Chapter 7 Scene 2

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 24 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Simon, Bernard, and Gunther had returned to the waystation, weary, dirty, and confused, but cautiously optimistic. Simon and Bernard slumped in the two wooden chairs around the small ledge that extended from the side of the stone water basin. Gunther sat on the pallet of his bunk.

“What did he mean ‘may find more, and less’?” Gunther was recovering well from their exertions, thanks to the resiliency of youth.

Simon felt more exhausted than he had in seasonturns. “The Prophets are always cryptic. I knew they traveled the Migrations, but I did not expect to meet one this far southeast.” He slowly sipped cool water from a stone cup he carried on all his travels. He had crafted it with his own hands as an apprentice. ‘Turns of personal use had infused it with trace amounts of earth power intertwined with his own life force. He felt the comfortable balance of the two in his hands as a swirl of warmth. Careful not to draw too much power out of the stone, he allowed his own internal energies to rebalance in alignment with the vessel. The exercise helped him stave off total collapse. But only sleep would bring full recovery.

Bernard looked cadaverous in comparison to Simon and Gunther. He had heavy dark rings under both eyes. One was bloodshot. The other was completely rimmed in red where several blood vessels had burst from the strain of the storm. “It’s good that he was. I’d prefer not to have to ride a storm like that one for every tribe we try to reach.”

Simon nodded absently. He could see that Gunther was confused, so he explained. “The Tribe of Prophets is the central authority of the Great Desert insofar as any Tribe is. They are this land’s spiritual leaders. Tor’s Order will pass news of our presence among all the tribes. They will come to see what the outsiders want at this central gathering. Brother Tor has just saved us nearly a season of scouring the Great Desert in search of each individual tribe.”

“Ohh. Well, that’s terrific… isn’t it?” Gunther looked from Simon to Bernard. Neither seemed to share his enthusiasm.

Bernard looked at Simon, a glimmer of his usual sarcasm briefly animating his face. “Do you want to explain, or shall I?”

Simon deferred with a mock bow, difficult to achieve while seated, but he managed. “By all means.”

Bernard simultaneously raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes before continuing. “It has been nearly fifty turns since the Tribe of Prophets and Doormaker Council negotiated the end of the Great Desert Conflict. Since then, the Tribe of Prophets have withdrawn into the central desert and consolidated their power in isolation. Other tribes have begun to trade with our wagon trains in the intervening ‘turns. But the Prophets have never traded with us or with Guardian Village. Wagon trains that leave the Migration routes toward their territory in the central desert have all disappeared, even one accompanied by an apprentice earth mage many ‘turns ago.”

“What? But that’s…”

“Murder? Is it? The desert is a harsh mistress. It’s easy to lose your way in the trackless centre, where there are no Migrations to follow. We can’t prove that the Prophets were responsible for those disappearances. It’s just as likely that they succumbed to the natural perils of the central desert.”

Gunther made a sour face. “That’s just a technicality!”

Simon nodded wearily. “You’re right of course. But far better than the alternative. Without such technicalities we would have no choice but to resume the bloodiest conflict in recorded history.”

Gunther sat back, chilled, as Bernard drove the point home. “And now, after half a century of isolation, one of the Prophets has invited us into the heart of their territory. Will we be the first to see it and return? Or will our entire test team become another technicality?”

Simon added another complication. “And the Gathering of Ten Fallen Stones? It’s not on any of the Migrations we’ve mapped is it?”

Bernard groaned. “No, it wouldn’t be would it? Well, it appears that Brother Tor has left the testers a test of his own.” He rubbed his hand across his tired eyes.

Simon could see the Common Mage’s fatigue. He could almost feel it rolling off Bernard in palpable waves. “We’ll have time to face that test tomorrow. For now, we all need to rest.”

Bernard made no complaints. He rose painfully from the chair where he sat, shuffled to his narrow bunk, and feebly crawled onto the hard pallet. There he collapsed, fully clothed, and did not stir.

Gunther sprawled back in his own bunk, looking like a tangle of limbs. He dropped off to sleep after a few tosses and turns.

Simon sat alone for nearly an hour, sipping his water and eating sparingly from their travel rations. He had other concerns he had not mentioned to his companions. Why would the Prophets open their borders so abruptly after rejecting the Council’s overtures for a generation? Such a radical behavior shift suggested a new strategy in their silent campaign. Or an entire regime change. He wasn’t sure which was worse. There was just too much he didn’t know. They would need to send a drone to the Citadel with an update on their progress. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

Simon stood, stretching sore shoulders and hips still cramped from too much time sitting on unyielding sand. He opened the heavy shutters and peered out into Edgeways’ empty market square. The sun was setting, clothing the outpost in alternating corridors of shadow and ribbons of dusty orange light. If any of the outpost’s few residents had wondered about the strange storm or the mages’ part in it, none had commented as they returned from the desert. As his fingers brushed the stone sill they tingled. He had learned to associate the strange icy heat with the silent yet eternal conflict between this station and its environment. Was this another of the desert’s mysteries, like the military precision of the Prophet’s protectors, or their exploding crystal weapons?

But such questions would have to wait until after he had rested. Feeling notably better after eating, Simon followed his companions’ example and settled into his bunk for some well deserved sleep.

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