The water lapped in tiny waves at the stones, which made up the shoreline of the lake. Its farther shore was lost to sight in the damp mist, which curled from the hills above. Cautiously watching, a long-legged bird waded in the shallows, hunting for its next meal.
...... Justin stared toward the lamp-lit wharf, crowded with ships of all sizes and shapes, which were swaying gently in the slightly choppy water of the big lake. With its sails fully open, one of the ships was moving just above the thick green mat of a vegetation ramp, as it began its voyage over the treetops.
...... He shook his head and turned away. "Like I said before, a man would be crazy to ever do something like that again."
...... "A man would have to be crazy," Misty corrected, laughing. She waved a broken twig, which she had been toying with. "It wasn't all that bad! And now, we're here at Center, where we've been trying to get for so long." Tossing the twig away, she took his hand again, as they silently ambled along the thin pebbles of the path.
...... "Besides, our inn here isn't that much better than our cabin on the ship," she suddenly added.
...... "That's true," he acknowledged, putting his arm around her. "And it's better, in that the inn's roof doesn't leak." He paused to frown at what little gray sky was visible through the thin branches of the park trees. "Still, the horse's stable out back seems to have more floorspace than we do."
...... "So? Adjust!" she countered, her tone mockingly serious, as she slogged through a wide puddle on the path.
...... "I didn't mean that the voyage was that unpleasant," he chuckled. "Anywhere with you cannot be bad." He thumbed toward the dock area, now hidden by the sculpted trees and ornamental shrubbery. "Those two people are an interesting pair. Now that I've met your tutor, I understand you more."
...... "Don't you wish!" she laughed, elbowing him in the side. She paused to scrape a lump of soggy, dead leaves from the sole of her boot. "You're talking about Willi and Lady Xyly?"
...... He nodded, as he waited for her, her hand tightly clasping his for support.
...... "Willi's a real character," she allowed, finished with her task. "I wouldn't trust him to hold my boots, while I adjusted my socks." She kicked a small rock into the narrow gutter, which bordered the path, before starting off again. "But Lady Xyly is very respectable, and as straight as they come . . . and as strict!" Halting, she gestured to a side path, half hidden by the carefully trimmed bushes. "This way."
...... "That's exactly why those two make such an intriguing and exotic pair." Following, he took a long stride to miss a puddle at the junction and brushed through the dripping bushes.
...... The trees came to an abrupt end at the edge of a wide, stone-paved road, deserted at this time of night. Above the road, along the immense, cleared hillside, the town spread out in rain-softened shadows and pinpoints of flickering light. With their hands clasped tightly together, they silently stood looking at the panorama.
...... "That's it," she announced, motioning to a faint cluster of twinkling lights at the highest point on the ridge.
...... "That's what?" He pulled his cloak tighter against the chill in the air. The breeze off of the lake behind them was cool and damp.
...... "That's the Temple up there," she elaborated, waving impatiently again. "The place where you've been wanting to go so much for so long. Where the Master Crystal is. That up there is the end of your quest, religious or whatever." She shivered and pulled her cloak tighter, flicking its hood up over her head. "It does seem chilly here, after the forest. Chilly and damp!"
...... "I guess so." He stared at the distant scene for a minute, folding his arms beneath his heavy, dark-fabric garment.
...... "When do you have to leave?" she asked, abruptly. She looked away, down the road toward the wharf. "You'll be here tomorrow, I know. But for how much longer?"
...... "I don't know." He kicked at a fragment of wood, sending it sliding across the road to the brook on the other side. "It depends."
...... "Don't sound so sour!" she demanded with an off-key laugh, turning back to gesture under his nose. "I have my own duties, as WindCaller, so I cannot go with you. You have your duties and can't stay with me. I understand that! It's half my decision too, remember." She pushed up against him, putting her arm around his waist. "But how many more days do we have? I have to make plans of my own, too."
...... "But I really don't know, right at this very moment." He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, stroking the side of her coarsely-woven hood. "Two or three days. Four at most. I just don't know yet, myself."
...... She sighed and tried to smile. "So we'll enjoy whatever time you have. It's a pretty place to see, this town." A sprinkling of dead pine needles floated down, and she brushed them away.
...... "It won't be that easy." He released her shoulders and took her hand once more.
...... "No, but it could be worse. I have my memories." She held his hand tightly in both of hers. "And I can talk them over with my disgruntled teddybear." She kissed him quickly on the cheek before continuing: "It could be a lot worse. Most women see their men off to war and death. At least I'll know that you'll be okay. You'll be home with your own kind, safe and cared for and happy."
...... "Sort of. Perhaps." He turned to hug her tightly against him. "I'll never forget you. Never!"
...... "I'll miss you too. Always!" She wrapped her arms around his neck and stroked the back of his head. "But we both have our work, which will keep us occupied most nights. What you said, the duties of a profession." She gently pulled away and took his hand again. "I don't regret it . . . what we've done, what we've been, what we are to each other. I sure wouldn't have wanted to be without it!" She tugged lightly, starting to walk along the gravel path back into the park.
...... "I hope it won't be too hard for you," he offered, allowing himself to be pulled along.
...... "I'll manage, and so will you," she stated over her shoulder. "Plus, we have a few more days together. A few more memories for my collection." She halted, trying to pull her cloak still tighter. "The wind's coming up, and I'm cold. Let's go back to the inn. The fireplaces ought to be lit by now."
...... "I shall leave such decisions to your judgment," he allowed, trying to chuckle. "Being a poor outback yokel myself."
...... "A wet, hungry, poor, outback yokel," she corrected with a forced laugh.
The old, ill-fitted door groaned loudly, as it swung inward on its handmade pin hinges.
...... "Misty? Back already?" he called from in front of the large wardrobe, where he had been sorting through his worn clothing. A threaded needle was stuck at random in the nearest garment.
...... "Not at this time," Xyly stated, walking into the room. She carefully closed the door behind her. "Lady Tallpinin presently is at the Temple, speaking to . . . or rather at, those few Counselors, who happened to be there." She idly looked around the tiny room. "And we ourselves have a task to complete at the same place. Are you ready to go?"
...... Justin whirled around, his tattered cloak held in his hand. "I thought Misty . . . ."
...... She held up one hand, palm outward. "You mistakenly thought that you had time for sweet, long farewells. You don't, and I don't. I promised that you would be contacted, and now you are." She paused to brush rainwater from her sleeves -- it sprinkled down, soaking into the worn fragment of rug. "Lady Michelle, member in good standing of the Guild of the White Witches, has her own work to do . . . a task for which she has been preparing, unknowingly, all of her life. Specifically, to act as a decoy at the proper time. Which was why her marriage to that idiot Mercadoratius was temporarily agreed to! And the proper time is right now." She sauntered back to the door to stand beside it, waiting, her hand on the latch. "When Michelle left here, an hour ago, to go to the Temple to speak to the Council, you saw her for the last time. Be resigned to that!"
...... "I suppose there's something . . . it would be what I . . . I hadn't thought it'd end like this," he finished lamely. Still holding the cloak in one hand, he pulled out the needle from the other garment, then shoved it back again in the same place.
...... "Which is why you never should've let yourself become so involved with one of us here," Xyly interrupted, harshly. She opened the door an inch, then closed it again. "But be glad! In another hour, Michelle is going to know what's happened. And she is intelligent enough to guess who did it. She also will think that you made love to her, merely to gain her confidence. And for enough information for you to complete your assignment of destroying, among other things, her entire life-long career."
...... "That's not . . . ," he started again, tossing the cloak onto the bed. A puff of dust sparkled in the dim light.
...... "You know that's incorrect, and I know that's incorrect," Xyly stated, louder. "But Michelle's going to feel tricked and deceived and cheated and used!" She opened the door again, fully, and motioned to the hallway. "So pick up your cloak, and come. Now! If you ever see her again, Michelle will be so angry with you that she'll most likely try to kill you. And quite possibly succeed! Now find whatever tools you need, and come along. All this rest is history, and there's work to be done yet. That device, as you call it, must be destroyed! For all our sakes," she finished emphatically.
...... "I suppose so. Yes. It's why I came here, came this far." Picking up his cloak once again, he rummaged in his knapsack at the bottom of the wardrobe. He looked at the clothing, then slammed the flimsy door shut.
...... "Don't take any time to leave her a message," Xyly ordered, standing in the doorway. "I'll tell her what's best for her to know. And undoubtedly more than she'll want to know! Someone might find any letter left here, and learn of her part in all this. A precaution I'm recommending, because I'm well versed in the art of conspiracy . . . far more than you two."
...... "That is argumentative," he absently replied, intent on attaching a small, black leather box to his belt. Finished, he looked up. "And irrelevant! As you said, it's time. So let's go, and get done with it."
...... Following after Xyly, he sighed deeply before closing the door behind him. At the top of the stairs, he paused to look back up the hall, sighed again, then trudged down the staircase, through the tiny lobby, out of the main door, and into the wet, brick-paved street.
...... They walked rapidly up the ridge incline -- through the many streets of the town, across small bridges over tumbling brooks, past tree-shaded squares and fountains, skirting busy markets and other less-identifiable dwellings. Finally, they entered the Temple compound through a side door, set in the thick stone wall behind an ornamental trellis of flowering vines.
...... No one else was there -- everyone's attention was held by the loud, scrambled argument, which echoed from the main courtyard. Above the babble of numerous conversations, Merc's and Willi's heated dispute was drowned out every few moments by Misty's voice at her most shrill.
...... "She's doing very well at providing the distraction, which we need, to cover what we have to do here," Xyly remarked with a small, chilly laugh. "Her surprise betrothal must have been quite sufficient to provoke her adequately. I'll need to make it up to her in some way in the future. If there is one!"
...... Justin merely nodded his head.
...... "The arrival of that foolish SeaLord, right at this time, was a fortuitous bonus," she added.
...... Xyly led him through the many, tangled halls of the Temple buildings, then halted before another of the endless line of doors. "A pity about your love affair, but you both must've known that it couldn't be. In consolation, you did have some time together, which is better than many of us manage to have." She shrugged, pulling with both hands at one huge handle on the high, double doors. "I'm sorry about these cliches, but they're all I have at the moment. Know that I'll do my best to take care of her. At least, she'll be here among friends."
...... With a loud, prolonged squeal, the door opened to a gap of a meter. Xyly stepped through and stopped just inside the room, at the edge of a circle of brilliant light which was supplied by a chandelier of four Everlast Candles.
...... "There's the Master Crystal," she announced into the dead silence of the enclosure. "Now do your work, whatever it is," she commanded, gesturing forward.
...... While fumbling at the small leather pouch on his belt, Justin slowly walked up to stare at the glistening, white Crystal. Inside its milkiness, clearly visible in the bright illumination, thin sheets of dark red flowed and writhed. He silently watched for a minute.
...... "What is it?" Xyly demanded anxiously, as she pulled the heavy door closed.
...... "How long has it been like this?" he asked, gesturing widely.
...... "Six months, seven, eight." She threw her weight against the handle, yanking the door closed the last inch. "Several months, anyway. Does it mean something special to you?"
...... "If I'd known that it was in this condition, I'd have tried to hurry more. The irreversible instability isn't far off, only weeks perhaps." He touched its surface, tracing the outline of one of the red veins. "Not that I was in any position to hurry much faster," he angrily finished, before shrugging and gesturing that away also. "But now, I suppose, that's irrelevant too."
...... "How unstable is this . . . device?" She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, leaning against the closed doors.
...... He turned to motion, palm up. "So unstable that my Masters dropped me off, many days journey away from the objective, just to avoid any accidental interference." He let out a deep breath and waved that away also. "Unluckily for all of us, they located the wrong device, and in addition, put me down on the worst possible side, the farthest from here."
...... "Well, you've arrived now, and obviously well in time." She picked up a thick wooden crossbar, standing it on end against the wall. "So it's time enough. And time now!" She rummaged in her cloak pocket and brought out the stub of a plain wax candle and a tiny box of flamestarter.
...... Nodding agreement, Justin fished in his small belt holder to retrieve a shiny, green box. Unwrapping several multicolored wires from around the box, he attached them to the surface of the Crystal, leaving the box to dangle. Stepping back, he stood waiting.
...... In a moment, spreading from the wires like a plague, the glossy white of the surface changed to the color and texture of gray, lifeless rock. In less than a minute, the entire Crystal was transformed, the device totally converted. Above it, the Everlast Candles of the chandelier dimmed and went out, leaving the room in absolute blackness.
...... The wax candle spurted and caught from the tiny ember which Xyly used. Dim as it was, the candle's flame seemed harshly bright. Where before the shimmering Crystal had stood, only an opaque gray stone remained. The small green box was gone also, now only a fine, dark dust whisked along by a draft from beneath the doors.
...... "I can feel its absence," Xyly allowed, as she boosted up the crossbar and let it drop into its fittings, locking the double doors. "Good riddance! Can it ever be reactivated?"
...... "Never," he answered.
...... The muffled sounds of frightened shouting came from outside, a rising confusion of noise.
...... "And others have noticed also. People will be here, shortly." Xyly scooped up the candle stub and trotted across the room. "This way," she ordered, unlocking and pushing open a very small door, which had been hidden behind a tapestry. "I've arranged a way out for you. No one will think to come this way for several more minutes."
...... Down a long, narrow hall, lit only by the flickering candle which she carried, then down two more flights of steep, stone stairs. The lower room had windows, high up along the wall, and she paused to douse the candle. "In some ways, I'll miss it," Xyly said, her tone uncharacteristically wistful.
...... "Within two months, it would've destroyed this world," he stated flatly. "You and everything else!"
...... "You truly know that? How? What would've happened?" She carefully dampened the wick and tucked the candle stub away in her pocket.
...... "That device tapped the energy of a star, something you don't know about now, but soon will." He paused long enough to adjust his boot. "As soon as the clouds dissipate. The heat, which creates all of those hotsprings, would have burst out as lava, burning the surface of this land completely away. It's surprising that you and your Witches haven't accidentally triggered the device's final breakdown, considering how you've been using it."
...... "You sound as though you know." She waved toward another long hall with stairs at its end, and started off.
...... "I most certainly do know! A similar device destroyed my own world. And my wife and my child! I too was part of an underground movement, on my own planet. We wanted to stop another beacon like that one, but we weren't in time!" Walking rapidly behind her, he gestured, brushing it away. "A long distance from here, and now, some time ago. But that's why I help the HorsePeople hunt these things down and destroy them."
...... "It was some sort of alien machine, wasn't it." At the bottom of the stairs, she halted at still another heavy wooden door, assembled roughly from crudely-cut timbers.
...... "Yes. Built by a people long ago. They died away, but their navigational beacons lasted . . . to be rediscovered and misused by the many worlds of people who followed them. The HorsePeople discovered what was happening and have been searching all the worlds to find them and deactivate them, before they went wild and destroyed those unlucky planets in the most literal sense." He turned to look down the empty hall. "Fortunately for you, this one was found in time." Turning back, he gestured toward himself. "Which's why I was sent here. Because I closely resemble you people. The hard part was learning your language well enough, even for an alleged Northern Barbarian."
...... "You have somewhere to go?" She pushed an odd-shaped key into the elaborate lock. "Some sort of safe haven? Everyone here will be against you. Your own people?"
...... "My escape's been prearranged, not that it seems so important now." He glanced down the hall again. "I'll return to what I call my home, where my Masters live anyway, where I'm the only Man. They'll have detected the Crystal's shutdown and will have initiated the arrangements. There're other worlds in danger still, and so few of us to do this kind of work." He paused to shake his head. "So much work, and so very few to do it. Still, this assignment will be judged to be a complete success. My boss should receive the promotion he's been working so hard for, for so long. And there'll be another task waiting for me, when I arrive back there. Something to look forward to, I suppose."
...... Xyly pulled open the door and silently motioned to the small, empty square at the back of the Temple compound. Only the splashing of a corner fountain disturbed its quiet, as a tiny breeze pushed at the damp, dead leaves, which had collected beside a buttress along the wall. The rain dribbled down from the eternally gray sky and flowed in thin trickles into the stone gutters to vanish beyond the low terrace walls.
...... Justin edged past her out of the door, trudged down the three brick stairs, and stepped into the deserted street.
...... "I have to return immediately," Xyly explained, her shoulders sagging tiredly. She still held the door handle. "There'll be so much confusion by now, that someone in authority will have to take charge. That is the task waiting now for me." She gestured to the grove of a dozen trees at the end of the street beyond the fountain. "Go with him. He'll see to your safety. Goodbye. For what it's worth, and I know that it's not much, thank you! From all of us to you and your Masters . . . whoever, whatever they are." She hesitated, then quickly pulled the door closed.
...... "For what it's worth, you're welcome," he said to the closed door, exhaustion underlining his voice. He waited for a few moments, staring absently at the closely-fitted timbers, then turned away and stalked down the street toward the dripping trees. A sudden gust of wind brought a sheet of pattering rain, which he ignored.
...... Igthorus stood up, from where he had been seated inside the grove. He motioned down over the low wall, at a sailing ship which had dropped through the trees to lie slanted on the ground, its open sails uselessly flapping in the thin wind. The baffled crewmembers milled about it helplessly.
...... "Thank you, sir. That down there is the nicest view which I've seen, to this day." Reluctantly, he turned away. "Here is your packhorse and your tradegoods. Now follow me. And I think we should hurry."
...... Accepting the leather lead, Justin paused to touch a small keg of nails, which still was roped in with the mass of other bundles. "Most of this belongs to Michelle Tallpinin. Especially now."
...... Igthorus stopped beside the fountain to look in both directions. "You may inventory and divide it, when we've left the limits of this town and are safely within the protection of the forestland. I promise to see that Misty receives whatever you wish. But right now, we must go. Before anyone comes here."
...... Yanking on the packhorse's tether, Justin followed Igthorus out of the grove and through the deserted, back streets of the city. Those few people, who they met, only gave them a quick, suspicious glance, before hurrying away, immersed in their own troubles.
...... "So, it has finally ended," Igthorus remarked, gesturing the direction at one obscure corner. "All of the ships and the Candles and the Scribes. I never really believed that I personally would live to see this day. It may be somewhat hard for us to recover what all we've lost, but our grandchildren will thank us for it."
...... "And the WindCallers, and all the rest of it, including this constant rain!" Jerking impatiently on the tether, Justin hurried alongside the fast-walking man. "This weird forest will revert to normal trees, trees which don't glow and which don't burn at the slightest ignition. No longer so many forest fires, and never so large. The source of the energy, which the trees have been picking up accidentally, is now gone." He motioned upward. "Over the next year or so, the clouds will dissipate back to a normal amount. Your crops will start to grow and yield at a higher, more normal rate. When your population has gotten used to the actual full darkness at night, have become adjusted to the true day and night cycle, you can expand out beyond your previous limits and repopulate this entire world, the way it was meant to be. The way it was, many years before the Crystal."
...... "And thus has come to a timely end, the SeaLords and their way of life," Igthorus chuckled. "Also, the end of the DawnWriters' conspiracy, thank goodness." He paused at another junction, until the road was clear of other travelers. "This world will become a new world, a real world. We're prepared for all of the hard work, which it will take, to make this land into the place which we think it should be."
...... "It won't be as hard to recover as you now imagine," Justin offered, slowly picking his words. "Be open to innovations, particularly from strangers who seem accustomed to newer ways."
...... "So really! There will be others, then," Igthorus replied. "But after events have settled, I hope. Not now, and never you again, as grateful as we are to you. Any cataclysm is blamed on strangers, which is why you must leave this land immediately. Even if you hadn't been the source of the calamity, you still would be blamed and punished." He waved to a narrow path, heavily shielded by trees. "This way, quickly please. There'll be some very angry people around here in the immediate future. We must get you away to safety."
...... Justin looked backward, up at the distant walls of the Temple which were visible through gaps in the foliage. "I'm not sure it makes that much difference now."
...... Igthorus paused long enough to face him. "It is unfortunate, young man, but that is life," he declared in his sternest tone. He took Justin's elbow, starting off once more. "And obviously, you have other duties and other obligations to fulfill. This way. Come along! We have some distance yet to go."
|chapter fourteen||CHAPTER FIFTEEN||epilogue|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)