Slate awoke with a gasp. For a minute he couldn’t remember where he was, not until he looked over at Arianna asleep in the train seat next to him. Or so he thought she was asleep; she must have sensed Slate was staring at her, because she opened her eyes.
“Watching me sleep, Slate?”
“No. I mean, I’m sorry,” Slate said. “I almost forgot where we were.”
“Mmm, I see. Where are we?” Arianna asked as she sat up and stretched.
“Outside of Doth, I think.”
“Doth? I’ve never heard of it.”
“No, me either.”
The train car was dark and nearly silent, but for the steady rumble below it. Most of the other passengers had settled into sleep.
“How many more stops do we have?” Arianna asked.
“I don’t know,” Slate answered.
Just then the train entered a tunnel, which made the car quieter still.
“I’m scared, Slate,” Arianna said as she rested her head on his arm.
“What are you scared for?” Slate asked.
“I’m scared of war. Of everything changing.”
“I am too. Oh, Arianna, you were right, we shouldn’t have gotten on this train. I’ve just been on this journey for so long now, it’s hard to just stop. It’s been my whole life.”
“You told me that part of the reason you left Airyel was to take your mind off your father. Do you think that’s why you’re so driven to keep going? Are you avoiding your feelings?”
“Maybe that’s a part of it. But really, I’ve made peace with his death. It’s just all these mysteries upon mysteries, I feel like a new world is revealed every new place I go. And now, we’ve actually got the Books themselves, so I feel like I’m somehow tied into it all. Like I owe it to Hatty, to Theolus, to everyone, to see it through. But what am I seeing through, anyways? I’m just a delivery boy, aren’t I? I just fell into the whole thing. It’s not about me. I’ve been foolish.”
Arianna nodded and listened.
“Still, though. If war should spring from the Book, perhaps the ones we’ve got could somehow also prevent it,” said Slate. “Somehow.”
“Anything is possible, Slate.”
“Maybe I’m delusional.”
“You’ve been going so hard for so long. You’re exhausted. You need to stop. To rest.”
“Maybe. Anyways, thanks for listening to me think. And thanks for coming with me, but I don’t think we need to see the weapon test anymore. Let’s just head home. Head back to Aelioanei. See your family. Maybe try to find my brother. How’s that sound?”
“That sounds good, Slate,” said Arianna. “In fact, it sounds great.”
The train passed over a bump in the track, jarring some of the sleeping passengers awake. There were groans and mild curses, and a few lights were turned on in the confusion. Soon, the lights were turned back off and the car fell quiet once again.
“I miss my mom. And Brit, and Mart,” Arianna said. “I’ve never been apart from them for this long.”
“I miss home. Never thought I would say it, but I miss my little hut in Alleste. We were always independent growing up, but it was a reliant independence. We always knew where each other were at. Now, I don’t even know where my brother, Greene, is. He’s strong, I don’t worry about him, but I do wonder where he is. If he ended up like my dad, if he’s…”
“I’ll help you look for him.”
“For now, try to get some sleep, okay?”
The two curled into each other’s arms and were rocked back to sleep by the rhythm of the train.
Sometime later, at the earliest glimmer of daybreak, the train horn blared and a porter announced arrival at Grail’s Wharf. Slate and Arianna gathered their belongings and shuffled sleepily off the train, with faithful Pilotte close behind.
They decided to take the day to rest and plan a route home, and to spend one night in Grail’s Wharf before leaving. The town was much busier than it appeared ready to handle, on account of the crowd from Opal Pools who had come to see the weapon test. The few hotels and inns were booked solid, and so Slate and Arianna were forced to camp for the night. The campgrounds in town were also fully booked, leaving the two to follow the others who couldn’t find lodging to a campground outside of town.
What they hadn’t expected was how close that campground proved to be to the Crescent Plain Maydal had spoken of. There was little on the plain below the campground to suggest that it was to be the site of a demonstration of incredible power, nothing more than a few tents and observation towers scattered across the scrubby grassland that filled the space between the foothills of the Crescent Mountains and the ocean beyond.
“That’s it, huh? I was expecting more,” Slate said to Arianna as they looked out from their campsite.
“Me too,” Arianna agreed.
“It feels strange, though, doesn’t it?”
“Just, being here. The energy. The anticipation.”
“Stop it, Slate. You’re scaring me.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Slate said. “It’s just a funny feeling, that’s all. Let’s get something to eat, how’s that? Take our minds off of things?”
In town, the two found a world map and plotted a route that would take them back to Jaidour along the same path Slate would have taken if he hadn’t followed Theolus into the Ojikef Jungle. The length of the land route meant that it would still be three more weeks until they set sail for home.
“It’s a long time,” said Arianna. “But we’ll get there eventually.”
“Eventually is fine. I can’t wait to just sit in your kitchen and watch the sun rise,” said Slate. “Eat your mom’s folds.”
“I hope it’s the same,” said Arianna.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” asked Slate.
“You weren’t there for the raids,” said Arianna. “The whole library was devastated. I doubt my mother could have even finished cleaning it up by now. And people were getting so nasty, nastier by the day. I just hope Aislin is still something worth returning to.”
“It will be,” said Slate. “There’s no library we can’t put back together, no amount of nastiness we can’t weather if we’re together. I can’t imagine the world has changed so much in the past two months that there’s nothing worth returning to.”
“We’ll see,” said Arianna. “And if it is ruined, we can make it new again.”
The next day began with a blood-red sky. There was some small activity on the plain below the campground, but nothing of significance until sometime around mid-morning, when a deep groan sounded from within the northeastern forest pass.
Whole flocks of birds began to flee the forest as its trees began to disappear, one by one. The Crescent Mountains resounded with a terrible noise coming from the growing chasm appearing like a void in reality into which the forest was falling.
Slate and Arianna stopped packing to observe the bizarre phenomenon.
“Is that real?” Arianna asked.
“Is it happening?” asked Slate.
A huge, metal, beast of a machine emerged from the swath of destruction it had carved through the forest. It was black and steaming, and shook as it rode along on self-contained treads. Sitting atop its base was an enormous object resembling a great iron sirrk, so huge that it dwarfed the men who crawled about removing the cords which fastened it down.
After a siren sounded across the valley and some frantic activity, the cart on which the iron sirrk rested began to open. It rose up to the death-gray sky and then settled back down again in one fluid motion, reforming as a trebuchet. Heavy wires the widths of tree trunks drew back the arm of the trebuchet, and then without wait the tension was cut and the cart launched the great sirrk up into the air.
It swam through the sky for a silent few seconds, its impossible size defying gravity, and then landed.
Slate, Arianna, and all those others watching from the edge of the campsite were instantly blown off their feet as an impossibly brilliant flash of light consumed the whole plain. The flash gave way to a half-second of bluish-green glow before a tremendous explosion sounded, one that shook the mountains and everything on them violently. Three more blasts came in rapid succession, each resounding like the crack of immediate lightning.
The trees edging the Crescent Plain collapsed in a wave that radiated out from the gaping crater left where the bomb had struck. A massive ball of fire rose from the crater, belching enormous white smoke rings as though from the bowels of the planet itself. A tower of purple fire erupted skyward as the clouds of smoke and fire around it formed and reformed into horrible new phantasms, and the shapes and forms of eons and eternities passed in and out of being in fleeting moments while the explosion drank up the life and sense from the world itself.
Just when it appeared as though the purple column of fire had settled, the shape of a giant mushroom came billowing out of it, climbing even higher still. This was somehow even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of foam. As the mushroom cloud dispersed, the monstrous explosion assumed a new form, like a great flower petal, creamy-white outside, rose-colored inside. The purple tower and cloud now stood firm, as if they were to be a permanent fixture in the sky.
The air was putrid and it made Slate sick.
“Slate,” Arianna asked in a small voice from where she hadn’t yet moved. “Are we dead?”
“I don’t know,” Slate answered, shaking his head.
A chilling wind swept the moans and cries of the others in the campground overlooking the plain.
“I don’t think we’re dead, yet,” Slate said.
“How? How could they do it?” Arianna asked as she struggled to get up.
Slate had nothing to offer. “I don’t know. I don’t even think they knew.”
“A weapon? That’s not a weapon,” said Arianna. “How could it possibly be used as a weapon? The destruction it would cause… The death...”
Neither could hardly see from the flash, but they found each other, and held each other close as they stared out over the ruined waste below, which smoked and smoldered like a charred corpse.
“It’s so awful,” Arianna said. “Please, can we leave now?” A stream of tears ran from her eyes, though she wasn’t crying. “I just want to go home.”
“I’m so sorry we came,” said Slate.
“How could you have known?” Arianna asked. “How could anyone have ever known?”