"When last we saw our travelers," the Storyteller said in a hushed tone, "the wind had whisked them away from the dangers of Carrie, safely wrapping them in the soft blanket of El-Cha’s spell.
"Ah, but what mysteries abound within the mists of magic? What fate awaits our friends? Do you know? Or you, or even you?" the Storyteller asked, his voice little more than a whisper as he pointed from one shaking head to another.
"As I thought." He leaned back and placed both hands flat upon his knees. He smiled. "Well then, let us discover together what awaited our travelers within the swirling mists...."
...Michall woke with a start and instinctively reached for his sword, even as his gaze scanned his surroundings. He quickly became confused.
Is it possible? Could I have been wounded so deeply that we came this far without my even being aware of it?
The painful throbbing in his head confirmed it could indeed be possible.
He moaned and lay back, grateful that the world had stopped spinning as soon as he closed his eyes.
The loud shriek of waterfowl soaring overhead did little to ease the beating within his skull as he waited for the drumming in his ears to fade.
With great care, he pulled himself into a sitting position, pleased he?d managed to accomplish such a small feat. He eased his eyes open. As he squinted against the sun’s glare, another bolt of pain erupted within his skull, causing a cold, clammy sweat to soak his body. He rubbed the lump at the back of his head with a shaky hand and sighed, extremely grateful the blow hadn?t killed him.
When he spied Ra-May propped against a nearby rock, her body squirming in fitful slumber, relief washed over him. He tried to stand, but his leg wouldn?t take his weight. He moaned as he collapsed back down to the sandy ground.
Ra-May woke and hurried to his side. "Lie still," she said as she gently ran her fingertips along the back of his wounded leg. "You will injure yourself further if you persist."
"Where are we? Where are the others?" Michall captured her hand in his.
Ra-May frowned. "I do not know."
"Do you mean you don?t know where we are, or that you don?t know where the others are?"
Michall noted how her gaze darted about, constantly on the move, searching. "It’s just you and me?"
She nodded. "Aye. I have looked, but cannot locate the others."
Seeing the shadow of worry cross her face, he quickly buried his own fears, determined not to add to her distress.
He wished the torment within his head would cease its relentless assault long enough for him to make sense of their present situation.
"If you explain to me how we got here," he said, while lightly caressing her ashen cheek, "maybe we can figure out where our friends are."
As he watched her chew on her lower lip, he quickly added, "I?m certain they?re somewhere near."
She shook her head. "We rode the wind--for a very, very long time. I sensed you were beside me, but I could not sense the others. El-Cha was the caster. Of that, I am certain, but as to what he wove, I do not know. First, we were there." She pointed to the distant landscape behind her. "And now we are here," finishing her motion by pointing downward to the sandy earth.
"Here. Yes, we?re here," he agreed.
Ra-May’s eyes shone with unasked questions.
He shrugged. How did one explain the inconceivable?
"Somehow, we?ve arrived at our destination. Where we sit is known as the higher lands of Sol. If we walk due west for a short distance, we?ll be in the lower lands. Which is, I believe, where we must go. It’s where I was leading us, and where I think we?ll find the darkness that plagues our dreams."
Her gaze seemed distant and sad as she looked toward the western cliffs.
"Most likely the wind scattered our friends farther afield," Michall said, drawing her attention away from a future that loomed before them with such dark uncertainly. "They?re probably searching for us right now. Let’s make it easier for them."
"Aye." She sighed, although her tone suggested it would do no good. Standing, she offered her arm in support. "Surely, they are as worried for us as we are for them."
Michall soon discovered walking wasn?t going to be an easy matter. His injured leg refused to take his full weight, forcing him to lean heavily on Ra-May. It didn?t take long before he begged exhaustion.
Sweating more than a man his age should, he laughed as he sank to the ground. "I?m quite the burden, aren?t I? We?ll be lucky if we make it down the hill without me falling and breaking both our necks."
Her stricken features caused him to chuckle. Reaching for her ever-present support, he said, "It?ll be all right. We?ll be all right." He brushed a finger along her cheek and smiled when she met his gaze. "Trust me?"
"Good." Suppressing a groan, he stood. Leaning on her shoulder, he raised a brow toward the trail winding down the hillside and patted his injured leg. "Ready to toss caution to the winds?"
She eyed him quizzically, but when he offered her a grin for answer, she grinned back. "Aye, I am."
Fortified, they limped down the trail, ready to face whatever doom lay in wait....
"...And then Michall’s world flipped, his reality split, and he found himself balanced between two actualities, but living in neither," the Storyteller stated cryptically. "You see, my children, the spirit is hard to break when there is hope...and what of their companions? Remember, magic was at work here."
The old man smiled....
?Phillip awakened slowly, forced to fight his way to consciousness. He struggled through multiple layers of swirling fog and disjointed thoughts only to find Tilly sitting on his chest, caressing his cheek.
Somehow, his jaw had become stiff. He could feel a painful swelling along its line. Ah, he remembered now. It was that rather strange man he?d been parlaying with in that godforsaken village. The cad had hammered him in his jaw with the end of his crude sword.
That was the last thing he remembered. Looking around, he wasn?t entirely sure he was awake even now. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut very tightly, then popped them open quickly, but to no avail. He was still trapped within this strange dream. It had to be a dream, there was no other way his mind could explain it.
"Torch," Tilly called out. "He is awake."
Torch snorted from somewhere above Phillip. "I presume, human, you will survive. Tilly, come away from him."
"Why, truly I believe I shall. Ever so kind of you to ask though," Phillip said. As he sat up, he mumbled, "I see our little foray hasn?t damaged your mood in the least. I?m so very glad to see some things never change." Phillip draped his arms over bended knees. "Now, do be so kind as to tell me where we are and what has become of my kin?"
"I know not where we are, nor do I know where the rest have gone. I have reached out to them, but there is nothing. They are not here, human." Torch scowled. "We no longer reside amongst the familiar. We are no longer within a world I know."
Turning to meet Phillip’s stare, he added, "It is as if we have crossed beyond."
"Are you trying to imply that we?re dead?" Phillip scrubbed his hands over his face before pointing a warning finger at the flutterbug. "No, I refuse to entertain the notion. I can?t believe I?d be locked in eternity with you two. Even I don?t merit that harsh a punishment."
Torch shook his head, the action skeptical to the very bone. "If it is as you say, human, then explain where we are. The things I have seen are not of my world, nor yours. If not dead, then certainly near."
"Really, Torch. My jaw hurts too much to be dead. Besides, you two haven?t been out of the forest for a very long time. Things have changed since you were sent away. Come on. Let’s walk for a while. Perhaps something will spark a memory that can explain our surroundings."
Phillip stood. Placing a hand against his forehead to shield against the glare of the sun, he searched the horizon. He hated to admit it, but he?d never seen a world such as this. There were too many oddities and too much sand and stone.
"This way," he said, trying not to let his confusion show. Torch was right. It was a very strange place. Perhaps they really were dead. He rejected the idea immediately. He didn?t want to let his thoughts travel that path.
He walked through the hot, gritty sand while the two Fire Elves flew beside him. Their path brought them to a strange fence, winking at them wherever the sun reflected off its smooth surface. It didn?t seem to serve any practical purpose as far as Phillip could see. It stood too low to the ground to actually keep anything out.
Stepping easily over it, he arrived on what amounted to a stone road. He tapped his toe against the strange black surface, unsure of what could have created such a masterpiece of seamless stone. He sighted down its length. It led straight toward what appeared to be an extremely large town.
Looking at Torch, he shrugged before saying, "I admit, it resembles nothing I?ve ever seen before, but," he added with a grin, "I?m not exactly well-traveled. We might as well follow this road and see what town lies up ahead. Maybe it will shed some light on where we really are."
Torch shrugged. "I care not. The dead are free from harm."
Phillip shook a finger in his direction, opened his mouth, started to say something, then snapped it shut again and waved the little elf forward.
They hadn?t gone far when Tilly screamed. Torch and Phillip both swung about to see Tilly pointing at a huge shimmering beast racing toward them. Phillip’s jaw fell open.
As the beast drew nearer, Phillip saw that its feet were round and flowed easily along the slick, black surface. The beast itself was round with a smooth, shiny hide, nearly blinding them as the sun caught its strange multicolored skin.
"I must be dreaming," Phillip whispered, finding himself unable to do anything but stare at the creature.
"Human, step away!" Torch screamed even as he called upon his magic and sent a fiery spear into one of the beast’s paws. There was a loud popping sound and a horrible grating noise before the beast veered off the road.
Torch crossed his arms over his chest and smiled, his face beaming with smug satisfaction.
The beast came to a halt along the side of the road near the small fence. With a croak, its side split, expelling a man from its guts.
Phillip moaned. "This vision grows stranger and stranger."
The man, not acting at all grateful for his unsolicited rescue, kicked at the wounded paw and yelled something inaudible. Throwing his arms skyward, he walked behind the beast and opened its hide there. Soon, he could be seen wheeling an identical paw over to the wounded one.
As Phillip and the two Fire Elves watched, the man went about the business of shoeing the creature. Once finished, he reentered its belly and the beast roared away.
As the impossible filtered through to a mind struggling for some rational explanation, Phillip became aware, vaguely, of Tilly’s laughter. He turned toward her, eyebrows raised in question.
"Oh, Phillip, how silly we are. 'Tis only a carriage and nothing more."
Phillip nodded. Actually, for the sake of his sanity, he grasped at the idea and made it fit.
Cautiously, they made their way toward the town, keeping to the side of the road. After their encounter with the beast carriage or whatever it was, Phillip didn?t relish the idea of running headlong into another. After a while, he even managed not to flinch whenever the strange carriages roared past.
As they entered the unknown town, Phillip paused and leaned his head back to stare at the towering buildings glistening in the sunlight. He traced a finger along the smooth stone of one white wall and whistled. The buildings were like no other he'd ever seen.
The paved road continued ahead of them, but now there were miniatures of it gliding along next to the buildings. Phillip noted that the inhabitants of the town were walking on the smaller roads and so, did the same.
People were everywhere. Phillip had attended many gatherings where people came from all over the land, but here, they amassed and outnumbered all his remembered gatherings combined.
The men wore long trousers that flowed in loose folds from their waists while the women dressed in very short skirts that showed their entire leg. Their attire was as alien to Phillip as their world, yet he had no complaints. "Maybe I have died and gone to heaven, after all."
No complaints, that is, until he tried to speak to them. Every person he approached avoided eye contact and hurried past him without a word.
Phillip shook his head. "Does no one know how to be civil here? They act as if I?ve grown horns or..." Suddenly recalling Torch’s magic, he ran a shaky hand through his windblown hair. He wasn?t sure how badly Torch disliked him and was relieved to note that besides his very tangled hair, he didn?t sport a pair of spikes.
He kept walking and eventually came upon a section where all the buildings had large, clear windows running the length of their fronts, the glass reaching almost down to the footpath.
On the other side of these windows were displays of marvelous things, things that Phillip didn?t understand but found fascinating all the same. "Fancy owning all of this, Torch? It’s a virtual treasure trove."
"It is odd."
Phillip didn?t miss the note of fear in Torch’s voice. He reached up and patted his companion’s shoulder, hoping Torch would accept the gesture without offense.
For all the wonder of the glass world and the many displays of hoarded wealth therein, it didn?t really take Phillip long to lose interest. The strangeness reminded him he was lost, tired, and scared. Three things he didn?t like to acknowledge, or endure. He continued on, looking at everything, yet seeing nothing.
Without warning, Torch yanked hard on his hair.
"Hey!" Phillip scowled at the little flutterbug. "What?ve I done now?"
"Look, human, there in that window. What do you see?"
Phillip let his breath out in a hiss. "It can?t be! I don?t believe it!"
"Then, human, tell me what to believe, and I will kindly ignore that!" Torch continued to point at the window.
Phillip leaned his head against the cool glass. "Impossible." Then, stiffening his shoulders, he announced, "I?m going in there. Are you two willing to come along?"
When they both nodded, Phillip pushed against the door next to the large window. A tiny bell rang out a cheery greeting as he stepped into the building.
From the gloom of the distant wall, an old woman rose and said, "Welcome to my shop. What can I be doin? for ya?"
Phillip looked upon her bent, aged frame and smiled. She?d given him a decent reception, and he was grateful. Gesturing toward the front of the store, he asked, "Might I examine the book in your view box?"
She nodded. "Sure can. I got one right here." She plucked a book off the shelf beside her and handed it to him. He sank down on a bench to read.
The old woman tensed. "Hey, that there ain?t no seat, that there’s my cart--" She frowned. "Say, ya okay, son? Yar?n lookin? mighty pale."
"I thought I was," Phillip mumbled.
"I see that yar?n interested in the history of Sol." She nodded toward the book in his hand.
"Hmm? Yes, I believe you could say that," he replied, barely aware of what she?d said, his attention reserved solely for the bound volume in his hands.
"Well, if ya are really interested in the history, I can tell ya a lot more than that old book can. I happen to be related to the hero in it," she stated proudly.
Phillip couldn?t seem to keep his mouth from gaping open.
"Why don?t ya join me in the backroom for a cup of tea? I?d be more than happy to tell ya all that ya want to know."
Phillip nodded. "I could use something to drink."
He rose and bowed slightly before following her into the backroom.
She directed him to take a seat and then busied herself fixing the tea. He could do nothing but stare at the surroundings.
Above him there glowed instant sun, caught in clear tubes. As the light escaped, he could hear the soft hum of its heat. He hoped that the flame didn?t deem it necessary to escape its prison while he sat beneath it.
With considerable effort, he took his gaze from the glowing tubes and studied the rest of the room. She had running water without the aid of a pump and called fire to her stove with just the flick of her wrist. Perhaps these people were all powerful wizards. He rolled his eyes. Now that’s a comforting thought!
"By the way, my name is Corty Michalls. And ya are?"
Phillip stood and bowed. "I am called Phillip."