The man walked into the village. Without seeing or hearing another soul he already felt unwelcome. Wind and rain struck him in the face. Even the elements rejected his presence. Everywhere he went it was the same, and he was sure it would be no different here. He trudged through muddy water, splashing it up his long leather coat. Somewhere a wooden gate slammed in feeble competition with the thunder. Every single bone in the man’s body ached. He had travelled far and though he was at his journeys end he knew he still had much further to go yet.
To the man’s left a light came on. A moment later a door opened. Out from this illuminated passageway stepped another man, bent and grey. He wore nothing but a night gown and a scowl. The two men, one tall and dark, the other stooped and light stared at each other for several moments. Recognition coated the old man. Eventually his scowl was chased away by a sigh. He turned and waved the man in behind him with a chop of his arm. The man followed him in, bringing with him the night and travel. He closed the door silently.
Before him lay a scene of poverty and peacefulness. Everything he saw had a function and was there to do so at a minimal expense. Floors and walls were unadorned timber. Chairs were plain wood; a cushion would have been a luxury. By the window an oil candle glowed, the most expensive item in the room. The man stood in this room dripping the deluge that had poured on him onto the floor. He had seen worse and he had seen better. Appearance mattered not for his purpose. He would find the truth in a person, and find their worth.
The light from the lamp illuminated the man’s face from the shadow of his wide brimmed hat. It was an old face, but with much strength and drive still in its expression, coated by weather and days of not shaving. His dark eyes surveyed the old man before him. He was short and bent with long hairs on his chin and none on his head. His old and patched night clothes clung to his skeletal body. Already the man was building a detailed picture of the old man from his appearance and house, as if he had always known him.
Both men maintained their silence. Both were carefully considering each other and the situation at hand, neither wanting to make a miscalculation which could have profound impacts on many others. Before this mental sparring could reach its conclusion there came a noise from outside other than that of the storm. Evidently the old man had not been the only one to see the man’s arrival. There were shouts going around the village alerting others of his arrival, and all over there were lights being turned on and people leaving their houses. As ever the man’s arrival was causing a stir.
The old man sighed. He had been hoping to get some time to speak with the man alone, now the whole village was coming to his door. He opened the door to let the people and their noise in. As ever the man’s arrival was causing a mixed response. There were voices of anger, of fear, of calls for violence; but there were also voices of curiosity, of calm, of hope. The old man’s room was not large but most of the village were able to enter leaving just a few outside. All waited for what the man would say.
This was it. This was where the man’s journey really began. No matter how many times he had done it the process was still exhilarating. Presenting his mission to people, their various reactions, outbursts, opposition, conflicts and their resolutions, and of course the unique incidents that happened each different time. It was his life. He surveyed the people before him and began to understand who his allies were and who his enemies were, and who was useful and who was useless to him. Whatever future the people of this village had imagined had disappeared upon his arrival. Reality started now.
“Greetings”, the man finally said, “I require a bed for the night”. His voice was like the thunder in the background, low, strong, guttural. Of all the things the villagers thought he might have said this was not one of them. “We all know why you’re here why don’t you just…” began one of them before he was cut off by a raised hand from the man. “My purpose here will be fulfilled in good time. I have travelled far and for now require rest.” The old man indicated he could stay with him. His purpose could wait for now.
By the time that dawn broke the storm had passed and had been replaced with a bright and clear morning, which allowed the man to survey the village and its surroundings. The village itself was a handful of small wooden buildings sat just on the edge of a forest which sprawled up the sides of a mountain range which towered over the entire area. In the opposite direction were wide plains with little feature and no sign of human habitation. Had it not been for the storm blocking the moonlight the man’s approach could have been seen from miles away.
The dawn brought not just light but also the villagers. Almost as soon as he exited the old man’s house so too did most of the villagers from theirs. After taking in his surroundings he began examining them in the daylight. A ramshackle lot they appeared to be. They were all clothed poorly and even the healthiest looked slightly underfed. Being so far from any other people clearly hurt them as they had to survive on what they alone could find or make. Still they were not a mean looking people and the angriest from the night before had calmed.
There was no point in wasting any more time, thought the man. “I have travelled here to offer those that would come the chance to participate in a journey”, he revealed. There was an instant clamour of noise as the rumours about the man were confirmed. Some were excited and would have followed him if he had started then and there. Others were less sure and began shouting questions: “where? When? How long will it take? Where?!” The man refused all questions. Answers would only be given to those that came with him. If no-one followed, he would go alone.
This was the conflict which revolved around the man, why he was both bogeyman and messiah. There were many rumours, one being that he offered a journey and it was said this either led to paradise or certain doom. Other rumours said he brought a supposed gift which was either a blessing or a curse. All the rumours allowed for him to be either an angel or a demon. Now the villagers knew what exactly it was he was offering. The question for them now was whether to accept or not. Would they walk into hell, or away from heaven?
“I must warn you if you choose not to journey with me to not try to follow. You will not be able to,” said the man. Whatever this journey would bring was only for those who would make the choice to follow the man. The argument between those who wished to follow and those who saw this as suicide raged on. The man’s voice rose above the cacophony one more time to announce “I will leave at this time tomorrow with any that would follow”. He then turned and went back into the old man’s house. The villager’s argument continued.
At the same time the next day the man emerged from the old man’s house to find all the villagers waiting for him. They had all resolved to take the journey, and to not leave anyone behind, or send anyone off alone. He was not surprised. They had not been as hostile as others had been. More than once the man had been chased out of a town and travelled alone. The villagers were not particularly held to this land and many yearned for something more. The man’s journey was this for them. The unknown was preferable to abject mediocrity.
They were all ready to go. None of them had great stores of possessions to bring with them. “Which way then?” asked one of the older, more hostile villagers. A gesture to the mountains was the man’s only answer. Even the most adventurous of the villagers had never been far into the mountains. They were an impenetrable barrier. No one had been over them, and no one had come from the other side. Whatever was beyond them was truly the unknown for the villagers. Without waiting for any response the man set off towards them. Now the journey truly began.
As the party got higher up the slopes and left the village behind a strange atmosphere came upon them. Those who had been keen to follow had at first been loud and merry but where now overcome with silence and foreboding. Realisation of what they were doing had set in. The ones who had been against the journey were alert and suspicious of the man, not allowing a single move he made to not be marked. Dread and paranoia clouded the party as much as the mist which began rolling over the mountains. Below the village was now almost indiscernible.
The man had of course sensed this atmosphere of unrest, but paid it no heed for the moment. It was of course only natural. They had only just begun the journey and were not yet committed to action. Soon though he knew they would take to the journey and feel the need to see it through. He already had an idea of which of them would waver first, he did not yet know though if any of them would not complete the journey. That would become clear once they had faced serious challenges. But for now they journeyed on unchallenged.
The light began to fade and so too did the villagers. As they climbed higher into the mountains the terrain had become more challenging and it became clear to the man that further travel would be wasteful. “We rest here for the night,” he said in a sheltered spot. They were the first words he had spoken all day. His silence had been another cause for concern for some of the villagers as they had tried to talk to him but he had always remained silent. Even so he for now had unchallenged authority over them and they willingly stopped.
For a moment or two they waited to see if the man had anymore instructions, but his silence showed he meant otherwise. He wanted to see how they would cope. This was a relatively safe situation that through their inaction or poor choices could become quickly unsafe. Although they had lived what many he had met would consider a wild life they had still been quite sheltered from the whims of nature, now life would become a struggle. He was pleased though as soon leaders emerged who organised the others into finding supplies for the group. There was hope yet.
The first night passed without incident or comfort. Though the villagers were not accustomed to luxury they never before known cold rocks for a bed before. They all showed their discomfort quite openly except the man. He looked as grim as ever before. This was the life he knew. Just as he had been learning about the nature of the villagers so now they were learning about him. They quickly ate a little of the food they had brought with them and were soon on their way. The light of the new day showed they were near to the mountaintop.
They quickly came to near the top of the mountain. They were not huge mountains and actually became less steep towards the top, but they were broad and obscured any tantalising view of the world beyond. Eventually though they came to the peak and saw that beyond the mountains lay… nothing. No fields of grass, no distant mountains, not sea, forest, not even light. All there was was a great, unending, black void. They looked down and were horrified to see there was not even another side to the mountains, only blackness. The man had led them to the end.
All eyes shot to the man. “Why would you take us here?!”
“Surely you don’t expect us to go down there?”
“What have you done to the world?” The man almost smiled at the last question. They really believed he could be powerful enough to obliterate part of the world into non-existence. He turned to face them. “It is merely an illusion,” he said, “follow me down and you will be fine.” Then without further ado, he stepped forward toward the abyss. “Madness,” proclaimed one of the villagers, “utter madness.” But the man was already gone, disappearing into the nothingness.
Panic cut through the villagers. Some of them had thought that when the man stepped over the edge into darkness he might have fallen into the void, but it appeared he had also disappeared. As soon as he went into the blackness all trace of him was lost. Even the sound of his boots scraping on the mountain rock vanished instantly with his entrance to it. He was either foolish or intentionally malicious, leading the villagers to oblivion by accident or design. Many of them thought that at least he had gone quickly. Now they could return to their lives.
“This is not the end,” began one villager, “it is only the beginning!” Before any of the others could say or do anything he had shot off after the man and also passed into the void. For a moment they were all in stunned silence, but then those that, like the one who had gone on, believed deeply in the man’s journey began to follow. The more suspicious villagers tried in horror to prevent them. Friends held friends, husbands held wives, sisters held brothers, but soon all those that wanted to had passed on, leaving the reluctant travellers completely alone.
They were shocked. How could they all follow someone they knew nothing about so blindly? Where was the logic? Certainly just about all the villagers had longed to see more of the world, to meet with new people, and to discover new things, that was just part of living somewhere so remote, but to be willing to go to this extent? It was madness! They stood on the mountaintop dumbfounded. They had been so ready to turn back but how could they now with so many gone? But how could they go forward? Was love and friendship really that strong?
A light breeze began to swirl around the lonely villagers. They were all hoping that some sign would come to them that it was safe to follow. Some were even guilty of hoping for even a sign that it was right they turn back. There was nothing though. No sight or sound came from beyond the blackness. The decision was theirs alone. Gradually that decision was made. The bond with their fellow villagers was too strong for many of them, and they began to trickle after them. Against their better judgment and all sense, they followed reluctantly into the darkness.
Just at the moment when they became engulfed by the darkness they were blinded by light. So sudden and stark was the contrast that they were staggered by it. It took them a few moments to compose themselves before realising that in front of them was the man and the other villagers, all completely unharmed. Beyond them was a land like they would have first expected to see with the mountains descending into a thick forest that carpeted a hilly country leading off into the distance. They were beginning to doubt that anything extraordinary had happened, until they looked back.
Where they expected to look back and see where they had just come from, or perhaps the blackness, there was instead a wall of diamond. It stretched upwards and outwards on into infinite. With the sunlight bouncing off it to dazzle their eyes it was the exact opposite to the wall of darkness they had just passed through. Some out their hands on it to find it was surprisingly cold, and completely solid. There was no way back that way. All of them looked enquiringly at the man. Clearly he possessed greater knowledge about the world than any of them.
“This world possesses more wonder than you have any idea of, and you will see stranger things on this journey than walls of darkness or light,” said the man, answering the question the villages all wanted to ask, that was to perplexing to vocalise. Without another word he began to walk down the mountain. In one day he had provided more questions and wonder than a lifetime before for the villagers. Those that had been eager to follow before now saw in this journey the purpose of their lives. The rest looked back at the impenetrable barrier and followed dutifully.
The old man, whose house the man had first stayed in, had remained faithfully by his side since the outset of the journey. He did do because he was so impressed by the man. There was no waste in what he said or did. When he spoke it had weight in every word. There was no waste in any movement he made, from his limbs to his face which seemed permanently set in a grim manner but which he had noticed made slight adjustments at certain times. The old man knew there was far more than meets the eye here.
The next few days were spent traversing the forest before them once they had descended the mountain. The woodsmen of the village, so knowledgeable about the wild where they had come from were shocked at the number of species of flora and fauna which they were completely oblivious to here. It was as if they had traversed worlds simply by crossing the darkness at the top of the mountain. The man spent much of his time telling them the names and properties of the plant and animal life they found. The old man felt like a child leaving the cradle.
Eventually they left the forest having seen, and begun to understand, much more of the world. After clearing the trees, they saw that before them was a wide, open plain stretching off to the horizon. They decided to stay there for the night and gather supplies from the forest. They slept that night as peaceful as they had been since the journey began. When they awoke next morning they looked to man to tell them where they would go next, but he was gone. No warning, no sign, no message left, just absence. They were suddenly alone in the world.
Panic swept through the villagers. Some of them ran back into the forest, calling for the man. Others looked around their camp searching for any sign of tracks showing where he might have gone, but there was nothing. Fear froze them in place. Now the forest and all its new species was that much more foreboding with no guide, and the completely unknown world before them was even more so. It was two days before the old man spoke up to get them to move. There was clearly no way back he said, all there was was to move forward.
“All the while we were descending the mountain he was intent on that rocky hillock away yonder,” the old man said, “and on the night we came out of the forest he stared at it before making his camp. If we are going to see our guide again we had best follow his guidance.” Some of the others murmured agreement that they had seen him look towards this landmark, and it was one of the only features in the landscape before them. Nobody else had a better suggestion so they agreed, for better or worse they would choose this course.
The rocky hillock in question rose somewhat higher than the rest of the surrounding country and was covered in jagged rock where the rest was all grass. It took them half a day to reach it, all the while they were looking about for some sudden danger, or more hopefully, the return of the man. Neither came though and soon they were at the foot of the rock. They were looking all about its bottom for a way up when, as if from nowhere, a small rat like man appeared. Before they could say anything it said “ouy era ohw?”
The villagers were taken aback as much by his strange speech as by his sudden and also strange appearance. He seemed to be wearing a small garden with clothes that looked like- and seemed to be partly composed of- earth, with plants and mushrooms sprouting all over him. He was very hunched over with small moist eyes, and a twitching nose. He did not look particularly dangerous, more unpredictable, and so the villagers kept their distance. One of the bolder young women of the village approached him slowly though, to the disdain of her cautious parents. Yet she was un-afraid.
She told the strange man they were looking for a tall man in a long coat, with a grim face. He replied “noos ereh eb lliw eh, nam eht wonk I,” much to their confusion. The villagers were not well travelled people but they began debating what language it was that he was speaking. While they argued he became excited and started saying “no emoc, edisni emoc”. From his gestures they gathered he wanted them to follow him and they saw he was leading them through a passage behind a rock they would not have seen otherwise without his guidance.
With no other evident option, they followed the strange man, cautiously. They still feared a possible ambush and were still lost and vulnerable without their guide. They squeezed through the rocky passageway into what appeared to be a rocky amphitheatre. It seemed that most of the inside of the rocky hill was hollow. They emerged on the slope of a great bowl with a central raised dais. Around the rest of the slope were interspersed other passageways which must have led up to the balconies they could see ranging up far above them. Balconies from which more strange people watched.
“nem llih eht fo emoh eht ot emoclew,” proclaimed the strange man. In a journey that had already provided numerous strange and wonderful sights this was one of the most welcome. It was spectacular but comforting. They had realised the strange men were not malicious creatures, and their home was a towering brilliance of either natural or unnatural architecture. Presently more of the strange men came to them bearing tables and chairs, food and drink. It appeared they were to be treated as guests. For a little while as they ate and drank the absence of the man was forgotten.
After a little while one of the villagers who had been engaging as well as he could one of the strange men in conversation proclaimed “oh I understand, you’re speaking backwards”. The man replied “sdrawkcab gnikaeps er’ouy weiv fo tniop ym morf.” After carefully considering this statement to work out what the man had said the villagers told him he was correct he supposed. “noos gninruter eb lliw ediug er’ouy taht ouy llet nac I tuo taht dekrow ev’ouy taht won,” and once the villagers worked out just what he had said they were made to feel all the safer.
This feeling was quickly erased as suddenly they were thrust into darkness. There had been no clear source of light, but none of the villagers had really paid this any mind, whatever it had been was gone though. There were yells and cries all around from the villagers, but nothing from the strange backwards talking men. They were either not surprised by the darkness or had also disappeared with the light. The tables and chairs they had been sat at had certainly disappeared and most had ended up on the floor. They tried to gather themselves as best they could.
But how could you gather yourself when your sight had been stolen? When a fleeting moment of stability had been ripped away at such a turbulent time? Some of them began to cry as despair wracked their minds. Some were calm though. The old man, the young woman, they began gathering the rest, providing some small measure of stability. They quietened them so they could listen for any sound of the backwards talking men. There was nothing though, only silence and darkness. “They said he would be back,” moaned one of the villagers.
“I am,” spoke the man from somewhere.
In a complete reversal of what had happened before the villagers were suddenly doused in light. It took them several moments to be able to stand the brilliant shine that was all around them. They were eventually able to see a dark silhouette which they assumed correctly was the man. He stood in marked contrast to the rest of their surroundings. Even when they could open their eyes it still seemed as if light was coming from everywhere, as if they were standing in the moon or a star, a light of life, cleansing and warming. It held them safely.
Even when their eyes had adapted to the light it still seemed that they were within the light itself, for light came from everywhere. They were in what appeared to be an orchard, though this was an inadequate description. The dew on the trees and grass shone as now ordinary water reflection ever had. The green of the leaves seemed to emanate from the leaves like emeralds. The fruits from the trees were no apple or pear but balls of light. There was no recognisable sky. It seemed instead to be a ceiling of light. No darkness could endure here.
The villagers looked around them in awe. They were being bombarded by the spectacular on this journey but they could still be impressed. They looked now to the man, “where did you?” they asked, “why did you leave us?”
“I was never far,” he answered, “I merely wished to see how you would cope without me.” It was said with such finality that they knew that was all he would tell them on the matter. Of course though many of them were still not satisfied but they had the sense not to push the man too far on this matter.
“What is the purpose of this journey?” It was the unspoken question on everyone’s mind that had been uttered by the old man. The man looked to him and without hesitation replied “to show the uneducated the spectacular, to bring awe to the sheltered, to bring knowledge to the naïve, to light a fire in the darkness, to present the terrifying and the delightful equally to grow. The journey always changes as the world always changes, as its people are all different. No one will take the same one after you, and you will not take the same as before.”
The villagers, those isolated, uneducated, forgotten people of the world were perfectly suited for the journey. They had seen so little of the world that to show them the spectacular would be all the more appreciated, and was all the more necessary. Knowing the journey, they were on was unique also made it feel special to them as well. It was theirs and no one else’s. It was daunting though that this implied there were even more spectacular things that they would never see. One of the villagers asked the man what they would see next. He replied, “the terrifying”.
Before they could ask anything more of him the world around them changed. The light of life that was all around them was replaced with a light of death, red and hostile. The sky blackened and the trees and their fruits decayed. Soon even the ground beneath them was warped and then was gone and they were falling. Everywhere around them was the sound of thunder which thudded through their bodies. The air they plummeted through struck at their faces. Visions emerged from shadow of cruel faces with malice on their tongues. Everywhere they looked there was horror and cruelty.
There was no sense of how far or for how long they had been falling. Some of the villagers passed out and woke up to find themselves still falling. Others simply lost track. To them it could have been days or minutes they had been falling for. The man swirled around them all, his long black coat billowing like the wings of a bat. His grim stare seemed to bore into those who looked at. He had never looked particularly welcoming but now his look seemed absolutely hostile. They could not believe they should fear him, but things had changed.
In a moment all changed and everything around them was fire. The flames tangled around and between the villagers and licked at their clothes and exposed parts, singeing cloth and skin alike. Everything then seemed to spin around and even though they had no clear points of reference it seemed they were now being launched skyward rather than plummeting through the ground. To what they were rising they could not guess, nor did many have the inclination as visions of terror still assaulted them. The visions did disappear though as were deposited on an ashen ground surrounded by acrid smoke.
The villagers all gagged for air, but the poisonous soup that filled their lungs was all that was to be had. Eyes bulged and throats tightened. Out of instinct they looked to the man who was covering his own mouth with a rag he had pulled from somewhere. They copied him and were able to gain some measure of sustenance this way. When he saw the villagers were copying him he set off, the villagers followed. They trudged through the ash and slowly began to rise above the toxic fumes. This made it possible for them to see their surroundings.
It was a dead land. No movement other than the ominous flow of smoke from fiery vents could be detected. There were no trees, just piles of black rock, no rivers of water, just molten lava streaming unimpeded over swathes of the land. If there were stars in the sky of this land they were choked out by darkness and smoke. The moon they could see but it was yellow and decaying. The first of the villagers died in the night. It was the old man. He had been made weak by the fall and could not survive for long.
Others died in the night. The old, the infirm, many of them were those who had not been keen to start the journey in the first place. Those that were left were shaken. They looked to the man for answers or some measure of comfort but all he would say on their deaths was that they had happened and there was no changing that. When the day broke the party set off in misery. The man still strode out with purpose but the rest lagged behind dodging rivers of lava and hot stones. There was no clear direction, just ruin.
They travelled for days. Barely a word was spoken amongst the villagers and not one from the man. He remained wholly silent only leading them onwards and stopping at his discretion. The heat and poisonous air were ever present in mind and body. The villagers longed for a cool breeze or a pool to dive in and wash the evil off of themselves. Soon their supplies ran low and there was no sign of any water or food to be acquired in this foul land. Fear was rampant in all the villager’s mind’s. Maybe they had made the wrong choice.
They were leaving a trail of bodies behind them and in front of them was only mystery. The man barely gave them a chance to arrange the corpses respectfully, there was no time for burial. They were too tired and weakened for dissent, and in any case what would be the point? They had no clue as to where in the world they actually were or how to get away from there alive. The paradox was that while many were dying because of the man’s journey, he was also their only hope of actually making it out of there alive.
Nights and days were very much the same in this dead land. It was constantly dark. Both sun and moonlight struggled to break through the choking barrier of cloud that engulfed the region. The main source of light was the dangerous glow of the lava streams. Soon the villagers had no sense of how long they had been there for. Added to the infuriating fact that the landscape did not change and there was no sign of any change on the horizon the reality was that they were lost, in time and space. Minds would be next to be lost.
During a period while they were sleeping (who now could say if it was night or day), they were all awoken by screaming. One of the villagers was screaming uncontrollably. A wild look had taken over his face and try as they might they could find no way to calm him. The man merely sat watching, offering now help at all. The villagers could also only watch in horror as the screaming man ran off wailing into the distance, never to be seen by them again. Spirits which had been ebbing, plummeted to a new low, dragging hope with them.
They had been walking for hours and were near exhausted, physically and mentally. The smoke around them was particularly thick that day and visibility was reduced to a few feet. The man stopped walking but did not make as if to set up camp. The villagers asked what he was doing, but he just told them to wait a moment. Several moments later they felt a breeze, soft and cooling, for the first time in who could say how long. The smoke gradually began to dissipate, revealing before them an end to the dead land, and in its place, sea.
“The Breathing Sea,” proclaimed the man, smiling and nodding at the sight of it. Without another word he made his way down into the lapping waves and kept walking out until he was submerged. The villagers were wary. They realised he must have wanted them to follow him, but they were distrustful following their time in the dead land. They looked behind them at the dead land and realised they had no other choice and followed the man below the waves. In one of the most pleasant of surprises it became apparent that they could in fact still breathe there.
They held their breath at first of course but they saw the man breathing normally and tried to as well. Whether through their nose’s or mouths they found the water did not enter their lungs, only air, and it was by far cleaner than that they had been breathing in the dead land. The dust and filth from that place streamed off of them in the current and for the first time in forever they felt clean. Around them seaweeds and shoals of fish showed this was indeed a real sea, it just so happened to have one major difference.
One difference or so they thought until they realised the man was still standing with his feet planted on the seabed, as if he were standing on dry land. When they were all assembled he turned and began walking away. The villagers attempted this feat as well and found they could walk completely normally. It took a moment or two to get used to this movement as the ebb and flow of the water made to carry them one way or another but was otherwise easy to do. The man and the villagers then set off walking under the sea.
They set off heading ever deeper below the surface. Instead of a sky they had a ceiling of water which did not quite absorb all the sunlight, allowing some scattered light to make its way down below. After the choking darkness of the dead land this meagre light was enough for them to see by, and there was so much colour in this sea that that was all that was needed. Shoals of fish, vibrant reefs, and coloured sands all made up the palate of this strange place. Renewed hope and vigour spurred the group onwards to whatever would follow.
They continued to journey ever deeper. Eventually they came to an undersea cliff that dropped precipitously into gloomy depths. The man wasted little time before jumping off and sinking into the gloom. The villagers who were a short way behind him made to do so as well. Following him had now become more habit than anything. But unbeknownst to any of them a storm had been brewing above the surface and it reached them before they could follow. The villagers were whipped up in a maelstrom. In the frothing seas they quickly lost sight of one another and were lost.
The villagers were scattered for miles around the sea bed. They were shaken and some had scrapes and bruises but luckily none had taken too serious a blow and they were all alive. Their biggest problem now was to find their way back to each other, or to remain lost. The bold young women who had been the first to confront the strange backwards talking man was one of the first to awake. Though she could still breathe, now that she was alone, being under water seemed somewhat more threatening. She did not recognise where she was, but was un-afraid.
Looking round her she could see the cliff was nowhere in sight. The sunlight still shone down around her so she knew she had not been swept down below it. All around her was just sand with a few scattered boulders. Despite the sunlight she still could not see beyond a few dozen metres so she had almost no knowledge of the world around her. The girl had always trusted her instincts though and chose to continue doing so now. She picked what she felt to be a likely direction and set off that way, hoping she would find others.
The man had said this journey was supposed to show them the incredible things in the world. “Well,” thought the girl, as a huge whale swam over her, “it is certainly doing that.” They had also only been on this journey for probably less than a month as well. She could not help but wonder how much longer it could last and what new and strange things they would see next. On the other hand, she also had to think of all those who had died so far, and now they were all separated. Would any of them survive it?
But then another thought came to her. If they had all stayed in the village they probably would have all reached a wise old age. But what would have been the point? They would have seen and done the same things for all that time, never adding any more meaning to their lives. Their stories would only need one chapter. By going on this journey, each step added another chapter, another layer to their lives. If they were all to die on this journey, then so be it. At least they would have seen some of the world’s greatest wonders.
For the moment she had no intention of dying though. She could not know that all the other villagers were safe enough and all making their way back to each other with varying degrees of success. She was sure some of them must have been killed. These morbid thoughts had brought on this realisation and also spurred her on to find the rest. More importantly it made her want to find the man to further the journey and see even more. There was no predicting what would come next, it might not even be dangerous, but she would meet it.
For now, though there was only trying to get back to where she had been. The sea was getting shallower and clearer. At the very least she hoped she may reach the coast and perhaps regain her bearings from there. Another matter became pressing though as she realised she would have to eat soon. She had had little food on her when they came below the water, and that had all been lost in the storm. This was a world unlike any she had been in and she had no idea what plants or fish were edible, let alone palatable.
She came to a small, rocky area where there were plants and fish abound. She eyed some of the seaweeds with suspicion and resolved to try for something a little meatier first. It quickly became apparent that she would not be able to catch any of the small darting fish she saw with her hands. She then realised that some of the rocks were moving without the current’s aid and were in fact alive. These had stinging spines though so she also left them. She was in the end forced to feast on the oily weeds, hopefully for once only.
The girl would have to scrounge the seabed for food more than once though. For three days she swam and walked trying to find where she had been lost. Three days and nights she spent alone living under the sea. She quickly found that it was even more important to find good shelter here at night as the first night she soon awoke to find herself drifting away from the rocks she had camped in. She had almost given up hope of finding the undersea cliff when there was a flash and a pillar of light appeared in the distance.
It was directly in front of her and she was sure that the man would have something to do with it. She felt vindicated in her instinct to go that way. It could only be a few miles ahead so she set off with renewed vigour. She quickly came across a much larger stretch of coral than she had seen on her own and knew she was in the same area she had been with the others. She swam over one outcropping and there was the man, arms spread wide, a pillar of light emanating from his body straight upwards.
The girl could only stand and watch this new incredible sight. He was making no sound and it was impossible to see his face through the light to gauge anything from the man. She looked about and saw that some of the other villagers were already there or were trickling into the area. The light continued to issue for several minutes. Then it slowly faded and the man was revealed as he was before, albeit with a slight glow. There was a profound silence under the waves as all those gathered wondered just what exactly the man was capable of.
They had always looked at the man with a sense of awe as they would anyone who had seen more of the world than their village. Added to that was the air of mystery surrounding him. Now though there seemed to be an other worldly power about him. He was more than an ordinary human, and who knew what other powers or feats he was capable of. The villagers were approaching him slowly, almost as you would a wild animal, slowly, almost submissive. He looked around with the same hard set expression he always had. For him this was normal.
Silence, as ever, was the only response they received from the man. His light faded and he merely continued to float calmly in the water. The villagers who had arrived congregated around him. They waited patiently for the rest of their compatriots to join them, a few whispers, looks of bewilderment the only communication that was made. Hours passed and a myriad of sea life made its way to where they waited. First only small molluscs and small darting fish, but soon there were larger fish, stinger trailing jellyfish and even whales. Clearly some new mysterious spectacle was at work.
The girl picked a lobster off of her foot that had decided to rest there. Having never seen one before she looked at it with complete bewilderment. Her assessment of the scene around her was much the same. How could there be so much diversity of life all contained in one space? She looked to the man who seemed to be communicating with what she could not appreciate was a surprisingly large seahorse, stretching nearly as long in length as the man was tall. At a nod from the man the seahorse and some of its fellow swam off quickly.
They returned a short while later with the remaining villagers who had not found their way back. Now they were all assembled again. The man looked around the assembled villagers and sea life. He opened his mouth and first bubbles began appearing, then there were distinct waves in the water emanating from him. The girl was confused until the waves began hitting her and she could hear a sound, its meaning unfathomable, but certainly a sound. The sea life around them began to swim and scuttle away in all their numerous methods. The villagers were again alone with the man.
He wasted no time in continuing on his original plan. They quickly were taken to the edge of the undersea cliff. Without stopping the man went over the edge, but rather than floating and having to propel himself downwards, in an instant he was gone, plummeting downwards. The villagers swam forwards to see what had happened and were also sucked downwards into the murky depths. They were pulled, through water and darkness. The light above quickly became inconsequential and then was lost. They were still sinking into darkness, but all of a sudden light spawned around them from numerous sources.
The lights moved and changed constantly, never settling on a hue or pattern. So rapid was the movement that it was at first impossible to focus and so discern its source. It was even slightly nauseating for some, with the rapid dance of colour becoming almost hypnotic. The source was revealed to be the most alien looking life they had yet seen. Fish, if they could be called that, swarmed around them. Some were masses of spines, others appeared to be fashioned from transparent fabric, and some seemed to be floating masses of organs. They were in an alien world.
The girl wondered how, without light, without any of what she would have considered the necessities for life to flourish, it was. There were countless organisms floating around them, lighting the gloom with their life. It was simply stupendous. She looked, as ever to the man, and was amazed to see that for the first time since they had begun their journey, he was smiling. His normally hard face was softened for once as it was bathed in the ever changing light below the sea. His eyes betrayed a sense of peace, even enjoyment at his place in the world.
Away from all over distractions, with only the simplest beauty of life dancing around him, the man was happy. The girl wondered what had happened to make him this way. Why was it that with everything else the world put before him he was at best sombre, but when all that was stripped away he found pleasure? They continued to sink farther down the crevice and this only brought to more luminescent creatures. As the colours became more vibrant, and the dance quickened, the smile on the man’s face only grew, until laughter, wondrous and rare, burst out of him.
The change in the man was absolute. He always moved in a restrained and precise manner, everything was about control with him. Now he was rolling around, arms and legs flailing in the glorious chaos of joy. Such unrestrained pleasure from such an unexpected source was infectious and the other villagers found themselves also relaxing their ever alert minds to just enjoy the delightful scene of colour and shape that was before them. Given the constant movement and change of their surroundings and circumstance it was a welcome change to feel at peace, rather than wonder what would be next.
The group of villagers and the man sank down through miles and miles of seawater and luminescent life, simply enjoying the situation they found themselves in. The man laughed so much the whole way that it seemed that as they sank deeper, he became younger. In fact, he was becoming younger, realised the girl. His skin was losing creases and gaining colour and shape. His hair was returning to a full auburn colour, shedding its flecks of grey. Eventually he shrunk and returned to the form of a child. The girl looked around and realised the villagers were as well.
She looked upon her own hands to see them returned to the dainty and fragile form they had been when she was a youth. It seemed that they had somehow sunk through time itself. They finally came to rest at the bottom of the chasm, and the instant they touched it the light producing organisms, the water, and indeed everything of the sea was gone. They found themselves instead beneath a large tree in the middle of the night with no sight or sense of the sea anywhere to be found. They were just a group of children, all alone.
It seemed they had all regressed to how they had appeared as children of around five years. They babbled away to each other in shocked, squeaky voices they barely recognised as their own. A cry began to rise above all of their noise though, the cry of a baby. They crowded around the fallen pile of the man’s clothing to find wriggling amongst them a baby. While the villagers had been taken back to their youth, he had been taken back to infancy. They asked him questions but all he did was make nonsensical noises like the babe he was.
In their shock and fear some of the villagers forgot themselves, and in their desire for guidance began to shake the child but all they wrought were tears. It seemed that while they maintained their sensibilities from before they had been reverted to childhood, the man had regressed fully to that of a baby. They had once again been left without their guide but now there was the uncertainty of if he would, or even could, regain the faculties to aid them. Whereas before he had left in terms of space, now he had left in a more remarkable way.
They looked around, hoping for some sign of where they should head for. It was only now they realised how dark the night was. There were a multitude of stars in the sky, painting a twinkling tapestry on the night, but it was as if none of their light made it to the ground. All around them seemed shrouded in darkness. The tree they stood under and grass around them may as well have been the entire world. Given all of this they resolved to rest there for the night and see what the morning would bring, hoping for better.
Everyone has experienced a night when the morning will not come. When one believes that the light of day will shine bright on the problems of the night and make them flee to the shadows. These nights pass slowly. They stretch a person’s patience to their limit, and then stretch them some more. This is what happened to the villagers. The night made them wait until they nearly begged the universe for it to acquiesce. But it would not give it. Morning would come at its own leisure. Until that time came they would be alone for the long night.
Morning came and they realised why they could not discern any clue of their surroundings in the starlight. They were looking over a vast rooftop of trees, which stretched as far as the eye could see. The trees were so thick that the leaves resembled moss coating a rock. The hill upon which they stood was the only other feature that could be glimpsed. The baby had grown silent during the night and now slept. Clearly it would be no help to them. They had no choice and so began descending the hill, into whatever lay in wait for them.
In short what awaited them was darkness. As they went below the tree line all light was blocked out by the leaves. For a moment they thought they would be stranded, unable to move forwards. They were surprised though as their eyes soon adapted, and they found themselves in a murky green twilight as some light filtered through the canopy. They found themselves in a surprisingly empty world. So thick were the branches and leaves of the trees that nothing else grew beneath them. The trees stood as pillars scattered around with only dirt ground between them, looming on forever.
As strange thing happened to sound in this place. Every footfall and breath was muffled, as if the very air was hostile to their unexpected and unwanted presence. They shuffled on in no particular direction, trusting to intuition and the most confident among them, this strange group of children, in clothes too large by far, and a baby bundled up in the clothes of a large man. After a time, some were worried when they realised that despite having not journeyed far, the hill was already lost, and perhaps was no longer there. All they could do was walk on.
Day on day their sense of foreboding only grew. All they saw were the tall, silent trees all around them, and the bare ground between them. Above them were the still branches and leaves that seemed to have them trapped in this place. Some of the children tried to climb the trees, but they were almost unnaturally smooth, and no handhold could be found. Whenever they paused for rest they had to be careful to mark the direction they were travelling as somehow, while they were not looking, the faint tracks they left behind were erased, yet all was still.
They were very careful about where they marked so that they were always moving forwards, always from where they had been. They were then ecstatic to see before them something new. Through the many trees they saw the outline of something that was definitely larger than a tree. They ran as fast as their tiny legs could carry them towards it, full of hope. That hope was soured when they realised it was a hill. They had moved forwards though, they were sure, so they traipsed up it to find a tree. A tree looking over forest for miles around.
They refused to believe. This must have just been another similar hill, with a similar tree. Everything else they had seen looked much the same, that did not mean it was. Some stated this for others who had slumped to the ground in despair. The girl though confirmed their fears when she pointed to a mark on the tree, a mark she had made before they left which read “we started here”. As if to answer the cries of incomprehension every tree in the forest shifted slightly, and they saw the canopy shimmer and shake all around them, then settling.
They were all but broken. They may never have risen from the ground again had some of the remaining group not been made of that indomitable spirit which drags the rest of humanity through all hardship ever upwards. Among them was the girl, and they literally dragged the others off the ground and marched them down the hill again. Despair was for those who know there is no hope, they thought, and of course nobody can ever know this. So they marched off down the hill again, but in a different direction, to try, because that was all there was.
It was the same as before the trees may as well have been the same ones they had seen before. They would not have been able to tell. The trees were still pillars, the ground in between was still barren dirt, the ceiling was still impenetrable. But they had learned. This time when they marked trees to show where they were headed they watched them, and all the other trees constantly, in a circle. They were able to see the trees move ever so slightly and slowly and compensate for this. This time they would not be fooled as easily.
All sound was dead now. The whisper of the children’s breath died in their mouths, their heart beats were smothered drums. It was a silence that was oppressive. It was tangible. It was not the absence of sound; it was a force that covered it. The silence was so complete that the children felt detached from the world, from their very bodies. The forest was conspiring against them; they were sure of that now. Its reason seemed simple; they were invaders and unwanted. It would drive them mad as punishment for their intrusion. It would not allow them to leave.
The children felt the breeze before they heard. It tickled across their skin softly at first, then it picked up enough force to blow away the oppressive silence and they heard it roar, rattling the leaves and branches of the trees. It died as quickly as it came. The children revelled to hear their breathing and the other minute sounds normally unappreciated. Then they heard the singing. It was everywhere, above and below, left and right, from without and within. It was singing not of meaning, but of sound alone, celebrating the beauty of sound. That was its only cause.
In the years after they heard the singing they would never be able to recreate what it sounded like, they would never even be able to remember it correctly. But when they tried to recall it they would always remember the feeling of it, a warm balm coating every aspect of their being. To hear the singing as they walked on made them walk with a renewed confidence, to grow in spirit, and, they realised looking at each other, literally. They returned to their adult forms and the baby wriggled free to walk as a child and then, the man.
He filled out the garments which had been cavernous for the baby and strode in with such purpose and vigour in the direction which the villagers had been walking that they felt vindicated. The song only grew louder as they followed. Emboldened by the return of their guide and the spiritual salve of the music the villagers jogged after the man. The sunlight grew stronger and they realised the canopy of trees was thinning. Smaller plants grew now on the ground, breaking the monotony that was behind them. They reached the edge of the forest and looked upon a city.
This was the first time the villagers had ever seen a city. They had never before seen such a large impact made on the world by people. The city was entirely built of white rock which made it contrast with the entirely natural and colourful scene around it. It was nestled in a great bowl rimmed on all sides with forest. Waterfalls cascaded here and there, sending rivers and streams to slake the city. Within the high white walls ringing the city were buildings also of white, which grew in stature to the centre where the tallest of all stood.
“This is not the largest city built by man, but it is the most beautiful,” said the man, not quite smiling, but his face had softened showing his admiration for this metropolis. A slight vibration on the wind carried the sound of the city to the villagers. Even from this distance it could be heard and they marvelled at the size of the city. The man dragged himself away from the site to pull aside an overhanging bush revealing a hidden path which worked its way down to the bottom of the bowl, running back and forth along the cliff.
The mood changed amongst the party. This would again be a new experience for the villagers, but even more so than all their other experiences on the man’s journey. Here they would be subjected to a land controlled and shaped by people, not nature as the other places they had been to had been. They came from a small isolated village and had rarely seen other people, let alone groups, let alone a city’s worth. Whether with fear or excitement, all of them were charged at the thought of going amongst so many others, and seeing just what man built.
As they reached the bottom of the bowl the light faded and night took over the world. The man proclaimed that they would wait for daylight before entering the city. The moonlight and starlight emphasised, more than daylight had, the brilliant whiteness of the city’s walls and buildings. So perfectly did the light compliment the rock it was as if a star, or piece of the moon had been embedded in the earth and inhabited by people. When dawn broke most of the city was cast in shadow as the sun rose behind the central tower, eventually shining over it.
They made their way into the city by a bridge over the pooled waters that ran into the bowl. The bridge was also made of the same white stone and the villagers had their first close look of it. They saw that it kept its white brilliance even this close, as if it rejected any mark or stain. The city’s gates were already open when they approached them. Huge barriers of wood they were. Great expanses of the surrounding forest must have been cut down to build them, and many hours of labour to fashion them in so impressive form.
Passing through the gates the next impressive sight in this most grandiose of cities was a fountain. They would see as they travelled the city that there were many in this city where water from hundreds of miles around pooled, but this was the grandest. Their entire village could have fit inside of it, and they probably would not consume in a year as much water as was in it at any one moment. Everywhere one looked there were jets of water spouting out of statues of heroes, scholars, leaders, and beasts. In the centre a colossal diamond gushed water.
Light refracted through the diamond and the waters to dazzle the surrounding white buildings with scatterings of even more brilliant light. The man gave them but a moment to take in this spectacular sight before leading them off into the city. Dragging their eyes away from the architecture the villagers now noticed the number of people there were. They realised they were probably looking at more people than had lived in the village since it was founded all those lost years ago. As they parted a way through the crowd no one heeded them, they were faces in the deluge.
This part of the journey was a delight. The villagers saw buildings they never would have believed existed, with artistry in their design such that they could not believe could have been thought of. They saw more people than they ever had before, speaking in languages they could not understand of things they would not have understood. Every now and then they caught words in the same tongue as theirs, but spoken in a foreign accent. Opposite their delight was the man who only seemed to grow more sombre. His delight in the city was reserved for at a distance.
It took them most of the day to reach the centre of the city and the great pillar that stood there. As they reached it and strained their necks to look up at it the sun had nearly set and the stars were coming out. “It is a most auspicious time that we find ourselves here,” said the man, pointing to the pinnacle of the tower. They looked up to see the full moon overtaking the darkness of the night and shining down directly above the tower. It’s light trickled down gently before igniting some magic in the white tower.
If they had thought the white of the tower brilliant before then they had been wrong. The tower absorbed the light of the moon and shone it out from every part of itself a million times greater. The villagers were amazed to find that as powerful as the light was they had no need to shield their eyes from it. Though the tower was usually hidden to the surrounding world by the forest any passer-by in that forest on this night would have been able to find it by its light. It pulsed through the landscape sharing its beauty unimpeded.
“This occurrence will not happen again for a hundred years,” said the man gazing up at the tower which had become an extension of the moon. “Rest in that house, for tomorrow we will enter the tower.” They went into the building he had indicated where they found room upon room of beds. Many were already occupied but they eventually found a place for all of them. For the first time in weeks the villagers slept in beds, and none of them had ever slept in beds like these that were not just straw covered with sheets. They slept peacefully.
Early in the morning the villagers woke, eager to enter the tower and discover its purpose. They found when they left the house that almost everyone in the city had the same intention as they did. The space around the tower was filled with thousands of people slowly trickling in through a doorway into the tower that had been invisible before, as if it had been carved open in the night. The villagers had resigned themselves to a long wait when the man gestured for them to follow him. He led them round to the other side of the tower.
This tower of light was filled with darkness so that the villagers had to follow the man by touch. They formed a train of people running out of the tower. Nothing could be seen of the inside. Soon they began slowly ascending a ramp. Eventually they were met by light and sound which at first slowly trickled to them before rushing over them as they came onto a balcony which overlooked the main feature of the inside of the tower. All the people who had entered the tower were to be found here in other balconies stretched on for miles.
The balconies and their occupants were not the main feature though. In the centre of the great space were what appeared to be floating masses of melted metal. Silver flowing clouds that were constantly changing shape. Eventually the noise of the onlookers died down as one voice rang out in a language the villagers did not understand. When this voice silenced the floating clouds change from their metallic hue to something else. They began showing scenes and people, but dressed in strange fashions. The things they showed seemed impossible, all great machines and impossible wonders produced by them shown here.
There were a few hushed gasps from the villagers. Some pointed out amazing things they were seeing and everyone nodded. They were all seeing the same incredible sights. They could not make up their minds what was more impressive: the images they were seeing, or that they were there at all. One scene appeared which showed great metal structures which scraped the sky and machines flying all around them, all while screens of light shone from everywhere. More gasps came from the villagers. The man said, “would you like to go there?” and without waiting for a response he went.
He stepped over the balcony and without falling walked straight towards the huge image. The villagers out of practise followed and of course also did not fall. The entire group went up to the great image and kept going. Rather than hitting any barrier they passed right through. When they looked behind them the space in the tower was gone. The scene of giant buildings and machines continued all around them. “What is this place?” asked one of the villagers.
“A great city,” replied the man.
“I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.”
“No one has, not yet anyway.”
Confused looks met this statement from the man. He answered them: “not one story or mention of a city like this exists where you are from because when you are from this city does not exist and will not for many, many years, until now.”
“Then you mean, you have taken us to the future?”
Of all of the weird and wonderful things they had seen it was this that was the most incredible. It was one thing to take them from place to place, but to a different time! It elicited disbelief in them all, and some terror.
This place did not feel real. Lines were too straight; plant leaves were too neatly trimmed. Everything seemed too tidy, there was not even a proper smell to the place. It all smelled like perfume. This felt like a world that was not their own, but could it really be a different time? They had been to many incredible places already; this could easily just be another one of them. But this felt alien to them. If the man could travel so easily from place to place, why not time to time. If one was possible why not the other?
They were suddenly realising what this journey meant. They were sacrificing their whole lives to it. Suddenly it felt that this was not just a sudden sojourn into the unknown but a lifelong commitment to innovation and change. They had not embarked on a holiday with high stakes, but a new life of nothing but change and pain, where stability was a transitory dream. Well this could be a new time, they would just have to meet it with courage and pride. Time may change but they were sure that virtues would not. They would show the best of themselves.
Seeing that they were now prepared to continue the man led them on. They walked through crowds of people who not only spoke languages foreign to them, but also with intonations and expressions that were alien to them. Their dress seemed uncomfortable but far cleaner than anything they had seen before. Everywhere there seemed to be little glimpses of the magic these people had unlocked. Light danced on screens and there were also images of people and places. Sound came as if from nowhere but these people were clearly prepared and listened for it. The future was a strange place.
The land in the future the man had taken them too was far warmer than they were used to. Even with a breeze blowing, it only seemed to carry more heat with it, and also more of the strange, acrid smells they had never known before. The settlement they were in was beyond a city, such as the one they had just left. The white city and its tower could have fit in one of this metropolis’ buildings, and there were hundreds of those. The villagers felt very small. Not only were their lives short, their world had been dwarfed.
After walking for hours they finally came to the edge of the city. There were still buildings here that were larger than anything in their village but nowhere near the size of some of the behemoths they had seen. Here they could finally see the sky. As night set in they saw there were still stars in the dark sky, though their positions were nothing like what they knew. In amongst the twinkling dots of light the villagers noticed others that moved. Some flashed while others stayed the same. The man told them they were machines flying in the sky.
The villager’s incredulity only increased this. The man answered their disbelieving faces by showing them. They found themselves all of a sudden thirty thousand feet above the ground, level with what resembled a huge metal tube. They could not believe that it stayed in the air, but then so were they. Through windows they could see there were people inside of the tube who seemed unimpressed by the miracle that was happening all around them, and were carrying on with their lives as if it was normal. The noise from the machine was incredible, as was the wind swirling around.
They managed to drag their eyes away from the machine to take in another incredible sight. Below them stretched the world. Off in the distance they saw that the sun had not quite set and still illuminated great expanses of country. The sunset itself took on a new beauty when seen from this height. Directly below them they saw just how expansive this future’s society was as the land was blanketed with light. It was like gazing at a luminescent forest with tree tops of fire. There was not just the one below them. Everywhere they looked there was light.
When the villagers came from magic was the preserve of a few. It was a secret power, used sparingly, and never ostentatiously. Now it seemed to be none of that. At the moment they could not decide if that was good thing or not. What they did know was that this time was massively different to theirs, but they had still only scratched the surface. Off in the distance they could see explosions of light in the night sky. Many colours were shooting into the air. The man noticed that they had seen this and rewarded their curiosity with compliance.
In an instant the villagers found themselves in amongst a huge group of people, who like themselves, had assembled to witness this spectacle of light. The night sky was lit up with explosions of greens and purples, reds and golds, blues and silvers. The mass of the people made a low rumble of noise, punctuated by the explosions over their heads. The villagers gasped and whooped like the rest. After a while they realised though they did not belong to this time and very much felt that they had found a connection to these people they had no reason to.
The explosions ended and the crowd began to dissipate. The villagers became aware of how dark and cold the night had become and began to set up a camp. “Tonight you have no need to sleep outside. Tonight you will sleep in the greatest comfort you have ever known,” the man said. They were led away by him to one of the large buildings. Inside standing at a large, white table there was a man looking at one of the boxes of light and shape they had seen. He did not look up as the man led them further in.
The man showed them each into bedrooms. At least they were rooms that had what looked like beds in them, but they were so foreign to what the villagers knew that they could not be sure. There was no wood or furs, no fire. Everything in the room was made of a smooth, shiny, white material. The bed was covered with a material that they were sure had not come from any animal. Though it was strange it was comfortable. There was no draught, no damp, no insects or bugs. Everything was clean and gave a sense of overwhelming safety.
Each of the villagers had their own one of these rooms. They did indeed settle down for the night in more comfort than they had before known. The only disturbance was of strange dreams of those flying machines. They imagined that they were the machines, with passengers inside of them. They took off from the ground, shooting upwards. Unlike the machines they had seen though they did not level out and travel perpendicular to the ground. They kept going upwards until they shot through the sky into a blackness where there were only the stars which they flew straight towards.
They each awoke before they saw what awaited them at those distant stars. They were not ready for that knowledge yet. Indeed, after a few shot minutes those dreams had faded from their recollection before they had a chance to share them with anyone else. But they had happened, and dreams never fade completely, just beyond immediate recall. So they woke refreshed but unsure. Such comfort as everything in this world was wrong to them. They felt like a man who had slept on cold stone for his life laying in a feather bed, but they could not leave yet.
Once they had all gathered the man appeared before them. Without waiting to be greeted he asked them “would you like to see beauty, both wild and remote, in this world which seems so tamed and explored?” As one the villagers nodded their approval. They had but a moment to wonder whether they would see deserts or jungles before they were thrust into a frozen wasteland. The cold hit them like a punch, knocking the wind out of them and clawing at their exposed skin. The man conjured thick furs for them a moment later and they were slightly protected.
Here there was no indication they were in the vibrant, technological world they had been in. Their vision was restricted to almost nothing by the maelstrom of snow. One by one the villagers felt themselves being grabbed and thrust together by what they assumed was the man, though they had no real way of knowing at this point. Huddled together they gained some more warmth, but they felt as if they had been cast adrift in the sea, exposed to all the dangers of the world around them. They had no choice but to wait for the storm to pass.
This was weather unlike anything they had ever experienced. They had of course all seen snow before, most winters in fact. But that had mostly been a light dusting, with occasional years when a few feet would fall, but that could be avoided by seeking shelter inside their houses. This land was all snow. When they breathed in, if their mouths were not covered, they sucked in snow. They wondered when the storm would end, if the storm would end. With nothing but the darkness of the storm and the cold constantly making forays at them they fell into sleep.
When they eventually woke the storm had finally passed. Now they saw the wild beauty the man had promised. They heaved themselves off the ground and shook the snow off their cloaks and simply stared. For miles around them all was white. No trees, no grass, no living thing walking, flying, or crawling. There was not even land to be seen, only the ceaseless white, a sea of cold to coat this place. The only change in the scene was the blue sky which remained coloured so until it nearly touched the land where it too started to become white.
This place was truly wild, untamed. Man could not live here. Even under the sea there were plants and animals for food, places for shelter, and some difference in the scenery to preserve sanity. Whatever force had made this land had not meant it for man. What was its purpose? Who could say? Perhaps it was there to show man he could not conquer everything, perhaps it was a challenge, perhaps there was no purpose at all and it was just the inevitable production of the forces of the planet. Staring out they were glad such a place still existed.
“There is yet more to see,” said the man, and a moment later they found themselves transported hundreds of feet above where they had been standing. Unlike when the man had done this previously they were not interrupted by flying machines and the air was as clear as the ground. The white carpet they looked down upon did indeed extend for hundreds of miles, as far as they could see with no sign of deviation or addition to the landscape. In all of this scene there was no interruption made by man or any other life. Here nature ruled unchecked.
All this changed in an instant. Great flying machines, far larger than any they had seen before, and with a much stranger appearance, materialised all around them. A moment after this great orifice’s opened in the bottoms of them and a tremendous noise emanated from them. Everywhere below them began fragmenting. First huge cracks appeared in the previously pristine landscape, then small pieces broke off and were sucked into machines. Soon great chunks were being ripped off of the surface exposing the scarred stone lying beneath them. For miles around this scene was being repeated. Man was claiming this land.
“What are they doing!” exclaimed several of the villagers.
“They are doing what man has done forever,” the man replied. “They are shaping the land to their will. Those vast stretches of ice will be used for the water they store. The land beneath them will become fields, forests, cities, whatever they need it to be.” The villagers were in shock. To see such an impressive and complete reordering of the land was awe inspiring. It made them distrust their eyes to see it happening and their minds were strained to comprehend how someone could desire such a monumental disturbance.
It was a scene that repulsed but was so compelling and singular that it was impossible to look away from it. The villagers hung in the air watching a landscape that had remained unaltered for millennia be torn apart, and witnessed humanity bend the final bastion of nature to their will. Some of the villagers found themselves more impressed than repulsed though. It was certainly shocking to see, and they knew they should disprove of it. But they also felt a certain pride in the achievement of their descendants. They looked down as conquerors and wondered what would be next.
The destruction was over incredibly quickly. In a matter of minutes, the landscape for hundreds of miles had been irreparably altered. The machines disappeared equally quickly, effectively taking with them a period of history as much as it was a chunk of the planet. The man gave one last show of the scope of what had happened by flying them over the entire area that had been ripped apart. It took longer to pass over the devastation than it had to cause it. Once this was done he returned them to the building they had come from for the night.
They should have slept there once more in great comfort. But their minds were in such a tumult over what they had witnessed that day. The villagers had just been getting used to the idea of being in the future. They felt like they were coming to understand the people of this age and finding some commonality with them. Seeing such extensive destruction though had undone all of this. Many of them felt lost once more. It made them pine for the simplicity of their own age and home to see what was to come. But the journey would continue.
Early the next morning some of the villagers found themselves wandering the city around them. They had been unable to sleep peacefully again in that place. The memory of the destruction of that pristine landscape was too fresh. They walked among the people of that world, none of whom seemed in the least bit perturbed. It was not as if they could claim ignorance. They saw in the great moving images that were displayed shots of that cataclysmic event. Some people glanced at them and made a brief comment, but then they moved on and the images were forgotten about.
All the villagers gradually found themselves congregating in the entrance room to the building they had been sleeping in. Discomfort still hung over the group and they awaited the arrival of the man. He eventually came to them saying “I see that you tire of this world. Would you be inclined to leave it then?” From the raised heads and widening of their eyes it could be seen they did wish so. They believed though that he meant to take them back to their time. The man transported them to a place still of that time, facing a large machine.
It stood tall and straight, like a mechanical column. Every part of its surface seemed to be covered with wires and tubes, the purpose of which they had no chance of even guessing. Around them were many other people also staring up at the machine, less perplexed than the villagers but far more impressed. There was sustained muttering all around them which demonstrated to the villagers that this was an important and impressive machine even to the people of this time. They looked to the man for an explanation, but his only response was to walk towards the great machine.
A ramp led up to an opening in the great machine and the man walked purposefully up it. The villagers followed. Though there was a great crowd none of them paid any attention to them entering it. A few other people entered the machine as well and then the door was closed. The interior of the machine was surprisingly spacious. The curved walls were edged with seats and harnesses. The rest of the room was featureless save for a door which led on to other sections of the machine. The man took a seat and the rest followed his direction.
The villagers sat in silence, unsure of what was going to happen next. The other people in the machine with them buzzed with conversation. After a short while a voice sounded from somewhere unseen. Of course the villagers had no idea what it said but after it had finished everyone, including the man began strapping into the harnesses attached to the chairs. They began to feel vibrations through the machine. Something was about to happen. The vibrations grew and were accompanied by a rumble which became a roar. The villagers felt as if they were being pulled downwards by something.
The sound was deafening. It was as if they were trapped in the belly of some ancient beast that was roaring back into life after years of slumber. They had no idea what the machine was doing and could barely guess so overpowering was the noise and the sensation they were being pulled downwards. After a short while the roar quietened down. They ceased to be pulled and in fact they felt oddly as if they were floating, like they were under the sea again. Another unseen voice announced something and people undid their harnesses, and did indeed float around.
The villagers watched in awe as people floated around the room. They tumbled over each other and propelled themselves off of surfaces. Soon they dragged their eyes away from the incredible scene to undo their own harnesses and they found themselves also floating around marvellously. It felt like there was no weight to their bodies, like they were feathers on the wind. They realised that this was what the purpose of the machine was. It made people weightless and able to experience the feeling of flying. The man had made them float in the air before but this was different.
It was the most enjoyable sensation any of them could remember. Once more they felt some of the allure of this time where such a technology could exist. The man remained dignified amongst their cavorting, merely hovering above where he had been seated. After a couple of minutes though he asked if they wished to experience something even more amazing. They replied positively of course and followed him as he glided across the room to the door. Through this led to a passageway that went up and down. They floated upwards with him into a new part of the machine.
The villagers could not help but feel disappointed. After all the impressive sights the man had dragged them to the room they found themselves in with black walls were underwhelming to say the least. Then they turned around. They were not sure what they were seeing. It looked like a painting of a blue and white marble. The situation they found themselves in was so alien the man had to explain it. “You are looking down at the planet you have lived on,” he said. “You have left the bonds of it completely and are seeing it in its entirety.”
They floated in silence. Some of them wondered if anything should still shock them by now. Of course they believed the man when he told them they were no longer on the world they had lived every moment of their lives on. But there was so much to consider. The world was indeed round for a start. They had heard theories of this but had never believed it. Now it was plain to see before them. Then they had to wonder where were they going? Where could they go? For a few moments though none of this mattered, just seeing.
The other passengers came up to the level the villagers were on and also gazed in awe at their home planet. It was some small measure of comfort that even the people from this time with all the exposure they had had to such technology, and even knowing where they were going, that they were still amazed at the sight. Every stage of the journey they were on was making the villagers feel smaller and smaller as they discovered more of the world, and now that there were things beyond the world they wondered could, or would it ever end?
“Where are we going?” asked one of the villagers, his was both general and specific, both to the man and the ever growing universe. “We are travelling to a new world, one which your descendants first went only a few dozen years ago but which they are beginning to make their own. In a moment this ship will accelerate to a speed faster than it would take the light from a candle to reach your eyes.” All eyes turned to the man. They were not just physically leaving the world they had lived in, but also the world they understood.
The voice once more announced something unintelligible, but they saw all the other passengers returning down to where they had come from. Once more they strapped into the harnesses. They prepared themselves to be assaulted again by the raw power of the technology and were not disappointed. The vibrations were so strong they felt that parts of their bodies must surely fall away. And then suddenly there was nothing. No sound, no vibration. They realised then there had always been a background hum from the ship but it too was gone. Everything was still. Then there was a huge explosion.
Or at least that is what it felt like. It might have just been a sound, there was no visual clue to what had happened. But it shook them like nothing else. This was more than the vibrations they had been subjected to before. This time it felt like every fibre of their being had been split apart and thrust back together again. It left them all breathless, blinking like they had just been blinded, and testing every muscle and joint to make sure they still worked as before. But even so in their mind they did not feel right.
The feeling of weightlessness returned, slower this time than before. They released themselves from their harnesses and floated up to the viewing deck again. Immediately they saw that they really had left the world they knew. Before them was another world, shrouded in darkness. There were two clumps of light twinkling on the planets darkened surface, unlike their world where light had been everywhere. They looked elsewhere and could see stars as well. They were completely unlike the patterns they had known from looking up at night back in the village. As the strange feeling passed excitement filled them up.
Understanding was dawning on them. They had certainly seen amazing things, but they had all been on their world. Now they were headed to a new world where anything could happen. In a short time, they had descended down to the planet. The darkness and stars were replaced by a green sky. Everywhere else they looked was blue. The strange coloured flora covered the surface of the planet, except for a small patch of white where the new visitors to the planet had built their settlement. The villagers looked around at the strange colouration of the planet and set off.
While the rest of the passengers on the ship went into the settlement, where it seemed most of the inhabitants had come out to greet them, the villagers went straight into the wild, led by the man. The inversion of the colours of plants and the sky confused the eye and at first they almost felt like they were walking on the sky, looking down on the ground. The air too was strange. There was a bitter tang to it, though it did seem markedly cleaner than the air on their world in the future, similar to their own time.
All around them was covered with what looked like moss and low bushes. On closes examination they found the bark on the bushes to be far smoother and more malleable than that they had encountered before. The “leaves” also were like nothing they had ever seen. They were made by thousands of tiny blue balls. They traipsed their way through this country to what appeared to be the horizon. As they approached it though they realised it was a lip where the land curved up hiding whatever was beyond it. What it was hiding was a view for miles around.
They were standing at the edge of a cliff, hundreds of feet high. Before them stretched the vastness of this new world. It was a visual crescendo after the hints and suggestions of what this place was, here it was expressed fully. They looked over miles of blue grassland, interspersed with green streams and ponds. Darker juts of blue suggested some form of tree. But there was also life that moved down in the plains too. Yellow creatures, like a longer limbed deer galloped around playfully but with an intense speed. The scale of this place was immense and exhilarating.
The blue plains continued on until it was broken by a thin grey haze, far in the distance, which hinted at mountains. They could have observed the landscape for days and picked out new details. There were clusters of rocks where some dark flying creatures kept swooping out of; putrid green waters that a noxious gas seemed to be evaporating off of; a fast flowing green river that looked clean and pure that many strange animals congregated around. Even the man seemed distracted by this place. He stared, out appreciating a world they wondered if even he was familiar with.
However, he showed himself to be as omniscient as ever. “Ah,” he sighed in a pleased manner. “It’s just about to begin.”
“What is?” the villagers asked as one. But they needn’t have asked as at that moment what the man had been waiting for began. They noticed it around them first. The blue balls that were like leaves on the bushes at their feet floated into the air. They did not see it in the plains before them at first, far away from them as they were. Soon though it appeared as if the entire plain was floating away.
The blue mist, as it now looked, kept on rising, until it seemed like they were back on their world with a blue sky. The villagers and the man craned their necks to watch this strange occurrence. There was a hush around the plain, as if everything was waiting with bated breath to see what happened next. At the point where it seemed the blue balls would float off out into the universe there was great popping sound, and the cloud of balls seemed to shimmer. Soon it was unmistakeable that the blue mist was returning rapidly to the ground.
The villagers looked to the man as they realised that these strange objects were hurtling towards them. But he remained composed as ever and made no sign they were in any danger. So they waited, come what may. After a few short moments they felt what could have been a spatter of rain, only the liquid they wiped off their brows was dark blue. Gradually they were struck by more and more blue droplets. The downpour of the popped blue balls became deluge, and finally it became as if a giant bucket of the liquid had been thrown at them.
They were drenched, and so was the landscape. All around them the blue liquid had pooled on the surface. The vista before them had been immediately altered by the event and it was like looking over the sea back on their own world. The animals seemingly were used to such a thing and were continuing as animals will do in the pursuit of their needs. For the time though the villagers were focussed on getting the strange liquid out of their hair and clothes. The liquid had an earthy smell, hinting at its plant like properties, and was incredibly thick.
They sloughed off the blue liquid, which became even less viscous to the point of being more like a paste or cement. Then they noticed the difference in each other. They had not become entirely younger as before in the forest. But they had lost signs of age or degradation. Wrinkles, scars, eye bags, even hair loss, all of them had been repaired and rejuvenated. They noticed internal improvements too. Bad joints were no longer stiff, they did not hunger or thirst, muscles were relaxed. They felt the best they had ever felt with no sores or sicknesses at all.
The world around them seemed to be just as rejuvenated as they were. The covering of the blue moss like substance under their feet seemed to have swelled to at least twice the thickness it had been before. The smooth, springy branches the blue balls had been covering also seemed to have swollen and also grown longer. They were excited to see several of the alien animals on the plain before them were giving birth, the blue liquid providing the perfect setting for life to begin. It seemed this world provided a far more harmonious setting for life to flourish.
Night began to draw in fast. The sun of this world sank quickly, but it did not plunge them into darkness. The blue liquid had one last performance to give. As the light of the sun passed it gave way to a dull blue glow from the land. The villagers looked all about to see they were standing on the light and that where they had not wiped it away, the blue liquid shone from them. Other creatures of light joined this display and across the plain there were momentary flashes as small glowing creatures went about their mysterious business.
They slept that night more peacefully than since that night they had spent in the fabulous rooms back on their home planet, only this time they were not disturbed by dreams of any kind, and so they woke the next day more rested than ever before. The world around them looked much the same as it had when they first arrived. All the blue liquid had seemingly been absorbed. The only difference was that the blue balls on the bendy branches were far smaller. Scattered wisps of cloud spread across the green sky like the light brushstrokes of a painter.
The man was already awake, gazing out over the plain before them. There was an unusual hint of sadness in his eyes. As he noticed the villagers awake he smiled and announced they were leaving. They all looked eagerly across the plain. The man though just sighed. The next thing the villagers knew they were high above the planet, able to look down on its totality. Their confused questioning was paused as a flash of light engulfed the planet. It passed in a matter of seconds and all that remained of the great blue plains was blackness and dead ash.
They were in a state of shock. Just as you can see something before you hear it, so here they had seen the death of the planet but they had not registered the thought yet. They were caught in the moment when you have been slapped in the face and do not know it has happened yet. All the beauty that planet had, seen and unseen by them, was removed in an instant. All the people who had come with them from their home planet were gone. Some immense force of nature had been enacted and killed everything in sight.
Gradually it did sink in. They had seen a great thing of beauty on that planet. That thing of beauty, along with everything else on that planet was now gone. The man’s omniscience had saved them from the same fate, and now by his unknowable power they were suspended far from the planet in the darkness between worlds. Stars twinkled in the distance. All was silent. It seemed wrong that such devastation could occur without a cacophony of noise. But there was nothing. The universe lamented this loss in silence, even if the villagers didn’t as some began to cry.
The man showed a moment of compassion and took them away from the dead planet. He propelled them off in the exact opposite direction leaving the planet, and the pain behind. He and the villagers looked forward as the stars began to slide passed them, faster and faster, until somehow all that was in front of them was light. In an instant the light was gone and before them was another planet. For a moment they believed it was their home world because light shone out of the dark on the planet’s surface. They quickly realised that it was not.
They first realised this was not their planet when they could not find any of the massive seas that covered their planet. Everywhere there was land, and it was a dark land. Even where this place’s sun illuminated was dark and seemingly dead but for the flickering lights on the surface. As the man took them around the planet they saw that it looked remarkably like the dead planet they had just left, only those lights told them they were wrong. This place was not dead, just devoid of any good life. Whatever lived down there was unlike their kind.
The villagers willed that the man would take them away from this place. As they approached though they knew this was not the case. They felt like they were caught in a ferocious river, sweeping them towards a murderous fall. They could see the precipice coming and knew that disaster waited at the bottom, but they could do nothing to stop it. They were frozen in place as the man took them onwards. Only their eyes moved trying to meet his, but his were fixed determinedly on their target, never heeding the pleas of the villagers. They entered the atmosphere.
They were fast approaching one area where the strange lights were concentrated. All around them was darkness. They waited with baited breath for what they would encounter. The light grew and grew before they came down to the ground. They looked up at the source of the light. It was a gigantic fire, unwieldy and wild. Their eyes took a moment to adjust to the brightness but then they saw that surrounding the fire were silent hooded figures. They looked inwards to the fire and what it was burning. From amongst the crackling the villagers heard the sound of screaming.
From within the inferno they could just make out a series of poles which still stood somehow. Shackled to these poles were figures. What kind of man or beast those poor souls were, they had no idea. The fire had robbed their bodies of all form. They were listening to the final wails of dying creatures. Deaths of pain. The hooded figures though were still silent. They made no sign of compassion or attempt at aiding them. They were just there, silently watching on. Whether they had caused these executions they could not say, but they allowed them to happen.
The villagers made to run forward, at the fire, or the figures, they could not say. It did not matter though as the man prevented them from doing anything, only saying “do not interfere”. The villagers were helpless as the screaming carried on before fading away. They thought of the distant sight they had had of the planet. They thought of the fires burning all over it. Did they all contain dying figures like this one? Were they all surrounded by silent figures? Why had those creatures been condemned to such a painful death? Why had the man shown them?
They would never learn the answers to any of those questions. As the villagers crumpled to the floor in their anguish at what they were being shown, the man drew them up to their feet and then off of them. They were pulled away from that planet of mysterious misery and they left it behind. The man directed them aimlessly among the stars for a while after that. No world seemed to provide him with anything worth showing the villagers and the villagers were grateful for it. It was cathartic to simply drift and not be forced upon any situation.
They drifted for days in the space between stars. They did not hunger or thirst. Some power of the man sustained them in body if not in mind. They gazed in silence at those distant stars that encircled them. Each one of them might have some story to tell, either of joy or sadness. The scale of it all was terrifying, and they had to wonder: did all the sadness outweigh the joy? Could the joy outweigh all of the sadness? Somewhere amidst their contemplation of all this they realised that one star was growing. The journey continued once more.
From a pinprick of light, to a colossal orb, the star grew. The villagers looked around for the world they would be taken to. But they could not see one. Everywhere they looked there was a haze. As they began to pass through it they realised it was a fine dust, floating in space. Eventually they came across a dark patch. As they moved towards it they found larger clumps the size of pebbles. Soon there were rocks the size of people. The dark patch was where they were all destined to end up. The embryonic beginning of a world.
There was nothing to this world but potential. No seas or plains of grass, no atmosphere, no creatures, no politics or conflicts, no history. There was only a constantly shifting surface as more material was eaten up to constitute an arena for the future. It was strange to them to see everything around them from boulders to pebbles drawn to this mass as if they were attracted to it. It was as if they recognised the potential there was and wished to be a part of it. Who could say what this world would become? Nobody, and that was fine.
For all they knew this world could become as filled with pain as the one they had left before, but the point was it might not. They saw that just as that was a possibility, so too was it a possibility that this place could become a place of peace and joy. It might not true, but just the possibility that it could, that they could for this time hope was enough. There was so much material for it to consume, and after that it would take so much time for life to develop. They could hope for a while.
The universe began to shift around them. They and the growing planet were flung around the sun many times. The planet ate up all of the dust and boulders that were around and it grew before their eyes into a fully grown world. Fires shot out from deep within the planet. Clouds poured out as the fires were cooled. Rains fell. Before their very eyes the villagers witnessed the birth of seas. And still they continued to whip around the sun. The dull surface of the planet changed. Where there was just the blue sea and brown land, green emerged.
From the great distance they still were from it they could say for sure, but it appeared that life was beginning to flourish on the planet. Having dared to hope they felt some vindication as rather than remaining a lifeless orb there appeared to be something more to this world. They saw threats to that life though. Mountains of rock slammed into the planet causing cataclysmic events. Deserts grew as areas of green surrendered. Areas of land were claimed by the sea. But always they kept going around the sun and the planet never went back to its lifeless beginnings.
Often, even where the suns light did not fall, the planet was not completely dark. Momentary flashes of light were signs of forest fires and volcanic explosions, the natural fires to be expected. Eventually though there were more. Every night there were dozens, then hundreds, and thousands of lights. They grew larger. Systems of lights spread along rivers and coastlines. These were no natural lights but the signs of a burgeoning civilisation. They spread across the whole planet standing resolute against the designs of the night. This civilisation did not sleep. The villagers hope swelled even more at the sight.
It got to the stage that even from such a distance away from the surface, that during the day they could see the suggestion of cities. Where before there was the green of grassland, or the brown of a desert plain, or even in the white of snow covered wastes, other colours appeared, put there by design. Suddenly they saw something coming from the planet. It shot up from the surface leaving a trail of exhaust and then it hung just above the atmosphere circling the planet. Soon it was joined by thousands of others as the civilisation reached further.
It seemed as if there was no limit to the people of this world. But something changed. The lights started to go out. It got so dark that they could only see where the planet was at night because it blocked out the stars behind it. Their hope was shaken. They were terrified that something had happened to these people they had so much hope for. But they had seen nothing from their distant vantage point and only the man could take them closer, but he was still just staring intently as the planet, unmoving, as if he was waiting.
In the cocoon the man had made for them the only sound was of the villager’s hearts beating. Their anxiety was as palpable as the cold sweat beading on their foreheads. The planet kept spinning, and it kept circling the sun, but there was no change. No more objects came from the planet. None of the lights came on. After a painfully long wait as the planet kept on the course it had always been on, a smile crept across the face of the man. “It is time,” he said. The villagers gazed at him expectantly, their emotion almost uncontainable.
They began to inch painfully slowly to their minds towards the planet, though they were actually travelling many thousands of yards a second. They were heading for the frozen wastes at the top of the planet where they had seen something built over the snow. They came through clouds and saw the surface with increasingly greater clarity. Their anticipation grew equally. Surely they would learn something of the people who had, or hopefully still did, live here. Now they could see they were not wrong. They were definitely approaching something unnatural. Something that had been produced by design, not happenstance.
They ploughed on towards the ground. They speared through falling snow and then they were upon the ground. They were confused to find that their feet did not imprint on the snow. They could also not feel the cold that was surely all around them. The man answered them. “The air here would poison you, and the cold would freeze your blood in your veins so you will remain under my protection.” With that answered they sought answers to other questions about the planet. They finally had a good look at one of the alien structures that had been built.
The buildings of this settlement were like great black teeth rising from the ground. Tall, black, and spiked, they were imposing on the eye and the mind and would stay with the villagers for years after. They were also silent and still. This was not like the great cities they had seen that had grown on their world, all life, movement, and sound. This place did not stir. The silence was deafening. Whoever had lived here had gone. They walked through the quiet streets and saw much the same thing. The people had gone and taken everything but the buildings.
They returned to the man. In an instant, he had transported them far away but still on that same world. They were in the middle of an incredibly dense forest. Flora was everywhere, roots, vines, and branches all contorting around each other in a mass of life. They picked their way through following the man. He pulled back a broad leaf as big as a man and they saw they were far above the ground. Looking up they saw that the forest went straight up towards the sky. Brushing back some dirt they found a hard surface not far below.
The surface was not rock but metal and there were strange markings on it, an alien language. They were in a long abandoned building. They looked out from another vantage point and saw dozens of pillars of plant life. Now that the people had left nature was reclaiming these spaces and making them its own. Again, they were transported. They found themselves in a wide-open space. They were atop a wide hilltop overlooking a vast plain of undulating hills with strokes of woodland scattered amongst the peaks and valleys. Dotted around were white pods as far as could be seen.
They walked a short distance to the closest pod. It was purely white with no markings or damage upon it. Circling it they could also see no gaps or means of opening it. The pod certainly did not seem natural but it gave no indication of an unnatural purpose. Tentatively they put their hands on the smooth surface. Still nothing happened until one of the villagers found the right place. As he moved his hand away the surface changed becoming like the surface of a pond when something is dropped in it. From the centre of the ripples it opened.
The inside of the pod was bare and unimpressive. The only feature was a raised dais in the centre. As they looked into the pod they also looked over the surrounding area as somehow though they could not look into the pod they could look out through its walls. They had been all over the planet and still they had seen no sign of the people that had lived here or what had happened to them. They looked to the man for answers but he remained silent. They knew by now not to question him further, frustrating though it was.
When they had arrived at this place the twilight had been setting in. Now it was completely dark. There was no moon here. They knew that already from when they had observed the planet from a distance. The star’s pitiful light was not enough to provide significant light. The pods though began to emit faint glows and the man directed them all to find pods to sleep in for the night. They bumbled about around the pods for a short while, looking for the right to spot to touch and open the pod. Once inside they lay on the dais.
As soon as they had lain down they were taken by an incredible weariness. But sleep did not come. They would never be able to explain what happened to them properly, but it was as if their bodies fell away from their minds. The pod expanded and their mind did so with it until all there was in the universe was the pod and them. When this process was finished, the pod began to tell the story of the people of this planet. Images and a song appeared that felt so familiar they were more like a memory than anything.
They were similar in design to the villagers and their people. Two arms and legs, head on top of the body. But they were much larger and longer. Flowing limbs led to sweeping hands and feet. The body, long and thin, was topped with a comparatively small and round head with large eyes. They emerged from being dumb animals to become an intelligent civilisation. They saw them build, innovate, design, struggle, and dream. The words, actions, and philosophies were alien, but they understood them thanks to the song of the pod. Gradually, they improved toward a goal defined as, apotheosis.
At this revelation, their minds sank back into their bodies. They looked out of the pods to see the sun had risen. It felt like they had been shown the entire history of the people of this planet in the time of a single thought, but clearly many hours had passed. They left the pods and gathered together. The villagers looked at each other pleased to for once know what was going on. The final revelation had shown that the people here had almost achieved their goal. They knew now where to find them and would see them achieve it.
With not a word needing to be said, the villagers and the man gathered together, and the man used his power to transport them to the place they now knew they needed to go. The villagers stood now on the foothills of a great mountain range that rose up behind them. Trees were dotted about around them. Another mountain range stood before them. The miles in between grew gradually less hilly with the centre being almost flat and featureless. To their right was another city, huge but unimposing. Its colour and features made it almost blend into the surrounding landscape.
From the song of the pods they knew this city was one of the most recent they had built. It was a common feature of the people here that they did not impose too much on the natural landscape. Unlike their own people, the people of this planet did not sprawl out across the planet, making every patch of land useful to them. They contained themselves and their needs and let the planet live as it would. In this city, they had reached the pinnacle of that thought. Had they not known it was there, they could have missed it.
What they could not have missed was the gathering here of the entire population of this planet. There were millions of them. They covered miles and miles between the two mountain ranges, and their numbers stretched away up the valley and on into the distance. They had gathered from all corners of this world here, for this moment, for this common purpose. The villagers gazed at them in hushed awe. They wondered if such a gathering had ever occurred anywhere before and asked the man. “No,” he replied. “This is the first time such a thing as this has happened.”
What struck them other than the sight of so many people in one place was the silence. They knew from the cities they had been to before that people were loud. They talked, yelled, moved, and acted in a myriad of ways that created a constant rumble of noise. Even without that, with this many people even the sound from them breathing (and they knew they did do that) should have been palpable, but it was not. It was as if they were in a meditative state. Such a level of peace and calm was impressive and louder than noise.
The villagers did not wish to disturb the calm and so just watched and waited. Indeed, it seemed that the world around them was of the same mind. Everything was quiet. Not even the wind stirred. As one the assembled population of this world reached out their hands to one another. An entire people were connected physically and now they began to be so mentally as well. The villagers had been explained the process, but they did not fully understand it. It was like a dog being taught how to sew. The villagers were nowhere near ready for this process.
The people of this planet had evolved as far as they could physically, and they had evolved as far as they could individually. What was happening now was a transcendent process the villagers could never hope to achieve. Billions of years in the future their ancestors may, but even then, that was unlikely. This did not matter to the villagers though. They were satisfied to observe such a unique thing happen as the man had said, for this first time. Right now, just as they were connected physically by the hands, so now their minds were also becoming as connected.
The entire people began thinking as one, with one voice. Physically and mentally the barriers between them began to break down. What this looked like to the villagers was striking. The bodies of each of the beings before them began to glow. The light from them grew and grew. They became more brilliant than the sun and the light kept growing. The villager’s eyes were pained by the sight and they could no longer look upon it. Even when shielding their eyes, they could still see the light. They felt like they and the world would be consumed by it.
That did not happen though. The light faded and the villagers looked once more to see that they were gone. Millions of people had vanished, or at least they had appeared to. The villagers looked upwards to see a ball of light already far away from this world and rapidly going further. The people that had once lived here had evolved beyond the need for physical bodies. The light of their combined spirits had left this world to whatever purpose such a being had. They had achieved apotheosis, whatever it would do now was beyond the imagination of the villagers.
Seeing such a potential for life left the villagers awestruck. But they could not help but feel as if something had been taken from this world. After all, they had watched this place grow, seen the greatness it could produce, they wondered would it ever make such a thing again? While they felt this the planet seemed not to mind. It continued on its celestial path. The night continued to draw in and the much less developed life on it continued as ever they had. The villagers looked up once more but the ball of light was gone this time.
The man it seemed was not content to allow them to rest on their thoughts. He set off at a brisk pace towards the city that had been abandoned. The villagers wasted little time in catching up to him. Excitement returned to them. The people may have gone, but they what they had left behind remained. Though the pods had told them much about the people of this world, there were still many secrets and wonders left to uncover. They strode on to what appeared to be just more hills, but subtle differences and their foreknowledge meant they knew better.
Without breaking his stride, the man walked through what looked like a hill and into the city. The villagers followed suit and were immediately awe struck again. There was so much space in there! Rather than being encased in the camouflage the people had covered this place with, they were able to look straight through the ceiling and into the night sky. They were amazed that just by focussing on one star their vision was amplified magnificently and they zoomed in to see that star as if they were right next to it. It felt like there were no limits.
They brought their eyes back from the stars to what was before them. After being presented with the universe they still did not feel enclosed here. There were no monolithic buildings like they had seen elsewhere on this planet and on their own. Such buildings had been primarily for shelter and grown into symbols of status over time. Here the people had all the shelter they needed already covering the entire community, without it cutting off from the world around them. In their place were creations far less imposing on the world around them, and far more celebratory of it.
They walked through this fantastical place, wondering at the advances and imagination of the godlike people that had just left. There were statues created from light that they passed through, some of which were of people or objects, others which seemed to be the random creations of a person’s mind. One of the villagers found a floating orb which as they approached it they saw was a living replica of the planet. Clouds swirled around parts of it, oceans lapped against continents. Just as their sight was magnified when looking at the stars, so was it magnified on the planet.
Her vision passed through the clouds, coming closer and closer to the surface, always exposing more detail on the replica. She stepped back with a gasp. She had been looking at a model of the city they were now stood in and seen through the camouflage layer and inside to where she saw herself, standing and looking at an even smaller replica on the planet. The villager turned around, almost expecting to see a gigantic version of herself gazing down, but there was nothing. It had all just been some trick of design by the people who had lived here.
There was an array of curiosities left here. Many of them the villagers could not understand. It seemed that as the people of this planet approached perfection they had created with no real practical purpose in mind. They had created simply to see what they could create. The villagers looked off into the distance and saw that the exhibitions went on and on. They could have had a hundred years to explore this city, this museum of creation and they would still only be able to see less than half of it, and they would understand far less than that.
But they didn’t have a hundred years. One second they were on the planet, the next they were thousands of miles away from it, looking down upon its rapidly spinning and changing surface. The man had brought them back to where they had been before, observing the planet as it went on its celestial course. As it went they noticed that the light from the star behind them was changing. They turned to see that it was in fact expanding rapidly. The inferno that was the surface of the sun threatened to consume them so the man moved them away.
They could only watch as the sun behind the planet grew to fill their entire field of vision. The planet almost seemed to shrink as the star grew. It was an insignificant speck on the fiery mass that continued to grow. Without ceremony, the planet was consumed by the sun. It did not, and could not make any resistance to the relentless growth of the star. In an instant the planet ceased to exist as they had known it and it became just an insignificant part of the star. All the unrevealed secrets of the people of that planet disappeared.
They had seen the planet grow from clumps of misshapen rock into a cradle of life which had produced some of the most amazing lifeforms the universe had ever seen, let alone them. Now it was gone and the cold universe cared not. It seemed strange that they did not even have a name for such an important place. But for them the passage of eons had passed in, what, a day? It was hard to tell but it had been an insignificant amount of time for something so significant to have come and passed. But the journey carried on.
It seemed somewhat callous, the way in which the journey kept moving them relentlessly onwards, without allowing any real time to reflect on what they had seen. That was its nature so it seemed. Constant motion. How far they had come, in so many ways since they first left their village. They were not those simple, removed people they had been back then. They were becoming experienced, of life and the universe. Most of all they were beginning to feel a purpose. In its absence, they had not felt it before but now they most certainly felt purpose in life.
Away from their thoughts though the journey was continuing, and it was continuing at a tremendous pace. They were passing planets, stars, galaxies. They could only wonder which place the man would decide was next on the list of wonders they were seeing. But it seemed it was nowhere near as they continued onwards. How far were they now from their home? They could have even conceived of the distance. They began to feel that they might never stop, and they were only going faster. Without warning they stopped. Before them was only vast, featureless, darkness. A horrendous complete abyss.
It was so devoid of feature that its nothingness became substantial, and threatening because of its foreign nature. It was overwhelming for the mind to comprehend. They were but a few small figures against the vastness of oblivion. Just as they were beginning to feel purpose they were confronted with that concept’s antithesis which made it feel as if it had been taken away. The light they had growing inside of them was consumed by the darkness stretched before them. They began to wonder if this was the end of the journey. Surely, they could not go into the darkness?
“The journey does not go that way, not this one, not yet at least,” said the man from behind them. The villagers turned to face him but immediately lost their focus on him for behind him was the universe. Just as behind them there was a wall of darkness, so before them was a wall of light. Unfathomable numbers of lights were spread before them. Each one of them they realised was not just one star but billions of them. They had briefly seen galaxies as they had hurtled to this distant place. Now they were all they could see.
To think that each dot of light represented billions of suns, and that many of them would have planets orbiting them, and of those many would have life growing on them, and that they had existed for billions of years, and as far as they knew would go on existing for billions more years. They realised this journey would never be able to show them all of the wondrous moments and places of the universe. Their lifetime was simply to short, and the splendour of entirety to great. But they could see a little bit and be grateful for it.
Seeing so much of the universe was incredibly calming. From this unique perspective, they were able to see the entire universe and it made an unfathomable concept presentable. They understood the scale of what they were looking at, but then they were looking at it as one might look at anything. They could as easily gaze upon the entirety of existence as they might look over a field, at a mountain, or at the huts they had lived in. There was a peace in that. It felt as if they could reach out and touch any part of the universe.
They were content for a while to just gaze upon the scene before them. There was certainly enough to look at. Slowly though, one light began to grow stronger. At first, they were able to dismiss it, but soon it became the centre of their attention. It was growing brighter and brighter, overwhelming all that was around it. The villagers began to shudder, imagining some terrible cataclysm was enveloping an entire galaxy. They became far more concerned as the light became blinding, and so strong that it was all they could see. How could one light outshine the entire universe?
Looking away from the blinding light they realised that once more they were surrounded by the universe rather than looking upon it. The twinkling lights all around them were individual stars, not entire galaxies. The blinding light before them was indeed just another star. After being shown the universe they wondered what was so important about this place in particular. It seemed they would not wait long to find out. The man propelled them around the star to where they saw a small planet was orbiting, seemingly unremarkable, an orb of blue and green. They went quickly towards the planet.
Anticipation built the whole way as they got closer and closer to the planet. No lights sprung forth from the dark parts of the planet and they saw no sign of great cities or any other notable impressions made on the face of the planet by whoever might live there. If anyone did live there at all they were plainly simple and unadvanced. As they got closer still so that they were able to differentiate between forest and grassland, mountains and hills they still saw no sign of intelligence, at least not in the area they were now headed to.
Understanding dawned on them in an instant. At the foot of a mountain range they made out a small group of buildings. A moment after this they were standing once more in their village. They saw their huts, just as they had left them. They saw the vast grasslands spread out before them. None of them looked in time, but if they had they would have seen a small group of people disappearing from view over the mountains that shadowed the village. After everything they had seen they did not trust that they were truly back, and waited for something.
But nothing did happen. Their village remained as dull as it had ever been before they left it, and they knew they were back. The journey appeared to be over. They asked the man if that was the case. “Over?” he replied. “No, the journey is never over. Your time on your journey with me is over but the journey never ends.” His words seemed to ring hollow on the villagers. After seeing so much to be simply returned back to where they started felt anti-climactic. They had received a brief peak behind the curtain at wonders once more hidden.
The man sighed. “Do not think the journey was in vain. How many wonders, great and terrible have you witnessed that would have gone otherwise unnoticed? Would that not have been a great crime against the universe which made them? Certainly, there are more wonders out there to be seen which you will not see, but that does not mean they will be seen by no one. Others will take different journeys to you. It is not for you to wish for their journeys too, but to appreciate and continue your own.” Despite their feelings, the villagers still listened intently.
“Had I never come to you, you would all have lived and died here. Just as it is a crime for wonder to go unobserved, so to it is a crime for life not to observe wonder. The universe creates wonder and with life it creates the means to appreciate those wonders. I am merely a guide. I search for those who alone will never achiever their full potential and attempt to spark something in them. Life is a gift, and it is yours alone. What you do with it is a personal choice. I will not make your choices.”
Silence pervaded everything when the man finished speaking. He had never guided them by the hand. Rather, it was like they had jumped off of a cliff with him. But he had always been there to catch them if they needed it, now he was telling them: learn to fly. He looked over them all once more and then nodded, turned and walked off across the plains. For one last moment of wonder it seemed that with just a couple of steps he was miles away and had soon passed over the horizon to whatever was next for his journey.
The question, “what now?” rang out in all of the villagers’ minds. The way the man had spoken they still had all the potential in the world. But back in their village, surrounded by the mundanity of their old lives it was difficult to believe so. From over towards the mountains the barks of dogs were heard. The hounds burst into the village to be reunited with their masters. The dog owners began to think that maybe their old lives were not so bad after all. Reality began to set in and the villagers went back inside their old homes.
It can be incredibly easy to fall back into old patterns, especially when returned to familiar surroundings. The villagers found this out for themselves. In their uncertainty over what to do next they resorted to that which they did understand. They needed supplies. When the man left, they were struck by a powerful hunger, and indeed none could remember when they had last eaten. They tended to their old crops and foraged for food. They repaired clothes they did not realise were damaged, nursed wounds they had not noticed. They slipped into a different way of life without even realising.
They let days turn into months, and the memory of all the wonders they had seen took on a myth like quality. They even stopped talking about the journey or the man as doing so caused them embarrassment. At first some had talked openly and boldly about continuing the journey, but those boasts also soon faded. The only sign that something had changed within the villagers to how they were before was that every now and then they would find themselves looking to the mountains and remembering what they had found on the other side, before returning to their lives.
As the sun rose over the grasslands one morning the villagers noticed that breaking the featureless landscape was a lone figure. It had been almost a year since the man had left them. The villagers gathered to watch the shape make its way across the plains. It was too far to know for sure but they all felt it must be him returning. Some of them were afraid, fearing that he would lambast them for their inaction. Others were hopeful, believing he would spur them into action. Soon it became clear it was not him, but they were still intrigued.
The figure was hunched and hurrying, so they knew it could not be the man. It took him several hours but he eventually stumbled into the village about midday. He was shaken and tired. They brought him water and bread for which he was very grateful. When he had composed himself somewhat they asked him where he had come from that left him so flustered. “I came from a town across the plains. We heard the rumour of something coming. Some say it comes as a man, others that it comes as a winged, to take you from your homes.”
The villagers looked to each other. These were the same rumours they had heard about the man before he came to them. They could understand the traveller’s reticence to encounter such a rumour. They tried to explain there was nothing to fear however. They told him that they had been on a wondrous journey with the being he feared so much. At this he started. Despite his fatigued state, he moved with purpose and vigour away through the village screaming about curses and demons. He continued on through the village and up into the mountains to whatever fate was his.
This incident startled the villagers. For one thing, this visitor was the first person they had seen that did not live in the village since the man. They also did not fail to notice the man’s influence. Even without actually meeting this person, he had propelled him to leave his own town on some kind of journey. They realised how safe a content they had become that one visitor for a just a few moments could be so startling. They looked to one another and it was as though they thought with one mind. Finally, they were resolved to continue.
They packed in a rush. Most of what they took was comprised of food and clothing. But they also took a few personal items. There was every chance this time that they would not return. They did not have the man to protect or guide them, they might never find a way back, or be prevented from doing so. This time they were going in with even more uncertainty. It was exhilarating. Their direction was resolved immediately. They had already passed over the mountains. Beyond the plains of grass though was completely unknown. This new journey they would change that.
They were eager to set off and so made good progress across the plains. Within a few hours, they looked back and could no longer make out their village. Even the mountains were just a dark smudge on the horizon. But still there was nothing obvious on any other horizon, just flat grasslands. Soon even the mountains behind them were beyond their sight. They had to use the sun to make sure they were heading in the same direction they had set out to. Night came and they were slightly disheartened if not concerned that they had not seen anything.
The sun rose the next morning and the villagers had already risen to meet it. They watched it bathe the entirety of the plains in an orange haze. After taking a few morsels of food and some water they were on their way. Surely, they would see something soon? Indeed, they did. Not long after they set off they saw some faint shadows emerge in the otherwise featureless landscape and they hurried towards them. What they had found was the abandoned wagons of a nomadic group. Even the horses or oxen that had pulled them were gone without a trace.
There was no sign of a struggle, nor had anything been thrown haphazardly as if the people had fled with great haste. It was as if somehow the wagons had just been placed here and had never had any owners. It felt wrong to disturb the wagons and their contents, but the villagers needed supplies. They took that which could be useful but left everything else. As they went on throughout that day they found other similar sites. Saddles without horses, carts and wagons, satchels. Only possessions without owners. Just as the sun was setting they saw a lonely town.
There was no smoke coming from any chimneys. There were no people walking between the stone houses. Everything was quiet. They could not hear any animals, people, or sounds of work. As they came into the town, and saw the number and size of the buildings they realised that two hundred, maybe more, could have lived here. Now they were all gone. One of them found a child’s toy. Another found a half eaten piece of bread. Once again everyone had simply vanished. The villagers now started to worry. Where were all the people going, and what was taking them?
They were losing the feel for adventure and were starting to think of self-preservation instead. But they still had enough determination that they wanted to get passed the vast plains. They also felt a moral obligation. They had proved what they had long believed. That the plains were only sparsely populated. It might be years before anyone else found what was happening at that would be far too late. They had to find where these people were going and if they could be brought back. There was no choice for them but to continue and so left the lonely town.
Several days passed and they saw nothing. There were not even any more abandoned items indicating disappeared people. There were only the plains. They had not even seen a river. It was like they were in a grass covered desert. This idea was reinforced as their water supplies began to run out. But they though there must be water somewhere. How else could the nomads or the townspeople have survived out here? Their belief did not matter though and the plains remained unyielding. They realised too late that they could not turn back to the town. They had to continue.
Each step forward was like a day’s work with none of the reward. They began to curse leaving the town. They cursed the man for giving them notions above what they were and what was possible. They cursed the horizon which never changed. They cursed grass for being their world. But they did not stop. They realised now that they would either find what was beyond the plains or they would die. The villagers feared though that they would go mad first. And so, it seemed they were. Something glittered like diamonds in the distance, and they heard galloping horses.
From within the shimmering lights they saw shapes appear. Huge beasts they were, coming straight towards them. The villagers had reached their limit though. They had been almost crawling for the last hours and now their strength gave out. Before they lost consciousness they just saw the towering animals standing over them before fading to black. Waking up to see something other than endless grasslands was certainly a pleasant change, but also a shock. The never changing landscape had been replaced with white walls. The villagers had been lying on smooth white slabs and were also now clothed in white.
There was an odd, slanted opening out of the white room. They went through it and saw why they had seen the glittering of diamonds; they were in a city of them. Huge crystalline towers grew out of the ground, reaching towards the sky. They caught the light and held it within them making it seem as if the city was built from captured light. The villagers were standing on a balcony in one of these diamond towers. Whether it had formed naturally or been crafted they could not tell, it seemed unnatural, and yet how could man do this?
Once they had gotten over the amazement at what they were seeing the villagers became joyous. This was what they had set out on this journey for. Not only had they finally made it over the grass plains, but now they had found something wonderful. More than that, they had done it themselves, without the man’s guidance. The wonder continued as one side of the balcony began to shift and they saw that the side of this colossal diamond was reformed into a stairway down to the ground, hundreds of feet below. At the bottom of them someone was waiting.
The villagers descended the stairs, all the while looking around in awe at city around them. The figure at the bottom waited silently. As the approached it they realised the figure was completely covered in a white sheet. It appeared tall and slender, and gestured for them to follow it. They walked through streets shaded by crystal buildings. The huge structures appeared to continue into the ground. Some were clear and they could see all the way through, while others were frosted and hid whatever was inside of them. The figure in white remained silent the whole time they walked.
They came to a plinth also made of diamond. As they approached it words appeared from it as if made of light. These words also morphed into images. They saw people build this city by manipulating the elements of the world so that the minerals in the earth formed the huge crystalline structures. They saw how they ever hungered for knowledge and especially the incredible. In their search, they found a way of transporting people huge distances, but something went wrong. They could not control who or when or where people were transported and one by one they were taken.
They could find no way to control it and realised they would soon all be gone. They left behind this message and what they called the guardian who the villagers assumed was the figure in white, in the hope that someone could help to bring them back. The guardian was created of non-living material as only living matter could be transported. The villagers realised that whatever the people here had created had gotten severely out of hand as it was also surely responsible for the missing people across the plains. They had certainly found adventure but was it beyond them?
The people of this city were clearly far ahead of them in understanding the secrets of the universe and they had been powerless to prevent disaster from befalling them. How could they hope to succeed where others had failed? More frightening than this though was it seemed they had no choice. If people from all across the plains were being transported, then soon so surely would they be. They would have to succeed or they knew that their failure could be final. While they were contemplating this, they heard hooves trotting and the jingling of saddles. Someone was approaching them.
Five people on horseback rounded the corner. They were poorly clothed and were clearly not from this city. But their faces were kind and cheerful so the villagers did not immediately fear, even if they did not immediately trust them. “It’s good to see you all on your feet,” said one of the horsemen. “When last, we saw you, you were all crawling and at deaths door.”
“Then it was you who brought us here?” asked one of the villagers quizzically.
“Indeed. Did you think the guardian had? No that’s an unfeeling automaton that only does what it’s masters say.”
“But it cared for us when we got here?”
“Yes. Its masters must have told it to help those who came to the city, but it does not venture beyond the city. It provided us with aid when first arrived to.”
“How long have you been here?”
“We first came here a week ago. Since then we’ve been trying to figure out a way to fix their invention,” he said pointing at the plinth where the message had been. “No luck so far, and we’ll need some soon or we’ll all be gone.” Now their cheer seemed to slip away.
The villagers sensed the change in mood and waited for their apparent saviours to tell them more. “There were nearly two hundred people in our town, now we are all that’s left. It started slowly and quietly. The first person disappeared about a month ago, in the night. We thought they had run away. People do that. Then more and more started going until we saw it happen. In broad daylight, something like a tendril of mist wrapped around a child and pulled it away in an instant. We followed that tendril here losing more and more on the way.”
The hurt was clear on all their faces. They had all lost people and desperately wanted them back but had no idea about how to do so. “We’d heard of this place before but never come here. It’s unlike-“ At this point he was cut off. A tendril of smoke emerged from beneath the plinth and grabbed one of the villagers. Before anyone could even cry out the villager had been pulled away and was simply gone. The villagers went mad. They clawed at the ground where their friend had gone. The horsemen were stoic and silent, their horses shuffled.
“It’s no use,” said the horseman. “To get your friend back we have to get everyone back.” The villagers dragged themselves back to their feet and forced away their tears. They could see the horsemen knew exactly how they felt and were even more determined to reverse what had happened. “Come with us,” the horseman continued. “We have no time to waste.” The villagers followed leaving the guardian alone at the plinth, its job done. They went quickly to what was a relatively small structure, very square, and fairly plain. The horsemen dismounted and approached the structure and entered it.
The crystal spread apart allowing them to enter and the villagers followed. All that was inside was a deep hole with a stairway that circled down it that was also made of crystal. The place was lit by a strange glow from the crystal. The group went down the stairway. After nearly an hour they finally came to the bottom. The stairway ended in a vast chamber. Huge crystals filled it. In the centre amongst the white crystals was one menacingly red coloured crystal. The horsemen headed straight for it. “That is the source of all our problems,” he said.
The villagers were confused. How could a crystal cause people to be transported to who knows where? As if to answer at that moment the misty tendril emerged from the red crystal. It wormed upwards to the roof of the cavern. They waited in silence for a few minutes before the tendril shot back to the crystal and they just saw a struggling figure held in the end of it. They were frozen in terror. In their journey of wonders they had never seen anything like this. Where would they even start to try and repair what had gone wrong?
The minutes grew as they stood silently in the cavern. They became hours as they went back to the crystal plinth to try and glean any more information from the message that had been left. Days passed with long passages of desperate thought, moments of despair, and instances of hope. Every time they thought they had found some place to start they were instantly rebuked by their unfathomable problem. Punctuating all of this was the chilling times when the tendril would appear and they did not know if it was coming for them. They remained safe. But for how long?
The answer to that question came far too soon. They woke one morning to find one of the horsemen was gone. A few hours later, while the grief was still fresh, another of them was taken. After this they had a day of respite before one of the villagers was taken. The mood was now incredibly low amongst the two groups. The horsemen had all but given up. The villagers had slightly more hope but all refused to go down to the cavern now, as if by being closer they were in more danger, which they knew was not true.
One night the villagers and the remaining horsemen were woken from an uneasy sleep as a scream shot through the darkness. Someone else from the plains had been dragged away. This was followed by silence as they all waited for something else to follow. Then came the whimpers, the muffled sobs, and the heavy breaths that made up the sound of despair. One villager though had had enough. He made his way purposefully to the cavern, all the while thinking with such belief that almost willed it to be fact: they must have missed something. And he would find it.
One thing was certain the villager was sure: crystals were the key. Everything in this city was made from them, and as the red crystal showed, they could be used for fantastic purposes. The cavern was huge and full of crystals which was both a blessing and a curse. There were many different possibilities that could lead to success, but just as much chance that success would be lost in a sea of failures. The villager set his fear aside and approached the red crystal, getting closer than they had before. Previously they had only observed from a safe distance.
The red crystal sat cold and silent before him. It was by far not the largest crystal he had seen, even in the cavern. But it was the squattest. Aside from its colour this made it seem anomalous. Surrounded by the other long, thin, white crystals the red one was like a cancerous growth. The villager circled the red crystal and realised something was crunching under his feet. He looked very closely and realised that he was standing on a crystalline sand. There were larger grains that broke easily between his fingers. The whole mess seemed unhealthy, frail, and sickly.
The villager had not seen anything like it. The other crystals were full and healthy. They had seen that the people who lived here grew the crystals, and yet here something had gone wrong. Right next to this uncontrollable red crystal it seemed they had tried to grow something else and it had failed. It was a eureka moment. At last they had a starting point. As the villager sprinted back to tell the others he knew they were still miles away from their goal but they finally knew the way. When he told the others they once again smiled.
They became abuzz with activity. Excited by the renewal of hope they all darted off in different directions trying to find some indication of how to grow crystal structures. This task was made arduous as not all the crystal buildings had obvious entrances and they had to search for them. Coupled with the number of buildings and the villager’s and horsemen’s reduced numbers and it was clearly going to be a time consuming task if they were not very lucky. After a day of searching they had come numerous curiosities but nothing to tell them how to build crystal structures.
They were losing hope again and had definitely lost their energy. The villager who had found the failed crystals was moping along, barely more than shuffling his feet through the dirt on the ground. He found himself walking passed the crystal plinth where the guardian was still standing silently. Hope kindled in the villager anew as he asked the guardian if it could show him how to make crystal structures just like the masters of this city had. The guardian bowed its head and beckoned the villager to follow it. Together they went off towards the centre of the city.
After several minutes of walking the guardian stopped so suddenly that the villager walked into it. The guardian remained unperturbed and pointed towards what looked like a sheet of crystal lying on the ground between two large structures. The villager approached it and as he did the sheet began to warp downwards and showed a crystalline stairway. It did not lead far downwards and led to a simple room, in the middle of which there was a crystal gauntlet stood upon a plinth. The villager approached it and there appeared words and pictures, just like those from the crystal plinth.
The pictures showed how to use the gauntlet to create. By wearing the gauntlet the wearers thoughts were connected with the gauntlet. Placing the gauntlet while wearing it on the ground connected the wearers thoughts to the minerals and elements of the earth and shaped them to the wearers design. The villager eagerly grabbed the gauntlet and went back up to test it. He put the gauntlet on his hand and placed it on the ground. After a moment, the earth a few feet away from him began cracking and opened to reveal a crystal cube which rose slowly upwards.
When the cube protruded by about a foot it stopped rising. The villager was breathing heavy and looked at the crystal cube in astonishment. He had just made that with his mind! He was not done though. The villager put the gauntlet back to the ground and the cracked earth around the cube began to smooth out until all trace of its emergence was removed. The villager laughed, and loudly. This was both wondrous and also good news. He ran calling the others to him to show them what he had discovered. The villager made more crystal cubes for them.
They were of course ecstatic at this news. One of the horsemen was confused though. “If they can create whatever they want, why didn’t they finish building whatever it was they were trying put around the red crystal?” he asked.
“I assume very bad luck,” replied the villager as he held out the gauntlet for the others to see. “While they were trying to create a barrier or something around the red crystal it must have grabbed them and taken them before they could finish, leaving those strange, half formed crystals. Lucky for us they must have many gauntlets around.”
The villagers and horsemen then began discussing how they should design the barrier as they did not wish to slip up in any way. While they were doing so a distant scream told them that someone else had been seized by the red crystal. They decided that the barrier would extend all the way around the red crystal, even underground to assure there was no possible way for the tendril to creep out. They would make it so the tendril could not pass through the barrier, but that the barrier would admit a person or animal through, in and out.
They went down, once more, to the cavern. All but the villager wearing the gauntlet stayed back, such was their fear of the red crystal even so close to being safe. The villager had gone over the instructions he would give as detailed as he could and felt confident, if not calm as he approached the red crystal. Without wasting a moment, he put the gauntlet to the ground. Instantaneously the withered crystals began to vibrate and grow. They crept over the red crystal. Vibrations from the ground told him that they were also extending underneath. Their plan was working.
The rising sheets of crystal met above the red crystal and it was completely encircled. The villager slowly raised his hand from the ground as if fearing that a sudden movement might wake the slumbering beast. They all waited with bated breath to see if anything would. The moments stretched out and still nothing happened until, they saw through the crystal barrier the tendril creeping around, like a caged animal trying to find an opening. But it could not find anything. It probed every point of the barrier and the retreated to whence it came. At last they felt safe.
But they were all too aware that their mission was incomplete. Locating the gauntlet had been a success and obviously, they were keen to secure their safety. But they had still not brought back those that had been lost. They had all known that the barrier was but a part of what they needed to do, even if until now they had not acknowledged it. At least now they could operate in safety. They returned to the surface and took a few moments to appreciate the security they felt. They all agreed this new feeling would help to reinvigorate them.
That night was fun. The horsemen and the villagers talked and laughed, safe in the knowledge that the red crystal was contained. The villagers told the tale of their journey with the man and all the special things they had seen and done. The horsemen were aghast. Years ago, the man had come to them while they roamed the plains. They had heard the rumours about him and had driven him away. Now they mourned the loss of such an opportunity. They talked late into the night, enjoying the moment while they could. Sleep came easy and deeply that night.
The morning broke, and with it the burden was returned to their shoulders. But at least now they had something, they had the gauntlet. They returned to the cavern hoping to find if it could do more than construction. The villager put the gauntlet to the ground. He resisted an urge that seemed to come from the gauntlet to create what came into his mind. He pushed his thoughts through the ground to the red crystal. He connected with it. The red crystal was not exactly evil as he had thought, but determined, purposeful, and single minded to a fault.
All that he could read from it was the drive to transport everyone it could to one particular place. He saw a vision of the night sky, full of stars, one of which shined brighter than all of them. There was nothing else. All the red crystal knew how to do, or desired to do, was to get people to this star. The villager went back to the others and told them all he had learned from the red crystal. The horsemen were surprised, not only by the distance but also as they had believed it to be completely random.
Unfortunately, though the villager had not found any way of changing the purpose of the red crystal. It seemed the gauntlet could only create or connect with what was already created. They were stuck once more, but at least they had something to work with. Clearly this star was of huge importance if they had used this power to transport people there and nowhere else. They set about trying to learn everything they could about it. They hoped this would tell them if there was any hope of getting back those they had lost, or if they were even alive.
In their explorations of the city they had found huge stores of information. They were extensive rooms filled with crystal plinths, all of which showed something different. There were many of these devoted to that distant star. It seemed to be the focus of the city’s only religion, though recently the decrease in the number of followers and in acceptance of it had relegated it to almost cult status. The star itself happened to have been directly above the pinnacle of the first grand structure they had ever built out of the earth and had been revered ever since then.
For years, the star had been central to their society. Its position in the night sky as it shifted over the seasons and years was taken to mean different things, both good and bad. They had destroyed that first building when they realised that the star no longer passed over it. Cloudy nights when it was obscured were taken as terrible omens. But societies change, and as the years passed some grew apathetic towards this religion, others openly hostile. The old way was preserved zealously by a few. As the majority of society’s faith decreased, the zealots would only increase.
The zealots believed that losing their old beliefs would lead their society away from greatness. They had thought that the only way for their society to continue and prosper was to return to their faith. For years, they had tried but to no avail. Realising that they were making no progress they had looked to new ways to return people to the faith. The zealots became convinced that the only way to take their society back to their former greatness was to take them to the star itself. It took them many years, but finally they created the red crystal.
There were no records about the red crystal itself that they could find. But they did show that the zealots had been very open about their desires. The only reason they had not been stopped was that it seemed nobody had taken them seriously, believing what they desired to be impossible. Well they had been proven fatally wrong. The zealots had created the red crystal and the silence in the streets showed that it had worked exactly as they had wanted. It was not an accident, but completely planned that so many people had been ripped away from their lives.
For the villagers, such religious fervour was alien. Their simple, isolated lives did not include religion. Why the world was or what had created it did not matter, only that it was there. Morality was also a simple matter that needed no other justification. In such a small community, everyone had to work together for the same goal: survival. Any dispute was settled by the village as a whole and rejecting their decision could mean exile. They felt vindicated in their belief system, or lack of one, when they saw how other dogmatic beliefs could prove to be so detrimental.
It was different for the horsemen. They did have their own religious beliefs, though the villagers noted it had not led to anything as terrible as that of the zealots. They believed that the plains had been formed from the dreams of a mystical horse. Everything else had formed around the plains also from the dreams of the horse when it desired sunlight, starlight, and people. The horsemen believed that the zealots had brought their misfortune on themselves by practicing false beliefs in the midst of the horse’s great plains. They were also angry that such falsehood had impacted themselves.
So now they knew what had happened to everyone who had been taken by the red crystal, and they knew why it had happened. But they were still no closer to reversing it. The gauntlet had suggested no way of bringing them back, nor did their research suggest the zealots would have made it possible either. The villagers felt cheated in a way. They had sought adventure and wonder and instead they had found puzzles and hopelessness. It was not the same without the man. He had always been the one to solve the problems and make it all easier.
They resolved to wait one more day. One more day where they could think and explore the crystal city in the hope that they would find something. After that they would choose some course of action. They were tired of doing nothing. They dispersed once more around the city. The villager who had been using the gauntlet thought it was all in vain. He was sure he knew the only course of action. But he did not say anything hoping he was wrong and one of the others would think of something else or find another wonderful piece of technology.
They found plenty of wonderful things in the city. They found ways of purifying water, no matter how contaminated it was. They found crystal structures with healing properties. They found records that dated back hundreds of years, records that contained the history of groups and the history of individuals. They found a multitude of wonderful things. But they found nothing that could help them. Everything they found was limited to the planet they found their selves on. They found a way to destroy the red crystal. They thought they may need that later, but they found nothing to help now.
The villager with the gauntlet wanted to waste no more time so he told the others what he believed needed to be done. “I’m going to let the red crystal take me, and I’m going to bring the gauntlet with me,” he told the others. They were instinctively shocked. But as he reminded them they had no other ideas. If he had the gauntlet with him he might be able to create a way of coming back to their planet, just as the zealots had found a way to take everyone else away. All they had left now was hope.
They knew that by getting close enough to the red crystal, it would automatically take him. Someone else would be close by wearing another gauntlet to close the barrier as soon as possible. They hoped that with the villager wearing the gauntlet being so close, the red crystal would not have the time or inclination to try to capture anyone else. If it did capture someone else at least they had their best hope to bring them back also going. It was risky, unfounded, improbable, but it was not hopeless. There was still a chance, and they would take it.
They wasted no time and soon the villager with the gauntlet was approaching the red crystal again. One last time. One of the horsemen was slightly further back, also wearing a gauntlet. The horsemen put his gauntlet to the ground and a moment later the protective crystal layer started to open around the red crystal. The villager wasted no time. He ran toward the opening and just as he saw the tendril emerging he touched the red crystal and the universe around him changed. He had no way of knowing if they had closed the crystal behind him, only hope.
This was not like when the man had transported them. This felt like he was caught in a storm. He was tumbling and falling through space. Brief images flew past him of planets, stars, and nebulae. One moment he felt like he couldn’t breathe, and the next he was panting like he had run a marathon. Then he saw the star. He was still tumbling through a mess of space. But now it was clear that he was heading towards that star. Everything had been tinted with a red glow, but the closer he got to the star it faded.
The villager was dumped unceremoniously on the ground. He could not be sure if he had stopped spinning so dizzy was he that it felt as if he was still tumbling, and so he remained sprawled on the ground. Eventually he felt he could stand and did so. He looked up at a clear blue sky. The star at the centre of this whole debacle shone absentmindedly, unaware and undisturbed by all of the trouble caused by it. The villager had hoped he would be immediately greeted by all those that had been taken. But he appeared to be alone.
This place was incredibly peaceful he thought. He had imagined because of the nature of the zealots that they would have transported people to a horrible place. Perhaps it was just luck that this planet that orbited the star they worshipped was so hospitable. Nevertheless, there was a cooling breeze which was pleasant after the journey he had just taken. The air was crisp and fresh, and he felt invigorated breathing it in. As far as he could tell though he was the only soul on the planet. He could see no sign of any creature and heard only silence.
He found himself standing in the middle of a small island, surrounded by a lake. There was nothing on the island but himself, so the villager decided to swim across to the shore. He was not a strong swimmer so this took many minutes and left him exhausted as he flopped onto the stony beach of the lake. As he panted and spluttered he saw that there was something like a forest a short distance away, though the “trees” were short, only slightly taller than himself, straight, and had spongy, moss-like leaves atop them. He went into this strange forest.
The villager had only been walking for a few minutes when he noticed a hoofprint. There were also trees that had clearly been kicked. He was on the right path. Someone who had been taken had come through this direction. Soon after this he felt, rather than heard, a vibration in the distance. It grew to a rumble which he followed. Eventually he was met by one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen. Several waterfalls had bored a hole into the ground which had become a gorge full of plants. A fine mist hung in the air.
It was such a huge, spectacular place, but it was so enclosed that it felt like its own, little world cut off from everything else. Down at the bottom the waterfalls all came together forming an inviting looking pool. Everything here was so lush that life seemed to fill the very air. Breathing in deeply the villager felt invigorated. In amongst the flora the villager could see numerous pathways and caves left by old dried up waterfalls. He was certain that somewhere in amongst this oasis of wonder some of the taken people must be waiting. He went to explore.
The villager quickly realised how easy it would be to get lost within the maze of passages that filled the walls of the gorge. To keep some idea of where he was he tried to stay as close to the centre as he could and head downwards. He managed this more by luck than judgement as he constantly found that when he emerged into the light again to look over the gorge that he was not where expected to find himself. The villager eventually came to the bottom, exhausted and soaking wet from waterfall spray. But he had seen nobody.
He must have dozed off on the spongy moss that covered the floor of the gorge and woke to find a man looking down at him. The man was old with a face like a lumpy root vegetable and he was leaning on a tall stick. “So, it got another one did it? Come on then let’s get you to the others,” the old man said. With that he started to shuffle off into the warren of tunnels. The villager, flustered, sprang to his feet and set off after the old man. “Others!” he thought, at least they were together.
The villager had been worried having not seen any others that had been taken that perhaps they were dispersed all over the planet, and that the red crystal had one more cruel design. If that had been the case he might have spent a lifetime searching for the others. But it seemed this was not so. He hoped they had all arrived near here. Perhaps the old man was taking him to all those that had been taken and they would all be returned quickly. Such hope was soothing. The first part of the tunnels seemed to be lit naturally.
Smaller tunnels led to sunlight that crept in. As they went further in the tunnels were lit artificially by burning torches that emitted a sweet scent. Shortly, the tunnel broadened and the villager saw who the old man had meant by the others. They were clearly only his people. They all had the same lumpy faces as the old man, though they were all different ages, and some were female. There were also short, squat creatures that might have had horses for ancestors. The old man explained that they lived in some warrens under the plains. Now they lived here.
It soon became apparent that they had no intention of returning to the plains. The villager explained where he had come from and how he had come to be here. The underground dwellers were suitably impressed by his story and pleased to have an explanation of what had happened. But they weren’t going back. “Look around you,” the old man said. “This place is a blessing. These caves extend for miles, and we can make them go further. There is plenty of food and water and it is better than any we had before. But I wish you good fortune.”
Night was drawing in and so the villager stayed with the cave dwellers for the night. He left in the morning, saddened that the cave dwellers weren’t coming with him, but happy they had been brought to a place that was good to them. He returned to the lake he had first arrived at, hoping to find a sign of where the others had gone. This time he rounded it to the other side. Here the lake passed into a hilly country. The villager followed the water as it became a river flowing through a wide valley in the hills.
The passage of the stars all those years ago had certainly been fortuitous for the villager and the others who had been taken now. The planet seemed to be a veritable paradise. As the villager strolled through the peaceful valley he thought he might actually find others who like the cave dwellers did not want to leave. For a while the only sound was the babbling of the river snaking through the valley. But this was eventually disturbed as the villager heard a cry in a language he recognised. Galloping towards him were more of the horsemen they had met.
The villager was glad. He saw that the horsemen he had met that had been taken was riding with his people. They were as their compatriots he had met back on their world, warm and friendly. They listened keenly as he told them all that had happened since they had been taken. Unlike the cave dwellers they were keen to go back and be reunited with those they had left behind. Thankfully, they would also help him find the others that were lost, especially his compatriot, the villager that had been taken. They even had a horse he could ride.
The horsemen told him that they had seen know sign of the people from the crystal city. They had been taken much earlier than them and in that time could have travelled far on this planet which meant so much to them. The villager looked to the star that had caused all of this, hanging so peacefully in the sky. He nonchalantly realised that he had been on many different planets and seen many stars. This one did not seem special when compared to those. It was just a fixture, part of the background. For him it was eminently replaceable.
And yet it was becoming a big part of his life. Ever since that star had formed it had been shaping his destiny, waiting for their paths to cross so that it might become central to his life. He could not know how much more of his life would be shaped by that star. It had also shaped the lives of all those that had been taken, and those that had been left behind. Obviously, it had been important to the people of the crystal city for a long time. The villager realised that despite its appearance it was important.
The star had never attempted to impact the universe in any way, content to shine away as it was. But people had given it meaning. They had made it impact their lives, and so without the star even trying it was now impacting the villager’s life. So maybe the star’s importance was fabricated, but that did not mean it did not exist. The villager began to wonder what that meant for all of them, if they could all attain importance in someone else’s life without even trying, just by existing. Was his importance crafted by himself or created by others?
The star was hanging low when they found the missing villager. The villager riding with the horsemen had remained in silent thought the entire time they were riding. It was a welcome time of relief after all the time spent in the crystal city, trying to solve one problem after another. Now he was able to think on everything that had happened and that they had discovered since leaving the village again. There was much to consider, which was why he did not at first realise the change in the horsemen. Silence had come over them quickly like a shadow.
The horsemen did not know much about the villagers. But they knew they had been decent to them, and that was enough to make them mourn the loss of one of them. They would never know exactly why he had died. All they knew for sure was that several days ago he had fallen down this steep section of the valley, breaking the low growing fauna and his neck in the process. Whether he had been chased, pushed, or simply tripped, only he could have said and so they would never know. It was a bitter blow to the villager.
They buried the broken body in silence. There was little point in bringing him back now. The villager and the horsemen rode in the early night further down the valley where various other tribes and people who had been taken from the great plains had gathered. The villager was tired now physically and emotionally and did not appreciate the crowd of hundreds that had gathered here. In the few weeks and days that they had been here they had done well to construct crude shelters. The villager only wished to rest knowing tomorrow they would search for the crystal people.
Before that though there were only dreams. A brief respite when his mind could travel far and wide, or burrow deep and hidden. He could go wherever he wanted and remain shielded from the cruel uncaring of the universe. The dawn broke through the animal skin tent the villager had slept in. He realised this meant there were indeed animals to be found here, even if he had not seen any of them. He sprang forth from the tent to find many of the horsemen saddling their horses. They told him they were going to explore where the valley ended.
Within an hour of leaving their camp they saw the first animals the villager had seen since arriving. They resembled long limbed cattle, with large bodies, and heads that were longer than they were broad. The villager saw they had long pouches down their flanks from which small heads of their young protruded. A gust of wind whipped up what first seemed to be a thick dust, but the villager then saw was actually a swarm of bugs. The swarm swirled around for a moment before something different happened. They seemed to be rushing into each other for some reason.
Soon the reason for the bugs confusing behaviour became gloriously apparent. From the chaos of the millions of bugs came beauty. In an instant the bugs became one huge, coordinated, beautiful being. The single creature that emerged resembled a skeletal, alien bird, with expansive talons of wings. The beauty of the creature came from its colour. The bugs in this form caught the light from the star and separated it into a myriad of new colours. This huge creature of light began soaring back and forth across the sky before it swept down the valley toward whatever lay beyond it.
The villager and the horsemen watched the skeletal rainbow bird until it passed beyond their vision. They could have watched for long after that. A peace had come over each man there. To see beauty, emerge from the unlikeliest of places was the most pleasant of surprises and removed them from all the troubles and wearies of life. They looked to each other and knew that they had all experienced the same wonder. When they broke their gaze, they knew they had work to do and that such a moment could only ever be brief and transitory. Such was life.
They set off again with the memory of what they had just witnessed still large in their minds eye. The valley curved for many miles obscuring its end. When they rounded the curve, they saw it indeed led to a plain leading down to the sea. Once they came to the end of the valley itself they saw that this plain extended for miles in each direction. A huge shelf of land ended abruptly some miles in front of the sea. The plain was dominated by huge creatures that flopped out of the sea like enormous rock grey coloured slugs.
The slugs wriggled their mass onto the shore before extending powerful limbs from inside their bulk that carried them effortlessly around the plain. The creatures of this world all seemed to carry some surprise with them. The party decided to turn right onto the plain and kept close to the edge of the shelf. They were still wary of the walking slugs. The horsemen assured the villager that their horses were swift but they could not fail to notice that the slugs moved with astounding grace and speed when they chose. The slugs paid them no notice though it seemed.
Mile after mile they travelled along the coast, passing mile after mile of the slugs. Their numbers were staggering. The horsemen and the villager wondered if they were witnessing a special event. Perhaps the culmination of the mating season. Maybe this was somehow ordinary, an everyday occurrence of no particular importance. They could but wonder. Luckily for them they continued to remain ambivalent towards them and their horses. If it came to it and they were caught by one they were sure they would come off worse, be it by a swipe, a kick, or simply to be mortally squashed.
You can imagine their terror then when they saw a solid wall of the slugs descending upon them. It started in the distance as a cloud of sand. Soon it became apparent that stampeding slugs were its cause. As they advanced more of their brethren joined the horde of mad creatures. The stampede advanced and docile creatures became maddened and the horsemen and villager were in their path. They were too fast. A shelf of continent and ocean blocked their escape and speed eliminated it. Out of necessity they slammed into the wall of land and hoped, pleaded, for survival.
They were assaulted by a concoction of noise, smell, and sand. The stampeding slugs whipped up a storm of sand that lashed at exposed flesh and caused a deepening sense of isolation and danger. From in amongst the cacophony was heard the trample of their enormous limbs and snorts and wails that combined with the braying of the horses into a terrifying audial expression of fear. All they could do was attempt to hold their horses close to the ridge. Straying away from it would mean certain death. They held on through gritted teeth and clenched fists despite it all.
None of them could have said how long the stampede lasted. But it was too long they were sure of that. Eventually the trampling sound passed away from them, and they waited as the sand fell back down to the beach. Miraculously, none of them were hurt at all. Just badly shaken. It was a sign of the bond between the men and their horses that none of them had bolted from the danger, simply because the men told them to stay. Slowly the sand cleared and they saw the beach was clear of the slugs. But was not empty.
They had found the crystal people. The image they had of them as noble creators though was shattered by them stripping the corpse of one of the fallen slugs. They wrenched its legs out from inside of its body to carve away strips of meat. Organs were flung unceremoniously into the sea. They could not see what they were clothed in or discern any differences among how each of them looked: all of them were coated in yellow slug blood. So, intent were they on their kill that they did not notice the horsemen and the villager. Slaughter occupied them.
They might have confused them for some native race, but their shape was too familiar to the villager and the horseman who had been to the crystal city. So to was their language which they heard used not eloquently as they had seen in their records, but viciously. Something had broken in the crystal people. Certainly, there was a need to acquire food which the horsemen and villager understood, and hunting was a part of this. But the bloodlust they saw exhibited here was beyond necessity. How could so noble and graceful a people be reduced to such murderous ways?
They began to approach the crystal people, slowly. They got within twenty feet of them before any of them noticed the approaching band of riders. They leapt between the horsemen and their kill, brandishing roughly fashioned spears. The crystal people looked frantically from one rider to another. They seemed almost feral. The villager decided to take charge of the situation. “Are you the people who lived in the city of crystal, that were taken by the red crystal made by the zealots to this place?” he asked them. The crystal people seemed to relax, but only because sadness replaced anger.
“We did,” replied one of them. “But now our home is lost to us, and all of our creations, and the ability to create.”
“But it’s not,” said the villager. “I brought one of your gauntlets with me, see.” He waved the gauntlet in front of them, certain he had just given them hope. All it actually did was make the crystal people scoff. “Many of us had gauntlets with us when we were brought here. While they could create wonders at our home here they are useless.” It was hammer blow the villager did not feel properly at first.
In the vain belief that he could prove them wrong, the villager scrambled to put the gauntlet on. He leapt hastily from his horse and punched the earth, hoping that passion and belief could win through. He was wrong. Where back home he had felt an instant connection to the world and its elements here there was nothing. No connection, only mental silence. The villager strained as hard as he could, trying to force his thoughts into this alien world, but to no avail. The crystal people could not look at him. Tears mixed with the blood of the slug.
The villager stood back up. He looked askance at the crystal people. One of them replied “the power of the gauntlets came from the land they were made from. There was already a connection. We learned how to utilise that connection, and we could do so because we were also connected to that land.” He looked around at the alien world. “We have no connection to this land. Despite what the zealots may have believed. This place happened to orbit a star that happened to cross a building we created. Cruel coincidence has warped our fate, and yours it seems.”
Now it was the villager’s turn to explain. He told them how he and the other villagers were travelling across the plains. He said nothing about the man not knowing how they would react to that. The crystal people seemed ashamed when they were told just how many people had been taken by the red crystal. But they were pleased when the villager told them they had managed to enclose it. “That was well done,” one of them said to him. “It shows tremendous mental fortitude to have been able to construct a barrier of such strength.” He felt proud.
“Are you certain there is no way for you to connect to this land?” the villager asked the crystal people. “Perhaps the next generation of us that are born here will be able to. Perhaps it will take several generations for the connection to develop. But then perhaps the connection will never form, or perhaps this place does not work as ours did and the discussion is moot anyway. We simply do not know. All we do know for certain is for now, and for a while, we are trapped here.” He pointed to the carcass “and we must survive.”
Waves lapped at the shore, pulling the yellow slug blood away. The crystal people went back to cutting away pieces of meat, hauling them over their shoulders and putting pieces in bags. As they turned to leave they shouted to the villager and the horsemen “you are always welcome to join us. If you ever wish to find us follow the beach from here another few miles, you will find a great river meets the sea there. Our new home lies along its banks. Farewell!” They left after that with their food. The slug carcass was empty, only bones remained.
When they returned to the horsemen’s camp they explained to the others what the crystal people had told them, and that they would not be able to go home. Some of them were angry and claimed that they were lying. Those that had seen the crystal people knew this was wrong. They thought back to how savagely they had slaughtered the slug. That was not something liars would do. That was a sign of desperation. As they began accepting that they could not go back the horsemen comforted each other and the villager began to feel very much alone there.
The horsemen were mourning the loss of their home. But they had almost all of their people with them. The villager was used to being away from his home by now, even if it had become somewhat more permanent. But what he was not used to was being separated from the other villagers. Through all their journeys they had always been together. Now he was alone. The mass of people around him, all so connected, made him feel all the more apart from things. While they were consoling one another, the villager slipped away, stealing into the lonely, alien night.
He did not know at that moment if he meant to leave the horsemen for good, or just the night. All he knew was that he needed solitude because loneliness was crushing him. The villager’s feet guided him. He was so wrapped up in the despair of his predicament that he did not realise at first that he was climbing the walls of the valley. By the time, he did realise he was high above the horsemen. The villager was somewhat impressed with himself as he had traipsed through steep terrain that was clogged with thick undergrowth. He carried on.
By the time he reached the top of the valley the night had grown so dark that he could see nothing around him. But still he did not stop. The villager climbed over unseen boulders, pulled himself through bushes and hedges, slid down slopes and hauled himself on, mile after mile. As soon as he thought about stopping the loneliness set in once more. So, he didn’t stop. He carried on, devoting all his mental capacity to enduring this journey he was forcing himself to go on, concentrating only on how to navigate his way in the dark of night.
A haze began to spread across the sky and the villager realised that dawn breaking. The land about him looked unfamiliar of course. He looked back and tried to recognise that way he had come. But the scant light revealed little and his fatigue robbed him of memory. The villager he had been so intent on where he was going next, how to overcome whatever obstacle was in front of him, that he had immediately forgotten what had just gone. “Well,” he thought. “Now that I have no one, that’s not a bad way to live the life I have.”
So, he turned away from what had come before and set his sights ahead. His eyes set upon an upwards thrust of land, that rose gently over a great distance to a high point. That was where he would head next. From there the villager would be able to see for miles and find the next step on his journey. Despite his body’s tired protestations, he set off again. He found that the sun seemed to be rising in time with him. He looked to it as an adversary and found a renewed vigour to beat it to the top.
The villager tried as hard as he could but the star once again had the better of him, and he found himself chasing after it as he headed toward the summit. He crawled the last few feet as his body said no more, despite what he wanted. What he saw was incredible. The huge bowl in the land before him could not have been caused naturally. Some tremendous force of nature had scarred this planet. But the planet was recovering. It was still young, but a forest of strange plants and plant like life forms were beginning to take hold.
The land around the crater was barren by comparison with only a few, scraggly plants, it was comprised mostly of dead rock. The lush country the villager had been in with the horsemen was many miles away in the distance. The villager had found an oasis. The edge of the crater before him was sheer. But he could see further around, parts where it was gentler and he could make his way down there. He pulled himself on once more eventually making his way down the side. In his exhausted state, he found himself falling several times, though never severely.
Battered, bruised, and sore all over, the villager managed to make his way into the young forest. Everywhere he looked there, there was something new and different to see. He had to move carefully to avoid treading on some dangerous looking tufts of red spikes that grew around the trunk of a tree which grew in sprawling curves, that ended with long, flapping blue leaves. Every plant seemed to have a different colour, or pattern so that the eye found it difficult to focus on any one thing. It was like standing in a room full of people shouting nonsense.
After nearly an hour of being distracted from his lassitude by the peculiar surroundings he found himself in, the villager finally succumbed to sleep. He had been travelling for nearly a day without rest at this point. In a spot shaded by trees which had leaves so broad they created a roof that blocked all light from the cursed star out, the villager laid down and slept. It was a dreamless sleep, mind and body both having reached their limits. Hours and hours went by uninterrupted for the villager and he awoke in the same spot with nothing having changed.
Except that he was now reinvigorated. Yes, he was still alone, on a strange world. But he could do nothing about that, the crystal people had told him as much. If he had been able to do something to change that, he would have. As he could not the only thing to do was to make the most of this life he now had. He had decided, he did not know when, perhaps when he left, that he wouldn’t be going back to the horsemen. The villager was alone, and he would live this life, with all its challenges, alone.
The first of these challenges would be to find something to eat. He had woken equal parts impassioned and famished. The horsemen and the cave dwellers had both shared various edible plants with him and he looked for those that he could remember by sight. He had also seen how the crystal people sated themselves but he was in no position to hunt a giant slug. Perhaps though, if he found a smaller creature he could also get a taste of meat. He found some edible plants he recognised and others which he tested on his body with mixed results.
After three days when it seemed that everything he had ever consumed made its return, the villager felt terrible, but at least knew better what he could and could not eat. He had also, during his hunt for food, discovered a source of water. Near the centre of the forest a spring bubbled forth making the surrounding area boggy. Where it first came fresh to the surface he was able to drink it. The water had a metallic tang to it, but was otherwise perfectly drinkable. With his strength returning after his sickness, the villager set about constructing a shelter.
He had been content at night sleeping under the canopy of leaves. But he realised the agreeableness of the current climate might not last and so something more substantial was required. The forest provided no shortage of available and useful materials. With different parts and types of the plants he found it easy to make a simple but effective shelter. He had been so distracted those days with his work that he had not thought for one second about his loneliness and when he finally had a chance to he realised he no longer cared as he was so busy.
The villager remained busy too as the years tumbled away. The forest grew around him as he grew with it. The forest grew up the sides of the crater, filling the bowl with life, and spilt over the sides. The villager learned more and more about the forest. He learned which foods he could eat and which could be prepared to make them safe. He found animals, some he learned to stay away from, some were also food, others could be used for different purposes. He befriended a group of small mammal like creatures with six eyes, and loud squawks.
These became his lookouts. They saw everything around and their hollering warned of any coming danger, even dust storms. These, the villager learned, were one of the biggest dangers. Once a year they rolled in almost daily, tearing through leaf and limb. The forest did not mind them; rains always followed this time, causing new growth. The villager was nearly blinded in his first one and positively flayed from head to toe. He learned to build shelter that could withstand the storms and built them all over the forest. The six eyes went with him everywhere, always alert to anything.
It was they who alerted him the day the horsemen finally found him. When the six eyes quietened and he heard the distant rumble of hoofs he knew it instantly. With learned precision and speed, he made his way to the lip of the crater where the forest was creeping over. They had stopped a short way from him and were gazing on the forest. The younger ones were frightened by his appearance. The older ones were surprised but calmed by recognition. “Thank the plains we found you,” one called to him. “The crystal people are taking us back home.”
They had searched for him, they said. Far and wide but they had seen no trace. Eventually they had to give up. He told them he did not mind. Then the crystal people had come to them a few days ago. They believed they were able to once again control the elements as they had before, they had built a connection. The ones born on the planet were stronger, the old ones could only manage simple tasks. But they believed the new generation could take them back. So, they had mounted one final search to find their old, lost, friend.
The villager was surprised how simple a decision it was to go with them. He did not know how many years it had been but he had built a life in the forest. The other villager’s faces were faded in his memory. Yet he went without a second thought. He knew he had to. The horsemen took him to the crystal people’s new home. Already crystal structures were abundant. Not as grand as their originals but it was promising to see. The crystal people were all there, as were the horsemen and people who must have been from other groups.
It seemed he must have been the last one they were waiting on as once they arrived the crystal people began. About twenty of them, all young, made their way to the centre of the assembled group and put their gauntleted hands to the ground. For a while there was nothing before a light appeared in the middle of them. The light grew and presently there was something in the light. It grew even more and very clearly could be seen the plains, and from another angle they could see the crystal city. But this lasted only a few seconds.
The opening collapsed, and the light flickered out. The crowd gasped, not only because their hope of returning home had once again been taken away from them. The young crystal people were in complete disarray. Many of them were screaming and pounding at their heads as blood poured out of their noses, some were writhing around, wracked by seizures. One was clearly dead. That made it clear. The crystal people had tried their very best to make a way for them to go back. But they simply couldn’t. For whatever reason, they were not able to take them back home.
In the ensuing depression that crushed all those who had hoped that they might finally be able to go back home, the villager slipped away. He had not held much hope that they would get back, but had still felt compelled to see what happened. Now he returned to the life he had made for himself. As he made the long walk back to his forest his old bones creaked and groaned. The villager now realised just how long ago it was that he had made that first journey to the crater. The night was old when he finally returned.
On the edge of the forest, the man was waiting. He had not aged a day. He was still tall, dark, and grim. “I see the journey has taken you far,” he growled. The villager limped over to him, unperturbed. He even smiled at the man, almost greeting him as an old friend. “The journey has not been what I thought it would,” he chimed. That was certainly true. “Shall we sit a while,” the man asked.
“No. Let’s do whatever it is you came here to do,” the villager replied. The world around them began to shimmer through time.
The villager was eager. Ever onwards had always been the road of the man and those who followed him. The villager had been still for too long. Not for the first time the villager saw the present time he had been living in fade away. They were racing through time. The forest grew larger. It seemed as if his vision grew larger and the villager saw the forest still, but also saw the valley with of the horsemen, and the crystal people by their river. He saw their societies come to terms with their condition and grow and prosper again.
The villager’s vision widened again. He saw that the interlopers on this planet were not alone. Life had been here long before the red crystal brought it to this planet. He saw there were societies already grown here, far from where they were now. But they were moving. They too were about to go on a great journey. Propelled by some force they came to this corner of the world and found the horsemen and the crystal people. The villager saw himself greeting one of the natives of this world. He realised these natives looked strangely familiar. Time went on.
The groups co-existed and mingled and formed a new hybrid society. Time moved faster now and the villager saw that the groups were becoming less and less distinct. The natives and the horsemen and crystal people were breeding together. Of course, there were far more of the natives and so they and their features were dominant. But the impact of the interlopers was there and as they built a more advanced society the people from a far distant planet were a part of it. Now the villager was sure he did recognise the natives but he continued watching what happened.
They moved around the planet and the man and the villager saw as their civilisation spread across the planet. Cities sprang up and all the while the villager thought how it was his offspring, his descendants that were doing this. Millions of years went by in a flash and the man moved himself and the villager again. This time they found themselves at the foot of some mountains, looking out over at another range of mountains some miles away. The space in between was filled with millions and millions of the natives of this world. His descendants, at their pinnacle.
As he expected, a little way in front of he and the man were stood another group. The villager looked at the back of his and the man’s heads and those of his fellow villagers. He felt a pang of longing to tell them what would happen, to change the years that existed between himself and them, to just say hello. But he could not. The villager and the man watched once more as the people of this world attained a new form of life, and the valley emptied in a flash of light. “Did you know we were here?”
“No,” replied the man. “I never know what will come next, only where I need to be next.” They watched as their past selves walked towards the nearly hidden city and the villager turned to the man. “Where next then?” he asked.
“Back,” replied the man. With that time began running backwards. They watched this world return to how it had been and the villager found himself standing outside his forest once more. He looked to the man and said “I won’t see you again will I?”
“The journey is ever onwards. Who knows where it will lead? History awaits.”
With that the man turned and disappeared, leaving the villager alone. He looked to his forest which he had seen grow vast, and had spent a great portion of his life in, and turned away from it. He now knew that there was not where he was needed. The villager made the journey he had made all those years before, but this time in reverse. He knew that this journey he made now would echo down the ages. Despite his age, he did not feel fatigued at all while making it. Purpose fuelled him. It was his crutch and guide.
He arrived back at the home of the horsemen just as they were returning from that of the crystal people’s. There was a strange atmosphere over them, a mingling of disappointment, despair, and dreaded certainty. They were barely concerned when they saw the arrival of their old friend. They believed he felt as they did. But they were not the only ones arriving in the valley. From the opposite end of the valley a band of people, not creatures, were coming. Though they were alien they were clearly intelligent, and not completely unfamiliar. They approached the horsemen with some uncertainty.
Pre-empting any hostility, the villager strode purposefully to meet the people whose planet they had been brought to. It was difficult not to think of the future the man had shown him as he looked upon them. He noticed that he and the horsemen stood taller than them. Their descendants were far taller. Perhaps that was a contribution they would make to them. The villager offered one of the natives at the front some food he was carrying. The native accepted it and handed him a small carving that crudely resembled one of them. Horsemen and natives began to meet.
So began a new journey, a new beginning for a burgeoning civilisation that would be driven to discover and understand all they could. They would observe, discover, and create wonders no other people could imagine, and eventually they would transcend all known limits of life and become something that defies comprehension. But here, at the beginning, the wonder created by them was the simple compassion and friendship one shows another, for no other reason than because it was right and decent. The journey would ever continue and none could say where it would go, only that it would go on.