Sunday, 3 November 2013

In Which There Is Trouble On The Okulas Moon

"I must confess," Saeed said, as the light of the rainbow bridge faded from view, "I never expected the moon to look like this."

They stood on a wide, featureless plain, covered with a sparse scrub in patches of hard, black soil. Although the stars could be seen, a bright canopy overhead that suggested night, there was plenty of ambient light surrounding Saeed and Avan.

"The moon wears many faces," Avan replied. "She is the mistress of illusion."

"'She'?" Saeed asked. "The moon is female?"

"That is the one thing all the faces have in common, yes," Avan said, then, pointing towards one horizon: "I think that is where we need to be headed."

In the direction that Avan had pointed Saeed could make out the twisted form of a gigantic tree, the only large form on the visible landscape of the Okulas Moon as far as the eye could see in any direction. Saeed and Avan began the long walk toward their destination.

As they drew closer Saeed began to realise that they were not headed towards a normal-sized tree that was a short distance away but, in fact, an enormous tree that was much further away than it first appeared. Even so, as they first crossed the part of the plain where some roots of the enormous tree were becoming visible Saeed could see birds swooping and wheeling around the branches far above his head.

One bird, not flying, was sat on a larger branch about sixty feet up. An impressive looking owl that, while not on the same exact scale as the tree, was large enough to look a little more comfortable with the enormity of its perch than it might have otherwise.

The size of the external roots grew larger and larger as Avan and Saeed drew closer to the bole of the tree. Before they reached a place where they could think of climbing the trunk a voice called out to them.

"Couldn't resist the challenge could you?"

Saeed and Avan turned to see Miranda Felix standing twenty feet up on the ridge of one of the roots.

"You want to give up," Avan said. "You'd be no match for me if I was alone. Let me assure you that your defeat will be swift and humiliating when you face both myself and Saeed."

"If I was alone," Miranda Felix replied. "I would not have called attention to myself. You know as well as anyone I like to pick my battles, my handsome prince."

Saeed surveyed the area around him. All he saw was the rough bark covering the tree roots, appearing grey in the strange blue of the ambient illumination, and the black and blue scrub of the earth.

"You have hidden lizard men, or trolls nearby?" Avan asked.

"I have glass monkeys," Felix replied. "Nearer than you think."

Saeed felt the brush of Avan's arm as he shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably.

"I must confess," he said. "I've never heard of a glass monkey."

"No, something new on the moon," Felix said. "Dreamed up by a darling little madame I have safe inside a mirror. Mischief sprites can have the cruellest imaginings if you just scare them a little."

"I've never heard of a glass monkey," Saeed muttered to Avan under his breath. "She could be bluffing."

Avan looked about, scanning the ground around them for some sign of Miranda's invisible henchmen.

"So we're supposed to just let you get away because of this assurance?" Avan asked.

"Oh, my sweet boy," Miranda said. "I know you too well to think that you'd take my word for anything." She drew in a breath and called out: "Attack!"

There was a shift in the air and a rhythmic pounding rumble like dozens of feet suddenly moving forward. Something screeched and Saeed felt himself struck in the face so hard it sent him tumbling backwards.

Thankfully Saeed had excellent reflexes. He turned the fall into a backwards hand spring, drawing his sword as he came back up. He swung his blade in an arc around him and drew out the sound of shrieking monkeys as they tried to avoid his random swipes.

"I am not going to be able to keep this up for long!" he shouted at Avan, who had somehow managed to cloak his entire body in fire in the few seconds since the monkeys had attacked.

"No, neither am I," Avan called back. "Besides, Felix is escaping while we're dealing with this nonsense."

"Nonsense, in my experience, tends to be less fatal than this," Saeed called back.

"This should help," Avan said pulling a gourd from one of the pouches on his belt. "Take a deep breath," he warned and threw the gourd into the air. Being a wise thief Saeed inhaled as large a lungful of air as he could in preparation for whatever was coming next.

There was an explosive popping noise and the gourd bloomed into a cloud of green smoke that settled down over them. The green smoke was made of a fine powder that settled on Avan, Saeed and also on the glass monkeys. Now Saeed could see the outline of the places where the powder fell. The monkeys did not like the powder and were scurrying away, trying not to get it on them.

Even as they did so, however, the monkeys began to swoon and fall, there were the sounds of monkey bodies hitting the floor as the green powder caused them to fall into slumber. There were more monkeys than could be caught within the radius of the gourd, of course. But clearing the space gave Avan and Saeed all the head start that they needed.

Swinging their blades ahead of them they charged towards the trunk of the tree and the remaining glass monkeys scampered out of their way, unsure what to do next. When they were outside of the reach of the cloud of green powder Saeed risked opening his mouth to speak.

"I don't think we're going to be able to climb this tree faster than monkeys, not even glass ones," he said.

"Don't you worry," Avan replied. "I don't think that we'll have to."

Avan dodged to the right into a shadowed crook between the out growth of two huge roots and disappeared. Hoping that this was not the result of some kind of sorcery Saeed followed. He was amazed to find that the shadow was far longer, and deeper than he might have imagined. Also, it felt as if he was running along in some sort of darkened interior.

"Hurry!" Avan said from up ahead. The sound of glass monkeys chattering and squealing was growing louder at Saeed's back.

Saeed felt a strong hand pull him forward so he stumbled and fell to the floor. There was the whistle of air sliced by a blade and then the rumble of unspooling rope and the rattle of metal through guide rails. Finally there was the crash of a heavy gate hitting the floor.

Avan muttered one of his minor magical incantations and a soft yellow glow permeated the space around them. Saeed was amazed to see that they were inside the tree, in a room carved into the root, a room with a heavy gate blocking a passage that lead outside.

"How did you know?" Saeed asked.

"Neither Felix not Okulas are lovers of slumming it," Avan said. "I didn't believe either of them would concede to living in the unfurnished branches of a tree, whatever it's size. Besides, I believed I could detect the suck of air entering the tunnel when we were outside."

"So... you could very easily have just run straight into a wall?" Saeed asked as the two of them started to make their way through the hallways and rooms carved into the roots of the tree.

Avan shrugged.

"What's life without a risk once in a while?" he asked.

The two adventurers made short work of finding the grand hall at the core of the tree structure. A vast cylindrical vault ran up the main trunk of the tree. Saeed guessed that it wasn't wide enough to have hollowed out the whole of the tree interior but it was still over one hundred feet in diameter, a series of circular galleries were connected with broad stair cases sweeping upwards in elegant arcs to the branches of the tree above.

"Looks like nobody's home," Saeed said after walking slightly behind Avan and nervously checking over his shoulder every five paces for about ten minutes.

"Worrying," Avan said. "If this place is empty then the forces Okulas had here must have gone somewhere else. The question is, where?"

"Let's hope the owl knows," Saeed said. "And that he's in a mood to share the knowledge."

When Avan and Saeed emerged onto the branch they found that a smooth path had been carved into the upper side of the surface leading out to the owl's perch. Now that they drew closer Saeed could see that the owl was roughly twenty feet tall, an imposing creature indeed, nestled in the branches of this mighty tree.

"You are one of the First?" Avan called to the owl as they drew close enough that it might hear them.

The owl rotated its enormous head. Huge golden discs, the owl's eyes, oriented to regard them.

"You are Prince Avan Weatherstrong, and you are Saeed ibn Abihi, the wanderer," the owl addressed them. "I have been waiting for you."

"What concern are we to one of the arbiters of fate?" Avan asked, his delivery was clear but Saeed had travelled with the Prince long enough that he could detect the quaver of concern in his companion's voice.

"Dark times are ahead, Prince Weatherstrong, only the deepest knowledge and the strongest soul can prevail," the owl said.

"If you tell us where we may find Okulas," Avan declared. "Then we will save the Terra Draconis."

"You will preserve it," the owl told them. Saeed had travelled too long not to note the ring in the owl's voice that told them this was a correction, not an echo. "This is the weft of the Weave. You will find your quarry in the eye of the storm that rages on the dark side of this moon. Nothing larger than a speck of dirt may penetrate the walls of the storm."

"Then that is how we must approach," Avan said. "Great thanks, wise one, we shall show that your trust in us was well placed."

"I do not trust," the owl replied. "I deliver the will of the weave. All things are as they must be."

With that the owl shifted its weight forward to drop off the perch, spreading its wings and swooping away from the tree on the Okulas Moon.

"I have to say that I did not find that conversation at all reassuring," Saeed said.

"Neither did I," Avan said. "But we have come too far to turn back now."

"I promised that I would undo the evil I was tricked into unleashing," Saeed replied. "So I am with you, however dark the road."

"Then you should brace yourself," Avan said. "Because I think we're about to experience a very bumpy ride."

And indeed they did, and in the eye of the storm raging over the dark side of the Okulas Moon Saeed and Avan confronted Count Okulas, but what happened when they did is a story for another time.

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