Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
Alaska Sci-Fi Queen
Chapter 9 Detecting Magic
When Maggie and Vince finally arrived on Saturday, Rahlys and Aaron were there to meet the train. Rahlys mentally begged Maggie for relief from Aaron’s company while they were loading the snowmachine sled with supplies. It was Vince, bless his heart, who gallantly came to her rescue.
“Ah…Aaron, why don’t you come stay with me at my cabin tonight and give these girls a chance to catch up? I have some fine sipping gin,” Vince offered. Rahlys felt more gratitude for Vince’s valiant offer than she could possibly express.
“Alright…thanks.” Aaron was just as relieved to get away from Rahlys’ sullen disposition, though he was surprised by the invitation. Surely Maggie would have painted an unfavorable portrait of him.
Aaron had said nothing about the crystal when Rahlys returned from the bathhouse, but it was uppermost in his mind. She saw the scene of the crystal laying in his hand and disappearing in a flash of light, as it played out in his thoughts over and over again. He couldn’t ask her about it. He shouldn’t have been digging in her drawer to begin with. And if she were to accuse him of taking it, he had no idea where it was. So he had said nothing. But she noticed he watched her with a new, cunning alertness. She kept an eye on him too, searching for signs that contact with the crystal had affected him in some way.
Rahlys kept the crystal on her person at all times after that. She thought it best not to replace the crystal in the pouch or to remove the pouch from the drawer, so when Aaron went back looking for it again…which he did…he would think she still didn’t know it was missing.
Maggie was less concerned over Aaron seeing the crystal than Rahlys. “What do you expect him to do? If he goes off blabbing about a magic crystal, people are going to think he’s a lunatic. It’s not like he has any evidence.”
The next day, Maggie, Vince, and Rahlys watched, thankfully, as the southbound train rolled away with Aaron aboard. A flood of relief lifted their spirits as they watched the red light of the caboose fade in the distance.
“We’ll see you tomorrow then,” Vince said, moving toward the snowmachine with Maggie in tow.
“I bet you’re looking forward to some time alone.” Maggie broke away from Vince to give Rahlys a little hug while Vince started up the snowmachine.
“You have no idea. A week in the woods with Aaron is an experience I never want to repeat.”
Maggie sat on the snowmachine behind Vince, and cracked an imaginary whip. “Get a move on there!” she called out merrily. Vince gunned the throttle, banking the turn onto his trail, while Maggie whooped in delight.
Rahlys smiled as she watched them go, then headed up her own trail on foot. She could teleport herself home instantly, but she felt like walking. The twilight forest beckoned softly, offering peace and solitude. It felt comforting to be alone in the quiet woods. Slowly, the tightly wound spring within her slackened its tension.
Aaron, absorbed in thought, stared out the window into the growing darkness as the little train sped back to town. His gut ached with longing to gaze upon the crystal…the crystal he had held for one miniscule moment, before it vanished from his grasp. While Aaron brooded angrily, the train clattered single-mindedly southward, the snow-burdened forest rolling by unseen in the dark.
When Vince invited him to stay at his cabin, Aaron had found another clue, a fragmented, somewhat abstract painting of a raven and a crystal. A glance at the artist’s signature confirmed his suspicion. The glowing cubist crystal in the painting was the crystal he coveted. But how did the raven fit in, and what did Vince know about the crystal?
Once back in town, on a hunch, Aaron walked into the local gallery. His effort was greatly rewarded; it was almost like finding the real thing. There hanging on the gallery wall was a perfectly rendered portrait of the crystal hovering in snowy spruce branches, lighting the night. Finally, he could gaze upon it to his heart’s content. Here was tangible proof the crystal did exist, and it was not just a figment of his imagination. He had to have that painting!
A professionally dressed young woman with mossy brown hair and dull dark gray eyes approached Aaron after noticing his long intent stare at one work in particular.
“It is simply a magical painting, isn’t it? We have a couple more works by this particular artist on display.”
Aaron turned toward the woman as though pleasantly surprised by the unexpected presence of great feminine beauty, “Why, yes indeed, it is certainly beautiful…just like you. Call me Aaron,” he said, and extended a hand to her.
Startled, the woman hesitated, then smiled demurely, and rewarded him with a weak handshake. “I’m Ilene.”
“And would that be Miss Ilene?” Vince asked still holding her hand.
“Yes.” She smiled again, the smile almost bringing a little life to her eyes. He let her hand go.
“Well, Miss Ilene, I would like to purchase this painting. What do you say we negotiate the transaction over dinner?”
“There is nothing to negotiate, Mr. uh…Aaron. The price is on the painting.”
Aaron needed to come up with the money somehow, but meanwhile, he had to be certain that no one else walked away with the painting, not that there was much chance of that at this time of year. Business would be deathly slow at the gallery until spring when tourists started arriving in droves. Still, he had to be sure.
“And do you work here regularly?” he asked. If not, she wouldn’t be worth the effort.
“Sometimes. Mama is down in Oregon visiting her sister, so for now, I’m in charge.”
Perfect, Aaron thought. “I would like for you to do me a little favor. I don’t have the money on me right now, I’ll need just a little time to get it. Could you put the painting on the side somewhere for a while, and I’ll purchase it just as soon as I can.”
“Well, now we have something to negotiate over dinner, don’t we? Let’s say 7:00?” He gazed into her eyes, hopefully.
“Okay, I live above the gallery.”
Excellent. “I’m visiting from out of town, staying at a friend’s place down the street.”
“Oh, who’s your friend?”
Ilene’s face lit up. “You know Half Ear? Are you related?”
“He’s a family friend.”
“I’ve never known Half Ear to have any family…or friends. I heard he’s up at his cabin.”
“He is. I’m watching over his place.”
“You know, people say Half Ear is simple, but if you ask me, he is no fool,” Ilene said. “He goes about his business doing his own thing, with no regard for what people think, but if you need help, he is the best friend you could have.” Aaron could only agree.
Aaron took Ilene out that night for burgers and a few drinks. The drinks added sparkle to her eyes and softened her shy restraint, but he had been unable to break through her defenses. Nor did she remove the painting from the exhibit. But Aaron soon discovered there was a seasonal need for strong backs to shovel roofs threatened by heavy snow. He put up ‘for hire’ notices on community billboards. Soon he was shoveling one roof after another, and had more than enough money for the painting.
While working for the money, under the pretext of visiting Ilene, Aaron visited the painting every day to assure himself it was still there. Finally, the painting was his, paid for in full, and he took it with him to Half Ear’s flat. That night Aaron sat in front of the crystal’s portrait, gazing into its depths, drinking to its wellbeing…till early morning. Maybe if he stared at it long enough, the painting would offer some insight into how he could gain possession of the real thing. Perhaps it was just his eyes playing tricks on him, but after enough beers, Aaron thought he could actually see the crystal spinning off its soft glow as it hovered in place.
When Aaron finally crashed into restless sleep, he dreamed he had possession of the real crystal, and it had endowed him with wondrous magical powers. Wielding great magic, Aaron acquired riches and power and beautiful women galore. The world became his for the taking.
Upon waking, Aaron was convinced his brief contact with the crystal at Rahlys’ cabin had given him magical abilities. With great excitement, he grabbed a wooden spoon from a kitchen drawer and waved it around like a wand. Spotting an empty beer can on the table, he flicked the spoon wand toward it. The can didn’t move. After a few attempts, with nothing happening, he began to feel silly, and gave up the notion.
Maggie reveled over the power of the snowmachine under her control as she zoomed along through the sun-brightened forest and cold fresh air on her way to visit with Rahlys. In preparation for wood harvest, and to accommodate the women, Vince put in new trails through the mile of woods that separated Rahlys’ cabin from his. The woodlot trails connected to Rahlys’ trail at a point closer to her cabin, creating a shortcut.
The ride was going smoothly until Maggie came across a large spruce tree across the trail, blocking the way. Without losing speed, she turned the snowmachine hard to the right to make a detour as Vince had taught her. The snowmachine sank deeply in the unpacked snow. Instinctively, Maggie added pressure to the throttle, increasing the speed to stay afloat. With her heart pumping wildly, she struggled to maneuver around dense forest and brush sticking up out of the snow, seeking to regain the packed trail. But instead of finding the opening she needed, she became boxed in altogether in a tangle of alders and fallen trees. With nowhere to go, the snowmachine dug down to a stop, buried to the seat in snow.
In dismay, Maggie shut off the engine. This was going to take a while. What rotten luck! It was the first time Vince had let her take the snowmachine out by herself and she didn’t want to abandon it in defeat. Maggie stomped down the snow around the snowmachine, then tried lifting its back end and moving it over in an effort to turn it around. Heaving with all her might, the rear of the machine shifted to the side a couple of inches. She went to the front of the snowmachine and pulled on the skis to turn them in the direction she wanted to go, but the skis were so entangled in alder buried in snow, she couldn’t move them. When she tried pulling the machine backward, it wouldn’t budge. Maggie sat on the snowmachine seat in frustration, unzipped her snowsuit a little to let out some worked-up heat, and focused her mind on Rahlys, seeking contact.
“Rahlys, I need your help,” Maggie called, continuing to concentrate until she felt Rahlys’ thought.
What’s wrong? Are you hurt?
“I’m alright, but I’m on the snowmachine, and I could use some help. A tree fell across the trail, and I took a detour to nowhere. Now the snowmachine is stuck.”
Where are you?
“I’m in the woodlot, somewhere off the south side of the second loop.”
I’ll find you.
Rahlys summoned Raven to solicit his help in locating Maggie. Responding to the summons, Raven took off from his favorite perch, and in moments, was flying over the area. It didn’t take the raven long to locate Maggie and the snowmachine. Soon Maggie saw the raven circling overhead, and jumped up when Rahlys appeared suddenly.
“How did you get yourself in such a fix?” Rahlys chuckled over the half buried machine.
“Aaaark!” The raven, now perched overhead, seemed to be asking the same question.
“I think it’s a trap,” Maggie declared with conviction. “I expect Vince to jump out from behind a tree anytime now and scare us within an inch of our lives, if he can.”
“Now calm down! Trees fall across trails all the time.” Rahlys sat on the snowmachine seat. “Get on.”
“What are you going to do?” Maggie asked.
“I’m taking us out of here.”
An instant later, Maggie, Rahlys, and the snowmachine arrived in Rahlys’ front yard. “Wow! That was incredible! You are truly amazing.”
“Aaaaark!” the raven called, arriving moments later to remind them of his help.
“Now go see what Vince is doing,” Maggie playfully directed the raven after Rahlys gave him a treat.
“Kawock, Kawock!” the raven gurgled and took off once again.
Vince listened to the diminishing sound of the snowmachine as Maggie drove through the woodlot. Her progress was easy to follow; sound traveled long distances on such a clear, cold day. Then strangely, the drone of the engine came to an abrupt stop. Maggie was on her way to see Rahlys; there was no reason for her to stop so far from her destination. More curious than concerned, Vince took off walking down the trail toward the woodlot.
When Vince reached the fallen spruce tree, he could tell that Maggie had taken a detour. The track marks of her hard right turn were clear to see. Had she made it back to the packed trail? To find out, Vince climbed over the tree and walked on, looking for her tracks rejoining the trail…but found none.
“Maggie!” Vince called, and waited for an answer, but no answer came.
Locating Vince on the trail, Raven flew in closer and telepathed images back to Maggie and Rahlys. Through the eyes of the raven, they saw Vince walking the trail. “See, he was planning on scaring me!” They watched as Vince climbed over the fallen tree.
“He’s looking for you,” Rahlys said. It was the furthest she had ever reached for a thought. Then strangely, a large birch tree directly in front of Vince began to shake violently. Vince looked around bewildered. There was no wind and all the other trees remained still. “That’s strange,” Rahlys said half to herself.
Then a second tree began whipping around beside him. Vince sought to move out the way, but when he tried to distance himself from the mad trees, he ran into an invisible wall blocking the trail. There was nothing to be seen, but reaching out in front of him, his fingers met resistance.
“What’s happening to him?” Maggie asked with growing concern. A third nearby tree began swaying erratically. Surrounded now by fiendish trees, Vince tried desperately to escape through an alder thicket on the side of the trail, but the alder branches took on new life, preventing his passage.
“Droclum,” Rahlys whispered, as she watched Vince try to get away.
Then the light of the bright forest began to fade as a peculiar dark cloud formed above him. The darkness rumbled ominously, the threatening turbulence swirling faster as the darkness dropped ever lower, filling the sky. “I can feel his presence,” Rahlys said shuddering, for even from where she stood, the residue of evil magic electrified the air, overwhelming her senses with repugnance. She struggled against the revulsion and forced herself into action. She had to save Vince. She was the only one who could.
“Rahlys, do something!” Maggie cried out, but Rahlys was no longer standing beside her. Through the raven’s eyes she watched in horror as a dark funnel of black vapors descended from the swirling mist, drawing down around Vince, enclosing him. Vince screamed in mounting terror, the cloying evil presence clogging his consciousness.
Then in an instant, Vince and the cloud were gone. The trees stood still once again…undisturbed, in a peaceful, sunny forest.
Maggie froze in stunned disbelief. She still hadn’t moved when Rahlys and Vince appeared suddenly beside her. “Vince!” Maggie cried joyfully, but the initial flow of relief was quickly staunched as Rahlys crumpled down onto the snow.
“Rahlys…oh no…Rahlys!” Maggie dropped to her side.
“What’s going on?” Vince asked frantically, striving to regain control. “She’s breathing,” Maggie whispered. “We need to get her warm.”
“Aaaark! Aaaark!” the raven landed on the snow near them.
Hardly noticing the raven, Vince lifted Rahlys and carried her inside, laying her on the daybed. Rahlys moaned and stirred as Maggie ran upstairs for pillows and blankets. Gently, she tucked the covers in around her when Rahlys opened her eyes.
“Can I get you anything?” Maggie asked.
Water, Rahlys telepathed to Maggie, her mouth too dry to speak. Maggie dashed off to comply, rushing back with a full glass. Vince helped her sit up enough to drink, then eased her back down.
“Can you explain…at all…what just happened?” Vince’s eyes were wild with the need for answers.
“Maybe,” Rahlys whispered. “More water please.”
Vince made a move to help her up, but with a sigh, she sat up on her own. Parched from the taxing use of such magical force, she drank the rest of the water. Though weakened by the power drain on her system, her head still throbbing from the mental exertion, Rahlys attempted to explain.
“I think Droclum detected my use of magic and set out to capture me, but found you instead. He probably didn’t know he had the wrong person. I’m just thankful I managed to wrestle you from his grasp.”
“What? Who’s Droclum?”
Rahlys could follow his brain’s effort to try and rationalize what had happened. She knew it was time to fill him in. While Maggie listened with the quiet intensity of a child enjoying a favorite story being retold, Rahlys told him about the crystal and her feats of magic. She related what little she knew about the great sorceress Anthya and the evil sorcerer Droclum and their world, and described the strange visit from Councilor Anthya, the great sorceress’ namesake, who told her one day she would face the Dark Orb.
Vince listened, staring at her incredulously.
Franklin pondered on the whisperings that steeped in his brain. Journey with the orb to seek and follow the use of magic, an inner consciousness urged. Lying on his bed, Franklin reached into his pocket and pulled out the smoky orb. Gazing into it momentarily, he gave the command.
“Seek and follow the use of magic.”
The orb, without leaving Franklin’s hand, issued forth from its solid matter as invisible energy. It sped through the mountain to the surface, pulling Franklin’s consciousness along for the ride. Franklin journeyed with the crystal over ocean, mountains, and valleys. The presence in Franklin’s mind had detected magic being used from this direction before. And then Franklin felt it…the use of magic. It was ever so faint, a mere flutter of energy, a distant tremble, as subtle as the pull of the moon on the tides.
“Find the spot!” Franklin commanded the orb.
The spot proved to be a dense thicket of trees and brush in a cold, bright forest of spruce, birch, and alder. A man paced about, seemingly confused, or agitated, about something. Surely this was not the guardian of Anthya’s Oracle. Franklin probed his mind, but could pick up no awareness of the Oracle. He was simply looking for a woman who had disappeared somewhere in the forest. Could the woman he was looking for be the possessor of Anthya’s powers? He had to find out.
Franklin watched with delight as he trapped the man cringing in terror under menacing trees and an even meaner black cloud. He started sucking up his victim, control over his captive certain, until unexpectedly, a powerful opposing force latched on to his prey. He had found the Guardian of Anthya’s Oracle after all! The brightness and strength of her magic stunned him.
A mental tug-of-war ensued. Franklin strained with all his might to hold on to the victim his opponent hoped to save, the effort draining his strength. Still the challenger held on, pulling the prize mightily from his mental grasp. In defeat, Franklin returned to his limp, still body on the bed in the cavern, weak and spent. He had not expected to encounter such power, such strength of will. The Guardian of the Oracle had whipped him, kicking him aside with his face in the sand.
The reality of the crystal and its magic was hard for Vince to readily digest. Even with the crystal in his hand, or spinning in the air around him, he found it hard to accept. “And you really believe the crystal has somehow enhanced the raven!” Vaguely, Vince remembered the raven landing on the snow near them after Rahlys had pulled him free from Droclum’s clutches. Maggie and Rahlys had described to him how they had watched the whole episode with Droclum through the eyes of the raven.
“Can you summon that bird anytime you want?”
“What do you say we go outside for a while and see if we can bring in the other member of our team?” And with that, they all got up, put on coats, and stepped out into cold sunshine filtering through bare trees. A clear, blue sky glowed overhead. The crystal, following Rahlys outdoors, glinted in the sunlight.
Rahlys gazed up at the brilliant blue sky as she focused on Raven. It was easy to imagine him in such a gorgeous sky, and soon she was seeing frozen muskeg far below. Rahlys telepathed the raven’s projected image to Maggie and Vince.
“This is incredible!” they exclaimed together.
The raven flew over a cabin on a forested ridge. A drift of wood smoke indicated someone was there. “That’s George’s place, your neighbor to the south,” Vince informed them. Snowmachine trails were seen looping around through the forest below them, and then a lone snowmobiler came into view through the trees. “There’s George. Looks like he’s putting in some trails to cut firewood too.”
Then Maggie spotted the raven. “There he is,” she pointed. The mind meld dissolved away as the raven flew across the creek toward them.
“Aaaark!” Raven called as he flew over. Spotting Vince, he came in for a landing on the wood shed roof.
Rahlys conjured an apple from the root cellar. Holding it in her hand in front of her, she concentrated on the apple’s structure, drawing the energy needed, directing it with precision. With the grace of butterfly wings unfolding, the apple split apart into six perfect wedges.
Rahlys mentally reassured the raven, coaxing him to join the group on the hard packed snow of the yard, and handed apple wedges to Maggie and Vince. Raven took a hop and glided off the wood shed roof landing a few feet away from them.
“Good, Raven!” Rahlys said, and dropped an apple wedge down to him. Don’t be afraid, she telepathed, no one here will hurt you. She could sense the raven’s trust as he indulged in the apple, then she stepped aside so Maggie and Vince could feed him.
“What a fine, handsome fellow of a bird you are,” Maggie said flattering the raven and dropped him some more apple.
“Aaaark!” the raven responded to the praise and gobbled up the treat without hesitancy.
Vince scratched his head in puzzlement, then stepped in closer. Not as trusting of Vince, the raven took off, returning to the roof of the woodshed. “Look, I’m sorry for all the times I called you a nuisance,” Vince called up to him.
“Aaaark! Aaaark!” the raven cried in protest. Rahlys and Maggie doubled over with laughter.
“Try communicating with him mentally,” Rahlys suggested.
“Communicate mentally?” Vince asked with uncertainty.
Yes, just think your thoughts and feelings to him, Rahlys explained to Vince in a telepathed message.
“Ouch!” Vince grabbed his head.
Like Maggie, the raven, and myself, it seems you have the power of telepathic communication. Vince winced from the ache in his brain as Rahlys’ message registered.
“It doesn’t ache anymore once you get used to it,” Maggie reassured him.
Unconvinced, Vince gathered his thoughts, and projected them to the raven. I have to hand it to you, you are one hell of an air reconnaissance unit!
“Aaaark!” the raven replied and Rahlys and Maggie laughed all the harder.
To Vince’s surprise, he could feel the mental connection to the raven.
“So, what do you say?” Vince addressed the raven. “Can we be friends? You have given me new insight in regards to your worth.” He held out the tantalizing fruit. “Apple?” And with that, the raven flew back down, landing close to Vince, who tossed the apple pieces to him. “We are indeed a team of four.”
“I hardly see the four of us as a threat to Droclum,” Rahlys said, looking over her companions.
But Vince was ready for action. “We’ll see about that. Droclum has been beaten before; he will be defeated again. This time we’ll make sure he stays down. We must prepare. We need to explore the extent of the Oracle’s powers, and lay out some plans. We don’t know when Droclum will strike again. And we should include the raven in our training as much as possible.”
“But surely we aren’t going to go looking for trouble?” Rahlys asked. “Where would we look anyway?”
“Well, there is plenty enough evil around, but I have a feeling we won’t have to go looking. One day Droclum will return.”
So Vince called a meeting to assess the situation and plan some strategy, his years as an officer in the Marines kicking in. Vince’s last active tour of duty had been during the first war against Iraq, to liberate Kuwait. Since then, all the action he had seen was written in his novels. The crystal’s existence and what it meant to their safety was starting to sink in. The encounter in the woods had clarified one thing, the threat of an opposing magical force was real.
“But how did he find us?” Vince put the question before them, inviting speculation. “Judging from Rahlys’ abilities, there may be no limit to where Droclum can go in an instant.”
“Perhaps Droclum lives close by and he has detected Rahlys using magic. He knows she’s here, because he has been watching her,” Maggie offered.
“I think Maggie is on the right track. I believe Droclum’s powers may include the ability to locate me from a distance, by detecting the use of magic,” Rahlys said. “Think about it. Why do you suppose the encounter happened where it did? Because that spot was magically active long enough to allow detection…if someone was actually searching.” Rahlys laid it out for them.
“Maggie telepathed me when she got the snowmachine stuck, and I teleported myself to her. Then I teleported the snowmachine with us on it away from there. But then Vince walked up on the trail just on the other side of the alders to nearly the same spot. There was no one else around, so Droclum latched on to Vince.”
Maggie and Vince found Rahlys’ theory plausible. “If that were the case, then you would have the power to do the same,” Vince said.
“I don’t really want to locate Droclum. I want to prevent Droclum from locating us.”
“But you said yourself, one day you will have to face Droclum and destroy him,” Vince reminded her. Fear gripped Rahlys upon hearing his words. Couldn’t her magic also hide her from Droclum?
“Perhaps with the help of the crystal, I could cast a spell of protection over our region, concealing our presence,” she said. It was worth a try. As Vince and Maggie looked on, Rahlys seemed to go into a trance as she focused mentally on the crystal, drawing on the source of power within her. Rahlys could feel the magical charge build as she wove her spell. Then the charge ignited into visible energy as she invoked the crystal…Spread a protective shield over the land, obscuring it from Droclum’s detection.
Vince and Maggie saw a glowing gossamer thread loop and swirl above Rahlys, and start to rise. As Rahlys remained fixed in place, the wispy, ethereal filament of light continued to rise, wraithlike above the clearing, and formed into a shimmering ring, expanding over the forest as it rose high above them. When it reached its ultimate height filling the sky, the glimmering loop dropped down like a curtain, forming a luminous transparent dome to the horizons before vanishing from sight.
“Hopefully that will help keep us safe for a while,” Rahlys said.
“So where do you think Droclum is now?” Maggie ventured to ask. No one answered.
It was a worthy question, but Rahlys didn’t want to find Droclum just yet. Hopefully, he hadn’t been caught under the protective magic shield, assuming there really was an enchanted dome concealing them from Droclum’s detection.
Aaron rode the northbound train on his way to see Half Ear. If anyone could figure out the truth about the crystal, he figured Half Ear could, for Half Ear, he had decided, had a certain mystic quality about him. Drawn out of his thoughts as the train began to slow down, Aaron slowly realized it was arriving at his stop. Jumping up, he grabbed his pack containing the pistol and holster, some more ammo, that bitch had taken his, and fresh food for Half Ear. The train lurched to a stop, tumbling Aaron toward the exit.
Half Ear was standing on the trail by the tracks waiting for him. Aaron had sent him a bush message over the local, public radio station, telling him he was coming.
“Good to see you so robust again,” Half Ear greeted him. “I told you that bear sausage would do the trick.”
“Yes, you did.” Aaron hefted his heavy pack onto his back with ease. “I brought you some groceries.”
“Good! Good! An old man gets tired of chewing on dried moose every day.” They hiked up to the cabin in silence, saving their breath for the uphill climb.
“Brought your pistol?” Half Ear asked Aaron as they came in sight of the shooting range.
“Yes. I’m looking forward to doing some shooting.”
It wasn’t long before they were out on the ever-shifting shooting range, ripping through yet two more doomed trees, the woods ringing with the volley of shots.
That night after supper, the two men sat smoking by lantern light. Aaron had also remembered to bring Half Ear a fresh supply of tobacco. For the longest time, neither spoke, then Aaron broke the silence.
“Remember the bitch that bought Trapper Bean’s place?”
“Yes…yes, why, she’s probably high-tailed it out of here by now.”
“No, she’s still there.” Aaron paused before adding, “She and I used to be together.”
“You mean you mated with her? When?”
“A year ago, back in Seattle. We lived together for a while.”
“Whew!” Half Ear shook his head in curious disapproval. “So what happened? Women can be dangerous creatures.”
Aaron’s pride still festered from Rahlys’ rejection. He tried to be flippant. “Why, I dumped her, of course. A man like myself can’t be limited to just one woman, you know. Have to spread it around. How about you, Half Ear, have you ever been seriously involved with a woman?”
“Oh, no, no,” he shook his head demurely. “Women are powerful creatures, best shunned; they drain a man of his strength and will.”
Aaron looked at his stout, robust friend with doubt, but changed the subject. “Do you believe in magic?”
“I believe in living and I believe in dying. Are life and death magic?” Smoke from his pipe swirled around them in the lamplight.
Aaron didn’t know how to answer, so once again the two men became quiet in contemplative thought. After a while, Aaron broke the silence. “When I left from here last time, I got off the train at Trapper Bean’s trail.”
“Yes, I wanted to see her again, to talk to her.”
“And…?” Half Ear leaned forward inquisitively.
“And I found an unusual crystal.”
At first Half Ear didn’t respond. Aaron had expected him to laugh uproariously, but instead he moved in closer with heightened interest, and whispered as though afraid of being overheard. “Yes, go on.”
Aaron told Half Ear about the remarkable crystal that glowed with its own light, and how it had simply vanished out of his hand. He described the paintings, especially the one he had hidden under his bed in town, and told him of his dreams, half expecting Half Ear to interpret them for him.
Half Ear listened to his friend’s ravings about a magic crystal, without comment, without interruption. When Aaron ran out of words, the room fell quiet once again.
Finally, Half Ear broke the silence. “What about the girl?”
“To hell with the girl! I’m telling you, this crystal is special. I must find a way to see it again up close.” Aaron knew he probably sounded crazy, even to Half Ear, but in the recesses of his mind he was already formulating a plan.
But Half Ear surprised Aaron with, “What do you need from me?”
Aaron smiled, hopeful of a possible alliance. “I’m planning on doing some very secretive, undercover surveillance of the new mistress of Trapper Bean’s place, an unusual woman who I believe has recently become even more unusual. I could use some help.”
Half Ear snuffed out the short remains of his self-rolled cigarette. “Yes, yes, count me in. Here’s what I think we should do.”
Leaving Half Ear’s cabin the next day geared for a lengthy winter campaign through the woods on foot, Aaron and Half Ear made their way down to the railroad tracks and flagged down the Sunday, southbound train. They hefted up into the baggage car snowshoes and packs laden with food, tent, sleeping bags, guns, ammo, gear, and spotting scopes.
“Going camping a little early this year, I see,” the conductor greeted them jovially.
“We thought we would do some Ptarmigan hunting,” Half Ear said. “I know a great place for Ptarmigan, just down a ways from here.” Not wanting to divulge their true destination, he gave the conductor the milepost of a creek about a mile and a half north of Rahlys’ trail. The train ride was saving them about twelve miles of walking. They could hike the last mile or so.
When the train arrived at the small unnamed creek, Aaron and Half Ear stepped off into unpacked snow to let the train go by. Then with snowshoes in hand and packs on their backs, they climbed back up onto the tracks for easiest walking and continued south, hiking the packed snow between the rails with the cold wind to their backs.
A half hour later, they put on snowshoes and Half Ear led them into the woods heading east away from the railroad corridor. “A mile-long swamp stretches out less than a quarter-mile behind Bean’s cabin,” Half Ear explained. “We’ll make our way there by circumventing Vince Bradley’s place. A frontal approach is too risky. Our tracks may be noticed.”
The two men headed east with the sinking sun to their right, seeking the easiest way up the first rise. Progress was slow at first until finally the landscape leveled out some; then they made better time. But now they had a new concern, approaching nightfall.
When they reached a protected hollow, Half Ear called a halt. “If we set up camp here, we can have a fire. We’re still a safe distance from anyone, so detection is not a concern.” The two men made camp, preparing for the night. Shoveling away snow and laying down spruce boughs for insulation against the cold, they set up a low dark green tent with attached floor under a tight band of large trees, and covered it with a waterproof white canopy for camouflage. Then they quickly turned their attention to gathering firewood.
It would take a lot of firewood to make it through even part of the night, and temperatures were already dropping. Pulling off paper birch bark and collecting dead, dry twigs for kindling, they built the fire out in the open, a safe distance from the tent. With the help of a small saw and axe they scavenged deadfall from wind and snow damage, and chopped down a small dead, standing spruce. Pieces too large for the fire, they placed across it, burning out the middle first, then moving the burnt off ends onto the flames.
As darkness descended, temperatures plunged. The panorama of stars overhead offered no protection from the earth’s heat loss. Without clouds to blanket in the daytime warmth, it would become steadily colder throughout the night. The men sat together by the campfire, under the Milky Way, their sleeping bags wrapped around them for added warmth.
“Do you think there is intelligent life on other planets?” Aaron said, asking the age old question as he gazed up at the stars.
“I assume you are using human intelligence on Earth as your yardstick for measuring intelligence.” Half Ear shook his head in dismay, “The universe would be in a sad state indeed if Earth were the only source of intelligent life.”
Exhaustion and dying embers ushered the men to their tent to try and sleep despite the cold, but before he would retire, Half Ear shoveled snow by the light of the stars over the dying fire, obliterating it. “A campfire pit would be more noticeable from the air, than just a snowshoe trail,” he said.
Acceptance of a surveillance mission had strangely transformed Half Ear, it seemed to Aaron, from the dull, slow, half-wit he was, to a sharp, quick-witted strategist. He had taken control from the start, working out the details of a plan and putting them into action.
Morning broke into another clear, sunny day. Radiant solar heat soon brought the air temperature up from its subzero low to a promising double digit high. Aaron had slept fitfully cold through the night, despite the “good to forty below” sleeping bag, and had begun to wonder if winter camping was such a good idea. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Half Ear and his sleeping bag were already gone from the tent. Aaron slipped out of his bag and into his heavy winter coat, putting on hat, boots, and gloves in an effort to get warm, and crawled out the tent into the cold brightness.
Half Ear and his snowshoes were nowhere in sight, but his carefully packed backpack stood ready against a tree. A fresh snowshoe trail headed east out of camp. Figuring he ought to be getting ready, too, before Half Ear returned and chided him for sleeping in, Aaron rolled up his sleeping bag and secured it to the bottom of his backpack frame. Then he rolled up the tarp and dismantled the tent strapping them on to the top of his backpack. Activity and increasing warmth from the sun had finally warmed him some by the time Half Ear showed up, all energy and determination.
“Good morning,” Half Ear greeted him quietly, as though in fear of being overheard, “Are you ready?” Aaron nodded, and with that Half Ear donned his pack and headed out again leading the way. Aaron scrambled to put on snowshoes and pack, and struggled to catch up with him.
They hiked through the silent woods over rolling forested hills. Half Ear followed his earlier tracks which led to the rise of a low ridge which they followed, keeping it to their right. Not stopping for breakfast, they gnawed on moose jerky along the way.
Then suddenly Half Ear sniffed the air and changed direction, climbing the slope of the hill they had been following. After a while, Aaron smelled it too; wood smoke. Half Ear motioned for Aaron to follow him quietly as they crested the hill and Vince’s cabin came into view through the trees, a wispy tail of smoke drifting out of the stovepipe. Rolling hills of spruce and birch forest stretched out around them in all directions under a clear sapphire blue sky. There was no sign of anyone moving about outside.
Aaron and Half Ear descended back down the north side of the hill, cutting off the view to Vince’s cabin and the horizon to the south, and continued east toward the big swamp. Gradually, however, the ridge they had been following bowed gracefully toward the south, and eventually they were heading directly into the noonday sun, the ridge ending in a broad shelf that overlooked a huge expanse of treeless white. It was the large muskeg they had been marching toward. Across the vast frozen swamp, distant forested rolling hills stretched to the horizons. They walked on, facing the sun reaching its zenith, though still low in the sky, to the southern edge of the plateau, overlooking a creek that etched out a narrow ravine. Across the ravine, the forested shelf continued on south and west.
“We will cross on the frozen marsh to reach the ridge on the other side of the creek. Then if we follow the creek going west for about a quarter of a mile, we will be able to spy on Bean’s place without being noticed.”
Aaron and Half Ear gingerly made their way down the steep slope of the ridge to the big swamp below. Reaching the bottom, they walked across the frozen muskeg, the snowshoes barely marking the crusty, windblown surface. When they crossed over the creek that helped drain the big swamp, gurgling water could be heard under the sturdy snow bridge. Half Ear led the way to the base of the ridge that continued south along the western edge of the swamp until he found a spot sheltered by a contour of cliff from the cold north wind.
“We can set up camp here for the night. It’s a safe location; not in danger of being spotted either from Rahlys’ place, or George’s homestead which is still some distance away, over another rise. We can have a fire.” Then in an instant, a glimmer of a luminous curtain shimmered to the horizon, and was gone. The event was so ephemeral, Aaron could not even be certain he had actually seen it.
“Did you see that?” he asked Half Ear in puzzlement.
“That I did. And I’ve never seen the likes before.” Half Ear stood up straighter, a bit mystified, “Maybe it was some of that magic you were talking about.”
When Franklin’s strength returned, he sent the orb out again. “Seek and follow the use of magic; find the Guardian of Anthya’s Oracle,” he commanded. The orb searched repeatedly, but to no avail. Franklin even tried teleporting to the alder thicket where he had encountered the sorceress, but the location simply could not be found. It was as though the thicket had been removed from the planet.
Focusing his attention to his work laid out on the stone table, Franklin artfully arranged the bones he had collected from the cave on the side of the mountain into an ornamental necklace. Using magic, he bore a hole through each bone, alternating appendages and vertebrae, and strung the bones together with fishing twine scavenged from the beach. Upon finishing the necklace, Franklin placed it around his neck, and turned to face a large, ornate, free-standing mirror, taken from the same furniture store that had provided his bed.
For some time, Franklin stood in front of the mirror admiring his image, but he wasn’t totally pleased. The effect seemed to lack something. A great sorcerer needed a suitable cloak, he concluded. But what should it be made of? He thought of the ravens and eagles that fed on the animal carcasses he left in the woods, and decided to make a cloak of feathers.
Franklin wasted no time. He killed several deer in the coastal forest, magically stripping off the hides for rugs, and leaving the meat in the woods to bait in the ravens and eagles. Several days and bait carcasses later, he had killed enough of the scavengers and collected their feathers to construct his feathered cloak.
Carefully, Franklin wove in his spells as the cloak took shape. When it was finished, he draped the feathery garment over his shoulders, fastening it in place with a bone clasp. The cloak flowed regally around him, making a soft, fluttery sound as he strutted around the cavern. Then he again placed the bone necklace around his neck, and stood before the mirror. This time the image before him met his approval. Gazing at his reflection with admiration, he drew his name in the dust on the glass. Then in a powerful voice, mature beyond his years, Franklin stared back into eyes that were hardly his own, and proclaimed out loud, “I am Droclum, the greatest, most powerful sorcerer that has ever lived!”