Shelter was far from a large settlement, but it was well organized. Several main streets, intersected by side avenues, ran parallel to the Boulevard. The grand road itself entered Shelter somewhat elevated from the settlement’s main level. As Jeremy took in the scale of the town he took note of how the tunnel opened high enough to be presented with a splendid view of the town, but not enough that switchbacks were required to descend into it’s full confines. To his right Jeremy glimpsed Walter leading their horses to their stables, nodding at something the gatekeeper was saying to him, dwarfed against the backdrop of the enormous space which engulfed them.
As Jeremy and Ama descended to Settlement’s main level he began to hear the sound of people laughing and talking. After the relative silence of the tunnel, even this distant chatter exploded into his consciousness like thunder.
“It’s alright, Jeremy. After the silence of the tunnels crowds of people do take some getting used to.”
“Does it show that much?”
Ama smiled. Jeremy noted, for the first time, Ama smiled frequently. He wondered if it was part of her training as a healer. “Only to those who know how to look, Jeremy. One of the reasons I enjoy visiting Shelter is because of the silence of the tunnel. Water Gap is a lovely place, but busy and deafening. The tunnel allows me to walk in silence and reflect on my calling. Then, when I arrive in Shelter, I’m reminded anew of the wonder of people.”
Jeremy nodded. “It does seem to odd, hearing something so ordinary after the tunnel. Especially after…”
“After the shadows fell?”
He paused for a moment and swallowed. He hadn’t meant to bring up the conversation he’d had with the shadows, and Ama’s mere mention of the encounter sent a shudder through his body. Ama, noticing the color draining from Jeremy’s face, reached out and laid a gentle hand on his cheek. Warmth returned, and Jeremy found he could speak once more.
“Thanks. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Jeremy, it’s all right. People much more experienced than you often suffer nightmares after their first encounter with the Shadestalkers. I’ve had to attend to several council members on different occasions. They attack our conscious with their very existence, making them difficult to accept.”
“You don’t seem to be affected.”
Ama shook her head. “No, Jeremy, I am. The Shadestalkers are the very monsters of our dreams, and the thought of what they did to those evertorches is one of the most terrifying sights I’ve ever witnessed. But I am an Am healer, called to calm and restore. That has to begin with my own self.”
“But you’ve met them before?”
“Yes, on several occasions. The council occasionally calls for a Meet in order to discuss farm expansion or for the best way we can reforest after our lumber collection.”
“You meet with them?”
Ama and Jeremy had reached the outskirts of Settlement. The healer considered the street before she responded. Apparently satisfied The Boulevard was suitably busy to avoid being overheard she responded, “Yes, Jeremy. We all live in The Valleys at their pleasure. The treaty we have with them allows us to build, live, and grow. The evertorches are our only real defense, should their tolerance of our presence wane.”
“But Ama, I just told them…”
“Hush, Jeremy. Some things are best not discussed in public. It is good you are paying attention, however, because you see what your declaration may mean for all The Valleys.”
“Oh, Ama, I’m so sorry.”
“Jeremy, this is not you fault. Walter and I don’t blame you, nor could you have known. In fact, I’m rather surprised you’re as well-off as you are. Most people aren’t able to walk for several hours after their first encounter.”
Ama held up a hand. “Let’s not discuss this any more here. I promise you we’ll talk further in our rooms this evening and I will answer any questions you might have.”
“All right. Are we going there now?”
“No, not for some time. The restaurants in Shelter fill up quickly as the Sun sets, and I want us to enjoy a good meal after such a stressful journey.”
“But how will Walter find us if we don’t go to our rooms?”
“Oh, the Old Fox knows where I’ll be. I just hope he has enough sense to visit the bath before showing up for dinner.” Pausing a moment, she grinned widely, “Knowing Walter, he’s probably busy mucking out each of our horse’s stalls and complaining about the cost.”
Jeremy laughed, which felt wonderful. “You know him very well, don’t you.”
To his shock, Ama blushed slightly as she responded, “Yes, Jeremy, I do. And he knows me very well, for that matter.” She caught Jeremy’s eyes as they walked and shifted to a more serious tone, “He is a special man, Jeremy, and I do not believe it was a mistake he was the one who found you slumbering under a tree.”
“No, Jeremy, I do not. Any number of travelers come down The Boulevard from Plantation each day. For it to be Walter who found you, well, that is almost too perfect.”
“But who chose him to find me?” Jeremy was both interested and wary. He genuinely wanted to know why he had come to The Valleys, but Ama made it seem as though he were being manipulated, he didn’t like that at all.
“Oh, I would have thought that was obvious to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in whose handwriting was the note you carried when Walter woke you?”
“It was mine, I think.” Jeremy’s eyes widened. “Wait! You don’t think, I…”
“…Timed your appearance deliberately so Walter could find you? Yes, Jeremy, I do. You are here on purpose. What that purpose is we will have to discover, together.”
“But, Ama, I could be anyone! What if I’m dangerous? Or came here to do you harm?”
Ama laughed warmly. “Oh Jeremy, I don’t think you need worry about that.”
“No. I’ve found in the past people who have difficulty with memory rarely change their personality. You are a kind and conscientious youth, and were so before you appeared to Walter. Of that, I have no doubt.”
Ama finally brought Jeremy to a stop before a wide set of stair cut into the natural rock from which Shelter’s structures were carved. A sign hanging over an entry arch read, “The Prism.”
“Ah, here we are. Let’s go up and get ourselves a table. For this moment, Jeremy, enjoy the beauty of this place and be renewed for the next stage of our journey.”
Ama began to climb the stairs, with Jeremy following close behind. At the back of his mind, however, was the thought of the beauty Ama mentioned. Along with it was the fear his presence meant it was soon coming to an end.