Slate stayed two more nights with Arianna in Aurora Falls, at an inn where they had all expenses covered. Num stopped by the inn twice, to tell the pair how the Protectorate meetings were going and how frustrated he was by the proceedings. The way he told it, the Protectorate’s discussion over the books had broken down into squabbling, or, in Num’s exact words, nothing of substance at all. Still, it was quite a shock when, early on the third day, Num came frantically pounding on the inn door.
“Hello… Num?” Slate groaned as he answered.
“Slate,” Num gasped, his eyes wide, “Let me in, quickly!”
“Who is it?” called Arianna from her comfortable position under the covers.
“Quickly!” Num insisted. “They’ll find out soon if they haven’t already!”
Slate lifted the door latch to let Num in. The old man pushed past him and slammed the door shut. He was shaking and sweaty, and carrying a large, green sack over his shoulder. His bony knees were buckling under its weight.
“Num, what’s going on? What have you got there?” asked Slate.
“Hello, Num,” said Arianna, drawing herself upright with a yawn and a stretch.
“Arianna, hello. Slate! Listen, we have to get out of here, quickly! Or, rather, the two of you have to get out of here, with these,” Num said, heaving his green sack into Slate’s unready arms.
“Whoa!” Slate exclaimed, staggering backwards under the weight. “What’s in here, bricks?”
“The Books! The Protectorate can’t be trusted with them,” raved Num, as he darted across the room to lift the corner of a curtain for a peek at the courtyard below.
“The Books?” Arianna repeated, looking to Slate for an explanation.
“The Books?” Slate gasped, realizing what Num meant. He threw a cupped hand over his mouth. “What, all of them?” he asked more quietly. “How did you get them, did you steal them?
“No, I did not steal them,” Num said. “I reclaimed them! There are holes in the fabric of the Protectorate… I fear we have been infiltrated, Slate! By Opal Pools itself. It is the end of a four-hundred-year secret. The group can no longer by trusted. Now, the Book of Knowledge and its destiny is yours. The next chapter begins with you!”
Slate was stunned. “What on Alm am I supposed to do with them?” he asked.
Just then, a clamor of voices could be heard shouting outside.
“They’re coming!” whispered Num. “I don’t know how they found me here, but they did! Run, Slate, Arianna, please, run! You must protect the Books now, whatever happens!”
“But where, how?” Slate wondered in exasperation.
“That I cannot tell you. Just far from here!” Num insisted, his eyes wide with worry.
“But what will happen to you?” Slate asked.
“It doesn’t matter! Guh, Num, I’m not important. I never was. It is the knowledge that matters! Please, I will distract them, please,” he wheezed, as if with his last breath. “Run, now!”
Slate and Arianna exchanged looks of disbelief for a brief second, before Num threw his frail body between them.
“Run!” the old man commanded, shoving Slate with as much force as he had left in his withered frame.
At the insistence of the old man’s watery eyes, Slate tied his boots on hurriedly and slung the heavy green sack over his shoulder. Pilotte had already taken the lead, hopping out a rear window. After quick packing and a wordless goodbye, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte fled the inn and Aurora Falls.
“What is your mother going to say about this?” Slate asked as they raced through the streets.
“I don’t know that we should tell her!” Arianna answered.
“Where do we go?”
“Let’s head south-east. That’ll take us to Opal Pools.”
The two headed toward the mountain range that rose up between the city and the ocean. Arianna carried both her and Slate’s packs, which together were almost as heavy as the green sack of books on Slate’s shoulders, as they powered their way up the foothills.
“You finding us a good escape route, Pilotte?” Slate asked.
The wulf looked back confidently and forged ahead.
Slate and Arianna’s excitement and energy had begun to wane by the time they came to rest at the top of a waterfall. They discovered the hidden mouth of a cave just behind the waterfall, and slipped into the cave to catch their breath.
“Well that was unexpected. What are we supposed to do now?” Slate asked, as he sat down on a flat rock to catch his breath.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Arianna answered.
“I can’t say that I did it either,” said Slate.
They both stared at the bulky, green bag on the cave floor.
“What are we going do with them?” Arianna asked.
“I don’t have a clue. I thought I was through with the whole ordeal,” Slate grumbled.
“Should we try to take them back home, to Aelioanei?”
“Maybe. Or maybe we should just bury them, or burn them. It sounds like they cause nothing but trouble.”
“No, my mother would be pretty ashamed of me if I did that.”
“Then what are we to do?”
Arianna thought for a moment. “I think taking them home is a good idea. But I would still like to see Opal Pools,” she said. “I don’t see why this should change our plans. When will we be on Proterse again? No one will know we have them.”
“What about your business with the Protectorate?” Slate asked.
“I’m sure they’ll be far too busy with the missing Books to notice I’ve gone.”
“Hmmm. The Books are heavy. They’re only going to make the trip to Opal Pools more dangerous. We could probably just leave them here, in this cave. I’m sure they’d still be here when we came back.”
“Really? You think we should do that?” Arianna asked.
“No,” Slate sighed. “Not really. We’ll bring them along. But you’re carrying. Just kidding.”
“Hey, I will, if you’ll carry our sacks,” Arianna said. “I don’t think we’re far enough out of town yet to be languishing too long. I say we keep going up the mountain.”
“Right. Let’s move,” Slate concurred.
Faithful Pilotte found the best route, as always, using his mix of intuition and keen nosing. A few hours of exhausting hiking up the mountain later, the wulf located another cave, one much deeper than the first, with several chambers and some evidence of occupation. A small prayer book sat beside a copy of the Way of Things, a famous book of philosophy, in what looked like had once been a hermit’s retreat. As it seemed to have not been disturbed for quite some time, the friends decided it was a safe place to pass the night.
Heavy rains arrived after sunset, growing the waterfalls falling down the Lentini Mountains and creating a curtain that sealed off the cave entrance. Safe and secure in the cave’s confines, Slate and Arianna kept close to Pilotte to stay warm through the chilly night.
“So, have you ever tried reading one of them?” asked Arianna the next morning, as she tried her best to fit Slate’s gear into her bag without having to discard too much of her own.
“No,” Slate said. “They are all written in a dead language. Language of the Gods. It doesn’t make any sense. But the pictures are sure interesting.”
“They don’t seem to have anything to do with one another,” Arianna said, thumbing through one of the books she had taken out earlier to examine.
“But we have a translation key now,” Slate said, holding up the small leathern booklet included with the Books.
“Well, that changes things, doesn’t it?”
“Should we try and translate part of one of them?”
“Maybe,” Arianna said. “Later. Not now, though. Not until we’re far away from Aurora Falls.”
“Good idea,” agreed Slate.
Once the volume of the waterfall outside the cave had diminished a bit, chirping, dripping, and other fresh sounds of morning came floating through the cave entrance. While Arianna went through her things for a fifth time, reconsidering which of her items were truly essential, Slate started to flip through the maps Num had stolen along with the Books. He studied one of them for a while, and then started to look about the cave.
“What is it?” Arianna asked. “What are you looking for?”
“You know… I think this is a map of the cave we are in,” Slate answered.
“A cave is a cave, isn’t it? How can you tell one from another?”
“Look, here... The horseshoe falls we climbed up, and these are the four back chambers, over there, and here’s the early Protersian symbol for hermit- it’s the same cave!”
Arianna came over to join Slate in examining the map. “Huh. I think you’re right,” she said. “What else does it say?”
Following Slate’s finger across the map, the two found the Protectorate’s meeting chambers clearly marked. Slate began to say as much, but Arianna nodded that she already understood. The far-right corner of the map, representing the mountains to the north of the city, showed another, much larger chamber, a huge space that was apparently connected by underground passageway to the ocean. Slate read the writing on the map, which was in modern Protersian, aloud.
“The Great Mother Mountain, from which New Alm was born.”
There were symbols other than the one for ‘hermit’ on the map: across from the Protectorate meeting space was printed the symbol for ‘Book,’ and across the empty space to the north, the phrase ‘The Navel of the World.’
“What do you think that means? Navel of the world?” Arianna asked.
“Can’t say I have any idea. We have only one way of finding out,” Slate said. “Care to take a detour on the way to Opal Pools?”
“Look at that. Adventure just follows you around, doesn’t it, Slate?” Arianna asked.
“If you want to call it adventure.”
“You know, if there is a map with this cave on it, the Protectorate might know about it still. They could come searching any minute. Let’s leave while we can.”
The trio left the hermit’s cave following a trail marked on another of their maps, up most of the rest of the mountainside and then into a flat, narrow valley. The valley cut through the high peaks of the Lentini Mountains and looked like it never got much sun, which made for a cold, damp trip. After trekking along the valley floor for a while, the travelers began to descend the other side of the mountain to the ocean below. They came to a point where the trail suddenly ended, dissolving into scree and boulders in the aftermath of an avalanche. Stopping at the broken edge of the path, Slate watched the dust and stones kicked from his shoes fall down the sheer cliff below.
“We made it all the way across Proterse,” Slate said. “How about that?”
“Seems like a dead end,” Arianna said.
“Seems like it. According to the map, we’re supposed to continue on down that path,” Slate said, pointing at the mess of rock before him.
“To where?” Arianna asked.
“To there,” Slate answered, now pointing to a distant beach.
“Well, then, continue down the path we shall,” Arianna said. She surprised Slate by twisting, squatting down on all fours, and beginning a slow crawl across where the trail had once been.
“What’re you doing?” Slate asked.
“Crawling,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“I guess this is actually going to happen,” Slate sighed. He crouched down hesitantly on the end of the trail to start his own descent.
Pilotte was as surprised as Slate that they were going to attempt the perilous crawl. The snarlingwulf circled himself many times, whining and hesitating, before relenting and following after the others.
The day grew hot, with the rising sun at the team’s backs as they worked their way down the mountain at an excruciatingly slow pace, over piles of stones, down through patches of weeds, and then at last to a cliff edge hanging some ten feet above sea level. The soft sand below invited them to jump down, which they did, to fall exhausted at the edge of the foaming ocean. They weren’t there for more than a minute before Arianna noticed something was wrong.
“The tide is moving in pretty quickly, isn’t it?” she asked.
Slate sat up to examine. “It certainly seems to be…”
“Look at the rock,” Arianna said, pointing to the sea wall behind them.
Slate looked back at the wall and then to Arianna, not understanding what she was trying to show him.
“Look at the high-water mark,” she said, pointing frantically toward the waterline, which must have been eight feet above where they stood on the beach. “It’s Searching Season…”
Slate began to panic as the water inched toward them. “But we can’t go back up, there’s no way! What are we going to do?” he yelped.
“How should I know?” Arianna asked.
Slate decided the best option would be to run, as fast as they could. Arianna raced after him, with Pilotte close at her side, as the water continued to lap farther up the beach with every push and pull of the waves. The encroaching tide pressed Slate and Arianna closer and closer to the cliff face, while the goopy, wet sand made their running all the more difficult.
A rogue wave leapt out of the water and grabbed Arianna around the ankles, dragging her out to sea. As she went out with the receding curl, she hit against a stone that was jutting from the ocean floor. It caught her stomach, and she was able to wrap her arms around it and hold tightly until the wave passed. She dropped from the seastone and swam and slogged as swiftly as she could through the undercurrent back toward the seawall, where Slate was waiting with an outstretched hand. The water now rose at least two feet up the yellow stone of the sea cliff, so high that Slate and Arianna had to use all of their strength to move through its pull. Most of this was expended in simply staying upright, and so hardly any headway was made down the beach.
Slate swam his hardest when he could no longer walk, but his muscles couldn’t match the unrelenting power of the undertow, and so he began to slow his straining, to try to conserve his energy. He heard Arianna coughing and sputtering, but was completely powerless to help her. After drifting a fair distance out into the ocean, where the water churned less as it got deeper, Slate could see Pilotte dragging Arianna from the surf onto a high beach. He coughed as he watched her get to her feet, and mistakenly inhaled a deep breath of ocean swell. His vision became a wash of bubbles as his lungs took in water. He kicked and strained, unable to expunge the water from his lungs as he watched the trail of bubbles rising up to the surface, and then fell unconscious.
When he awoke, he was lying next to Arianna on fine, white sand. Pilotte sat nearby, facing the now-calm ocean with a smile.
“I couldn’t…” Slate began.
“Shhh, just rest,” whispered Arianna putting her hand on his sweaty forehead. She held out a cup of glint.
“Thank you. This is hot. How did you get this hot?” Slate asked, as he took a steamy sip. “And where did you get a cup?”
“I told you, I pack with a purpose,” Arianna said. “It looks like the tide will be in all day, so we can’t go anywhere. We’re stuck on this beach.”
“How do you know that?” asked Slate.
“One of the maps tells me so. Look, at the calendar,” Arianna said, pointing to a chart at the bottom of the map. “Because it’s Searching Season, the tide differential is just enormous right now. The only time that we can get to that Navel of the World is going to be either early morning or late afternoon. See, we’ll have to swim to this entrance, here. It’s only accessible when the water is at the right level. If we’re too early, we can’t get in because it’s too high up the sea cliff; too late, we can’t get in because it’s too far underwater. We have about a five-minute window in which to make it.”
Slate was impressed with the information Arianna was able to discern from the tiny map. “You’re a pretty good interpreter, Arianna,” he said. He looked around the sparse beach. “So, you said that we can’t do anything right now?”
“No, not for a few hours still.”
“Okay, good,” Slate said. “I’m exhausted. What are we going to do while we wait?”
“We can talk.”
“How about your father?”
“What about him?”
“Tell me what he was like.”
“Oh. Well, he was tall. And funny. And he could be strict, but I think it’s because he had hard-fixed ideas about the way the world should be. He mainly wanted the best for everyone. Why do you ask?”
“You must be thinking about him.”
“Oh, I am. I have been. But there are a lot of other things on my mind right now, too. And, the way we were raised, in Alleste, we understand death is a part of life. We don’t really get too hung up on it.”
“I’m still sorry he’s gone.”
“Oh, of course. Me too. I wish I could have said goodbye. He always taught us it was important to remember we would all die. So I know he was always ready for it. And I was, too. But I still would have liked the chance to say goodbye.”
“I had to say goodbye to my dad every day for months,” Arianna said. “I don’t think either situation is ideal.”
“I don’t think there could be an ideal situation when you’re losing a loved one.”
“No, I don’t suppose there could be.”
A seabird attracted the attention of Pilotte, who followed it down the sand.
“Pilotte is just the best, isn’t he?” Arianna asked, changing the subject. “He saved me from the tide.”
“He is incredible. I’m pretty lucky to have the two of you with me,” said Slate.
“Likewise,” said Arianna. “More tea?”
“Yes, please,” said Slate.
Under the warmth of the sun, the two watched Pilotte chase birds and talked about anything and everything. While the rest of the world may have been growing more dangerous by the day, for the trio on that little beach that afternoon, Alm was still a paradise.