Following directions from the innkeepers, Slate and Pilotte reached Chreopoint three hours after leaving Marsh Hallows. They made their way to the port on the Halo River, where they found one of the many readily available transports heading north to Aurora Falls. Slate paid the fare, bought food for himself and Pilotte at one of the markets along the waterfront, boarded, and was well north of Chreopoint by mid-afternoon.
Slate lost count of how many cities the riverboat passed while he sat on the deck. Some were large, most were small, but all had their own character, and a thousand stories for Slate to read to pass the time.
Just before reaching Aurora Falls, four days after leaving Chreopoint, the riverboat reached the famous Vascian Canal. It took twenty thousand laborers working all year long to maintain the canal, which ran the last thirty-eight lengths of the Halo River to Aurora Falls. The Halo’s natural course was to flow into the underground aquifers underneath Aurora Falls and then out into the ocean, but the canal had rerouted it, bringing it above ground and level with the Ojikef Delta. The city of Aurora Falls had grown up around the canal and was still growing, the hundreds of passing ships bringing new people and ideas to the burgeoning place daily.
After waiting for a shipping vessel to pass through the canal, Slate’s riverboat was given clearance to enter, and it came into port at Aurora Falls not soon after. Slate and Pilotte disembarked, and Slate asked for directions from a brestle stand. He was pointed downtown.
The waterfalls from which the city got its name poured down from the heights of the surrounding Lentini Mountains, painting hundreds of little rainbows through the air. Spanning the deep gorges carved by the waterfalls were hundreds of bridges, which coursed Slate and Pilotte into the heart of the city where all roads converged like spokes of a wheel.
Slate bought some unidentifiable but flavorful meats on sticks from a cart, one for himself and three for Pilotte. After devouring the mystery meat, Slate learned from the vendor that the Green Cat, where Guh had told him to call, was just two blocks away.
Slate left Pilotte in a comfortable, shady resting spot beneath a brum tree, and opened the door to the Green Cat, spilling light into the dark space and eliciting annoyed groaning and grunting from the clientele. He apologized for stumbling over a number of chairs as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, and when he could see more clearly, found his way to the bar.
“Hello, I’m looking for a Kit Evory?” he asked the bartender.
“Who’re you?” the surly bartender asked without glancing up from his ledger.
“I’m Slate Ahn. I’m a friend of Guh Hsing, from Airyel…”
The bartender straightened up and cut Slate off. “No way! You really made it. Slate, it’s really good to meet you. Kit Evory. Welcome to town.” He lowered his voice and leaned in. “Just so you know, Guh Hsing goes by Num Ochre around these parts. Here, come on back.”
The bartender raised a hinged section of the counter for Slate to pass through, and then the two went through a beaded curtain separating the bar and a back room crammed with a bed and other furniture.
“Is this where you live?” asked Slate.
“Yes, sometimes,” Kit said. “Sleep here sometimes, anyways. But I live everywhere. You live everywhere you go, don’t you?”
“You certainly sound like Guh’s friend,” Slate said. “Or, Num, now, I guess.”
“Num Ochre, that’s right.”
“Why did he change his name?” asked Slate.
“No reason we should talk about here, in such loose company,” Kit said, glancing out through the curtain into the front of the bar. “Anyways, we’re glad you’re here. Very glad. We thought you were lost for good. Expected you weeks ago.”
“Yeah, sorry for the delay,” Slate said. “Some things came up. I’m just here to deliver something to Num, where is he?”
“I get it, I get it,” Kit said, as if playing along. “So where have you been? We all thought you’d be here sooner.”
“Oh, you know,” Slate said. “Pirates. Nions. Falling over waterfalls.”
“Oof. It wasn’t an easy trip, I get it. Sorry about that. But Num should be up on South Drought Place, at eight-seven-six.”
“Is that far from here?”
“No, not at all. Just follow the main western crux and it’ll be the fourteenth or fifteenth Street. Make a left there. Eight-seven-six South Drought Place.”
“Thank you, Kit,” Slate said. “Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve got to be going.”
“So soon? Come on, before you leave, couldn’t you just tell me a little bit about what you’ve brought us? Maybe, I don’t know, show me? Just a little? I can’t remember anticipation like this.”
“Anticipation? Of what?”
“I just told you, I don’t know. That’s why I wish you’d tell me!”
“Tell you what?”
“I don’t know,” Kit repeated.
“Well, this is going nowhere fast. You’ll have to forgive me, but my business is urgent,” Slate said.
“Fine, be like that. Still, good to see ya, champ. And tell Num I said he needs to settle his tab.”
“Okay, Kit. Thanks for your help.”
Slate left the Green Cat to a refrain of groans at the flood of light when he reopened the front door. He found Pilotte accosted by a group of excited children, who were pulling and jumping on the wulf. Pilotte was withstanding the assault with good humor, but seemed very grateful when Slate chased off the tiny horde. The two then headed off to South Drought Place, to find their old friend with a new name.
The building at eight-seven-six was an apartment complex. It was not entirely run-down, but had begun yielding to time; the ledges sagged and bowed, the concrete was cracking. There was a rusty postal box listing the tenants’ names next to the front entrance. Slate found Num on the list, apartment number thirty-one.
After trekking up two flights of stairs, the young man knocked on Num’s door. Pilotte’s excitement let Slate know that the wulf recognized a familiar smell, and soon the slatted blinds over the door’s window split open. Slate saw a pair of wide eyes peering out at him, and then the blinds snapped shut and the front door opened with a whoosh.
“Slate! You made it!” the familiar old face cheered.
“Believe it or not, Guh, I did,” Slate replied.
“Come in!” Num insisted. He pulled Slate by the arm inside the apartment and slammed the door shut. He had to open it again to let Pilotte in.
“Slate, you can’t call me that name around here,” Num said, checking back out the window to make sure no one was there. “Don’t ever mention my old name, please.”
“Okay, okay. I have your books. You have no idea what it took to get them here.”
“It must have been quite the ordeal! I was expecting you a week ago.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Pirates and jungles will hold you up. Anyways, you’re lucky the books made it. I lost them in the Ojikef. It was only Pilotte here who managed to get them back to me.”
“Wonderful work, Pilotte!” Num said, taking the heavy package from Slate. “I had feared they were lost. But you made it! They made it! This is possibly greatest thing that has ever happened! And now, you have to leave.”
Slate couldn’t believe it. “What? That’s it?”
“For now, yes,” Num whispered. He ran to the back window and peeked through the blinds.
“What are you looking for?” Slate asked.
“You’ll understand it all, tomorrow, when you come with me to attend the meeting of the Protectorate,” Num whispered.
“A Protectorate meeting?” Slate asked.
“Yes,” Num said, “Tomorrow. But you have to leave, right now. For the time being.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Of course. Where is the meeting?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Well there you have it,” Slate sighed to Pilotte. “You come halfway around the world and he can’t tell you.” He threw up his arms and started to leave.
“Slate, wait! I will take you there, when the time comes. I will summon you. But where will I summon you? Where will you go tonight? You don’t know the town.”
“I know the Green Cat. I could stay there. Your friend Kit seems pretty nice. Though, he says you need to pay your bar tab.”
“A good friend he is. Yes, you’ll be safe with him. Now, go! I’ll call on you tomorrow.”
“Alright?” Slate guessed, as Num pushed him and Pilotte back out of eight-seven-six number thirty-one. The door closed, and then reopened just a crack.
“And, Slate?” Num asked.
“It really is good to see you again!” the old man whispered with a cracked smile, before the door closed again.
“What do you think about that, Pilotte?” Slate asked as the two descended the stairs from the apartment building. “This world… I tell you.”
Num was present at the Green Cat at precisely noon the next day. He collected Slate and Pilotte, and then the three made their way to the secret location of the Protectorate’s meeting.
The three followed the northernmost streets of Aurora Falls to where the city climbed up into the Lentini Mountains. They hiked over two foothills and crossed three streams, where the chilly water came up to their ankles, then climbed over another hill before passing through a cave entrance that was completely obscured by pine trees.
The entryway to the cave was lit by candles. From it stretched a long, dark hallway, which ended in a wide chamber made bright by two ornate chandeliers. Another passage revealed itself, spanning off from the right of the wide chamber. The three followed this passage to its terminus in another, well-lit chamber.
“Now, you’ll have to leave Pilotte here,” said Num.
“Why? How much farther are we going?”
“Just into the next room.”
“What, is Pilotte going to tell people what he sees if he goes in there?” Slate asked.
“Don’t put it past a snarlingwulf. Now, please, come with me,” Num beckoned. “I promise, Pilotte will be right here the whole time.”
Slate whispered to Pilotte to listen for cries for help, and then followed Num into the next chamber. It was illuminated by mirrors, all positioned to reflect the light of a central mirror that was catching the rays of the sun passing through a fissure in the cave ceiling. The space was not only bright as day, but incredibly well decorated, with tapestries, fine wooden furniture, and sculptures all about the walls and floor.
“What is this place?” asked Slate.
“This is the Great Library of Aurora Falls, Slate,” Guh said reverently. “You are standing in one of the very oldest places on Alm. New Alm, anyways.”
“The oldest places on New Alm. Okay. So, it’s a library? Where are all the books?”
“Come, follow me,” Num enticed.
Slate followed into a final antechamber. Inside it, a few people were gathered in conversation. Slate thought his mind must have been tricking him in the darkness, because he could have sworn he saw someone familiar amongst them. Then the person seemed to notice him too, and as they moved closer, Slate couldn’t believe what he was seeing: it was Arianna Falls.
“Guh… Num…” Slate stuttered.
“You can call me Guh here, it is safe,” the old man said. “Now, go ahead! I’m sure you want to talk to your old friend!”
Slate was running to Arianna before Guh had finished talking.
The two met and Slate stared as if he were seeing a figment of his imagination.
“Go on, poke me. I’m real!” Arianna said.
“But… I can’t believe it!” Slate cried. “What are you doing here? How… Do you know Guh Hsing?”
“Well, it was only a matter of time before I was indoctrinated into the family business, anyways. I’m one of the Protectorate now.”
“Just within the past few weeks? How did that happen?”
“After you left, they came looking for the Book. I guess my mother knew they were coming, that’s why she sent it with you. They searched the house, top to bottom, turned it inside out.”
“Oh, Arianna, that’s terrible.”
“It’s okay now. But it’s a good thing you had it. After the searches, my mom told my brother and sister and I all about how our lineage has protected their volume for hundreds of years. About how it was all coming to a head, how the Books had to be reassembled. I volunteered to drop out of school and fulfill the family duties. My mom couldn’t leave work and the house to attend this meeting, so I sailed all the way across the ocean in her place. I only met Num yesterday, when I overheard him talking about you. I couldn’t believe it. And now you’re really here!”
“Well, I mean, I’m just now finishing the delivery your mother sent me on back when I left Aislin. Isn’t that funny?”
“Too funny. Tell me everything! What happened when you found your father?”
“Well, I didn’t. But I learned what happened to him. In Airyel. I learned that he died.”
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry, Slate.”
The young man nodded and gave his best smile. “Well, fathers can’t live forever, can they?”
“Slate, I’ve thought about you every day since you left,” Arianna said. “When I learned Num knew you, and that you would be coming here, it was like a dream. But now you’re really here! We’re really together again!”
“You don’t know how good it feels to see you,” Slate said. “After all I’ve been through since we parted, seeing you makes me feel like I’m home again.”
“Well then, welcome home, Slate!” Arianna said. She grabbed and squeezed him. “I hope you’ll stay longer this time.”
Slate told Arianna all the details of his journey after leaving Aislin, about the pirates, and Hatty, and all that had transpired in the jungle with his new friends. Arianna told Slate that Brit had joined the anti-fascist group the Green Shield. Mrs. Falls had doubled down on baking, trying to maintain a normal way of life despite the searches. Slate and Arianna talked for almost an hour, so happy to see each other that they didn’t notice the rest of the chamber had started to clear out. It wasn’t until Num startled them out of their reverie that they remembered where they were.
“I don’t want to interrupt, but I have to… interrupt,” Num said. “We are about to meet! Please, follow me.”
He started toward an ornately carved stone entryway across the chamber.
“Here we go. So what exactly do you do as a member of the Protectorate?” Slate asked Arianna, as they followed after Num.
“I’m not entirely sure yet, really,” Arianna admitted. “I made the trip here from South Airyel along with a woman, Kia something-or-other, from Magri, and another man who takes this whole thing really seriously and wouldn’t even tell me his name. Though we all had the one brief meeting here yesterday, I can’t say that I know why we were summoned. Even my mother didn’t know. But I’m pretty sure it has to do with the Books being brought back together.”
“Yes, I’m most interested to see this all explained myself,” Slate said, just before the two passed through the entryway into the secret meeting.
On the other side was the most ornate room in the underground complex. Around it, pillars carved from the stone vaulted up to a great dome, which was covered with fading murals of hooded figures holding books. The room was lit by dozens of small lanterns, which allowed Slate to discern a circular table in the middle of the space, hollow in its center. Encircling this table was a bench, upon which the mostly elderly crowd was seated, all leafing through papers and scrolls. When word got around that Slate had entered the room, applause went up in his honor. Slate blushed, and Arianna gave him a look that amounted to saying, “Well, aren’t you something?” before a woman in purple robes stood and began to speak.
“And this must be Slate Ahn, celebrated deliverer of the final volumes of the Book of Knowledge!” she proclaimed, inciting more applause. “Slate, it is an honor to have you here,” the woman in purple continued. “You have come so far, and done such a service to both the Protectorate and humanity. We will be forever grateful for your deeds. They will be recorded and celebrated for years to come!”
“Thank you,” Slate said awkwardly, unsure of how to receive his praise. He took a quick seat with Arianna on a bench sitting along the cave wall.
“Yes, greatest thanks to this incredible young man, Slate Ahn,” continued the robed woman, “Who has brought to us the last volumes all the way from their hiding places on Aelioanei. He has ensured the continuance of our lineage of protection!”
“In the name of AlriFal, thanks to Slate Ahn!” one of the old men cried out to the wall, as he was obviously blind.
After a third round of congratulations circled the table, attention turned away from the young man. Though to Slate it seemed a bit anticlimactic, a feeling of release and satisfaction washed over him when the room’s attention shifted fully to the woman in the purple robes.
“And now,” she said theatrically, “We begin: So it shall be written that in the year 392 AW, nearly four hundred years after humanity’s reemergence, a complete set of the Books of Knowledge was reassembled at the Library of Aurora Falls, under the jurisdiction of the fourteenth generation of the Protectorate.”
With these words, the woman pulled a dark green cloth off the table, revealing a complete, seven-book set of the Books of Knowledge underneath. The room gasped.
“Praise to the gods!” a woman clad in black called out. “My great-grandfather, Calumetz, if only he could have seen this!”
All of the eyes in the cave were fixed hungrily on the books. There was such a palpable feeling of lust for the inanimate objects on the table that Slate couldn’t help but think it was funny. Here were fully-grown people, many over-grown, sitting about in robes in a dark cave, ogling indecipherable, ancient books.
“Indeed, what would any of our parents’ generations say?” the purple-robed woman asked the congregation. “It was never to come to this. To war. But time erases all impossibilities and creates new necessity. As for the stark reality of things: We know that certain factions in the east, centered in Opal Pools, have already deciphered parts of the Book of Knowledge. The long wait is over. Our old ways have become insufficient.”
“Aye, aye!” chorused the members of the Protectorate.
“And believe me,” the woman in purple said, “It pains me to see a way of life that has served us since the Fall succumb to the desires of basest man. But such are the times in which we are living. Now, we must begin the task of redefining the Protectorate for our future.”
At this, she uncovered another, smaller stack of texts from under a black cloth. “I have not shared this with many of you before today, but it is certainly the biggest news I bring: My friends, not only have we been able to reconstitute this complete set of the Books of Knowledge, we have also obtained a key to their translation.”
The room fell silent.
Breaking the silence, one of the old men gasped, “But we are not to decipher them! That is the work of evil!”
“It is our only option,” the woman in purple explained. “Opal Pools has begun to manufacture untold weapons of mass destruction using the information in the Book. Weapons they could use to subjugate the rest of the world.”
“But the prophecies warn against reading the text!” another man cried. “A portal to the other world may open if we try, it may spell the end of Alm!”
“And none of us doubt the prophecy,” the woman in purple agreed. “But there is another prophecy, one of a greater sadness than the Fall, should the ambition in Opal Pools go unchallenged.”
Looking over to Arianna, Slate was relieved to find her face as full of disbelief as his own. Summoning all of his self-control to remain silent, the young man continued to listen to the talk about ancient prophecy wrapped in so many years and layers of formality and self-importance. Even if Opal Pools had cracked the code of the ancient books, Slate couldn’t discern from the conversation how or why this could or would inevitably lead to destruction. He listened hard for evidence amidst the ramblings of the elders, but heard little other than fear.
“I feel that we should translate the books! Regardless of prophecy!” said a woman draped in orange silk. “It was not in the prophecy that the Book should be assembled again, and here we are, so obviously the prophecy has changed. It is now imperative that we study the Book, to learn what Opal Pools may know. We must meet them head-on in the upcoming war for the minds of men.”
Arianna questioned the veracity of this claim to Slate with one raised eyebrow.
“No, it cannot be, it cannot be!” another woman said. “Our minds cannot comprehend the information; it is the knowledge of the Gods. We are not supposed to read, we are not supposed to know. It will drive us mad!”
“Then what is to be done?” asked the woman in orange, before all eyes turned back to the woman in purple.
“It was paramount that the Books should be reassembled here,” she said. “It was a hope beyond greatest hope, one I’m sure many of us believed to be an impossibility. Now that the impossible has happened, our plan must be decided. We must carefully choose our next move.”
“I say we burn them, burn them all right now, with the translation and the maps and everything else!” called a voice from the darkness.
“We cannot act so rashly,” the woman in purple said. “After so many centuries, the fate of these Books should not be decided in haste. We instead shall discuss what is to be done, for as long as we need to. Until we are all agreed on what the next course of action should be.”
The rest of the assembly gave lukewarm assent. Following a strange recitation in a language Slate had never heard before, the Books were again covered with green cloth, to the chanting of the phrase, “Re-ta-ta.” At the end of the chant, the woman in purple blew out the three black candles next to the shroud covering the Books, and the room fell into animated conversation.
Slate found no reason to join in the chatter, nor did Arianna. Num was so taken with discussion that he didn’t notice when the two slipped out of the labyrinthine cave structure, back out into the sunshine falling on the Lentini Mountains. Pilotte had already made his way out to the pine grove that hid the cave entrance, and Slate and Arianna found him there, chasing after a flutterby.
“Pilotte!” Arianna shrieked as the wulf covered her with kisses.
“He’s the real reason my delivery made it here,” Slate said.
“He’s a good Pilotte, isn’t he?” Arianna asked, scratching the happy animal across its chest.
“Could you even believe all that in there?”
“Hardly. What a bunch of old wizards!”
“What do you think about it all, what they were saying? About the Books, about Opal Pools?”
“It just seems so far removed from reality,” Arianna said. “But my mom tells me it’s all true. I guess it’s all real.”
“What’s this I keep hearing about a weapon of incredible destruction?” Slate asked.
“I really have no idea,” Arianna said. “But my brother Brit is convinced of it. He joined the Green Shield to do something about it.”
“But what’s the weapon for?” Slate asked. “Where’s the war? It just doesn’t make any sense. I can’t see how the Book would be relevant today. For example, imagine if you and I wrote down all the things we knew from all our books today, from all the books in your library back home, everything, if everybody did. The result would just be an encyclopedia. That’s all the Book of Knowledge is. And I’ve read a lot of encyclopedias. Even in the very newest ones, some of the information is outdated. How could a book hundreds of years old be any better?”
“I’m not sure, Slate,” Arianna said. “I think the Protectorate has been so wrapped up in their importance for so long that any and all sense has escaped their minds on the matter. It’s become like a doctrine; they don’t question it. Me, I was just born into it. At least the whole ordeal brought me to you.”
“Which I am extremely grateful for. But now I’m really interested in this place, Opal Pools,” Slate said. “What could possibly be happening there that could be such cause for alarm, anyways? I mean, what have you heard about it? Could it really be such a bad place?”
“I don’t know much about Opal Pools, really. For most of my life, it’s been a subject that people are uncomfortable talking about. You bring it up and you get sneered at. As if not mentioning them will make them go away.”
“What have they ever done?”
“Not much, really. They are isolationists, and have been for many years. I’ve only ever heard the fact that they are very technologically advanced used against them.”
“What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with technology? Why are the Protectorate and everyone else so fearful of them?” Slate wondered.
“I wish I knew. I’d like to make a trip to Opal Pools myself, to see the truth with my own eyes.”
Slate lit up. “Arianna, what are your plans after the meeting here is concluded?” he asked.
“I’m not really sure,” Arianna said. “I don’t know what my obligations will be. I want to go back to my mother eventually, of course, but other than that, I’m not sure. Why?”
“I’d like to go back to Aelioanei again as well,” Slate said. “But, you know, seeing as we’re so close to Opal Pools anyways…”
Arianna’s smile took over her face. “Slate, are you asking me on an adventure?”
“That depends. Would you be interested in going to Opal Pools?”
“Yes! Oh, Slate, yes! Absolutely!”
Slate was overjoyed at the prospect of setting out on a new quest with Arianna. “Great! And then we can go see my friends in Morai, before we go back home. I’m friends with a prince now, you know.”
“It’s true. You’re sure you want to go?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” Arianna answered. “Oh, we’re going to have so much fun! I’m not ready to say goodbye again, Slate Ahn, not for a long while.”
“Well good,” Slate said. “Because you don’t have to.”