Blueberries and Mountain Leeks
She started to walk upwards along the slope. Her movements were very awkward and unsure. She had to relearn the mechanics of locomotion. She fell to her knees twice in her clumsy gait. Chiapos had to stifle a laugh. "There's an easier way to get up there," he announced. "Shapeshift into a bird. You will be up there eating your blueberries before you know it."
"I just regained my body after thirty of your lifetimes, I am not about to give it up already!" Gala gruffed. "I'm going to get up there on my own accord. I just have to remember what joints to move when I walk."
Chiapos rolled back his eyes. He could imagine how much more time was going to go by while he waited for this stubborn old relic to do things her way. He was now committed to stay with her until they attempted their crossing at the May Shores. The realization that time was indeed moving in the Land With Time made him wonder about what may have changed on the other side. He had spent a decade traveling about the Land Without Time. Hopefully not a decade had elapsed back in his world. Hopefully not more than a day or two had gone by. Any more such time could only mean that conditions back there could only have deteriorated. The Aura in Ascension would have been increasing his strength and his terrible hold on the world without any truly viable resistance that the Redeemer would offer that could stunt his excesses. Chiapos took it as a fortunate sign that the Mammoth might still being holding his own since Martok had not made any crossing as of yet into this world.
He wondered if Laulo, Sjorud and Dedication still waited for him back in the Keep or if they had given up on him and wandered off to resume their lives. If ten years had indeed gone by, it would be far too much to expect of them. But under a regime ruled by the ruthless Dark Aura, his companions may have suffered greatly if they still lived. The thought of them dead was unbearable to the Rainwaterman. It made him try to coax the headstrong Gala to give up on climbing the mountain to get to her berries.
But she dismissed his fears as unfounded. There was no way that he could think that a decade had gone by over there. "Your mentor Brucar sounds to me as a very reputable fellow. He and Cherite would not deceive you in this matter. Just relax Chiapos. You will get there all in good time."
They had made it to the barefaced plateau on Mount Taulkine where Gala had spent all those centuries by the mid-afternoon under a gleaming and unrelenting sun. The woman from the past was drenched in sweat from it and her grueling efforts to master her body. The climb was nothing at all to Chiapos. There was no exertion on his part and he was as well rested as if he had just lazily woken up from a bed of downy feathers.
"I wish my transformation had been as fortuitous as yours," Gala sighed through her huffs. "I was turned into stone while you were turned into an immortal god. I'm jealous. Ah, there's my blueberry bush. Have you ever seen anything so savoury before in all of your life?"
Chiapos regarded the shrub nestled between a fissure in the rock. It was almost a paltry bush and the berries that it held would have been passed over by most Rainwaterman foraging for ingredients for their jams. But it was the only bush that Gala had seen for all those years and he could understand why she would prize it so. "It does look good," he said in patronization.
"No, it doesn't!" Gala chortled. "Back when I was a girl back in the village, I would have left this bush for the raccoons and the bears. But I have grown a special fondness for it and I think of it as a lifelong friend and now I shall dine upon it."
"I hope that you and I don't become friends if that is what you do to your friends!" Chiapos joked.
Gala's hands were almost working as fast as his when he was in his Healer trance. She was tearing gluttonously at the berries and shoving them down her mouth. "Mmmm. Mmmm. Are they ever good!" Her lips and chins were stained from the blueberries. "Don't you consider us friends?" she asked through a heaping mouthful.
"I thought that you didn't think of us that way," he replied.
"Friends can have disagreements," she said smacking her lips while her hands ravenously plucked more berries for her next consumption. "They just don't allow those disagreements to stand in the way of their friendship. We are kin, Chiapos. We are from Rainwater and in all of my travels I have never seen a better place than our own town."
"I have to agree with you on that one. It is strange that nobody but Rainwatermen see the village in that light."
"What do you mean?" Gala gulped down her berries and could barely get the words out.
"I don't know for sure but most of the people I have met along my way don't hold Rainwater in very high regard. They think that we are simpletons and completely out of touch with the happenings of the world at large," Chiapos expressed what he had heard, feeling almost ashamed to make such remarks even if they were not his own about his people.
"They are the ones that are the simpletons, Chiapos. The great Cenan did not bestow her magic upon a Tanejulian or a Mayshori. She chose a Rainwaterman because she knows that it is only from our village that could come the moral courage to tackle someone as powerful as an Aura in Ascension. Her act alone speaks paramount in who she believes are the harbingers of wisdom and bravery in all of Mallog’mor’ach. The people who speak ill of Rainwater do so only out of envy for us. We have a special bond that ties us together throughout the centuries through our Challengelore. What does a Tanejulian have? A slavery to commerce and such a vested tie in the here and now that they have no past and certainly have no future. Give me the communal vestige of our village any day. For in our Challengelore we have a history that is certain and is uplifting and allows us to see the sunshine past the night. Dark times are inevitable Chiapos but their end is inevitable too. As Rainwatermen we have the wisdom to know that and that knowledge can never be comprehended by anyone whom I would deem a simpleton."
It was a rather verbose speech that Gala gave but it did rekindle the candle of pride in his heritage in Chiapos that had grown diminished within him over the course of his Challenge. All that he could say to his countrywoman was thank you. It was good to be back in the company of one of his kind. He didn't say anything else and allowed Gala to devour that blueberry bush of hers.
She finally had her fill and there were still perhaps ten percent of the berries remaining on the bush. "Can't eat everything," she smacked. Her lips and tongue were discoloured from the berry juice. "If I eat every single berry this bush might not be able to reproduce itself in the future. Got to leave something to posterity. It is the way I believe life should be conducted."
"Are you ready to get moving?" Chiapos asked, thinking that the woman might have some other necessities on her agenda.
Gala belched. "My internal organs are wondering what is going on. It has been so long since my stomach has seen food that it might have forgotten what to do with it!" she laughed and then added, "I imagine your internal organs have forgotten as well, eh?"
"They probably have and I kind of feel sad about that. There is a mental pleasure derived from eating that I can no longer experience. I miss that."
"Maybe you will eat again someday Chiapos. I know that I never thought that I would be eating again myself but now my stomach is reminding me that an overstuffed belly can be as discomforting as an empty one. So you are ready to travel to your destiny?"
"I am ready but only if you are." he said quietly.
Gala must have been able to read his mind. "Don't be afraid for me, Chiapos. If it does come to pass that my newfound life is fleeting and will come to an end at your crossing of the Divide, I want you to know that it was all worth it. Come, let's get moving! What shape are we going to take?"
Chiapos smiled and almost thought that he could feel a warming in the pit of his stomach. This woman from the past was his friend afterall. "If this is going to be nothing but a fleeting fancy for you then I suggest that we make the best out of this fleeting fancy and give you the thrill of flight. Let's become thunderbirds!"
"So be it! You change into one first so that I can see exactly what form I have to copy. I can't conjure up one readily at mind."
In a moment, Chiapos of Rainwater's human body became transfigured into the magnificent and powerful avian shape of the great thunderbird with a white plume offset by dark brown almost black wing feathers. Gala was a good mimic for in the moment afterwards, she too became the whimsical icon of the fabulous giant raptor. Her colours were two hues of blue, the dark of her back and wings reminiscent of the copious blueberries that she had consumed. Her underfeathers were a pale sky in tone.
Shortly thereafter the two transformed natives of Rainwater took to the wing and were drifting upwards on the thermal winds that surrounded Mount Taulkine and were soon sailing swiftly westwards over the other snowcovered alpine peaks of the Fire Mountains. There were many miles of the range ahead of them with each mountain offering a stunning visual display of scenery that made their hearts soar more than the wings that held them aloft.
"I never imagined that it could be so beautiful!" the thunderbird that was Gala called out to the thunderbird that was Chiapos.
"It is absolute freedom!" Chiapos responded joyfully. He was full of elation for not only the magical moment but for the realization that he was once again upon his trail into new lands. He had never ventured into this terrain during his decade of wandering.
"It certainly is freedom. The view that I had from Mount Taulkine for all of those years was spectacular in itself but this liberty to move about in the great broad expanse is the most exhilarating thing that I have ever done. Thank you Chiapos for giving me this wonderful gift."
The two avians swooped down and followed a long canyon that twisted with vertiginous bends that required the ultimate in alertness on their part to avoid smashing themselves against the red rocks that composed the ancient riverbed's walls. There was only a trace of that river that carved out this awesome gully within the wilderness of the Fire Mountain range.
Night came upon them sooner than Chiapos would have preferred. He was very keen on continuing progressing towards their goal of the May Shores but the vision of a thunderbird becomes greatly diminished with the oncoming darkness. He thought of suggesting to his cohort that they shapeshift themselves into giant great horned owls. These birds were very adept at night vision. But he had to remember that Gala still harboured the needs of a body and that she would be growing tired and would need to rest for the night.
They picked a perch high upon the sunset face of the tallest remaining peak of the Fire Mountains on the western edge of its range. From this vantage they could almost see the huge river delta and wetlands that formed the tableau where the mystical village of the May Shores would have sat had this been the Land With Time.
After Gala caught her breath, she said, "What a fine spot to spend your last night on this side of the Divide, Chiapos! You can almost taste the brine in the air from the Great Endless Sea from here."
"Are we that close?" Chiapos asked. He had never been in this part of Mallog’mor’ach before whereas his companion had spent her last few weeks of flesh and blood in the Land With Time in this very country.
"If we retain our thunderbird shapes, we should be upon the May Shores by midmorning if we get an early enough start."
This news excited Chiapos very much. He wondered what kind of conditions they would find themselves at tomorrow night's dusk. After a decade with relatively no worries he was certain that there would be the weights of the world upon him again by this time tomorrow night. It was something that both made him feel eager and at the same time uncertain and daunted. It was perhaps something that he should not dwell upon on this his final night of carefreeness. "Are you hungry?" he asked Gala.
"To tell you the truth, yes, I am. Flying does require a great deal of energy. No wonder the little birds seem to spend all of their time feeding. What do you suggest that I feed upon?"
"You are shaped like a monstrous eagle. Why not snatch a hare or something? That should satisfy you," Chiapos responded.
"This is a world where the animal life does not feed upon each other. I want to honour that covenant between the natural enemies on this side of the Divide. I will eat from the vegetable kingdom," Gala replied. "And I know exactly what I want."
In dismay Chiapos watched the blue on blue thunderbird lose its wings and feathers and replace them with long claws and a long snout. She had turned herself into a chubby, rambunctious badger. The masked creature said to him, "There are plenty of edible roots beneath this soil. I shall dig my way down to them and have myself a palatable delightful repast. Too bad that you can't join me!" she giggled.
"I can so join you!" Chiapos changed his body into the identical mammalian shape as his cohort. "I might not be able to eat but I sure can dig!" His oversized claws started to work at the loamish soil that coated the mountainside. He did not expect that there would be very much in the way of depth in the soil here. The dirt had a rather precarious existence along a steep slope where it would be the plaything for any would be landslide. Yet the grey clayish dirt did not rapidly expose its depths and there was at least a surprising three feet in depth to the soil in the spot that he had chosen.
Where Gala was digging there seemed to be even more soil. All that could be seen of her was her thick badger rump sticking up in the air. There was a blizzard of dirt being flailed in between her legs. "I can smell them already!" she laughed. "Mountain leeks! Oh, Chiapos, if you only knew how I often longed just to have a taste of them again! There is nothing so generous to the taste buds than crisp pungent leeks!"
As a boy, Chiapos had often gone into the fields around Rainwater to gather bush leeks for the family dinner. He remembered that at that age he did have an aversion to their taste and had spent a good deal of time by the creek trying to wash away their onion-like odour from his hands. As he grew of age, his taste buds developed a fondness for these leeks and now with that memory fresh in mind, he envied Gala for the opportunity to savour them again.
"Ah ha!" he cried as his badger claws shorn into a thick cluster of leek bulbs. "I have just what you are looking for!"
"Great!" Gala acknowledged him. "Just put them into a pile and I will gather what I have found here for myself. I am going to have a feast tonight!"
"Yes, you are!" Chiapos concurred as he pulled the cluster of bulbs from their earthen home. "What do we have here?" he said out loud.
"You have leeks, Chiapos! Great savoury leeks!" Gala chortled cheerfully.
"No, there is something attached to the clump. It appears to be some sort of parchment. There are runes upon it!" He had pulled out a sheet of browned paper that had wrapped itself around one of the leek bulbs.
"What does it say?" Gala inquired.
"I don't know. I don't know how to read," he replied.
"You don't know how to read?" the ancient woman sounded with incredulity attached to her voice.
"I have been reading longer than I have been a woman," she answered.
"Where did you learn? They never taught us that there was even such a thing as reading back in the village." Chiapos was studying the parchment in his hand. It appeared very very old and very worn out.
"My grandfather, Whits, taught me. He had been on a Challenge as you know from the lore and had learned how to read in Tanejul. When he came back to the village, he had brought with him a treasure trove of parchments from the city that he used to teach me how to read when I was still quite a young girl. Let me see your note." Chiapos, who had converted himself back to his human form, handed it over to Gala who had a treasure of leeks piled up on the ground. In her badger form she was drooling quite beastly.
By the time the parchment reached her hands, she was human herself again. "These are very ancient runes, Chiapos, but I think that I can read them to you. Oh Great Mammoth! I don't believe it!" she cried out loud.
"What? Why? What does it say?" Chiapos was beside himself with mystery. He had not the faintest idea what the parchment said. It was very strange that he had even found such a paper under the ground.
"This is too unbelievable! There really must be greater forces at work here than what either you or I can imagine." There was shock on Gala's face.
"What does it say?" Chiapos implored her.
"It says 'Good Luck to You Chiapos on your endeavors on the Other Side.' It is signed, 'Brucar!'"
"What?" Chiapos squawked out loud. It was far too unbelievable. How would the Sovereign of the Suzerainty of Sutherland know that he would be digging here? It was such an obscure and well-hidden place! No matter how much he searched for a plausible explanation, he could not find one.
Gala started laughing and all at once Chiapos was able to gather that the woman had played a trick on him and it wasn't long before he too joined in the chortling. "That Brucar can do many strange and amazing things that completely bewilder me but if what you had said was true , I think that I would have had to given up on everything because there is no way I would be able to compete with such all knowing giants!"
"I really had you going, didn't I?" Gala slapped him on the shoulder in a display of lightheartedness. That mean-tempered woman that lurked beneath the skin for the moment had vanished.
"You really did, Gala!" Chiapos re-iterated. He noticed that her hand still rested on his shoulder. "What did the note really say?"
"I don't think that it said anything. As far as I can tell it is just a piece of dried-up bark that somehow got itself buried in the earth. The runes that you saw upon it were nothing but a haphazard collection of stains that embe dded themselves upon the bark. But to tell you the truth, wouldn't it have been absolutely marvelous if it had really been a secret message from your Brucar!" She started to laugh again. "Oh Chiapos, it is so indescribably delicious that I can once again live and laugh! Thank you ever so much!" She leaned forward and kissed him on his cheek.
Without any intervening thoughts to mitigate the process, the Rainwaterman returned her kiss and before long the two were locked in an embrace of passion. It was bringing back images of Chyna in his mind, the night that he and the woman from the prairies had made love upon another mountainside back in the Land of Time, when they were upon the Teeth of Tanejul. Those images of that forlorn character that even now was still in a state of limbo between life and death waiting for him to either succeed or fail quickly dissipated any feelings of desire that he may have felt for Gala.
"What's wrong?" she asked when she noticed that he was no longer reciprocating.
"I can't go through with this," he sighed.
"Is it some other bodily function that has been forever taken away from you by Cenan's Milk?" Gala speculated while trying to control her accelerated breathing. She was obviously not happy with this.
Chiapos lowered his eyes. "To be honest, I do not have an answer to that. All that I know is that I have promised my heart to another and as much as I think that you are beyond equal in the realm of womanhood, I cannot betray her."
Gala stepped back. For a moment, Chiapos thought that the venom-tongued vixen from the past was going to spew a flurry of vexatious angry words upon him but that quickly subsided as Gala said, "It is that girl that you called Chyna in your story, isn't it?"
Chiapos nodded. "It is her. I cannot take pleasure from the flesh while knowing that her existence is on hold waiting for me to do something. I'm truly sorry, Gala."
"Don't be sorry, Chiapos. I am old enough to be your grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother or even more. Time had it not been tampered with through yours and my misadventures would never have seen us share the same air. I should have been entirely returned to my constituent elements long before you were born. We were not meant to be Chiapos and I understand. Don't you worry."
"There must have been a love in your life too?" Chiapos asked.
"There was somebody but that was so long ago," she said as her eyes grew dim in the recollection. "He lived in the home next door to my parents. His name was Walfen and he was three years older than me and I had known him all of my life. Once I was out of my swaddling clothes, Walfen and I would spend entire days together playing in the countryside that surrounded the village. The rest of the children our age were not quite the same as Walfen and me and the two of us just did not really care to interact with the rest of them at all. So more often than not it was just he and I. Twelve whole years I was by his side and he by mine. We never grew tired of each other's company. We would sit side by side every night at the fire and listen to the Challengelore. I had told him that one day they would be reciting our story in the evening. He laughed and said that we would make the greatest tale that the Challengelore ever had. They would even tell our story in places like Tanejul and the May Shores.
"He was very dear to my heart back then and I secretly dreamed of being his mate and raising a healthy stock of children with him. But Walfen was three years my senior and reached his manhood that much sooner than I attained my womanhood. I was a very late bloomer and even at the age of fifteen, I could have been passed off as a tall seven-year old waif. Walfen, on the other hand, was scraping his whiskers long before anybody else of a similar age. He had grown quite tall and broad and handsome and I was able to tell that the other eligible girls in the village soon had their eyes upon my Walfen and that his eyes were returning their gaze. A child like me no longer could be the exclusive master of his attention and we slowly began to drift apart.
"By the time Walfen had reached the maturity to embark upon his own Challenge, the allure of the great adventure no longer appealed to him. He had impregnated another girl about his age and was coerced by the village elders to make house with this woman. The elan and free spirit and playfulness that had marked his character when he was younger had all disappeared and had been replaced with a rather dour, serious young man intent on meeting his responsibilities and caring for his wife and family.
"He hardly spoke to me at all after he became betrothed. I had become just another toy that he had to put aside as he took to his labours as a man. I was very, very crushed by all of this and had become somewhat of an iconoclast in the village and tended to be more often than not by myself wandering the lands near Rainwater rather than associate with my age mates. In the evening at the Challengelore recitals I would sit with my parents and out of the corner of my eye watch Walfen and his young family dutifully listen to the tales. He was trying to inspire in his children the same awe that he had felt when he was their age at the grand stories of our village. It was sad to think that that mystery that he had felt when he was young was now forever gone. It made me all the more serious in my intent to do the Challenge. I was not going to have my dreams taken away from me the way that Walfen's dreams were taken away from him.
"The day that I left for my Challenge, Walfen and his wife and by that time three children approached me and wished me good fortunes. There was nothing in his eye that told me that he secretly longed to come along with me. Whatever we had when we were younger was completely gone to him now. There, you have my love story, Chiapos. I have been upon this existence for over half a millennium and I am still a virgin and I guess I still carry an unrequited love for Walfen, my secret childhood sweetheart."
Chiapos did not say anything. In his mind he was trying to recall if he had ever heard of that name before. Walfen obviously was not part of the Challengelore but there were long genealogies that villagers could recite of who begot who. Walfen was not in his ancestry, nor was Gala for that matter. But he had a slight suspicion that there was a Walfen in the current village elder Mihec's genealogy. When he told Gala this, she sighed, "That is not surprising. Village elders are such stoic and sober individuals. Walfen certainly had those traits. So outside of just being a name on somebody's family tree, Walfen is not remembered at all."
"It shows you what is remembered in the long run," Chiapos commented. "There is not a Rainwaterman alive today that does not know about you Gala."
The woman smiled. "Not that seeking adventure guarantees you happiness, Chiapos, as you know very well. You will be long remembered in the Challengelore yourself, young man."
"But will I find happiness?" Chiapos mused.
"I think the more appropriate question is will I find sleep?" Gala said as a segue to indicate that she was tired. “I will feed upon the leeks in the morrow.”
As she slept upon that rocky plateau overlooking the wetlands that led to the May Shores, Chiapos thought of the question that he asked her. Will he find happiness? What did he define happiness to be? Was it to have one's name mentioned eons after one was dead? That could not be happiness as Gala had pointed out. Happiness belongs to the living and even though he was not technically alive in the biological sense, he was still a sentient being and not dormant like the dead. Was his happiness to be shared with Chyna if by some remarkable miracle he could have changed all the dire circumstances that were stacked up against him now? Chyna was a long time ago, he realized, and he had only known her a short while. Was it wise to place one's hopes for a merry future into something that might not be predestined?
What of Laulo? He had known her well in the time that they travelled together. Seagrist's daughter intrigued him and he was sure that had he not been beguiled by Chyna, he might have sought a burgeoning romance with Laulo. But the same was true as with Chyna, they did not know each other too well and what was not known might prove to be their undoing.
He had to admit to himself that even Gala presented a possibility for him. She may have had her childhood centuries ago but physically she was no older than he was and with her he shared a common ancestry and a common culture. That could not be said of the other two. But Gala might not even survive the next day when they make their crossing into the Land With Time. Perhaps, it was not wise at all to pin one's dreams of happiness upon a potential mate. Happiness ought to be found in oneself first and not in others.
Was happiness something worthwhile pursuing if it meant putting oneself above others? It was a selfish, hedonistic approach to life and there were higher ideals that one should strive for instead such as guaranteeing the happiness of others. His quest, if successful, might very well provide an avenue to happiness for those that he cherished and even, those that he didn't. The glory that one would get for accomplishing such an act was still a selfish quest and it dawned on him if that was his true goal, glory, then he might not succeed at all. He had to take a selfless approach to what was ahead of him and not think of personal consequences whether they be favourable or not for himself. It should not matter to him at all whether he would be remembered as a great hero in the Challengelore. If that was his only goal, then he could never be a great hero. And what did it matter if he was a great hero or not, he had a job to do that people have given him the tools to accomplish. It was up to him to get that job done.
Gala woke up before the skies began to lighten with the oncoming day. She stretched and yawned and squeaked in a high pitch in doing so. "This is the day, Chiapos!" she proclaimed. "This is the day that we go back to our own world!"
Chiapos was startled by her waking so soon. He had expected her to sleep until well past sun up. "This is the day, Gala!" he answered nervously. Upon hearing that it was all finally coming to an end, he suddenly felt a quirk of anxiety. His long limbic tenure in the Land Without Time was now becoming only a matter of a few hours in duration. He had been here a long, long time and had felt more at home here than at any other place along his Challenge. He felt that he belonged here and he hoped that fate would see to it that he would return here again someday. This was his world, not the Land With Time. He was just born there but it was here that he was a true citizen. "Do you want to eat something before we go?" He indicated the pile of mountain leeks that they had unearthed in their badger form.
"No, I think that I will be fine. You sound nervous, Chiapos," Gala astutely observed.
"In a way I am. I do not know what this day is going to bring for me but I have to admit I am more concerned about what this day is going to bring to you." He placed his hand on her shoulder in a display of compassion and sensitivity.
"This day will bring what it will bring. We are powerless to change any immutable laws that might be in place concerning the realities of the two worlds and their point of juxtaposition." Gala was showing an amazing degree of courage that Chiapos found more pitiful than admirable. No matter what this day might bring for him, he was more than assured that he would be still in existence at the day's end. Such could not be said for Gala and he found himself wishing that he might have the power to safeguard her life.
"Are you sure that you do not want anything to eat?" He could not bring himself to continue on the morbidity of the subject. “Last night you were starving for these leeks. It’s a shame to put them to waste.”
"I’m sure that they will take root again. No, I will be fine until we cross. If it so happens that I cannot cross, then food would do me no good anyway and if I can cross, I have to tell you that there is an inn in the May Shores that has the best food that I have ever tasted in my life."
"How do you know that that inn still exists? That was five hundred years ago when you last ate there," Chiapos commented.
"Listen, dearie, an inn that makes food that good can never go out of business. It is mentioned in the Challengelore now and then. You must recall "The Mare's ..."
"The Mare's Ovaries!" Chiapos finished the name for Gala. "Of course, I know that Inn. It is renowned for its meals especially its antelope roasts!"
"Then it still exists?" Gala enquired, her face showing a relish even in the dim light of the predawn.
"It existed the last time someone did a Challenge in the May Shores direction," Chiapos confirmed.
"And how long ago may that have been?" Gala asked. The tone in her voice was lilting. It seemed that she was feeling some pride in the descendants of her village.
The modern era Rainwaterman was almost ashamed to answer the question. Sheepishly he replied, "More than a hundred years ago."
"More than a hundred years ago!" Gala cried. "You are trying to pull my leg and get even with me for pulling that message from Brucar stunt on you last night!"
"I'm afraid not," Chiapos sighed. "Challenges have fallen into a state of unpopularity this past century with the people of Rainwater. The last true one before Straye and I departed on ours was that of Thedden and he was eighty years ago. He never ventured to the west of the village and therefore never trekked across the lands surrounding the May Shores."
"How could that be? When I was growing up people lived and breathed for the Challenge!" Gala was obviously in a state of shock.
"I have no real answer for that. I guess that the blood of Walfen has grown predominant in our village and that everybody is more concerned with eking out a living rather than living the life of high adventure."
"I can hardly believe that. Yet today's Rainwatermen still revel in the tales, you have told me that."
"Your Walfen was stirred by the tales yet when it came time when he was eligible to commit himself to the drums of the Challenge, he did not answer that call," Chiapos pointed out. He was trying to show that a lackadaisical complacent attitude towards the great adventure was not just endemic to his own times.
"It seems that our culture is evolving into something unrecognizable. I wonder what the legendary Carmikel would have thought had he known that no Rainwaterman had been to the May Shores in over a hundred years." Gala did little to hide the disdain that she felt for the contemporaries of Chiapos.
"Maybe the adventures that you and I are making right now might stir up a revival of the Challenge in our people," Chiapos proposed although in his heart he sensed that this would not be so. Gala was right, the villagers of Rainwater were changing and perhaps in another hundred years if the world still exists, the Challengelore and all those that helped in its creation may be long forgotten.
Gala was silent for a few moments before she said, "We cannot be the judges of things to come. We live in a river where nothing stays the same for too long. Perhaps the Challengelore despite its heraldic messages is a stagnation in a sense and for the river to move on, it has to get past it."
"Maybe," Chiapos concurred. "But at this present moment this river is heading towards a cataclysmic waterfall that will destroy everything if we do not do something about it real soon." He clutched at the Redeemer that he held in his hand all the more tighter. He was resolved to get the river flowing again. "Are you ready to take flight, Gala of Rainwater?"
"I am, Chiapos son of Chakka." She transformed herself into the wondrous blue on blue thunderbird and with a little spring of her legs, she unfurled her tremendous wings and was aloft in the upstreaming winds that caressed the mountainside where they had spent the night.
The Nets of Life
Soon she was joined by another thunderbird and the two soared towards the west over the remaining foothills of the Fire Mountains. With the sunrise the two great raptors were sailing over the wetlands that comprised the delta that sprawled languishly for fifty odd miles to the coast where the estuaries, marshes and many rivulets joined the Great Endless Sea. Somewhere along that irregular and confusing array of water and land was the Land Without Time's version of the May Shores. Chiapos had never been there in either world and might have had difficulty finding it on his own but thankfully he was travelling with someone who had been there and Gala was unveering in her course. She knew where it was.
As the light of day grew stronger, they could see vast herds of grazing deer and antelope along with an unbelievable number of waterfowl. In the areas covered by water they could see the cylindrical forms of thousands of fish of all sizes and species. Fish was a staple in the diet of the people of the May Shores and Chiapos could understand why. Everything was serene and everything could not be more pleasing to the eye. In the distance the Great Endless Sea was making itself visible to him with its deep rich blue textures. He knew that this vista would be forever impressed upon his mind as his final moments on this side of the Divide. He was extremely thankful to Brucar and his wives for giving him this opportunity to explore an unspoiled world and to know that this was the ideal that his own world should try to aspire to.
The Great Endless Sea was beginning to dominate more and more of his field of vision while the remaining land of the island continent of Mallog’mor’ach was beginning to diminish. Soon, he and Gala would be upon the coast. Although Gala was able to hone in on where the May Shores were in this world, Chiapos was beginning to wonder at what exact point would be the exit place to where they could enter back into the Land With Time. Neither Brucar nor Scanga Groes had explained to him the actual nature of the nexus. The Rainwaterman was beginning to fear that to find the exit point might be an extremely tedious exercise that could take all manner of time. As fine as the Land Without Time had been to him, he truly hoped that he was in his last hours here on this side.
Along the cusp of one large series of meandering rivers and creeks and wetlands was a long, long stretch of golden sand that sparkled like rare minerals in the sunshine. This beach traced the irregular shoreline to the Great Endless Sea for miles upon miles. Without Gala having to tell him so, he knew that this was the May Shores. It was a pristine setting that would have enchanted anybody with its lush atmosphere. It made Chiapos want to just go down there and bask in the sun taking the occasional plunge into the ocean to cool off. The smell of brine was thick in the air and Chiapos found it most appealing.
"I have to admit that this place is not near as pretty on this side of the Divide as it is on the other side," Gala said. She was flying by his side, their wingtips occasional brushing against each other.
"What do you mean? Nothing could be more soothing than what I am seeing now!" Chiapos answered.
"Wait until you see all the beautiful walkways and quaint seaside houses that dot the fringes of the beach on our side. It is the one place that I think that the human presence has enhanced upon what Nature provided," Gala responded. "You will love it Chiapos."
Chiapos found this hard to believe but he knew that his companion was known for ages to be a lover of the natural world. To hear her make this comment he did not consider incongruent to her personality. He had to consider it as an actual endorsement that not all workings of man were a blight upon the world. Humans were creatures of nature just like beavers were. It would be mad to think of a beaver dam or hut as something outside of nature. So it had to be with humans too as long as they did not usurp too much of the land for their own selfish needs.
"So, we have finally arrived Chiapos," Gala announced as she began a descent down towards the ground. "Where do you suppose that it is?"
"On the other side of Mallog’mor’ach there was a giant structure that I told you about, Martok's Keep. That was my entrance point to this world. I'm afraid I don't see anything like that over here at all," Chiapos observed. Despite its raw beauty, there was nothing evident as a gateway between two worlds along the beach. He was beginning to think that his fear of a long hunt might just come to be.
"Your entrance point if I remember your story clearly was not precisely in Martok's Keep. You didn't enter this world until you had cut a hole through that wall of the giant structure," Gala pointed out. "And what was the first thing that you remember once you got through the wall?"
"Water!" Chiapos cried. "Of course, it was water! The exit point is going to be somewhere under the water! I don't know what I would have done without you Gala. I could have been here for months investigating every grain of sand without ever finding what I was looking for."
"Believe me you would have found it Chiapos without me. Your Redeemer would have not led you astray," Gala said as the two thunderbirds began skimming just over the watertop trying to look for anything out of place below its surface. "And I think that is exactly what you are looking for!" She indicated a region under the water where there was a visible darkening of the ocean's colour. "I think that that is a chasm of some sort and I would bet you anything that that is the entrance to the other side of the Divide!"
They were nearly half a mile out from the shoreline and Chiapos could see what Gala was talking about. It wasn't very large but it was like a deep abyss in the otherwise shallow sea in this vicinity. "I'm not going to bet you on that because I know that you are right. I can feel the Redeemer growing warmer in my talons."
"Are you ready to shapeshift?" Gala asked with enthusiasm.
"Shapeshift into what, I wonder. Do we go through like dolphins or do we have to assume our human forms?" Just then a huge lump developed in his throat as he realized that this was the moment of destiny for his companion. Gala's human form on the other side of the Divide was that of a stone statue. Would she turn into that again? That is presuming that she would be able to cross whatever it was that separated the two worlds in the first place. She could possibly find herself entrapped in the stone shell either at the bottom of the Great Endless Sea or back on that fiery mountaintop. Or she might just zip out of existence entirely as soon as he leaves this world. They didn't have an answer to this and Chiapos felt extremely awkward.
The woman beneath the blue on blue thunderbird exterior must have sensed what he was thinking for at that moment she said, "I don't want any good byes. Let's just do it, okay? Let's do it like humans!"
Her bravery did not help Chiapos overcome his feelings of helplessness. To have her blindly go through with this without any notion at all of what may happen to her in a few short moments did not seem right to him. But what could he do? She was bent and determined not to dillydally at the edge of this vortex into the unknown. He found that all that he could do was hope for the best and let whatever may be may be. Except for one matter. "I don't think that it would be a good idea for you to enter the abyss in human form, Gala. We don't know how deep it is and how long you would have to hold your breath. You might be better off as a fish of some sort that can swim swiftly. Once we cross into our own world and everything goes well, you can be very sure that you will be in the shape of an air-breathing woman again who might be a long, long way from that precious air."
"That is a good idea, Chiapos." She replied in a voice that told him that she was thankful that he was not airing his second thoughts over the matter and that he was showing some optimism about her immediate future.
Gala began to plunge towards the water, her wings tucked tightly to her side in a streamlined shape that made her transformation into a marlin an instant of poetic beauty. She broke cleanly through the surface with barely sending up any splash to mark her entrance into the unknown. Chiapos followed suit and made his last willful shapeshift in the Land Without Time. He too became the ballistic shape of a fast swimming marlin. When he became immersed his new fish vision with its almost three hundred and sixty degree field quickly located the deep dark hole against the rippling, sandy bottom of the shallows.
Already Gala was at its edges, she had sustained the momentum that she developed in her dive. She was apparently taking heed of his advice to not languish too long in the underwater environment for fear of running out of breath. The dark abyss swallowed her up.
A moment later Chiapos was at the maw of this underwater chasm and knew by its perfect circular shape that this was indeed the gateway to the Divide. Its black edges were of such a deepness that it seemed that no light could ever penetrate it. This was also true of the cylindrical tunnel ahead of him. Not even Scanga Groes's jail room where he was held back in Tanejul was as dark as this. He could not see anything. It was as if sight had been taken away as one of the senses entirely. Was this what Sjorud experienced back when he was blind he wondered? There was no indication of an up or down or left or right, he had to rely on his propriocentric sense to guide him along. He had kept his speed up and although he was immune to the effects of temperature, there was no doubt that the water within this fearsome cylinder was not far above freezing. Hopefully, Gala would be able to sustain the cold. If she still existed?
He could not see her or even notice any detectable disturbance in the water that would tell if she were still ahead of him. All that he could do was hope that she was and hope that this mysterious gloomy portal between the two worlds was not a lethal scenario for anybody who had to rely upon the nets of life-sustenance such as body temperature and air. He tried calling out to her remembering that sound does carry quite well under water but he received no answer and it was foolish of him to think that she would waste some of her precious breath just to reassure him that she still existed and was still alive.
A gruesome thought overcame him as he raced through this cylindrical black abyss. What if subjectively the crossing of this Divide would take as long as it did way back when when he was digging his way through Martok's Keep? Back then he had felt that millennia had gone by. What if he had to undergo that horrific sense again? What if Gala had to? She would never survive and this was extremely disturbing to him. He had developed a special fondness for her these past few days and her courage exemplified to him the highest ideals of the Challengelore. To have her die in the purgatorial madness of crossing a Divide was almost nauseating to him. He wished that he could somehow be in contact with her so that she was not alone if this had to be what one had to experience in order to go from one temporal framework to another.
Then almost as if some overseeing power granted him his wish, he felt himself brush into something scaly ahead of him. He could not see her but his piscine olfactory system indicated that what he bumped into was another marlin just like him. He felt the brush of a tail fin rub against his underside. She was still swimming, she was still alive, although she was not moving near as fast as he was. There was a joy in his heart that Gala had not dropped out of existence as of yet and that she was still struggling to ensure that that existence does carry on. Her shape also told him that they had not crossed into the Land With Time as of yet. They were still on the wrong side of the Divide.
His presence seemed to instill in her a greater effort to continue. The rhythm of her pulsing tail fin had taken on a new vigor. Not wishing to be separated again, he stuck with her and onward the two marlins went into the unknown with no vistas to afford them any indication of the progress that they were making, if they were making any at all. It could be quite possible given the setting that they found themselves in without any external clues whatsoever that they were motionless, that all their efforts in waving their tales was getting them nowhere.
Chiapos spoke to her as they swam along and told her not to answer him, that she must conserve as much air as possible. He did not speak to her of the fears that were accruing in his mind about what the duration of their race to their own world might be or of what the outcome might be. He did mention that if she felt herself failing that she should not be afraid to let go of life because he was still the Healer and he would bring her back around. After he said this, he noticed an immediate difference in Gala's swimming. The stress seemed to have been lifted from her. This was not an all or nothing venture for her any longer. The magic in her companion would see her through. As long as she did not fall out of existence or become petrified in cooled lava again.
There were no mileposts along the way through the cylindrical tunnel. It was vaguer than the catacombs within Martok's Keep, and Chiapos was finding it extremely aggravating. The coupling of his fears for Gala and the foreboding sense that he was in for a long, tedious journey made this one of the most forlorn periods that he had to endure since his departure from the Rainwater of his own world. Even the cold that he should not be experiencing heightened his discomfort. He could imagine what his companion might be feeling. She was not immune to the cold and could very much be its victim, her air was almost spent, and she was in the darkest, most unappealing environment that either world could offer. This was too much for Chiapos.
"Gala!" he cried. "This is for your own good!" Resorting to shapeshifting once again, he took on the form of a long moray eel and he emitted a stunning shock that stopped Gala dead, literally dead. Not knowing if the width of the tunnel was going to permit his next gambit, he still transformed himself into a huge blue whale and he swallowed her whole. The circumference of the subterranean tunnel was of sufficient size to accommodate his gigantic breadth, although he found that it limited his fluke to be waved to its fullest extent.
At least Gala would no longer be suffering now. She was dead in his stomach and he just hoped that there was no digestive system within him that would break her down into something beyond his magic. Cenan's milk had saw to it that he didn't need to eat so it wasn't taking too much of a risk to think that there were no acids within him that would reduce Gala into something beyond his healing powers. He did harbour some anxiety that the act of swallowing something might have a deleterious effect upon him. Eating had nearly killed him way back when on the prairies where after Chyna had fed him some waybread he had become feverishly sick and was unable to stop Samarin from stealing away with the Redeemer.
He had no idea how he was going to get Gala out of him assuming that she was not digested nor turned to stone or fallen out of existence entirely. All that he knew was that at this present moment within this tunnel leading to the Divide she was better off dead than having to endure the extreme hardships of the cold and lack of air in her lungs. She was easier to transport within him than if had he had to drag her along through what could be almost endless tunnel.
After a period of time that he knew would have been long past the limits of Gala's mortal efforts to cling to life, he realized that he had made the right choice. He had saved her from having to suffer as much as she could have. There was still no end to the blackness and he was beginning to resign himself to a long, long stay in a fugue state that might as well have been death itself for him as well. Chiapos hardened himself to this despairing outlook. Long gone was the optimism that he shared with Gala upon that mountainside this morning about being in their own world, the Land With Time, by midday. He had no measure of time within these bleak surroundings but he sensed that midday was long past. He was sure that he would have to go through what could only be described as subjective eons before there would come a termination to this most abysmal stage between the two worlds.
Did Samarin, Scanga Groes and Sworrel have to deal with this indeterminate interstitial period when they made their crossings into the Land Without Time? He had never asked any of them about their subjective experiences with the Divide. He was sure that Brucar, Cherite and any of his other wives did not undergo such a horrific transition. All that he knew was that he always seemed to get stuck with it and it gnawed at him. Ennui was almost as bad as the pain that he was put to by the evil Hand of the Law and his consort in the Land Without Time.
Yet, just as Chiapos was working his way into a state of depression, there suddenly was a light at the end of the tunnel. It started as only a pinpoint but it grew measurably larger as he swam towards it. It had to be the Divide! It had to be the other side! It had to be the Land With Time! It had been so long since he had seen that world and its proximity made him swim all the faster.
As he drew nearer the light began to differentiate itself into different features that were too diffuse to clearly know what they were. There was a murkiness to it that made sense since it was an underwater environment. This did not cloud his uplifted spirits in the least. That was his world out there and no matter if the most dire of consequences had fallen upon it while he was gone, he was glad to be back. There was something about home that no other place no matter how resplendid can ever hope to simulate.
He was now only a dozen yards away from the portal that exited the Land Without Time. It was now the moment that he had to make a decision about the contents of his stomach. There was so much mystery and so many unknown factors that would suddenly make themselves felt once he crossed that Divide that it almost made him lose his resolve to go through with it. Most of these consequences he was powerless to do anything about but there was one thing that he knew that he had to do before he breached the threshold.
He had to get Gala out of his stomach. To keep her there and then to suddenly lose all of his blue whale mass when the power of shapeshifting would be lifted from him upon entering his own world would mean that he might be torn asunder by the woman in him as he returned to his human form. Her size if she remained an existing entity would rip him apart in an explosion akin to when the chick becomes too big for the egg. He doubted that Cenan's Milk could counter that.
Opening his massive mouth as widely as he could, he started to contract his stomach muscles and try to force its contents out. It had been a long long time since he retched and he could not recall if he had ever done so purposefully. To willfully void one's stomach when one had all the physical processes available to help do so was hard enough. But to do it underwater when there was no air within him nor any other available fluids made this an even more difficult thing for him to do. He tried and he tried and felt like he was getting nowhere at all but then finally he felt something move in the pit of his stomach and it went hurling forward with the force of a catapult's projectile through his internal anatomy.
He could barely see it spew from him, it moved so fast. This was strong testament to the power of a whale's belly. The object, fish shaped, went hurtling forward at a great velocity towards the opening up ahead. Its momentum carried it through and its visual identity got lost in the murkiness of the other side.
Gala was through! She had crossed the Divide! But whether she was flesh or stone or a nonexistent vapour, he did not know. One thing that he did notice was that as she had slipped into the other world, there was a shimmer in the light that emanated from the Land With Time. It was almost magical and it did not give him any sense of an abiding evil residing there.
And now it was his turn! He was at last going to leave the Land Without Time and return to the world from which he came. He had been carrying the Redeemer wedged between the baleen plates within his mouth and its presence made him feel reassured. He had gotten what he had come for. The Redeemer, the weapon that would wield the might to conquer the Aura in Ascension, was announcing its readiness to do its fateful battle.
In these final moments before crossing the Divide, he thought of how beautiful of a world the Land Without Time was and of how much he had learned there. It was a place where he belonged more than his own world and he promised himself once again that he would come back here. Hopefully, his return to it would be one of pleasure and rest and not as a place to hide from Martok and whatever minions and henchmen that the Dark Aura had enslaved. But now it was time to cross. Gala's momentum may have carried her far off and given the cloudiness of the water on the other side it may take him some time to locate her.
With one mighty swish of his tail, Chiapos advanced into the Divide. All at once, as he predicted that it would, the huge behemoth leviathan shape that had been his last morphology within the Land Without Time collapsed immediately into the more familiar human shape that was his natural body. The Redeemer that seemed so inconsequential in his mouth now caused his jaw muscles to ache as they tried to clamp onto something that was far beyond their maximum dilation. His mind momentarily seemed to shut off making his body seem as if it was an empty shell but when his cognition returned he was in full awareness of everything including something whizzing only inches by him.