The city streets away from the square were virtually empty. Newspaper and debris blew around in eerie silence as Slate and Arianna followed the stranger down the gaping canyons of concrete all awash with magic light.
They reached a neighborhood where the buildings showed more signs of age. Here the concrete was cracked, lampposts were out of order, and the flowerbeds were empty or full of litter.
“Ah, crap,” the stranger said, feeling at his breast pocket. “We’ll have to take the fire escape.” He turned into an alley. “Here, it’s just back here.”
Slate gave Arianna a look that said, ‘Well, we’ve already come this far,’ and followed afterwards.
The stranger knocked the ladder down from the fire escape with a discarded broom handle. It let out a rusty groan as it slid to the ground.
“I’m on four,” the stranger said as he started to climb. “In case I lose you.”
“You first,” Arianna whispered to Slate as the two watched the strange man scuttle up the old ladder.
Upon reaching the fourth floor, the stranger jumped off the ladder onto a metal grate outside his window, which trembled and shook. He rolled through a partially open window, and Slate swallowed and followed after.
He found himself in a warmly painted room strewn with books, take-out containers, and stacks of used bowls and cups. Tattered maps and newspaper clippings covered the walls. A single string of tiny, rainbow-colored lights dangling from the ceiling lit the cluttered space.
“I’m sorry for the mess,” apologized the stranger. “I don’t see a lot of guests.”
As Arianna climbed through the window, she tripped over a stack of dirty cups, sending it spilling and shattering across the floor.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” she said as she scrambled to pick up the broken pieces.
“No worries, no worries,” said the stranger. “You can leave it. My fault. Just leave it. Are you two thirsty?”
“Yes,” said Slate. “I could use something to drink.”
“And you? Miss? Thirsty?”
“Maybe... Listen, I’m really sorry about your dishes,” said Arianna.
“Really, that’s okay. They were dirty anyway,” the man said as he headed into another room.
“Was that a joke?” Arianna asked Slate.
“I think so,” Slate answered.
Arianna shuddered as she looked around at the disorganization.
“What were we thinking, following him here?” she asked. “Up a fire ladder. Forgot his key. Is it even his place? I don’t want to drink anything he gives me.”
“It seems kind of strange, that’s for sure. Meeting him randomly in the crowd and coming here. But we’re in Opal Pools to find out what is going on,” said Slate. He motioned to all the maps and books and added, “And something tells me this guy knows more than most.”
The host reappeared with a tray of citrus drinks and set them on the table in front of the worn couch.
“Where are my manners?” he said. “I never introduced myself. My name is Maydal Crebbs.”
“Maydal, my name is Slate, and this is Arianna.”
“Nice to meet you. Properly,” Maydal said after finishing his drink in one long gulp. “Go ahead, have a drink.”
Slate and Arianna stared at the glasses.
“You’re cautious. That’s smart. Here,” Maydal said, taking a sip out of each cup. “You see? They’re safe.”
Arianna laughed nervously. “Alright. I feel better now.” She took one of the glasses, and handed another to Slate.
“So, why did you bring us here?” Slate asked.
“You can’t talk truth in the streets of Opal Pools,” Maydal said. “Especially not that crowd out there tonight. Those people really don’t want to hear it.”
“Why not? What is the truth?” Slate asked.
“Well, kids, let me tell you the story,” Maydal said, sinking back into the comfort of his old chair. “Originally, see, way back in the beginning, the eastern coast of Proterse was a much different place. Opal Pools was Alm’s first major settlement, after humanity crawled out of the caves up in Aurora Falls. Our founders lived through the Fall. All the dreams and plans that humanity made while they waited out the catastrophe came here with those people. And so they were idealistic. They eschewed conquest and exploitation. They tried to have as little impact on the environment as possible, and so didn’t build any dams or massive farm operations. They were determined to treat their reemergence onto the surface of Alm as a second chance to get things right. But Other cities founded after that first wave didn’t have the same rigid ideology. And so Opal Pools became a bit of an oddball.
The real divide came when they broke all communication with the other cities of Proterse, after the Ojikef atrocities, that saw the native people living in what is now Jaidour massacred. Opal Pools refused to sign the One World Accords, and so for hundreds of years, they lived a life apart, almost in their own Alm, scared to repeat the mistakes of the Gods. Of course, the rest of the world moved on. And as the generations here changed and forgot their heritage, the abundance that the west enjoyed as a result of their embrace of technology became a target of jealousy. Stories of the luxuries in Jaidour and the schools in Dale began to cross into public discussion. Suddenly, the old ways weren’t good enough anymore. And when out leaders finally looked to participate, the leaders of the rest of the world resented them for spurning trade negotiations for so long, and so spitefully ignored their requests. Poverty is a lot worse when you’ve seen how things can be better, kids. And so the sentiment in Opal Pools turned very sour, very fast. But the city had an ace up its sleeve. You kids ever heard of the Book of Knowledge?”
“Sure,” said Slate.
“Of course you have. Everyone has,” Maydal said. “Mythical book, right, supposedly written by the Gods?”
“Sure,” Arianna agreed.
“What would you kids say if I told you that the Book of Knowledge actually existed?” Maydal asked.
Slate and Arianna feigned absolute shock.
“That’s right, kids. It’s real. In fact, it had always been known in Opal Pools that the book was real. It had never been forgotten. Only, the people saw the Book as a testament to a failed society. Sort of a How-Not-To. They didn’t need it. And anyways, the Book was undecipherable. Or so they thought. But then came a twist. A brilliant young man, named Dorieaye Khe-tK. Khe-tK was a scavenger. He was out on a waste hunt in the Grail Caves, to the south of here, when he stumbled upon an old translation key. He recognized some of the writing as the same strange language in the Book of Knowledge, a copy of which was available in the archives of the municipal library. Khe-tK stole the Book. He was jailed for the rest of his life when he was caught, but not before he translated the Book.
Try as they might, the authorities could not contain the explosion of information that Khe-tK had sparked. Others began to create laboratories at home and produce miracles with the knowledge he rediscovered. And when these miracles started producing money, Opal Pools changed, almost overnight. Within one generation, the people here went from outhouses to plumbing, from couriers to telecommunication. My own father was a potato farmer. And here we sit in electric light. Can you believe that?”
“It’s incredible,” Slate said.
“It’s horrific,” said Maydal. “So much destruction has followed, in their new, never-ending quest for resources. Now, entire cities and towns and countryside have been eaten up and turned to waste by the great tentacles of Opal Pools.”
“That’s what must have happened in Saityr’s Quarry,” said Slate.
“Right, right,” said Maydal. “Swallowed up and even flooded. And now, what we saw out there in the square? Well, they’re so proud they think it’s time to show the west a thing or two. Particle energy. They’ve gone too far. It’s madness.”
“Why construct a weapon when there’s no war?” Slate asked.
“Oh, the war is coming. You kids hear of the bombing in Jaidour?” Maydal asked.
“No,” Arianna said.
“Me either. And I was in Jaidour not more than a month ago,” said Slate.
“It was only two weeks ago. A political envoy from Opal Pools and a number of aides were killed in a bombing at the Atlas Center. Conflicting information came out about who orchestrated the bombing, but in the end Opal Pools was sure it was the Jaidourean High Council. And Jaidour was sure it was staged. Their relationship has been antagonistic for too long. Water on heat will boil. And so hundreds of years of simmering quarrel are set to explode.”
“Just like that? There’s one bombing, and they go to war?” Slate asked.
“You don’t understand how deep the resentment goes on both sides. We’re talking generation after generation of deeply borne hatred. Of the other. Not just in Jaidour, either. It’ll be Opal Pools going to war with the rest of the continent. Which might as well be the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have the army. That was always the obstacle, the one thing keeping war at bay. Not anymore. They have their new weapon, one so incredibly powerful that it has destroyed entire counties in its construction. And they don’t even know what they made! They can’t draw the line from the Legend’s stories about fire from heaven to their own terrible invention. They’re about to test it soon, their abomination. It’s sure to be a disaster. And we’re left to just watch, you and me. We just watch and wait and try to sleep at night.”
“When are they going to test it?” Arianna asked.
“Very soon. They’ve even picked out the venue: the Crescent Plain, to the south of here. People are making a holiday of going to see the test. It’s madness, kids, madness.”
Slate turned to Arianna. “How far away is the Crescent Plain?” he asked.
“You’re not thinking of going there, are you, kids?” Maydal asked.
“No. You aren’t, are you, Slate?” asked Arianna.
“We have to, don’t we? I have to,” Slate answered.
“What could that possibly help?” asked Arianna.
“What else are going to do, just turn around and go home?” Slate responded. “Wait for the war to come to us?”
“Do you think that being there when they do their test will stop a war from happening?” asked Arianna.
“It won’t,” Maydal added.
Slate’s head dropped with a quick sigh. “I don’t know,” he said. “No. But I can’t just run away though. Where would we go? I’ve come so far...”
“I know you have, Slate,” said Arianna.
“It’s a fool who keeps on with what he’s doing, even though he’s not sure it’s the best thing to do, just because he’s been doing it for so long,” offered Maydal.
Slate thought and then shook his head. “No. I know. But I have to. I have to see it. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Arianna. But I have to.”
“Slate…” Arianna said.
“What’s the fastest way to reach the Crescent Plain?” Slate asked Maydal.
“The war will come here soon enough, if that’s what you want to see, Slate. Just wait,” he answered.
“I don’t want to wait,” Slate said.
“Well, if you’re in a hurry to die, there’s a train that runs all the way to Grail’s Wharf. The Crescent Plain is just outside town. I don’t want to tell you kids how to live your life or anything, but I really think that you ought to consider your decision for a minute, before you go running off doing something you regret.”
“Thank you, Maydal,” Slate said as he stood up. “Arianna, how can I find you...”
Arianna looked up at him almost angrily. “Slate, don’t be foolish. Do you really think I’d let you just leave, by yourself?”
“I’m sorry, Arianna. I just have to see this through,” Slate said.
“Whatever it is you feel you have to do, we’ll do it together,” said Arianna.
Slate turned to Maydal. “I’m sorry if it seems rude to leave so abruptly, but we have a friend waiting for us outside town. Your information had been very helpful.”
“Alright then, kids. Enjoy your war,” sighed Maydal. “Say hello to the Gods for me, won’t you?”
Slate and Arianna ducked back out the window and ran down the fire escape, then through the streets of Opal Pools to the nearest train station. They rode back out to the park at the edge of town, and then raced to where Pilotte was waiting for them. They gathered their things and then followed the train tracks outside the park until they came to a station, where they took the first available ride south to Grail’s Wharf.