Oetho rushed out the doorway at the base of the stone tower. His gray hair whipped in the wind and his black cassock snapped. He held his arm up to shield his face, but the wind still bit at his eyes and ears. Wincing, he forced his way across the small courtyard and out the house gate.
Amana stood in the center of a round grazing pen, her white hair tied in a tight bun and her linen overcoat billowing at the sleeves. She was partially bent over, yet looked into the sky at the tumult of clouds and listened to the roar of the wind. Around her huddled two adult goats and four kids. She held two of the young with her hands, gripping their fine coats. Oetho’s shouts were lost to her, but by chance she glanced toward the tower and caught his approach. Surprised, she stood up. Her husband had not moved so fast in years.
“The storm came up all of a sudden,” Amana shouted to him when he reached the fence. “Help me move the animals back inside the wall.”
Oetho doubled over and coughed.
Amana waded to the fence and took a hold of his arm. “You ought not to be out in this. You’ll have the fever back on you in no time.” She brushed his cassock, and helped him back up. “Your gills are green already.”
“Amana,” Oetho spoke. He paused to compose himself, yet his frantic expression betrayed him. His hands gripped the fence post, holding him steady.
Amana stared back at him, quizzically.
“Amana, we must hurry,” he said out of breath.
Amana glanced back at her small herd.
“No,” Oetho said, “there’s no time.” He reached out over the fence, grabbed her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “This world is ending.”
Oetho was not senile, not yet. He knew that Amana trusted him with all her heart and would not take his words as idle rant. Her instinct would tell her that he was sincere. Yet, he could see that she had been caught off guard, a twitch in her eye and a lump in her throat; a look she reserved for when she grew short with him.
“What do you mean, Oetho?” She rubbed his shoulders as if to calm him. Oetho stared back, uncertain how to explain. Something in his eyes told her all she needed to know. Her own expression changed from concern to shock, and she spoke with dread. “You did something didn’t you? Rilla, have mercy on us. You did something.”
“No,” Oetho said. “I’ve kept my promise. I gave up those ways long ago. I love you more than life itself.”
“Juxin,” Oetho said. The name alone explained enough.
Everyone revered the name of Juxin. He was the Prime Hunter of the people. He was the slayer of the Ban-Tho. His position and authority were unchallenged in the halls of governance. As the leader of the people’s army, his reach was second only to the Emperor himself. Those that knew him well knew that Juxin was both a powerful politician and an accomplished Mystic.
Oetho knew him more than well, and through circumstance so did Amana. Both recalled how ruthlessly Juxin applied his talents, and how single-mindedly he searched to attain new powers to wield over his enemy. Neither would forget how suddenly their lives were upturned by a single act many years ago, a slaughter of innocents. Juxin was just mad enough to risk the entire world for certain victory, had he the means.
Amana pursed her lips. “If not you, then Juxin,” she spat. “Damn, him! What has he done? What have you helped him to do?” Her fingers clawed at his forearms, and her legs buckled in weakness.
Oetho leaned into the fence and held her from falling. He knew he deserved her bitterness; there was a seed of truth in it. Juxin and a small company of his soldiers had called upon their home in early spring, months ago. The gesture was unprecedented; neither man had spoken to the other in over twenty years. Yet, Juxin had sought out Oetho.
Oetho and his wife lived far from the capital city of Vas Kan, far from bustle of society, on a lonely parcel at the back of a wood. They were not accustomed to visitors in any form. Their home was their place of solitude, and it was part of Oetho’s promise to Amana that he would keep it that way, with a simple and honest life.
“You let him into our home, and fed him at our table, and I said nothing.” Amana shuddered. “You talked to him as an old friend, when you could have rebuked him for what he has done to us, and through it all I stayed silent.”
Oetho said, “He sought only my council, and he left with no more than the words that I spoke.” Still he felt that his actions were somehow key to what had befallen. His words may have irrevocably doomed the entire world. “Yet, now is not the time to berate him or me. We must hurry and flee as best we can.”
Amana pushed away from him and drew back with a panic. A kid darted about her legs, disturbed by the storm. “Leave? Go? This is our home.” Tears formed in her eyes.
“Amana, please, I have read the signs. There is no mistake. You can see it all around you.” Oetho raised his arms into the bluster.
A dark shape moved in the air above their heads. It surprised Oetho. Luckily, he ducked in time. The sight of it sent Amana stumbling backward. The uprooted hemlock fell to the ground with a thunderous crack. The land shook.
Oetho rushed inside the pen, took Amana by the hand and lifted her back to her feet. She did not resist. They both looked out to the line of the wood. The trees were breaking, falling, lifting. Dust, branches and mounds of dirt were rending from the floor and bursting through the forest canopy. The destruction was almost upon them.
“Rilla, save us!” Amana shouted. Her voice trailed in anguish. Suddenly, she looked to Oetho in resignation. Her whole body shook. “Where can we go?”
“To Vas Kan,” Oetho said. “From there we can escape the world.”
“But how,” Amana cried. Vas Kan was many days away. “Rilla is calling. She has come for us, finally.”
Oetho smiled. He knew she had not fully understood. He reached into the waist pocket sewn into his cassock and pulled out a golden disk. Even in the gloom of the storm and through the weathering of ages, the amulet still shone.
“I had not given up everything,” Oetho said, “and my mind does not easily forget all that I have learned.” He placed the disk into Amana’s palm. “You married a Mystic, my love. My powers have not done much good in my life. Yet, today they may just save us. I can feel them in me. They are calling me home.”
Amana gasped when she felt the amulet’s warm touch. “A relic?” she said. She ran her fingertips over the etched surface. Oetho knew she recognized the object’s significance. Relics were remnants of an age long past, when the world was new. The first Mystics had crafted them with powers beyond even Juxin’s reach. All relics were outlawed. They were the exclusive dominion of the Prime Hunter of the People.
“Home,” she murmured to herself. Suddenly, her eyes brightened. Amana let go to the amulet and stepped backward, out of his reach.
Oetho’s heart sank. “Amana, you must come.” The black wall of the storm raged across the field. “I, I cannot live without you.”
Amana bent down and lifted a young goat into her arms. With her chin raised, she said, “I must save what I can.” Her smile glimmered with hope. The kid kicked with its front leg, and nuzzled its head into her neck.
Oetho had not called on the power of the amulet in so many years he had forgotten how it felt, the warmth searing through his body and the nausea as his head spun and the world changed around him. His ears rang in the stillness of the absence of the storm. He felt Amana’s hand tugging his arm as the room swayed. It was a moment before he was fully sure that he was standing. Amana had fallen to her knees. There was a stench and a spatter of fluid in front of her on the dark stone floor. Oetho was about to help her up when she vomited again.
“Awful,” she spat and then wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her overcoat. “I knew it would be awful.”
“It’s the disorientation,” Oetho said trying to console her, though his voice sounded distant even to him. “It wears off quickly. Can you stand?”
Amana’s face sagged as she looked up at him. “Where are we?”
Oetho had not given it a thought until then. “In my old chambers, I’m sure.” He looked around. Light streaked in through two tall window slits and bled through the fabric of a curtain pulled across the archway that led out onto a balcony. He did not recognize the red satin covering the bed, or the polished wood furniture, but he smiled when he found the painting of old Frazni was still there, high on the wall.
“In the Palace?” Amana said. Oetho struggled to balance himself as Amana rose, pulling against him. She listed as she blinked to clear her vision.
“It’s a villa near the Square.” Oetho said matter-of-factly.
“You were the great Mystic, weren’t you? Catered to, waited-on hand-and-foot.” Amana stood free of him and straightened her coat. She brushed the loose strands of her hair back over her ears and exhaled loudly. “Did they leave this place for you, hoping you’d get tired of me and return?”
Oetho rubbed his forehead. “No, my darling, it hasn’t been mine since I resigned.” He forced a smile. “This would be Juxin’s chamber now.”
“It’s still a disgrace. You’d think you were the Emperor himself. No wonder you Mystics keep meddling with nature.”
“Amana, we must move on. The storm still comes. I don’t know how long before it reaches even here.” Oetho stepped toward the doorway leading out.
Amana did not follow. Instead, she stooped near the foot of the bed, reached her arms under the ruffle and pulled out the quivering kid. She stroked its body and rubbed its snout. It looked woozily at her and tried to lick her face.
“Bring it. Come on.” Oetho gestured toward the door. Amana followed.
Outside the bed chamber, Oetho stepped cautiously and whispered. “Its better if no one knows we’re here.” Amana glared at him suspiciously, yet kept quiet all the same. The only sounds were from the young goat licking her open palm.
Oetho led them down a grand hall lined with portraits of proud men wearing thick satin robes and the golden tassels of office. Only when they passed the opening into the central atrium did they hear the voices of others. They hustled quickly from that point, turning down a narrow corridor and finally to a short wooden door, darkened with age. Oetho held his breath for a moment with his hand resting on the cold metal pull. Amana stood so close he could feel the shudders run through her body. He turned the latch cautiously yet could not avoid the grind of the rusted lock or the moan of the hinges as the door pitched forward.
The passage beyond led a short distance to a narrow set of steps rising upward. Light streaked in sparingly from some point higher up where the stairs took a sharp twist to the right. The air stank of molded cheese.
“It’s the attic,” Oetho said. “Lot’s of old things up there.” He let her pass before him and then tugged the door closed behind.
“I don’t understand,” Amana whispered. The kid lifted its head over her shoulder, looking back. Oetho gave her a small nudge toward the steps.
“Trust me,” he said. “We need what’s up there.”
Reluctantly, she plodded forward, her chin held upward as she climbed. When she reached the cut of light, she stopped to look out through the loophole slit. Oetho could hear the distant bustle of the city beyond. The window looked out over the rooftops to the open bazaar, thick with people busy with life. Amana stared for a long moment.
“Why did you bring me here?” She said. Oetho was about to tell her when she added, “They don’t know do they?” Her face turned sallow. “Why is it always the innocent that must die?”
Oetho struggled for words. He found none. Instead, he touched her shoulder. She pulled away. Oetho hesitated. Amana climbed away from him.
“It’s kind of like the amulet,” he burst, his words chasing after her. “We found it years ago, in a cavern outside of Urokesh.” He panted as he climbed. “Just as the scrolls of Polarian foretold,” he said.
Amana barely paused at the top of the stair. Another wooden door gave way as she barged through.
“It can take us other places, other worlds.”
Amana screamed. It was a sharp cry of anguish.
Oetho stumbled, and then scrambled up the last of the steps.
The attic was awash with orange light, beaming in from open vents and a large arched window filled with colored glass. It was a cavernous space, crammed with large craggy tables; dust coated crates, and a madness of wooden gadgetry, glass baubles and other debris. Amana stood a few steps into the room. The kid had fallen from her arms and was scampering to find cover. Her hands clenched at the wisps of her white hair.
There was someone else in the room; some thing.
It stood in the center where most of the clutter had been cleared away. It was tall, eight foot or more. Its black hair, bristled and frayed, ran from its scalp down its back and grew thickly around its thighs. Its bare skin was a deep burgundy and muscled. Its face was almost that of a man, but with a blunt snout and deep set, gleaming eyes. It stared directly at Amana.
Oetho recognized it immediately, and reacted quickly. He darted in front of Amana. As Prime Hunter for the People years ago, it had been his job to know everything there was to know about the Ban-Tho; eating habits, mating rituals, herding behaviors and survival instincts.
“Say nothing,” he said to Amana. He held a hand back to her. He could sense her tremble and still hear the withering strain of her voice. He looked quickly to his sides for something he might use to defend them, anything, a pole, a knife, and then he saw the markings on the floor; the diagram below the Ban-Tho’s clawed feet.
“Who summoned you, beast?” said Oetho.
The creature had not taken more than a step since either had arrived. His brow pinched as if perplexed and then a smile spread across its face. It opened its mouth and a deep rumble echoed from its lungs, forming a single word. “Djookzin,” it said.
Oetho gritted his teeth. Juxin, of course, only he had the gall to send a Ban-Tho into the heart of the Imperial city.
“Calm yourself, Amana,” he said, his voice shaken. “It’s trapped. It cannot exit the circle. There is nothing to fear.” He wanted to believe it too. Juxin’s spell would hold he was certain. Yet, the Ban-Tho were savage and resourceful creatures. He had memories of too many battles, dreams of too many felled by the hands of one such as this. Amana, too, had memories she had never forgotten.
“Murderer!” Amana screamed; her voice breaking. She charged forward, pushing Oetho aside. From a table she grabbed a large glass bottle and flung it at the creature. The Ban-Tho cringed and ducked. The bottle passed through the circle and smashed across the wooden planks of the floor.
“Amana,” Oetho placed his hand on her arm. “This is not what …”
Amana pulled away and screamed, “You murdered my son!” She tossed another bottle and it too missed. “You murdered his wife.” She lifted a wobbly coat rack into her hands and threw it with all her might. “You murdered his family!” The rack fell sideways across the turned back of the creature, nearly knocking it down.
The Ban-Tho howled in a deep, low rumble. “Si-lenze,” it said with a snarl. “I killed not these ones.”
Oetho could easily understand the creature’s speech. He had dealt with many captive Ban-Tho before and so was able to parse its deep-lunged accent. Amana, however, ignored the creature’s grunts and darted about searching for something more deadly to throw. “You will die if I have to strangle you with my own bare hands.”
Oetho continued to protest, though stayed put as she rummaged about with abandon. Eventually, Amana found something that satisfied her, a wrought-iron poker. Hefted into both hands, she turned to face the creature, but instead of fury in her eyes, her mouth gaped with shock.
The Ban-Tho squatted near the floor. In its hands was the young goat kid, one hand around its abdomen, the other clutching its neck. “Yourz?” It said.
Amana gasped. There was a loud clank and a ring as the poker hit the floor. “Put it down,” she shouted. “Put it down, or Rilla help me, I’ll …”
As if in punctuation the colored glass in the arched window shattered inward, shards raining down onto the floor. Wind burst into the attic swirling dust and loose paper into a torrent. Through the holes Oetho could see the tempest outside. A lump hit his throat, and he knew he was out of time.
“It’s here,” he shouted. “Forget about the goat. We have to find the stone or we’ll all be dead.”
Oetho sprang into action. He pushed crates aside and waded deep into the clutter. At a table near the wall, he toppled over a stack of books to get at a wide cabinet of tiny drawers. “It has got to be here somewhere. I never did properly catalog much of anything, always too busy with imperial summons and wars and such. It’s a wonder I had any time at all to study the thing in the first place.” He pulled open a drawer and found only a nub of binding chalk.
Behind him, he still heard Amana shouting, yet paid little attention. On the fifth try he found the stone. It was just a lump of sedimentary rock, speckled and gray, the size of a fig, hung on a tarnished silver chain.
Amana screamed again, this time in pain. Yet it was the sudden stop that caught Oetho’s attention and sent a chill down his spine. Over the top of a crate he saw the two of them, Amana now held at her throat.
“Amana,” Oetho shouted. He clambered back out of the stacks and dashed toward them. “Unhand her!” He cried. Amana struggled, both hands prying against its meaty forearm, as her feet dangled inches above the floor. The Ban-Tho brandished the coat rack with its other hand, though discarded it as Oetho approached.
“I break her neck,” the creature roared.
Oetho froze, his hands held up in plea. “No. Wait,” he said. His mind raced, yet the thought of losing Amana was overwhelming. In desperation he uttered, “Anything you want just let her go.”
The Ban-Tho grinned again. “Take me witz you,” it said.
Oetho was baffled. The idea that the creature understood what he was up to was beyond imagination. Of course they mastered speech and some complex thinking, yet it still was a savage and would know nothing of science or mysticism.
“Let her go, and I will set you free. You may go where you please.”
A ceramic tile struck the iron lattice holding the window glass and the whole structure fell inward with a clatter. Out of the corner of his eye, Oetho could see large fragments of stone flying freely within the whirlwind.
“I free, Myztic.” The Ban-Tho stepped across the boundary of the chalk circle upon the floor. Oetho staggered backward. “Djookzin not send me here.” It said. “I sendz me. Look for Djookzin. Try stop Djookzin. Now too late. Nowhere to go.”
Screams of terror could be heard echoing above the din of the storm outside. Oetho heard only the rasps of Amana struggling for air.
“You takez me or she dies.”
Oetho trembled. The pain in his heart was his only sensation. He allowed the stone to slip from his grip and dangle from the chain. “Alright,” he shouted. “Just let her breathe.”
The Ban-Tho smiled. It lessened the grip around Amana’s throat and drew its other arm around her waist. Amana sucked in deeply and the wailed, “Oetho, don’t you dare! Kill it. Kill it!”
Oetho held the stone to his forehead and closed his eyes. “Amana, please,” he said. “I must concentrate.” She fell silent, though proceeded to kick her feet at the creature. The Ban-Tho growled. “I’ve not done this in a while,” Oetho said, “and the time before was mostly dumb luck.” His jaw fell slack and he slurred, “I think I’ve …”
Oetho opened his eyes. A glow lit up the stone, red and throbbing. His arm quavered as he pointed it away. A heartbeat later, the glow transformed into a brilliant halo of smoke that engulfed his hand. As the disc expanded the center transformed into an opaque blackness.
“Let her go.” Oetho said. “The portal is open. Go ahead.”
The Ban-Tho sneered. “I not trust you. She comes with me.”
Oetho was about to protest when a thunderous crash interrupted him. A large fragment of a pillar slammed into the wall at the window cavity, crumbling the masonry in a wide gash.
“Then go.” Oetho waved the creature on. “We have no time.”
The floor quaked beneath his feet and large patches of roof peeled away above. Oetho glanced upward, yet was unable to appreciate the devastation. People, animals, entire buildings were lifted into the blackened sky, as the ground itself was torn apart. None of it mattered. The creature holding Amana stepped into the portal, its body and hers bleeding away like paint poured into a dark black pool.
The moment they were gone Oetho knew he had to act quickly. He darted back toward the cabinet even as the floor itself cracked open. There was one more thing he had to get.
The rest was mostly a blur, the memory of the events preceding the nothingness. For a moment, it was soothing; to be at rest, careless, bodiless in a void, no sensations, only his own thoughts, fluid and meaningless. And then it all came back in a rush as he fell toward a pinpoint of light.
Oetho emerged into stark whiteness, his body flung forward until it hit some sort of ground. His eyes were blinded and his ears rang from the silence.
He blinked, yet he saw nothing but white. Then a blur of darkness hung over him and he recognized the washed out redness of skin. A thick hand grabbed him at the armpit and lifted him up.
“What is this place?” The creature howled, momentarily deafening Oetho. He saw its mouth speak more, though understood none of it. The creature roared and its spare hand slammed against the side of Oetho’s head.
He awoke sometime later spitting blood.
The whiteness was no longer blinding. Turning his head, he could see the creature squatting, watching him. Everything around was a brilliant oval emptiness. The floor, the walls, everything glowed. Amana was sprawled out upon it, leaning against its curvature, unconscious.
“What have you done to her?” he said, the words coming out in gasps.
“She was not quiet,” it said. “Maybe now you tell me where I am?”
Oetho tried to sit up but his head just spun. Instead, he found himself only capable of crawling to Amana’s side. Her neck and face were bruised and a gash cut across her forehead, yet her chest still rose and fell to her breathing.
The creature rumbled, “She will wake again. Maybe I kill her?”
Oetho swallowed hard. He brushed his hand lightly over Amana’s face and spoke to her softly. “This is not what I had in mind.”
The Ban-Tho stood abruptly and in two strides was upon him. It grabbed Oetho with one hand and lifted him back into the air. “Time for woman later.”
“But I...” Oetho stammered.
The creature growled and flung him across the expanse. Oetho landed roughly against the hard surface and slid down its face. He was in too much pain to move, even his eyes hurt as they turned to watch the Ban-Tho step forward.
“I don’t know,” Oetho screamed. “Something went wrong. I don’t know where we are. I don’t.”
The creature paused, exhaling forcefully from its snout. “Enough lies. Open door, Myztic.”
Oetho lay there just breathing. It would be some time before he could even walk again. It was too difficult to concentrate on anything but the pain.
“Now!” the creature screamed and kicked him in the side, splaying him across the floor.
Oetho curled into a ball, using all the strength he could muster, yet the creature still loomed over him. He knew he would have to do something, soon.
“I’m trying,” he said, lifting himself weakly from the ground. “I think there is something I can do.” His voice trembled under the strain.
Of course, he had no idea what he could possibly do. Mystical forces did not just materialize out of thin air. They had to exist already, bound within some vessel, and they needed a disciplined mind to shape them. He was certainly qualified, but he no longer had that relic, not here. It had opened the gate, but now that portal was gone, most likely consumed in the destruction on the other side. Maybe the amulet, he thought. He felt for it in his waist pocket. It was still there, along with another lump. The chalk, he had completely forgotten about going back for the chalk.
Oetho groaned in agony as he forced himself to stand. The creature stared at him, its lower lip curled, obviously amused. Oetho plodded forward a step, grimacing.
“If I can just find the energy, I should be able to open another door.” He struggled with a few more steps and then pulled the bit of binding chalk from his pocket. “There should be some echo, some residue; a few lines of force.” He mumbled to himself out loud. “I can sense these things.”
He held his hand out with the chalk pressed against the glowing wall. Beads of blooded sweat rolled down his face. The Ban-Tho watched impatiently lolling its head, gesturing for him to get on with.
The chalk traced out a dingy line, a sharp contrast to the luminous white. For a moment Oetho feared it would not take to the surface, yet somehow it wrote beautifully. He traced a line down the wall and on across the floor. He had to crawl to keep from collapsing. As he finished, Oetho sighed and fell to the ground on the side of the line away from the creature.
“Now door”, the Ban-Tho bellowed. “Open door!”
Oetho breathed deeply and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Open it yourself.”
The Ban-Tho’s eyes grew wide, its nostrils flared, a deep roar erupted from its lungs and it charged, a thundering mass of muscle bounding forward, closing the distance between them in a fury. Yet it stopped in an instant, slamming headfirst into a wall of nothingness stretched out across the room. Its eyes rolled back into its head and its body sloughed down onto the ground, inches from Oetho.
Oetho tried to smile but it was too much effort. Instead, he closed his eyes and fell unconscious, deep into a sound sleep, dreaming of better things. He awoke much later to another scream. His whole body ached, yet he managed to rise.
Amana sat upright, her chin tucked into her knees and her fists clenching tightly to the fabric of her dress. Tears streaked from her eyes.
Oetho crawled to her side. “Amana, it’s alright now. Everything is under control.” He put his hands onto hers.
“I saw you lying there. I thought you were dead.” she said.
“It takes a lot more than that to kill me.” He pulled her near and they embraced. Amana continued to cry.
“You’re cold.” she said.
It was true, everything was cold; the floor, the air, each of them. Oetho looked around. Everything was still vibrant. Everything was the same, except the emptiness around them was now somehow bigger, almost double in size.
“Itz growing,” said the rumbling voice of the Ban-Tho. Oetho felt a lump in his throat. The creature sat in the center of the room, its snout almost touching up against the barrier. “The whole plazce,” it added; the timbre in its voice subdued.
“Ignore it,” Oetho said to Amana. “It is trapped behind the line. It cannot hurt us anymore. The magic binds it.”
“Ignore me,” said the creature. “But not ignore what is happening. Plazce is changing.”
Amana wiped her nose on her sleeve and cleared the tears from her eyes. “Where are we?” she said.
“It’s just another place, another world perhaps. The stone brought us here. Of course, I did not expect this. Years ago it sent me to another world lush with life, tall trees, grasses, mountains, streams. I just assumed it would be the same this time.”
“Well, it is not the same.” Amana said. “It’s nothing like it.”
“It’s just temporary.” said Oetho, trembling. “I will find a way out of here. I promise. It will just take some time.”
“No more promises,” Amana said, turning away.
The Ban-Tho rose to its feet. “Go on. Find door, Myztic. Free yourself, if you can. You killed everyone else. Escape. Leave me to die.”
Oetho stood. “You expect sympathy from me?”
“Expect nothing from youz.” The creature snarled.
Oetho lifted the Amulet from his pocket and squeezed it between his palms. Its warmth had faded, much of the energy spent. Still, Oetho concentrated, his eyes closed, his thoughts on opening the lock that would unleash the remaining power.
“Problem, Myztic?” The creature chuckled.
Oetho curled the amulet up into its chain and shoved it back into his pocket. Then he trudged to the far corner of the void, a conic endpoint, and sat down against the slope.
“It will take some time,” he said.
The Ban-Tho sneered. “You no have time,” it said. “How long you last? I have the food.”
On the floor next to the creature was the crumpled form of the young kid, its neck pitched awkwardly back. Amana screamed, and flung her face to the ground, her fists pounding at the unyielding white.
“I will find a way out of here, I assure you.” Oetho spat. “And the new world we find will be free of your vile kind.”
For a long while no one talked. Amana heaved with sobs. Oetho held his eyes closed and tried to concentrate, seeking a solution. He was certain there was something he was missing, some knowledge from his past that could help him. Yet it had been so long ago that it was difficult to remember much of what he had known.
The Ban-Tho walked in circles within its enclosure, occasionally testing the strength of the barrier or the walls. Of course, it was no more trapped than the two of them; each in their own separate cells.
Eventually, Amana cried herself back to sleep. Oetho began writing notes down onto the floor with the chalk, bits of ideas, fragments of spells he once knew. He grew so enrapt in his thoughts that he did not see when the creature finally laid down. Only when he momentarily paused to stretch out his arms did he hear the loud grunting snores coming from it.
Oetho worked on. He played with ideas, theories governing the rules of energy and force, the powers that controlled the world and reality. He recalled bits and pieces of the old texts, prophecies and truths written down by the first Mystics. His mind swam in the innumerable facts and possibilities. The weight of the knowledge bore down on him. It was like exercising muscles that had not flexed in decades. Soon, he too felt weary and before long he was also asleep.
He awoke, startled, sensing something amiss. He leapt to his feet and was immediately aware that much had changed. Either the whiteness had dimmed or his eyes had simply grown accustomed to it. The void itself had grown again. The oval was much larger, and the ends had turned into tunnels. Yet this is not what troubled him. Amana was gone.
Oetho raced back to the chalk line. The barrier was still in place. He could see the Ban-Tho still upon the floor, its breathing sounding as contemptible as ever. Thank goodness, he thought. There was only one place she could have gone.
The tunnel stretch upward; a smooth grey tube turning in wide arcs. Oetho followed it with some difficulty, slipping every few steps. He expected to find her squatting at the end somewhere, holed up as far as she could be from the creature. Instead, the tunnel did not end. It opened into a much bigger place.
Amana knelt on the ground in a field of grass. The cavernous space was mostly still white, but the grass growing out of the floor was vivid green. In her lap was the young goat kid. There was a tear in her eye that she ignored as she smiled and rubbed the animal’s short hair.
“How did you?” Oetho said, but stopped short. He saw then that there were others. At least three more kids sat on the ground by her feet, nuzzling her.
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
Oetho stood dumbfounded. Around him everything seemed fluid and improbable. The zone of grass flowed outward as new blades lifted up. In the distance, he saw shapes, tall columns like crudely drawn trees. Even the ground started taking on texture, pebbles, rock and the flakiness of dirt. And then he felt a breeze upon his face, and the smell of fresh dew.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “The first Mystics wrote about this. They speculated that worlds were grown like plants from seeds. I read that stuff when I was a boy, when I was training in the discipline. I thought it was just a metaphor; everyone did. But, now, to actually see it happening …”
Oetho breathed in deeply and lifted his arms in delight. He walked into the grass and sat at Amana’s side; the tufts soft and pleasant.
“I hoped that I was wrong.” He spoke as the stared upward. The ceiling was expanding away from them, taking on color and form, wisps of clouds painted in swaths across the new sky. “Juxin came to me that day looking for a way to find it.”
Amana gritted her teeth. “I might be able to forgive you, Oetho. But do not mention that man’s name.”
Oetho sighed. “Don’t you see? He found it. It was only a theory, guesses based on conjecture, information hidden in the texts. I discovered it there so long ago. No one wanted to believe; just another foolish idea from a boy to young to know better. But I convinced him at least. He believed.”
“He believed because he had too,” said Amana, unable to disguise her scorn. “He hungered for it. He was the Prime Hunter; he commanded the Army of the People; he controlled the power of the ancients, and still it was not enough for him. He wanted the power that could reshape the world!”
“He wanted to end the war, to eliminate the Ban-Tho once and for all.”
“Yet, he destroyed everything!”
Amana let the kid run loose and stood up, hovering over Oetho. “He didn’t kill millions of people? He did not tear the world apart?”
“I don’t think the world was destroyed. I think it started over.”
Amana’s eye twitched and that lump emerged back in her throat.
“What I mean is I think he found a way to activate the seed. I think it started growing again, growing a new world. When I opened the portal with the stone, it must have gotten confused and taken us here instead, to this new place.”
“And this matters how?”
Oetho stood up. “It matters because …” He stopped short again and stood in wonderment. The tunnel he had emerged from only minutes ago was now mostly gone, replaced by a staircase leading down. This was strange because it was not just any staircase that dipped into the ground; it was a staircase leading down into a cellar, his cellar, and beside it stood the curtain wall surrounding the courtyard of his great stone tower.
“Because, we are home,” he said.
Before their very eyes the homestead took shape; the forest, the hills and the small babbling brook. The stone took on detail, the field grew a fence. Colors blended into everything; the rich brown soil, the dark grey wall, the rusting iron gate, everything full with detail, just as they had remembered, just as it had been.
“Everything is coming back,” Amana said, twirling in place. “Just like my in dream. There’s the orchard, and the garden is coming in with the peonies. And there’s a little gazebo by the stream.”
“What gazebo?” Oetho said. “We did not have a gazebo.” Yet there it was, old and withered, in need of a fresh coat of paint.
“I always dreamt of a gazebo just like that.”
Oetho felt a chill run down his spine. “Oh, no,” he said. He felt dizzy and confused, but it all made a vague sort of sense.
“What is it?”
Oetho did not reply. He took off running, leaving Amana standing alone in the field with her goats. He took the cellar steps by two and threes. The storage room was cluttered with crates and barrels and an assortment of tools. On the back wall was an unfamiliar doorway, and through it a rough stone passage. Oetho raced through it as fast as his old legs would carry him. The corridor twisted and turned, leading nowhere in particular, in horrific parody of some nightmarish dungeon.
Finally, Oetho reached a large open chamber with a high arched ceiling, great columns and tiled floor; the exact image of the room he imagined long ago when he first discovered the clues that led him to believe the seed could be real. It had only existed in his mind, yet here it was now as real as he was, and in the center of the room, in the center of a starburst mosaic, on a pedestal outlined in a shaft of light from above sat the origin of it all, just as he imagined it would be. It was large and white, like an egg of a giant bird, glowing, and he would have been overjoyed at the sight of it had he not already understood the truth.
At the far end of the chamber stood a huge ornate door, decorated in crude metal thorns and painted in the deep burgundy of dried human blood. This was a door he had seen before. This was the door to the Ban-Tho underworld, and beyond it he was certain to find a labyrinth of underground chasms, running deep into the core of the world, a place no one could imagine, no one could call home except for them.
“Myztic, I know now where I am.” It was the creature. It stepped forward from the shadows with a fresh gleam in its eyes and a wide smile spread across its face. “I have been beyond the door. I have seen my people.”
“Is that so?” Oetho moved cautiously, closer to the pedestal.
“You cannot abandon me, human. Your world is mine now.”
“Oetho,” Amana said, emerging from the corridor. “What is going on?”
The Ban-Tho mused. “Our minds control this seed. We shape the world with thoughts? It is a powerful thing.”
“Amana, go back.” Oetho yelled. “Go back to your field.”
“This what Djookzin sought? To destroy us?”
“Go back, Amana, please!”
“Oetho, look!” Amana shouted.
The metal door was now open and large beastly shapes began to emerge from behind it, shadows stacked upon shadows, claws and glimmering teeth.
“Too powerful for Myztics.”
Quickly, Oetho reached out and placed his hands over the seed. He knew what he had to do. He had to at least try, even if it meant he could never come home again.
“Good bye, Amana,” he said. “I love you.”
The horde advanced, bellowing fiercely.
Oetho closed his eyes and focused on the energy inside. The seed was just another relic he told himself, just another device bound with energy; energy to wield using the power of his mind.
The ground shook violently. Amana stepped backward into the hall as the roof began crumbing down. The floor splintered and split, forming wide gaps releasing beams of brilliant light.
“I’m going now,” Oetho yelled. “I’m taking it with me, somewhere far away, never to be found again!”
The chamber split into three sections, each cut apart by a blinding void, the edges blurring, the details bleaching away. The tunnel around Amana quavered, breaking into pieces of falling rock. The opening at the far end was now only a curtain of nothingness, a vortex of radiance. The walls around her, the floor, the ceiling, were all becoming insubstantial as she ran, the tunnel evaporating behind her.
Oetho felt the light burning against his eyelids. The portion of the room he stood upon floated freely in the colorless ether, unbound to the rest of reality. Of course, this could not remain so. Without the seed to define it, the world could not exist. He would have to make a place for it, a place far away from anywhere he knew, far away from anyone and everyone with an eagerness to control it.
At least he could choose the location, how far away and how deep, how many layers of steel and stone and rock and dirt, cavern and catacomb that would sit between it and the rest of everything. And at the center of that unknowable, indescribable, unreachable place would hide a small chamber to house that same solitary pedestal and the seed of the world; a stark little prison for a lonely old man with nowhere to go, living out the rest of his days idly dreaming of the world and the way it once was.
Though, that would have been an unfitting end for old Oetho.
Weeks went by, the world changing day by day, first more animals and then people. There had already been two visitors to the tower, checking in to see if Amana needed anything, which she claimed she emphatically did not. She had holed her self up in her rooms, alone, wrapped in a shawl, sitting on the floor, often going entire days without moving. They had foisted food upon her, though she refused to eat more than a bite. The decaying remains of it lay beside her piled on a tarnished silver plate.
Eventually, though, even she saw the futility in her vigil, the mourning for her Oetho and his fantastic plight. One midday, as the sun peeked down through the window slits, bathing her in warmth, she said to herself, “Well, enough of this nonsense,” and she rose to her feet and headed outside. And that’s where she was when Oetho came back.
Amana had been seated on the grass in the middle of her flock, brushing coats and tickling noses, telling stories to innocent ears when there was a loud pop in the air and a gush of wind. She looked to the sky, but saw no storm. When her eyes fell back to the ground she found him standing in the field between her and the house, the golden disc gripped tightly in his hand.
“I was wondering how long it would take you,” she snapped.
Oetho wavered drunkenly for moment and then found his legs. He smiled brightly when he saw her. “Solitude just wasn’t the same without you,” he said.
“I thought you could not return.” She burst, almost crying. She stood and ran to him. “I almost gave up and just withered away.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
Amana wrapped her arms around him and hung on.