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

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The Eye of the Summer Storm (Part 12 of 16)

Nathan did his best to keep his body relaxed as he fell down a narrow stone chimney even smaller than they crawled through to reach the stone forest, but he only realized he had been holding his breath when the space suddenly flared wide around him, making him gasp with surprise.

In quick succession, the stone walls flared wide, then disappeared entirely, leaving Nathan floating in a cloud of pale green mist with no sense of which way might be up and which way should be down besides the moderately arbitrary direction his feet were pointing. Then a textured green ceiling closed in over the boy’s head and he was falling through branches and past long, thick vines under the high canopy of an ancient forest, alive with the voices of different animals.

While Nathan floated down in the pale green mist, he seemed to have little to no speed, but now that the mist had shifted to bright sunlight filtered through leaves, he built up velocity very quickly. Grinning like a mad man, Nathan started grabbing at the passing vines, trying to fend off an impact with any of the sturdier branches with his feet at the same time. Friction burned hands from trying to slow his descent with the vines seemed like a smarter prospect than broken bones from landing too hard on a less forgiving tree limb.

The first vine Nathan managed to grasp gave way almost immediately, slowing his descent but doing little else. The second loop he grabbed, gave way only at one end. Nathan found himself swinging through the air past branches, trees, more vines, and some very startled, brightly colored birds. He had a sudden and near irresistible urge to yell and the feeling that his sensible adventuring clothes had faded suddenly into an animal fur loincloth.

The sudden bout of near nakedness in an unknown and probably hostile environment startled Nathan out of his dip into the part of Tarzan, Lord of Greystoke, at least the Tarzan one saw in the movies. Nathan scrambled to grab a second vine. He had no real intention of trying to start up a second swing, but instead, just prevent the return trip that is the inevitable second stage of an uninterrupted pendulum.

The boy hung, gratefully back in his now strangely clean and dry caving gear, between one vine and the other, looking around at his surroundings. After his sudden intrusion with all the swinging and crashing, Nathan was not surprised that all the local fauna had either hidden or vacated his immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, though he could mostly follow the path of broken and mangled greenery back the way he had come, Nathan could not see any sign of another trail that might indicate a falling moose that had gone before.

“Well, apparently I did not need catching, but how am I going to find Mathis again?” Nathan asked of no one in particular.

“Mathis said the important thing was to grab onto something and turn the fall into climbing down, so how about I start with that. Humans may have started out spending a good bit of time in the trees, but personally, I will search better on the ground.” Nathan studied both his vines as far up as he could see. Then he let go of the one and transferred both hands to the vine that hung most directly up and down. Carefully, as one might who knew the theory of a thing but who had no practical experience with it, Nathan swung one leg to wrap the vine around his calf with the tail end across the top of his right foot. Then he put his left foot on top of this, so he was holding the vine tightly between his two boots. Slowly, the boy straightened his legs while maintaining the pressure. He found that he could, indeed support his whole weight this way.

The next step to his experiment involved releasing the pressure between his feet and straightening his legs so that he could grasp it lower down. Nathan walked his hands down a few feet while supporting his weight with his legs. It worked. No doubt, the technique was more useful for climbing up a rope or vine than it was for climbing down. It took little to no effort to get DOWN from a tree. (It was managing the feet without damaging oneself that was the trick, after all.) But Nathan had no idea how far down he had to go, and it would not do at all to have his arms or hands give out part way down and fall the rest of the way after he had done such a good job thus far.

The only problem with Nathan’s plan was when he went to slide his legs down the vine and ran out of vine when he was still more than twenty feet from the ground. It took a bit of wriggling around like a worm on a hook, and pumping what ended up as his whole body in an attempt to apply swing set physics to the situation, but Nathan managed to get himself onto a good-sized branch.

Another, thinner vine, a few bumps, and a last uncomfortable bit of slithering down a tree trunk too thick to really hold saw Nathan on the ground. He patted himself down. Questing hands found a few scrapes and bruises, but no lasting damage. He also found some interesting new things in the inside breast pocket of his leather coat.

Nathan undid the top buttons of his leather jacket. From the left pocket he produced a much-worn leather bound book and an old map, much frayed around the edges, and from the right pocket, Nathan pulled a palm sized metal box which contained an ornately decorated compass and, for some reason Nathan could not fathom, an old, black and white photograph of his grandmother from when she was young.

Nathan leaned against the tree that provided his path to the ground and unfolded the map. Someone had lightly traced out a path with pencil from a town with an illegibly blurred out name, through the forest, to a temple or city far from anywhere else on the carefully inked diagram.

“This would be much more useful if I had some idea where I am on this map. The Way almost has to be in the building sketched on here, or whatever it is supposed to be.” Nathan looked around again, walking a full circle around the base of ‘his’ tree, searching for any glimpse of the sky he might find. There were several mountains both in and out of the forest that could give him some frame of reference to place himself on the map. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he peered, Nathan could catch nothing but fragments of sky through the treetops.

Nathan pursed his lips and glared down at the map again, willing it to give him some more actionable information, like a small, penciled arrow with the words “You are here!” clearly written beneath it, perhaps. When that did not work, Nathan neatly folded the map back into its creases and stored it back in his pocket, resisting the urge to ball up the uncooperative thing and chuck it as far as he could out under the trees. That would be childish, after all, and the map might be useful later.

“Yeah, I might need to start a fire,” Nathan said with sour amusement. Having exhausted the map’s potential, Nathan turned to the small, fat book. It had no title on the cover or on the spine, but the boy was aware that this was not uncommon in many older publications. As it turned out, the book probably had never had a title page. It had no copyright, title page, or table of contents. Instead, the originally blank pages were crammed with faded, crabbed handwriting written using four shades of ink, three alphabets, and at least five different languages that Nathan could identify if not comprehend.

Nathan flipped through the pages at random, stopping to puzzle over diagrams of complicated machinery, unlabeled maps, and sketches of people and places from a variety of different cultures, some really quite fantastic or old. When Nathan found it, he almost missed what he was looking for. He got so used to not understanding any of the words that he almost missed that the last two pages filled with notes were all written in English. Even so, the handwriting was very difficult to make out, and the writer used some sort of short hand or abbreviations for many of the words, but the last bit was clear enough: “I sleep tonight under the great trees, below the Way to the underground. In the morning I shall make my way due north, and before noon I shall be the first human in over a thousand years to set eyes on the Lost Temple to the Horned Ones in the City of Frogs.”

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 11)

Mathis insisted on using his rope to bind all three of them, one to another, before attempting the ford. The icy water would make short work of anyone who fell into that churning flow 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 to the end of this leg. 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 onto the path’s end from around the bend ahead.

Without even noticing, Nathan increased his pace until he had pulled the rope taut around his chest, pulling against the anchoring moose and the dog behind him. 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. 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 them both from their 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. The 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 shimmering 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.

“There we go,” Mathis said, rocking back on his heels and then surging up to his feet. Without warning, he stomped, hard, in the middle of the darkened space. It dropped away, swinging back on an invisible hinge.

A much gentler, green tinged light welled up in the new gap, almost invisible among all the rainbows and veins of white that bounced around the chamber. Mathis looked from the new hole to Nathan as he tested and tightened all his straps and buckles. “Do you want to go first, or shall I? The drop is nowhere near as far as it feels. The important part is to grab a hold of something to turn the fall into a downward climb as soon as you can,” Mathis said calmly.

“That is all right for you to say.” Nathan thought but managed not to say. “You know what we will be jumping into. I have not done any of this before.” Nathan mentally clapped a hold on himself after that last bit. He was starting to whine, if only in his own head and adventurers do not whine. Real adventurers face their problems head on, but that did not mean they were foolhardy or they had to be reckless.

To be frank, Nathan was just a little bit afraid to make that leap into the unknown so soon after his close call back at the abyss. But uncertain though he might be, he could not think of how he could possibly admit to it. There had to be a way to express a reasonable degree of caution without, however metaphorically or psychologically, being smothered in an avalanche of white feathers.

Mathis studied Nathan; looking at his posture, his hands, and the movement of the boy’s feet as much as at his face. Somewhere among all these disparate pieces, the moose read something of Nathan’s dilemma. “You know, it can sometimes take just as much courage to admit that one is afraid as it does to move ahead in spite of the fear,” the moose noted idly. “I will go first. I have a better chance of grabbing you and helping you to a hand hold than you have of catching me. I am bigger.”

Nathan smiled crookedly. “Thank you. That would be a comfort.”

“No problem,” Mathis replied easily. “Give me a slow five count to get settled before you follow me.” And with that, Mathis took a long step and disappeared from sight.

Slowly and deliberately, Nathan stepped forward to the edge counting aloud. “One…Two…Three…Four…” The boy kept his eyes level, watching the dancing rainbows, but after the slow, “Five,” he resolutely stepped into the pale green light. If he flinched when the trap door over his head snapped closed, no one saw.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 10)

I was doing some checking up on the Minion’s work lately, and I noticed that she had not put up a new blog post for me in over a month. She wittered on something about not having any pictures to use on her new computer and people getting sick, but I think she just spent too much time out swimming in the sunshine and forgot. She still thinks of this blog as mostly her reading stories to the shadows in an empty room, but I tell her to hush and it is good practice.

I have gotten her on to putting up the rest of that chapter from the novel with some pictures in progress that we have for some other things we are working on. The outdoor pool is closed now, so she should remember.

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 from 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, 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 at short enough intervals for them to cross.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 9)

“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.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 8)

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 as he picked up where he left off, “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.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 7)

“Is everyone ready to go?” Mathis asked, first in English for Nathan, then again in an odd, lyrical tongue that the boy did not recognize. Soothed and reassured by Mathis presence and a series of directions the moose failed to translate, his rescuees filed calmly down to be swallowed by the darkness welling up to fill the stone stairs of the Way. After the last figure disappeared from sight, another cold, damp breath of air washed over the mosaicked clearing.

“Mathis, Flame Heart does not want to step out of the grass, and I do not know why,” Nathan said, one hand curled under the horse’s chin while the other held the reins.

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 scrabbled 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.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 6)

Nathan grabbed Mathis by the pack and pulled him back. “Wait, where are you going? What do you need to do first?” Nathan demanded, leaning back to put his whole weight into his hold on the moose. Mathis kept crawling for several feet without even slowing before he noticed Nathan dragging along behind.

Mathis stopped and turned around to sit in the sand facing Nathan. “You do not really expect me to just sneak past and leave all those people still in the slaver’s hands, do you?” Mathis asked, surprised that he had to explain.

Nathan’s eyes went big, and behind his veil his jaw dropped, but he pulled himself together quickly. “But what can we do? There are so many of them and only two of us. Won’t they just catch and keep you, too?”

Mathis chuckled softly and shook his head. “They certainly would if they could. Having a moose like me in their inventory would be enough to guarantee the fortune of any slaver that could manage the feat with the right clientele, but it will never happen unless I want it to.

“Do not worry. Circle around. Take Flame Heart to the Way. Someone with his coloring takes quite a bit of sneaking against a background of sand. If you go slow and careful, I should get there not long after you and leave the slavers far too busy to even think about following after a few anonymous bits of shadow that happened to drift across the middle distance.”

Without another word, Mathis wiggled in a certain, special way, shedding Nathan’s grip. In half a moment or so, he crawled away, fading into the scenery until Nathan had to track the Moose’s passage by focusing on the marks left behind in the sand. Then he could not follow even that.

With no other real option, Nathan returned to his mount, pausing to rub the bright nose before setting out again. “So your name is Flame Heart, then,” Nathan said, surprisingly lonely without his strange new acquaintance.

Flame Heart bobbed his head up and down in Nathan’s hands, for all the world as if he understood Nathan’s question and was nodding his answer. After that, Nathan mounted quickly and set about circling the hidden oasis, before the scene could get any more surreal. Then again, even if Flame Heart had the ability to speak, the bit in his mouth would make clear diction difficult.

Nathan dismounted before he and Flame Heart went over the top. Nathan walked next to the great horse to minimize their outline in case of scouts. Something was happening in the camp. The muted sound of voices with the occasional bark or shout that reached out across the intervening space had grown louder, pierced by the occasional surprised shriek or burst of uncontrollable laughter. Unfortunately, no matter how high Nathan’s curiosity spiked, by keeping behind his target knot of trees, not only could the people in the encampment not see him, but he could not see them, either.

The distance between the basin’s rim and Nathan’s goal stretched a million times farther as he made his quiet, careful way across. With each step his nerves wound tighter and tighter as he waited for someone to wander far enough away from the camp to see him and drag him into the increasing bedlam. Someone did appear, running toward the basin’s rim not twenty feet from Nathan, just before he reached the safety of the trees, and Nathan’s nerve almost snapped, but his second glance revealed that the runner could not possibly see them. Somehow the slaver had gotten his robe pulled up over his head, tangling up his arms and completely covering his head. Nathan quickly shoved the heel of his hand in his mouth to smother his laughter. The slaver should really have worn something underneath his robe other than his low boots.

Before anyone else could appear, Nathan sprinted the last few feet into the trees, and only then did he manage to draw an easy breath. The trees were only palms–tall, slender trunks with a few, long leaves at the top–with tall grass filling in the space between them, but something about the spot muted all the sound beyond their confines. The air felt cool and almost damp within the shadows of those trees. No hint of the fiery orb that ruled the terrain beyond with a molten iron fist managed to touch that ground.

Nathan’s steps slowed quickly in the darkness, probing the grass carefully with his foot before taking each step. He half expected to find the Way Mathis spoke of by falling through the ground into a dark, forgotten ruin. Instead, the way proved to be a neatly formed stairway carved of dark stone that quickly disappeared from sight in the direction of the pool. While the stairs themselves no signs of age or deterioration, the circular mosaic that surrounded them had lost so many of the tiny colored tiles that it was impossible to decipher what the image might have been.

The boy eagerly stepped out onto the flat, stone ruin, relieved to have firm ground beneath his boots and at least some clear area around him. The horse however, balked, pulling back against Nathan’s gentle tug on the reigns so sharply that they were pulled almost entirely out of his grasp.

“What is it, Flame Heart?” Nathan asked in a low, soothing tone, turning back to stroke the proud head. Something about that circle of stone in the ring of trees had the horse sweating and shaking in a way that not even their wild flight across the desert had managed.

“There, there,” Nathan said, for want of anything else to say. He wanted to reassure and promise to take care of everything, but he did not like to promise things he might not be able to deliver. Nathan knew that some of Flame Heart’s senses should be much more sensitive than a poor human’s, and he had no way of knowing what troubled the beast. It could be nothing more than a smarter than average horse’s perfectly reasonable aversion to trying to walk down those stairs into the darkness, but what else could they do? Leave Flame Heart behind for the slavers to find?

Before Nathan got too worked up trying to decide whether to try forcing the big horse forward or to prepare for an attack of some kind, the sound of approaching bodies sliding through tall grass from the direction of the camp reached them. Nathan spun round to face his fate, ridiculously putting his body between the apparent threat and the sweating, shaking horse.

Nathan was trying to figure out how to draw his sabre without cutting his belt when he saw the first dirty, poorly clad figure slipping quickly through the trees towards him as if all the hounds of hell were on his tail, but their master lurked somewhere ahead, and only the pressure of the people coming up behind kept him from finding somewhere to stop and hide from them both. The man probably had no more years to his credit than Barnaby back in the hotel, but long days under the brutal sun had tanned his skin as dark as old leather, complete with the fine network of wrinkles.

“Hullo there,” Nathan said gently. He slowly moved his hands away from his weapon and tried to look as nonthreatening as possible. A small crowd of other humans in a variety of sizes, ages, genders, skin tones, and costumes, but matching expressions clung to the man’s heels. They spilled out into the cleared space and might have run right across if Nathan’s voice had not cut into the fear and panic, bringing them to a stumbling halt. They huddled together on the opposite side of the stair, casting uneasy glances at the small, veiled figure with his bright horse, the dark void of the stone stairs, and the improbably dark shadows under the trees.

“Is Mathis coming soon behind you?” Nathan asked the poor huddle of humanity doing his best to resist the pervasive unease that already infected Flame Heart. One or two of them glanced Nathan’s way, but none seemed to understand what he asked. Still, Nathan only just maintained his calm, still posture when the stone stairs suddenly exhaled a gust of cold, damp air, because he expected something of the sort after he failed to fall into a hidden hazard as he made his way through the tall grass.

Only Mathis’ appearance kept the huddle from scattering in panic. The moose strode confidently onto the scene with his bandana hanging loose around his neck and his hat tilted back on his head so that anyone with eyes to see beheld his easy grin. “I told you that I would be along soon after you,” Mathis called across to Nathan even as he moved among the others soothing and comforting with his big, strong pooves.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 5)

Nathan glanced back into the soothing, comparative gloom of his hotel room, and then turned back to the new desert. He took a deep breath, and instantly started to cough as the hot air instantly sucked the moisture out of the tissues lining his nose and throat. Without comment, Mathis reached across Nathan’s face and pulled a veil of cloth across the boy’s nose and mouth, before the rising wind could force him to breathe any more sand. Only then did Mathis notice the weight of the turban he wore, on his head. His khaki shorts had ballooned into a loose pair of trousers tucked into a pair of tall, soft, leather boots laced tight up over his calves Nathan’s t-shirt lengthened and thickened into a long, pale tunic that hung to his knees in front and back, but with slits in either side up to his hips. He felt Mathis shift on his shoulder and then Nathan could feel the weight of the long coat or robe he wore, flowing down nearly to his ankles, belted closely around his waist by a widely wrapped belt of maroon cloth with a wickedly curved sword tucked through the layers.

Behind the veil, where no one could see, a wide grin blossomed on Nathan’s face. He stepped into the hallway while behind him. The door drifted shut and faded out of sight.

“All right,” Mathis said. With an expert wiggle, and a jump, the moose slipped Nathan’s hold and landed on the sand, suddenly standing half a head taller than the boy.

Mathis had changed clothes to match the new surroundings as well. The mottled blotches of color shifted from green, browns and black to variations on the theme of sand and tan seen in the scarce shadows and brightly lit mounds of the desert around them. His trousers disappeared inside a sturdy pair of pale suede boots. Mathis’ pack had grown long and narrow, with a belt across his middle. The main pouch wobbled slightly when he moved as the water it carried sloshed around inside and had a drinking tube from the bottom looped up so that the mouthpiece hung from the shoulder strap not far from Mathis’ chin. At one hip, Mathis carried a canteen, and at the other a med kit. The cap he wore in the hotel room had shifted color with his uniform. The bill had grown and stretched until it reached out into a wide brim all the way around. Mathis wore thin cloth gloves tucked up into cuffs buttoned close around his wrists and a matching bandana pulled across his nose and mouth. Mathis wore broad, tinted goggles, so that almost none of his fur was left exposed, even in the shadow of his hat.

Mathis pulled a large, antique, wooden compass with more than the ordinary number of dials out of the deep pocket on his left thigh. He made an exhaustive survey of their surroundings, consulting his compass and squinting around at the mountains ahead and the different mounds of sand along the horizon on all sides. Eventually, the Moose put the compass away and pointed towards where the distant mountains disappeared into the sand and said, “The oasis is that way. Did you want to walk, or shall we ride?”

Nathan blinked in surprise, looking Mathis up and down. He was aware of stories of people with more than the usual allotment of courage and or less than healthy allotment of brains who attempted to ride moose (sometimes even successfully), but Mathis did not look at all like the kind of moose anyone would want to sit upon without an invitation, preferably engraved, with an RSVP card returned well in advance.

“I am a good walker, but how far do we have to go, and what would we ride?” Nathan drew his mildly horrified, fascinated gaze away from Mathis and a mental image of trying to climb up his suddenly tall and strongly built companion. No one would make fun of Nathan for taking Mathis around when the Moose looked like that.

Even as Nathan turned to look around for some other option for a mount, he felt a tugging at the shoulder of his robe as the tall, dark roan standing behind him lipped at the cloth.

“I was thinking horses, as the journey will be relatively short as far as desert travel distances go, but we could manage most anything you like. Camels have more stamina when it comes to these climates, but they often have rather nasty dispositions, and the gait takes some getting used to.” Mathis hesitated when Nathan did not respond, “Maybe I should have asked. I assume any child of your family would know how to ride.”

Nathan did not respond; because he was too busy staring at the horse. He had a long, proud, well-shaped head, and a ruddy brown hide that shown in the bright sunshine. The horse already wore a dove grey saddle and bridle, bright with silver ornamentation and hung with blindingly white tassels around the edge of the saddle blanket. Ebony might have looked better for the horse’s equipment, the same deep midnight colors as his mane and tail, but the sun would be hot enough on his dark if handsomely dramatic coloring, there was no need to make it any worse just for a bit more style.

From some pocket hidden in the depths of his costume, Nathan pulled a big, red apple and held it out making certain to keep his hand spread out as flat as possible, and keep his fingers safe. Nathan rubbed the long nose with his other hand. Even standing on his toes, Nathan would have trouble seeing over the tall horse and high saddle, but that did not seem to matter. Nathan’s toe slid into the stirrup and he seemed to glide up into the saddle.

Only when he sat looking down at Mathis from his new perch, did Nathan seem to process that the Moose had been speaking. “Oh yes, I know how to ride, and horses are a fine choice, but what shall you ride?”

“I think I will go for something that will not cry when I try to climb aboard. At this size, my weight can be considerable.” Mathis rummaged around in his other big thigh pocket with his head tilted. What with the goggles and the bandana, Nathan could hardly say he saw anything, but he could have sworn that Mathis closed his eyes and pursed up his mouth so that he could better focus on what his poof told him.

“Aha!” Mathis said, pulling his tightly closed fist out and raising it up in triumph. “Found it.” The Moose tossed something small and glittering into the air. As it rose, and even more as it fell, the small glittering thing became anything but small. Almost as if rushing towards them from some undetected, unfamiliar, fourth direction, the small, glittering thing landed gently on the sand as a broad based, full size, open vehicle with six, oversized desert tires, glittering from thousands of tiny surfaces, just like the sand all around them might if every solitary particle were taken out and polished.

Mathis jumped over the low side of the vehicle, wiggling a bit so that the seat shifted to better accommodate not only his shape and size, but also the pack he wore comfortably. With one poof lightly gripping the steering yoke, Mathis waved Nathan ahead in the direction earlier indicated. “Lead on. It might take your mount a bit to get used to my vehicle. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Right-o,” Nathan said, pulling back on his left reign and letting up the tension on the right and squeezing the horse with his knees. Almost instantly, and without any great effort, Nathan and his mount flew over the sand. The horse seemed to have no bones, and barely touch the ground as the sand swallowed most of the sound of the hoof beats. Nathan assumed that Mathis sent them on ahead, because the noise of his vehicle would spook the horse. However, after several minutes of flying across the sun beaten terrain, Nathan still did not hear any noise of an engine behind him and grew concerned. Peering back over his shoulder, and gathering up his reins in preparation to slow down and go back in case trouble loomed, Nathan was surprised to see the vehicle and Mathis zipping along easily over the sand not three meters behind and too one side of them. The strange ‘sand buggy’ barely seemed to touch the ground, and it made even less noise than the horse, but part of the wind beating against Nathan’s skin came from the vehicle instead of the atmosphere.

Nathan’s mount stumbled, only very slightly and took a dancing step to the side, calling the boy’s attention back from the Moose. Reluctantly, Nathan pulled gently back on the reigns and slowed from the gallop to a canter. As amazing as the greater speed was, Nathan did not know how far they had to go, and it would do no good at all to exhaust and overheat his horse well away from their oasis goal. Horses need more water in a day than humans do, and Nathan had no idea how much Mathis might require.

The merciless sun hung, almost unmoving in the sky as the two travelers rode on for an apparent eternity beneath its brutal glare with only the phantom mirages of water in the distance offering any hope of relief, however false. Then, a sudden dip in the terrain ahead pulled them up short. A wide basin of sand dusted earth held a small pocket of grass and trees sheltering a deep, blue pool. On the near edge of the pool, the tents, animals, and black swathed figures of a major caravan or three mingled and milled about under the trees.

“Get back, and down! Quickly!” Mathis urged, following his own advice.

Nathan, well primed for action by training if not experience, did as he was told, purling his horse back and down below the edge of the basin before asking, “What is it?”

“Did you not notice the black robes, those yonder wear, or do you not know what they mean? Those slavers camped in the oasis would like nothing better than to have a boy your age and coloration to add to their merchandise, not to mention the lure of your horse and the silver on his tack,” Mathis said. He jumped quietly out of his vehicle and stowed it back in his pocket, all the while staring ahead, as if he could see the encampment, the pool, and all that lay in the basin ahead through the hill of sand behind which they sheltered as easy as Nathan might through a sheet of glass.

“I saw, and I knew, but I did not think to put the two things together. I am glad you were here to warn me. Where exactly is our goal?” Nathan asked, creeping up the hill on his belly to peak over the top at the scene below. “Ordinarily, I would suggest waiting until dark to make our approach, but we have no food, little water, and an appointment to keep on the
other side.”

“The way lies on the opposite edge of the pool, in the dense knot of trees,” Mathis said, from a seat lower down on the hill. Moose antlers are very adaptable and good for many surprising tasks, but peeking over hilltops without letting your outline catch notice is not one of them.

Nathan scanned the scene below until he found the knot Mathis mentioned. “Those trees look close enough together that if we circle around to the other side and approach from behind them, we should be able to reach our goal without being detected,” Nathan said with an air of confident assurance in advance of his age and experience.

“That sounds like a good plan. You should go do that,” Mathis said, checking the contents of his pockets both in his uniform and on his pack with an air of preparation that made Nathan nervous.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” Nathan asked, slipping back down the hill to Mathis’ level.

“I will meet you over there. Do not worry. There is just something I need to take care of first,” Mathis said, and started to crawl down the hill at an angle, moving closer to the caravan rather than circling around to the safe path.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 4)

Chapter Three – A Quest for Sustenance

When Nathan woke up, he defied the literary and fictional dictates that he should not remember where he was or the surprising things that happened shortly before he fell asleep. Instead, the boy woke quickly, quietly, and immediately looked around for Mathis. Nathan’s heart beat faster when, at first, he could not find the moose in the darkened room.

Mathis had given up patrolling, at least for that moment, and stood mostly hidden in the heavy folds of cloth that blocked off the outside from the inside of the room. Mathis stood looking out at the rain soaked darkness on the other side of the glass. Though Nathan did nothing more than lift and turn his head, some whisper of motion across the bed, the change in the air patterns moving in the air, or the shift in Nathan’s breathing alerted Mathis. Without turning to look, Mathis said, “Good morning, Nathan,” and the sound helped the boy locate the moose in the darkened room.

“Is it morning, then?” Nathan asked, wiggling around until he sat cross-legged, facing the window.

“I guess that depends upon how you define morning,” Mathis said. He finally turned away from the glass and hopped from the air conditioner under the window, to the table, and from there to the back of the padded chair where Mathis sat on his heels.

It is after midnight, so morning as in the start of a new day, but it is not yet five o’clock, so it would still be dark out even without the weather,” Mathis said blandly, filling the air with unimportant words in case Nathan’s brain needed a little more time to catch up with his body.

“Usually, I would go for the first half of the day after sunrise, but almost five o’clock is close enough to count, too.” Nathan rubbed his chin in thought, a gesture picked up from his dad who invariably returned from Antarctica with a beard of some description. “No idea where to draw the line, however.”

Mathis smiled to himself. Clearly Nathan would not be a slow riser if immediate action ever became necessary. “Have you had enough sleep for a while, or do you think pjs and covers sound attractive,” Mathis asked. “Barnaby will probably manage to stay unconscious for a few hours yet if nothing intervenes. You have not been asleep very long.”

“I think I have had more than enough naps to last me for a good long while.” Nathan uncrossed his legs and scooched forward until he could slip his feet to the floor. “First I want to clean my teeth, and then I want to have a look at that menu.”

Nathan headed for the bathroom, surprisingly quiet on his feet for a boy his age. He absently flicked up the room’s light switch on his way to his travel kit and the sink. Somewhere in the passage of time since Mathis first spoke, Nathan had accepted the moose as a full and proper adventuring companion. Though Mathis seemed perfectly comfortable, there was no need to leave him sitting in the dark. It would only take a few minutes to properly clean the teeth. The airport pizza had been good enough at the time, but some of the flavor lingered. While Nathan slept it had grown and mutated until Nathan did not want to be around himself when he spoke, and pitied the nose of anyone with whom he spoke.

For once, when Nathan emerged, he found Mathis in the same spot, though instead of sitting, the moose paced along the chair back with his pooves clasped behind his back and his head bowed.

“Is something wrong?” Nathan asked. He had not forgotten what Mathis said about attacks and enemies. While Nathan might have no personal experience of such things, he knew all the stories about his Gramps and Gramma, and had read a lot of stories by and about people who dealt with such things.

“Not at the moment,” Mathis said and smiled at Nathan. “I am not always good at keeping still unless it is needed.” Mathis jumped from the chair to the bed and strolled to the foot, nearer the desk, as Nathan made for the desk’s chair. “Is there anything in particular you are hungry for? I did some recon while you slept. The kitchens are clean, well kept, and I cannot vouch for the day crew, but the night chef is excellent.”

“How did you manage that? The door is locked and a restaurant kitchen is a very busy place,” Nathan asked.

“It is very difficult to keep a moose in or out of anywhere against our will. And you will find that most humans cannot hear me or see me do anything that a stuffed animal cannot. The main exceptions are young children and people with a mindset close enough to ours.

“Frankly I was surprised that you realized I had moved when you caught me nosing around in your suitcase with an eye toward making a little travelling nest for myself in case you either shoved me in there or I had to stow away. As embarrassing as getting caught sneaking was, I am just as glad you did. There are ways for me to make myself noticed if I need to do so, some fast, startling, and temporary for emergencies and other slow, more gentle and less predictable. I was not looking forward to trying to keep an eye on you while you remained oblivious.”

“You mean you are going to want me to carry you around with me?” Nathan asked, imagining how some of his friends at home would react to seeing him walking around carrying a forty-five centimeter high soft toy with a shudder, turning in his chair to look at Mathis.

“When we are on the move you can carry me in your rucksack, Sometimes I will want to make my own way to scout around a bit, though. Do not worry about it. The people most likely to give you a hard time about me are the ones least likely to notice my presence, unless they are getting a little help from our enemies. In that case, it serves as a pretty good warning as to what we are dealing with.” Mathis smiled and gave a brief laugh in a way that made Nathan profoundly grateful they were on the same side.

“Besides, how can I be a good Adventuring Companion if you go leaving me behind in cars and hotel rooms all the time?” Mathis asked. He jumped from the bed to the bureau, and dropped gently from there to the desk. A gentle stroll took Mathis to the menu’s edge.

When Nathan did not seem to have an answer to that, Mathis asked, “What do you have in mind?” looking down at the glossy, laminated page, even though he knew that Nathan had not actually looked yet. The menu was not fancy, only one, extra-long page with writing on the front and back with no pictures sealed in a thin layer of plastic. Most of the fare was familiar from home, though not always by the same name. For example, the menu called chips, fries and what it called chips, Nathan called crisps but Mathis had to explain to him about mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

“There are so many interesting and tasty things to choose from,” Nathan said, running a finger down the card and pausing a moment at all the things that struck his fancy, waffles, hamburgers, bacon, sausage, pancakes, steak, fries, and many others. “I know I could get more than one thing, but I do not want to waste any when I cannot eat it all.” Nathan made a face, trying to decide.

“How hungry are you?” Mathis asked, watching Nathan’s wandering finger. Most of the things Nathan lingered on longest were not on the all night availability section. I mean, can you wait half an hour or so you could go down to the buffet, even though the room service extended menu will not be available until seven.”

Reminded that only part of the things listed were actually available, Nathan turned to the back of the menu card and covered up the dinner and dessert options with both hands to stare at what was left. There were still several tasty things left, but mostly more snack like foods like chicken wings, and fried mozzarella sticks though there was pizza. After a long, thoughtful moment, Nathan dropped his hands and looked at Mathis. “With the kitchen staff busy getting the buffet ready, it will probably take the half an hour or so for them to bring up anything, won’t it?”

“Depending on what you pick and how long it takes to fix, it could be even longer,” Mathis agreed with a shrug.

“But you said Barnaby would sleep for a while yet,” Nathan said, not even aware he was rubbing his stomach as he spoke. “He worked the whole flight over, and then he worked some more when the weather went south.”

“Let us take the long way down and do some exploring to fill the time between now and the buffet opening, and let Barnaby sleep,” Mathis said. He hopped from the desk to the top of the bureau, and then turned back to wait for Nathan from the far corner. “Remember to bring your room key.”

“Nathan hesitated, for a moment feeling very alone and far from home, but then he thought of his grandfather and rubbed his empty middle again. The hotel had security cameras in the hallways and stairwells, so while he may be alone, he would not be unobserved. Nathan snatched up his room key, stuffed it deep in his back pocket, and headed for the door. Without any thought or effort, Nathan caught Mathis when the Moose stepped off his high perch and kept walking toward the door.

Nathan pulled the portal open wide and took a deep breath. As he slowly expelled the air, pale golden sand welled up in front of his feet and tumbled in rippling waves out to cover the dark blue-grey carpeting of the hallway. Once the sand hid the carpet as far as Nathan could see to either side, the waves built up against the far wall, and the overhead lighting began shifting colors. The light grew brighter and stronger from the cool white of the hallway’s light fixtures to the merciless, golden hammer of the sun as it beat down through an atmosphere completely devoid of soothing moisture. By the time the sand built up to cover the tops of the doorways in the opposite wall, the ceiling and any sound of the storm raging outside the hotel had faded away. With a muted thump and a sudden cloud of sand, the wall fell backwards and disappeared under the shifting sands, until the entire visage beyond Nathan’s doorway had changed into an empty wasteland of sun and shifting sand.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 3)

(It turns out when Minion looked at the front of her original, hand written version of this story, that she did have a more interesting title for it. We will be putting more of this novel up for most of the month while she puts her usual short story time into trying to get some bigger things done.)

“I wonder where you came from,” Nathan said, walking around the bed to get a closer look.

“That uniform is much more modern than the one my Gramps wore, but it is not quite up to the current U.S. Military pattern, is it.” Along with his uniform and pack the moose had an envelope on his lap, held upright under one arm with ‘Nathan’ written upon it.

“Maybe this will tell me where you came from,” Nathan said pulling a simple bit of heavy, pale grey card stock out of the unsealed envelope. On it, the words were not simply written or printed by a computer, but deeply etched with shining gold ink or leaf pressed into the indentations. “Every Good Adventurer benefits from a Trusted Companion.”

Nathan turned the card over, double checked inside the envelope, and the inner and outer surfaces of the envelope itself, but there was no further clue. He studied the words for a bit longer. Then he dropped card and envelope on the bed and went back to his suitcase for clean clothes. Mostly, Nathan felt he had outgrown teddy bears and the like. There were extenuating circumstances and some precedence, but the decision as to what to do with the moose and further investigation could wait until after his bath. Plus, Nathan decided he should really email his Gramma, parents, and probably Aunt Judy. Nathan did not notice the small pair of bright eyes watching him in the shadow of the Moose’s hat brim, not yet anyway.

Left to his own devices, Nathan decided to take a shower and a bath at the same time. He pushed down the plug, but ran the shower instead of the tap. This way Nathan could sit in the tub and imagine himself an explorer in the rain forests, searching for the treasures of a legendary, lost city while still using only one bathtub full of water. The hotel probably had enormous reservoirs of hot water, but Nathan had no interest in turning his tropical adventure into an arctic one.

In spite of the game Nathan played, the soaps the hotel provided smelled a bit too strongly of flowers for that particular boy. Nathan climbed out of the tub to grab his own soap from the suitcase. Nathan was still wrapping himself in a towel big enough to carpet a small room when he stopped to stare a moment. Nathan could have sworn he left the moose up against the pillows, but now it hung over the edge of the suitcase, head and shoulders inside.

Slowly, Nathan lifted the lid and shifted the moose so it leant against the side, and dug out the wash bag. Nathan double checked to make certain no one else was in the room. He double checked that both locks on the door were closed. Then he returned to the bathroom, locking that door, as well. With no one there to see, the Moose pushed up his cap and briefly rubbed his forehead. He had not intended to get caught nosing about in Nathan’s things, but now that he had, Mathis could not really regret it. The operation would go much more smoothly as an overt rather than a covert mission.

Nathan emerged clean, relatively dry, and a trifle cautious. He poked his head around the corner into the bedroom. He was not disappointed. The moose was nowhere to be seen on the bed, but but with a little hunting, Nathan finally tracked him down, sitting on the desk, bent over the room service menu.

“Okay,” Nathan said, stepping fully into the room. “What in the name of Ned is going on here?”

“I thought you might be hungry. Growing boys always seem to be hungry. The pizza Barnaby got you was a while ago,” a gruff, but not altogether unpleasant voice responded promptly.

Nathan’s mouth slowly fell open, but since no sound came out, the other voice went on, “Or would you rather get some proper sleep first. Dozing off a few times on the flight and the few minutes you caught in the car can only take you so far.” Slowly, and very deliberately, Mathis sat up from his stuffed animal slump and turned to look at Nathan from under the brim of his hat.

“Is this some kind of trick?” Nathan asked fisting his hands at his sides and glancing around the room when he caught himself addressing the soft toy on the desk.

“You know about Winston, right?” The moose asked standing up briefly so he could move to the edge of the desk and sit facing Nathan with his bare, furry feet hanging off the edge.

“Yes,” Nathan admitted grudgingly, still refusing to speak directly to the moose. That was the precedent mentioned for adventurers and stuffed animals. Winston was the small teddy bear that always rode in Nathan’s grandfather’s breast pocket during his travels, ever since nineteen-year-old Gramps received him from the girl aged Gramma when he had to leave behind to go to France during World War II. Winston had two, neatly patched holes in his four inches of body, one from a bit of shrapnel during the war and one from a bullet in an almost equally inhospitable bit of nowhere years later. Family legend held that Winston saved Gramps’ life on more than just those two occasions. The little bear went even into the grave with Nathan’s grandfather, to look after the old man for that next great adventure.

“He and I have some friends in common. One of them is looking after your grandmother, and I have come to look after you, now that the two of you can no longer look after each other while your parents are gone. You can call me Mathis,” the Moose said with a jaunty salute. “I already know your name, of course.”

“You have been watching me since the plane?” Nathan asked, watching the moose out of the corner of his eye and taking a tentative step closer.

“Since the doctors all but had to tie your Gramma to her bed to keep her from stealing a wheelchair to help you pack and get you to the airport,” Mathis said with a smile. “She is a fiesty woman, your Gramma.”

“She is,” Nathan acknowledged shortly, but he was not going to be distracted that easily. “But why have you come all this way to look after the friend of a friend of a friend’s grandson? And why now?”

“I may not have personally known Winston or your grandfather, but my friends and I have been looking after your family for over four generations. As such, some of our enemies have become…aware of you as more than just targets of opportunity they missed, and they are not above striking at family as a way of getting even. Up until now, you have mostly stayed within the general defenses we set up, but the attack on your Gramma has put us on alert.” Mathis kicked the desk twice producing two soft but clearly audible thuds. It was quite an impressive result for the back of an unshod bit of floof and started to explain how four inches of teddy bear might stop a bullet.

“It was not an attack. It was an accident. I was there. If that driver meant to hurt Gramma, he could have done a lot worse. The doctor’s said almost all of the damage was done by the way she got all tangled up in her bike as she fell,” Nathan said, his voice unconsciously gaining in volume as he spoke.

“Yes exactly,” Mathis agreed paradoxically, making Nathan frown in confusion, yet somehow still back down from his aggressive posture. “I doubt the driver even saw either of you, much less ever dreamt of hurting her. Some accidents are less accidental than others, and the Imps are experts at engineering.

“Someone definitely did something to her bike. I know of at least two incidents where she had much closer encounters at higher speeds without falling off her bike or horse. The doctors and police might talk about the debilitating effects of age on the reflexes, but I have seen the replays of the accident and the marks left by the stick that went through her spokes at just the wrong moment. You can not convince me that all those little accidents all just happened to pile up in just the right order at just the right times without a little help. It is possible, but a highly improbable possible.” Mathis crossed his arms and glared at the floor.

“Is she going to be okay on her own? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so far away.” Nathan stepped closer still, looking around, perhaps for some way to get back to the hospital.

“She is hardly on her own. She has flocks of visitors every day and has already found several allies on the staff. We are also keeping a close eye out for anymore mischief of the type that tipped up her bike. Your Gramma is ridiculously proud that you chose the adventure over one of the safer, more comfortable choices. If you want to salve your conscience, send her a message to let her know about the adventure so far. She knows all about it from Barnaby, but that is not the same. When you are done with that, we need to decide about bed or breakfast,” Mathis said, reaching back to pat the menu behind him on the desk.

Without further discussion, Nathan went to compose and send that message. It took longer than one might expect. Nathan had to fight a bit to get his tablet and the hotel wifi to play nicely with one another. With that battle won he wrote a brief, pithy account of the trials and tribulations with customs and the weather. Nathan did not mention anything about talking soft toys or imps behind Gramma’s fall. The email was going out to everyone, after all. If he got the chance to talk to his Gramma, and maybe his Mum, he might tell them, framing it like one of the Winston stories. Then again, maybe he should write it down instead, with pen and paper, like Gramps’ letters in Gramma’s memory box, but something he could edit, to get the words right, too.

Nathan had the feeling Mathis could have helped with the wi-fi, though the moose spent the time prowling around the room.  Mathis lept easily from desk to bureau to bed to chair back to table and around again without ever touching the floor. Nathan was wondering about that and still thinking of writing an adventure journal version of his trip when he fell asleep, sprawled across the covers at the top of the bed with his suitcase, still open, taking up the bottom. I guess napping won out over breakfast. Mathis turned out the lights and continued to patrol the room, sticking to the high ground.