Into Moose Valley

A First Glimpse

On a world as far away as the edge of a dream and as close as the end of a slide there is a broad, fertile valley snuggled down between two high mountain ranges, running down into a wide natural harbor. In the valley at the salt water’s edge, on either side (though more to the south than to the north if you want to be exact) of the river (which runs, jumps, plays and falls from the high mountain lake where the two ranges meet in the west all across the valley) lives one of the two strangest and most wonderful towns ever found anywhere.

If you are ever so lucky as to sail there, the first you see of Moose Harbor is the tall, graceful lighthouse. Its lamp never lets sailors go astray in those waters. The light pierces any obstacle, never hurts the eyes and always shines the color to sooth one best in any storm.

Once in the harbor itself, on a calm day, you can look down through the deep water at the stone ruins and all the fish and the young alligator who live there. Of the town, you would see to the north of the river the Port where boats and planes and hot air balloons and zeppelins and bicycles and land ships and space planes and all sorts of other modes of transportation may easily come to discharge their passengers or cargo, take on new passengers or cargo, refuel, recharge, re-provision or just relax without causing anyone any bother. Near to the Port floats the Inn. The broad, multi-story, comfortable, wooden building with the bluish slate roof drifts about over the water with a nice bit of lawn and a broad patio out back where one may sit and enjoy the sea air. If you do not happen to fly for yourself, just give a tug to one of the ropes which tether it in place and it will float down to the ground for you in short order.

Many of the other buildings have similar qualities, though most are content to stay on the ground if not always in the same place. There is the Moosiversity which makes up most of the town to the south of the river. It has classrooms in other lands and times that you reach just by going through the correct door at the correct time just like you would to reach your math lecture in a more ordinary school. Read more

Moosepedia: Meus, Patriarch of Moose Valley

Name:    Meus, Patriarch of Moose Valley, former “King” of Moosympus

Biography:  Meus is a very old moose, though there a few older. Long ago, he founded the mountaintop city of Moosympus, where he led the other Moosympians (as much as they needed leading) for long ages of human history, until his people ran out of room and stopped having children, and they found that, in a very subtle way, their free interactions with and offers of help to their human neighbors was doing more harm than good, and the Moosympians settled on a plan to move.

Meus searched far and wide, over several worlds until he met Moosette, a moose of another kind, who invited Meus and his Moosympians to come live in her Valley.

Domicile: Meus and Moosette live together in Moose House, in the middle of the original town* in Moose Valley, with one side of the extensive garden against the river. Moose House is far larger than the two moose need for themselves, but they have a semi-permanent open house policy that fills up a lot more space.

Moosette’s kitchen always has fresh food and drink out for anyone who wants to stop by, whether there is anyone home or not. Moose House has extra parlors and living rooms for meetings, classes, and other gatherings that prefer a more homey atmosphere, or have some other reason to stay in Town rather than travel down the river to the harbor to use the more extensive facilities on the newer Moosiversity campus. Moose house also has space set aside for communal storage and a fair-sized, if rather specialized library, though most of those services are now handled by the Community Center and Marius’ Great Library.

In one, far corner of the garden is a shed where Meus keeps his old chariot. Meus is no longer the “King” of Moosympus, so the old contracts no longer apply. Moreover, the winds of that Valley are not the same as the winds of the Mountain, but the Valley winds like Meus, so every once in a while, when he has a good reason, Meus can still be seen riding his chariot through the sky, behind horses formed from the four winds as he did of old.

 

Moosepedia: Cody Elias Tower

It has been put to me, by my minions among others, that I have an awful lot of friends for someone else to keep track of. Moreover, as we continue to go out Walking and having adventures, the number of people my archives cover will only continue to grow. My minion is one of those poor humans who is so bad with names, that she has even forgotten her own on occasion, and she thinks those of you who will only get to know us through these archives (and she) might benefit from some sort of reference stating who is whom, a picture, and a few things about us.

I like to be helpful, so, of course I agreed. I asked my minions who they should like to read about first, and they have both chose me for some silly reason. They both know me quite well, after all. They pointed out that you might not, and you might rather want to do so, however embarrassing I might find writing about myself.

Name: Cody Elias Tower

Biography: With so many stories going through his head, Cody has trouble remembering about the time before he became the Moose Valley Archivist. There are some who should know who say that before the Moosympians moved to their Valley, Cody had another name and another job the great flying city of Moosgard, and he does not deny it. Mostly, he just finds talking about himself… less interesting than all the adventures his friends have.

Let us just say that soon after the Valley’s foundation, Cody was seen sitting in a shady garden nook, writing in a great leather-bound tome, and he always seems to know what has been going on, even when the action is worlds away.

Domicile:

One of the supporting pieces of evidence as to Cody’s Moosgardian origins is his chosen residence. Even on the sunniest, clearest day, that Meus can come up with, a fluffy cloud often drifts a lazy circuit around the Valley. Though its edges are a fluffy white, the sun does not touch the center. Sunshine does not pass through most stone, and Mjollnyr’s castle rests on that cloud. The top of the castle’s tallest widest tower, Cody keeps and creates the Valley Archive, with his living quarters on the level below, each level one big, airy room, broken into sections only by the placement of furniture.
Interests:
Cody is almost always to be found in those two rooms, unless a friend has stopped by to invite him out for fresh air and exercise. His books can write themselves, but Cody likes to keep watch over all his friends, just in case they might need him to call in help.

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 6 of 6)

Once the sound of the engine had faded, and people could converse without shouting, Boom asked Marmaduke, “Do you think he will be okay? I know you rebuilt the whole motor after the crash on the last test flight.”

Marmaduke nodded. “He should be fine. I corrected the flaws from the last design. Wolf paid close attention when I instructed him on the new flight controls and trained him, so he should handle things quite well.”

“Besides, Malcolm and Mary are both up there, paralleling him. If something goes wrong, they will be nearby to lend assistance,” said Moozie as he floated over to comment in his role of flight safety person.

The wolf flew slowly at first, drifting up and down and side to side, getting the feel of the controls and all Marmaduke’s tweaks. Then, he picked up speed as he gained in confidence. The urge to push the new harness higher and faster tugged at the wolf’s tail, but Moozie’s caution about not going outside the flight test route stuck in his mind. There should be time enough for play and exploration when the tests were done.

The wolf could see Malcolm in his biplane bank in to fly parallel  to his own flight path on the wolf’s left, another reminder to keep things restrained. The wolf banked sedately to his right, following the river as the flight plan dictated, slowing down to be safe.

Up ahead, the wolf caught sight of Mary’s airship, pacing him on the right. The airship served two purposes. As well as a second pair of aerial eyes, Mary’s craft could serve as an emergency landing spot if he had trouble going down without dropping out of the sky. The airship had a special landing platform on top of the fuselage for him and other smaller fliers.

To serve as a landing spot, the flying craft would need to halt its forward motion while still having lift. Helicopters and balloons could hover like that, but airplanes could not.

Finding the airship’s presence reassuring, yet unneeded, the wolf waved at Mary where she stood on the bridge gondola of the and the moderate sized crowd in the common area beyond, taking the Valley Aerial Tour to watch his flight (at least partly).

The airborne trio drifted eastward over the forested banks of the river towards the looming tor of bare rock and Moosekateer Castle. Malcolm had fallen into a chase position, behind the wolf, while Mary and her airship drifted along to one side.

In the water below, the wolf caught sight of Lee, the giant alligator, with a load of dressed stone on his back, for all the world as if swimming along making an ordinary delivery. The wolf smiled to himself. He knew very well that unless the stone was meant for the castle (and there was no new construction going on at the castle), Lee was swimming the wrong way. The wolf waved a paw down at the great alligator, and in spite of the show of just happening to be in the area, Lee grinned a very toothy grin and waved back with the tip of his long tail.

As the castle grew to dominate more and more of the horizon, the wolf grinned his own toothy grin as he saw all the pennants flying from the outer curtain walls and the great wolf decorated flags and banners hung from the towers. Someone had even rigged three great search lights shining up from the inner keep. That they were clearly visible even in the bright afternoon light meant those had to be some extremely powerful lights.

Just to the west, on a broad piece of flat ground good for picnics and kite flying below the castle lay the wolf’s goal, and a great white X marked the spot, lined on three sides by a surprising crowd of people. As he flew closer, the wolf could pick out Boom’s bright blue fur, and he thought the grey hippopatamoose hugging a splash of red had to be Helena, still carrying her fire extinguisher.

Malcolm pulled up to the wolf’s left, as he had at the beginning of the flight. The moose waved first a poof, and then dipped the near wing of the biplane before banking away to return to the Moose Valley Airfield atop the great Port complex. Airplanes needed a lot more to land and take off than the personal flying harness.

“It is too bad that Malcolm can not stay for my landing and announcement,” the wolf thought with real regret. Then he brightened. “I will have to come up with a present, a special thank  you. Then again, there were a number of people had helped with the wolf’s quest to gain the air. He would have to find ways to thank everyone.

With a deep breath, the wolf began his descent. He managed the landing with hardly a stumble. The crowd held back and held its peace until the wolf had the harness shut down. The sudden silence fell like the indrawn  breath before the crowd’s great cheer, but the wolf gave them such a look, that the breath caught and held.

The wolf sought out Marmaduke in the crowd. Like the rest of the group from the ranch, the inventor had taken a slide to the castle, so as to be there for the landing. “The harness works?” the wolf asked coolly.

“It certainly seems to,” Marmaduke said after swallowing several ideas for possible improvements.

The wolf gave a regal nod, and turned to address the crowd. “Now that I have my ‘wings’ I should like to announce that I have chosen for myself a name,” he called in a carrying tone. The held breath turned into a gasp. The wolf allowed a moment for surprise to settle before making his announcement. “From now on, my name is Pterolycus.” He paused a beat then grinned at his friends, “But if you like, you may all call me Peter.”

 

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 5)

Boom slid out of the group and walked over to join the wolf. “You do not have to keep serving as Marmaduke’s test pilot, you know. The project may be for you, but I am quite accustomed and ready to serve. I know from experience that even when the safety measures keep you entirely unharmed, crashing out of the sky can still make one nervous for a while afterwards.” Boop patted the wolf on the shoulder, bending down a bit to reach. (Patting the wolf on the head would have been easier, but it might have come across as more condescending than comforting under the circumstances.)

“Thank you for the offer,” the wolf said after a deep breath. “But I might as well get used to falling out of the sky now as later. Even when the harness is pronounced complete, I imagine that circumstances will crop up that bring me plunging down from time to time. Devices can fail from other things besides design flaws, after all.”

Marmaduke stood up, pulling his wrench out of the motor and buttoning up the flight harness. “Ready to go, we just need to get fuel and test pilot into the harness.”

The wolf moved forward to strap himself into the harness, while Marmaduke fetched the fuel from the cart.

Everyone seemed to want to check, and double check that everything was fastened correctly before, the flight test was ready to begin.

“Are you ready to fly, Mr. Wolf?” asked Marmaduke.

The wolf nodded, not quite trusting his voice.

Marmaduke led the llama cart out of the practice ring while Boom herded the rest of the observers out of the test site practice ring, closing the gate carefully before signaling to Moozie that they were ready to go.

As the safety officer for the day’s test flight, Moozie had the ultimate authority on when things could be started, and under what circumstances it must stop immediately. Moozie looked around to make sure everyone was at a safe distance and prepared.

Helena hugged her first aid kit in case someone got hurt. Aurora had taken charge of the fire extinguisher, just in case.

“Just take things slow and steady. The changes I have made might have changed the way it handles,” said Marmaduke.

Marmaduke looked to Moozie, so did the wolf. Moozie said, “Mr. Wolf, you may start your rotary engine. Please keep watch for my signal before attempting a take off. That will give me time to verify everyone is at a safe distance.”

“I copy that,” said the wolf. The wolf used his snout to bump the engine toggle on the control panel mounted beside his head.

The engine on the helicopter harness roared to life. As the small, efficient engine built up its rotations per minute, the blades spun faster and faster.

The wolf could feel vibrations course through the harness frame and vibrate his body as noise increased. The wolf kept his eyes on Moozie, concentrating on the job as hard as he could, so that even the wolf could not tell if some of the shaking might be nervousness instead.

Moozie watched the startup sequence, making certain everything functioned as it ought. Then he looked to make sure everyone was clear of the take off zone. When he was sure all was well, Moozie gestured with his left poof in a clear signal to take off when ready.
The wolf nudged the throttle and the rotor picked up speed, generating enough lift to raise the whole wolf and contraption off the ground.

The wolf hovered briefly a dozen body lengths (his body length) off the ground. Then after adjusting the controls and gaining courage, the wolf set off toward the river which served as his designated flight path.

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 4)

You almost got this last week, as Minion has been so distracted that she did not realize part 3 had never gotten posted back when she first got sick. Two weeks in a row may be coincidence. Let us see if we can get three and make it a trend.

“I really do think that everything should work out this time, and not just because I think I have worked out all the bugs. Have you noticed how many of our friends have gotten themselves involved in this test flight? Moozie, with the way he watches the interconnections between places, events, people, things, and even ideas, often knows quite a bit about the future, and he has come out to act as one of our spotters. Helena is here with a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and an expectant grin. I heard that Boom, Myra, and Aurora all intend to be on hand as well. Those are just the people who will be here at the ranch for the take off.”

The wolf did not have anything to say in response, so he just nodded. For anyone else, the gesture might have come across as a nervous one but the wolf was always a laconic individual. He could have been nervous, or excited, or merely have nothing he felt needed saying. He could even have felt some combination of two, or even all three, and few would ever be able to tell.

Marmaduke did not expect an answer and finished up his work on his new invention. The adjustments had to be triple checked. Clever pooves insured that the rotor bearings were greased, and the drive belt was taut.

With surprising ease, Marmaduke picked up the whole assembly and transferred it to the llama drawn cart waiting just outside the workshop, strapping it down, carefully to keep it from shifting around or falling off. Marmaduke touched the llama lightly on the back, right flank, setting it moving.

As Marmaduke, the wolf, and the llama (who Marmaduke called Devon, even though the llama had yet to answer to it) made their way from the workshop, they gathered a small tail of followers. Myra and Aurora joined them from the bench outside the house, walking side by side. Myra carried a small, open sack of popcorn, while Aurora brought dried apples slices, and they both munched neatly from either sack as they walked. Helena trailed behind with her first aid kit in one arm and the fire extinguisher in the other, though she looked at the two snackers reaching for tidbits in the other’s sack and quietly crunching in a way that said she wished she had brought a snack of her own, even if that would mean she had to hop along on one leg to have a third poof free to carry everything.

Boom dovetailed into place at the end of the procession, coming up from the river bridge with his rolling, sailor’s stride in a maneuver so well timed that it looked practiced, but probably came from a slight tug on the strings of connection under Moozie’s clever old pooves, instead.

That strange, old one perched in place at the testing site already, his hollow end stretched around the top of a fence post, like a hand puppet left out for display.

In the day to day routine of the ranch, the ‘test site’ they aimed for served as one of the practice rings for the wide variety of riding and draft animals that Marmaduke raised and trained in between experiments. The walls rose higher and stood sturdier than most, but an auroch, elephant, or triceratops takes a bit more containing than a horse or llama might.

The llama trotted through the gate and into the middle of the ring with no guidance from anyone. Devon knew quite well what the cart meant when it came from that workshop. If Marmaduke had been working on something more explosive, he would have used the underground bunker on the other side of the ranch, instead of the workshop near the house. Still, once the mechanism sat on the ground in the ring’s center, Devon set off out the gate again without prompting. Marmaduke’s inventions often made too much noise to be wholly comfortable, and could be very unpredictable in their movements.

The antlered contingent of the column, however, followed the cart into the ring and stood around talking quietly among themselves while Marmaduke plunged once again into the heart of the motor with a wrench, and the wolf stood a little off to one side absently digging in the dirt with one paw, until he noticed the nervous gesture and made himself stop.

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 3)

We are sorry to have been so long getting back to this. Minion got put down hard for a few weeks way back in February with what we strongly suspect was that nasty corona virus that is on everyone’s these days. For a few weeks after that, she was mildly ambulatory but would have a relapse every time she went out of the house…and in that period the lockdown happened.

Since then she has been poking at a couple other projects, and it has been very difficult getting her back to paying attention to ME. Hopefully, I have her attention now, but she has been shopping for microphones and learning about making podcasts with the stories she wrote for that purpose over a year ago. Focus and attention may still be an issue. Oh well. (Husband Minion never did find all the bits he wanted for his picture, but then he is the one who brought the crud into the house from his coworkers who returned from South Korea and Japan, so we forgive him.)

Several weeks of trial and error later, Marmaduke tilted his head to examine one side of his creation. It had already failed an integrity structure test (and several others) once already. He made this second iteration was made of tougher materials and while he was at it, he made some improvements to the control mechanisms, and he added a larger rotor as well. He polished the aluminum and titanium rotor until it gleamed in his workshop lights humming to himself, until the wolf scratched stone in lieu of a cough to announce himself as had become his habit.

“Almost ready to go! This version has more speed and lift among other things,” commented Marmaduke to his young lupine friend.

“So…I will not be falling from the sky again? I am glad that we got a second opinion, so the parachute worked the first time,” exclaimed the wolf.

Marmaduke did not even look up from the bolt he was adjusting with his torque wrench when he responded. He was used to that sort of reaction to his designs, even though no one had ever come to significant harm from a malfunction of one of his designs. A few might have had the pants frightened off of them (if they were the sort to wear pants), but that could hardly be called his fault. “You worry too much. My safety precautions always work, and the escape rocket would have worked just as well as the parachute you insisted upon. Even Miltin will tell you that my safety mechanisms always work just the way that they should, no matter how much we diverge in our approaches to engineering.”

“I am very glad to hear that,” the wolf said with a wry note in his customary growl.

Marmaduke fiddled with the helicopter pack where it lay in the one clear spot on his cluttered workbench, making a faint squeaky noise. “Machines are much easier to redesign and fix than friends. I am always careful and cautious with things that are important.”

“And the occasional, unexpected plunge out of the sky certainly does make the whole process more…interesting,” said the wolf. “And I fully acknowledge that usually take the role of test pilot for yourself, and I am the one who insisted on the change. I am very grateful that you have put forth so much effort on my behalf, but we can tease our friends without giving offence.”

Something in the way the wolf said the last, not so much in the words, but in the way his head and tail sank slightly, made it clear to Marmaduke that the wolf was not as sure about that as he sounded. “You are welcome,” Marmaduke grumped. He let the silence stretch out for a moment or two before he glanced over at the wolf and winked, proving that he could give as good as he got on the teasing front.

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 2)

Sorry, sorry, sorry. In Minion’s head all last week she kept going, “The text is all done and I shall post it as soon as Husband Minion gives me the new picture,” but then things got busy and he never gave the new picture, and she forgot. I will make her put up the rest of the story with old pictures ready to drop, and she can edit them before they post with the NEW pictures if she gets any of them on time, ’cause the story is DONE and Minion is not at all a visual person, anyway.

When the moose managed to sit up and turn to face the wolf, the visitor was slightly disconcerted by the tentacle like extensions squirming around Marmaduke’s head from each point of his antlers. At the end of each one spewed out a tiny, bright beam of light, that occasionally broadened into a flood as it focused on an item around the lab for half a breath or so, before  focusing down to room again, when the wolf did not seem ready to speak, Marmaduke started the ball rolling. “Would you like to go into the house for a snack or a drink of something? I seem to have worked through lunch, and I may have forgotten to get myself breakfast after taking care of the animals this morning when I had an idea as to how to improve the tad board over there.” Instead of pointing or waving a poof to indicate the board in question, two of the lightenticles flooded the wall with light.

The wolf swallowed and nodded his acceptance, profoundly relieved when Marmaduke shed his animated adornments, tucking them tidily in a narrow drawer built especially for them.

“There should be some tomato soup, bread and cheese that we can grill for sandwiches, at least I think someone came by to make sure I have proper things to eat, because I get so busy I forget to take care of myself, and that makes them worry.”

“I am sure we can find something,” the wolf agreed. Then he finally found a way to address the purpose of his visit. “I have come to ask if you would take an engineering projection on my behalf, but it is not a thing. I have ever done or observed done, so I do not know the proper way to go about the task.”

Marmaduke stopped on his way down the path to his house to give the wolf a piercing look, excitement lighting his eyes. “You tell me what you would like me to build, and I will tell you approximately how long it should take.” Rubbing his pooves together, Marmaduke started to turn back towards his workshop.

The wolf stuck his nose out in Marmaduke’s path, and gently steered the Moose back towards the house. “First we will find something good for your lunch. Then I shall tell you what I have in mind while you eat. I know for a fact that you can write and draw with one poof even as you ferry food into your mouth with the other.”

“Oh yes, right. The brain and body need fuel just as much as any engine,” Marmaduke agreed, leading the way towards the kitchen door. “Now, just what did you have in mind?”

“If you could manage it, I should dearly like a pair of wings,” the wolf admitted as they went into the house.

Now, of course, it was not as easy as all that. The wolf wanted wings to fly, not just an adornment, and he was too heavy to manage that with wings of any size that he could carry about on the ground. They discussed fixed wing designs with jets, rockets, props, even ramjets, but the wolf did not want to use anything that might scorch his surroundings, and no matter where they could put the vertical props, fore, aft, or wings, the wolf could not be comfortable with the whirring blades so near his person. Eventually, they did find somewhere that would work, and Marmaduke started working on a personal helicopter harness for the wolf, after a yummy bowl of tomato and herb soup, grilled cheese sandwich, and a bit of salad, of course.

The wolf left Marmaduke drawing, mumbling and munching celery sticks with a sigh of relief. The moose asked innumerable questions about the project and how the wolf wanted it to work, but the one question Marmaduke never got around to asking was ‘Why’ and the wolf was just as happy to put that off for a little longer.

A Wolf’s Wings (Part 1)

One morning, the wolf paused just outside the wide, open doorway of Marmaduke’s workshop with uncommon diffidence. As one of the newest full time inhabitants of Moose Valley, the wolf had the confidence and character to live out under the trees even though his new friends offered him both one of the visitors cottages (always kept ready should someone come to stay who wanted a bit of privacy), or to help him construct something a bit more individualistic to suit his own tastes. It was not that anyone disapproved of the outdoor life, they just wanted him to be comfortable, and a fixed address does make visiting and sending presents easier.

Instead, the wolf built a little shed out under the trees to protect his few possessions, and carried a moose radio so that he and visitors could more easily find one another. He, also, had a sealable slide installed in the shed wall, a short cut between the Valley and the vast grasslands north of the Slide Mountains.

The wolf liked most of the cuisine his friends introduced him to, but indulged in such things, mostly, as treats and special occasion meals. For the day to day, he prefered to stick to more traditional wolf food. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how one looked at it), the Mooses had already found that, through long exposure to the concentration of moosiness in the Valley, the ground squirrels had already developed a language and culture of their own, and the flying rabbits in the mountains were not far behind. The wolf had no problems with being predominantly a carnivore. That was how he was born, and that was the sort of diet his body needed to stay healthy and repair itself properly when injured, but he had a private, but mighty nightmare of running down a mouse or bunny and coming up with a mouthful of waist coat, or a pair of galoshes. So, rather than take the chance of running down a philosopher or carpenter about his own business, the wolf kept to the giant chickens and equally oversized crickets on the grasslands, and what he could not use -leftover meat, feathers, bones, teeth, and such – he sent to Hunter and Huntress in town, who would put them to good use.

Along with sleeping in the snow, the wolf had, so far, refused all offers of a name of his own, though he had been presented with dozens he could make free use of if he chose. At first, the wolf was resistant to the entire idea. Eventually however, the wolf decided that a name could be quite a useful thing to have, but such a personal possession needed careful thought, and he rather wanted to find his name for himself, perhaps he had. That would be a good reason to be telling this story.

Marmaduke happened to be in between projects that morning when the wolf hesitated in his doorway, so the engineer and inventor returned to his rest state, cleaning and redesigning bits of his workshop and the standard equipment he kept therein to improve convenient storage capacity of the various racks and cabinets for the next project, whatever it may be. In fact, as the wolf eventually poked his nose past the high lintel, Marmaduke had crawled antlers, forepooves, and shoulders deep into a cabinet of carefully sorted gears of different shapes and materials while he mumbled questions to himself, sometimes interjecting excited answers to questions he posed last, five minutes before, or even questions he had not yet put tongue to.

The wolf hesitated again, watching Marmaduke kick his hindpooves in an effort to reach further than he could conveniently reach without changing his length of limb, Marmaduke did not manage such self-manipulation as quickly or easily as some of the Valley mooses. Most of his flexibility focused in his approach to new problems and proposals rather than in his person. The wolf did not want to startle the squirming moose into banging his head, or knocking anything over, as so often seemed to happen in similar situations in some of the books Marius taught the wolf to read with. Unfortunately, though the wolf waited for several minutes, it did not look like Marmaduke would emerge on his own anytime soon. Ordinarily, the wolf had a near endless supply of patience, as any good hunter should, but that visit could hardly be classified as ordinary.

The wolf scratched lightly at the stone walk outside the workshop door with a hind foot. When Marmadukes legs stopped kicking, the wolf said with a minimum of growl, but still a generous measure of the rustling accent he gained through learning moose speak from the trees of his home, “I hope I am not interrupting anything important,”

Marmaduke wriggled backwards, extricating himself neatly from the cabinet, even as he responded. “Not at all. I am just exploring the idea of integrating some of Miltin’s Moose Pocket designs into my storage cabinets. That way I could vastly increase the storage capacity inside my workshop without having to destroy the whole place and build a new one… again.”

The Puzzle of Erl (Part 2 of 2)

“Make yourself comfortable. There is fresh coffee in the pot, sweet tea and fresh set fudge in the icebox. If you would prefer something more substantial, I have some catfish cleaned and ready to cook.” Erl’s confusion showed clearly in his eyes. Maury held his peace, shifting his posture to make chair sitting more comfortable while Erl stared at the closed refrigerator door.

He reached up to touch his antlers again and glanced over at Maury’s fuzzy face. “Or should I be thinking more vegetarian now?” Erl asked of no one in particular. “I know that I am right about the tea, coffee, and fudge, even about the catfish, but I do not remember how any of those things got here. I know I made the fudge and tea like I have many times before, but I do not remember doing it this time. I do not remember being a moose, but I also do not remember what I was before. Have I gone insane?”

“Do not worry about what you do not remember. You are not insane. It sometimes happens that the people most like us, with the skills and virtues we most admire will come to stay with us, at least for a time on their way to somewhere else. You may never remember what came before entirely, but the memory loss is a once and done thing.

“Vegetarianism is a matter of personal preference. Some of my friends choose that lifestyle because it suits their metabolism better, others because of a hyper sensitive sense of empathy, but most of us are omnivores. It is the most sustainable, adaptable diet after all. There are several species of giant chickens in the grasslands north of the Valley that most mooses I know are especially fond of, but you asked about the Patrol and the Valley.

“Moose Valley is a wide, often wooded place between the high, snowy Slide Mountains in the north and the gentler barrier of the South Ridge on the southern edge. Much of the area is left wild and the members of the Moose Valley Patrol either as individuals or small groups, depending upon their capabilities and specialties, keep a defensive and conservatory eye on those places.

“A river runs through our Valley from a high mountain lake in the eastern area at the head of the Valley where the two mountain ranges merge. In the west, the valley and the river run down into a deep, natural harbor.

“We have a town in two parts, or two towns with one community, depending on how you look at it. One part grew up around the port on either side of where the river flows into the ocean. You can find peoples, sights, smells, and tastes from many worlds and other lands there along with the greatest portion of our Moosiversity. A few miles upriver, where the ground is flatter and dryer, you will find the original part of the town with the houses, shops, and workplaces of most of the more well established mooses, built before we started collecting so many friends. Would you like to meet some of them?”

“I do not know if I am quite ready for crowds just yet. Is the town far from here?” Erl asked, fiddling with one of the puzzle pieces.

“That is perfectly understandable. The town is miles away, but once you are ready, distance will be no great barrier, especially within the Valley. How about we invite a few more people here, just so you start getting used to your new skin and environment.” Maury paused a moment or two in thought. “You mentioned making fudge; I have a bunny friend called Lily that I often encounter hunting through the woods for new ideas. She is always looking for new candy recipes and techniques. Do you have any other interests to help me pick another advisor and friend to invite?”

Erl narrowed his eyes in a faint sign of distress. “What if your friends are busy? There is no need for them to come out all this way…”

Maury laughed. “They will be more than glad to be amongst the first to welcome you and offer their time and aid with anything that might come up. Once word gets around, we will only be your first visitors of many, believe me. Though we will be just as ready to give you your space, if you want it.”

“If you are certain.” Maury nodded, so Erl admitted, “I have a fondness for puzzles of many types and a certain facility with numbers.”

“Brilliant! If it appeals to you, I can invite Malcolm as well as Lily. He is one of our leading mathematicians. Unless specifically directed otherwise, they will probably bring food as a sort of housewarming gift, but even if they do not, we have ways of providing it in a hurry. We can eat, work on your jigsaw, talk, and try to enhance your comfort by doing our best to solve this new puzzle of Erl to your satisfaction.”

In the Eye of a Summer Storm (4-Entirety)

Chapter Four – Into the Bowels of the Earth

Mathis strolled across the worn plaza toward the stair, still smiling faintly. “I do not know that I can really blame him. The process can be both disconcerting and uncomfortable when one is accustomed to it. Loop the reins up short so he cannot trip on them and let him be. He will come along when he is ready.”

As Mathis spoke, he lifted both pooves to rub over his broad brimmed hat, leaving behind a dull green helmet complete with chin strap and head lamp shining like a small, red star in the gloom under the trees.

“What process?” Nathan asked. He glanced over his shoulder only once while reluctantly crossing the ruined decoration. When he turned his head back, Mathis’ uniform had regained is original green, brown, and black splotches. He had a short, green electric torch with a ninety degree bend near the bright end in his breast pocket. The camel pack had grown fatter, with a thick coil of sturdy rope, a climber’s pick, and a collapsed shovel strapped to the outside in places Mathis could reach.

Nathan looked at Mathis’ two lights and then down into the well of night into which the slaves had disappeared. “Why didn’t you give them a light? After what they have probably been through, stumbling around underground in the dark hardly seems like a good next step,” Nathan asked. It took effort to keep his eyes on Mathis. Nathan heard the sound of four, slow heavy steps behind him, then an ominous bit of nothing.

“They did not go the Way we are going. It was more of a shortcut home and far easier unseen,” Mathis said, watching idly over Nathan’s shoulder.

“All right, we are all ready. Time to move out,” Mathis said. He turned on his heel to lead the way down the stairs.

Nathan could not stand the suspense anymore. He turned to look back over his shoulder to check on his horse and saw…nothing. The tall, roan horse was gone. Then Nathan’s gaze shifted a little lower as a long-haired, black and white dog approached with an odd, stiff-legged gait. Only when the dog walked right up to Nathan and shook himself all over, did the boy notice the silver-studded, dove-grey collar, very like the missing horse’s bridle.

“Flame Heart?” Nathan asked, kneeling down and holding out his hand for the dog to sniff. Instead of approaching Nathan like a new person, the dog slipped his head under the extended hand to have his nose rubbed.

Mathis called back, his voice echoing slightly in the stairwell, “You did not really expect to take a horse down all these stairs and through the cave complex to the next Way, did you?”

Nathan could not find any real answer to that question, though he opened his mouth once or twice as he tried. Eventually, he shook his head in much the same gesture Flame Heart had used, and followed Mathis down into the dark. The blackness closed over Nathan’s head much as he imagined the sea might if he could breathe it as easily as air. Suddenly, the small, double circle of Mathis’ lamps ahead seemed to contain all the reality left to the world. After two more steps taken more on faith than fact, all trace of the desert and oasis above had faded away, but oddly, Nathan’s surroundings began to grow clearer.

At first, Nathan assumed that his eyes were adjusting to the lower light, and perhaps that did explain things at first. Then Nathan reached the wide, flat place where the stairs turned back on themselves to descend back in the opposite direction, and the boy realized he held aloft in his left hand an old fashioned oil lamp with wire mesh reinforcing the glass panels, and his clothing had changed once again.

The flowing, elegant lines of Nathan’s desert clothes had grown well-worn and neatly patched in places. His trousers had darkened to brown. They were cut loose enough to cover the tops of his hiking boots and allow full range of motion, but, with far less cloth involved. His collared, button down, khaki shirt had two breast pockets. The heavy canvas cloth had been so very well worn in that it felt almost as soft as silk. A thigh length, brown, leather coat over top with a matching fedora and belt completed the costume.

Part-way down the second set of stairs, the neatly carved risers faded into a worn, uneven, slippery parody of their former selves. Many narrow threads of water seeped out of the walls to pool, and merge on the stairs until a generous stream wandered from one wall to the other, jumping from the edge with a rippling murmur. The sound echoed from wall to wall building from a small whisper of sound in the enclosed space to something just short of a roar.

Mathis led the way, walking four to seven steps ahead. His gait had an odd pattern to it as the moose paused to make certain each step would support his weight and would not prove too slippery, before putting his weight on it. The stairs had no handrail. While tumbling, sliding, and bumping the way down to the bottom of the dark wet, stone stairs might be exciting and much faster, it would be much too soggily painful to be any fun.

A yawning chasm blossomed into reality as their moving lights sought out wall, ceiling, and stair but found only emptiness. The unfathomable depths broke through the right hand wall low down, near the water’s surface and spread from there until it swallowed more than three quarters of the stairwell, the whole right wall, and half of the ceiling.

Mathis and Nathan stopped, at the edge looking down. Even with all three lights, they could not see far into the depths. It took Nathan several moments before he realized that the muting effect the chasm had on the water’s voice was not just from removing the surfaces from which to echo. Most of the accumulated water disappeared into the inky depths, and it fell so very far that not even a whisper of its landing reached the two figures at the top.

Then, a sudden gust of damp air rose up out of the depths. What had been merely cool and disconcerting under the trees outside had grown icy and strong enough to knock Nathan off his feet, even though only a scant fraction blew up and down the stairs instead of continuing up through the lack of ceiling.

No sooner did Nathan strike the floor than he slipped. He dropped his lantern and scrambled with both his hands and feet trying to find any sort of purchase. Then his thrashing feet struck nothing. His hands slapped against the upright chasm edge, serving only to force Nathan even further out over nothing. For an instant, in that fraction of a moment before gravity pulled Nathan far enough down to build up any perceptible speed, he hung weightless, like he was floating and had no acquaintance with the concept of down.

An unshakable grip fastened on Nathan’s collar, turning float into fwap as the boy swung into the vertical stone face of the chasm and fell no further. Admittedly, this was not the most enjoyable experience Nathan could think of, but it had to be better than his prospective landing could be.

“If I can lift you high enough, do you think you can manage to climb onto my back?” Mathis asked in the same tone of voice he might use to ask Nathan to grab him an orange from the refrigerator when the moose saw the boy on the way to the kitchen; well, not exactly that tone of voice, unless Mathis was exercising at the time. The moose was a touch out of breath; just a touch.

“I am going to have to manage, now won’t I?” Nathan said, fighting back a bout of half-hysterical laughter even as he kept his arms stiffly down his sides. Dangling by his coat collar meant that all Nathan’s weight was being supported by the seams under his arms. It would be so easy to ease the pain by lifting his arms and slipping free from the coat, but that would make for a very short-term solution.

Nathan marveled at the strength being manifested by the smallish stuffed animal first encountered in his hotel room not long ago. With one poof, Mathis supported the weight of both bodies, and with the other, he carefully lifted Nathan. With both of Mathis lights facing the rock face, and no hint left of Nathan’s lantern, one could only hypothesize, deduce, and guess at their relative positions, so Nathan waited until he felt the hard curve that was probably the back edge of Mathis’s helmet hit the back of his head before reaching back for a grip of fur, uniform, or pack to twist around towards and try climbing. When questing fingers found cloth, Nathan’s hand clutched convulsively and he, carefully, started to twist. Nathan felt his collar draw tighter and fervently hoped he could manage the maneuver without tugging his coat off entirely.

“When I get back on my own two feet,” Nathan swore to himself, “the first thing I am going to do is button up my coat…oh after I help Mathis up, too, that is.”

“No, not that way,” Mathis directed. “If you keep turning that way you will end up clinging to my chest. Climbing up this rock face will be tricky enough as it is. On my back please.”

With great reluctance, Nathan untwisted himself. It was even more difficult convincing his fingers to release the only secure hold Nathan had in the wet, chill darkness.

Luckily, Nathan’s second hold was more easily come by. Instead of a fist full of uniform, Nathan found one of the multitudes of straps, flaps, and connectors on the outside of Mathis’ pack. Mathis kept them all closed, fastened and neatly stowed. It was only a matter of moments for Nathan to find the far shoulder strap with his second hand, and then he was clinging to Mathis’ pack swelled back with both hands and elbows. If Nathan could have figured out how to hollow out his chest and cling with that, too, he would have done it.

“Lift your knees up and use them to grip my hips as if you are posting on a trotting horse with no stirrups,” Mathis said. He released his grip on Nathan’s collar when the boy had a secure perch. Acceding to the request, Nathan found Mathis’ hips quite solid enough for a good grip, but without the bony inclusions one might expect in a human. Mathis did something to his pack with his free poof, reached under Nathan’s left leg, fiddled a bit more, and then pulled, and one of the many pack straps took up some of Nathan’s weight.

“Are you ready to start up, or would you prefer I try to get the other leg strapped first?” Mathis asked as if he had never heard of muscle fatigue and he could hang there by one hand all day and never grow tired.

“I am more than ready to get back on my feet. I am having trouble deciding if I should be grateful for my temporary blindness.” Nathan said, forcing his voice into a light tone.

“On the one hand, not being able to see where I am and what else might be out there about to do what weighs on the mind and only seems to get worse over time. On the other, I cannot see where we are, and just what you managed to grab when you leapt over the edge to save me. I suspect that may be a significant blessing.”

“It is not that bad,” Mathis said. Nathan could feel the shoulder under his left arm rise until it hung level with the right. Then the moose’s bum pushed out farther from the rock face then Mathis’ head. At the same time, the increased distance between Mathis’ chest and the wall lit up a greater area.

“I have my climbing pick caught on the stair edge. My gloves and boots are coated with a substance that increases friction, so I had a better chance of grabbing the rock than you did.”

Nathan closed his eyes and tried to follow Mathis’s movements in his head. The first shift was probably when the moose got his other hand on the pick handle. The back tilt would be Mathis bracing his feet against the stone. Carefully Mathis climbed the pick handle; hand over hand until he could get one hand on the stone stair. At that point, the moose in Nathan’s head lost his grip and they both tumbled back to fall in darkness forever. Nathan decided to focus on the last time his father gave him a piggyback ride instead from that point on. His dad could still manage such things. Nathan was not particularly tall or bulky for his age, but he had still outgrown his mum’s comfortable carrying capacity several years before.

Mathis reached back and unfastened the strap binding Nathan’s leg to the pack. When Nathan did not immediately dismount, Mathis sat down on one of the steps, consequently setting Nathan down on the one above. Cold water instantly soaked through Nathan’s pants, jerking his mind away from his contemplation of the past, back into the present. Then, just to make certain the boy was paying attention, Flame Heart the border collie shoved his cold, wet nose into Nathan’s ear.

“All right! All right!”  Nathan laughed, easing his stiff fingers out from under Mathis’ shoulder straps, and returning his feet to terra firma. For a moment, he almost forgot, and then Nathan quickly raised his hands to button up his coat by touch, just in case.

Mathis stood up with damp dignity and moved to stand not quite leaning against the wall with his lights pointing back at Nathan. “Well, that was exciting, was it not?”

“Definitely,” Nathan agreed. In the stronger light, Nathan noticed his lantern hanging from Flame Heart’s mouth. The fall had put out the light but the glass was intact, and there still seemed to be oil in the reservoir. “I think we have used up our excitement quotient for this stage of the journey, and we have not even made it off the stairs,” Nathan said, coaxing the lantern away from Flame Heart and searching his pockets for matches, hopefully waxed ones, or sealed in a water proof tin.

“You never know what might happen when you go adventuring, or what might not happen,” Mathis said, his smile clear in his voice even though his face was in shadow. Nathan got the lantern lit with only one match. He carefully doused the burnt match in the water flowing around him before stowing it away in the second compartment of his match tin. They had no reason to suppose anyone or anything might be following them, and the likelihood of anyone spotting a discarded match in that environment was exceedingly remote, but littering is a bad habit to get into, and even a burnt match can be useful at times.

“Are you recovered enough to get moving again?” Mathis asked. His fur was matted to his head with water in spots, but the uniform would not give away just how much water it held.

“Let me see if I can,” Nathan started to say and then another icy breath spewed up out of the chasm that they escaped so recently. Nathan paused until the wind died down again, then tried to go on as if nothing happened. He almost made it. His voice only cracked once and only stayed weak for a couple syllables. “Stand up without falling again, and then I will answer you.”

Very gingerly, Nathan stood up. Flame Heart slipped under the boy’s hand to lend moral support if not physical. “I am ready. Let us get to the other side before the next blast comes to wipe me off the little bitty ledge.”

“Right,” Mathis said. He turned to face the wall and started sidling down the jagged remains of the staircase. As he went, Nathan noticed the way Mathis held his hands out from his sides and how assiduously the moose avoided touching the wall.

Nathan decided he did not want to know why, and simply played followed the leader. With no back pack and narrower shoulders, Nathan had an easier time of it. He only had to turn on the narrow section. There was a nervous moment or two at the point where a step and a half were missing entirely, but after that the stairs were dry and started to widen back out.

On the far side of the chasm, the stairs kept growing wider and wider, and shallower and shallower until, almost without realizing it, Nathan and Mathis were walking in a wide, low ceilinged cavern and no longer down a staircase at all. All the surfaces that the light could reach gleamed smooth and polished.

“This cavern used to be full of water before the stairs were broken, didn’t it?” Nathan asked, running a few steps to catch up and walk next to Mathis.

“Got it in one,” Mathis said with a brief smile. “Back then we would have had to swim this section, not that we would be much wetter swimming than we are already, but we would need alternate breathing arrangements.”

Nathan pulled his damp trousers away from his leg. “You might have a point there.”

“The path jumps up and through a short, narrow chamber to the next cavern. It is a lot more interesting than this one,” Mathis said. Something in the way Mathis spoke made Nathan nervous, or perhaps his little fall had just made him a bit paranoid.

“Chinese curse interesting, or greater variety interesting?” Nathan asking, in case he needed to be prepared, but he did not show any signs of even thinking about slowing down.

Mathis laughed and glanced over. “Just a greater variety in the terrain. The landscape should be fairly stable for the rest of this section.” Nathan made a mental note of how the word ‘fairly’ made the statement somewhat less than reassuring, but it did not bother him much. An element of danger, or at least the potential for danger was almost a requirement in any proper adventure. Anyone who wanted everything organized, safe, and entirely comfortable should never go adventuring.

Shortly, the triple light began to reflect almost greasily off the smooth rock walls as they reached the chamber’s end. In that distant, long ago when the  water still filled that space, someone had carved three steep steps, almost more of a ladder than a staircase , into the end of the chamber up to a narrow gap less than three and a half feet in diameter, and a bit wider than it was high. Ages of flowing water over the carved stone had worn away the edges of the steps in a way that would be no trouble for a swimmer, but made them all but useless for Nathan’s squodgily soaked hiking boots.

“Just a mo’,” Mathis said, and started slipping free of his pack. He would not be able to fit through with it on his back. “Do you want me to give you a boost up and go second, or shall I lead the way and trail a bit of rope to give you something to haul yourself up?” Mathis hefted his coil of rope in one hand while he held his pack with the other, glancing from Nathan to the dark gap in the wall and back.

“I will lead the way,” Nathan said just a bit stiffly. The moose was tall enough to reach the edge without the steps, but Nathan had to work not to resent the way Mathis assumed that he could not manage to get himself up without help. Mathis was probably right, but he did not need to say so before Nathan had a chance to try.

“Do not help me unless I ask,” Nathan said and then frowned. He was not doing as good a job at not being resentful as he would like. He thought about apologizing for his tone, but Mathis did not seem to mind and the words stuck in Nathan’s throat.

Marching up to the worn almost steps, Nathan immediately saw something he was going to need help with. He blushed and scowled and held his lantern back towards Mathis. “Could you hold this for me until I get up, please?”

“Of course,” Mathis said easily, and very politely refrained from laughing, and with his back turned, Nathan could pretend to not notice the smile in the voice.

“Thank you,” Nathan said just a trifle grimly then stepped forward to make his attempt. The water worn steps slanted slightly downwards with no definite edge, almost as if they were natural indentations and protrusions of the rock. Nathan reached up to the third step and carefully explored the width until he found a good grip, but when he tried to do the same on the lowest step, his heavy boots found no purchase that would withstand his weight.

After the third time his foot slipped and banged Nathan’s knee or nose against the wall, the boy growled and sat down to jerk his wet boots and socks off. The footwear was very good at protecting his toes from the environment, but it also reduced all sensitivity, and sometimes bare skin is just better at getting a grip than a stiff boot.

Nathan tucked his wet socks inside his boots and loosely knotted the laces together so he could hang his boots around his neck, and scrambled up the wall as if it dare not resist any further. Sitting hunched up in the low space, Nathan reached down for his lantern.

If he could have sat up straighter, Nathan might have had his defiant little nose up in the air, but Mathis only said, “There might be something of a drop on the other end, so be careful when exiting.”

“Right,” Nathan said. He did not want to—as pulling on cold, wet socks is not an experience he particularly enjoyed especially when his toes were already rather waterlogged, but he knew enough to keep his feet protected in an unknown environment—so socks and shoes went back on before Nathan turned to start down the tunnel, pushing his lantern ahead of him. The light did a good job of filling the space, so Nathan had no trouble seeing. The tunnel rose slightly for several feet, just a little too short for Nathan to really crawl on hands and knees in the ordinary way. He had to stretch his arms and legs just a little wider than could really be comfortable to keep his head from bouncing along the ceiling. They nearly touched the walls on either side and the strain on his muscles quickly built up.

Hearing a slithering, scraping noise behind him, Nathan glanced back along his body to see Mathis’ pack sliding along behind him framed by a broad pair of antlers dragging along the ceiling and walls as Mathis belly crawled along behind. Nathan hurried up his crawl before the pack could bump into him from behind.

Nathan had reason to be grateful for the unusual strain he put his body through. It gave him something to concentrate on. He was fine as long as the tunnel kept climbing, but then it turned down. After the near disaster at the abyss, Nathan started feeling every moment like he was about to lose his purchase and start sliding forward down the narrow hole, deep underground into who knows what. If he did not have the distraction, panic might have ensued, and that would be even more embarrassing than needing help up the wall.

At the bottom of the incline, Nathan found a noisome, stagnant puddle. The still surface reflected Nathan’s light dully, giving no indication as to its depth or anything that might lurk under the surface. Having nothing handy to use as a probe, he had no choice but to crawl though the puddle with the lantern in one hand and hope, while doing his best to hold his breath.

**Stalling for time, Nathan glanced back at the pack following him and called out, “What happened to Flame Heart? We did not leave him back there did we?”

“Flame Heart leapt up into the tunnel as soon as I got out of his way. He is having a much easier time of it than we are, as he can walk normally as long as he keeps his head down,” Mathis said, a touch of strain in his voice.

“Is there a problem?” Mathis asked when the sound of Nathan’s movement did not pick up again.

Nathan sighed. “Not really. Just a puddle I am not really looking forward to crawling through,” he admitted. Nathan took a deep breath and then took the obstacle at as close to a charge as he could manage in the circumstances, refusing to give himself any more coddling. When stirred, the bottom of the puddle proved just as slimy and noxious smelling as Nathan feared, but since, at its deepest, the water was less than half a foot deep and nothing worse lurked in the depths, Nathan just kept going, leaving a slick, smelly trail like a pair of snails racing along both walls behind him.

“Look at it this way,” Mathis called after him, “It is much easier to clean slime and muck off of your smooth human skin than it is to get it out of my fur. If you take a few really deep breaths through your nose, it should deaden the smell to more tolerable levels.”

Nathan tried it, and soon forgot out the smell. The rest of the tunnel leveled out and soon he could see the end where the tunnel pierced the next chamber. He could not see much as two vertical, ripple sided columns blocked most of the view.

With Mathis’ warning in mind, Nathan slowed to a stop at the edge. “I have reached the tunnel’s end. Please do not push me over the edge,” Nathan called then stuck his head through to study the terrain. One of the two columns formed from where a stalagmite had grown up to merge with its parent stalactite into a single feature had grown up against the wall until it sealed the left third of the tunnel’s exit. The second column had grown up some two feet further in, blocking most of the rest, but the floor was not much of a drop.

“The way out is partially blocked. Flame Heart and I should not have any trouble, but you are going to have some trouble getting your antlers through the gap,” Nathan said even as he pulled his legs up close to his chest and swung his feet over the edge. A short jump down, and Nathan reached back for his lantern.

“Do not worry about me,” Mathis said his voice tired but otherwise unaffected. “If necessary, I can always shift back to the size I was when we first met.”

“If you could shrink back down any time you wanted, why did you take the tunnel the hard way?” Nathan asked, slipping sideways between the second pillar and the chamber wall and around into the wider space. Nathan was careful not to touch the pillar. He knew that the oils on his skin could damage the formation, as odd as it sounded that delicate human skin could damage stone.

“This is an adventure and that would be cheating. If we wanted to do things the easy way, we could have taken the elevator down from your hotel room, and just brought a book to fill the time until they opened the buffet,” Mathis said, as if the answer should have been obvious. After a second’s thought, Nathan agreed with the moose. It should have been, so Nathan turned his attention back to his surroundings.

More pillars lined the walls of the nearly round chamber at uneven intervals. Several other tunnels like the one through which they came could be seen behind them, plus three larger exits piercing the far side. The leftmost path stood some distance from the other two, with several tunnels between, but the other two started off as a single, broad path splitting into two after only a few feet and then curving off in different directions.

The ceiling overhead arched high in the middle, and a generous crop of stalagmites dotted the floor, narrow at the top and spreading wider than Nathan thought they should have in uneven patterns until the milky built up stone looked like a small forest of snow covered pine trees growing there far away from the sun. Nathan held his lantern up as high as he could, staring up at the ceiling. The stalactites, as if in an effort to retain balance, dripped longer and thinner, glittering like icicles where the light struck the surface just right.

Walking carefully over the uneven stone, Nathan drifted toward the center of the room until he felt Flame Heart’s warm skull under his free hand and glanced up to find Mathis standing at his other shoulder. Nathan jerked his hand up as if the touch of the dog’s soft fur burned him. “Oh no, you do not want my mucky hands dirtying up your fur. Your nose is so much more sensitive than mine,” Nathan told the dog with distress clear in his voice.

Flame Heart gave Nathan a long look, and then he leapt up, bracing his front paws on the boy’s chest and started licking the raised hand. A look of unmitigated horror blossomed on Nathan’s face and Mathis started to laugh.

“More sensitive his nose might be, but you forget that dogs can enjoy rolling around in some very, to humans, stinky things while they have problems with some scents human like.

With an effort, Nathan regained control of his features. Very slowly, he lowered his hand and gently patted the dog. “There is no accounting for taste,” Nathan said in a faintly strangled voice. Then he deliberately changed the subject as Flame Heart dropped down to all four feet again. “So, which way do we go from here? Please tell me it is one of the bigger ways.”

“As you wish,” Mathis said, grinning and bowing. Then he went on more seriously. “There are actually several ways we could go. There are other, technically, shorter ways, but walking the longer way will probably take less time than crawling through the smaller ways. The shortest way narrows down to just a bit less than two feet square at a very inconvenient point, which is not a challenge I really want to face, unless you insist.”

“I am quite content to take the longer way around and avoid getting stuck somewhere in the middle,” Nathan said with dignity. “So which way?”

“Head for the left branch of the right exit,” Mathis said pointing. “The path wanders around for a bit but the chamber at the end has the next Way in it. Even if it was not where we want to go, the chamber is well worth a visit.”

Nathan pressed Mathis for more details as they wove their way through the petrified pine forest and started down their chosen ‘path’, but the moose refused to spoil the surprise. Soon Nathan was too busy watching where he was going to continue an interrogation that was going nowhere. The cave chosen was not so much a single, long cave as a series of roughly horizontal galleries that ran one into another at different angles. The surfaces were often jagged and littered with sharp edged rocks of many sizes that had broken loose from the ceiling at some point.

Moving through the seemingly endless gloom of that subterranean world, the boy lost track of the passage of time somewhere along the way until it seemed like his path had looped. He would walk along one gallery, jump or climb or squeeze his way into the next and then pick his way down the next, only to jump or climb or squeeze his way into the next. So deep was Nathan’s trance that he almost stepped right into the white foaming water of an underwater river before he heard its roar. The three travelers had to edge up the damp, narrow bank for quite a way before they reached a place where the rocks of the river’s bed stuck up far enough and close enough intervals for them to ford.

Mathis insisted on using his rope to bind all three of them one to another before attempting to ford. If anyone fell into that churning flow the icy water would make short work of them, if the rocks did not get them first. The moose, as the heaviest, strongest, and most sure footed also insisted on leading the way, feeling out the best path with his strong pooves and an extendable probe he pulled out of his pack.

After that, the adventurers only had one more gallery to cross. As soon as they stepped into it, still roped together, Nathan could tell they were getting close. Mathis put out both his lights, and even in the moose’s shadow thrown by Nathan’s lantern, a glittering light could be seen leaking into the path’s end from around the bend.

Without even noticing, Nathan sped up his pace until he had pulled the rope around his chest taut where it led back to both the moose and the dog. The color and quality of the light was wrong to be a way outside, but both Nathan’s arms ached from holding the lantern aloft, first with one and then the other. The boy was very ready to be outside in the open air again, but a change would be as good as a rest, and he was tired of the way the shadows seemed to crowd around the edges of the lantern’s light, as if waiting for any lapse so that they could rush in and pounce on the three surface dwellers that dared invade that subterranean world.

“Slow down, Nathan. If you rush into the next chamber without giving your eyes a chance to adjust, you will blind yourself,” Mathis cautioned, slowing his steps to drag Nathan’s headlong plunge back by main force.

Even so, Nathan kept straining ahead for several seconds until Flame Heart’s whimper of protest finally pulled him up short. With a sigh, Nathan dropped back to walk with Mathis. “Okay,” Nathan said in resignation. “I guess blindness would not be much improvement over the dark.”

Mathis patted Nathan’s shoulder and slowed their pace to a crawl. Since he did not actually come to a stop, Nathan managed to abide by the snail’s pace without straining forward towards the light again.

“Just be glad that we had your lantern for this instead of just the smaller colored torches like mine. Our eyes never really had a chance to adjust to the dark, so the opposite transition is equally small,” Mathis said, finally coming to a halt. With a few quick, economical gestures, the moose blew out Nathan’s now useless lantern, and removed the rope from around his own torso and Nathan’s.

“Go ahead and look while I free Flame Heart and recoil the rope. We will be along momentarily,” Mathis said, but Nathan was already moving with Flame Heart on his heels as soon as Mathis freed him from his bonds.

Nathan thought he knew what to expect when he all but rushed into the scintillating chamber beyond, but no paltry stretch of his imagination could truly have prepared him for what he found. His headlong rush slid to a halt only a few steps into the room as his eyes and his mind grew too busy trying to assimilate his surroundings to leave any neurons left over to control and guide his feet.

Broad veins of pure quartz ran through the wide, flat floor, glowing brightly with light reflected from who knows how far away. This light was caught, broken up, redirected, and amplified into millions of rainbows by the densely packed  crystals that grew thickly on every other surface, like the inside of a geode. In the middle of the floor a shaft of bright light flickered and splintered and shifted. Nathan’s light dazzled eyes could not pick out any details, but such a blatantly eye grabbing feature almost had to be the Way to the next level. Slowly, shielding his eyes with one hand, Nathan started to creep closer.

“This way,” Mathis said. Startled, Nathan turned away from the pure, cold flame in the middle of the room. Mathis squatted down by the only dark spot in the whole room. Someone or something had removed or blackened all the crystals on that section of the wall, and Mathis felt carefully among the points, shards, and crevices until one gave with a sharp faintly ringing snap, like the breaking of a glass rod.