LEGEND OF ALM
GRAHAM M. IRWIN
“Dad!” Oscar Reinier called. “Dad, I see something!”
His father, Max, stood up. The bottle resting on his belly fell and busted on the floor.
“What are you talking about?” Max growled. “See what?”
“Something in the sticks!” Oscar called back. “Dad, come here!”
Max stumbled to the door, kicking discarded meal containers and other junk around the floor. He moved through the sagging jamb and joined his son on the sunken porch.
“What’re you waking me up for? The hell is the big deal?”
“Look,” Oscar said, pointing over a low stone parapet to the charred skeletons of trees across the otherwise barren landscape. “Can’t you see it?”
“See what? What is it?” Max nudged his son out of the way so he could get at the binoculars hanging behind him. “Did you wake me up for a damn jinx?”
Max pressed his beady, bloodshot eyes into the binoculars and scanned the forest remains. He still couldn’t see anything.
“You little dummy,” he said. “There’s nobody there.”
Oscar stood his ground. “There is, Dad. Look again.”
Max grunted and looked through the binoculars once more. This time, he did see something moving in between the charred tree trunks. His swollen fingers fumbled to adjust the binoculars.
“It’s a person…” Max gasped. His face turned white.
“I told you, Dad,” Oscar said.
Max ignored his son. He pushed by him back into the shelter. Inside, he started to sweat and his heart began to race. He fell to his knees and searched the bottles on the floor to see if any of them had spirits left. He found one that did, and began to drain it.
“What are we going to do?” Oscar asked, joining his father inside.
“I don’t know,” Max said. “I need to think.” He pulled another swig from his bottle.
“Should I get the quickshot?” Oscar asked. “So you can load it?”
“It’s loaded,” Max answered. “I loaded it last night.”
“Why would you do that, Dad?” Oscar asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Max said. He shuddered and pulled the last drips from his bottle. “Will you get me another bottle?”
“No,” Oscar said.
“How about, get me another bottle, or you can’t have anything to eat?”
Oscar stared at his father and then laughed. “You’re pathetic,” he said. “I’m going to get their attention.”
“No!” Max cried. “Don’t call them here!”
“Why not?” Oscar asked. “The worse that they could bring would be far better than whatever it is you’re doing to yourself.”
The boy turned and went back outside.
“Oscar!” Max called after him. “Son, please! I’m sorry, Oscar! Don’t call them here, please!”
It was too late. Oscar had started hollering at the top of his lungs.
Max staggered back out into the dim daylight. The figure from the woods was drawing closer, carrying a large pack and wearing a suspicious grin.
“Look what you’ve done,” Max cursed Oscar. “He’s a madman. You can tell. Look!”
“Hello!” the stranger called out with a wide wave.
“Hello!” Oscar called back. “I don’t know. I think he looks nice, Dad.”
“Smiling and waving like a damned fool,” Max said.
“Strangers! How are we doing?” the man asked as he neared the parapet.
“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Max asked. “I’ve got a loaded quickshot, fair warning.”
The stranger stopped. “Well. I can leave right now,” he said, holding his hands up. “I don’t mean any trouble.”
“Not so fast. What’s in your bag?” Max demanded.
“All the treasures of the world,” the stranger answered. “Want to see?”
Oscar laughed, looked at his father, and then looked back to the stranger. “I do,” he said. “Please, come inside. Come inside!”
The stranger removed the wrap covering his head once he was inside the Reiner’s living room, revealing half of his face to be disfigured.
“What happened to your face?” Oscar asked.
“It was set on fire,” the stranger answered. “Went up like you wouldn’t believe. Had a beard then, that didn’t help. Can you imagine, skinny me, running around with my head on fire like a lit match?”
“That’s pretty funny,” Oscar said. He examined the scars on Max’s face for a while. “Does it hurt?”
“Not anymore,” the stranger said. “Or, if it does, I’m just used to it.”
“What’s your name, pal?” Max asked. “And what are you doing out there, alone?”
“My name is Bard Elientry. Purveyor of wild ideas and teller of tales.”
Max grimaced. “And what the hell are you doing out in the sticks alone? Telling your tales to the wind?”
“No, Max. You see, I’m on a mission,” Bard said.
Max stared long and hard at Bard, and then said, “Get out of my house.”
“Dad…” Oscar started.
“Shut up, Oscar,” Max ordered. “Bard, take your bag and get the hell out of my house.”
“Well that’s a fine welcome,” Bard said. “Horrible manners. I don’t know that I should be leaving just yet, though.”
“Can’t we help him?” Oscar asked his father.
“I told you to shut up, Oscar,” Max barked. He started towards Bard angrily, but tripped on a broken floorboard and lost his momentum. He stood back up and said, “I told you, you’re gonna take your bag and get out of here, or you’re going to be in for a lot of trouble.”
“Right, well it’s going to be dark soon, and I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Bard said. “I’m sorry, sir, but I will simply have to stay here for the night. I won’t be a bother.”
“Like hell you won’t,” Max said.
He lunged at Bard, who stepped calmly out of the way and let Max crash into a table along the wall.
“You son of a bitch!” Max roared. He pushed off the table and charged at Bard, who stepped out of the way again, sending Max falling over a stool head-first into a chair.
“He’s not very good at this, is he?” Bard asked Oscar, who tried not to laugh.
Max stood back up and turned around. He lifted the stool he had tripped over from the floor and swung it at Bard. “Get out of my house!” he roared. He swung the stool again.
Bard caught the stool and pulled it from Max’s hands. He tossed it to Oscar.
“Don’t make me shoot you!” Max said. “This is my home, and if you do not leave it I will kill you without remorse.”
“But your son invited me in,” Bard said. “It wouldn’t be very hospitable, to kill me. I’ve not got in mind anything untoward, really. It’s just too late to leave. I’ll freeze.”
“Where were you going to stay for the night?” Max asked.
“In a lean-to in the sticks, until I saw this shelter,” Bard said.
“It’s our shelter,” Max said. “And you can’t stay here.”
“Yours as in you found it first?” Bar asked.
“Mine as in I bought the damned place, before the Fall, okay?”
“Well that’s remarkable,” Bard said, “The Gods spared your little house. All the more reason you should let me stay here.”
“Don’t talk to me about the Gods. I’ve warned you enough,” Max said.
He barged into the kitchen and threw open the cupboard next to the sink. His quickshot was there on the shelf behind the preserves. Jars of pickled fish and jelly crashed to the floor as Max pulled the weapon out. He whirled around, kicked the swinging kitchen door back the other way, and aimed the barrel at Bard.
“Dad, no!” Oscar cried.
“It’s alright, Oscar. You’re not going to shoot me, Max,” Bard said.
“Oh no? And why not?” Max asked, shaking and dripping with sweat.
“Because you’re a sad old alcoholic, and you love your son too much to let him see that. You’re not a killer,” Bard answered. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” said Max, cocking the hammer on his quickshot.
“Sure I do. I know you have a picture of you with your wife there by your seat,” Bard said. “Judging by the mounds of trash around the seat, I know that you sit there and drink and think about her all the time. And the way to treat Oscar here, I know you resent him, for reminding you of her every day.”
Max trembled so much he could hardly hold the quickshot still. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded. “To say things like that?”
“Am I wrong?” Bard asked Oscar.
“You’re not,” Oscar answered. “Don’t worry, Bard. The quickshot isn’t loaded.”
“Dammit, Oscar,” Max said, throwing the weapon at his son. It fell on the floor with a loud thunk. “Why would you unload it? What if we really had to protect ourselves?”
“Against what?” Oscar asked. “Against who? There’s not a single person anywhere in Gray Haven, Dad. Except back at the bunker.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Bard said. “I mean, I’m here, aren’t I? The world isn’t empty, you know. Nearly, but not. You aren’t alone, Oscar.”
“Yeah, there are plenty of bandits and thieves about. Fall couldn’t kill off that scum,” said Max.
“That’s true, too. There are many unscrupulous types about these days. Scavenger mentality.”
“And how are you any different than them?” Max asked. “You’ve come here, you’ve entered my home against my wishes…”
“I repeat, Max, that I was invited in,” Bard sighed.
“Dad, this isn’t our home anymore. We can’t stay here. The only reason we even came back here is for your spirits,” Oscar said. “You know we should go back to the bunker.”
“You had better pray that this son of a bitch never leaves,” Max said to his son, “Because when he does, I’m going to give you the spanking of a lifetime.”
“Now, Max, you won’t be doing that, either, will you? He doesn’t hit you, does he, Oscar?” Bard asked.
“No. He just threatens all the time,” Oscar said.
“See,” Bard said. “I can tell because of how much you talk back. Hitting or talking, though, he seems pretty abusive, Oscar. And you seem sharp. Why do you stay with him?”
“Because he’s my Dad. He can’t take care of himself,” Oscar said. “He can’t even feed himself.”
“I can feed myself fine,” Max said.
“Name one time, Dad,” Oscar said. “Name one time since we’ve been back here that you cooked something to eat.”
“There’s the preserves…” Max said.
“The ones you like spilling on the floor?” Oscar asked.
“Come on, men,” Bard said. “This is all a bit silly, isn’t it? Let’s calm down and have a seat and get a fire going. Doesn’t that sound better than fighting? Max, have a drink. Oscar, I’ll cook dinner tonight so you don’t have to. And we’ll all have a calm, peaceful evening. Agreed?”
Max cursed and went to the bathroom mumbling to himself. Oscar tried to pick up some of his father’s mess while Bard worked to start a fire.
“When’s the last time you used the fireplace?” Bard asked.
“Not in a while,” Oscar said. “We have a generator.”
“You have a generator here?” Bard asked. “And you use it for heating? My, that seems like a waste of precious resource, doesn’t it?”
“My dad doesn’t like to burn things,” Oscar said. “Mom died in a fire, so he hates fire now.”
“Hey, I understand. I have a healthy fear of fire myself,” Bard said.
“Yeah. I just wish we still lived at the bunker with everyone else,” Oscar said.
“How long has your bunker been open?”
“It opened about six months ago.”
“You know, that means the sensors felt it was okay to leave protection. It’s happening all over. The world is being reborn!”
“You wouldn’t know it, living with my dad.”
“How many people still live in your bunker?”
“The Black sisters, and Unis. Lots of people. It’s still really cold outside.”
“And the only reason you two are out here is so your dad can drink?”
“How close is the bunker?”
“Less than a day away.”
“Well then, I’ll help your dad carry his spirits back, so you can return to your friends. How would you like that?”
“A lot, Bard, but why would you do that for me?” Oscar asked.
“Because people help each other,” Bard said. “That’s what we do. Like you help your father.”
“I have to.”
“And I have to help you,” Bard said. “You’re an awfully impressive boy, taking care of your father out here all alone, you know that?”
“Nah,” Oscar said, waving off the praise. “I’m just doing what I have to.”
Later that evening, after dinner was through and total darkness had fallen over the shelter, Bard read to the Reiniers in front of the fireplace.
“Now, Naia Solen thought that she really was a God, at first. She could fly, she could change colors, she could move things with her mind. She was tricked. Overwhelmed, awed. That is, until cracks in the facade began to show. There had been others elevated to godhood before her, but she was a clever one, Naia Solen. Her mind was a little bit different. A lot of people would have been content with their status and enjoyed the rewards. But Naia sought something deeper.”
“Idiot,” Max said.
“Sorry, what’s that?” Bard asked, looking up from his book.
“Naia Solen was a stupid idiot,” Max said.
“Now, now, Max, it’s just a story,” Bard said.
“Stupid stories filling stupid people’s heads with stupid ideas about the world,” Max said.
“I like the story,” Oscar said.
“That’s because you’re a child,” Max said. “But stories like that fill children’s heads with ideas you aren’t even ready to think about.”
“Max, we haven’t finished yet,” Bard said. “Why don’t we wait and see what happens?”
“Everyone knows that stupid story about Naia Solen. I’ve heard it so many times I could tell it myself.”
“Fine. Here’s another, then,” Bard said, flipping through his pages. “Here we are. The Story of Max the Drunken Ass. Ahem. Max sat around doing nothing all day. Therefore, this story has no plot and so it doesn’t need to be told. The end.”
“Jerk,” Max said. He pulled from his bottle and tried not to laugh. “You’re a jerk, Bard.”
“Is that a smile there behind that bottle?” Bard teased.
Oscar laughed. “Sat around doing nothing all day.”
“Listen,” Max said to Oscar, laughing, “You’d better keep your mouth shut!”
“Oh, okay, Dad,” Oscar giggled.
Max let loose with a deep, belly laugh.
“What a lovely thing,” Bard said. “All of us, sitting around, laughing. No one threatening each other. Say, Max, I told Oscar earlier that I’d help you carry your spirits if you agreed to go back to the bunker. He says it’s where all his friends are.”
Max’s smile pulled into a quick frown. “I can’t go back there.”
“Why not?” Bard asked.
“He yelled at everyone before we left,” Oscar said. “Told them what he thought of them.”
“Oh, is that it?” Bard said. “People are much more forgiving than we ever remember. They’ll be happy to see you. It’s a lonely world; there’s no time for grudges. We’ll leave in the morning, yes?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Max said.
“Of course you are,” Bard said. “Now drink up, you’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
Bard, Max, and Oscar left the shelter just after the diffuse gray of morning replaced the total black of night.
“Can’t I have a little bit? One bottle?” Max begged Bard.
“No,” Bard replied. “Not until we’re half-way there. You don’t even have to carry anything other than your food. You can do this.”
“We’re not far, Dad,” Oscar said.
“Not as far as I’d like to be, no,” Max said.
“Come on, there will be plenty of time for crankiness later,” Bard said. “We need to stay sharp now. The bandits wake early.”
All of Alm was covered in a thick, gray sludge. When everything that could have ignited years ago, during the Second Fall, it left behind ash that was in some places many feet thick. And there hadn’t been any storms to wash it away, at least not in Gray Haven, on the tiny southern continent known as Rashing Circle, where Max and Oscar’s bunker was located. The little precipitation that did fall only helped to turn the thick ash into muck. The muck was frozen all night and most of the day, but when it thawed, as it was now under the travelers’ feet, it made the going twice as difficult.
“Gods it’s awful,” Max said. “Everything is so damned ugly. Frozen, cold, and dead.”
“It’s gotten a little brighter lately,” Oscar said.
“You’re right, Oscar,” said Bard. “Why, to the north, some are even whispering the return of sunshine.”
“Not in my lifetime,” Max said. He was sweating more profusely with every step.
“Are you alright, Dad?” Oscar asked, stopping to offer his father a canteen of water.
“I’m fine,” Max answered. He rejected the canteen with a shaking hand. “I’m fine.”
The travelers entered into one of the many singed forests that had once greenified Gray Haven, where thousands of shards of burnt trunk stabbed at the silvery sky.
“Here has a mighty legend fallen. Do you remember what this forest used to look like?” Bard asked.
“I do,” Max said.
“Tell us about it,” Bard said.
“Why?” Max asked.
“We want to know,” Bard said.
“Ugh. Well, the trees were tall,” Max said. He sputtered and gasped, but spoke calmly. “They had proud branches, and broad, soft leaves.”
“Beautiful. Can you remember them?” Bard asked Oscar.
“I can’t,” Oscar answered. “I remember trees, and forests, but I don’t remember this forest specifically.”
“Your Mother and I came here all the time,” Max said.
“You did?” Oscar asked.
“I’m pretty sure…” Max said, stopping to put his hands on his knees and catch his breath, “… that you were made here.”
“Made here? Dad!”
“Fact of life. Give me some of that water,” Max said.
Oscar handed his father the canteen.
“Are there any birds around here?” Bard asked.
“What’s the point of asking?” Max asked. “There aren’t birds anywhere.”
“Not entirely true, Maximus,” Bard said. “Not entirely true. Tell me, have either of you seen any sort of wildlife at all? Since you left your bunker for the shelter?”
“Just mice,” Oscar said. “And insects.”
“And the bandits,” Max added. “They’re basically animals.”
“That’s a little harsh, Max. People do what they must to survive. Do they really come around that often?” Bard asked. “I’m surprised they even bother with Gray Haven. So many people left Rashing so long before the Fall.”
“They would come around the bunker at least once a month, for the past year,” Max said. “Though, they never once came out to the shelter, which we’re now leaving, for some stupid reason. I’m telling you, it’s foolish to go back. The bunker’s bound to get attacked by a whole gang sooner than later. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t happened already.”
“I don’t know, it’s pretty well hidden,” Oscar said.
“Nothing’s hidden forever,” Max grumbled.
The team plodded through the gray muck, as Bard told the Reiniers the story of Cujen Day, the intrepid explorer who had delivered the translation key for the Books of Knowledge to the Protectorate.
“Did Cujen Day ever meet Slate Ahn?” Oscar asked.
“Not that I know of,” Bard answered. “Though, it’s possible. They were both at the meeting that saw the Books united. Anything is possible until we know otherwise, isn’t it?”
“Ugh,” Max groaned. He vomited bile into the mud.
“Max. You hate my stories that much?” Bard asked.
“No,” Max said. He wiped spit from his chin. “I’m just not in very good shape these days.”
“Have some more water,” Bard said. “We can’t be far, can we, Oscar?”
“Not far now,” Oscar said. “Come on, Dad. We’ll be there soon.”
Before the evergray sky turned black again, the three reached a tall mound of stones and boulders resting at the base of a low, wooded hill. Oscar blew through a whistle he had in his pocket, which called out a pair of twins from the burnt brush atop the hill.
“Arden! Alta!” Oscar called. “It’s me, Oscar!”
The women hurried down the mountain to meet the travelers.
“Oscar, Max!” Alta Black gushed. “It’s so good to see you both again!”
“Alta, Arden,” Max said without raising his bloodshot eyes to meet them.
“Max,” Arden said in acknowledgement. “And who’s this?” she asked of Bard.
“That’s my new friend, Bard,” Oscar said. “He brought my Dad and I back from the shelter.”
“Thank you, kind stranger,” Arden said. “And welcome home, Oscar! Welcome home, Max! And a welcome home to you too, Bard.”
Max strained to contain his tremors and smile. “Thank you,” he said. “…I’m really sorry for all I said before we left.”
“Water under the bridge,” Alta said. “I’m just happy to see you both alive. Though, you chose a terrible time to come back. If you’re looking for food, you’re out of luck. Our supplies were stolen.”
“Oh no,” Oscar gasped. “Bandits?”
“It was actually our very own Leif Holden,” Alta said. “He took nearly all of the foodstores and left.”
“I knew it,” Max said. “I told you. We came all this way for nothing.”
“No, the two of you can help us,” Arden said. “We need each other right now, to get through this. I mean, the skies are getting brighter, aren’t they? We can move. We can check the Redblock bunker for supplies. But we have to stick together, to stay safe, whatever happens.”
“Great,” Max grumbled. “Bard, now that we’re here, can I have my spirits?”
“I wish you wouldn’t, but a promise is a promise,” Bard said. He sighed and handed the heavy sack of bottles to Max.
“At least come inside first,” Alta said. “So you can share with everyone.”
The bizarre path through the boulders and stones that led to the bunker was hard to maneuver, with so many turnarounds and false endings. And, of course, it was dark as night. The only way for the newcomers to find their way was by following a red string, which the Black sisters had strung from the bunker entrance. At the end of the confusing journey, Unis Dale was sitting in a chair just outside the bunker, next to its thick, iron door.
“Who’s that? Is that Oscar and Max Reinier?” she asked, trying to throw her glowbox light toward them. “It sure looks like it is.”
“Unis!” Oscar cried. He ran, fell onto his knees, and slid to where Unis was sitting, then wrapped his arms around her legs. “It’s so good to see you!”
“Let me get up, Oscar, so that I can hug you back,” Unis said.
“Oh, right,” Oscar said. He got up, then helped Unis to stand.
“Ohhh I’ve been in that chair for too long,” she moaned, stretching as she rose.
“It’s good to see you, Unis,” Max said.
“You too, Max,” she said. She looked at him with a mix of hardness and forgiveness.
“You’re reading Heliosphere,” Bard said to Unis.
“You noticed,” Unis said. “I am. I’ve read it before, but I wanted to give it another shot.”
“It’s one of my favorites,” Bard said. “It’s different every time you read it, isn’t it?”
“It really is. It’s been many years, and the story’s not quite what I remember it having been. Perhaps it does change with you,” Unis said. “What’s your name, stranger?”
“Bard Elientry. And you are Unis?”
“Unis Dale. How’d you meet my boys and girls here?”
“I saw him from our shelter and I invited him in,” Oscar said.
“Well, I ought to do the same,” Unis said. “For bringing us back our Reiniers! Why don’t you come inside? Get something to eat?”
“I…” Max stuttered.
“Don’t worry Max, nobody remembers,” Unis said. “There’s hardly anyone left here anyways. It’s the sisters and me, and then Crandal Wore, Vik Rjahl, and Nuren Gafh.”
“That’s it? Where did everyone else go?” Oscar asked. “We were only gone a month.”
“Come on inside and I’ll tell you all about it,” Unis said. “Sitting down.”
Directly through the circular, iron door of the bunker, there was a short hallway, then another, square, iron door. Through the second door was the main room of the bunker. It was built after the same plan as the hundreds of other bunkers, a combination living room, kitchen, grow room, work area, and storage locker. The space was cramped, but didn’t feel that way. Nor was it as bleak as its utilitarian design; a half-finished mural covered the largest bare wall, depicting flowers and animals of times past in vibrant color.
“Take seats where you like, I’ll put on a pot of glint,” Unis said.
Max and Oscar sat down on their favorite worn couch. Max reached for his bottle and Oscar reached for a wooden puzzle toy on the side table. He ran through the puzzle easily, as he had times before.
A voice came from one of the smaller cells off the main room. “Max? Max, is that you, you rotten bastard?”
“Is that Crandal?” Max asked. “Crandal, get your ass out here, you rotten bastard.”
Crandal Wore rushed into the living room. Bard leapt up to block his charge.
“Whoa!” Crandal shouted. He ducked to keep from slamming into Bard, and knocked over a table.
“Hey!” Max shouted. “What’s your problem, Bard?”
“Yeah, what’s the matter with this guy?” Crandal asked, squeezing his own arm to soothe it.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you came charging in here…” Bard started.
“It’s fine, Bard,” Max said. “Calm down. He’s my friend.”
“I’m his friend,” Crandal said. “What, you got a body guard now, Max?”
“No,” Max answered. “That’s Bard. Random guy who just helped Oscar and I get back here. I don’t know much about him.”
“Glint’s on, boys,” Unis said, carrying a tray from the kitchen to where the others were seated. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were awake, Crandal. I’ll have to get another cup.”
“That’s alright, Unis,” Crandal said. “I’m not thirsty. Thank you, though.”
“Things getting feisty in here?” Unis asked. “What’re you all standing up for?”
“This guy’s butting his head in where it doesn’t belong,” Crandal said, thumbing at Bard.
“Perhaps I am,” Bard said. “Perhaps it is time for me to continue on my quest.”
“You’re on a quest?” Oscar asked.
“A quest?” Crandal asked. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s nothing. He’s nonsense,” Max said.
“Say what you will, Maximus. But I’m headed to the eternal paradise,” Bard said.
Crandal laughed. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Succinctly,” Bard said, “I’ve got a bag full of ancient books, which I am taking to the eternal paradise, so that they may be preserved for all time.”
“What kind of books are you talking about?” Unis asked.
“Only the greatest books of all time,” Bard said. “The Book of Knowledge. The Way of Things. The Legend. The Way of Slate Ahn. The Unknown Lands Compendium. Naia Solen’s Tale. Need I go on?”
“Are you serious?” Unis gasped. She looked around to see if the others were as shocked as she. None of them were. “Guys, come on! You’ve never heard of any… Bard, how did you get your hands on those books? How?”
“Unis, my fellow lover of books. I knew it when I saw Heliosphere,” Bard said. “I always love to meet a bibliophile. You recognize why I’d want to deliver my books to the eternal paradise, don’t you?”
“I have read a lot of books, Bard,” Unis said, “And I know those titles you listed are among the greats. But I don’t think any of us have any idea what you mean when you say eternal paradise.”
“A land beyond the ocean gray, where the sun shines bright, and plants grow, and water flows,” Bard said.
“Oh,” Unis said. “Are you being poetic?”
“No, I’m being quite literal.”
“There are places that aren’t frozen on Alm?” Oscar asked.
“Why doesn’t everyone go there?”
“Because it doesn’t exist. He’s a storyteller,” Max said. “He’s making it up.”
“I am a story teller. But be that as it may,” Bard said, “Look.”
He opened his sack and started to pass around the books inside. Max and Crandal weren’t interested at first, and Oscar found the pictures only mildly entertaining. Unis, on the other hand, was so excited to see the books that she could hardly put her hands on them.
“It’s alright, Unis. Go ahead,” Bard said. “What did you do, before? Professor? Librarian?”
“I was a writer, believe it or not,” Unis said.
“That explains it,” Bard said.
“I wrote junky books about crime, mainly to pay the bills,” Unis said. “They were nothing like these.”
“Those’re some pretty old books you got there, Bard,” Max said.
“I see their import is lost on some of us. Please pass the books back this way, everyone,” Bard said. He collected them all and put them back into his bag. “So. Whether or not all of you care, anyways, my point is proven.”
“Hey hey, those books don’t prove anything about a mythical eternal paradise across the ocean,” Crandal said. “I got books, too.”
“Sigh. Well there’s no use in me trying to prove you wrong,” Bard said, “If any of you want proof, you can join me on my quest. You can come with me to the eternal paradise.”
“Stupid idea,” Max said. “Go row your boat on your own time.”
“Where do you suppose this eternal paradise is, Bard?” Unis asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve yet to get the map,” Bard said.
“What’s the point of a map to nowhere? He doesn’t even know where make-believe is,” Max said. He and Crandal cackled with derisive laughter.
“Would you have believed I could have gotten these books, if you hadn’t seen them?” Bard asked, holding his sack up with one hand. “Don’t be pessimistic. I will get the map. And I will go to the eternal paradise. Any of you can come with me if you wish. The offer is on the table. Or not. I’m going to enjoy my glint now, thank you.”
“What a nice idea, an eternal paradise,” Unis said. She took a long sip of her drink and smiled. “Where are Vik and Nuren?” she asked Crandal.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’ve been asleep for a day or so, though. Why?”
“Because I’d like to ask them what they think we should do,” Unis said.
“About what?” Crandal asked.
“Whether or not we should follow Bard,” Unis answered.
“That’s not really a possibility, is it?” Max scoffed. “You’re not really thinking about that seriously, Unis, are you?”
“Why not? What is there here for us?” Unis asked.
“Well. Sorry. I was just dragged here from the peace and quiet of my own house,” Max said, “I’m not going anywhere else. Especially not with him. And especially especially not into the middle of the damn ocean, to who-knows-where. Hasn’t even got the map. Please.”
“I know where we’re going, Max,” Bard interjected.
“Forget it,” Max said.
“Could I go, Dad?” Oscar asked.
“No, of course not,” Max said.
“I don’t want to stay here, Dad. We spent years and years here. Don’t you want a change?”
Max looked panicked for a second and then shrugged. “If you want to go, you can, Oscar. You can do what you like.”
“But, you wouldn’t come if I went?”
“Don’t think so.”
Unis poured herself a second cup of glint and offered the kettle to the others, who all declined.
“If I came, could I read your books along the way?” Unis asked Bard. “Hypothetically?”
“Oh, of course. You could read them all if you came,” he answered. “My only stipulation is that you can’t keep them for the night.”
“You’re awful protective of those books,” Crandal said.
“You’ve no idea what I’ve been through to get them,” Bard said. “Unis, that was a fine cup of glint. Now, is there a place to sleep? Or, would anyone mind if I fell asleep right here, while you all went about your business?”
“I don’t care what you do,” Max said.
“There’s a room off behind that table, with a couch in it,” Crandal said. “You can sleep in there if you want to.”
“Thank you,” said Bard. “I think I will.
“Let me get you some fresh sheets and a blanket,” Unis said, straining to get up from her chair.
“Thank you, Unis, but I brought my own,” Bard said. “I’ll be leaving early in the morning; those who wish to come with me, may.”
Once Bard had retired, Crandal and Max passed a bottle back and forth and made a mess in the kitchen preparing greasy snacks. Meanwhile, Unis and Oscar were joined by the Black sisters in a discussion about Bard’s proposition.
“What would you two think, about following Bard to this eternal paradise?” Unis asked. “You were pretty quiet earlier.”
“Well, of course it sounds absurd. But that being said, I’m just as tired of living here as anyone else. I’d take just about any excuse to leave, to be honest,” Alta said.
“I didn’t realize you felt that way,” Arden said.
“It’s only recently, I guess,” Alta said. “Since it’s started to get brighter. And then with Leif. I didn’t think things were ever going to change, so there was no reason to hope. Now that they might be, it kind of makes me want to change, too.”
“I just want to see the sun shine,” Oscar said. “I’m sick of the sludge and the dark. I can’t sit around all the time like my Dad can.”
“See, I could. But I really want to read those books Bard has,” Unis said. “I’d do just about anything for that. Even walk.”
“Arden?” asked Alta. “What do you think?”
“I’ll go wherever you do, you know that. And personally, I would love the adventure,” Arden said. “The peril, the whimsy of it. To follow an eccentric stranger to some eternal paradise. It would be romantic, epic. A story to tell for the rest of our lives.”
“That sounds like four yeas,” Unis said. “I can’t say I won’t miss the old bunker just a bit. But we weren’t made to live underground. We should be up in the morning with Bard, so we can leave together. Pack tonight. Light, for travel. Oh, such preparations to be made in such short time.”
“Not for me. I’m always packed,” Arden said.
“Good, you’ll have extra time to help me,” Alta said.
Oscar was growing frustrated. “I don’t want to stay here anymore,” he said. “But I don’t know how to tell my father I want to go with you. I can’t keep taking care of him forever, can I? I’m really confused.”
Oscar looked over to where Max and Crandal were dousing a frying pan with spirits and howling with laughter as the flames rose higher from the stovetop.
“Should I write it in a letter?” the boy asked.
“You’re pretty young still, Oscar. I don’t know what to tell you,” Unis said. “But I know your father loves you, and cares about you. I’m sure you could talk to him about anything.”
“Right,” Oscar sighed. “He does care about me, I know that much. Maybe I shouldn’t go.”
“Take the night to think about it,” Unis said. “I would support you either way.”
“If you decide to come with us, we’ll take care of you,” Alta said.
“I know,” Oscar said. “But who’d take care of him?”
“You can only help a person so much,” Unis said, “Until you’re keeping them from helping themselves.”
“But he’s my Dad,” Oscar said.
“I know, Oscar. It’s hard. Go ahead and think about it,” Unis said. “You’ve got all night.”
The next morning, Bard was surprised to have such a large crowd up and ready to join him.
“Well, this will make the trip four times better, won’t it?” he said happily. “My solitary quest has become a group adventure of the highest order! So now we’re off, to Benmeva.”
Alta and Arden tightened each other’s bags, while Unis debated which desserts were entirely necessary for long distance travel. Oscar pulled his backpack over his shoulders. Max struggled to ignore the preparations.
“You’re really going to go, aren’t you?” he asked his son.
“I have to,” Oscar said. “We only get one life, isn’t that what you told me?”
“I’m going to miss you.”
“You’ve got your friends, and Bard helped you with your spirits, so. You should be all set.”
Max tried to hide the bottle at his side by leaning onto it.
“You could stay,” he said. “I’ll be nicer. I promise.”
“That’s not it, Dad,” Oscar said. “I’ve got to go. But I’ll come back.”
Max stared at his son as tears began to well in his eyes. “No,” he said, standing up. “I’m not letting you out of my sight, Oscar. You mean too much to me. I’m coming with you.”
A salty, oily stew from Crandal saw the group off from the bunker before midday. They passed through the labyrinthine tunnels of the rock and stone pile, and out into the dim daylight.
“Here we are, friends,” Bard declared in the open air. “Prepare for sights unseen and wonders untold!”
“And what route will we be taking to Benmeva?” Alta asked, playing along.
“We’ll go up along the Turkan for a while, and then we will take a right,” Bard answered.
“Take a right?” Max asked. “Couldn’t you be a little more vague?”
“Don’t worry,” Bard said. “I’ll get us there, Max. We’ll all be in the sunshine soon. It won’t be long!”
Alta and Arden nominated themselves sentries, just as they had back at the bunker when it was first reopened. They stayed out in front, ready for whatever might be waiting to surprise the travelers as they made their way to the Turkan River.
“Are those two always together like that?” Bard asked Unis from their position back with the rest of the group.
“Yes,” Unis answered.
“Did they have any other family?” Bard asked.
“Well. You’re quite the conversationalist. I imagine the characters in your books didn’t speak very often?”
“Bard, please,” Unis said. “I can barely breathe right now. I don’t get around too much. At all.”
“I’m sorry,” Bard said. “I was being inconsiderate. Forgive me.”
“Unis doesn’t like to move if it’s not for a pot of glint or a new book,” Oscar said. “Isn’t that right, Unis?”
Unis grunted again.
“You’ll be alright, Unis,” Max said. “I’m surprised at how much better I feel after only a few days travel, and I’ve been in a drunken stupor for weeks. Our old bones pick it up again. You’ll get stronger, soon as syrup.”
Ahead, Alta whistled and Arden reached for her bow.
“What is it?” Max wondered aloud. “What do you think they see?”
“She’s drawing her bow, it might be bad… Perhaps we should get off the path, maybe?” Bard suggested.
He left the trail for the sooty ditch running alongside it. Oscar and Unis followed after him, while Max continued towards the Black sisters.
“Max!” Unis whisper-called after him.
“I know what I’m doing,” Max shot back. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Alta! Arden! What is it? What do you see?”
“Probably nothing,” Arden called back. She knelt down and dug into her pack. “But you should stay back.”
“Why? Why are we stopped?” Max asked.
“We saw something moving,” Alta said.
“That’s pretty descriptive,” Max said as he finally reached where the Blacks were standing. “Where did you see it?”
“There,” Alta said, pointing to a tight stand of dead trees close to the path. As she was pointing, the something moved again, though it was hard to discern what it was, on account of it and everything else being the same general shade of gray.
“I saw it, too!” Max said.
Arden located the optical glass in her pack, and used it to get a better look.
“It looks like a person,” she said with one eye on the looking glass. “A… gray person. The same color as the ash. Probably smeared in it.”
Alta shivered. “It makes me nervous,” she said, “There could be hundreds of them camouflaged like that, all around us.”
“Well, if they’re hiding from us, that’s good,” Max said. “At least they fear us.”
“Or they’re waiting. Don’t you fear them?” Arden asked.
Max ignored the question and called back to the others hiding in the ditch, “Come on up! It’s just a person!”
Unis moaned. “Oh, I want to stay in the ditch. My legs hurt so much. Can’t we just stay in the ditch?”
“Come on, my dear,” Bard said, offering his hand. “Let me help you up.”
Oscar scrambled up to the road and waited for Bard, who essentially carried Unis up the embankment. The three met Max and the Blacks on the path ahead.
Alta took in a deep breath. “Alright,” she said, letting the breath out. “There’s someone up ahead, but we’re going to press on. They don’t seem to be threatening. We should all stay close together for the next hundred yards or so, in case anything happens. We’ll take up the rear for a while.”
“Follow after us until we pass them,” Arden said. “Then we’ll fall back.”
She and her sister moved cautiously forwards, their hands twitching for their bows. Soon, they came to the stranger, with the other travelers close behind.
The stranger didn’t say anything, or wear any sort of concern on his ashy face. He didn’t seem fearful or fearsome. He was simply two large, brown eyes gazing out from his sunken face without expression.
“What is it?” Oscar asked.
“It’s a person,” Bard said. “Hello? Hello, are you there?”
The stranger squinted, which cut deep lines into the ash on his face, and answered, “Hello.”
“He can talk,” Max said. “Buddy, why are you out here, naked?”
“I don’t have any clothes on,” the stranger answered.
“That’s obvious, son. Why are you out here in the muck?” Unis asked. “Aren’t you cold?”
“I was expelled,” the man said.
“Why?” Alta asked. “What did you do?”
“I killed a man,” the stranger said.
Alta and Arden steeled their stances.
“Calm yourself, girls,” Unis said.
“And what are you going to do now?” Max asked.
“I am probably going to die,” the stranger said. “Out here, alone.”
“Why don’t you do something to keep that from happening?” Unis asked.
“They won’t let me back in,” the stranger said.
“Then go somewhere else,” said Max.
“I had to kill him,” the stranger said. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“None of us asked,” Max said. “It’s between you and the Gods. But that’s no excuse to be out here, naked, just waiting to freeze to death.”
“He was trying to take my things,” the stranger said.
“Well they’re gone now, and it’s over. You need to stand up for yourself, you need to keep yourself alive,” Alta said.
“I want to go back home,” the stranger whined.
“You can’t,” Alta said.
“I had to kill him,” the stranger said. “It wasn’t my choice.”
“Come on, let’s go,” Bard said. “Let’s leave him be.”
“I had to kill him, or he would have killed me,” the stranger insisted. “It wasn’t my fault.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Bard said. “I wish we could have been more help. But we’ve got to be going.”
“You all had better be careful,” the stranger said to the backs of the travelers as they continued down the path. “You had better watch out for the others. They’re cruel.”
Unis turned back and said, “Thank you, and good luck, son. Remember, only you and the Gods know if what you did was right. Make your peace and take care of yourself.”
After another hour through the ghost forest, the scraggly skeleton trees gave way to wide, open plains filled with shallow sludge. It was ugly, but easier to cross, and any possible dangers ahead were laid bare.
“Is it right to kill someone if they are trying to kill you?” Oscar asked, two or so hours into the travelers’ trek across the plain.
“It is justifiable,” Max answered. “As a last resort. I wouldn’t hesitate to end someone’s life who was trying to end mine. And I would also kill anyone trying to kill you.”
“Ah, these are the promises love are made of,” Alta said.
“Different cultures have different rules, Oscar,” Bard said. “I’ve been places where murder is practically legal, for just about anything.”
“That’s not culture, that’s just barbarism,” Max said.
Arden scoffed. “And wasteful. A human life is valuable. If a problematic individual can be subdued and rehabilitated, that is so much more worthwhile to society than killing them.”
“That takes a lot of time and money that no one has right now, Arden,” Alta said.
“I’m not talking about now, Alta. Everything is different now. I’m talking about hypothetically. In the best of worlds. Before, or in the future. And I know already how you feel about the issue.”
“So you shoot first and ask questions later, Alta?” Bard asked.
“I’m very intuitive,” Alta answered. “If I shoot, it’s for the right reason.”
“But isn’t it as mean as murder, to exile and leave that man out in the wild like that?” Oscar asked. “Does the eternal paradise have murder? Do you think people get expelled?”
“No,” Bard said. “Well, I should hope not. It’s eternal.”
“That makes sense,” Oscar said.
“You’re all distracting me with interesting conversation,” Alta said. “Come on Arden, let’s get ahead so we can keep a better eye out.”
“After you, sister,” Arden replied.
When the travelers came to it, the Turkan river was still moving, despite being thick with viscous, oily sludge. It straked through the plain, gurgling and spitting up lazy bubbles as it flowed.
“Ah,” Max said, standing at the banks of the filthy water. “The mighty Turkan. Toxic Flow. I remember her well.”
“Not quite what it used to be. But in any case, here’s where we take our right,” Bard announced. “It won’t be long before we’re in Benmeva.”
“Did you all know that Benmeva is one of the oldest cities in the world?” Unis asked.
“The oldest, according to some,” Bard said. “It depends on whose history you read.”
“No, the oldest is Aurora Falls,” said Max.
“How can there be different histories?” Oscar asked.
“You’ll see,” Bard said.
“Have you ever been to Aurora Falls before?” Unis asked Bard.
“I haven’t,” he answered. “Though I’ve been to the delta before, just outside it. I’ve seen the ancient sea-caves.”
“I thought that was a hoax,” Max said.
“No, they really found the Navel of the World, the same one from The Way of Slate Ahn. I toured it,” Bard said.
“I could dig out a hole and tell you it’s where Mother Winter takes her craps, but it wouldn’t prove anything,” Max said.
“I’d pay to see that anyways,” Bard said. “Besides, there were many other discoveries that prove the veracity of much of Slate Ahn’s story. Before the First Fall. Same for Naia Solen.”
“Now that’s where I have to stop you again. It’s a lot more reasonable to think that Slate Ahn was a real person than Naia Solen,” Max said. “Her story is pure fantasy.”
“Perhaps not though, Max,” Unis said. “Documents from the evacuation of Great City showed that there was in fact a person who single-handedly brought down the main power system that kept the Cities alive. She enabled their freedom, and through that, our freedom.”
“Freedom to die. You show me those documents,” Max said.
“You know everything was destroyed,” Unis said.
“All too well,” Max sighed. “If Naia Solen was real, then she didn’t save anyone. In fact, she got us all killed. If we were still in the Cities, no one would have died.”
“How long ago were the Cities built?” Oscar asked.
“Many hundreds of years ago,” Unis answered.
“Or, you could go further back, to before the First Fall,” Bard said. “You’ve all heard of The Compendium of the Undiscovered Lands, yes? Okay. Well did you all know that the asteroid family that caused Alm’s destruction has struck before? That its orbit through the galaxy crosses our own every thousand years?”
“No,” Oscar said. “Dad, is that true?”
“Well, you’ve blown it,” Max sighed. “Way to go, Bard. Why don’t you tell him that the Tooth Gnome is a lie, too?”
“Is it true?” Oscar asked again.
“It is,” Max said. “That’s what it all comes down to. Everything we’ll ever do is pointless. It’ll be incinerated and some other chump or species will take up the mantel. But don’t let it get you down, okay? You gotta keep going, right?”
“Right,” Oscar answered. “I guess.”
“They tried to stop the Second Fall,” Bard said. “They sent men and women to the moon to try and stop it, but they left too late.”
“That’s thanks to Naia Solen, too,” Max said. “Turned the world on its head for her own selfish aims.”
The Black sisters were a fair distance down the path from the others again. They hollered for attention.
“Look!” Alta cried, pointing ahead.
Ruins previously shielded in filthy mist had started to reveal themselves. Some of the taller ones rose up from the bleak landscape, clear into the clouds.
“Buildings?” Max wondered.
“I can’t believe they’re still standing,” Unis said.
“Is this Benmeva?” Oscar asked.
“I think so,” Bard answered.
“Where to now?” Arden asked.
“We have to find Joinder Street,” Bard answered.
“Where is that?” Alta asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Bard said.
“You don’t know?” Max asked.
“I have an idea of where it is,” Bard answered.
“Which is?” Alta asked.
“It will definitely be somewhere in Benmeva.”
“Ah, crap,” Max said. “Where are you taking us, Bard?”
“Trust him,” Unis said. “I know he’ll lead us where we need to go.”
“Well,” Max said, “It’s better than sitting around, I guess.”
“A trip to the eternal paradise: better than sitting around,” Alta said. “The immortal words of Max Reinier, everyone.”
Another fifteen minutes found the travelers entering the first vestiges of Benmeva. Crumbling foundations and occasional surviving pieces of road gave a semblance of what the city had once been. The ruins became more substantial as the streets progressed, with building remnants coming up like foothills from the muck. When they grew so high as to still hold windows and second floors, color began to show here and there, in bits of old wallpaper and fabric.
“Purple!” Unis said. “I loved purple.”
With the team distracted, a figure appeared, and drew a knife around Bard’s throat.
“Don’t move,” he ordered through his fabric mask.
Alta drew her bow at the stranger’s head.
“You don’t want to fire that arrow,” the stranger said. “I’ll scream and you’ll have the entire place on you in a minute.”
“Let him go or I shoot. I don’t care about your threats,” Alta said.
“It’s not a threat,” the stranger said. He started to pull the knife across Bard’s neck.
Bard dropped out of the bandit’s arms, and grabbed his throat with one hand and the knife with the other.
“Sorry,” Bard said as he kicked out his attacker’s legs. He fell with the bandit, to drive his own knife into his thigh.
“You bastard!” the man howled. “My leg!”
Bard stood up, feeling at his neck for blood. There was a lot of it, though the wound had already begun to coagulate. He reached down and pulled the mask off the bandit groaning on the ground.
“I need your handkerchief for the nasty cut you’ve given me,” he said. “Your leg will be alright in about a week. Now don’t go attacking anyone ever again, okay?”
The man on the ground stared at Bard in disbelief, then remembered his pain and started to wail.
“He’s going to attract attention,” Max said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The team stole through the ruins of Benmeva with nervous speed. With the reappearance of storefronts and avenues came the reappearance of street signs. Joinder Street eventually came up on one of them, after a stretch named for trees and another for politicians.
“See?” Bard said, beaming at the street sign. “Joinder Street. I told you we’d find it.”
“Dumb luck,” Max said.
“Luck’s pretty sharp, Max,” Bard said. “She always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Now, we need Branda’s Bait Shop. The numbers go up this way… So I think we should go that way.”
Alta and Arden kept their weapons drawn as the travelers crept through the desolate streets. The city looked empty but didn’t feel it; there was a distinct presence peering out from the grimy windows and lurking around the cracked doorways.
“There simply must be people inside these buildings,” Arden said. “There are recent footprints, everywhere.”
“Do ghosts leave footprints?” Alta asked.
“There it is,” said Bard, stopping to look up at a fish winking down at him from a faded sign. “Branda’s Bait.”
“I’m not going in there,” Max said.
“You don’t have to,” said Bard. “You all just stay here, and I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll come with you, Bard,” Arden said.
“That’s alright, Arden, thank you,” Bard said. “Just keep an eye out. I’ll be back shortly.” He disappeared through the door of the shop.
An icy current of air moved down Joinder Street, passing straight through the travelers in its slow crawl.
Max turned up his collar and sighed. “What’s taking him so long? I don’t like this at all.”
“Me either. It’s alright, though. We’ll be leaving soon enough,” Unis said.
“Where are all the people?” Oscar wondered.
“They’re all around,” Max said. “Can’t you feel it? Just listen.”
The travelers stood silent, listening.
“I can’t hear anything, Dad,” said Oscar.
“Exactly,” Max said.
“I don’t follow, Max,” said Alta. “You’re imagining things.”
Bard reappeared at the door to the bait shop, holding a book up in the air. “Got it!”
“Really?” Max asked. “That was it? It was that easy?”
“Oh, it wasn’t easy at all. In fact, it was all coordinated very concisely, the book being here, my being here. It’s been months in the planning. But I have the map now,” said Bard. “That’s all that matters.”
“Who are you?” Max asked. “Really, who are you?”
“Bard Elientry, teller of tales,” Bard said, tipping his hat. “Now, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we should be getting along.”
“You’re funny,” said Oscar, laughing.
“That too,” said Bard. “Northward! To freedom.”
The travelers had nearly made it out of the ruins of Benmeva when warning cries sounded from atop a crumbling Alri in the near distance.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” said Alta. “What do you see, Arden?”
Arden looked through her glass. “In the Alri… Two men. With quickshots… Take cover!”
A strake of quickshot charges swept across the ground towards Max. He grabbed Oscar and leapt through the nearest empty window frame.
Alta aimed through the sightglass on her bow and loosed an arrow. It flew towards the Alri, there was a cry, and then one of the shooters in the tower fell out from his hiding spot, disappearing behind a building before they hit the street below.
“Great shot!” Arden said.
More quickshot fire chased Unis and Bard from the street, as the Black sisters took cover. They ran to opposite sides of the street and each loosed two more quick arrows, which failed to strike.
Quickshot charges churned the mud at Arden’s feet. She jumped and rolled as pieces of the wall behind where she had been standing were blasted away. Alta let another arrow fly, which must have incapacitated the second shooter in the Alri, as the fire stopped.
“Come on!” Arden called to the others in hiding. “The shooters are down, we’ve got to move while we can!”
“No way in hell,” Max shouted from his hiding place. “They’ll destroy us. We’re corralled here like cattle.”
“Exactly, if we stay here, we’re sitting ducks,” Alta said. “We couldn’t defend ourselves if there are many more of them. Come now, all of you! You must!”
Max carried Oscar back out to the street and set him down, while Unis struggled to keep up with the team’s flight down Joinder street.
“Take a right at Burner!” Bard shouted.
The team rounded a corner to see two bandits with hatchets rushing at them. Bard picked up his pace and flew at one of them, catching him around the waist and bringing him down into the mud.
Alta shot an arrow at the second attacker and missed. As he brought his hatchet down through the air, Alta swung her bow around and caught his arm. She twisted her weapon, which popped the hatchet out of the bandit’s hand, then kicked him over towards her sister, who was waiting to knock him in the back of the head. He fell face-first into the mud and stayed there.
Bard and his attacker rolled through the street. The bandit managed to find himself on top after their tumble, where he struggled to keep Bard still long enough to find a place to sink his hatchet. Max came up behind the struggle and brought both hands down like a hammer on the bandit’s head, knocking him both unconscious and off Bard.
“Up,” Alta called. “Everyone, come on, get up!”
More quickshot fire blasted from a nearby window. Alta dispersed the shooter through the window with a blind shot.
“Behind us!” Unis screamed. “There are more of them behind us!”
The roar of dozens of angry cries came up through the air.
“Turn!” Bard called.
The team careened around a corner to find an impromptu barricade of armed men and women blocking their way.
“Don’t slow down, let them have it, Arden!” Alta cried.
The sisters picked off five of the blockade swiftly and succinctly. This so stunned the human wall that the other travelers never even had to slow down; they burst through the blockade with such force and suddenness that they could not be stopped.
“Heads up!” Max called to Bard. He scooped up two fallen quickshots as he passed through the confused would-be-attackers, and tossed one ahead.
A wild-eyed man came from seemingly out of nowhere, his fingers locked like claws toward Bard’s neck. Bard shot twice, striking the attacker’s leg with both charges, but they did nothing to deter him. Bard shot him in the other leg, but still, the madman raged. It wasn’t until a third shot hit him directly in the kneecap that he faltered. His leg broke at the knee and he fell to the ground, screaming
“This is hell,” Bard said, running and firing back at the crazed attackers. When his firearm was empty, he hurled it over his shoulder. “Who’s the mayor of this town, anyways?”
“We don’t stand a chance,” Arden said. “Run!”
The team raced as fast as Unis’s faltering gallop allowed. Despite her protests for the others to go ahead without her, they stayed close, and managed to make it out of Benmeva without suffering any egregious injuries or having to kill too many of the violent ruin-dwellers.
A long way into another gray field outside the former city, Bard stopped to breathe.
“Oh… Oh Gods… I didn’t think we would survive that one,” he panted.
“Why are we stopping?” Oscar asked, still terrified.
“We’re safe out here. They won’t leave the city,” Bard said.
“Why not?” Max asked.
“Because…” Bard said, putting his hands on his knees, “…there are worse things along the coast than human beings.”
“Like what?” Oscar asked.
“Oh, you know,” Bard said between gasps, “The monsters.”
The team walked for nearly five more hours without a break.
“Where are the monsters?” Oscar whispered to his father.
“In Bard’s head,” Max answered.
“Monsters still exist,” Bard said, contradicting Max. “They flourished in the time of the Cities, and did not all perish in the Fall.”
“You know, my great-grandfather used to tell me that the Cities were the greatest idea Alm ever had,” Max said.
“If they were so great, we’d probably still be living in them,” Alta said.
“Do you really think?” Bard asked.
“If it weren’t for Naia Solen, I honestly don’t think anything would have changed. I think we’d still be in Cities now,” Unis said.
“But we’d want a change eventually, wouldn’t we?” Bard asked. “Isn’t that human nature? No matter how good a thing is, something new is better. It’s just how we’re constructed.”
“I don’t know about that. I like the same things I’ve liked for my whole life,” Unis countered. “In fact, regularity might be my favorite thing.”
“Humans in groups act differently than how they act as individuals. Culture changes. How could we have stayed in cultural stasis, forever?” Bard asked.
Up ahead, Alta called out for help. “Does anyone have brunis?”
“I have some,” Bard answered. He raced ahead to where Alta crouched next to Arden. “What happened?”
“She grayed out,” Alta said. “She started talking about how hopeless everything was. I could tell she was starting to feel sick.”
“What is it?” Unis asked when the others had caught up.
“She grayed out,” Alta said.
“Poor thing,” Unis said.
“What does grayed out mean?” Oscar asked.
“People who remember what happened… You were pretty young during the Fall. I doubt you remember too much. Sometimes a mind goes a little funny when it thinks about how horrible it all really was, to live through. You go to a terribly dark place, where it feels like all the good has gone from the world,” Unis explained.
“It’s alright, though. It’s normal. We all feel like that sometimes,” Max said. “She looks to have it pretty bad.”
“It’s been this way for years. It comes and goes,” Alta said. “There, see, she’s already waking up.”
Arden opened her eyes. She was mildly alarmed, but quickly knew what had happened. “I’m sorry, everyone,” she said. “I didn’t see that one coming.”
“It’s alright,” Alta said. “I saw it. I caught you before you even hit the ground.”
“We’re close to the ocean now, Arden,” Bard said. “And then we’re going to the eternal paradise. You’ll see the sun shine. Don’t you worry.”
“Right,” Arden said, visibly struggling to stay optimistic. “It really will happen. I have to remember that.”
“I wouldn’t promise it if it wouldn’t,” Bard said.
Max bit his lip and motioned for Oscar to join him.
“Come on,” he said to his son, “Let’s take a break.”
Arden took some of Bard’s bruins, and Max and Oscar left the group for a while. They only went down the road a bit, to play a game of catch with a throw-ring Oscar had deemed necessary for the trip.
“Let it go sooner,” Max instructed.
“I know how to throw, okay, Dad?” Oscar scoffed.
“Well I’m tired of picking it up, so throw it at me if you can throw. Catch.”
“Is Arden going to be okay? Catch.”
“That’s up to her,” Max said. He walked over to where Oscar’s errant throw had ended up and plucked the throw-ring from the muck. “Here, watch when I let go.”
The throw-ring sailed across the ground slowly, straight into Oscar’s hands.
“I can’t do it that well,” Oscar said. “Wait. Here, like this?”
He tossed the throw-ring, letting go at just the right time. It soared up just the slightest bit, then came back down, into Max’s hands.
“That’s it!” Max said. “Good job. See how you point at me to direct it?”
“I do, I get it,” Oscar said. “Pretty cool.”
“I’m really glad you came, Dad,” Oscar said.
“What, I was going to let you go alone?” Max asked.
“I was going to go no matter what.”
“Well, I’m getting in better shape. You try to leave again and I’ll beat your butt!”
“Sure you will,” Oscar said. “Catch.”
“You threw that into the mud on purpose,” Max said.
Oscar played innocent. “Did I?”
Arden was ready to continue on after a short recuperation.
“How much farther now?” Unis asked Bard.
“Let’s see,” Bard said, inspecting the map he had obtained from Benmeva, “… It looks like we’re here, and so if we go there… and the distance is that… Another hour or so?”
“Not too bad,” Unis said. “Though, if my blisters aren’t as big as my toes right now, I would be very surprised.”
It was hard for the team to keep their heads up. The landscape was so oppressively bleak that it made survey tiring. Every new turn was more of the same, every hillcrest a new window to gray murk. Where the clouded sky met the obliterated ground was often hard to tell, as their hues would all but match at any given time of day.
“I hope they have citrus,” Max announced. “In your paradise, Bard. I hope there are buckets and buckets of citrus. Could you imagine? Remember what it tastes like?”
“I never got to try it,” Bard said. “It was too expensive, once they started using it for fuel again.”
“Oh. We had orchards,” Max said.
“Maybe they will, too,” Bard said. “You know what I hope they have?”
“What’s that?” Max asked.
“A swimming pool. Not a nice pond or a lake or a beach, a heated swimming pool. Nice and warm. I want to float in that swimming pool until wrinkly, and then take a nap in the sun. That’s as good as anything could get. After that, anything else would be excess.”
“Aha!” Alta cried from her position twenty feet ahead of the others.
“What is it?” Unis asked from the hill behind her.
“It’s the Oloh!” Alta answered. She jumped up and whooped. “It’s the ocean!”
From atop the hill, the ocean came in from the horizon to a grotesque shore. The small tide there washed over thousands of sea skeletons, coughed up by the ocean when the tsunamis from the Fall charged over the land in waves one-hundred-and-fifty feet high. The foam that rolled out to the thick, black sludge in the bay glistened with chemical waste. But beyond all that, the open ocean still swam, darkened by the turgid skies but clear and choppy and free of debris.
“Oh, I want to swim,” Alta said.
“Good luck wading in,” said Max.
“We’re not far now,” Bard said. “It’s just down to the shore and then we follow the map to find the boatman.”
“The boatman, is that a shop? A restaurant?” Max asked.
“No, an actual boatman,” Bard said. “To help us with our journey.”
“Where’s he at?” Alta asked. “There’s nothing in sight.”
“He’s in…” Bard said, searching his map “… a cave that is only discernible at low tide.”
“Oh, of course,” Max said.
“When is low tide?” Unis asked.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see,” Bard said.
“Is it true that there is no longer a Searching Season?” Arden asked. “It’s been impossible to tell, without being able to see the moon.”
“Now, I’ve not seen it myself,” Bard said, “But from what I’ve heard, the moon got knocked pretty badly. Apparently, it was blown apart. The pieces of it still in orbit don’t individually have as much gravity as the moon had, and so the tides aren’t as severe.”
“That’s too bad. I did love the legend of Baoulemiere,” Unis said. “What does it mean now? What will it mean to future generations?”
“All things change. Let’s make up a new legend,” Bard said.
“About how the moon goddess is exploded,” Max said. “Where’s the symbolism in that? Apart from everything gets ruined?”
“Science tells us that eventually the pieces of the moon will form a ring around Alm,” Unis said. “It will take an awfully long time. But you know that will be beautiful. Perhaps Baoulemiere is only moving into a total embrace of her children.”
“Brilliant,” Bard said. “I’m sure you have more in you than crime novels, Unis. That’s beautiful poetry.”
“What about the next Fall, when there’s nothing left in our orbit to miraculously save us?” Max asked. “I’ve heard that the orbit of the asteroids shifts a good deal ever year, and that we’ve not seen the biggest impacts yet.”
“Hopefully we’ll be able to deflect them when they come around next time,” Bard said.
“Deflect them?” Oscar asked. “Is that possible?”
“No,” Max said.
“A lot of the world you grew up in was against technology, Oscar,” Bard said. “You were probably taught to view it as a negative.”
“Bard…” Max cautioned.
“It’s alright, Max,” Bard said. “Technology can be misused. But there are incredible things humankind has dreamt and realized. The ability to levitate, to move things without touching them, to power systems with the air itself, to deflect asteroids… If it sounds like magic, it isn’t far off.”
“So why don’t we use all of that now?” Oscar asked.
“Because the Cities used them,” Bard answered.
“It’s because you don’t need them,” Max interjected. “None of that nonsense will get you anywhere you can’t get without it. With simplicity.”
“But you yourself said how many people could have lived…” Alta started.
“They didn’t,” Max said. “They didn’t and that’s the world were living in. We’re not talking about the past.”
“But what if we could stop it from happening again?” Bard asked. “Would you really deny the technology of the Silver Era if it could save millions of lives?”
“What could we even hope to do, though?” Max asked. “We’re helpless against the universe. It’s chaos.”
“I don’t believe that,” Unis said. “I believe, if we thought up one solution, with the Cities, even though they didn’t pan out, we’ll think up a better answer next time.”
“I can’t imagine anything working,” Max said. “Besides, that’s a thousand years from now. It’s for them to think about.”
“Why wait?” Bard asked.
The travelers had come to the sea creature boneyard.
“Here we are. Now,” Bard said, “The map says we go right, and look for a stony outcropping.”
“I see a stony outcropping right there,” Oscar said.
“I don’t think it’s that one,” Bard said. “It will likely be larger.”
When the travelers had passed by the first pile of stones and not seen another for an hour, Bard apologized to Oscar, admitted that the first stony outcropping was indeed the one they were looking for, and turned the group around.
“So,” he said, shaking off the sidelong glances from his company, “Here’s that stony outcropping we were looking for anyways. Thank you, Oscar. I’ll guess I’ll be the first one in; follow after me.”
Bard ducked into a low, narrow opening along the base of the stones.
“You couldn’t fit more than one person in that little pile of rocks,” Max said.
“No,” Bard shouted back out the opening, “It’s just the entrance. There’s a whole sea cave down here. Come on in!”
One by one, the travelers squeezed through the tight hole in the rock pile. Inside it was a narrow passage through the sandstone, one that opened up into a watery grotto where thick columns of rock buttressed the mineral-sparkled ceiling. At the far end of the sea cave, the sandy floor took a dive in to the ocean. The noise of the water crashing just outside echoed through the cave like thunder.
“What happens now?” Max hollered over the din.
“Well,” Bard hollered back, “We have to wait for low tide. So we wait.”
“I’m going to wait outside, where it’s not so damn loud,” Max hollered.
“What?” Bard asked.
“It’s too damn loud!” Max screamed at the top of his lungs.
Bard pointed his fingers at his ears, shook his head, and shrugged. Max rolled his eyes and exited back out of the tight opening to the cave.
“I heard him, you know,” Bard said to Oscar.
“I’m going to join Max,” Alta said. “I can’t hear myself think.”
Everyone agreed that waiting in the cave was a bad idea, and so passed the few hours until low tide sitting about the muddy stones outside its entrance. They ate a cake that Unis had made before leaving the bunker, and tried to identify the different sea life skeletons.
“Unless the man you’re looking for lives under the ocean,” Max said to Bard, interrupting the game, “I don’t understand how low tide is going to change anything.”
“Stop doubting me, Maximus,” Bard said. “Or, at least stop being so vocal about it. It’s tiring, and it makes me look bad.”
“You have to understand I’m curious about this whole ordeal, Bard,” Max said. “I mean, I didn’t even want to come.”
“Is it so bad, though, now that you did?” Oscar asked his father.
“It isn’t, but I’m not arguing with you, I’m arguing with Bard,” Max said.
“Arguing for argument’s sake,” Unis said. “Let’s have some preserves instead, why don’t we?”
“Oh, I think I’ve got a bit of buwry bread,” Arden said. “Let’s have them together.”
Max couldn’t argue with food in his mouth, and so the next fifteen minutes was passed in relative quiet. By the time the snack was through, it was time to reenter the sea cave.
Below the beach, every pull of the waning tide revealed more of the sloping cave floor, until the cave opened up to the ocean outside. The travelers followed the reach of the receding tide until they were clear of the cave, knee-deep in sludge out past the skeleton beach. The fetid water washed around their ankles and knees, and none of them knew quite what to say, save Max, who was opening his mouth to demand an explanation from Bard when a large raft came floating out of the sickly twilight mist.
“Alta… is that raft real?” Arden asked.
“I’m not sure,” Alta said. “Hey Bard, is that raft real?”
“It sure is,” Bard answered. “Mayol, Halix!” he called out.
A gaunt figure came to the side of the raft and called back, “Mayol, Bard!”
“How is it with you?” Bard asked.
The raft wasn’t more than twenty feet away, and coming closer. Halix piloted it with a long pole, which he pulled through the muck with calm, even measure.
“Things are good and getting better,” Halix said. “Save for the places with inclement weather. I see you’ve made some friends?”
“Yes, these folks are all coming with me,” Bard said.
“Where’d you appear from?” Max interrupted.
“Same place as us all, friend,” Halix answered.
“Oh, okay. He’s another one like Bard,” Max said. “You two go on ahead and proceed with your nonsense.”
“You took longer than expected,” Halix said to Bard. His craft stopped some five feet from where the travelers waded. “I’ve been coming here for days.”
“I got held up in Orange Harbor, dealing with a Narionite,” Bard said. “But I’ve got all the books. Every single one of them. Getting the map to find you was one of the trickier bits, actually.”
“All of the books?” Halix gasped. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not, you can see them yourself,” Bard said.
“But that’s legendary! That’s incredible! You’re going to be famous, Bard. Did you other folks know that Bard here was going to be famous?”
“I imagined he might be,” Alta joked. “I saw the potential.”
“Halix, stop,” Bard said. “If you want to do me a favor, though, would you care to ask us out of the water and into your raft?”
“Of course, where are my manners?” Halix asked. “All aboard, ladies and gentlemen. Step quickly; we’ve got some distance to cover and the sun will be setting soon.”
“Where is he taking us? Just where do you plan on taking us, Halix?” Max asked.
“To Seaborne,” Helix explained, “To learn the way to the eternal paradise.”
“Of course,” Max said.
“Seaborne still exists?” Arden asked.
“Not in its original incarnation, no,” Halix explained as the travelers climbed up a rope ladder to his ship. “It’s much changed. But the founding spirit is undaunted.”
“I learned about Seaborne from a man in Gray Haven. A man I nearly killed,” Arden said. “I caught him trespassing near our bunker. I had him at arrow tip and he begged me, he told me how he had once been to Seaborne, but had left to try and find his love, from before the Fall. It was so romantic. I had to let him go.”
“What happened? To the man?” Unis asked.
“I never found out,” Arden said.
“Perhaps you’ll find him in Seaborne,” Alta said.
“It is a large place,” Halix said. “And so I doubt it. Five thousand-plus ships, roped together into a float the size of a large city.”
“The city is made of boats?” Oscar asked.
“It’s a floating city,” Halix explained. “All the boats are lashed together.”
“Why are all the ships lashed together?” Oscar asked.
“After individual ships rode out the Fall’s tsunamis,” Halix explained, “Those that survived started to coalesce whenever they met other survivors on the ocean. The tethering was initially for safety and survival, but it’s grown beyond that. It’s quite elaborate now.”
“I’ve got to say I’m a little excited to see it,” Unis said. “I’ve heard the legend, but never believed it was real. I always thought of it more like a fantasy. An elaboration or hyperbole. Even my imaginings didn’t include five thousand ships!”
“Seaborne is very real,” Halix said. “You will soon see. The trip there will be long, though. We can all take turns with the steering pole, to stave off the boredom and monotony, so don’t despair. Just remember to stay away from the edges. Now, off we go.”
The raft stayed close to the Rashing Circle’s shore as the various travelers took their hand at steering it. City ruins and burnt forests appeared from time to time to differentiate the sludge coast, but most of the way was the same unchanging gray that traveling by land had been, without the walking to invigorate a sleepy body.
The trip wore on. Halix scoured a lantern in the corner of the raft, while Unis and Oscar read from Bard’s books. The Black sisters worked on breaking in the new grips they had put on their bows. Max tried to fend off his sea-sickness, and Bard steered, with one leg on the lip of the raft, staring out into the muted distance.
“I wish a place like this still existed,” Oscar said, turning the pages of the Compendium of the Undiscovered Lands. “I wish I could see an orange monster in person, or a terrorwing. Bard, is the eternal paradise like the Incandescents’ fortress?”
Bard turned from his steering. “That’s brilliant, Oscar,” he said. “Of course, it’s just the same. The Incandescents survived their Fall, like those in the eternal paradise, in artificial protection.”
“But they’re living, breathing humans, right?” Oscar asked. “The people in the eternal paradise?”
“Yes,” Bard answered. “That’s why they want my books. What would an energy ball want with reading? Save for putting it in a museum.”
“Are they friendly?” Oscar asked. “The people, where we’re going?”
“They’re human,” Bard said. “I’ve never actually been there so I couldn’t say friendly.”
“Oh,” Unis moaned softly, putting her hand to her chest. She closed the book in her lap. “I do love a well-written book. I think it might be my favorite thing in the world.”
“You know, there are some stories not in books,” Halix said from his corner. “Some things whispered on the wind.”
“What does he mean?” Oscar asked.
“I mean that there are stranger things in our world than our fictions,” Halix said.
“Like what?” Oscar asked.
As Halix scraped away at the lens of his lantern, he said, “The scariest things you could imagine. A land of fire. Dark, twisted men like demons brought to life.”
“What are you on about?” Max asked. “You trying to scare the boy?”
“I can’t be scared,” Oscar said.
“Oh, but you’ve never seen anything like the demons, though, Oscar,” Halix said. He stood up, his bony joints cracking as he rose. “They rage with madness and a lust for death. They are relentless. They want to destroy Alm completely.”
“Really, Halix, what’re you talking about?” Bard asked.
The darkening sky was nearly black. Halix struck a long match from his pocket against his lantern, then lit the candle inside.
“Word from the underground, friends,” Halix said. “There’s evil in the air.”
“You’re being too vague,” Bard said. “I’m all for suspense, but come on.”
“I’ll not say anything more,” Halix said. He took the steering pole from Bard. “Rumor is a wicked master. You’ll all hear soon enough, though, I’m sure. There’s not much time left.”
“Well that’s extremely intriguing,” Alta said.
“I trust you, Halix. I’m sure if you’re warning us it’s with good purpose,” Bard said. “Though I do wish you could elaborate.”
A soft glow in the distance became brighter as the raft approached the community of Seaborne. The massive conglomeration was floating towards Halix’s raft, though at an incredibly slow pace. Along the outer edges of the city were a good number of buoys, which acted like a reverse-moat. As the raft approached the moat, Halix shot off a green-to-blue flare, which resulted in a path opening through the buoys. The raft drifted through the opening and entered a bustling, floating harbor.
“Do these people live here all the time?” Oscar asked his father.
“I think they do,” said Max. “Though I don’t know how. I’m going to be sick until we get back on land.”
Halix helped the travelers off his raft and then waved a hurried goodbye.
“Where are you off to so quickly?” Bard asked him.
“I’ve got to go home,” Halix said. “I haven’t been home in a good long while, and I fear I should go while I still can.”
“I do hope things aren’t as dire as you say they are,” Bard said. “Though I’ve always been resigned to your being unflinchingly right.”
“I hope I’m wrong, I really do. Take care of yourselves,” Halix said. “I hope you all make it to your eternal paradise.”
The raft floated back out of the harbor, through the buoys, and away, until all that could be seen of it was Halix’s lantern, like a star in the cosmic sea.
Seaborne was so vibrant that it almost overwhelmed the travelers, who had seen nothing but endless gray mud for years. Strings of colored lights fell over bright tapestries, creating vibrant pools and auras of color all about the ramshackle construction. Some buildings ran over multiple ship hulls, while other, skinny shacks rose story after story up above their surroundings from a single boat. There was no unification to the sprawl whatsoever; newcomers apparently built atop whatever they found, and Seaborne grew as a symbiotic hodgepodge.
“Civilization. Now this is better,” Bard said happily, listening to a jaunty tune played on a pipe. “Well, I have an appointment I have to keep. Don’t worry; I’ll be done in an hour or so. There’s plenty here to keep you all entertained while I’m away. Why don’t we meet at the Brandy Shark? An hour and a half from now?”
“Where’s that?” Unis asked. “The Brandy Shark?”
“Anyone can tell you,” Bard said. “Just ask. Take care. I’ll see you all soon.”
With that, the storyteller was lost in the crowd of people moving around the floating docks.
“Now what? Alta asked.
“I could use a drink,” Arden said.
Max grunted. “Come on, Oscar, let’s find something else to do.”
“I’ll come with you, girls,” Unis said to Alta and Arden. “Will you gentlemen be alright by yourselves?”
“Of course we will,” Max said. “You ladies watch yourselves, alright? Let’s find something to eat, Oscar.”
Oscar and Max left the women and headed towards a nearby market, following intoxicating smells that wafted from open pots and fireplaces that seared fish steaks and boiled thick, aromatic puddings.
“Maybe we can spend our old credits here,” Max said. “I’d love to get rid of them.”
“I think I saw someone else using credits, so we should be good. What are you in the mood for?” Oscar asked his father.
“Something salty,” Max said.
“I’ve got salty,” a nearby vendor said, having overheard. “Do you like spicy?”
“I do,” Max said. “What have you got?”
The vendor held up three sticks, each with a different barbecued insect skewered alongside vegetables.
“Are those bugs?” Oscar asked. “Dad, I think they eat bugs.”
“But they’re salty!” the vendor said enthusiastically. “And spicy!”
“They’re insects,” Max said.
“Apparently you gentlemen can afford something more substantial,” the vendor said. He held up three new sticks, each with a fat piece of fish glistening on their spire. “Twenty units.”
“For what, the whole store?” Max asked. “There’s no way I’m paying twenty units for three pieces of fish.”
“Alright then, sir,” the vendor said. “You go ask about and see if you find a better price.”
“I’d just as soon eat my own hat,” Max said to Oscar. “Let’s see what else they’ve got.”
The other stands weren’t offering anything less expensive. In fact, twenty units was the cheapest anything other than an insect could be purchased for. Max and Oscar watched a number of the juicy, crackling bugs get eaten, and had to admit that those eating them seemed to be enjoying their meal.
“I guess you can season anything, right?” Max finally said. “What do you think, Oscar, you want some creepy crawler for dinner?”
“I’ll close my eyes and pretend it’s something else,” Oscar said.
“Ugh,” Max groaned, rubbing his seasick stomach. “Here goes nothing.”
Nearby, Alta, Arden, and Unis had settled down at a bar. The place was lit by lamplight and nearly deserted.
“Cider?” a runny-nosed bartender asked as she cleared used glasses from the women’s table.
“Do you have anything in the way of spirits?” Arden asked.
“We have cider,” the bartender answered.
“So no spirits?” Arden asked.
“Ci-der,” the bartender repeated, with a belch for punctuation.
“Three glasses of cider then, please,” Unis said.
“Nine credits,” the bartender said, holding out her dirty hand.
Unis fished ten credits out of her purse and handed them to the bartender. “The extra credit is for your trouble,” she said.
“Lady, ain’t credits enough in the world for my troubles,” the bartender sighed. “I’ll be back.”
While they waited, the women watched a patron trying to work his drunken charm on a lady at his side. It wasn’t clear whether the lady was asleep or awake, or if her suitor knew either way.
Eventually, the bartender came back around with three spotty glasses of cider.
“A toast,” Unis said, holding up her glass. “To bold new adventures in a world gone colorful.”
“A toast: to the opportunity to use my bow and arrow for something other than practice shooting,” Alta said.
“A toast: to cider, no matter how filthy its vessel,” Arden added.
The three glasses clinked.
“It’s not too bad,” Arden said, taking a sip of her cider.
“Nice and cold,” Alta said. She licked her lips. “Now if I can only find a fella like that charmer in the corner…”
The door to the bar swung open and two oversized brutes swaggered through it.
“Noxy, six ciders,” one of them called out to the bartender.
“Now now,” the bartender said, “You both know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“And you know there’s nothing you can do about it,” the female brute said. She threw her leg over a stool and sat down with a grunt.
Her companion heaved his sweaty body into a chair near the bar. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing a filthy finger towards the travelers’ table.
“I think the idiots’ve spotted us,” Alta said. “Let’s drink up and get out of here before they start thinking.”
“I remember when people were honorable,” Unis said. “Men and women.”
“Hey!” one of the brutes near the bar called. “Hey, ladies?”
“You take the old one, I get the other two,” the woman next to him said.
“These animals can do us no harm. Ignore them,” Unis said to the Blacks. She poured her drink down her throat.
“Hey!” the man at the bar repeated. “I’m talking to you!”
“We’re just leaving,” Alta said.
“You’re not going anywhere. You’re just getting started,” the woman said, staggering towards the travelers’ table.
“My sister said we are leaving,” Arden said. “And that is what we are doing.”
“Come on,” the stranger said. She put her hand on Arden’s back. “The night is so cold. Can’t you be a little warmer?”
Arden leaned forwards to escape contact. “Why don’t you two keep each other warm?” she asked.
The stranger at Arden’s back laughed and then grabbed her by the hair. “You’ll do that for both of us, won’t you?”
Arden flashed her eyes at Alta, and then lifted her glass. “A toast,” she said.
She smashed the glass back into the face of the woman still holding her by the hair, shattering it across her nose.
“Ah!” the woman cried, stumbling backwards and falling over a chair.
The travelers began to run for the door.
“You witches!” the man at the bar roared. “You’re done for now!”
The man charged for Alta. She reached up into the air and snapped her fingers, which called his attention. He looked up for a second and Arden let her fist fly into his stomach. He buckled and fell to his knees.
“You’re done!” the man hollered from the floor. “You’re all done!”
“Good luck with that,” Arden said.
“Thanks for the cider,” Unis said to the bartender. “Now where’s the Brandy Shark? I want a real drink.”
Bard stood atop the wide window of a glass-bottomed boat, waiting for his friend to return from private quarters. He watched with great interest as a motopoi collected rocks in the dark depths below.
“You’re a lucky man, Bard Elientry,” Hart Clay said as he came back through the blue cloth partition separating the boat’s main cabin from the private one. “I have exactly one map left.”
“You’ve given the rest away?” Bard asked, surprised.
“No, I was joking, I only had one to begin with,” Hart said. “Now, I trust you’ve brought me what I asked for?”
“Of course,” Bard said. He procured a leather sack from his bag. “It should still be fresh.”
Hart pulled the bag open to finger the flower inside. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “A blast flower. It’s finally mine. Well done, Bard. Well done.”
“Map?” Bard insisted politely.
“Map,” Hart said, handing over a rolled piece of paper.
Bard untied the piece of string binding the scroll and unrolled it.
“But it’s impossible,” he said, studying the map. “There’s no way I could make it through the deep ocean. Curses. Verdan said there would be a way. And now I’ve come so far, only to…”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Hart said. “You won’t have to navigate any treacherous waters. You won’t be in a boat, see, you’ll be in a basket.”
“You know your literature. Remember Slate and Geroniu’s flying machine?”
“Hot air balloon?”
“We’ll be taking a hot air balloon?”
“Well that’s better, I guess,” Bard said. “I mean, I know absolutely nothing about piloting a balloon. Might as well go in fully blind, why not?”
“You won’t have to pilot anything,” Hart said. “I know a man who’ll take you all the way there.”
“So why do I even need the map?” Bard asked.
“Because he doesn’t know how to get there.”
“But he’ll take us there?”
“With your map. I only have the one.”
“Right. And why haven’t you used it?”
“I’m not ready to go. Everyone I know who’s ever left hasn’t come back. I still like it here; I’m not ready for an eternal paradise. But you have to promise to come back to get me, in five years.”
“How am I supposed to find a floating city?” Bard asked.
“You can,” said Hart. “Just ask around. May I see the Compendium, while you’re here?”
“Of course,” Bard said. He put his new map into his sack and took from it the Compendium of the Undiscovered Lands.
“I can’t believe it,” Hart said, marveling at the images and passages in the encyclopedic book. “Could you imagine? Being there with the Dahls?”
“I would love it,” Bard said. “Who hasn’t dreamed of such adventure?”
“I suppose you get plenty of action anyways. I can only hope that Seaborne happens across such a place, one of the new continents, because I can’t leave. I know there still must be an undiscovered land left in this world. I almost need there to be.”
“I’m sure there is,” Bard said. “And I’m rarely wrong. So who is this pilot you know?”
“Well, he’s a strange fellow.”
“Stranger than Halix?”
“No, not that strange.”
“When is he available?” Bard asked.
“I imagine anytime,” Hart said. “I believe he’s retired from regular work.”
“Alright,” Bard said. He took the Compendium back from Hart and put it in his bag. “So I’ll call on him tomorrow; what are your plans for the night?”
“I think I’m going to see some live music,” Hart said. “And yourself?”
“I am inviting myself to whatever concert you are attending,” Bard said.
“Alright,” Hart said.
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Among the few survivors of the Second Fall are Max and Oscar Reinier, a father and son who get visited at their shelter by a stranger named Bard promising to take them to an eternal paradise. When their traveling party arrives at the promised destination, they are gifted mystical, powerful items, and asked to complete a far greater task than any had foreseen. The Renascence Machine is a comedic fantasy quest.