Today’s blog is the continuation of, Welcome to the Valleys. If you would like to catch up with the tale, the first section can be found at this link
As the party journeyed South Jeremy’s memory continued to return, though though it was still spotty. He began to remember portions of his earlier life, but not concrete details about locations or names. He could remember he was an only child and he could imagine his mother’s face, for example, but he couldn’t remember her name or if he had any extended family.
“A location would be nice, kid,” grumbled Tollen about a week after the encounter at the stream. “‘South’ isn’t a very helpful map for getting to a specific destination.”
“Leave him be, Tollen, the lad knows what he’s doing,” Walter shot back before Jeremy could reply. The already blunt relationship the two shared had become ever more so since Tollen revealed Minnik to the others. Talum, who’d known about the second Guardian but had not informed either Ama or Walter, was even further in the Senator’s doghouse.
“I’m just saying, we could have already missed it. It’s not like there’s any trails around here. And I’m sick of this infernal forest.”
Walter’s face reddened as he prepared his retort, but Ama stepped in to defuse the emerging argument. Even covered with the grime and sweat of the trail, the Healer still exuded the graceful authority Jeremy had come to expect from her.
“Gentlemen. I suggest that while an argument might make you both feel better, it won’t help us in our journey. Jeremy may not consciously know what our destination is yet, but he’s certainly been a suitable guide up to this point.”
Ama was right. While Michael had continued to serve as a scout for the party, the guard had become more and more dependent on Jeremy’s advice on where he might find trails through the increasingly thickening brush. About four days into the trip he’d even warned the group of a swampy area they needed to avoid. When asked how he knew it was there, the youth only shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
The companions had quickly fallen into a routine. In the morning Michael would scout out ahead, following Jeremy’s advice, while the rest of the group broke camp and breakfasted. When he returned they’d follow his suggested route until whatever path they followed came to an end, at which point they’d pause while Michael would scout ahead once more. They’d repeat this process until twilight had almost fallen, at which point they’d make camp for the night. While they’d not encountered any more people intent on doing them harm, Michael has insisted they not light any fires. Leaving the group to take their took their meals cold, and turn into bed shortly after sunset. Thankfully, water had not been a problem in the forest. Springs of clean water abounded, and they’d even crossed several streams where they group paused to wash and rest. But after ten days surrounded by endless trees, people’s nerves were beginning to fray.
On the morning of the eleventh day of the journey, however, Jeremy’s advice to Michael changed.
“Don’t bother scouting today.”
“Oh,” the guard replied with cocked head. Jeremy’s pronouncement also drew the attention of the others, who sensed a break in their monotony.
Jeremy nodded. “This trail heads up that ridge, about two miles from here. That’s where the forest breaks.”
“What will we find there, lad?”
Jeremy’s face wrinkled in concentration. “Grass.”
“Grass?” Tollen repeated, incredulously. “Ten days through endless trees, and on the other side is just… grass?”
“It’s a plain,” Jeremy retorted. “My memory is fuzzy, but I think I’ve actually been there. There will be mountains off in the distance.”
“And I suppose we’ll have to go over those as well?” Tollen barked. Cold meals will not improving his mood.
Jeremy frowned. “Yes. But don’t worry, they aren’t tall. And I know the way up. I think.”
“You’re remembering?” Talum asked, excited.
“A little.” Jeremy stood up, excited for the first time in days. He didn’t know how, but he felt as though he was almost home.
“OK, folks. Let’s get going,” said Walter with a clap of his hands. “We’ve apparently got a plain to cross and a mountain to climb.”
“I can hardly wait,” scoffed Tollen. Everyone else ignored him.
As Michael led the party down the path, Jeremy’s bonding crystal grew comfortingly cool.
“We are almost there,” Sheilak spoke in his head. While her words were comforting Jeremy could sense some trepidation from the Guardian.
“I know,” he thought back. “Where have you been?”
“Comforting. Preparing,” she responded. Sheilak had confided to Jeremy about he fellow Guardian’s struggles.
“Minnik is still very distraught?”
“Yes,” Sheilak sighed in Jeremy’s mind. “Minnik tried to save, but the enemies wouldn’t allow.”
Jeremy had heard this from Tollen, who didn’t quite understand his partner’s sorrow, “It was either them or us,” he’d asserted with a shake of his head. Sheilak, on the other hand, seemed generally distraught over her friend’s sorrow.
“I understand. Tell him I’m sorry. But what are you preparing for?”
“Meeting,” the Guardian replied. Jeremy wanted to inquire about this “meeting,” but before he could do so the bonding crystal had become warm against his skin once more. The Guardian was elsewhere.
True to Jeremy’s description the trail did, indeed, climb a small ridge. As Michael reached the top his face was illuminated with a brilliant sunlight and the guard sighed in relief. Encouraged by this, the rest of the party completed their climb and emerged from the forest into an open plain of endless grass. The sky above was brilliant blue and dotted with clouds. The temperature, which had been growing warmer as the party travelled, was significantly higher in the bright Sun. As they sat to rest from their climb and enjoy the view, they also removed some layers of their clothing. They’d arrived in a place where Spring was in full bloom.
Wading through the tall grass in the pain was slow-going. Much as in the forest, however, paths through the mire could be discovered. Animals roamed the plain, flattening the grass and creating channels through which they could pass. As twilight approached Michael wanted to stop to make camp, but Jeremy urged the group to continue.
“You haven’t seen them, yet. But imagine how large the animals are who roam through here,” the youth said as he spread his arms out. The path of trampled grass was several hundred yards wide. “If the herd comes back through here, which they are known to do, we’d be trampled and they wouldn’t even notice us. We’re about two hours from the base of the mountain, even if this clearing ends. We need to get to the trees before we camp.”
Michael looked to Walter for the Senator’s opinion. He nodded and said, “We’ve listened to Jeremy this long, we probably should heed his advice now.”
And so the party continued on as the Sun set. Thankfully, the moon was nearly full, and traveling at night was not as difficult as it had been in the forest. As Jeremy had predicted, the group reached the tree line about two hours later. Off in the distance to the West a sound like thunder roared and the group could just make out a massive shadow writhing in the distance.
“What is that?” Talum asked with eager eyes.
“The reason we didn’t stop in the plain. There’s thousands of those animals down there, each twice as large as horse.”
“I’d very much like to see them up close,” Talum replied.
“Another time, Talum,” Walter retorted. “Right now we need sleep.”
Sighing mournfully, the Um Healer joined the others in pulling out their sleeping bags for the night. As it was too dark to set up the tents, they slept just inside the tree line — comforted by the sight of stars and the rustle of the young Spring leaves in the wind.
The next morning the group awoke and breakfasted quickly. Michael made no move to scout. Instead, he sat next to Jeremy and asked, “Which way now?”
Jeremy stroked his chin and stood. He then walked out from under the trees and back into the plain a few hundred yards. Turning his face both East and West he spent several minutes in contemplation before returning to the others.
“We need to skirt the trees and head East for a few miles.”
Michael stood up. “OK, Jeremy. We’ll do as you say.” Clapping his hands the guard summoned everyone up. “OK everyone, up on your feet, we’re heading East.”
“Well, that’s a change,” Tollen said with a acidic smirk.
The group headed East, following the tree line, for about an hour before Michael suddenly stopped.
“What in all The Valleys?” He turned and waved the remainder of the party forward, pointing ahead of him down a low hill. There, nestled in along a gentle stream, was a single cabin. Running from the structure, and up into the woods at the base of the mountain, was a paved road.
The group paused indecisively, but Jeremy pushed his way forward and started down the hill. “It’s OK,” he said. “I think we’re here.”
The others followed and joined Jeremy as they approached the cabin. All was silent. Jeremy circled the building, trying the doors and peering through the windows. No sound emerged from the cabin, and all the doors were locked.
“What is this place, Jeremy?” Ama inquired.
He cocked his head in concentration. “I think it was a research station. We studied the animals of the plain. I… remember coming here with my father.”
“So where is everyone, lad?”
“I don’t know,” Jeremy replied. A hint of concern in his voice. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here for months.”
“We could break into the cabin,” Michael offered. “Perhaps we’ll find some clues.”
“No,” Jeremy shook his head forcefully. “No, let’s head up the road. We’ll be there soon.”
“Where, Jeremy?” Ama asked.
“Home,” the youth shrugged.
And so the group moved on up the road, leaving the cabin behind. The path was flat and not made up of the same type of fitted stones which formed the roads of The Valleys. Instead, it was nearly solid black and looked almost as though it had been pressed into the ground. It was bordered on either side by a single white stripe, and bore two yellow stripes down the middle. Talum was fascinated.
“What are these for, Jeremy?”
“I think they tell our vehicles something. I’m really not sure, though,” was all he could reply.
The woods through which the party walked showed signs of human habitation. Trail markers were seen alongside the road, and there what appeared to be occasionally rest areas populated with benches, tables, and some small buildings. Yet they saw no actual people. It was as if the area had been abandoned.
It took about three hours to reach the point where the road leveled out and turned directly South through a scenic valley. To the West and East the mountains continued to rise up a few hundred feet, but the road made it’s way through the pass as it began to angle downward. There, in the heart of the valley, was a scene vastly more unexpected than the lone cabin by the plain. A town, neatly laid out in a grid and filled with well-kept structures, spread out between the peaks. In the distance to the South the party could just make out what looked to be the fields of a farm, but they didn’t show any signs of recent cultivation. Far beyond the fields was a line of storm clouds, stretching across the horizon.
“I’m home,” Jeremy whispered. “But where is everyone?” He started down the road, but Walter called after him.
“Be careful lad, we don’t know what’s going on here.”
Jeremy turned back to look at his friend, “It’s OK Walter, there’s no one down there.” He closed his eyes for a moment and then added, worry evident in his voice, “There’s no one for miles.”
“Even so,” Michael asserted. “Let’s be careful.”
“OK, but let’s go.”
Michael took the lead again. He tried to get Jeremy to move back with the others, but the youth refused to budge. “I’m home, Michael. I’m not waiting back with the others.” The guard finally gave up and let Jeremy walk alongside him.
The streets were quiet but, while it was evident no one had been around for some time, there was no sign of danger or a panicked evacuation. Homes were shuttered and locked, businesses appeared ready to open, if someone would come and lift the gates which barred their entrances, and several strange vehicles were parked neatly along side the road. Jeremy took the main road through the center of town, but nothing appeared to change. The entire settlement looked as though its population simply decided to leave, calmly and quickly. It made Walter nervous.
“Jeremy, maybe we should make our way to your family’s home here in town?” Soothed Ama, sensing Jeremy’s growing anxiety. “Perhaps they left something for you there.”
“I thought of that, Ama, but I can’t remember where my family lived. I’m not ever sure we lived in the town.”
“I thought you said you were ‘home!’” barked Tollen, a hint of accusation in his voice.
“I am but, I don’t think my family lived here.”
“Then were did you live?” Ama asked, gently waving at Tollen to give Jeremy space.
“I think we lived over that,” he said, pointing suddenly to the South.
There far below them in the distance a roll of clouds swirled in front of the distant storm front. As the clouds spiraled in the wind a tall structure managed to suddenly poke into the sunlight. Cables could be seen arcing gracefully downward from the pinnacle of the tower, which were soon lost into the mist below.
“We need to go over that bridge,” said Jeremy as his friends looked down at the immense structure in shock.