One more day was passed floating over the Florian Ocean in Juke’s balloon. When verdant Aelioanei revealed itself that afternoon, Slate and Arianna let out a sigh of relief, though Pilotte remained dubious.
“Oh, thank the Gods,” Slate said. “We made it.”
“Did you think we wouldn’t?” Arianna asked.
“I certainly had doubts.”
“Where are we?” Arianna asked, surveying the island below. “I can’t quite tell.”
“I imagine we’ll touch down just outside Magri,” said Slate. “We can make the trip up to South Airyel tomorrow.”
“I can’t believe we’re almost home, Slate. I know I wasn’t gone for all that long, really, but it seems like we saw the whole world! And maybe even another planet, in Opal Pools. Though, I imagine the rest of the world will start looking a lot more like Opal Pools sooner than later.”
“I bet it’ll be later for Aelioanei. At least, for Alleste.”
“I want to see Alleste, Slate. Can you take me there?”
“Of course, Arianna. After we go see your Mom and your brother and sister, you want to go back with me? Check on the house?”
“I’ll go anywhere with you, Slate.”
“Well hold on tight,” Slate said, piloting the craft around the wind shears whipping around the rocky coast of the island. “We’re about to touch down!”
The craft alighted on a wide field of soft grass. The instant he was sure the basket was back on solid ground, Pilotte leapt out of it, and proceeded to roll around as if he never thought he’d see dirt again.
“That’s right, Pilotte!” Slate cried. “We’re home!”
“We made it!” Arianna cheered.
Just then, something whipped past Slate’s ear.
“Did you hear that?” he asked, swatting a possible bug near his head.
“Hear what?” Arianna asked.
Slate heard another something whizz by, and then they both heard a thwack, an arrow, which had lodged itself into the balloon’s basket.
“Run for cover!” Slate yelled. “We’re under attack!”
He and Arianna dove back into the balloon’s basket as a whole barrage of arrows came volleying from the nearby woods. The attack didn’t distract Pilotte in the least from wriggling with happy abandon through the grass.
“Please, stop! We don’t mean you any harm!” Slate shouted to whoever was shooting. He grabbed Arianna. “They’re going to puncture the balloon!”
“Are they trying to kill us?” Arianna cried. “I don’t want to die! Not now, not after everything!”
The barrage of arrows stopped.
“Maybe they heard you?” Slate asked.
“Maybe they’re just out of arrows,” Arianna countered.
Slate rose up to peer over the edge of the balloon basket, to see if he couldn’t find Pilotte. As he did, he saw four people approaching.
“We’re unarmed!” he shouted, throwing his hands up.
“Stay there!” one of the people ordered.
Slate climbed out of the basket to meet the strangers. “My name is Slate Ahn,” he said cautiously. “I…”
“I said, stay there! Are you devils Opalites?” the stranger demanded.
“Opalites?” Slate asked. “You mean, from Opal Pools? No, no, we are definitely not Opalites. Absolutely not.”
Arianna climbed out of the basket and took Slate’s side.
“Have you not heard?” she asked.
“Heard what?” asked one of the nervous strangers.
“What has happened on Proterse? With the Books of Knowledge?” Arianna asked.
The four strangers looked confused and angry.
“What’re you talking about?” asked an older man with wild, gray hair, who seemed to be the leader of the strangers.
“There’s much to explain,” said Slate. “But all you need to know, right now, is that you have no reason to fear Opal Pools anymore.”
“Is that so? And what matter of evil is that?” the wild-haired man, still clutching his rudimentary bow tightly, asked of the balloon.
“It’s called a hot-air balloon,” said Arianna.
“It’s flying mayhem!” another of the wild-eyed strangers insisted. “It’s dark magic!”
“No, it’s not, it’s a simple assemblage of natural parts,” Slate said, “Composed in the most ingenious of ways.”
“Natural? Flying through the sky? No, this can only be the works of the devils in Opal Pools!” one of the two women said. She fell to her knees, crying, “Oh, mighty ones, forgive us for attacking you! Be gentle with us!”
“Please, please, listen,” Slate begged, “I can show you how this was made. And you can even build balloons for yourselves, we can show you how. I promise, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
“How could you possibly teach such wizardry?” the wild-haired man asked.
“Here, we will show you,” Arianna said, crossing back to the basket to retrieve a copy of the Book, which she took to the leader of the group.
“What is this now?” he asked with tears in his eyes.
“It’s a book,” said Slate.
“I know damn well it’s a book,” the man said.
“Well read it, and you’ll see what we’re talking about,” Slate said.
“But I can’t read,” the man said.
“Then have one of your friends here read it to you,” Slate said.
“None of us can read,” one of the women said.
“Can anyone? In town? Are we not near Magri?” Arianna asked.
“We are,” the woman answered. “My sister can read…”
“Well then go get her!” Slate said. “Or take it to her. This is a copy of the entire Books of Knowledge.”
The group stared at Slate as if to say that meant nothing to them.
Pilotte finally had enough frolicking at this point and came over to greet the strangers.
“You watch that animal!” the wild-haired man cautioned.
“Sir, I assure you, Pilotte will do you no harm. Just so long as you don’t keep shooting arrows at us, or anything else like that,” said Slate. “If you’ll show me to them, I’d love to tell your people about what we uncovered in Proterse. It is good news, I promise. There is nothing to fear.”
The old man scrunched up his face and grunted. “Well, I suppose you’re unarmed… But the wulf has to stay here!”
“That’s fine, isn’t it, Pilotte?” Slate asked.
The snarlingwulf smiled.
“Come with us,” the gray-haired man said. “And don’t try anything funny!”
“So, no jokes?” Slate whispered to Arianna as the two were led away.
When the two met the crowd gathered around a fire in the small encampment in the nearby woods, one of Magri’s elders rose from his chair to meet the newcomers.
“Who are these strangers?” he asked the wild-haired man. “Why have you brought them here?”
“They come from the sky!” one of the women answered.
“The whole story is too much of a tale to tell here, sir,” Slate said.
Arianna handed the copy of The Book she was carrying to the elder. “But what we can tell you is that this book comes from one of many printing operations springing up across the continent of Proterse.”
The man turned the book over in his hands but didn’t open it. “Are the four of you from Opal Pools?” he asked.
“No, sir, as we told the others,” Slate said.
“Why have you come here?” the man asked.
“We are on our way home,” Arianna said. “To Aislin.”
“You are from Aislin?” the man asked.
“I am,” Arianna answered. “Slate is from Alleste.”
“I see,” the man said, now opening the book and paging through it gently. “And how long will you be here?”
“We hadn’t planned on staying more than the night,” answered Slate. “But we can stick around if you want, to help get a printing operation started here, so that you can start to print copies of The Book for yourselves.”
“Why should you do that?” the man asked, obviously confounded by the words and pictures in the book. “And what nature of book is this?”
“It is the Book of Knowledge,” said Slate.
The elder was the only one around the campfire who seemed to know what this meant.
“You don’t say!” he gasped.
“It’s true,” said Slate.
“Well, your story must be truly something incredible!” the man said, his enthusiasm growing. “Please, can you tell it to me?”
“Of course we can,” answered Slate. “Can you help us, to spread the word? Can you help us start a printing operation here, so that the knowledge in the books can be spread as far and wide as possible?”
“There could be no task greater,” the man said. He turned to the waiting crowd. “Friends, our guests bring us an incredible gift.”
“What is it?” one of the crowd asked.
“Let me tell you all,” the man said, sitting back down into his chair, “About the world before.”
It took two weeks to teach those few in Magri who could be convinced the Book wasn’t some sort of evil how to make copies. The copies their homespun press started to produce lacked most of the pictures that the master copy from Morai had, though the essential diagrams were crudely reproduced. The important information was all there, and by the end of the third week, there was a small pile of books ready to pass on to Airyel and beyond.
Slate and Arianna were able to source more petrified balsan, and so decided to float on to Aislin. Four days of smooth sailing later, apart from poor Pilotte’s inability to make peace with flying, and the team were back in Arianna’s hometown. The Falls house had become a tourist attraction already, calling people from all over the city to come see AlriFal’s library. Brit Falls had turned the interest in the house into a lucrative business, and so Arianna and her friends were welcomed back into an atmosphere of ease and joy. Mayor Kale was a fading memory, and people were returning from the south to help reinvigorate and polish the city back to the jewel of Aelioanei it had once been. Mart took the reins of Aislin’s printing operation, and it seemed everything was not only back to where it had been, but better than ever.
“I’m just so proud of you both,” Mrs. Falls said to Slate and Arianna as she brought them a plate of warm folds. “The searches have all stopped. You’ve saved our house. Our town. Possibly the world.”
“It wasn’t us,” said Slate. “We just passed out the tools. It’s everyone else that’s changed the world. Though, I do wonder if it’ll cause more harm than good.”
“What makes you think it might?” asked Mart. “The world is free now.”
“I have to believe that freedom is what’s best for all people,” said Slate. “Though, as much trouble comes with freedom as with captivity.”
“Let’s just hope it’s not too much,” said Arianna.
Mrs. Falls shook her head. “To think, in my lifetime… Your father would be proud, children. And your parents are cheering you from across the universe, Slate.”
Arianna smiled. “I’m sure of that,” she said. “It’d be your story your mother would tell, now.”
“I wonder how our old house is doing,” Slate said, before sinking his teeth into a warm fold. “Back in Alleste.”
“Why don’t we go see?” Arianna asked. “The snow on the pass should be melted soon enough. Mart can more than handle the printing operation herself. We could take a trip.”
“What do you think, Pilotte?” Slate asked his wulf, who was licking a lart rib clean on the floor. “You want to head out for another adventure?”
The wulf smiled.
“Looks like he’s in,” said Slate. “And what about you, Mrs. Falls? Care to take a trip?”
“What, camping?” Mrs. Falls asked. “It’s been years…”
“All the more reason,” said Slate. “Come on, come with us. It’ll be good for you.”
“How about you kids run ahead and I’ll catch up,” said Mrs. Falls.
“Don’t waste your time trying to talk my mother into camping,” said Arianna. “Trust me.”
“Fair enough,” said Slate. “No matter what the future may hold, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ll be back soon enough.”
“You had better be,” said Mrs. Falls. “As soon as you can.”
Over the next week, Slate, Arianna, and Pilotte retraced Slate’s steps back through the Yellow Forest, over the Blue Bridge, and through the Blue Forest back to his tiny village. If any news of the happenings around the world had made it to Alleste, it was far from obvious, as it looked the trail hadn’t been disturbed since Slate took it the first time. It was incredibly relieving to see, as the whole time he had been away, he had worried he might never be able to return home to the same place he had left. All fears had faded by the time the trio who had gone across the world and back made it back to Alleste, to find it as quiet and desolate as before.
“So what are we going to do with all that treasure, anyways, Slate?” Arianna asked as the two made their way through a pinea grove.
“Oh, save it for the future. Raising a family can be expensive,” he answered.
“You’re going to be raising a family, are you?”
Slate was taken aback. “Oh, well, I mean, maybe, if, we, or anyone, if, they…”
“I’d start a family with you, Slate. If you wanted to.”
Slate felt the blood rush to his ears. “I’d like that, Arianna. You know, if you would. If you want to.”
“We can talk about it.”
“Of course we’d talk about it.”
Pilotte sniggered at Slate.
“You keep your snout out of it, Pilotte,” Slate said.
“Are we much further?” Arianna asked, noting the fading light.
“Not, not much further now.”
When the team at last came to the little village Slate had left so long ago, hours after sunset, it appeared as if someone was already there. A thin trail of smoke rose from the little chimney, and garden tools recently used were piled up next to the front door.
“Who is it?” asked Arianna.
“Not sure,” said Slate. “A squatter? Let me check. You two stay here.”
“We’ll keep an eye on him, Pilotte,” Slate heard Arianna whisper, as he walked up the path to his house.
He knocked softly on the front door, and then stepped back to wait. There came nothing from the hut, and so Slate looked back over his shoulder at Arianna with a shrug. Slate knocked again, a bit harder, and then he saw a candle flicker to life somewhere in the depths of the house, through the thick, yellow window beside the front door. The candle bounced and weaved through the darkness inside, and past the window to hide behind the door, which then creaked open just the slightest bit.
“Hello? Can I help you?” asked the sleepy voice from behind the door.
“...Slate?” Greene pulled the door all the way open. “Slate, is it really you?” he asked, trying to recognize his brother’s face in the contorted shadows of candlelight.
“It’s me! It is really you?” Slate asked, though of course he knew it was. He stepped up onto the porch and grabbed his brother, squeezing him tightly. “Greene!” he cried, as his brother laughed and pushed back.
“Slate! Shhh!” Greene giggled. “I can’t believe you’re here!”
“Me? I can’t believe you’re here!”
“How long have you been here?”
“About two weeks,” Greene said. “Came back with a girl I met up in Nowhere.”
“You were in Nowhere?” Slate asked. “Me too!”
“You’re kidding! I came back once before, to try and find Dad or you, but the house is empty. And now here you are! Incredible! What have you been up to?”
“Just about everything,” Slate said. “It’s a long story. What about you?”
“Just odd jobs, really, to make some money to bring back. But then no one was here, so I went to make some more. Slate! I can’t believe you’re standing here!”
“Did you hear about Dad?”
Greene searched Slate’s eyes and knew something was wrong. “No, what happened to him?”
“He died. Trying to protect a stranger.”
Greene fell back from the doorjamb into the darkness of the house.
“I know. Greene, he wanted me to tell you he loved you. I have a letter he wrote, you can see it.”
Greene reappeared, his eyes wet with tears. “Damn. I wasn’t ready for that.”
“I know. Life can happen so fast.”
“I guess so.” Greene sighed and wiped his eyes. “He wouldn’t want us to be sad, though, you know Dad.”
The two conducted a silent study of the moon.
“You want to come in, brother?” Greene asked, breaking the silence. “We’ll have to keep quiet, because of Kaya, who I can’t wait for you to meet, but I’ve got some pretty good cider, if you’re interested.”
“I’d love to.” Slate stepped back and motioned to Arianna and Pilotte. “I brought some company of my own.”
“Who’s that? Wait, what the hell is that thing?”
“That’s Arianna. And that’s Pilotte.”
“You’re friends with a snarlingwulf now?”
“Hey, it wasn’t my choice! But he’s the best friend you could hope for. Think Kaya would mind if we joined you in there?”
“Hey, you know as well as I do how small it is. But we’ll make it work. Might have to chase out the squee, though.” Greene smiled. “I really can’t believe you’re here.”
“I’m here, brother,” said Slate. “And I brought you some presents.”
“Oh? What kind?” asked Greene.
“Books,” said Slate.
“Books, huh? Hey, what happened to Mom’s Legend? I couldn’t find it in the house anywhere…”
“I’ve got it,” said Slate. “Don’t worry.”
A voice called to Greene from somewhere in the house. “That’s Kaya,” he said. “I should go let her know what’s going on so she doesn’t worry.”
“Go to it,” said Slate.
He and his brother hugged again.
“Go get your friends, Slate,” Greene said. “And we’ll talk in the morning, alright?”
“Can’t wait,” Slate said. He turned from the door and began to walk back down the pathway to the road.
“Who’s that?” Arianna asked as Slate approached.
“That’s my brother,” Slate answered.
“Greene? You’re kidding!”
“Nope. He’s got a girl here, we can stay and then we’ll all meet in the morning.”
“Well it’s all just perfect, isn’t it?”
“Seems that way.”
“Are you happy, Slate?”
“I couldn’t be happier, Arianna. I’m home.”