By Kim McFarland
Part 2: Homecoming
Montork and Rasuto were sitting on the sundial below the portal when the Sky Sled angled into the sky. Wincing at the noise, she looked up. "That's clockwork?"
"On this world it's much more complex, but yes," he answered.
She looked after it. "Flying machines. Giants who don't use magic and can't rise above the ground. This world is as alien as you said it was."
"Or we're as alien to it," he replied with a hint of amusement.
"It's all relative," she agreed.
Orko and Dree Elle entered the garden, hand in hand. Montork and Rasuto floated up to meet them. He told them, "The portal will be open until dusk on Trolla. It'll be late morning now, so you have most of the day."
"Thank you. We won't cut it too fine," Dree Elle answered.
"Good idea. And good luck," he said to both of them. Orko still looked tense. Dree seemed not to notice, but, Montork thought, if he knew her she was simply not drawing attention to it. Hopefully it would turn out that Orko had gotten wound up for nothing. The two entered the portal and vanished without further ado.
Montork cast a spell on the portal to render it invisible to those outside the garden. Then he said to Rasuto, "It's time we started. I'll show you where D'Sparil died."
"Yes," she agreed, assuming her role as priestess and, with it, a formal tone. They both floated up, well above Eternos, then flew out toward the Sands of Time.
The trip, though long for those traveling through the Evergreen Forest on foot, was quick for the Trollans, who flew over the treetops. Montork looked around. The desert looked the same in every direction, and their battle had not taken place near any landmarks. He was looking into the flow of magic; the powerful spells D'Sparil had used would leave a residue, as if the land were haunted or cursed. But then, it was a haunting Rasuto was looking for, he thought.
She saw him looking about slowly, ears cocked forward. She scanned as well for a minute, then pointed. "Was it there?"
He looked in that direction, and saw the magical disturbance. Of course she would sense it before he did; as a Soulcatcher she was especially sensitive to such things. "I think so."
They flew over, and Montork confirmed that she had found the spot. It made him uneasy to return here. There was magic in killing, dangerous magic. Even though D'Sparil's death had not been murder - Montork had even tried to save D'Sparil's life, but D'Sparil's protective wards had blocked Montork's healing spells - it still worried him. Conscience pangs, he thought, and did not hope that they would fade. The more power you had, the more you needed an active conscience.
Rasuto landed on the warm sand. She reached into a magical sleeve pocket and pulled out a rod longer than she was tall, tipped with a filigree of metal and colored thread. From its bottom hung short, slender chains, also woven through with colored threads. She set that on the sand, then ran her thumb down a seam in the front of her robe. It opened, revealing another, lighter garment underneath. Its sleeves were narrower and ended at the elbows, to avoid tangling with her staff, and the iridescent, pastel skirt was shorter, revealing her feet. She removed her slipperlike foot coverings, uncovering what looked like tightly bandaged feet set into metal splints. Her toes were bare. Montork did not appear to notice; some things are seen but not looked at.
She wrapped her slippers in her tunic and made a small bundle, which she stored in her sleeve. Then she told him, "To contact spirits I need to send out a very clear call. Any other magic source will confuse the signal."
He had expected that. "How far away should I move?"
She pointed. "About as far back as that rock should be fine."
"All right." He backed about a hundred yards away. He didn't need to observe her closely; right now he was only watching in case of interference from wandering animals or people. She could defend herself as easily as he could, but with him watching over her she could concentrate on her ritual.
She flattened the sand beneath herself with sweeps of her feet. The grains sifted between her bare toes and got under the cloth bindings. It was important that she touch the ground with her ground, skin to earth. She set the staff vertically in front of herself, its base on the ground, the clinking of the chains muted by the threads that ran through their links, and closed her eyes to attune herself to her surroundings.
Adam grounded the Sky Sled on the road leading out of Guratoni. The village had no wall to surround it, not even a ditch. It was a peaceful, safe place, not under any thread from outside. That wasn't surprising, considering that this valley was an isolated pocket of green in an otherwise barren region. Their nearest neighbors were at least a hundred miles away.
People looked at him curiously as he walked down the main path through the center of the village, but they didn't recognize him. He saw a mask in an odd place, above a building's front door, and once he noticed that, he realized that the mask - a simple image of a female face, without any distinguishing features - was everywhere. None of the people were wearing masks, though.
A man wearing colored garb similar to that of the delegation intercepted him. "Are you from Eternia?"
He replied, "Yeah. They said that you were having trouble with a spirit. I came to find out more about it. I'm Adam."
"Prince Adam?" the priest asked, surprised.
Worried, the priest bowed quickly. "I'm sorry, your highness. I did not recognize you at first."
"It's all right. Don't worry about it," Adam told him. "What's your name?"
He looked up. "Enbi, your highness."
"Okay. So, tell me about this spirit."
Enbi said, "Exvie is this village's patron. Perhaps 'spirit' is not the right word. She is a force of nature. She makes our crops grow without rain, guides game animals close so we do not go hungry, and so on. She provides for us. But now she has awakened and is demanding payment for her help. She wants someone to challenge her."
That almost matched what the delegation had told him. However, Adam had the feeling that this man was talking around something else. Why would he hold back information from someone who was here to help? "How often does this happen?"
The man looked at him sharply. Aha, Adam thought, I'm not supposed to know that it's happened before. "The last time was before anyone living in this village was born. She awakens very rarely."
They had walked into what looked like the remains of a celebration. Rock circles surrounded pits filled with ash and charred wood. Flowers and other items were laid at the bases of, or hung on, pillars around the edge of the area. And every pillar was topped by a mask with glowing eyes. Each one had a different expression - laughing gaiety, snarling fury, a tearful pout, and so on. The effect was spooky.
The man continued, "This is Exvie's plaza. Last night, during our worship, she awakened."
"And today you asked for help," Adam said. "If she's your patron spirit, why does she want someone to fight her?"
"Who can understand the ways of the gods?" the man answered piously.
Now she's a god? Or, Adam thought, she could be someone pretending to be Exvie in order to - well, what? It sounded like something Evil-Lyn would do, except she would not have demanded simply that someone fight her. She would not start a plot if there was no gain in it for her. "Do any of the people who fight her come back?" Adam asked.
Enbi said firmly, "Yes, one has, according to legend. A powerful warrior defeated her with a magic sword and returned to us."
"And the rest?"
"Exvie kept them to be her companions."
He said that with great assurance, but Adam wondered how they knew that. Did the sacrifices somehow write home, or did these people simply make up a pleasant story to explain why people sent to her were never seen again? Adam nodded to the building on the other side of the clearing. "Is that her temple?"
"Yes. But I cannot permit you to enter. It is where she is most powerful. It would be disastrous if she took an interest in the future King of Eternia. You are needed in this world, not in hers."
Oh well. "I understand. I'll send a champion to fight her. He will come later today."
"Thank you," said the man, nodding his head in what looked like an abbreviated bow. "We will be most grateful."
"Just hold tight," Adam said as he turned to go back to the Sky Sled. He walked back out of the village, watching by several dozen people and almost as many masks.
The problem was half solved, he thought. Send them a champion? He-Man would fit the bill! But something bothered him about Exvie. It sounded like there was more to him than those people had told him. Before he ran in, swinging the Sword of Power at a goddess, he wanted to have a clearer idea of what he was up against.
Orko and Dree Elle emerged in a temple. It had no seats, only lines and symbols painted on the floor. The top was open to the sky, with a faint shimmer showing that it had a magical shield to block out wind and rain. The door was a large, circular porthole set high above ground level.
They were home!
Two Trollans - two people - were in the room, minding the portal. One, a woman, said in a whispery voice, "Dree Elle and Orko? We were told you would be coming back through. If you return, please do so before dusk. The portal will not last beyond then."
"Thank you," Dree Elle answered in the same whispery tone. Orko realized belatedly that he was so used to the loud voices of the Eternians, whose hearing was nowhere near as sensitive as a Trollan's, normal Trollan voices sounded strange to him. He would have to remember to talk correctly.
They flew up and out the doorway. Outside the temple, Trollans flocked the area between buildings and other structures. Most people wore everyday clothing, but some dressed in special costumes - robes as brightly colored as tropical birds, formal garb that proclaimed one's position, or solid white to declare that one was a "ghost" and wished not to be noticed. A very few others took the opportunity to bend customs regarding revealing faces. Some wore masks covering only part of their faces, and a few had completely bare faces painted with elaborate designs to disguise their features.
This early in the day, not much was happening. People were watching the crowd, enjoying the displays, and those on display were enjoying the attention. Here and there people carried baskets of various things - fruits, other edibles, small trinkets - which they gave to anyone they passed. They did not sell anything; no commerce took place during the Summer festival. The air was textured with the soft sound of many voices.
Dree Elle laughed softly. "You look stunned. Is this very different from the festivals where you used to live?"
"No, not at all. It's just been so long... this is gonna sound weird, but I'm so used to Eternia, Trolla looks strange. People aren't all on one level - on the ground - and the buildings look different. And the sky's green, not blue. I'm getting used to it all over again."
She smiled. "Let me show you the fountain."
She took his hand and led him around the building to a shimmering pool with several interlinked structures in the center. Water flowed up and down smooth metal surfaces, glittering brightly in the sunlight. Long, dark, sinuous shapes swam beneath the water's surface. One flowed up to the surface, revealing a wide-mouthed, scaly face. It rose a foot into the air and shook its head, revealing an iridescent frill surrounding its face like a lion's mane. Dree held out her hand, and the amphibian nuzzled it, its blunt-toothed mouth opening and closing against her palm, searching for edibles.
Orko grinned as he watched the serpent perform for Dree Elle, baring its colorful fins and frills for her, hoping to earn a treat. They were common in public fountains, and were always tame and well-fed.
"Father mage?" an oddly-accented, feminine voice asked.
Father mage? Orko turned, not sure he was the one being addressed.
He was. A white-clad woman with pale blue skin and dark grey eyes was floating behind him. She pressed her hands together and, bending her head forward, bowed slightly from the waist. Then she asked, "Father mage, may I ask a boon?"
He was dressed in his usual wizard's robe, he realized, and doing so during the festival declared a willingness to fill requests. He hadn't remembered that. But, he thought, after being treated like a court fool for so many years it would be a pleasant change of pace. "No problem. What do you want?"
She floated closer and, her eyes still lowered, said in a soft voice, "I would like to have a child. Would you enable me?"
Startled, Orko answered, "Uh, well - okay. I mean, I can help you with a spell. The rest is up to you." Oh, sheesh, that sounded awkward!
She looked up again. "Thank you."
Normally a mage would have a place to work spells that required privacy - but he could cast that spell quickly and inconspicuously. It didn't even require gestures. It did require touch, however. After a quick glance at Dree Elle, he took the other woman's hand and whispered some quick words. To strengthen the spell he visualized what was to happen. That wasn't part of the spell itself, but it always seemed to help. Then, when he finished, he told her, "That will last a day. If you, um, use it before then, it'll work."
She folded her hands in front of herself and bowed again. "Thank you, father mage."
Not knowing what else to do, he bowed the same way. "You're welcome."
Her eyes widened, then she smiled in amusement. She thanked him again and flew away.
Dree Elle laughed softly and said, "Men don't bow that way where she comes from."
He turned quickly to her. "They don't? Where's she from?"
"From her accent, Lo Sanglis or somewhere near there. She came a long way for that spell."
Orko gave her a look. "How do you know that?"
"Because I'm a woman." More seriously she said, "She was wearing don't-notice-me white, and she didn't know the usual way of addressing a sorcerer here. She must have needed to go to a place far from home, probably to avoid gossip. Otherwise she could have asked any sorcerer for help. That was a reversed version of a preventive spell, wasn't it?"
He might have known she would recognize that. She was no mage, but she had a firm grasp of practical magic. "Yes, sort of. That's what it's based on, but there's a lot more to it."
And now he was embarrassed, as if it was shameful to know a fertility spell! She looped her arm through his and patted his hand. "Come on, 'father mage,' There's more to see."