The never ending story

by Richard Perkins

I’m firmly convinced that Chapter 13 is my never ending story. At last count it was well over 16,000 words, and still stomping along like the Queen Mother.

The trouble is that my anti-hero, Tor, was evidently fed up with the young hero, Devon, hogging the lime-light. He’s hijacked the narrative completely. When I sit down to write the only voice I hear is his, telling me about his glorious rise to power in the Tribe of Prophets. That’s the problem with letting the character’s voice come out. Once you let them speak their mind, they never shut up! Ahh well, at least there is some good stuff in this chapter: a battle of butt-kicking proportion, a dash of intrigue, a pinch of deceit, and liberal scoop of sacrifice. ;-)

I actually think this may make a decent breakpoint for the first novel of the series (after much editing and reorganization, of course). Maybe the main focus of the first book will be my antagonist, setting the scene for my protagonist’s story in the second book. Or maybe I’ll end up with a completely different story by the time I’m done, who knows?

Last week I tried to schedule a bunch of posts rather than putting them all up at once. It seemed like once a day episodic content might be more appealing to readers. It’s too soon to tell one way or the other on that theory. But I did discover that future scheduled posts wreak havoc on Organize Series, the plug-in that I use for episodic content. I’m still using WordPress 2.5.1, because Organize Series doesn’t play well with 2.6.2 yet. The new post revision feature really wrecks it.

But scheduled posts also cause a few hiccups. The first is that scheduled posts show up in the series navigation lists even before they have been published. Many thanks to Chris Fritz at the Pink Sylphide for coming up with a slick fix for that glitch.

The second is that when future scheduled posts do get published, they lose all association with the series. There is a comment thread going on this glitch, but it doesn’t look like there’s a solution for it yet. Too bad. Looks like I’ll be manually publishing posts again.

Speaking of posts, I’ll be publishing scenes from Chapter 12 throughout the week. This is a long chapter and there are nine scenes to post, so watch the Writer’s Lair for updates! During the month of November I’ll be working on a new novel about Devon’s father for National Novel Writing Month, so watch for a new series!

Cheers,

Perkins

Chapter 11 Scene 8

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 47 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Light touched his face, too much light for midnight, even with a bright moon and a cloudless sky. He struggled upright and found himself lying across Gunther’s outstretched legs. He had tripped over Gunther! The young air mage was senseless. Simon scrambled to his side, as his head throbbed and darkness swam in from the edges of his vision again. Gunther was breathing, if shallowly. His skin felt cool and his eyes rolled behind his closed lids, but the bleeding from his nose and ears had stopped. He lived at least. Simon felt the back of his head gingerly, where he found a sticky lump. He probed the edges of a small gash, which brought nausea to his gut and spots to his sight. His skin felt flushed and feverish. Perhaps the head wound was from one of the poisonous crystals? There was nothing he could do about that now though.

Then he felt the first tremor and remembered that light had woken him. He looked to the east, and saw the faint, traitorous glow of sunrise. What had the handler said? It hides in the light? The ground trembled again beneath him. He looked up toward the tip of the black spire and saw sunlight touch it. Before his eyes it changed from black to a liquid golden glow before becoming transparent and then disappearing entirely. Beneath him, the trembling was continuous now as he felt the ground subsiding.

Where was their promised guide? Had it all been an elaborate trap after all? Anger galvanized him with new strength and he stormed down the path toward the landing shelf. The wreckage of their wagon was strewn across the advancing edge of rising sands. The entire island was rapidly sinking into the White Sea.

Now panic set in. He dashed back up to Gunther’s prostrate body. He wasted precious minutes as he tried unsuccessfully to rouse the spent air mage. He dragged Gunther up the winding path until they reached a broad clearing in the strange crystal formations with no outlet. He dashed from one end of the clearing to the other, certain that there must be some opening or hidden entrance for the supposed guide, before the last of his strength left him and he gave in to despair. He could barely keep on his feet now as the ground heaved more and more violently. He heard fractures and cracks as crystal spires were weakened by the advancing sunlight and collapsed all around them. He returned to the center of the circle and dropped by Gunther’s side.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you here lad.” Tears stung Simon’s eyes, but evaporated before they could leave tracks in the dust on his face. He felt the temperature rising with the sun.

“At least we won’t freeze before sinking into the sands! There’s small comfort!” The phrase caught something in Simon’s memory. Wait! He scrambled desperately through all of the pockets in his robes. Where was it? At last he found the small crystal vial tucked into his belt. He had not lost it then, but what was he to do with it? And what would it do?

“Does it matter anymore?” The rumbling of the island intensified in answer.

“Well, a few drops only then. You first lad.” Simon clumsily pulled the plug of hide out of the crystal vial and poured a drop of the sticky black liquid on Gunther’s lips, where it stuck and went no further. Simon tried to push the sticky fluid into his mouth or onto his tongue. It seemed to have no effect.

“Hmm. Guess that’s not right.” The air mage’s eyes rolled, revealing a flash of white. Simon frowned in consternation, and then shook his head.

“OK, why not?” Before he could change his mind, Simon pulled back each eyelid and placed a single drop of the black fluid in each eye. The change was immediate. Gunther’s breathing stabilized and his rigid muscles relaxed. But he did not awaken.

“My turn, then.” He clumsily administered a drop to his left eye and blinked as the gummy film rolled across his vision like a blanket of night. He felt his pulse drop and his trembling hands steadied. The vision in that eye seemed different somehow. Less clear around the edges, but sharper and more focused in the middle. He could see the vibration of the crystals around them, and knew somehow that they were nearly energized enough to shatter. Remembering how much damage the Prophet’s warriors had inflicted with their crystal weapons renewed his urgency. There was enough fluid left in the vial for a few more drops, but he used only one in his right eye, as he had with Gunther. In a final fully lucid moment, he tucked the vial back tightly into his robes after stuffing the hide stopper back into the opening.

He suddenly felt more comfortable on all fours that standing upright, which was probably just as well. The ground was increasingly unstable. He knew that their current position was dangerous somehow. He felt a curious alignment snap into place on his awareness, and suddenly the thought of being lost was a foreign concept. He hooked one hand around Gunther’s strange clothes and dragged him across the shaking ground toward a space a few hundred body lengths ahead, behind a large crystal formation that looked less like black glass the longer he looked at it. He nestled Gunther against the base of this curious structure that was not disintegrating like the rest of the crystals around them. He settled his own body down on top of the unresponsive air mage and waited. Beneath him, Gunther twitched and made a low noise in his throat that was very like a hiss. For some reason, this seemed perfectly normal to Simon right now.

They waited while the ground continued to rumble. Like some parody of returning tide, white sands rushed into the clearing now from the trail they had climbed. They were quickly filling the flat open space, while the upper spires of black crystal were dissolving in the sun. In moments the sand rushed around their hiding place and surrounded them. It continued to rise, packing into every open space, except the small pocket of air trapped against the base of the metallic crystal formation where they crouched. Soon the light of the rising sun was completely blocked out. Moments later, the crushing weight of the sands slowed his breathing, but the rumbling continued. His consciousness slowed with his breath and Simon lost track of time. Eventually, the rumbling stopped and the last of the sand settled into place.

Though he could have stayed in that tomb of poisonous salts indefinitely, while his consciousness continued to slow, some sense goaded Simon into action again. He felt drawn toward some distant point up above the darkness that trapped him. Anger uncoiled in his gut. He would have cuffed the other he dragged in his wake if it was not already completely subdued. Digging was much harder than it should have been, but the anger energized him. A nagging voice suggested to him that he could move all this earth with a mere thought, but he silenced it instinctively, and aggressively. Slowly, Simon began to dig upward toward the light.

*          *          *

Surfacing from feverish dreams that clung to his thoughts like tattered cobwebs, Simon at last remembered. He tried to climb to the top of his own consciousness, but he was as much a passenger as the senseless Gunther, dragged along the blazing salt flat behind him. Some sense that the earth mage could not understand guided his movements. When he tried to sense his location and direction with a touch of earth energy, he was suddenly clubbed a step further down in his own consciousness by something ruthless and vicious. Dazed, he stared out of eyes slitted against the glaring sun, helpless to challenge whatever animal determination compelled him to continue this pointless crawl. But silently, he held onto a single thought, repeating it over and over like a mantra.

Go into the sands. Get clear of the sea and go into the sands…

Chapter 11 Scene 7

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 46 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

“Gunther. Can you send a message drone to the Council? They must know about this place!”

The young air mage was hunched into himself. Simon heard the young air mage’s tortured breathing across the chill, moisture sucking air as though it was his own.

He watched Gunther marshal his strength. The tense moment stretched longer than Simon would have liked. Then a haunted look crossed the young air mage’s eyes and sweat beaded his brow.

“There’s … interference. It feels like … reaching through … tar! I’m not sure I could reach the Citadel…”

Simon watched him struggling, and saw what it cost. But he had no choice.

“Try, Gunther. This may be our last opportunity.”

Gunther nodded weakly. He hobbled to the back of the wagon to retrieve the last of their precious message drones. Meanwhile Simon scrawled a message, knowing that if the drone failed to reach the Citadel, it might never be read. It took him three attempts to start his spark light before he could begin his message.

Deliver this message to the High Mage of the Doormaker Council. He will know what to do.

We arrived at the Island of Black Glass near midnight. Refer to previous report for location of the T’kulpa on the western Migration. We wait here for a guide who will decide whether we die or we gain entry to the Gathering of Ten Fallen Stones. The White Sea is a poison salt flat, causing intense fever if it contacts the skin, death if inhaled. Wet the path with Tears of the Sea to prevent stirring up toxic dust. Cross only at night, or the sun will dry your Tears. The Island rises at sunset but disappears by day. The Sea thirsts for the body’s water and the spirit’s essence, beware.

Magus Simon, Greater Earth Mage of the High Council of Doormakers and Magus Gunther, Greater Air Mage of the High Council of Doormakers.

Simon dared add nothing more to the cryptic message. His writing was shaky and barely legible. He discovered that he had unintentionally lapsed into code after the initial greeting in common script. Should he rewrite the note? Written as it was, the message had an ominous tone. There would be few alive who could read the second half. But the High Mage was one of them.

His hands were cramped and ached in the cold night air. He left the note as he had written it. He sealed it in a message tube and handed it to Gunther with hands that shook. Together they put the message into the message tube and locked it in place. Then Gunther sat wearily on the shelf underfoot and propped the drone upright in front of him. His eyes were already slightly out of focus, but they became even more glazed over in the reflected star and moonlight. Slowly a faint whine filled the air and the drone started to vibrate. It began to turn, gaining speed tortuously slowly, until it gained enough power to lift off the ground. It was not stable, bucking and weaving as though beset by strong winds. But it spun faster and faster and slowly rose up over Simon’s head.

It climbed higher and higher, dipping erratically but steadily gaining altitude. Then it began to arc out over the White Sea, not in the direction they had come, but east, toward Edgeways and Doormaker Citadel. Gunther began to moan, then to whimper, and Simon felt cold needles prickling his spine. Something was wrong. The laugh like tinkling of the crystals above them grew louder and more insistent. The drone was slowing, loosing altitude.

“What is it Gunther!”

“Something is… draining the… power! Can’t… hold it… steady!”

Simon felt the attack before he saw it. He felt earth energy pouring into the sands out on the salt flat and saw an explosive cloud of sand launch skyward toward the drone a moment later. Gunther flinched and grunted aloud, but somehow the drone darted at the last moment and the sand projectile scored only a glancing blow. Now the drone was losing altitude rapidly as it approached the barrier of sandstone on the eastern horizon. Simon didn’t hesitate. He wrenched as much power as he could from the elemental plane and forced it into the White Sea beneath the troubled message drone.

The sensation was shocking. Simon immediately found himself in a fight for control unlike anything else he had ever encountered. He fought against burning concentrations of energy wrapped around more sand projectiles to launch against the fleeing drone. He shunted aside two such attacks with brute force, but then something changed. He felt his elemental power being sucked away into deeper parts of the sands, and altered somehow, rendered colder and harder. Then all of that power was turned against him as a ram of deep sands rocketed to the surface and broke through his containment to tower up above the sandstone ramparts that marked the edge of the White Sea’s domain.

The drone would be crushed against the hardened sands in moments. In desperation, Simon changed tactics, and slammed the door on his own power, envisioning all of the elemental power being sucked back into the elemental plane in a powerful vortex. It only worked for a moment. The center of the ram of sand softened and the top edge slumped forward as the power supporting it was withdrawn. For a brief moment the center of the towering wall of sand was lower and thinner than the edges. Drawing on a hidden reserve of strength, Gunther pushed the drone higher in altitude, and the small craft burst through the trap into the open desert to the east.

The suspended sands crashed back to the surface of the White Sea, defeated. But now a new towering mass thundered across the salt flat toward the exhausted mages who huddled on the dubious shelter of the obsidian shelf. The sounds from the crystal spire were harsher now, and more like screams than laughter. Simon looked at Gunther, but the young mage’s concentration was still locked on getting their message drone as far across the desert as possible. The craft was beyond their sight now, but Simon doubted it could reach its destination in its mangled condition, despite the air mage’s sacrifice. Gunther slumped where he sat, unaware of the trickle of blood from his nose and ears.

“Gunther, we have to move!” Simon shook the air mage, but got no response. Gunther’s eyes were focused somewhere far away, and he mumbled unintelligibly under his breath. Simon looked back across the salt flat to see that the sand tsunami had crossed half the distance to their perch, and was growing as it came. He hooked both hands under Gunther’s armpits and dragged him up away from the edge of the shelf. He didn’t stop until he got both of them up around behind a curve in the winding glass path toward the center of the island. He raced back toward the wagon, thinking to pull it up onto the shelf. Just as he stepped out into the open, the sands broke against the wagon and the island’s jutting shelf of obsidian. Like sea foam spraying into the air from crashing breakers, white salt clouds billowed up the shelf toward him but he scrambled back onto the sheltered path in time to avoid being enveloped.

On his last fleeing step, his foot caught on something soft and heavy behind him. Unable to turn, he cartwheeled helplessly backward. Through the numbness that had been slowly overwhelming his senses since they started this disastrous crossing, Simon felt his head crack against something hard and unyielding. His vision narrowed to a black tunnel. For a moment longer he saw the wheeling stars overhead, and then he saw nothing.

Chapter 11 Scene 6

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 45 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

The broad wagon wheels ground loudly as the handler drove the vehicle off of the powdered crystal of the salt flat onto a hard shelf jutting out from the towering obsidian monolith. They had arrived near the darkest hour of the night.

“Welcome to the Island of Black Glass. I’ll leave my wagon here with your equipment. The Prophets will transport it if you are allowed access to Ten Fallen Stones. You must follow the trail up to the center of the island to await the arrival of your guide.”

Simon’s breath wheezed in his chest and spots danced at the edge of his sight. He felt weak, feverish, and just wanted to lie down and rest. Some part of his sluggish mind refused to let him do so, for fear that he would never rise again if he did. Gunther staggered and nearly fell getting out of the wagon. Even the handler moved slowly, his previous deftness and efficiency reduced to deliberateness.

Simon didn’t understand how they had come to this. Surely a few hours without water should not be so debilitating, even in the desert?

“The Council is in your debt. Forgive me for doubting your warnings. I did not think the crossing would be so demanding.”

Simon’s speech was ragged, his breath coming in short gasps. He could not see the handler’s face under his mask, but he thought he detected a fleeting trace of sorrow in the tribesman’s eyes.

“The White Sea dries the body’s water faster than the harshest desert.”

He hesitated before continuing. He glanced around as if afraid of being overheard.

“There is more that you should know. Few would give voice to such superstitions. But old tribesmen like me hold certain fears in the silent places of their heart.”

The tribesman’s uncharacteristically furtive behavior made Simon nervous. But surely they were alone on this desolate plain. They had encountered no one moving on the desert since they departed the Star Seekers’ Gathering, let alone since they started this crossing.

“What fears? What are you saying?”

Simon was suddenly aware of a sound whispering from the obsidian spires of the island above them. It was as if a strong breeze stirred the standing crystals to produce a faint ringing of continuously changing tones. But there was no breeze where they stood. Simon reasoned that air must be stirring higher above the salt flat. It was the only logical explanation. The handler beckoned Simon and Gunther closer, so he could lower his voice.

“Some say that the sea hungers for the spirit’s essence as well as the body’s water. It is especially dangerous here for untrained shaman. Beware mages. You are in more danger than you know, but I can tell you nothing more.”

The handler’s cryptic warning told Simon nothing useful, but heightened his awareness. The sounds from the island became maddeningly suggestive of voices. Now that he was aware of it, he could not clear it from his mind. His skin felt overly sensitive to the chill dry air, sucking the moisture from his skin even as he shivered in a cold sweat.

If the tribesman noticed these conditions, he ignored them. He unhitched his lizards from the wagon. He moved more slowly than he had at the T’kulpa. Yet his careful hands made no mistakes. He finished all too soon for the weary mages.

He slung the bladder across his chest using the straps of the harness. He barked a short command and the lizards left their side by side position to line up nose to tail. He closed the nozzle on the trailing beast’s head harness, and looped its traces to a hook on his belt. He seated himself high on the shoulders of the lead animal, taking its traces in one hand while he maintained pressure on the much diminished bladder with the other.

He hesitated once again before muttering under his breath. His mount turned a scaly head toward him, and he scratched the bony ridge over one eye. He produced an object from his tightly wrapped robes and tossed it to Simon as he and Gunther stood on the shelf of obsidian.

It was a tiny vial, made from a hollowed shard of crystal stopped with a flexible plug of lizard hide. It held some fluid by the feel of it, but Simon could not identify it in the darkness. The handler looked him in the eye from the shoulder of his beast.

“If it comes to the worst, that may help you see your way to safety. Use only a few drops, and only if you have no other choice. Hold tightly to this thought: when you are clear of the Sea, you must go into the sands.”

The handler flicked his wrist and the lizards filed back onto the salt flat.

“Wait! What do you mean? What is this?”

The tribesman gave no answer as he rode his charges back across the salt flat in the direction they had come. Simon held the vial up against the dim light from the stars and the moon. The fluid inside was thick and dark, like heavy lamp oil.

Or like blood, Simon thought darkly.

Chapter 11 Scene 5

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 44 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Crossing the White Sea had been an arduous experience. The tribespeople’s ingenuity had amazed Simon. The handler had driven his lizard team up through the tunnel beyond the veil. Their path was lit only by the soft glow of thousands of crystals. But the old tribesman drove the team with great confidence at a speed that kept Simon in constant fear of a collision with the twisting sandstone walls.

When they broke into the open air, Simon let out the breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. The salt flat was a shimmering blanket, a sea of stars every bit as scintillating as those overhead. It made the horizon difficult to distinguish. A darker constellation soared upward from the south, the obsidian mass of the Island of Black Glass.

The elder tribesman wrapped his robes tightly. He bound rough cloth over his mouth, nose and hands after dousing it with a splash of their dwindling drinking water. He helped the mages do the same. He was not satisfied until the only exposed skin was a small strip around their eyes.

Then the handler revealed the purpose of the mysterious device from the Cave of Tears. He slowed their break neck pace and hopped down from the wagon to adjust the head harnesses on his lizards. When he returned to the driver’s seat, he rested both feet on the bladder and called out a guttural command to his beasts. They clambered forward more slowly than before, their heads held upright and sweeping their ridged heads from side to side as they went.

As they reached the edge of the salt flat, the handler pressed down gently on the bladder with his feet. Simon watched in amazement as pressurized jets of the white liquid burst forth from the lines each lizard carried. As they swept their heads from side to side they broadcast an overlapping spray in front of them, drenching the crystal laden sands ahead.

Simon quickly saw that the drenched salts could not be stirred up into a cloud, even by the heavy wagon wheels. Their progress was slow compared to the breakneck pace through the tunnel. The handler did not allow the lizards to speed up or slow down, but maintained a steady ground eating pace.

Just being on the White Sea was taxing. Simon found it difficult to breathe through the damp cloth over his nose and mouth. His breath came in shallow gasps. His eyes felt raw and ragged.

The temperature had fallen precipitously with the setting sun. Simon soon huddled within his robes, fighting an uncontrollable urge to shiver violently. Despite the chill, sweat beaded on his forehead, only to evaporate instantly into the dry air that hung over the salt flats. He felt himself constantly swallowing in a vain attempt to moisten his throat. They had used the last of their drinking water on their masks. As the night wore on, he felt increasingly wrung out, even desiccated. He wondered if Gunther was suffering as much inside the wagon.

Simon asked the handler many questions as much to keep his teeth from chattering as to pass the time. If the elder tribesman felt the same strain that Simon did, he gave no sign of it.

“Is the powder safe to handle when it’s wet like this?”

The handler shook his head.

“The crystal material is very dangerous to the inside. Cutting the skin with a large crystal causes fever, chills, and sickness. But not death unless there are many cuts. This fine powder wears through the skin in many places, absorbing into the body’s water quickly. It is even worse to breath. Wetting the dust keeps it down, but can’t make it safe.”

Simon stared at the terrain uneasily. The salts were a potent blood poison. He wondered how they caused the symptoms the tribesman described.

“Do the crystal fragments affect the lizards in the same way?”

“Their scales are hard, and the shards will not cut them. But if they get dry powder into their mouth or nose you don’t want to be within reach of their claws.”

“Why not?”

“Their blood is different than ours. It protects them. But the powder of the sea still drives them mad. It makes them uncontrollable. They lash out, attacking anything that comes near. They forget themselves and their training. Sometimes they kill other lizards or injure themselves. Sometime they have to be destroyed.”

“Destroyed? You mean the fever doesn’t kill them?”

The handler shook his head.

“No. If we isolate them before they inflict too much damage, the frenzy subsides. Especially if we can get them into the sands quickly.”

“Into the sands?”

“After every crossing, they must return to the sands of the open desert. They roll in the sand to polish and clean their scales. When they are in a frenzy they will bury themselves entirely. Only when covered by sand can they recover.”

Through the haze of mind numbing dehydration, curiosity tickled the back of Simon’s thoughts. The Healer’s Guild would be very interested in this information. He could only imagine what uses they might find for it, but the healers were always collecting scraps of obscure knowledge.

The stars wheeled overhead and the dark monolith of the Island of Black Glass drew steadily closer. The imposing tower of obsidian reminded him that he would not deliver any information to anyone unless they survived the high desert and the machinations of the mysterious Tribe of Prophets.

Chapter 11 Scene 4

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 43 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Simon could not tell whether he was awake or dreaming. He could not tell what was real or imagined.

The pain. Was the pain real? Was the thirst real? The cracking of his ravaged lips, the burning dryness of his throat, the blistering constriction of his sinuses, the pounding throb behind his eyes, and the afterimage of the sun glaring off the salt flats like blinding daggers. Were these real? He remembered being nearly frozen with cold once. But now he burned from the inside out. If he had the strength he felt sure that he would peel off his own skin to escape the terrible burning. Where had everything gone wrong?

He was crawling, face down on an endless plain of shimmering white. His left arm ached and his hand was clenched in a clawed grip that he could not relax. Something pulled heavily against numb fingers, something he must not let go. Craning his neck around, he squinted against the harsh glare and the curious black film that clouded his vision. Rough cloth, begrimed by heavy wear, and crusted with salt. The cloth was the collar of a… robe, a set of mage’s robes. Yes, that was it, traveling robes like the ones he wore. They were mage’s robes! But robes should not be so heavy! He squinted, and the skin at the corners of his eyes cracked painfully, but he saw the body tangled in the robes. No, it was not a body! It was Gunther! The young air mage twitched occasionally, but exhibited no other signs of life.

Simon continued his hopeless crawl across the blasted landscape. In a small corner of his mind that was still capable of thought, he marveled at his determination even as he wondered if he was merely crawling in circles. He could not see any landmarks in this blinding white glare. But no, there was some faint itch that kept him moving toward something. What was it?

Wasn’t there something he was supposed to remember? Something he had to do? He danced on the edge of consciousness. His mind grasped at elusive fever dreams and flashes of memory, even as his tortured body struggled on across the white plain long after it should have given up and died.

Chapter 11 Scene 3

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 42 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Tor opened his eyes. He lay on his back on sands illuminated by the glow of a million stars glittering overhead. He felt kindled by a strange, cold fire that burned inside him. It seemed to him that only moments had passed in that other dream-like state. But the wheel of stars overhead told him a different story. Hours had passed.

His lips were wet, his throat, dry. He turned his head and saw an outcropping of sandstone to his left. It cast rippling shadows on the starlit sands, visible only to his multifaceted sight. He saw Stephen Silver-eye sitting on the sands with his back to the stones, looking out over Tor’s body into the open desert. The shaman rose quickly and came to Tor’s side when he saw that the Prophet had awoken.

“Brother Tor. It is good to see you awake again.”

Meena waited near the base of the sandstone wall, her dark eyes never leaving Tor’s face. Drez crouched out on the sands away from the wall, casually flipping his shardsling from one hand to the other. His back was to Tor. There was no tension in his shoulders as he scanned the starlit desert dunes to the south. But his disarming stance held a coiled readiness that Tor could see now, where others would be fooled. Tor felt rather than saw Surya and Jorgen standing silently some distance beyond the young Storm Chaser.

The facets in Tor’s vision were whirling, disappearing and reappearing in quick succession. He felt a strange energy flow into him, the shadow’s promised strength. The visions changed from a disorienting blur into distinct moments of crystal clarity. It was as though he was seeing the same scene through a million lenses simultaneously. He watched each of them click into place in response to his every action, each and every moment. But rather than overwhelm him, these visions now reassured him, strengthened his resolve. He surrendered to them and let them guide his actions.

For the briefest of instants, he heard every possibility and saw every outcome. In that timeless instant between heartbeats, he understood the awful weight of every moment, leading irresistibly to the next. And he knew exactly what he must do.

Chapter 11 Scene 2

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 41 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Tor floated in a darkness lit by clouds of purple fog and showers of incandescent sparks. He sensed the lurking presence of the shadow but could not see it.

“What have you done?”

No more than what you asked. Have you forgotten your words so quickly?

“What words? I agreed to share my vision with you, nothing more.”

A form gathered before Tor, a darker shadow superimposed on the flash lit darkness. It laughed, and Tor swore that he could see the sound of whispers emanating from the rippling shape.

Nothing more? But you swore to pay any price for the power of the Shadow Chamber, and gladly.

Tor’s heart stopped. He remembered having such thoughts during his report to the Oracle. But he had never voiced them. Then he cringed as he realized the foolishness of such distinctions. The shadow could read his most intimate thoughts when they were bonded within the crystal matrix. One could not keep secrets from the shadows in their own prison. Tor had been careless.

In confirmation of his grim suspicions, the shadow’s laughter rolled through him again. It was a dark sound, full of savage triumph.

We share your sight now. Wasn’t that our agreement? My strength for your sight?

“Our agreement was for you to see through my eyes for a time, in payment for passage through the crystal matrix! Not for you to take my sight from me!”

I have not taken your sight! As a Prophet you could hear fragments of the truth. But you were blind. Now you can see.

“But I can’t see, fiend! Talk sense! What have you done to my eyes?”

Opened them, little fool. How else could I see through them?

“Opened them! To what? I see only shadow and illusion here!”

Because you have chosen blindness. Your eyes are closed. You lack the strength to keep them open.

At last Tor saw how cleverly he had been trapped. While he lay senseless in the Shadow Chamber, his vision had been enhanced by this manipulative spirit.

But evidently this new vision was more than his body could bear without the shadow’s strength. He would continually have to rely on the creature’s help, perpetually renewing their contract.

He would never be free. He would bear this dark rider until his death returned him to the sands. This demon was clever for a shadow. Tor had been caught off-guard, but he would not let it happen again.

“What do you want of me, shadow?”

Would a little gratitude be too much to ask? I have granted you a gift, one most would beg for. You were a mere Prophet before. But now you are so much more.

“What do you mean more?”

Through me, you shall see all. Very soon the time will be right for you to embrace your destiny. But first you must cast aside your weakness and open your eyes.

Tor floated in darkness, while the shadow waited. He considered what the creature had told him. He could choose to remain here in darkness, allowing his body to waste away. He could choose death. This would sever his connection with his dark rider, but would also end his carefully laid plans.

Tor wondered how he might turn this setback to his advantage. What if the creature spoke truly? What would it mean to see the shadows of things to come the way he had learned to hear their whispers? Surely such power would make him first among Prophets. Then he might put his grandest plans into action. The Oracle’s failing sight would be swept aside. Yes. Everything would fall into place once the Oracle was out of the way.

“All right shadow, I have made this contract and I will honor it. Lend me your strength that we both may see.”

As you wish.

Mission Peak, Fremont CA

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Trail Guides

Today, Margot, Bella, and I hiked a 6.2 mile loop through the Mission Peak Regional Preserve. It’s a large area (about 3000 acres) with miles of hiking trails, including sections of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Ohlone Trail. The views are breathtaking from countless places in the park, which looks down across Fremont onto the southern arm of San Francisco Bay. The sweeping views are due to two things: rapid elevation gain, and a near complete lack of trees.

With the exception of A.A. Memorial Grove, a stand of mixed oaks and eucalyptus tucked into a steep canyon below the peak, nothing grows much above knee high. So like much of the hiking in coastal regions of California, the 2000 ft climb in the 3 miles from the parking lot to the peak is shadeless, sunny, and dry. But the views really are quite nice. So if you’re going to try this hike, wear sunscreen, bring plenty of water and dress in layers. You’ll be stripping off by the time you reach the summit.

A warning note: Although I write trail names in this post, much of that is recreated from looking at the map after the fact. The trail marking was not always clear, particularly in places where multiple trails converged. Let the hiker beware.

We started our hike at the Stanford Ave staging area. This parking lot with water fountains and a vault toilet is located at the eastern end of Stanford Ave, half a mile from Mission Blvd off Interstate 680 in Fremont. We took the Hidden Valley Trail, climbing on a wide graded slope through rolling grassy fields. At 1.5 miles we passed the intersection of the Peak Meadow Trail on our right. This first cut-off trail offers hikers an option to short-cut the summit attempt, resulting in a nice 3.6 mile loop that returns to the parking lot. We pressed on with out traildog in tow (she probably wold have rather taken the short-cut).

At 2.2 miles we reached our second major intersection with the Grove Trail. This area was a little confusing, since walkers and bikers have cut quite a few side trails, and some of them seem very well established though none of them show up on the official trail guide. At the Grove Trail, you can turn right to walk by one of the two park residences on your way to A.A. Memorial Grove. But the Grove Trail short-cuts the summit again, though it does offer the tantalizing promise of a bit of shade. We turned left and pressed on toward the summit.

The rest of the climb was pretty steep, but the view kept getting better the higher we climbed, so we pressed ahead. At 2.3 miles we came to a large triangular intersection with the Peak Trail. The Peak Trail is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and cuts along the ridge line toward Ed Levin County Park to the south. We turned right, and the really steep climb began. We ended up coming around the back of the peak on the Eagle trail before rejoining the Peak Trail at 2.9 miles. (Remember I said the trail signs were not always clear?)

We stopped at the summit (about 3.1 miles into the hike) for a snack or two and a photo op with the trail dog. You could see in all directions from the summit, so I think the climb was worth it. You’d have to ask Margot and Bella whether they agree.

Our two options from the summit would be to return back down the way we came, or climb down the other side of the peak and return the the staging area from the southern side of the park. We decided to make the trip a loop rather than an out-and-back. Parts of our downhill trip were even steeper than our uphill climb, so if you’re thinking about making the loop yourself, tighten your laces before leaving the peak.

We left the summit of Mission Peak (elevation 2517 ft) by continuing southeast along the Peak Trail. As we climbed down, we could see Eagle Spring Backpack Camp along the Eagle Trail a steep 400 foot tumble down the eastern side of the ridge. At 3.4 miles we turned right onto the beginning of Horse Heaven Trail. Although, I would not recommend taking a horse on it if I were you. The high end of Horse Heaven Trail is narrow and steep where it cuts down into McClure Spring and where it has to climb back out again. McClure Spring feeds the A.A. Memorial Grove I mentioned earlier, and it was actually running (slowly) when we passed it today. The area was actually muddy, and made for a dirty scramble across a couple of rotting planks near the intersection with the Grove Trail at 3.6 miles.

Beyond the spring, Horse Heaven Trail forged pretty much straight down. As I said, I wouldn’t want to take a horse on it personally. The trail had to cut down into a gully and then climb back out again as it crossed Agua Caliente Creek near 4.5 miles. Unfortunately the creek was all caliente and no agua this time of year. But at least there was no mud!

At about 4.8 miles, we came to an intersection where a graded trail cut off to the right. The sign markers were a bit confusing and we ended up going straight ahead. We continued for about a tenth of a mile before realizing we were on a cut-off with an incredibly steep downhill descent. If you’re indestructible, have a death wish, or want to ride a sheet of cardboard down it on your backside, you can take this unnamed cut-off trail; it eventually rejoins the Peak Meadow Trail after a 560 ft drop. We turned back and got back on the Horse Heaven Trail. Oddly enough this lower section is very well graded with switchbacks leading gently down to the intersection with the Peak Meadow Trail at 5 miles.

The final 1.3 miles along the Peak MeadowTrail was widely graded and steep in places, but manageable. Bella somehow managed to find a mud hole to wallow in up to her belly. Leave it to a dog to find standing water at the end of the summer drought. She was a mess, needless to say.

After returning to the parking lot on Stanford Ave, we cleaned up a bit and piled in the car for the short ride home to San Jose. For more details, visit Mission Peak Regional Preserve’s web site. I’ve included a map and altitude profile below. Happy hiking!

Mission Peak

Chapter 11 Scene 1

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 40 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Chapter 11: Desperate Times

“Plagues are not the only thing to come out of the Great Desert. The shamans of the reclusive Desert Tribes are rumored have cures for disease and treatments for health conditions that surpass the understanding of the Healers Guild. Unfortunately, they do not often share their knowledge with outsiders. Those who gain enough of a desert shaman’s trust to be taught are highly sought after.”

Almanac of the Healers Guild

Without recalling how he had gotten there, Tor found himself stepping out of a field of sparkling crystal nodes into a dark void. It was the blown sand he had landed in earlier. Suddenly he was falling upward as the void expanded around him. His breath left his lungs in a rush and he lost the shadow vision he had so carefully woven for himself in the chamber. He was blind.

For a moment, panic seized his heart as dark laughter echoed through his head. Then he surfaced from the shadows into the low rays of the setting sun. It dazzled his eyes again, and spots danced in his vision, a ghostly reminder of the starscape of crystal nodes in the Shadow Chamber below.

Was the sun setting already? How could he have spent the entire day in the Shadow Chamber? He heard whispers on the desert wind, and then the laughter returned. Though he walked in sunlight once more, Tor carried a greater darkness within.

He had carried shadows from the chambers before, but each experience was different. This rider seemed stronger somehow, more entrenched. It haunted the depths of his mind, probing thoughts and sensations better left buried. It was an elusive guest. It fled from any direct approach into dark recesses where he could not follow. But the presence was undeniable.

He stood in the crevasse. But instead of falling into its fathomless depths, his feet rested on coarse sands. The shallow depression was only calf deep, but filled with inky black shadows that chilled the skin of his feet.

Tor was dazed. Why were his feet so cold? He stepped up onto the warm desert floor to discover that he was barefoot. Even more disconcerting was a strange doubling of his vision that showed inky shadows dripping from his feet and running slowly back into the crevasse like warm tar. What was this?

He heard the sands shift behind him and turned as Stephen Silver-eye and Meena approached him.

“Brother Tor, You have returned! Meena, summon the others.”

The lithe tribeswoman clenched her shardspear in a firm grip across her body, ready for anything. Her eyes danced as she as she glanced at Tor.

“At once Father.”

She sped away, as Tor stood dumbfounded. His vision doubled, and then split again and again until he saw countless identical warriors superimposed in Meena’s sprinting form.

No, that wasn’t right. They were not identical. He saw differences now, like the distorted reflections glimpsed in the facets of a crystal. Some were small, others horrifying.

In some aspects she ran hunched over in fear, pursued by something she could neither see nor escape. In others she ran fierce and proud, arrayed in magnificent robes that shimmered like liquid crystal. In a handful of visions the shardspear dragged at her right side in one hand, and blood sheeted down her left side where her other arm should have been. And in some of the visions she simply was not there. He tore his gaze away from the dizzying spectacle as Stephen Silver-eye addressed him.

“Brother Tor, are you well?”

Tor looked at Stephen, and his vision split as it had with Meena. His head throbbed. The facets continued to multiply before his eyes, so he closed them. He felt so weak. Why did he feel so weak?

“I will be in a moment Silver-eye.”

The voice which issued from his raw and cracked throat did not even sound like his own. Tor cautiously opened his eyes. His multifaceted vision remained, but as he watched many of the facets dimmed and faded from view. What was this?

“Why did you leave the Shadow Chamber entrance?”

Tor could not trust his voice to ask more. Stephen Silver-eye bowed his head and swallowed.

“I am sorry we failed you my Prophet. We stayed here for two nights before seeking shelter to the north. Even then we left a scout here at all times to await your return. I sent Surya and Jorgen back to the cache for supplies last night while the rest of us took turns keeping watch.”

Tor’s head spun and his multi-faceted vision danced. As he grappled with his senses, several facets of his vision faded and new ones flashed into existence. The whispers in the desert wind that were his constant companion intensified. Dark laughter echoed in the recesses of his mind.

“Keeping watch? How long…”

But his voice cracked before he could continue. Stephen Silver-eye looked up in alarm.

“You disappeared three days and two nights ago, Brother Tor.”

The laughter welled up in his head, combining with the whispers in a deafening crescendo. His fragmented vision exploded into sparkling stars that blossomed like darkness.

“Water…”

It was his last word before the darkness reached up to pull him down. Before the alarmed shard warden could spring to his aid, Tor fell to the sands at Stephen Silver-eye’s feet.