crowd. When he reached the thinner crowds at the edge of the square, he stopped to catch his breath. “Follow me,” he said.
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    The city streets were virtually empty. Newspaper and debris blew around the eerie silence as Slate and Arianna followed their new acquaintance down the gaping canyons of concrete all aglow with magic light. The three reached a neighborhood where the buildings showed more signs of age, and the window displays and flowerbeds obviously received less care. Gangs of suspicious-looking men and women sat on porch steps and stood around fences like guard dogs. The stranger scanned the road for anyone following other than his confused visitors before darting into an alley, then up a cast-iron stairwell. Slate gave Arianna a look that said, ‘Well, we’ve already come this far,’ and clambered up the stairwell afterwards.  Upon reaching the fourth floor of the building, the man rolled through an open window. Slate swallowed and followed after. He found himself in a warmly painted room strewn with books, newspapers, and bowls of old food. Tattered maps were tacked to the walls alongside newspaper clippings. A string of tiny, rainbow-colored lights lit the cluttered space. “I’m sorry for the mess,” apologized the stranger. Arianna climbed through the window and tripped over a stack of dirty cups, sending it spilling and shattering on the floor. “Oh, no, I’m sorry,” she said as she scrambled to pick up the broken pieces. “No worries, no worries. Just leave it. Are you thirsty?” the man asked. “Yes, actually,” said Slate. “I would love something to drink.” “And you? Miss? Thirsty?” asked the man. “Yes... I’m really sorry about your dishes,” said Arianna. “Really, that’s okay. They were dirty anyway,” the man said as he headed into another room. “What were we thinking, following him here?” Arianna asked Slate in a whisper. "I don't want to drink anything he gives me." “I know, this seems strange. But we came here to find out what was going on in Opal Pools, and something tells me this guy knows better than anybody,” said Slate. The host reappeared with a tray of citrus drinks and set them on a table in front of a worn couch. “My manners,” he said. “My name is Maydal Crebbs.” “Maydal, my name is Slate, and this is Arianna.” “Nice to meet you. Properly,” Maydal said after finishing his drink in one long gulp. "Go ahead, have a drink." Slate and Arianna stared at the glasses. "Oh, I see. You're cautious. Makes sense," Maydal said. "Here," he said, taking a sip out of each drink. "You see? They're safe." Arianna laughed nervously. "Alright. I feel better now." She took one of the glasses, and handed another to Slate. “So, why did you bring us here?” Slate asked. “You can’t talk truth in the streets of Opal Pools,” Maydal said. “No one wants to hear it.” “So what’s the truth?” Slate asked. “Well, kids, let me tell you a story,” Maydal said, sinking back into the comfort of his old chair. “Originally, see, way back in the beginning, the eastern coast of Proterse was a much different place than it is today. Opal Pools was the first place settled after humanity crawled out of the caves up in Aurora Falls, and they retained a strong memory of what happened surrounding the Fall. They eschewed conquest and exploitation, wouldn't trade beyond their immediate network. Already isolationist, they broke all communication with the other cities of Proterse, after the Ojikef atrocities. After those poor people had their land taken from them. Refused to sign the One World Accords. Now, due to the spin of fate’s wheel, all of the best cropland and natural resources happen to lie on the western side of the Protersian continent. For hundreds of years, the people of Opal Pools lived a meager life, almost in their own Alm, scared to make the same mistakes as the Gods, scared to progress like the rest of the world. But as the generations here changed and forgot their heritage, the abundance that the west enjoyed became a target of jealousy. Stories of the luxuries in Jaidour and the schools in Dale began to cross into public discussion. Suddenly, the east coast wasn’t good enough anymore. But the leaders of the rest of the world resented Opal Pools for spurning their trade negotiations for so long. And so they ignored them when they finally came asking to participate. But Opal Pools had an ace up its sleeve. You kids ever heard of the Books of Knowledge?” Slate and Arianna nodded their heads. “Sure, everyone has,” Maydal said. “Mythical books, right, supposedly written by the Gods? What would you kids say if I told you that the Books of Knowledge actually existed?” Slate and Arianna feigned shock. “That’s right, kids. They’re real! And it had always been known in Opal Pools that the books were real. In fact, it had never been forgotten. But they felt that they stood as a testament to a failed society. They didn’t need them. And anyway, the Books were undecipherable. Or so we thought. But then came a twist, a brilliant young man named Dorieaye Khe-tK. Khe-tK, a scavenger, was on a waste hunt in the Grail Caves, to the south of here, when he stumbled upon an old translation key. He recognized some of the writing as the same strange language in the Books of Knowledge, which were all available in the archives of the municipal library. Khe-tK was able to steal two of the volumes from their unguarded display. Unfortunately, after the first two books were stolen, a group of older citizens raided the library and destroyed the others, in an act of senseless waste that was hailed at the time as heroic. But try as they might, those same elders could not contain the explosion of information Khe-tK had sparked. He created a laboratory and began producing miracles. And Opal Pools changed almost overnight. Within one generation, the people here went from outhouses to the most sophisticated system of plumbing on the planet, from couriers to telecommunication. My own father was a potato farmer. Can you believe that?" "Well that's incredible, right?" Slate asked. “All that change was a good thing, wasn’t it?” "I wish," Maydal said. "Only, so much destruction has followed. The mining, the logging. The cities and towns and countrysides that have been eaten up and turned to waste by the great tentacles of Opal Pools.” “That’s what must have happened in Satyr’s Quarry,” said Slate. “Right, right,” said Maydal. “And now, what we saw out there in the square? Well, it’s time to show the west a thing or two. Particle energy. It’s madness." "But why construct a weapon when there’s no war? Simple jealousy?" Slate asked. "You kids hear of the bombing in Jaidour?" Maydal asked. "No," Arianna said. "About two weeks ago, there was a political envoy from Opal Pools visiting the Great Hall in Jaidour. He and a number of aides were killed in a bombing. Conflicting information came out about who orchestrated the bombing, but Opal Pools was sure it was Jaidour, and vice-versa. And so hundreds of years of simmering quarrel are now set to explode into war." "So it's Opal Pools and Jaidour going to war?" Slate asked. "It'd be Opal Pools going to war with the rest of the continent, really. Which might as well be the rest of the world. It doesn't matter that they don't have the army to match; they have their weapon, one so incredibly powerful it has already destroyed entire tracts of land in its construction. But they don’t even know what they’ve got. They can’t draw the line from the Legend’s stories about fire from heaven to their own terrible invention. They’re about to test it soon. And we’re left to just watch, you and I. We just watch and wait and try to sleep.” “When are they going to test it?” Arianna asked. "Soon, I’m sure. I’ve heard next week. They’ve even picked out the venue: the Crescent Plain, to the south of here. It's madness, kids, madness.”  Slate turned to Arianna. “Then we’ll head to the Crescent Plain. To see this weapon with our own eyes.” “Do you want to come with us, Maydal?” Arianna asked. “Come with you?” Maydal repeated, his face scrunching up. “Ah, no, no. No, I’m not really the type to go running toward death.”  “Maydal, what’s the fastest way south?” Slate asked. “To the Crescent Plain?” “The war will come here soon enough, if that’s what you want to see. Just wait. But if you’re in a hurry, there’s a train from here to Grail’s Wharf. Then you can take a raft or canoe down the Gee River to the Crescent Plain. Now, I don’t want to tell you kids how to live your life or anything, but I really think that you ought to consider your decision for a while, before you go running off doing something you regret.” “Thank you, Maydal, but we really have to see this for ourselves,” Slate said. “I’m sorry if it seems rude to leave so abruptly, but we have a friend waiting for us outside town. Your information had been very helpful.” “Alright then, kids. Enjoy your war,” sighed Maydal. “Say hello to the Gods for me, won’t you?” Slate and Arianna ducked back out the window and raced down the fire escape, then through the streets of Opal Pools to the nearest train station. They rode back out to the park at the edge of town, and then raced along the long path to where Pilotte was waiting for them. Exhausted, Slate and Arianna followed Pilotte along the train tracks outside the city to another station, where they took the first available ride south to Grail’s Wharf.
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    Slate looked over at the silhouette of Arianna asleep in the seat next to him. Or so he thought she was asleep; she must have sensed Slate was staring at her, because she opened her eyes. “Watching me sleep, Slate?”  “No, I was looking out the window,” Slate lied. “You’re just in my line of vision.” “Mmm, I see. Where are we?” Arianna asked as she sat up and gave Pilotte a scratch. “Outside of Doth.”  “Doth? I’ve never heard of it." "No, me either." The train car was silent but for the steady rumble below it. Other passengers had drifted off to sleep or settled into books and magazines. “How many more stops do we have?” Arianna whispered. “I don’t know, I don’t think very many,” Slate answered.  Just then, the train entered a tunnel, which made the car quieter still. “I’m scared, Slate,” Arianna said as she rested her head on his arm. “What are you scared for?” Slate asked.  “And I’m scared of war. I’m scared of the weapon.” “I’m scared, too. But we can’t blindly believe everything Maydal said. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t believe anything you don’t see for yourself, and, even then, you have to question that.” “I just wish there was something we could do.” “There may still be,” said Slate. “But what?” Arianna asked. “You heard Maydal. Whoever or whatever is behind what’s happening doesn’t matter.” “The Maydals of the world are always convinced of the worst, but they don’t do anything about it. They’ve already decided that things are going to end badly, so they just wait for their worst fears to come true.” “What could he do, though? What could anyone?” “I don’t know. Yet. If war should spring from the Books, perhaps the ones we've got could somehow also prevent it.” “But who could we trust them to? The Protectorate is broken, apparently. And surely we can’t do anything with them ourselves.” “I don’t know yet, Arianna. But I don't think hope is lost.” The two were quiet for some time. “What did you think about how the paragraph in the Book we translated spoke of the Gods’ ability to fly to the heavens?” Arianna asked. “I don’t know what to think about that at all,” Slate said.  The train bumped, jarring some of the sleeping passengers awake. There were groans and mild curses before they fell back asleep. “I miss my mom. And Brit, and Mart,” Arianna said. “Yeah. I wonder where my brother is,” said Slate. “I’ll help you look for him." “Maybe, Arianna. Maybe when this is all over.” They curled into each other’s arms and were rocked back to sleep.  Sometime later, the train’s horn blared and a porter announced arrival at Grail’s Wharf. Slate and Arianna gathered their belongings and sleepily shuffled off the train.  An outrigger rested along the banks of the Gee River, some three miles from the depot in Grail’s Wharf. Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte waited outside until it opened, then chose a used canoe from the merchandise on display. They purchased supplies using the last of their goldquartz, and then paddled off downstream toward the Crescent Mountains. The Gee River was steady and smooth and required no portaging, leaving the friends free to talk and eat and stop when they needed.  After a long day of travel, the western sky began to take on the bright orange glow of twilight. The team beached the canoe and set up camp, where they continued to talk deep into the night about what sort of future was in store for the world. With no hint of rain, they slept next to each other under the stars. After three such days, the canoe reached the end of the traversable portion of the Gee River, at the feet of the Crescent Mountains.  The hike to the crest of the Crescent Mountains proved to be the most physically demanding thing either Slate or Arianna had ever done. Even Pilotte seemed to have a hard time with it, though not too. There was no recreational trail with cutbacks and signage. Instead it was up, straight up, for over seven thousand feet. The ground below the climbers’ feet consisted of tiny flakes of scree that made good footing impossible. There was nowhere to rest on the trail, and no sign of water. The sun burned hot, its glaring heat bearing down as the climbers reached innumerable false peaks. The three continued to climb until their muscles felt like they were going to burst, until their heartbeats were echoing so loudly in their ears that they couldn’t hear anything else.  At last, they reached the apex of the great mountain and could see down into the valley on the other side. They fell to their knees and screamed what little screams the thin air would allow, overjoyed to have reached the top and unwilling at that moment to consider they had only come halfway.  There was little in the valley below to suggest that there was going to be a demonstration of incredible power, nothing more than a few tents and observation towers scattered across the scrubby grassland that occupied the space between the foothills and the ocean beyond. “I was expecting more,” Slate said to Arianna when they stopped for something to eat. “Me too,” Arianna agreed. “But, who knows. I guess we’ll wait and see what happens.” The next day began with a blood-red sky. There was some small activity on the plain below where Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte camped, but nothing significant until sometime around mid-morning, when a deep groan began to sound from deep within the northeastern forest pass. The whole mountain chain resounded with its echoes, as a chasm grew through the forest into which tree after tree fell, sending swarms of birds fleeing.  “A monster?” asked Arianna. “A dragon?” asked Slate. A huge, metal beast of a machine emerged from the trail of destruction it had carved through the forest. It was not unlike the train Slate and Arianna had ridden from Opal Pools, but bigger, much bigger, and riding on self-contained treads. Sitting atop its base was an enormous black object resembling a great iron sirrk. Its enormity dwarfed the men who crawled about it to remove the cords that fastened it down.  After a siren sounded across the valley and some frantic activity, the cart on which the iron sirrk rested began to open. Its enormity was majestic to behold in motion as it rose up to the death-gray sky and then settled back down again in one fluid motion, reforming as a trebuchet. Heavy wires the width of trees were threaded through huge pulley wheels to draw back the arm of the trebuchet, and then without a second’s wait or warning the tension was cut and the cart launched the great sirrk up into the air. The sirrk swam through the sky for a silent few seconds and then landed.  Slate and Arianna were instantly blown back off their feet by an impossibly brilliant flash of light that consumed the whole plain. The flash gave way to a half-second of bluish-green glow, before a tremendous explosion sounded, one that shook the mountains. Three more blasts came in rapid succession, each resounding like the snap of immediate lightning.  The trees edging the Crescent Plain collapsed in a wave that radiated out from the gaping crater left where the bomb had struck. A massive ball of fire rose from the crater, belching enormous white smoke rings as though from the bowels of the planet itself. A tower of purple fire erupted skyward as the clouds of smoke and fire around it formed and reformed into horrible new phantasms. The shapes and forms of eons and eternities passed in and out of being in fleeting moments as the explosion drank up the life and sense of the world itself.  Just when it appeared as though the purple column of fire had settled into a state of permanence, the shape of a giant mushroom came billowing out of it, climbing even higher still. This was somehow even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of foam. As the mushroom cloud dispersed into the blue sky, the monstrous explosion assumed a new form, like a great flower petal, creamy-white outside, rose-colored inside. The purple tower and cloud now stood firm, as if they were to be a permanent part of the landscape. Slate stared up at the monster that had overtaken the sky. Pilotte cowered. Arianna was face down in the dirt, crying softly.  The air was now putrid and it made Slate sick. “Arianna...” was all he could think to say. “Slate,” Arianna asked in a small voice from where she hadn't yet moved. “What was it?” “I don't know,” Slate answered, shaking his head. A chilling wind swept over the mountainside. “Why would anyone need a thing like that?” Arianna asked as she struggled to get up. Slate had nothing to offer. “I don’t know.” “We have to leave," Arianna said. “Where could we go?” A stream of tears fell from Arianna's eyes, though she wasn't crying. “I just want to go home,” she said. "Me too," Slate said. "I've had enough of Proterse. We can go north, to see my friend Dahzi in Morai. He's a prince there. We can find shelter, and help getting back to Aelioanei.” “Okay,” Arianna said. “I’m sorry we ever came.” “How could we have known?” Slate asked. “How could anyone have ever known?” The two hiked back up the mountain, the specter of the particle bomb’s purple ghost still looming above them, and Pilotte slinking behind. The friends didn’t say a word as they choked their dinner down that night, or as they fell asleep in a sad embrace.
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    North of the Crescent Mountains, at Narlsay, Slate and Arianna learned that the kingdom of Morai was four days of travel away. It took all they had to keep moving in the face of their despondency. Pilotte too seemed broken, unwilling to hunt or even eat. Gray skies and unceasing light rain made the trip long and wearying. The tall walls of the little kingdom of Morai came into view on the morning of Slate and Arianna’s fifth day of travel. When they reached the gate, they gave their name to a guard, and then were admitted and shown to the castle a short time later. “Friends,” Dahzi said upon seeing them. “Why are we so sad looking?” “Have you heard about the weapon Opal Pools tested on the Crescent Plain?” Slate asked him “I’ve heard rumor. A report is due in this morning,” the prince answered. “I take it you have knowledge of the event?” “We saw the test,” Slate said. “It was horrible, Dahzi. Like nothing imaginable. It was like an explosion, but so much more terrible. It ate up an entire valley, and poisoned the sky. Neither of us can understand why a weapon like that would even be useful, apart from complete destruction. You couldn’t use the land you won after that. It is an awful, monstrous thing. There’s no hope in a world where an enemy has such a weapon.” “Who’s that?” came a voice from across the room. “Is that Slate Ahn?” Ertajj came running over to where the others were hanging their heads. “Hey, Ertajj,” Slate said sadly. “Good to see you.” “You wouldn’t know it from that look on your face. What happened?” “I feel like I’ve seen the end of the world,” Slate answered. “Arianna and I have just come from the Crescent Mountains. We saw Opal Pools test their new weapon. It’s… it’s a real-life apocalypse. We don’t need to wait for another Fall. We can produce our own now.” “You’re kidding,” Ertajj said, his mirth falling away. “Sorry to meet you like this, Arianna. But Slate told me lots of good things about you.” “It’s good to meet you, too, Ertajj,” Arianna said. “I wish it were under happier circumstances.” “I must tell my father and mother,” Dahzi said. “I don’t know what they could possibly do, but all leaders, in fact, everyone, must know about what has happened.” “What are we going to do now?” Ertajj asked. “Celebrating being back together seems wrong, somehow.” “We can’t let them destroy the good in this world with their horrible machinations,” Slate said. “But I am incredibly tired after our trip here. It’s been four long days. I think maybe Arianna and I will get some sleep, then we can talk about what sort of future we have in store.” “Good,” Dahzi said. “Go with my thane; he will make sure you’re well taken care of.” “Thank you,” Slate said. “It’s good to be together again, friends.” In their room, Slate and Arianna sorted through their items, in part as a way to sort through their thoughts. “What are you going to do with those?" Arianna asked Slate of his Books as she refolded her socks. Slate sighed. “I wish I knew. Maybe, if the Books are full of iron sirrks, perhaps its best that they don’t exist, anyways.” “But they already do,” Arianna said. “It’s just, now, Opal Pools is the only one using them. It's so unfair. The rest of the world won’t be able to do a thing.” “They’ve got the only quickshot,” Slate said distractedly. “What does that mean?” asked Arianna. “When I was with the pirates, in the Passage Islands, only one of them had a quickshot. A hand-held blastporter of sorts. He held all the power with it,” Slate said. “Just like Opal Pools,” Arianna said. Slate’s eyes flashed. “Arianna,” he said, “Imagine what we might be able to do if we translated all seven volumes... Opal Pools only has two. We could stop them in their tracks. We could reverse the whole game!” "But they've been at it for years," Arianna countered. "Even with all seven volumes, how could the rest of the world hope to match them now?" Slate thought for a moment, rolling ideas between his fingers. “We need a printing press,” he said with a snap. “Do you think there's one in town?” “Maybe," Arianna said. “Why do we need a printing press?” “Because,” Slate said, “We have to get the Book into the hands of as many people as possible. To everyone. It’s the only way to level the playing field.” “To everyone?” Arianna gasped. Slate nodded. “To every last person on Alm.”
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    Slate met with a small group Dahzi had gathered together in the castle the next day, to share with them his plan for the Book of Knowledge. There was almost instantly talk of rules and regulations, of secrecy, of the exclusion of certain undesirables from the proceedings, but Slate wouldn’t hear it. A whip-fast, complete saturation of the knowledge in the Book was necessary for his plan to work, and there was no time for talk or bureaucracy. Over the next week, the kingdom of Morai launched a massive printing operation. The seven books that Slate had traveled the world for were compiled into a masterwork and copied to templates, which were then printed off by the hundreds. Morai’s artisans painstakingly recreated the pictures in the Books on plates for the presses as the trees around the city fell in an ever-growing ring, their wood taken for the paper mills. Crates of the Book made their way out from the kingdom across the continent, and as a result people from all across Proterse started to flock to Morai.
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As the technologies and techniques in the
Book were studied, understood, and then put into action, life in
Morai started progressing exponentially. A super-lightweight,
wickedly accurate longbow was developed. Citrus lighting was next,
which increased the number of hours in the day that Mearror’s
people could read and thus how quickly they could learn and
produce. Trips out of the town’s walls to wild orchards were now
accompanied by fantastic steam-powered carts, unpolished metal
monsters that made the journey more efficient and so less frequent.
New medicines for all manners of ailments came available daily.
Each hour brought a new wonder.

Slate and Arianna were helping move a new
crate of Books from the presses when a familiar voice called
out.

“Who’s that there now?” the voice asked.

Slate turned and saw his friend Juke
smiling.

“Juke!” Slate said. “That’s another of my
friends, from Jaidour,” he added, to Arianna.

“It’s a really small continent, isn’t it?”
she joked.

Juke grabbed Slate and gave him a hug. “Who’s
this here now?” he asked of Arianna.

“This is Arianna Falls,” Slate said.

“Ah yes, Ms. Falls, I’ve heard a lot about
you. Though, you’re twice as beautiful as Slate described,” Juke
said.

“Oh, well,” Arianna said, blushing.

“What are you doing here?” Slate asked.

“I’ve come to see you,” said Juke.

“How did you know I was here?” Slate
asked.

“Don’t you know you’re famous? Word is
spreading, Mr. Ahn,” Juke said. “And so is your Book!”

“Famous? You heard about the printing?” Slate
asked.

“Heard about it? Friend, we’ve got our own
press operation going already,” Juke said. “They’re springing up
everywhere! You’ve started a revolution.”

Slate couldn’t believe it. “You’re producing
the Book too?” he gasped. “In the Ojikef?”

“Yes sir,” Juke said.

“Things are changing pretty fast back at the village. They’re ready
for it. It’s incredible. And I get to be the emissary between them
and the outside world.”

“How’s that going?” Slate asked.

“Seeing as I have no experience, it’s going
exactly as well as it could,” Juke said. “Really, though, I’ve been
able to help them quite a bit. And they’ve helped me, too. So
much.”

“Juke!” Slate cried with
happiness. “It’s working! Oh, I can’t believe it!”

Juke beamed at his friend’s elation. “What
you’re doing here will change the world,” he said. “But you must
tell me, how did you come to acquire the Book in the first
place?”

“Oh, yes, I’ll tell you all
about it, to be sure,” Slate said. “But first, let’s go see
Dahzi.”

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The friends all met in the throne room to discuss the future. “Anything’s possible now,” Dahzi said, his eyes bright. “Who know what corner of the world will seize the knowledge and make the greatest leap forward with it? Weapons are the least of it. Who knows what wonders are in store?” “It’s really amazing,” Ertajj said. “I never thought I’d live to see such an incredible thing. I was convinced the world was doomed.” “Well, I’m sure there will be more instances of the knowledge being used for ill,” Slate said. “It’s foolish to think that just because it’s out there that it will be used for good.” “But at least everyone is starting from the same page,” Arianna said. “For maybe the first time in history.” “There are still resource inequalities,” Juke said. “But we should not dwell on the problems in the world, not right now. There is so much to celebrate. A new day has dawned!” As Slate was now the unlikely face of a hero, he found himself longing for days gone by, when he could move unknown across the lands, when anonymity was his greatest ally. It seemed his journey was finally at an end. He was ready at last to go home. After goodbyes and promises of reunions, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte were carried away from Proterse in one of the newest inventions to spring from the Book of Knowledge, a hot-air balloon. Its pilot, a man named Geroniu, was a funny and effusive sort, and had all sorts of stories to tell his passengers to make the trip go by quickly. Six days were passed floating over the Florian Ocean in Geroniu's balloon. When verdant Aelioanei revealed itself on the seventh, the pilot let out a sigh of relief. “Oh thank the Gods," he said. "We made it." "Did you think we wouldn't?" Slate asked. "Well, I've only flown one of these two other times. This was pretty much an experiment. But it was a successful one, wasn’t it? Now, I’m going to have to change the gas and burn out the engines before we try to go any further,” said Geroniu. “We actually cut it pretty close." "Where on the island is that?" Slate asked, looking over the edge of his basket. "I can't quite tell." "We’re just outside Magri right about now,” Geroniu said. "Should have you back to Alleste tomorrow." The craft alighted on a wide field of scrubby grass. Geroniu rolled over the edge of the passenger basket and disappeared into a case of tools hanging from its side. “What can I do to help?” Slate asked. “Know any good jokes?" Geroniu asked brightly. "Dirty ones?” “There’s the one about this plumber...” Arianna began. Just then, something whipped past Slate’s ear. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “Hear what?” Geroniu and Arianna asked together. Slate heard another something whizz by, and then a thwack, as an arrow lodged itself into the balloon’s basket. “Run for cover!” Slate yelled. "We're under attack!" Geroniu dove back into the balloon's basket as a barrage of arrows came volleying from the nearby woods.  “Please, stop! We don’t mean you any harm!” Geroniu shouted to whoever was shooting. He took Slate by the collar, saying, “They’re going to puncture the balloon! They want to kill us!” The barrage of arrows stopped. “Maybe they heard you?” Slate asked. “Maybe they’re out of arrows,” Arianna countered. Slate rose up to peer over the edge of the balloon basket. He saw four people approaching. “Hello!” he shouted. “Stay there!” one of the people shouted back. Slate climbed out of the basket to face the strangers standing up. “My name is Slate Ahn,” he said. “What nature of Gods are you? Are you good or evil?” one of the strangers asked. Geroniu’s eyes lit right up. “Ohhh. They think we’re Gods. Could you imagine, if we played along...” “Absolutely not,” Arianna said sharply. Slate began his way toward the strangers with his arms in the air as a show of deference. “We are not Gods, friends. We are human, as you are. We’ve just come from Proterse,” he said to the two men and two women standing before him. “What nature of beast is that?” one of the men, still clutching his bow tightly, asked of the balloon. “It’s a simple assemblage of natural parts,” Slate said, “Composed in the most ingenious of ways.” “Natural? Flying through the sky? It can only be the supernatural!” the other man said. He fell to his knees, crying, “Oh, mighty ones, forgive us! Be gentle with us!” “No, no, no,” Slate said, moving to help the man up. “He must be a God! So kind and virtuous!” one of the women said.  “Please, please, listen,” Slate begged. “I can show you how we did this. You can even build balloons for yourselves, we can show you how. There is nothing to be afraid of anymore.” “How could you possibly teach such wizardry?” the woman asked. “Here!” Geroniu shouted, as he tossed a stack of Books to the confused quartet.  “What is this now?” one of the men asked with tears in his eyes. “Read, and you will see,” Slate said. “But I can’t read,” the man said. “Then have one of your friends here read it to you,” Slate said. “None of us can read,” one of the women said. “Can anyone? In town?” Geroniu asked.    “Yes,” the woman answered. “Well then go get one of them to read it!” Slate said.
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“As you command!” one of the
men said, gathering up the Books into his arms and running off into
the woods. The other three strangers followed after, checking back
over their shoulders as they went to see if Slate, Arianna,
Geroniu, and Pilotte had remained corporeal.

The balloon’s passengers waited for an answer
from the town’s educated to find them, rather than trying to go
into the city and risk causing mass hysteria. Geroniu proved to be
good company, a funny and jovial sort, and he, Slate, and Arianna
passed the two days’ wait talking optimistically about the future,
while Pilotte took it upon himself to make sure they had plenty to
eat.

On the night of the second day camped on the
outskirts of Magri, some two or so hours after sun-down, Slate
perceived a flickering light in the distance, one which moved and
grew until it revealed itself to be a small train of fire, burning
torches carried by a group of townspeople. The townspeople were
nearly silent, if indeed they spoke at all.

“Now what do you suppose
this is all about?” Slate asked, calling Arianna and Geroniu’s
attention to the activity in the woods.

“Well,” Geroniu said
apprehensively, “I can’t recall too many good things starting with
a mob carrying torches.”

“Wait and see,” Arianna said.

At reaching the field where the balloon was
sitting, one of Magri’s elders stepped forward holding a copy of
the Book. “Where did you find this?” he asked Slate in a voice both
kind and wise.

“The whole story is too much
of a tale to tell here, sir,” Slate said, “But what I can tell you
is that there is a printing operation in Morai, on Proterse, that
made your copies.”

“Are the four of you Gods?”
the man asked.

“No, sir, as we told the
others,” Slate said, “We are certainly not Gods. Well, maybe
Pilotte.”

“Do you know the Gods?” the
man asked.

“Well,” Slate joked, “I
cannot speak for Geroniu, but I do not.”

“I don’t know any gods
either, sorry,” Geroniu admitted, obviously disappointed to let the
old man down.

“Why have you come here?”
the man asked.

“We are on our way home,”
Arianna said.

“I see. And how long will
you be here?” the man asked.

“They’re heading home, but
I’ll stick around if you want, so that you can start to print
copies of the Books for yourselves,” Geroniu said.

The townspeople gasped and turned to one
another in surprise.

“That’ll be fine,” the man
said, trying to maintain his authority over the quivering group. “I
don’t see any problem with that. Now tell us, what are your
names?”

“My name is Slate Ahn. This
is Arianna Falls, that’s Pilotte.”

“Geroniu Chalk,” the balloon
pilot said with a bow.

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A voice came from under the flickering glow of the torches.  “Slate Ahn?” “Yes,” Slate answered, straining to see into the darkness. “Slate Ahn from Alleste?” “Yes, yes? Who’s that?” “Slate, you don’t know me, but I know your brother, Greene,” the voice said. Slate was floored. “You know my brother?” he almost whispered. “Currently?” “Yes,” the stranger said, as he moved to the front of the awestruck crowd. He was wide-eyed and nervous. “In fact, I can take you to his house, if you’d like.” “Right now?” Slate asked. “Or, whenever you’d like,” the stranger said. Slate knew he had no choice but to go straight away. “Would you do that, please?” he asked, “Will you take me to him?” Arianna grabbed Slate's hand. "Do you want me to go with you?" she asked. Slate thought for a moment. "No," he answered, "You stay here with Geroniu and Pilotte." "Are you sure?" Arianna asked. "I’m sure," Slate answered. “It’ll just be a short while.” Pilotte must have sensed Slate was nervous, because he walked over to his friend and buried his shaggy head in his chest. "It's alright, buddy," Slate said to the wulf. "I'll be right back, okay? There's something I have to do." Geroniu and Arianna stayed behind to answer the rest of the crowd’s questions. After a short walk, Slate left his guide on the main road and walked up the long path to Greene’s door.  He knocked softly, and then stepped back into the moonlight. There came nothing from the house, and so Slate looked back over his shoulder at his escort as if to question the whole ordeal, but he couldn’t find him. Slate knocked again, a bit harder, and then he saw a candle flicker to life somewhere in the depths of the house, through the window beside the front door. The candle bounced and weaved through the darkness inside, past the window to hide behind the door, which then creaked open just the slightest bit. “Hello? Can I help you?” asked the sleepy voice from behind the door. “Is it… I’m sorry, is… Greene? Greene Ahn?” “...Slate?” Greene pulled the door all the way open. “Slate, is it really you?” he asked, trying to recognize his brother’s face in the contorted shadows of candlelight. “It’s me! It is really you?” Slate asked, though he knew it was. He stepped up onto the porch and grabbed his brother, squeezing him tightly. “Greene!” he cried, as his brother laughed and pushed back. “Slate! Shhh!” Greene giggled. “What on Alm are you doing here?” “Well, I flew here, actually,” Slate said. “Would you believe it? You will. Anyways, how long have you been here?” “About two weeks,” Greene said. "Met a girl who lives here when I was up in Nowhere.” “You were in Nowhere?” Slate asked. “Me too!” “You’re kidding. I’ve been back to Aelioanei twice, to try and find Dad or you, but the house is empty. And now here you are! Where have you been?" “Just about everywhere,” Slate said. “It’s a long story.” “Slate! I can’t believe you’re standing here!” Greene said. “Did you hear about Dad?” Slate asked. Greene searched Slate’s eyes and knew something was wrong. “What happened to him?” “He died, trying to protect a stranger,” answered Slate. Greene fell back from the doorjamb into the darkness of the house. “I know. He wanted me to tell you he loved you,” said Slate. Greene reappeared, his eyes wet with tears. “Damn,” he whispered. “I know,” Slate said again. “It happens so fast, doesn’t it?” “I guess so. You want to come in, brother?” Greene asked. “We’ll have to keep quiet, but I’ve got some pretty good cider, if you’re interested.” “I’d love to, but I’ve got some friends waiting for me outside of town. A lady of my own, in fact. Would you rather come with? We’re on our way back to Alleste.” “I can’t leave Valera,” Greene said. “I know that sounds…” “No, no, I understand,” Slate said. “I’m happy for you.” “You’ll really like her, I promise,” said Greene. “I’ve got a little bit of business to finish up here, then I’ll come find you back home, okay? You going right back there?” “After we stop in Aislin,” answered Slate. “It’ll be great to be back home together!” “I still can’t believe it,” Greene said, smiling.  The brothers conducted a silent study of the moon. “So this is probably it, for now, huh?” Slate asked. “For now,” Greene said. “Just a little while longer, though. We’ll catch up. I want to hear all about your wild adventures.” “Greene, I tell you, you won’t even believe half of them.” “I can’t wait.” A voice called to Greene from somewhere in the house. “That’s Valera,” he said. “I should be getting back to bed so she doesn’t worry.” “Go to it,” said Slate.  He and his brother hugged again. “See you real soon,” said Greene, as Slate turned from his brother’s porch and began to walk back down the pathway to the road. Slate turned back without stopping and said, “Real soon. Love you, brother.” “I love you too, Slate,” Greene called after him. Geroniu stayed in Magri to help start their printing operation, leaving Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte to find their way back home on foot. Travelling north along the Parian Divide, they came to Arianna’s hometown of Aislin, where they shared their incredible story with Mrs. Falls and started a printing operation with Brit. After two weeks, with Mrs. Falls’ blessing, they retraced Slate's steps back over the Blue Bridge, though Mearror, and all the way home to Alleste, to find the tiny hut he had fled what felt like lifetimes ago overgrown. Slate and Arianna revitalized the dormant fields around the Ahns’ hut and nurtured the land’s fruit trees back to life. Greene and his partner returned to the village to help the endeavor two weeks later, and soon many others came to the once-abandoned place, to help it heal and regrow.  The world was forever changed by the dissemination of the Book of Knowledge, but none in Alleste save Slate, Arianna, Pilotte, and Greene knew that some of their own villagers were responsible for it. Slate Ahn had gone clear across Alm and back again, leaving it forever changed, only to reclaim his simple way of life in the north, far away from the rest of the world.
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The Books of Knowledge

  • ISBN: 9781505404678
  • Author: Graham M. Irwin
  • Published: 2016-12-07 21:50:15
  • Words: 72413
The Books of Knowledge The Books of Knowledge